Who knew that dinosaurs not only lived in Bolivia, but left some pretty cool footprints behind? There are several places in Bolivia where one can spot dinosaur footprints, but the closest place to Sucre is Parque Cretacico, which can easily be visited in half a day.
The Cretaceous Park exhibits replicas of many types of dinosaurs, which are more aimed at entertaining kids. But by far the coolest thing at this park is a gigantic wall that holds a record for having the largest number of dinosaur footprints on a single surface. There are 12,000 dinosaur footprints on this wall from ten different types of dinosaurs!
The most intriguing fact is that this wall is actually not a wall at all. It used to be the bottom of a lake, which dried up and during its last days was basically just mud, which allowed for dinosaur footprints to be imprinted. When two tectonic plates collided, the lake became a vertical wall. Years and years of sediments covered the footprints, until one day the cement factory nearby discovered them as the workers were digging in the area. Another cool fact is that our Airbnb host in Sucre was actually a manager at this exact cement factory for several decades and was there when the footprints were discovered!
Now visitors can get up close to the footprints or admire them from afar. It is truly incredible to see actual proof that dinosaurs existed!
Due to the mountainous nature of Bolivia and Sucre in particular, we were also eager to try some rock climbing. Rami is a huge fan of rock climbing, having had memberships at various rock climbing gyms in Toronto and having experience rock climbing outside. While I rock-climbed indoors at the various gyms as well, this was the first time for me to actually rock climb outside.
Surprisingly we only had to drive about fifteen minutes to the outskirts of Sucre and hike for another twenty minutes through a eucalyptus forest in order to reach our rock climbing wall. This was a very new experience for me as I was literally faced with an almost vertical wall, which at the beginning looked very intimidating. I basically had to find cracks and crevices in this wall for me to hold on to or to put my foot into in order to climb to the very top.
The wall was actually quite steep and very high. Rami scaled the wall four times and I scaled it three times, each time using a different route. When standing at the bottom of the wall and looking up, Rami looked so tiny and small, which speaks to just how high this wall was.
We would have never thought that it’s possible to go rock-climbing in Sucre, but it was definitely an experience to remember!
We decided to start our journey in South America in a city called Sucre (pronounced Suk-reh), which is the capital of Bolivia. The main reason behind our choice was the abundance of Spanish schools in Sucre. We read that it would be very difficult to travel through this continent without knowing Spanish as practically no one speaks English in South America.
But we were also craving for the atmosphere of a quiet, quaint, little town. Wait a minute – how can a capital city be quiet and quaint, you ask? The best analogy I can give you is the comparison between Ottawa and Toronto. Of course Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but let’s face it – it simply doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of Toronto. It’s the same thing with Sucre. While Sucre is the official capital city of Bolivia, the true center of activity lies in La Paz. However, Sucre was just perfect for us. We needed a relaxing atmosphere, in which we could concentrate on learning Spanish and adapt to the new culture.
Many people come to Bolivia to study Spanish because Bolivians speak much slower and clearer than people in other South American countries. Bolivians also don’t have any special accent, so the Spanish that you pick up in Bolivia could be easily transferrable elsewhere. And boy, were we right to sign up to a Spanish school! Besides our Airbnb host, who spoke English fluently, and the teachers at our Spanish school, no one (and I mean NO ONE) speaks English.
In our first few days in Sucre, we went to a local restaurant that doesn’t even have a menu. It serves one type of food – chorizos – or basically sausages that are a classic cultural dish here in Sucre. After managing to order the chorizos, we were dumbfounded by the waitress’ question that had something to do with “tomar”. We had no idea what that word was and how to even spell it. So looking it up in the dictionary was a challenge. The waitress got frustrated with us and left to take care of our order. Only after a few minutes scrambling through our dictionary did we realize that “tomar” means “to drink”, and she was simply asking us whether we want to order a drink with our food. It was surprising to us at first that the locals don’t even know such basic words in English like a “drink”, but we soon realized that this was the case everywhere. It just meant we would have to work very hard to learn Spanish!
Sucre is located at 2,800 meters above sea level, which means that there is a possibility of altitude sickness. However, Sucre is much lower than La Paz, which sits at over 3,600 meters above sea level. That is another reason as to why starting our journey in Sucre made sense. We wanted to give ourselves time to adjust to the altitude before tackling cities that sit at even higher elevations. In fact, we met a couple that started their journey in La Paz and they were miserable for several days because of altitude sickness. Only when they finally left La Paz for Sucre, did their symptoms subside.
We were actually quite lucky that altitude did not affect us. But Sucre is a very hilly city. You might be walking downhill on one street, and then you turn right and are faced with a steep street that goes uphill. So walking about the city could easily take your breath away. Our Airbnb apartment is also fantastic. It is located at the top of a hill, several blocks away from a church called La Recoleta, and it has an amazing view. In fact, travellers often climb up to La Recoleta to take in the view of the city, but we have this luxury every single day looking out our window. The flip side however is that we have to climb up to our apartment every single day (sometimes several times a day, depending on what we are doing). But this gives us some great exercise and makes us even more capable of handling a higher altitude.
We also signed up to a gym called “Vista” in Spanish or “The View”. Besides having a great view of the city, the gym also allows us to train at altitude and become more adept to these living conditions. It has hot showers, towels, a strong Wi-Fi and all the equipment that we could possibly need.
The Spanish invaded Bolivia in the mid-1500’s and made Bolivia their colony. That is why Sucre has a lot of “colonial” architecture, which to me just looks very European and beautiful. Although Spanish is obviously the main language, 80% of the population in Bolivia is indigenous and speaks various indigenous languages. The two main ones in Sucre are Quechua and Aymara. The indigenous women (often referred to as “cholitas”) wear bowler hats, flowy skirts and sweaters of various bright colours, and have their jet-black hair in two long braids. We encounter cholitas everywhere – in the markets or on the streets, selling produce or fresh orange juice out of a cart.
Sucre is a fairly cheap city to live in. A decent lunch for two is about CAD$15, but you can find even cheaper places that offer “menu of the day” involving three courses for about CAD$4. However, these menus of the day are typically heavy on rice and potatoes, so we try to opt out for meals with some protein.
Fruits and vegetables are also fairly cheap at the local market (Mercado Central). For about CAD$7, you could score a broccoli, two cucumbers, a gigantic avocado (the size of a huge mango), a mango, some grapes, a large zucchini, a small bag of green beans and an onion. You can buy ten huge bananas or ten pieces of fresh bread for CAD$1! Laundry is less than CAD$2 per kilogram and is washed in separate washing machines, unlike Southeast Asia where your clothes would be combined with someone else’s to be washed.
Every now and then we buy fruits and veggies at the market along with a whole roasted chicken (for about CAD$10) and we make meals in the kitchen of our apartment. We also like a local food called salteña, which you can buy for CAD$1.60 a piece. There are two types of salteñas that we discovered: one filled with broth and chunks of beef called salteña de caldo, and another filled with chicken, egg, veggies and some spices called salteña de pollo. The fun part is to actually eat these pastries with a spoon because biting into them will cause the broth and the meat juices to spill. The locals eat them as a mid-morning snack, washing them down with milkshakes or lemonade. But for us, a couple of salteñas is a pretty big meal and the equivalent of a pretty filling lunch. In fact, lunch is the main meal here. At altitude, your digestion slows down, so eating a big meal late at night is not recommended.
The temperature in Sucre varies greatly during the day. In the morning it could be as cool as 6oC, but during the day it could climb up to as high as 23oC. As soon as the sun starts to go down, it becomes cooler again. It’s important to be prepared for these swings and carry a jacket with you. It’s also important to wear sunscreen since getting sunburnt is a lot easier due to the elevation and a thinner atmosphere.
There is also no central heating (or any kind of heating for that matter) inside the homes. Hot water is boiled by a natural gas heater that requires oxygen to combust and start working. The stove in our kitchen also uses gas. We often spot trucks on the streets delivering natural gas tanks to homes.
Buses run on diesel and spit out clouds of black smoke as they huff and puff to get up the hilly streets of Sucre. All the cars that people drive here are manual because automatic transmission could not handle the steep hills of this city.
There are many stray dogs on the streets, but they seem much fatter and healthier than the super-skinny ones we saw in Thailand. However, this also means that you are constantly dodging piles of poop as you’re walking down the street. Consequently, all of the stray cats live on the roofs to get away from the stray dogs.
There are people dressed in zebra outfits and people pretending to be mimes at the main plaza in the city center. These zembras and mimes help you cross the street because that particular intersection can be quite tricky. There are also a ton of kids in Sucre, which explains why the zebras and mimes are necessary to help them cross the street. During the weekend, the kids play at a large park (Parque Bolivar) where they have access to the coolest slides and jungle gyms.
Overall, Sucre is a very friendly city, rich in culture and beautiful architecture. We are very happy that we decided to spend an entire month here, dedicating ourselves to learning Spanish and building up our tolerance to the higher altitude.
Unlike the neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia has only experienced a surge in tourism in the recent decade or so. Most tourists visit the Temples of Angkor and skip the rest of the country. The capital city of Phnom Penh in particular receives mixed reviews. While researching our trip, we were often told to either skip it altogether or spend only a day there. But after 26 hours spent travelling from Vientiane, Laos to Phnom Penh on a sleeper bus, various vans and minibuses, and finally a large tourist bus, we were so exhausted that we decided to spend four days in the capital. And we’re glad we did.
Cambodia has a dark history that not many people know about. Just over forty years ago, the country fell victim to mass genocide that wiped out about 20% of its population (or about 2 million people) and left the country in disarray. Visiting Phnom Penh allowed us to tour a former high school that was turned into a prison and torture centre called the S-21. We also visited a nearby Killing Field where people were hacked to death with farming tools and their bodies dumped into mass graves. It was a heavy, but eye-opening experience.
But what we found remarkable is how Cambodia is rebuilding itself despite this dark history. We really enjoyed exploring the rest of Phnom Penh that seems to be growing really quickly. We spotted many new high-rise buildings being built all over the city, while restaurants of all cuisines dotted the streets. Large, western-style shopping malls complemented the local markets, selling handicrafts and produce.
In our interactions, we found that Cambodians spoke more English than Thai and Lao people, which shows just how quickly the country bounced back. Even the prices for absolutely everything are actually in US dollars. The Cambodian riel is only used to give change. For example, if you are buying something for $10.50 and you give a $20 US bill, you will receive $9 back in USD and 50 cents equivalent in Cambodian riel.
One of the highlights of our stay in Phnom Penh was going to the movie theatre to watch “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” because the experience was very different from the one in Canada. Inside the theatre, there were many red velvet chairs with high backs and coffee tables for movie-goers to sit down and relax. Large chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and the bathrooms were bright, modern and immaculately clean. Popcorn was served in vintage-looking paper bags, and all of the movie-goers were dressed up as if it was a special occasion. The Cambodian girls were wearing mini-dresses and skirts, with their hair done and their skin covered flawlessly in make-up. The guys were also well-dressed in trousers and shirts. Rami and I were probably the most under-dressed people in the theatre!
The actual theatre was very comfortable and clean. The chair reclined, the screen was large, the sound was excellent, and the movie was in English with Cambodian subtitles in a barely noticeable white font. No wonder Cambodians speak English very well!
Overall, Phnom Penh surprised us with how developed it felt. As any city in Southeast Asia, it was definitely busy with tuk tuks zooming by you and people everywhere. But after doing some sight-seeing, visiting a large shopping mall with everything you could possibly need, gulping down several bowls of pho, treating ourselves to a fresh-salad in a cute restaurant that was a blend of Freshii and iQ back in Toronto, and going out to the movies, we had to pinch ourselves to remind us we were not somewhere in North America.
While Phnom Penh turned out to be a great little break that we were craving, our trip to Siem Reap was packed with sight-seeing. And rightly so! Siem Reap is a city in the northern part of Cambodia that is basically a pit-stop for anyone wishing to see the numerous Temples of Angkor.
We bought a three-day pass to the temples, which are scattered around a very vast geographical area. As a result, we had to either hire a tuk tuk for each day to take us from one temple to another, or go on a group tour. Since we actually wanted to learn a bit about the history of the temples and their architecture, we decided to take a couple of tours.
On the first day we visited all the most famous temples, which are grouped into a tour called the Small Circuit tour. On the second day, we visited the temples that are a bit further away and a little less known, dubbed as the Grand Circuit tour. And on our third day, we ended up hiring a tuk tuk for half a day to take us back to our favourite two temples so we can take a closer look at them and snap a few more photos.
I won’t go into the details of each tour, but I would say that both the Small and the Grand Circuits are worth doing. While some temples on our second day of touring were less famous, they were not less impressive.
But our favourite temples (and the ones we went back to see again) were Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat is an easy favourite. Its scale and magnificence is incomparable. We were even more impressed to learn about how it was built in the absence of modern technology. Similar to the method of construction of the pyramids in Egypt, Angkor Wat was constructed by making a very tall pile of dirt and using elephants to haul rocks up to the top. As the towers of the temple were completed, the dirt was removed a little bit to allow for the construction of the lower portion of the temple.
Without any kind of modern engineering, Angkor Wat is actually constructed with astrology and cosmology in mind. The temple is constructed with precise angles, allowing for the sun to line up with the middle tower several times a year. There are twelve major staircases corresponding to twelve months of the year. There are many other various dimensions and aspects of the temple that correspond to the measurement of time or various stars and constellations in the sky. It is truly remarkable that close to a thousand years ago, people were able to build a structure of this massive scale with such precision and only using reflection of the structure in the water for measurement.
My personal favourite was a temple of Ta Prohm, made famous by the “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” movie. Situated deep in the Cambodian jungle, this temple is literally being swallowed by nature. Trees are growing on top of its towers with massive roots coming down the walls. The stones are covered in moss, painting the temple in green colour. Birds are heard chirping away as you’re walking around, and cold temperatures are felt in certain places of the temple hidden away from the sun.
Due to its popularity, both Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm were swarmed with tourists, but depending on the time of day that you visit, it is possible to find peaceful and serene places within the temples to catch your breath and take it all in.
We also really enjoyed visiting the other temples on our tours. Somehow each one was surrounded by nature and felt very historical in its own way. It’s amazing that centuries later these structures are still standing.
We would definitely recommend Cambodia as a country to visit to anyone travelling in Southeast Asia. Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap should not be missed.
Despite swarms of back-packers flocking to Southeast Asia every year, Laos remains one of the least travelled destinations in the region. We were intrigued by the path less travelled and wanted to see for ourselves if this country was drastically different from the likes of Thailand and Cambodia.
Getting there on a budget wasn’t easy. While some of you may find it boring to read about how we physically got from one place to another, to us it was an adventure and one we would remember for a long time!
From Chiang Mai, Thailand we took a very nice VIP bus to Chiang Rai, Thailand. The bus was very comfortable with only about 24 seats, all of them super wide, reclining and even with foot rests. We were given a bottle of water, a pack of cookies and a towelette to refresh ourselves during the three hour journey.
Chiang Rai is on the way to the Thai-Lao border and we wanted to stay there for one night so that we could visit the famous White Temple (or Wat Rong Khun). The temple was in fact magnificent, but as with anything impressive in Thailand, it was swarmed with tourists, making the visit a little less pleasant.
We wanted to get to Laos while spending as little money as possible, so we did a lot of research and decided to travel hack this thing! After staying one night in Chiang Rai, we boarded a public bus at 6:30 am the next morning for a mere 65 baht (or CAD $2.45) per person to take us to the “junction”, which is basically an intersection of the roads very close to the Thai-Lao border. After an hour and a half journey, we were dropped off at the junction and boarded a tuk tuk standing nearby for 50 baht (or CAD $1.90) per person to take us to the actual border crossing.
Once there, we got our exit stamps out of Thailand and paid 25 baht (or CAD $0.95) per person for a bus to literally take us a few hundred meters across the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. At the Lao immigration, we paid for our entrance visas and got a shared tuk tuk for 100 baht (or CAD $3.75) per person to take us to the boat pier.
At the pier, we bought tickets for a slow boat to take us all the way down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang for 210,000 Lao kip (or CAD $34.50) per person. So in total, the entire journey from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos cost us about CAD $44 per person versus flying (about CAD $190 at the least per person).
The slow boat from the outside looked like a really long shack. On the inside it wasn’t much better. Old car seats were crammed one after another and weren’t even secured to the floor! There was a small and dirty washroom with just a porcelain hole in the ground and a bucket full of water from the river for flushing. There was a lady selling really expensive water, pop and beer on board, but besides that there was no food. We knew about the lack of food, so we stocked up before boarding.
We basically spent two full days travelling on the boat like that, stopping at a tiny city called Pakbeng to sleep overnight in a hotel room. The sole purpose of that city was to provide lodging and food for the slow boat travelers, so there was literally nothing else. The boat itself was quite breezy, so we weren’t hot at all. But in the morning and in the late afternoon when the sun was quite low, we had to draw the curtains to avoid being sunburnt.
It was picturesque cruising down the Mekong River and as soon as we saw the hilly landscape of Laos, we understood that building roads or railways would be very challenging in this country. That’s why the Mekong River provides a great alternative, even though the boat ride is very slow. We spotted many water buffalo and cows along the shores. Every now and then we could see houses built on the slopes of the hills in the distance. The boat would stop every two hours or so at an inconspicuous beach to drop off or pick up a few locals. Although it was a very long and at times boring journey, it provided us with a unique perspective on the Lao countryside and way of living.
Luang Prabang: a laid-back city with a European feel
Luang Prabang is a city in the northern part of Laos. The entire city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Overall, we enjoyed staying there because it’s a very small city and it felt very safe. We could walk the entire length of the city in under an hour at a leisurely pace, so there was no need to take any tuk tuks. The city has a European feel to it with the Mekong River and a small side river called Nam Khan running through it. European cafes full of French tourists line the main street. Laos used to be a French colony, so French people feel very comfortable visiting Luang Prabang. But as a result, the city is full of pricey restaurants, European food and expensive hotels.
We found a really cool bar called Utopia which was overlooking the Nam Khan river. The bar had cushions all over the floor where you can just lie for hours, sipping a drink and admiring the view, reading a book or taking a nap. They also had tasty wood-fired pizzas that we enjoyed since we were kind of getting tired of our rice and noodle diet.
Luang Prabang was also full of temples that were slightly different from the ones you would see in Thailand. The Lao temples were adorned with tiny pieces of glass making up mosaics and telling the various stories from the Ramayana. Thai temples were also predominantly gold, while Lao temples looked like they were made out of wood and had more brown tones to it. But we didn’t focus too much on the temples because we’ve seen too many in Thailand already!
Due to the great number of temples, there are many monks in Luang Prabang. We witnessed an ancient tradition of Alms Giving, which occurs early in the morning at sunrise. Local people gather in front of the main temple in Luang Prabang and give rice to the monks as a way to attract good karma to themselves. Unfortunately, the Alms Giving Ceremony has become very touristy with people crowding the streets and taking pictures of the monks using flash (since it’s still quite dark outside). As a result, the ceremony doesn’t have the spiritual feel that we were hoping to experience.
Just as the landscape along our Mekong River journey was picturesque, so was the landscape around Luang Prabang. We visited the Kuang Si waterfall and the jungle around it, which was very beautiful and quite unique. The area around the Kuang Si waterfall had many small waterfalls that were kind of like stairs, flowing from the large waterfall all the way down along the jungle. We hiked to the very top of the waterfall and it was very challenging as we literally had to climb on top of slippery, mossy rocks and hang on to tree roots for balance.
Growing rice: a step back into the simpler life
The highlight of our trip to Luang Prabang was visiting a rice farm that aims to showcase how rice was grown back when no machines were available. We fully participated in all thirteen stages of the rice-growing process, from ploughing the land using a water buffalo named Rudolph, to planting the rice in the muddy fields, cutting the rice and tying it into bundles, shaking the bundles to get the kernels out, packing, sifting, grinding and cooking the rice.
Standing in the middle of the rice field was very refreshing. It was a nice change from the city life that we experienced so far. I quite enjoyed getting dirty in the mud, walking behind Rudolph and yelling at him to make a turn. There was something so simple and pure about the whole experience and it made me want to experience farm living again at some time in the future.
The farm we visited also had a little garden where various fruits and vegetables were grown. This organic produce was then used to make us one delicious feast of a lunch as we sat overlooking the farmland. Did I mention that the rice was delicious? The rice in Lao cuisine tends to be of the sticky variety, which means it’s a lot more moist and flavourful than the rice you would eat in Thailand. The variety of desserts that could be made with sticky rice and the number of baked goods made out of rice flour is impressive!
Vientiane: a busy city with a French influence
We ended up flying to the capital city of Vientiane and we spent only one night there. But we found two days and one night just enough time to explore the city.
We thought that Luang Prabang felt a little inauthentic and fake at times due to its UNESCO protection status and the fact that everything was catered to European tourists. So Vientiane was definitely the complete opposite of Luang Prabang. It was busy with people and tuk tuks, restaurants varied from large establishments to a hole in the wall, and it felt a lot more like a real Lao city.
Besides more temples that we weren’t keen on seeing, we visited the Patuxai Monument in Vientiane, which is basically a large arch that reminded us of the Arc de Triumph in Paris, France.
We also took a public bus (travel hacking again!) to a nearby Buddha Park. The park had many sculptures built under Hindu and Buddhist influence, and was interesting to explore. We climbed to the top of something that looked like a giant pumpkin with a mouth and took pictures with a gigantic reclining Buddha statue. Then we relaxed in one of the wooden houses overlooking a grassy piece of land as cows fed nearby.
The verdict: a path less travelled worth visiting
While there may not be dozens of attractions in Laos, the country is definitely worth visiting. From the hilly landscapes, to the Mekong River, from the charming city of Luang Prabang, to the strange Buddha Park in Vientiane – Laos remains an under-discovered gem in Southeast Asia.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.