re: Ayutthaya

Feeling at a loss of what to do in Bangkok after our previous experience, I decided we should get out of the city and book a day trip to Ayutthaya. This was done via our hostel and involved an early morning start at 0645!! Carrying on the bad luck, my camera unexpectedly ran out of battery near the start of the day, so no decent photos of actual Ayutthaya, but trust me, it was beaut ;).

Led by Kevin Spacey’s Thai doppelgänger, we visited the ancient city of Ayutthaya and stopped off at a couple of temples along the way. Expecting some ruins in the middle of nowhere, it was strange to see how civilisation had built up around these sites. Even weirder to think about how the area might look in 20-30 years’ time – perhaps a revisit will be on the cards in the future! So the day consisted of being shuttled around in an air conditioned van, being let out to roam about for a few minutes at each site. I’m making it sound terrible but actually it was really convenient and not a bad way to tour the area! I definitely have an extremely dated view of Thailand in mind, (i.e. motorbikes down dusty roads, embarrassing, I know) but when you’re in a group where none of you can ride motorbikes, this is the way to go!

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Visiting temples in the boiling hot sun is thirsty work and it was buying a bottle of coke from a cute old lady where I got scammed again – dammit. Perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, but the coke tasted slightly off and lacked its usual deep brown colour. Was it a scam? Was it left out in the sun too long? Who knows, but it sure didn’t taste normal. Pro-tip: stick to buying bottled water instead. It’s cheaper, healthier and you can’t get scammed for that right? I guess every trip has to have a negative yet memorable experience and ours –that we may never talk about, but I do anyways- became the running joke of the rest of the trip.

Speaking of scams, my mother thought that the Buddha head entwined in the roots of a tree at Wat Phra Mahathat was created as a tourist trap. According to our guide, the head of the Buddha fell off when the temple there was abandoned and the tree’s roots grew around it. However, a little bit of googling tells me that there are many different theories surrounding it, none of them having been substantiated. Which one of these you believe in doesn’t matter, it’s still a sight to behold and remains an iconic image of Thailand nevertheless. Definitely worth a visit when you go!

re: elephants

wherein we paid to be elephant servants for the day.

A very important box on our Thailand ‘to do’ list was to see elephants. Reading a lot of articles about elephant welfare, we were adamant to avoid elephant trekking and other similar tourist traps such as Tiger Kingdom, which we saw prolifically advertised. Scouring through various leaflets, we eventually decided on the elephant camp that was part-owned by our hostel – Into the Wild. It was one of the cheapest that we saw and appeared to offer just as much as other camps for around 2,300 THB.

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On the day, we were greeted by our guide and given bright red woven ponchos as well as a gregariously coloured bandana to wear for the day. Upon arrival we helped to unload the tuck full of food, water, etc. for the elephants and were told to walk directly to the shelter without stopping for the curious elephants, otherwise they’d steal all the food! This made for a pretty scary but exciting experience as we ran across the stretch of land between the hut and the elephants – all while the guide tried to distract them.

Our first proper interaction with the elephants involved feeding them bananas, and seeing them up close was amazing. This camp had three elephants, all girls, two were around 45/50 and the other only 5 years old! Seeing them up close really put into scale how enormously powerful they are – even the baby (!). This fact was especially underlined as we tried to cross the small river with the elephants and encountered some water buffalo. Their presence really unsettled the elephants, who natural instinct was to protect the baby of the herd. As we were quickly ushered back, they let out great trumps of distress and warning that, along with the pounding of their feet, reverberated through us. Thankfully, the water buffalo were chased away and the day continued on without incident. After walking around the nearby forest with the elephants, we were taken back to camp for lunch before getting into our swim suits and giving the elephants a medicinal treat as well as a nice mud bath. Although this was fun, I shudder to think about what could be in the mud, more so when it inevitably got into your mouth (nice). Continuing the elephant pamper session, we took them to the river to wash off. Here, I also got the opportunity to be lifted by the trunk of an elephant! We spent the rest of the day drying off in the sun before changing back into our clothes and heading back.

Quite a lot of our friends at the hostel had also booked an elephant sanctuary that day, so it was amusing to hear everyone else’s experience as well as the competitive undertone that came with each (but let’s be real, my day was the best). As the national animal of Thailand, visiting an elephant sanctuary should be on everyone’s list! With elephants appearing on everything from flowing pants to decorated temples, it’s clear how much they are loved and revered. Given the respect from the locals, it is only expected that we do the same. Elephant trekking is notorious for its inhumane methods in training the elephants, and sadly the enjoyment of customers is put in higher regard than elephant welfare. Elephant camps, however, usually consist of animals rescued from these harsh practices and are given a much better standard of life. In turn, this is reflected in the experience you get. That is, a much more personal and meaningful day, spent learning and actually interacting with these magnificent creatures.

(Apologies for the blurriness of some images, my camera got accidentally knocked onto the macro setting T-T and I wanted to use these photos heh).

re: two weeks in Chiang Mai

and the beginning of an epic love story

Our two-week adventure began in Chiang Mai and admittedly, not knowing too much about Thailand, I was sceptical of what exactly there was to do. Luckily my friend insisted that we spend a week there and by the end it became one of my most favourite places I’ve visited.

After checking into the hostel, our first priority was to find food! Across the road were a few street stalls/restaurants and despite the questionable nature of the ingredients that were on display, as well as the issue of hygiene we settled on a place and gingerly sat down. Surprised at how cheap everything was, we ended up ordering three dishes to share (my proclamations of hunger were alas, dismissed) and although the food was good, the portions were TINY. Cue an ‘I told you so’ and a move onto the next food vendor! Learning from our experiences minutes ago, we were not to be fooled and ordered the large dish, which isn’t anything in western sizes, but enough to satisfy our hunger. We topped off on fruit, which was another thing we found to be amazingly cheap! Our diets in Thailand were probably at its healthiest, easily meeting the five-a-day quota.

Living in Hong Kong for nearly a year, you’d think our bodies would have acclimatised to the high temperatures. But touring the many temples of Chiang Mai the next day, we were soon forced to seek sweet air-conditioned refuge in the nearest 7/11. As we continued to explore the city, was continually surprised by how cheap everything was. Wandering around the night markets, it was tempting not to buy everything in sight and for the sake of my hand luggage, most of my money ended up on food and watermelon smoothies. One thing that I did allow myself to buy (out of necessity might I add) are the typical backpacker trousers. You know the ones. Anyways, this came in handy on numerous occasions visiting temples, wherein you could whip out these printed pants and become temple appropriate in a matter of seconds. Although we didn’t make all the temples, these ones should be on your main list fo’ sho’:

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  • Wat Chedi Luang – a refreshing difference from all the lavishly decorated and embellished Thai temples. Built in the 14th century and once hit by an earthquake, it was reconstructed and now stands magnificently in the centre of Chiang Mai. Its pink hue makes its one of my favourites from the city, heh.
  • Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – located on top of a mountain, this temple is stunning, not least because of the sun reflecting off all the gold paint it’s covered in. One parting tip is to pay for a single journey to the top, rather than a return (using the red buses/taxis). This ensures you more time to spend up there, rather than the measly hour and a half we got given. There are plenty of red taxis about, so would be pretty easy to make your way back down.
  • Wat Sri Suphan – we had attempted to visit this on our first temple tour of Chiang Mai, but did not have the appropriate clothing. This must have been fate, since we came back later in the day, drawn in by the night market around the area and marvelled at the temple in its true glory. Lit up by the lights amidst the darkness of evening, made the temple even more beautiful to look at. And the (slightly) cooler temperature was a bonus too.

Really wished we had perhaps planned things better or even stayed longer to explore the temples outside of the old town. We had wanted to visit Doi Inthanon National Park, but hadn’t allocated enough time to do so. Just another excuse to return!

re: coming home

Back for Good (maybe).

I’m back! After about a month of constant travel, I returned to the UK on the 23rd June – just in time for the EU referendum and what lovely news to be welcomed back with the next morning *tears falling as I fall down in a slow circle and die*. The words of Take That might echo the thoughts of Leave voters this past week with my friend Grace suggesting that Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ should replace the United Kingdom’s National Anthem. Anyone else care to contribute to our EU fallout party playlist?

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2016 is proving to be a dismal year, so to brighten things up, I’ll refrain from lamenting on things I’ll miss from my exchange and look towards some home comforts that I’m glad to return to:

  • Personal space! Whilst Hong Kong is a city over spilling with vibrancy, one thing I won’t miss is constantly sharing space. Nothing beats having your own room, infrequent violations of one’s personal public bubble, or even taking your time with a meal without being shooed away for the next customer.
  • Me-time! As selfish as this sounds, travelling around with a group of friends really makes you cherish your time alone. It’s absolutely wonderful to explore different countries with close friends or develop new friendships, but it can also be exhausting being around people 24/7 (hello hostels). It’s nice to have some down time once in a while, reconsolidate your thoughts and just soak in being in a different country, rather than focusing on the next place to see or activity to do.
  • Sleep! For a pretty active person, I do love my sleep! Sure, if you have three months or more travel time, you can afford to sleep in now and again. If not, travelling usually means early mornings and late nights, which can also be a mood killer. (I get the sleep equivalent of ‘hangry’ if deprived of my slumber.)
  • Sensible currency! One crazily inflated currency is hard to get your head around, so try three in the space of a month. If you’re too lazy to pull out your phone before every transaction, mental arithmetic is necessary to convert back into GPB, but at least this cognitive effort is rewarded by pleasantly cheap prices. (Unless it’s Japan. Everything is expensive in Japan). Being back means not getting confused at the amount of zeros in the price, triple checking the notes I’m handing over and worrying about being stuck with useless coins!

It’s easy to romanticise this past year – certainly the best one of my life so far. However, the reality of returning will be an entirely different experience as I remind myself that studying abroad and working abroad are not the same thing! Separate posts will up in due course for all the places I visited, but for now I’m basking in the fleeting novelty of being back at home and in blissful ignorance of my unpacked suitcase.