Chiang Mai and the Gentle Giants

A trip to Thailand is simply incomplete without seeing the Thai elephants. But many tourists mistakenly visit elephant parks or shows where the elephants perform many tricks, like kicking a soccer ball, dancing, or using their trunk to paint. These parks also offer tourists the opportunity to ride an elephant. What the tourists don’t know is that in order to teach the elephants to perform these tricks or to carry people on their backs, the elephants are subjected to abuse, often involving beating with a painful hook.

It is true that long ago in the absence of cars and other technologies, Thai people used elephants for transportation, hauling goods between villages and for manual labour. But in today’s world this is no longer necessary. In fact, an elephant’s back is not physiologically constructed to carry people. So riding elephants actually hurts them.

Unfortunately many tourists are unaware of this and even many self-proclaimed elephant “sanctuaries” still offer elephant riding. This is why on our visit to Thailand we were determined to visit an ethical sanctuary that truly cared for the well-being of the elephants without offering riding services.

Our elephant adventure begins!
Our elephant adventure begins!

We chose to visit The Elephant Jungle Sanctuary for an overnight stay. Upon arriving to the sanctuary, we learned that this particular company actually has over six different camps that care for five or six elephants at a time. We arrived to camp number two, which had five elephants.

However, all of the elephants actually belong to the Karen hill tribe. Some of them were rescued and some of them were passed on from generation to generation. The oldest elephant in camp six was 72 years old! The oldest elephant in our camp was around 40 years old, and when she was first rescued, she did not allow people to come very close to her. But over the years, she’s learned that the people were caring for her and meant her no harm. Today she and her fellow elephants are very gentle, friendly and approachable.

Our day started by learning how to feed the elephants, which involves yelling “Bon! Bon!” as a signal that (we think) means “Up! Up!” in Thai. It turns out that elephants have poor hearing and sight, so it’s necessary to yell out this signal so that they can hear you and raise their trunk up above their heads, allowing you access to their mouth. You can then place the treat right into their mouth without being afraid of being bitten. Elephants have only eight teeth that are located quite deep in their mouth, so there is no chance of you getting hurt if you just place the treat on their tongue. But while their hearing and vision are not very strong, the elephants’’ sense of smell is impeccable.

The elephant's mouth
The elephant’s mouth

Wearing traditional Karen clothing, our entire group stood in a straight line with pieces of sugar cane in our hands. And then they allowed the five elephants to approach us! As the elephants approached us for the first time, I have to say that I was terrified for a short moment. Imagine huge creatures walking right at you, making you feel like you are going to be run over!

Here they are! They are coming towards us for the first time
Here they are! They are coming towards us for the first time

But of course the elephants stopped right before us and extended their eager trunks, already smelling the sugar cane in our hands. It was a bit surreal standing next to these big creatures in the middle of the jungle. We would extend our hands holding the sugar cane and the elephants would use their trunks as suction devices to take the sugar cane from us. We also yelled “Bon! Bon!” and the elephants would raise their trunks so that we could place the sugar cane right into their mouths.

Reaching high for the sugar cane
Reaching high for the sugar cane
Gotta make you work for it!
Gotta make you work for it!

Sugar cane is actually quite hard. It’s like holding a bamboo stick. I was wondering how the elephants were going to eat it. But they just place it in their mouths and crush it with their teeth, making the most hilarious sound!

This lady is a tall one!
This lady is a tall one!
Rami made a new friend
Rami made a new friend
The elephants we met were very gentle and approachable. Their skin was rough and dusty with mud, and they all had prickly black hairs on their heads
The elephants we met were very gentle and approachable. Their skin was rough and dusty with mud, and they all had prickly black hairs on their heads

Apparently the sugar cane was only an appetizer. Each person in our group picked up a branch full of leaves and carried it up to the hill to the shade. We then yelled “Bon! Bon!” to the elephants and they climbed up to us, clearly getting excited by making loud sounds with their trunks. They attacked the pile of leaves with enthusiasm as we stood around watching and listening to our guide, who told us some more information about each elephant.

Carrying lunch for the elephants up the hill into a shady spot
Carrying lunch for the elephants up the hill into a shady spot
Coming up the hill for their lunch
Coming up the hill for their lunch
Enjoying the shade with our elephant companions
Enjoying the shade with our elephant companions

After watching the elephants for a while, our group had lunch and changed into our swim suits. It was mud spa time! But before that we made medicine balls for the elephants. Apparently elephants chew their food only a couple of times before swallowing. Wild elephants are able to roam around the jungle and find roots and plants that help them with their digestion. But since the elephants at the sanctuary belong to the Karen people, they do not roam free in the jungle and cannot find digestion remedies on their own.

Time to make medicine
Time to make medicine

We mixed a lemon (but any acidic fruit will do), with some processed white rice that can be bought at any grocery store with raw, unprocessed rice. We took turns “softening” the raw rice of its sharp edges first by using a large, wooden mortar and pestle. Then we mixed everything together using a bit of water as glue and made medicine balls the size of a tennis ball.

Getting out hands dirty and making medicine balls
Getting out hands dirty and making medicine balls
Medicine balls for the elephants. Mmm, tasty! Elephants LOVE rice and could easily get fat if that's all they ate all day
Medicine balls for the elephants. Mmm, tasty! Elephants LOVE rice and could easily get fat if that’s all they ate all day

We made our way to a large mud pool and called the elephants to come back down from the hill. Once again we stood in a line and the elephants approached us. While this time I wasn’t afraid at all, the girls standing next to me were a little scared and didn’t place the medicine balls into the elephants’ mouths as they were taught. Some of the balls fell to the ground, but luckily they didn’t smash into pieces and the elephants were able to pick them up with their trunk.

I was quite confident in feeding the elephant that approached me her medicine ball. I yelled “Bon! Bon!” and sure enough the elephant raised her trunk. I then supported her trunk with my left hand and placed the medicine ball into her mouth with my right. Easy peasy!

Once all the medicine balls were consumed, we called the elephants into the mud. I was surprised that only two elephants decided to join us, but boy did they enjoy it! They basically sat in the mud at first and then collapsed on their side, being half-way submerged in the mud. All the people in our group joined in, rubbing mud all over the elephants, which is apparently very good for their skin.

Mud spa time!
Mud spa time!

Our guides had a great sense of humour too and started throwing mud at us, while yelling “Elephant! Elephant!” It’s as if we were the elephants that needed a mud rub. In the end, we were all covered in mud, but I didn’t mind. The mud was a good sunscreen since the day was getting really hot and the sun was shining down at us hard.

After the mud spa, we took the elephants to a nearby waterfall to wash off. All five elephants came into the waterfall and splashed around. We were all given little buckets to fill with water and throw at the elephants. Apparently they love it! This was also the opportunity for all the people in our group to wash the mud off of ourselves, and the guides didn’t hesitate pouring water all over us, pretending we were the elephants again.

How do I describe what it’s like to bathe with the elephants? I don’t even think I have the words. It was just unbelievable that we were enjoying the waterfall while five gigantic creatures were doing the same thing. And everyone including the elephants was so happy!

The elephants have to eat 300 kilograms of food every day, so they are always hungry. After bathing in the waterfall and drying off, it was time to feed them again. They devoured the sugar cane with enthusiasm.

Can't get enough of these elephant portraits
Can’t get enough of these elephant portraits
Hello there, can I take a photo with you?
Hello there, can I take a photo with you?
Such sweet and gentle creatures
Such sweet and gentle creatures
Our camp had elephants of all ages and sizes, some small and some large
Our camp had elephants of all ages and sizes, some small and some large

This was the point where those people that signed up for just a day program were driven back to Chiang Mai. But Rami and I were driven to camp five to spend the night in the jungle.

Camp five had six elephants that were spending their time eating leaves in a barn. We spent the evening watching them and sneaking some bananas to them. The elephants love bananas! And they can smell them from afar. I had bananas hidden out of sight behind my back and one of the elephants was already fishing for them with her trunk.

Elephant at camp five. You could tell she was older because she was really tall and moved around a lot slower
Elephant at camp five. You could tell she was older because she was really tall and moved around a lot slower
Elephant selfie
Elephant selfie
We just had to sneak some bananas and feed the elephants
We just had to sneak some bananas and feed the elephants
Mmm, banana!
Mmm, banana!
A waterfall at camp five that we got to explore before dinner
A waterfall at camp five that we got to explore before dinner

After having a simple and basic dinner, we headed to our hut to sleep. There were a total of nine people in our hut and six more people slept in another hut down the hill. The sleeping situation was very basic with a thin mattress on the floor, a small pillow, a blanket and a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling above the mattress. But somehow we didn’t mind.

Our hut in the middle of the jungle
Our hut in the middle of the jungle
Our sleeping situation: mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets up above
Our sleeping situation: mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets up above

The light in our hut attracted a lot of bugs and the English people in our hut went crazy over them. They couldn’t stop talking about the gigantic moths or spiders that were sitting on top of their mosquito nets. But while I was uncomfortable with the bugs, I wasn’t afraid of them lying under my mosquito net.

Outside of our hut, it was pitch dark. We had to use the flashlights on our cell phones in order to go to the bathroom. The sky was full of stars and the bugs made funny cricket-like sounds in the darkness. There were also a few dogs in the camp that we were convinced were there to protect us. At night, one of them started barking, which woke all of us up. I was worried that there was somebody outside that came to do us harm since our guide actually didn’t sleep with us in our camp, but left to sleep in his own village. But after barking for a good half an hour, the dog stopped, and another dog pushed her way into our hut and spent the rest of the night lying with us on the floor.

The dog that pushed her way into our hut at night to keep us company
The dog that pushed her way into our hut at night to keep us company

The morning was the coolest memory for me. Waking up in the jungle, overlooking the river was a peaceful experience. What’s more is that the elephants don’t sleep in their barn because otherwise they would eat everything around them. So they are taken somewhere else nearby to spend the night. I woke up and came out of my hut, which was situated on a hill. All of a sudden I heard elephant sounds and saw the elephants climbing up the hill. In less than a minute, three large elephants passed just a few steps away from me on their way to the barn. It was so surreal having these gigantic creatures pass by me in the morning!

Two or three new groups of people arrived to the camp, and our morning mirrored the prior day with feeding the elephants, watching them get dirty in the small mud pool and then taking the elephants down to the river to bathe and splash around. This time Rami and I didn’t take part in the mud spa, but Rami went down to the river to swim with the elephants while I took some pictures.

Swimming with the elephants
Swimming with the elephants
The elephants love to play and splash around. Here she is enjoying herself by lying on her side, submerged in water with her leg sticking out
The elephants love to play and splash around. Here she is enjoying herself by lying on her side, submerged in water with her leg sticking out
Another water fight
Another water fight

Our small group of people that slept overnight in the jungle ended up spending the rest of the afternoon hiking through the jungle to camp six. The jungle was full of lush vegetation, rivers and springs, and small villages here and there belonging to the Karen people. In one of those villages we saw pigs lying in the shade, while chickens and roosters ran around them. Cats were wandering everywhere and there always seemed to be a dog running alongside us.

"Chang" means "elephant" in Thai and of course there is Chang beer brand that our guides joked was really elephant pee. Rami couldn't resist buying a t-shirt and hiking through the elephant jungle wearing it
“Chang” means “elephant” in Thai and of course there is a Chang beer brand that our guides joked was really elephant pee. Rami couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt and hiking through the elephant jungle wearing it
There were quite a few bridges like this that we had to cross on our hike through the jungle
There were quite a few bridges like this that we had to cross on our hike through the jungle

Camp six was unique in that it was the only camp to have two male elephants, characterized by having trunks. Apparently most elephants are born female and it’s very rare to have a male elephant. But camp six was also unique because it was the home to a baby elephant that was only 29 days old! The baby elephant was so young that she didn’t even know how to eat solid food like bananas or leaves. We saw her drink milk from the mama elephant. It was really adorable!

Baby elephant! So adorable and cute! She's only 29 days old
Baby elephant! So adorable and cute! She’s only 29 days old
Baby elephant in need of some cuddles
Baby elephant in need of some cuddles

Unlike the adult elephants that tend to stand in one place and feed or at least move fairly slowly, the baby elephant was running around underneath the other elephants without any purpose. It was really hard to catch her standing still in one place and to take a good picture because she was always moving. When I managed to get close to her, she pushed against me with her trunk as if she wanted to be comforted. But in less than a minute, she was running in a different direction.

After spending some more time with the elephants, we were driven back to Chiang Mai. Returning to a bustling city after the serene jungle life was also a bit unbelievable.

The end
The end

Did we just spend the night in pitch darkness, sleeping under mosquito nets in the middle of the jungle? Did we just spend two whole days playing with the elephants, hugging their thick trunks and touching the prickly hairs on their heads? It all seemed like a dream!

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Chiang Mai and the Twinkling Sky

Our number one reason for coming to Chiang Mai was to take part in the Yi Peng festival, which takes place once a year. Every year hundreds of backpackers and Thai people gather in Chiang Mai for the festival. It is so popular, that securing train tickets and accommodations in advance is highly recommended.

When we arrived to Chiang Mai, we already saw preparations happening to decorate the city for the festival. In the square near the “Three Kings” monument, there were dozens of white lanterns hung from wooden poles. Entrances to some of the temples were decorated with colourful lanterns.

Rami at the Three Kings Monument with many white paper lanterns in the background
Rami at the Three Kings Monument with many white paper lanterns in the background
At the Three Kings Monument, admiring the lanterns
At the Three Kings Monument, admiring the lanterns
Thai woman getting ready for the festival by lining up candles
Thai woman getting ready for the festival by lining up candles
Thai woman making a Kratong. We didn't even know what it was until later (read on!)
Thai woman making a Kratong. We didn’t even know what it was until later (read on!)

At night, we saw local people placing candles around the canals, which looked very magical and had us tingling with anticipation. But the coolest thing happened when we were wandering the super-packed Sunday Night Market. We were pushing through the crowds and all of a sudden we came to a temple that was decorated with lanterns and candles.

We decided to investigate and came across the most magical sight. There was a little canal and a patch of green grass right across where a statue of a monk was placed with maybe a hundred candles all around. Lanterns were hung all along the canal and around the temple. So the entire space was twinkling with lights. The lights reflected off of the water, which made for a really pretty sight. It reminded me of a Christmas Market in the Distillery District in Toronto or Christmas Markets in France that I’ve seen. But of course, this was not a market, but rather a space full of twinkling lights.

Lanterns and candles reflecting off the water. Beautiful sight!
Lanterns and candles reflecting off the water. Beautiful sight!

We had done some research prior to coming to Chiang Mai and figured out that the main tourist attraction occurs at Chiang Mai University, where thousands of lanterns are lit and released into the sky at the same time. This of course provides great picture opportunities. But there are three major drawbacks: (1) the event at the University is primarily for foreigners. None of the local Thai people attend it, (2) you need to buy a ticket which is rumoured to cost around USD $200, and (3) the tickets sell out months in advance, so even if we wanted to pay such a pricey sum, we couldn’t even get the tickets. But we knew that the entire city of Chiang Mai celebrates the festival and it was just a matter of identifying the place where the locals tend to gather.

But we had nothing to worry about. From the owner of our little guesthouse to numerous other Thai people we asked, we quickly figured out that the locals gather anywhere along the river. And there’s a good reason for that. It turns out that the Yi Peng festival coincides with another festival called Loi Kratong, during which Thai people either make or buy a floating flower basket called a Kratong, light it with candles, bless it and make a wish, and then place it into the river. Thai people believe that if the basket does not flip, they will have a happy and long life, and their wish will come true.

Tons of pre-made Kratongs were sold on the streets
Tons of pre-made Kratongs were sold on the streets

We didn’t even know about this tradition until we walked to one of the bridges and saw many Thai people placing their Kratongs in the river. That’s when we came across a booth where a few Thai women were making these Kratongs. One of the ladies asked me if I would be interested in making one, and of course I said yes! It’s interesting that many tourists passed by this booth and didn’t even take the time to understand what the Kratongs are and why they are important. I was one of maybe three foreigners who actually stopped to make one.

Getting a lesson in making a Kratong
Getting a lesson in making a Kratong
It was so nice to actually make my own Kratong instead of buying one. It felt that much more special.
It was so nice to actually make my own Kratong instead of buying one. It felt that much more special.
Here it is! The finished product.
Here it is! The finished product.

Once I finished my Kratong, we lit it and descended down to the river. We placed the Kratong in a plastic basket that was attached to a rod and carefully placed it in the river. The candles of my Kratong went out, but the Kratong itself did not flip for as far as I could see. So here’s hoping that my wish will come true!

The candle is lit and my Kratong is ready to go!
The candle is lit and my Kratong is ready to go!
But first I need to bless it and make a wish
But first I need to bless it and make a wish
Into the river it goes!
Into the river it goes!

After that we set out hunting for the lanterns. They were actually quite difficult to find, but after asking a few people where they got theirs, we came across a shop that sold them. We ended up buying two big ones just in case and went back through the crowd towards the river.

The lanterns are made out of paper with a ring inside that is supposedly cotton soaked in kerosene. We started with our first lantern and set the ring on fire using a lighter. We then took turns holding the lantern and took some pictures, but we didn’t feel like the lantern was ready to take off on its own. A lady who kindly offered to take some pictures of us hinted that we need to tilt the lantern a bit for the fire to spread. So we followed her advice and soon enough the entire ring inside was burning and we could feel our lantern swelling up with hot air. We took turns letting go of the edges and could feel the lantern drifting upwards. It was ready for lift off!

Hmm, is this thing on?
Hmm, is this thing on?
Okay, I think it's on now
Okay, I think it’s on now
Yep, it's definitely on. Look at that flame!
Yep, it’s definitely on. Look at that flame!

We let go off the lantern and it floated up into the sky. The ascent was quite fast and in less than a minute, we could only see a small dot up in the sky. But the really cool part is that there were lanterns everywhere lighting up the sky. They could be mistaken for stars if it weren’t so many of them and the yellow light they emitted.

Ready for lift off!
Ready for lift off!

We followed the same process to light up our second lantern, and afterwards we walked along the main street and bought some snacks. Thai people and tourists crowded the street, buying food and drinking fruit smoothies. People released lanterns off of the bridges and even right in the middle of the street. The entire sky was twinkling and the river carried hundreds of Kratongs lit up with candles.

We were so glad we attended this festival. It is really unique to see so many lanterns and candles everywhere as people celebrate in the street. There is nowhere else in the world where you could witness that. The Yi Peng festival was a success!

The Tale of Chiang Mai: Of Temples and Markets

Chiang Mai is a city in the northern part of Thailand. Our primary reason for going there was to witness the annual Yi Peng festival, but we also knew that Chiang Mai is the cultural and handicraft capital of Thailand.

We decided to take a 14-hour overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Each compartment on the train had four beds (two on top, two on the bottom). Each bed came with a freshly laundered sheet, pillowcase and blanket. Even though we had a late lunch, we decided to check out the dining cart of our train and ended up having a light dinner, which turned out to be pricier than usual. It was funny trying to drink our soup and juice as the train wobbled from side to side, or came to an occasional jerky stop to pick up more passengers.

Bangkok train station. The beginning of our journey to Chiang Mai.
Bangkok train station. The beginning of our journey to Chiang Mai.
It was a busy night at the train station!
It was a busy night at the train station!
Inside our train compartment.
Inside our train compartment.
The dining cart of our overnight train.
The dining cart of our overnight train.

As we went to bed, we were able to draw curtains around our beds to block out the ceiling light in our compartment that remained on for the entire night. We also noticed that not every compartment had an electricity plug. Our compartment did have one, and in the morning, the train staff used it to plug in the water boiler to make coffee and tea. All in all, the train ride was an experience. But the washrooms were dirty, the air conditioning was way too strong, and at night, the cockroaches came out and roamed around, which wasn’t very pleasant.

Unlike the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Chiang Mai has a country atmosphere. It is close to the jungle areas of the country where many of the elephant farms and sanctuaries are located. Even our guesthouse in Chiang Mai had a jungle feel to it, with green plants all around and wooden rooms that make it seem like you are sleeping in a hut.

The city is simply beautiful. The Mae Ping River flows right through the city, and canals in the centre of the city are adorned with fountains. Of course the colour of the water is brown, but nevertheless, it shows that the city is well looked after. Pieces of an old brick wall surround the city, and walking through one of the ancient gates into the Old City you feel like you’re stepping into history.

One of the canals with a fountain.
One of the canals with a fountain.
Tha Phae Gate. One of the entrances to the Old City.
Tha Phae Gate. One of the entrances to the Old City.

The Old City itself is charming, with cafes and restaurants all around. Tour agencies are scattered throughout while shops selling handicrafts and silks are strategically positioned around hotels and hostels. Thai people are pushing carts of coconut ice cream or other snacks for sale, while super tiny tuk tuks and red trucks called songthaew drive by to pick up passengers. It is by those red trucks that we got around the city all the time since they tend to be the cheapest because they pick up other passengers on the way. They are kind of like Uber Pool or shared taxi.

Red trucks (songthaews) drive around the city and pick up passengers. The fare is negotiated before you board, and haggling is the normal course of business.
Red trucks (songthaews) drive around the city and pick up passengers. The fare is negotiated before you board, and haggling is the normal course of business.
Inside the truck there are two benches that can fit four people each comfortably. But of course, these can be crammed with more people if necessary.
Inside the truck there are two benches that can fit four people each comfortably. But of course, these can be crammed with more people if necessary.
The tuk tuks are so tiny! They seem even smaller than in Bangkok.
The tuk tuks are so tiny! They seem even smaller than in Bangkok.
Peculiar things like roosters on top of motorcycles can be spotted in the quiet side streets of the Old City.
Peculiar things like roosters on top of motorcycles can be spotted in the quiet side streets of the Old City.

But the defining characteristic of Chiang Mai is its numerous temples, which appear out of nowhere, springing up in the middle of the most plain and quiet neighbourhoods. We would be walking down the street and all of a sudden we would notice a little gate and boom, there’s a temple!

Since they are not very tall, it’s not possible to spot these temples from far away. And even for the purposes of taking a picture, it is hard to stand far enough from most of the temples to capture them in their entirety because you would then have to stand in the middle of the road.

Wat Phra Sing
Wat Phra Sing
Wat Phra Sing at sunset
Wat Phra Sing at sunset

Besides exploring the temples around the Big Buddha statue in Bangkok, this was our first encounter with the Buddhist temples. Due to the Yi Peng festival, the temples enjoyed quite a bit of activity from tourists, Thai people and the monks. Every temple is unique in some way in terms of its architecture, but they all seem very elaborate and detailed.

Wat Sri Suphan is a temple made out of silver. It's very intricate and unique.
Wat Sri Suphan is a temple made out of silver. It’s very intricate and unique.
Rami enjoying the shade at the silver temple
Rami enjoying the shade at the silver temple
Wat Buppharam
Wat Buppharam
Wat Phra Sing
Wat Phra Sing

In order to enter the temple, visitors must remove their shoes and leave them at the bottom of the stairs. Visitors must also dress appropriately: shorts and tank tops are not allowed. Almost every temple has signs to remind visitors about the dress code. Also, public displays of affection are not allowed, so holding hands or kissing is forbidden.

The most number of shoes that we've seen outside the temple was at Wat Doi Suthep
The most number of shoes that we’ve seen outside the temple was at Wat Doi Suthep

On the inside most temples look similar. There are two or three big Buddha statues and perhaps several small ones as well. The floor has carpets for visitors to sit on and pray. The ceilings are covered in paintings depicting the life of the Buddha, from achieving enlightenment to entering nirvana. We witnessed many Thai people coming into the temples to pray and to place white flowers or candles at the Buddha displays. Some temples also had monks that accepted offerings from the visitors and gave out their blessings.

Most temples have numerous Buddha statues on the inside
Most temples have numerous Buddha statues on the inside
Emerald Buddha statues are common as well.
Emerald Buddha statues are common as well.
The lying Buddha is also an important image used throughout many of the temples
The lying Buddha is also an important image used throughout many of the temples
A wax statue of a monk is so detailed that he looks real!
A wax statue of a monk is so detailed that he looks real!
Golden stupas are the defining characteristic of some temples like this one at Wat Phra Sing
Golden stupas are the defining characteristic of some temples like this one at Wat Phra Sing
Signing my name with a purchased flower as an offering.
Signing my name with a purchased flower as an offering.

Our visit to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was perhaps the most memorable. This temple is located on the top of a mountain overlooking Chiang Mai. It is a very large temple that starts with a staircase that has two Naga serpents as the railings. The serpents stretch all the way to the top and are supposed to be very impressive. However, what impressed us the day we visited Doi Suthep was the sheer amount of visitors! It’s likely due to the Yi Peng festival that Doi Suthep was swarmed with tourists and Thai people. It was next to impossible to take a picture without someone being in the shot.

This is the best of several shots we took where we are at least not blocked by other people in front of us.
This is the best of several shots we took where we are at least not blocked by other people in front of us.

At the top of the stairs, there are many beautiful things to look at. The main attraction is the golden spire and the adjacent temples that house large Buddha statues. But we found the outside to be quite intricate and interesting as well, with many shrines, Naga serpents, bells and even a lookout point onto the city of Chiang Mai.

Another creature guarding the entrance to Wat Doi Suthep
Another creature guarding the entrance to Wat Doi Suthep
The golden spire at Wat Doi Suthep. But look at how many people there are!
The golden spire at Wat Doi Suthep. But look at how many people there are!
One of the shrines at Wat Doi Suthep.
One of the shrines at Wat Doi Suthep.
Enjoying the view of Chiang Mai from the lookout point
Enjoying the view of Chiang Mai from the lookout point
We were able to get a selfie without anyone photobombing it! Yay!
We were able to get a selfie without anyone photobombing it! Yay!
Ringing one of the many bells around the perimeter of the temple
Ringing one of the many bells around the perimeter of the temple
Beautiful shrines can be spotted around the perimeter.
Beautiful shrines can be spotted around the perimeter.
Examining the bells.
Examining the bells.
We came across this strange sculpture. Mom?
We came across this strange sculpture. Mom?
Timbits in Thailand? Only at Doi Suthep!
Timbits in Thailand? Only at Doi Suthep!
Looking out into the distance during a rare quiet moment, away from the crowd.
Looking out into the distance during a rare quiet moment, away from the crowd.

On the inside, monks bless visitors in large groups and tie white threads around their wrists. Thai people kneel before various Buddha images and hold white flowers in their hands while incents burn nearby. We even spotted younger monks walking around and taking in the sights, white taking photographs and selfies. We were also able to sign our names on a piece of yellow robe that will be wrapped around one of the Buddha statues.

One of the monks blessing a large group of visitors.
One of the monks blessing a large group of visitors.
Another monk blessing the crowd by throwing water at the bowed heads.
Another monk blessing the crowd by throwing water at the bowed heads.
Finally got my turn to sign the yellow robe!
Finally got my turn to sign the yellow robe!
Our names signed on the cloth
Our names signed on the cloth
A lady praying at Wat Doi Suthep.
A lady praying at Wat Doi Suthep.
Thai people placing candles and praying.
Thai people placing candles and praying.
An emerald Buddha statue at Wat Doi Suthep.
An emerald Buddha statue at Wat Doi Suthep.
A large Buddha statue in one of the rooms on the inside of Wat Doi Suthep.
A large Buddha statue in one of the rooms on the inside of Wat Doi Suthep.
A younger monk spotted walking around and reading about the temple.
A younger monk spotted walking around and reading about the temple.

Wat Doi Suthep was definitely the most impressive temple we’ve seen in Chiang Mai due to its scale and location on top of the mountain. But even the smallest temples were charming. We found elephant and serpent imagery to be very important in temple-building, which was quite interesting.

Elephant sculptures around a stupa of Wat Chiang Man
Elephant sculptures around a stupa of Wat Chiang Man
Rami admiring the elephant sculptures
Rami admiring the elephant sculptures

After exploring temples by day, we wandered the markets of Chiang Mai at night. It is no exaggeration that Chiang Mai is a handicraft capital of Thailand. In fact, we met one Thai man who said he was visiting Chiang Mai with his family, driving for ten hours all the way from Bangkok. The main reason was to take part in the festival, but he also came to Chiang Mai to do some shopping. He said the prices were lower than in Bangkok.

While we visited a couple of shopping malls in Chiang Mai that were not much different from the ones you would find in Toronto, the major shopping happens at three markets: (1) the Night Bazaar which occurs every night from Monday through Friday, (2) the Saturday night market, and (3) the Sunday night market. Every one of those markets stretches for numerous blocks down one street with many side streets also occupied by merchants.

But the Sunday night market is the most popular and the entire street was blocked off from traffic when we visited. The crowd was also very intense. At times it felt as if you were in a mosh pit at a rock concert, and you were being pushed forward by the crowd. Most of the time you couldn’t see what was sold on the other side of the street because there were just too many people blocking the view.

The markets can be tiring due to the amount of walking and pushing through the crowd that you have to do. But they can also be fun. We picked up a few gifts and souvenirs on the way by practicing our haggling skills. Very often we would find the same item sold for half the price at one of the side streets, so staying off the main road is a good strategy. Many tourists take a break by having their feet massaged along the road, which is entertaining to watch. There is also lots of street food to sample, from actual meals to snacks and desserts.

Foot massage anyone?
Foot massage anyone?

We spent a total of one week in Chiang Mai, taking part in various activities (which will be covered in the next few posts). But so far, it’s our favourite city in Thailand due to its laid-back vibe, many beautiful temples and entertaining night bazaars.

Paradise found on Phi Phi Island

After a somewhat disappointing trip to the island of Koh Lanta, we decided to take the ferry over back to Phuket, but with a two-night stopover on Phi Phi Island. We read in guidebooks and online that Phi Phi Island is crowded with tourists and as a result, its beaches are full of boats, gasoline and debris. But we were determined to find those pristine, white sand beaches and crystal clear waters that we saw on the Internet. Where were they? Did we miss something? Could they be in Phi Phi?

Let me tell you that sometimes following the crowd pays off. We arrived in Phi Phi after just an hour and a half on the ferry and it was a totally different world. It is no wonder tourists flock to this island. Even from the pier we could already spot the white sand. We were getting excited!

Long-tail boats lining the shores of Phi Phi Island
Long-tail boats lining the shores of Phi Phi Island

Walking along the pier we were swarmed by Thai men holding signs for various hotels and water-taxi drivers vying for our business. We literally booked our accommodation on the ferry and we knew it was just a short walk from the pier, so we ignored them. But it was interesting to know that you could potentially arrive in Phi Phi without booking a hotel in advance and then just pick one of the hotels as you’re walking down the pier. Perhaps that could result in better pricing? We didn’t know.

Our hotel turned out to be pretty basic but very close to the action. We quickly changed into our swim suits and went to the beach, which is actually on the opposite side to the pier and hence should not get much boat traffic.

As we stepped onto the beach, we could not believe our eyes. THIS is the kind of beach that we’ve always seen on pictures and postcards. THIS is where we should have been all along instead of wasting our time in Koh Lanta. The sand was soft and white, the waters were clear, the limestone cliffs surrounded us from both sides. Yes, there were people all over the beach, but not as many as we expected. Perhaps the touristy season was just starting, but we didn’t find the beach crowded at all. There were plenty of free spaces to lay out your beach towel, even in the shade. You could easily find a spot to swim without being bothered by anyone. It was beautiful. It was paradise. It was exactly how we imagined a Thai beach should be.

Rami pondering life and being grateful for the beautiful beach. Finally!
Rami pondering life and being grateful for the beautiful beach. Finally!

We spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing on the beach. We even rented a kayak for an hour and took it far enough to take a peek around one of the cliffs. Afterwards we swam some more and watched the sun slowly dim away behind the cliffs.

A kayak ready to be taken for a spin
A kayak ready to be taken for a spin
As with everywhere in Thailand, there are many stray cats and dogs. The beaches are no exception. Being a sucker for cats, I ended up buying some cat food and feeding a couple. This one in particular sat next to us after her meal
As with everywhere in Thailand, there are many stray cats and dogs. The beaches are no exception. Being a sucker for cats, I ended up buying some cat food and feeding a couple.

At night time, the narrow streets near the pier were crowded with young backpackers, buying buckets of alcohol and partying it up in the bars. The buckets were sold everywhere, and included a small bottle of hard liquor and a pop of some sort. We found a place that served delicious and cheap food (much cheaper than in Koh Lanta) and people-watched for a little bit. I spotted many Russian tourists and we even chatted with a Polish couple for a bit. Back in our hotel room, we could hear the party music from the streets play until 3 o’clock in the morning, but it didn’t bother us. We were too spent from swimming and kayaking the entire day.

The next day we took a day trip around some islands nearby. On this trip we quickly realized that we got really lucky with the tour company that took us around Phang Nga Bay out of Phuket. The day tour out of Phi Phi was a disappointment in many ways. The breakfast and lunch that were promised turned out to be two pieces of bread with jam and a small box of fried rice. Needless to say, we were starving the entire day. There was not even enough water for everyone on the boat. While we were excited to experience a long boat, we realized that it was only operated by one guy, who turned out to be our “guide” for the day. However, he spoke zero English and we could hardly understand him. We had no idea what was going on the entire day.

Long-tail boats at the pier. We boarded one of them for our day trip.
Long-tail boats at the pier. We boarded one of them for our day trip.

The water was not very calm and the boat could not dock very close to the shore, which meant that every time we got out, we stepped into the water up to our waists. The snorkelling equipment was old and dirty, and we only got to snorkel for a short twenty minutes. To top it all off, the motor of the long boat broke in the middle of the day and the guide spent at least forty minutes fixing it, while shaking his head and saying “Ay! Ay! Ay!” with his hands covered in oil, while we were in the middle of the water!

Our guide and captain fixing the motor in the middle of water.
Our guide and captain fixing the motor in the middle of water.

But the landscape turned out to be very picturesque. We visited Bamboo Island that had a very large, white sand beach and crystal clear waters. We cruised by a Viking Cave, which formed in one of the rocks. The main attraction was of course Maya Bay, where “The Beach” movie was filmed. We got out onto the beach and were surprised by how soft the sand was. I have never ever walked on sand that was this soft! It was like walking on flour.

Rami feeling the heat on the vast beach of Bamboo Island.
Rami feeling the heat on the vast beach of Bamboo Island.
A little bay we were taken to for some swimming
A little bay we were taken to for some swimming
Enjoying the calm water in the bay and admiring the cliffs around me
Enjoying the calm water in the bay and admiring the cliffs around me
Oh hey there! I'm just chillin on the long tail boat
Oh hey there! I’m just chillin on the long tail boat
We just had to do a picture together with this scenery
We just had to do a picture together with this scenery
At Maya Bay, where "The Beach" movie was filmed
At Maya Bay, where “The Beach” movie was filmed
A selfie at Maya Bay
A selfie at Maya Bay
The cliffs on the beach at Maya Bay are spectacular. The water must have washed out the base, so they appear to be like a cave, bending over you.
The cliffs on the beach at Maya Bay are spectacular. The water must have washed out the base, so they appear to be like a cave, bending over you.

The highlight for me though was Monkey Beach. We docked near a small beach where a number of boats were already present. As we got out of our boat into the water, I noticed many monkeys roaming around the beach. In anticipation of visiting Monkey Beach, we bought four small bananas at the market in the morning and I held them in a clear, plastic bag in my hand as I got out of the boat. I didn’t even get a chance to get out of the water completely as one of the monkeys spotted the bag full of bananas in my hand and jumped on me. It’s a good thing that I actually wore a sarong because the monkey hung on to it with its claws. If I was wearing just my swim suit, I think the monkey would have just pierced my skin as it jumped on me.

I tried to shake off the monkey by turning around rapidly from left to right, but the monkey started shrieking. I was afraid it was going to charge for my face, and I heard from the tour agency that these monkeys could be quite aggressive. It took me a few seconds to realize that the monkey was after the bananas in my hand. Even though I was really hoping to get some nice photos by feeding the bananas one at a time to the monkeys, I understood in that moment that I had to let them go.

I handed over the bananas and the monkey let me go as it sped up onto a nearby tree. Other monkeys hissed at it and ran after it. But a few seconds later I saw a banana peel fall onto the sand from the tree. It was a terrifying and a hilarious experience at the same time. We did get a few photos with the monkeys, but we didn’t dare to get too close because they all seemed to be very aggressive.

A monkey enjoying a snack, probably something she stole from another tourist.
A monkey enjoying a snack, probably something she stole from another tourist.
A mama monkey on the beach
A mama monkey on the beach
Ahh, get away from me! Don't jump on me!
Ahh, get away from me! Don’t jump on me!
Rami brave enough to get close to one of the monkeys
Rami brave enough to get close to one of the monkeys
We found a little guy sitting on a rock
We found a little guy sitting on a rock
The beach full of monkeys. And by monkeys, I mean people.
The beach full of monkeys. And by monkeys, I mean people.

All in all, we got what we paid for on this day trip. It was very cheap (only 450 baht per person compared to 1,500 baht for Phang Nga Bay), but the service was poor. However, the scenery was impressive and proved to us once again that Phi Phi Island is the place to visit if you set foot in Thailand.

Lost in translation on the sleepy island of Koh Lanta

Ever since we quit our jobs, it has been a go-go-go type of life. Before we set off on this trip, we were frantically downsizing our possessions and getting organized. So although we knew that this trip would begin with the hectic pace of Bangkok, we were secretly looking forward to relaxing on a beach somewhere south just to catch our breath.

We were hoping this beach get-away would be on Koh Lanta, which is a set of two islands located in the south of Thailand, but quite a way from Phuket. Since our day trip to Phang Nga Bay was so successful, we decided to trust our hotel owner to book us a transfer to Koh Lanta Island by a ferry boat.

The next morning started out with a minibus picking us up from our hotel. But I had a strange feeling when the driver snickered when we said our destination was Koh Lanta. Thinking that this was just a peculiarity and nothing more, we boarded the minibus, dreaming of being at the pier and taking a breezy ferry soon enough. We didn’t even have any breakfast since it was quite early in the morning.

The driver visited a number of hotels nearby, picking up additional passengers along the way. This was normal and expected, and we didn’t think much about it. But when he started going north towards the Phuket International Airport, we started to get worried. Did we just book an airport transfer by mistake? The pier to board the ferry to Koh Lanta was located on the southeast part of Phuket Island, and definitely not in the north where the airport was situated. We were tracking our own movements on Google Maps, and our hearts sunk when our minibus passed the Phuket airport altogether. We realized that we were likely going all the way to Koh Lanta in this minibus. How long would it take? We had no idea. The ferry was supposed to take only three and a half hours. The driver spoke no English, so we couldn’t even ask him and our fellow passengers were all going to different destinations.

Our fears were realized as the driver made his way all along the coast, essentially tracing Phang Nga Bay that we visited just the day before. We were starving because we skipped breakfast thinking we would grab something at the ferry pier. We tried to sleep in hopes that the time would just pass faster, but the driver wasn’t very good, driving in a jerky motion kind of way. The scenery around us changed gradually from the more developed shops lining the highway to run-down shacks. This was the true, rural Thailand that perhaps not many tourists get to see.

At one point, we were stopped at a police checkpoint for a good fifteen minutes. Our driver was asked to step out of the minibus and fill out some paperwork. We had no idea what was going on, but we noticed that the men at this checkpoint were armed. Afterwards, once we were allowed to proceed, our driver stopped in the middle of the road to swap some passengers with another minibus. Here he actually made a few gestures about the police checkpoint by pretending to shoot a gun and playing dead.

A couple of hours later, we stopped for a twenty-minute break at a few shacks selling some food. Rami and I bought some snacks and had our first experience using the Thai toilets. The female toilets were basically a hole in the ground with a bucket of water next to it so that you could flush it down. The men’s toilets were a row of open urinals. There was a sink to wash your hands, but no soap, so we ended up using the disinfectant wipes we had with us instead.

Female toilet with a bucket of water for flushing
Female toilet with a bucket of water for flushing
Men's urinals out in the open air
Men’s urinals out in the open air

In a couple of more hours we arrived in Krabi, a fairly large and developed city that is a pit stop for many tours and transfers in the south of Thailand. Here we transferred to another minibus and were finally told what was going on. We were in fact going to take the minibus all the way to Koh Lanta!

Luckily, the journey from Krabi to Lanta wasn’t very long and it was actually quite interesting. In order to get to the north island of Koh Lanta, our minibus drove onto a large car ferry that took it across in about ten minutes or so. And to get to the south island of Koh Lanta Yai where we were staying, we drove across a bridge.

Our journey from Patong Beach to Koh Lanta took an excruciating seven and a half hours crammed in jerky minibuses. And this was our fault since we should have confirmed all of the details ourselves instead of relying on our hotel in Patong Beach to book the transfer for us. Needless to say, we were not in a good mood when we finally arrived at our accommodation.

However, the bungalow that we booked was cute and rustic. It had a hammock right outside the door that Rami loved. The washroom had an open concept so that you could see part of the sky as you showered. It was also our first experience sleeping under a mosquito net, and boy did we need it! There were swarms of mosquitos attacking us, and we were eaten alive even though we used bug spray.

Rami looking pretty happy about our very own bungalow
Rami looking pretty happy about our very own bungalow
But the best part is the hammock!
But the best part is the hammock!
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Nice and cozy inside, complete with a mosquito net
An open-concept shower and toilet of our bungalow
An open-concept shower and toilet of our bungalow

But was the long trip to Koh Lanta worth it? We didn’t think so in the end. We stayed on the island for three full days (and transferred to a better hotel for our last night), but we didn’t quite love it as we had hoped. Koh Lanta is hyped up quite a bit in all of the guidebooks we read. We imagined white sand beaches and clear waters, but instead the beach was made up of tiny seashell pieces that dug into the soles of your feet, and the water was brownish and full of sand. There were no lounge chairs or umbrellas. We shared our large quick-dry towel as we sat on the beach.

Happy to leave the minibus behind, but feeling a bit surprised by the not-so-impressive beach
Happy to leave the minibus behind, but feeling a bit surprised by the not-so-impressive beach

However, the workers at our bungalows were very nice and hospitable. One morning they invited us to take part in a Buddhist ceremony aimed at blessing their establishment. It was very neat to witness such a spiritual moment. There was a whole process of decorating the place where the ceremony would take place and placing various food items as offerings. The lady who came to bless the bungalows chanted throughout the entire ceremony as we all sat on a large mat on the ground, holding burning incents. Rami and I along with another couple were the only foreigners taking part in this ceremony, so we felt very special to be included.

A Buddhist ceremony to bless the bungalow establishment
A Buddhist ceremony to bless the bungalow establishment

Koh Lanta is also full of great restaurants with a beautiful view. Pretty much every restaurant along the Long Beach where we stayed had wooden structures where you could sit on Thai pillows and look out into the ocean. We enjoyed many cocktails in this way, taking in the view. We even tried our first Thai massage right in front of the ocean! It was relaxing and a bit hilarious as our limbs were bent in unusual angles and our bones cracked to the sound of the waves.

Thai massage with a view
Thai massage with a view
Sunset at one of the restaurants on the beach, overlooking the ocean
Sunset at one of the restaurants on the beach, overlooking the ocean
Having lunch on the comfy pillows and enjoying the view
Having lunch on the comfy pillows and enjoying the view

Koh Lanta is definitely a destination for families. We saw many families with kids, enjoying the serenity of it all. But we found ourselves bored, frustrated by the lack of infrastructure (muddy paths everywhere instead of properly paved roads), and disappointed by the beach. So instead of staying here for five nights as we had originally planned, we decided to cut out stay short and take the ferry over to Koh Phi Phi.

What does 1,500 baht get you in Phang Nga Bay?

Have you seen pictures of limestone cliffs sticking out in the middle of turquoise waters? That is exactly the kind of picturesque landscape we saw on our day trip to Phang Nga Bay (pronounced “pa na bay” by the locals).

But to book this trip out of Patong Beach was a lesson in haggling. We started off by approaching a tour desk located right across from our hotel (and recommended by our hotel). The quoted price in the brochure was 3,600 baht (or approximately CAD $140) per person for a full day trip. The price quickly dropped to 2,500 baht as soon as we looked at the first price tag with disappointment.

We decided to go down to the beach and see if we can score a better deal. There turned out to be dozens of tour desks lining up the streets of Patong Beach town and funny enough we saw the exact same brochure with a printed price of 3,200 baht for the exact same tour. The lady at that desk said she would give us a discount so that the final price would be 2,000 baht. Seeing how the prices were highly inflated, we decided to keep going.

After approaching a few more tour desks, we finally came across one that sounded reasonable – 1,500 baht (or CAD $58) per person for the day trip. The nice Thai lady even gave us her cell phone number in case the driver didn’t show up in the morning to pick us up from our hotel.

But we had nothing to worry about. Our tour the next day could not have gone any smoother. We got picked up from out hotel and were driven to a private pier, where the tour company (Sea Star) had tea, coffee and snacks set up for us while our tour guide by the nickname of Joker gave us an overview of our upcoming action-packed day. We then boarded a brand new speedboat that the company bought just a week prior and set off.

The landscape of Phang Nga Bay and its surroundings is simply beautiful. It is exactly how we imagined south of Thailand would be. Our first stop was a peculiar cave, which all the other tour boats have only slowed down to look at. But our tour boat actually docked beside the cave and we climbed out of the boat to explore. It was really dark and we were given flashlights. But soon enough we came to a clearing, which turned out to be a small lake full of greenery all around and catfish swimming in the water. Our guide told us that the stalactites in this cave take ten years to form one centimeter! And the giant stalagmite in the middle of the cave takes even longer! And for some reason it was covered with tiny shiny stones so that it looked as if it was a diamond. We were really lucky to explore this cave both because of the awesome tour company that we scored and because of the calm waters that allowed our speedboat to dock beside it.

Inside the cave
Inside the cave
The little lake inside the cave and greenery all around
The little lake inside the cave and greenery all around

The next stop was our favourite and the reason we booked this day trip in the first place. The speedboat took us to Hong Islands for some canoeing. Hong means “a room” in Thai, and the islands were named that because if you swim underneath the rocks in low tide, you end up in an open area that looks like a room. Here we boarded small canoes operated by the fishermen from a nearby village that took us around these islands. Many of the rocks have various interesting shapes and are named after them. There was a giant limestone cliff that looked like a piranha fish and another that looked like a Buddha. Inside one of the rooms we saw a rock that looked like a mummy. Another island is nicknamed the Scooby Doo Island because it’s got a piece of rock at the top that looks like Scooby Doo. Our favourite “room” was when we canoed under a limestone arch and ended up in a clearing with an open ceiling. It looked very much like the lake we encountered in the cave that we visited right before these islands, except we were literally in the middle of the bay.

Canoeing around Hong Islands
Canoeing around Hong Islands
Piranha-looking cliff
Piranha-looking cliff

After the canoeing, our speedboat took us to see perhaps the most popular island, called Khao Phing Kan. It has been made popular by the 1974 James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun”, and has since been nicknamed the James Bond Island. It was as we expected – full of tourists eager to snap their Instagram photos. It was hard to find a good spot to take a picture without other people ending up in your shot. Nevertheless, it was a must-see and the nature around it was beautiful.

James Bond Island
James Bond Island

For lunch we were taken to a nearby floating Muslim village called Koh Panyee where we were fed with some delicious food. The houses here sit on stilts, giving the impression that they are floating on water. Our guide told us that the village started out with only a couple of thousand people, but has since grown tremendously because of tourism. We suspect that the entire “floating” concept is no longer maintained out of necessity, but instead to cater to the tourists’ desire to visit something historic and unusual.

Floating village
Floating village
Our delicious lunch. So much food!
Our delicious lunch. So much food!

The afternoon was spent snorkelling and relaxing at a beautiful, white sand island. While snorkelling we were surrounded by so many yellow fish with black stripes that were not afraid of us at all. Many brushed by us as they swam around.

The day trip turned out to be a big success. The tour company took really good care of us, constantly providing us with water, pop, fresh fruit and cookies after each attraction. Our guide spoke really good English and really enriched our trip by giving us snippets of information about each island. The weather was hot, but the breeze on the speedboat made us comfortable. And the landscape is truly unforgettable and worth every one of the 1,500 baht.

The dark side of Phuket

Phuket is an island in the south of Thailand. It is also its own province and Phuket Town is the capital. It is known for being a sunny destination for tourists, with resorts of all kinds lining up its beaches. But it is also a center of prostitution and debauchery in Thailand.

Patong Beach is one of the beaches on Phuket Island that is known to be party central. We were intrigued by its reputation, but mostly decided to stay there because we knew we could easily book a nice day trip to Phang Nga Bay from there.

Bangla Road in Patong Beach is supposed to be like a mini Las Vegas strip. We read a bit about it and knew that it was supposed to be lined with strip clubs and Lady Boys. It is hyped up quite a bit by backpackers, and anyone looking to party essentially goes there. We decided to check it out and ended up being quite disappointed.

The road itself is fairly short and could be walked in less than ten minutes. We spotted only two clubs and only one bar where you could actually see stripper poles. We came across only one group of Lady Boys, timidly standing outside of the entrance to a bar. But we did get harassed by various people trying to sell you the same thing – a ping pong show! Apparently it’s a sex show where a ping pong or any other object that you can imagine (banana, frog, turtle, birds, etc) can presumably come out of or be caressed by the stripper’s private parts.

Perhaps because our expectations for Bangla Road were so high, we were not that impressed by all of its dirty offerings. But another thing surprised us – the amount of prostitution that occurs out in the open all over Patong Beach.

It is so obvious and seems like the normal course of business. White men of mostly European background are seen walking about with Thai ladies all over town. We even spotted a Thai lady riding on the back of a motorcycle with a white man. But what’s striking is that transactions unfold right in front of you and very quickly. We witnessed an entire transaction unfold as two white men approached a group of Thai ladies who were sitting on benches near a popular shopping mall.

After chatting for a couple of minutes, one of the men said to his partner to wait for him while he went inside with one of the Thai ladies. He grabbed her by the hair and laughed. The next day we saw the same two men walking down the street with another group of Thai prostitutes. Another transaction unfolded before our eyes as a group of white men approached a group of prostitutes and simply asked “How much?”

There are dozens of massage parlours among the streets of Patong Beach town. At first I was surprised as Rami and I walked by them and we were not harassed by their service offerings. It wasn’t until we came across a massage parlour that had a sign on the front window that read “No Sex” that it became clear to me that these massage parlours are not really for getting massages. I guess because we were a couple, the Thai ladies crowding around the entrances to these massage parlours did not approach us. But had Rami been walking by himself, I’m sure he would have been swarmed by their offerings. We could only imagine what really takes place inside.

Even on our day trip to Phang Nga Bay, one of the white men in the group was accompanied by a Thai woman. At first we thought they were just a mixed couple. But it soon became apparent that the woman spoke little English and the Thai tour crew interacted with her as if they knew her. So it appears that the man in our group hired this lady to be his girlfriend for the day (or perhaps even a week) as she takes him around and accompanies him on day trips. She seemed very casual about it and was quite content, smiling ear to ear and making eye contact with all of us. She was not a tiny bit embarrassed and neither was the man. Both were clearly having a lot of fun and enjoying the trip.

People joke about prostitution being common in Phuket, but it still takes you by surprise as you see it happen all around you. So while Bangla Road did not impress us, the amount of prostitution occurring in Phuket surprised us.