Sunday, 26 May 2013

Wat a lot of temples and my recommendations - Chiang Mai, Thailand Travel Blog

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Wat a lot of temples and my recommendations - Chiang Mai, Thailand Travel Blog

Pilgrimage for Visakha Bucha, Buddist holiday

I've been a little way laid in Chiang Mai for almost 3 weeks now... and there is definitely more to come back for another day. 

There seems to be numerous festivals and events that take place in Thailand's second largest city and I was lucky (my feet didn't think so afterwards!) to stumble across one of them on Friday (25th May) and be able to take part in the pre-celebrations as well.

Visakha Bucha (pronounced with a 'W') is a religious holiday celebrating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha, which by tradition takes place on the same day of the year: the full moon of the sixth lunar month (May or beginning of June). 

As an official public holiday in Buddhist countries such as Thailand, pubs and bars are closed and no alcohol is on sale throughout the whole day - although this isn't all that strict here it seems! 

Visiting temples, bringing offerings and meditating is a more regular occurrence and it seems the pilgrimage up Doi Suthep (hill/mountain?) just 11km from the city of Chiang Mai, is taken by most of the locals the night before; reaching the temple at midnight (or after) to then walk the chedi (around it 3 times) to gain the virtue, luck and prosperity associated with this act.

Something not touristy... I'm there! Heading off to the starting point about 7pm, the road was already busy with pilgrims. The street was lined with food stalls and all sorts, and every few hundred metres there was free water and other drinks available. 

It really felt like the whole city was making their way up the mountain en foot and the atmosphere was lively and full of smiles. There were many people playing instruments, students dressed up and freshmen 'running' the full 11 km's, plus numerous monks had set up 'shop' outside temple areas along the route and were giving blessings to anyone who stopped.

Seriously, this was an experience like no other and I'm glad I braved the crowds to take part. However, after 5 hours and with tired feet, finally reaching the entrance to the temple at the top and being greeted by more crowds, I was starting to think this wasn't a great idea! After taking a short rest, it was time to attempt to climb the Naga Serpent staircase... but this turned out to be like experiencing the Hillsborough disaster. People were pushing and shoving and trying to climb up the steps was extremely difficult, I just kept thinking about how I would get back down again afterwards.

The stairs took about an hour to get up and then getting into the temple itself was easy... however, once inside the crowds wouldn't allow any walking around the stupa, so after a short wait and walk along just one side I gave up and headed back down the stairs!

Disappointed but relieved to have escaped it was then a case of facing the walking back down, as no songtaews were getting through and the road was now clogged with traffic heading in both directions as people descended out of there and motorbikes and songtaews attempted to come up to collect them all. Fortunately I managed to get a songtaew about halfway down, but this was luck given the number of locals trying the same exit strategy!

I finally returned to my guesthouse at around 6.30am, after struggling to get across town and then being dropped off in the wrong place. I was grateful of the shower before retiring to my bed to recover.

This really was a once in a lifetime experience and I would recommend going along and joining in... at least for the upward part, but then perhaps give the temple itself a miss or get in there and get out as quickly as you can and find some transport back down, as 22 km's is too far to walk at that time of the night/morning!

Visakha Bucha day itself was more relaxed, with a trip to Huay Tung Tao lake and dinner with my massage teachers and a few other students, after which we headed along to Wat Chedi Luang to join in the walk around the stupa, but I only completed one lap before the monks came out!

To keep tabs on what I've been up to check out:
Previous entry: Jera Thai massage course, Chiang Mai
Travelpod next entry: Wat a lot of temples and my recommendations

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Jera Thai massage course, Chiang Mai

Thai massage is an intense and sometimes painful experience, which somehow left me feeling energized. It’s a bit like yoga, but more like someone doing yoga to you, “Yoga for lazy people,” I read somewhere, and which sums it up nicely.

There are several variants of Thai massage, although only 2 main streams: the 'northern' form is traditionally slower and concentrates on energy lines with the obligatory pressing, squeezing, rolling, twisting, stretching, snapping and chopping. The 'southern' form is better known as the Wat Pho style and is normally rougher, but whether you can actually tell the difference I am unsure?

A traditional Thai massage is performed on the floor (on a mat), so you can easily move the client and yourself (the masseuse) into the required positions. Normally starting with lying on the back an hour long massage will cover a foot/leg, arm/hand massage, and a shoulder/neck and back massage. 
The masseuse uses their whole body, although if your eyes are closed you would have no idea whether it's palms, thumbs, elbows or feet pummelling you!

What interested me in learning Thai massage over and above the oil massage which is also taught here in Thailand, is that it is a method of working with a person's energy, similar to Reiki, and bringing awareness to one point at a time. There are similarities to other types of massage, particularly, as it apparently originated in India, to Indian Ayurvedic; although the contrast of being completely clothed as opposed to stark naked is certainly something to note.

Sidenote: I had a very bizarre experience whilst in India a few years ago, following a Ayurvedic massage by 2 Indian ladies. It wasn’t so much the fact that I was massaged whilst naked, by both of them whilst laying on my front and then back and covered head to toe in oil, although if the truth be told I wasn’t expecting this when I signed up for it. It was the moment afterwards when I stood up and walked away to leave, and instead found myself in a comedy style stack with legs flying and arms flapping as I slipped and fell, flat on my back, I blame the fact I was still caked in oil!

So, Thai massage... originally a very spiritual practice in Thailand, being taught and practiced in temples. Now it seems very non-spiritual, with places all over the place, including at stalls alongside the market, as well as seeming to be a social experience, with multiple people in one room, and the (often female) masseuse’s gossiping.

With a couple of weeks in Chiang Mai, I signed up for a course at Jera Massage. Initially I wasn’t too sure about this place, as they had no website and the prices were much cheaper than any of the other massage schools that I found. However, it turned out I was the only student for the first few days, so had private tuition from 2 teachers and also had the opportunity to learn more about them.

Later more students arrived, and courses were running everyday and very popular.

Update: Best way to contact them, via their Facebook page here

My teachers

A - she has not spent her entire life giving massages, but studied IT and trained/worked for a decade or so before going to a temple to learn the massage trade. She has been running the business for 10 years, speaks decent English and has a laid back attitude. Her experience is evident from her teaching which is extremely thorough and very patient.

Wi - is from the same village as A, they grew up as friends. She studied Marketing at university and learnt massage after deciding to take voluntary redundancy from her previous employment. She has been teaching for 5 years and I found her extremely patient as well, but also fun and a great cook.

The course

I would watch one of the experts first whilst taking notes, then the moves were performed on me so I could feel the intended effects, and finally I would practice.  

It was a little overwhelming at first due to the abbreviations used throughout the book but my enthusiasm soon increased as I became more confident with the positions of my hands and I was reminded less and less about “walking” or “softer” by each of my teachers.

I learnt about the energy lines of the body (“sen”) and some basic pressure points and by the end of day 3 of 5 was feeling less exhausted physically and desperate to learn which sequence of moves constituted a full body massage and whether I could remember them without falling asleep in the 30 degree heat. 

Having now completed the 5 day course, my first full body 1 hour massage took slightly less than the average (that I am told is 1.5 hrs) so I'm hoping with some practice I will soon be on the path to being able to complete a treatment without the book by my side ;).

I want to thank both A and Wi for such a great course and spending the time sharing with me some of the highlights of my time in Chiang Mai so far.

If you're just looking for a good place for a massage...

I had my first  decent Thai massage at the women’s prison here in Chiang Mai, just a few days after I arrived. The inmates (not hardened criminals by any means) learn the art of Thai massage as part of their rehabilitation and those working here are due for release within 6 months. A percentage of the money from the treatments goes directly to the prisoners to save for when they are released, so although perhaps not an entirely ‘charitable’ cause it’s one that is a bit different, plus the massage experience was good and I would definitely go back. Note that the restaurant next door is very reasonably priced, and a great place to eat whilst waiting for your massage slot.

Old shop, the new one is a bit further down the road...

Friday, 17 May 2013

Beautiful but be aware: Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai

They advertise everywhere throughout town, with photos of tigers looking cute and friendly in up close and personal poses, which of course lures people in. What Tiger Kingdom doesn't fully advertise, is the cost of all the different options to actually get inside the cage with one of these beast. Prices start at 420 baht (approx £9/US$14) for the big tiger, through to 620 baht for the smallest cubs, and to see them all it's a wallet bulging 1,900 baht (will leave you to work out whether it's worth it for yourself - but read the rest of this post first please).

In the words of Tiger Kingdom "the tigers are born in captivity and are therefore used to humans, which is why you can pet them". However, from what I saw the likelihood of them not having been drugged is as remote as the fact that I am not currently backpacking around Asia! It's the first thing you read on entering the building, what you see on a poster in the waiting area and is also noted on various boards around the caged areas. They are adamant that they need to keep reminding you of this, and I can totally see why!

Whilst I was there the animals did appear like they were sedated, seeming floppy and tired and are quite simply very slow to respond. They are completely non reactive to much more the than the keepers pushing and pulling them back and forth to have their photo taken by the next excited tourist.

Of course the explanation for this is also evident on the posters and boards, as well as the extremely detailed leaflet. Apparently it's because they are nocturnal animals and they are just sleepy throughout the day when visitors stop by. But seriously, if you were tugged, pulled and slid across the floor to pose when you would much rather be curled up in the corner snoozing, do you think your response would be little more than laying down, dropping your head to one side, yelping sadly and obliging without a fuss?! These are predatory animals...?

I've read other reviews of this place since visiting, many have a similar view to mine, some however rave about how amazing the experience was.

I'm sorry, I was completely appalled, and felt extremely uncomfortable posing in the photos with these poor little creatures! Although if I'm completely honest they are absolutely beautiful and did have me smiling with a moment of excitement as one of the cubs padded it's way towards me.  

Despite their beauty, I couldn't get out of there quick enough, and the obligatory walk around the other cages after the encounter with the cubs left me feeling even more deflated. The park appears very well kept and the animals looked after but after the sight of 2 or 3 of the bigger tigers inside small cages I started to have more doubts. 

The words "what the customer wants they usually get!" rings in my head after reading the leaflet explanation of why the keepers wake the tigers up from their sleep to have pictures taken. No government funding is received and Tiger Kingdom relies on the income from visitors, so, without the tourist herds, there is a risk that the animals will not be fed and looked after.

It becomes a catch 22 scenario, which situation is worse and is the opportunity to see these beautiful animals face to face and allow people to experience their beauty, something that should be avoided?

The experience has left me thinking very seriously about whether to visit any elephants and taking a course in mahout training that I so seriously had my heart set on whilst in Chiang Mai.

For now my further research into both these attractions has left me looking for ways to spread the word and ensure that as many future tourists seeking out these types of experiences, go along fully informed about it and are aware of what they may see... so, don't just jump on the band waggon. I chose to visit for research purposes, with a view that whatever I saw, I would share to help others decide for themselves, whether to visit - please pass on and share this post.

As I spend a few days mulling this over, I have moved across town to the Old city area and a more reasonably priced guesthouse. I have plenty more to share with you in terms of experiencing Chiang Mai, but have chosen to take a few days out of the tourist trap with a traditional Thai massage course and some time to reflect. 

To keep tabs on what I've been up to check out:
Previous Travelblog entry: 2 days from Laos to Thailand along the Mekong
Next entry: Not same same, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Laos: I will be back

Well, I'm now in Thailand, having spent the best part of 2 weeks in Laos.  You may already know what I've been up to, if you have been following along on my Travelblog as I've been periodically keeping it up to date as best I can.

The tour was reasonably fast paced and there was so much to cram in, coupled with numerous days spent travelling. Thankfully I was lucky enough to be with a really nice group and three of them in particular kept me going throughout the long days travelling - thank you guys!

So what were the highlights? 

Not knowing entirely what to expect and having been to most of the other countries in Indochina, I was really taken with Laos. It's very similar to Vietnam but without the craziness and hustle and bustle. It has a much more laid back attitude (although Vietnam is laid back too) and the people are so friendly and always smiling or waving.  

Laos has been open to tourists for about 20 years, and is fast adapting to backpackers, but it is definitely not an adventure to embark upon if you like the more luxurious travel destination.  The people are extremely poor and the average daily earnings is less than the price of a Beerlao. There are of course more luxurious places to stay, but in my view it doesn't seem right to experience a place like this in complete luxury!

Having been caught up in the war (see previous post - UXO in Laos and a worthwhile cause), the rural areas are still suffering from uncleared ordnance, so as a tourist you do have to be mindful of this and keep to the beaten track. This was the main reason for taking a tour, plus I thought it would take the frustration and hassle out of travelling for a while. I was point blank wrong about the latter point, but that was simply down to having such a bad tour leader, however it didn't stop me experiencing a lot of what this country has to offer.

The capital Vientiane, doesn't really have that much that you can't afford not to miss, other than the buddha park. The highlight here for me was the COPE visitor centre - it's eye opening, heartbreaking and just something everyone should be aware of and help with if they can. You can read a bit more about what I got up to in Vientiane on my Travelblog - Getting charitable and key sights.

The two other key places to visit are Vang Viene and Luang Prabang, the latter being the former capital of Laos. 

If you want to experience the backpacker town with numerous activities then Vang Viene is the place to spend a bit longer. It's easy enough to avoid the partying and just enjoy the mist shrouded mountain peaks or caves and villages along the way either by motorbike or buggy (as I did, see - Get a buggy and tubing if you want). Try out the almost banned 'tubing' down the river Nam Song, but it isn't what it used to be!

My recommendation of where not to miss has to be Luang Prabang, with it's almost mystical feel and midnight curfew, it's difficult to find anything negative to say about this town (at least not unless you are travelling with an irresponsible tourist!). With it's glittering temples, saffron robed monks and amazing night market there is something for everyoneGetting up at the crack of dawn to see the monks alms giving is a good way to start the day, followed by a trip to the waterfalls and bear sanctuary a short trip out of town, and that was just day 1 - see alms giving, waterfalls and a prostitute

For me the bit I will remember most in Luang Prabang was stopping by a whiskey village and visiting a local school, if I had planned ahead I'm sure I could have done a little more to help here.

If you are planning a trip to Laos, make sure you consider the following:

- Visa's are required at the border, costing $30-$35 depending on where you are from, and there's a $2 additional fee for entering at the weekend.
- The whole of Laos is a high risk malaria area, and antimalarials are recommended. If you take a risk and go without, cover up at night and make sure you go nowhere without repellent! I have been bitten more since entering Thailand, but that was due to overlooking the bug spray.
- As I've said above be mindful of the beaten track and the risk in rural areas where the unexploded ordnance is still a significant problem.
- Toilets! Need I say more, the same situation exists through Asia. Always carry toilet paper and be prepared to get down with the locals...

In conclusion, I can assure you that travelling on a tour took a huge amount of the hassle out of the travelling and accommodation related matters, allowing plenty of time to just enjoy the experience.

For now the North and South of Laos remain unexplored by me... but I will be back; knowing it's possible to travel around here fairly easily independently and as more areas become more prepared for tourists. Maybe not during this current trip, but you never know, after all I'm just over the border currently.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

UXO in Laos and a worthwhile cause

Well, the good news is that my bag eventually made it back from Brunei to Hanoi and I wasn't left behind by the group.

I am now well on my way into Laos country and have already spent time in the capital Vientiane as well as a couple of days in the backpacker town of Vang Vieng, the latter of which turned out to be great fun!

The tour I am doing is definitely covering off the key places in Laos but with some lengthy days travelling and only a short stop at each destination I am finding it difficult to take it all in and of course keeping up with the blog is almost impossible.

For those of you who know me or follow by crafting blog, you will know that I endeavoured to do a little fundraising before I set off on my trip. In the end I raised £60 from selling off some of my craft stash for a few pence.  So far I have been able to contribute a portion of this to a very worthy cause - COPE in Vientiane, Laos.

Laos PDR is the most heavily bombed country in the world per capita.  More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted as part of the Indochina war in a 9 year period between 1964 and 1973 with an estimated 270 milion bombs being dropped into Laos.  The country wasn't even involved in the fighting and merely got caught up in it all, becoming a dumping ground for bombs that could not be dropped on their inteneded target, and estimated 30% of which did not detonate.

The result is that a significant number of villages (approx 25%) still remain contaminated with UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) and sadly many people have continued to be killed or injured following some of these accidentally exploding.

These accidents have more recently reduced following the work being done by COPE, the CMR (Centre of Medical Rehabilitation) and MAG (Mines Advisory Group) to provide services to people affected by UXO's and begin clearing the unexploded devices.

I'm sure you will agree that experiencing the sights and culture is an important part of travelling, but giving something back is too.  I hope to find another opportunity to put the remaining monies collected to good use too in the coming weeks so do check back here for more.

In the meantime here are the latest entries from my travels...