Day 25 (Tues)
After finally making it to Chiang Mai, I headed to check in to my hostel, called Deejai Backpackers. Out of all of the hostels/guesthouses that I have stayed in, this is definitely the best! I am staying in a fan dorm room with private bath. I have two roommates and our room is pretty clean and complete with hot shower (luxury)! The common area is really great to meet people and today the hostel was providing materials for anyone who wanted to make a krathong (basically like a water lantern).
Loy Krathong (or Lantern Festival, as I have been referring to it) is a huge festival in Thailand, but the place to celebrate it seems to be in Chiang Mai. The festival is a time when Thais pay respect to the water goddess by making krathongs and setting them afloat as an offering down the river. It is celebrated during the last full moon of the Thai calendar, which usually falls in November. Thais also believe that it is a way of sending bad spirits off with the krathong, ensuring good fortune for the coming year.
The hostel provided us with the materials to make our own krathong. Using the trunk of a banana tree as a base, banana leaf is used to cover the base and as decorations. The krathong is also usually topped with flowers, sticks of incense and a candle. It was a great way to get into the spirit of the festival and to meet new people as we all took part in an afternoon of 'arts and crafts'.
After making our krathongs, a few of us decided to wonder out into the city to find some good Thai food. We passed this one restobar that had a pretty good list of Thai food options. We were greeted by a very well dressed and tall "ladyboy" who worked there. She told us that we must eat there because they had the best food in all of Thailand. Of course we were a bit skeptical but figured this place would probably be as good as any. So we asked her recommendation for us to order. Without hesitation she told us to get kao soi. So we did. And it was the most amazing meal I think I have had yet! It is a Thai soup made with chicken, rice, and coconut milk, usually having a chicken leg in the bowl and topped with crispy noodles. SO GOOD. After we had our fill, we, slowly, made our way back to the hostel in time for the evening festivities.
At around 6pm the hostel arranged for a number of taxis (which resemble more of a jeepney to me) for about 20 Baht each to take us all to the river to set our krathongs afloat. Despite a little rain, we were able to successfully launch our offerings down the river (though whether our candles stayed lit was doubtful). After making our Krathong offering we walked around Chiang Mai, taking in the sights of the festival - lanterns being launched, krathongs floating, fireworks in the air, music and tons of delicious looking street food!
I had a great time enjoying the festival and reconnecting with some of my volunteer friends who are also here for the festival. But it didn't take me long to get pretty tired (especially considering the previous 24 hr of travel), so we headed back to the hostel and now I look forward to a good nights sleep!
Day 26 (Wed)
Today I decided to take it easy. I woke up and had some breakfast while looking through my guidebook trying to decide what I wanted out of my time here in Chiang Mai. Then I went out with some of my volunteer friends to walk around and get to know more of the city. There are of course lots of wats (temples) but I have to say that as beautiful as they are, I am getting kind of wat-ed out. But while walking past yet another wat, we were able to watch as three Buddhist monks launched a lantern into the air. After it got a few meters from the ground, the tail of the lantern started exploding as the fireworks attached went off. Pretty cool.
So it was mostly a pretty chill day, just walking around Chiang Mai. I really enjoyed again being able to hang out with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. We were able to share some of our experiences of our different trips and talk about what we already miss about the Philippines. I can't believe that I have little more than a week left in Asia. Time has gone by so fast!
Deejai backpackers yet again proved its awesomeness by having lanterns for us to send off for free! So we went to the courtyard behind the hostel and lit the giant cylindrical paper lanterns, wait a few minutes for it to fill with hot air and then made a wish before sending it into the night sky. Afterwards we headed to the river for more of the festival activities. Today is the last official day of the festival and we were craving some good festival street food!
When we got to the riverside we had to manage our way through the massive crowds of people. It seemed like the entire city must have been there for the festival. And everywhere you looked there were people sending their lanterns into the air. The entire night sky around the city was filled with lights from lanterns floating up high. The lantern lights seemed to outnumber stars in the sky! I have been to many different festivals around Asia but this one was truly magical!
We walked down the street further and found some really great food stands. The first we headed to was the fried noodle stand where we had a variety of fried noodles to choose from for only 15 Baht ($0.50). After devouring our noodles we moved on to the sushi stand. Now I know street sushi might sound sketchy but it was amazing! We choose from a variety of rolls, for either 5 or 10 baht each (so cheap!) The stand was also pretty popular so the rolls were actually very fresh as the vendors worked laboriously behind the stand, making rolls and trying to keep the stand stocked.
After sushi we moved on to the tempura cart and ordered an assortment of tempura fried chicken and shrimp served with a sweet chili sauce. At this point we were getting pretty full, but next we walked past a fruit cart and the strawberries looked so amazing that I just had to get some. I got a cup of strawberries for 10 baht and the vendor sprinkled a sugar concoction on top. It wasn't until after the third bite that I realized the strawberries had a bit of a kick to them! The sugar mixture that he sprinkled on top had crushed red pepper in it too! I never would have thought it would be good, but sweet and spicy strawberries are pretty amazing!
At this point we are moving pretty slow. We stood around for awhile digesting and watching the parade as it went by but then the food coma started to set in. So we walked back to the hostel, every few steps glancing up at the night sky to watch the lanterns rise. What an amazing festival night!
Day 27 (Thurs)
Today was our tiger day! We decided to visit Tiger Kingdom to see and even pet tigers. Now I know these places are sometimes known to drug the animals to make them sleep but I did some research before going and Tiger Kingdom does NOT drug their tigers. The tigers are bred in captivity and therefore use to being around humans. Tigers and also nocturnal animals, therefore it is natural for them to be somewhat sleepy during the day. The only tigers that are pet are females and only up to a certain age.
Now this was an especially amazing experience for me because tigers are my absolute favorite animal. EVER. Ever since I was young and begged my mom to buy me Zoobooks (as advertised on t.v.) I have been mesmerized by tigers. I think they are the most beautiful creature in the world and could spend hours watching them at the zoo, never thinking I would one day be touching them!
When we got there we were able to choose what tigers we wanted to see. There were four ages of tigers that you could see: smallest, small, big and biggest. I decided to see the small (6 month) and biggest (18 months). It. was. amazing. And those tigers were most definitely not sedated. It was later in the day when we went so the tigers were slowly getting more and more active. The 6 month olds were really cute, but still bigger than the average house cat. I couldn't believe how big their paws were for still so young. We had to always approach them from behind and we weren't allowed to touch their heads and paws (apparently they don't like it). It was so surreal. At times I would look down and see how cute and sweet they looked lying around that I almost just wanted to jump on them and hug them. But then I remembered that they could quite literally rip my face off, so I resisted.
The big cats were even more surreal. The tiger we saw would occasionally get up and start walking around, at which point the handler would caution us to move back and give her some room (we quickly obeyed). The size of these cats is really amazing. Their heads and paws are so big and it was amazing to see how muscular they are when they are walking around. Truly beautiful and amazing creatures!
So my experience at Tiger Kingdom was pretty awesome. It was a lifetime dream of mine that I never thought would come true. But it also makes me sad to think that in my lifetime the wild tiger will probably become extinct. Habitat destruction and illegal poaching has left the tiger population in the thousands and decreasing every year. But I am so glad I was able to experience them here in Thailand. It was most definitely an experience I will never forget.
to be continued..