It’s impossible to share with you everything that happened on our trip to Thailand. However, it’s just as impossible to not share with you my favorite moments.
Some cities affect me differently than others. I can usually tell from the moment I step off the plane or train if the city has the “magic.” It’s a feeling that is hard to explain and sounds corny when I attempt to describe it. The “magic” is a sense that this city has been waiting for you, this is a city that you could live in and never get tired of it, a city that feels alive and friendly and inviting. Although I enjoy all the places we’ve traveled, not every place has the magic. I’ve found it in Madrid, Florence, and now Chiang Mai, Thailand. When we first arrived, Jared and I took a taxi from the Chiang Mai airport to our hotel, and then walked a few blocks to a restaurant. That was all I needed to know that Chiang Mai would be special. We hadn’t seen anything exciting, but I could just feel it. Chiang Mai had the magic (I told you that it sounds corny to describe!)
As I mentioned in the post before our vacation, one of the reasons we chose to go to Thailand was to see the Loi Krathong Festival. This festival, which dates back a couple hundred years, gives thanks to the Thai Goddess of Water; however, it has also been adapted as a Buddhist celebration as a way to release negative energy. The festival timeline is very difficult to find. Even the government website does not give specific dates or locations for any of the events. I saw November 17th listed most often as the main date, and that is what we based our timeline on. We knew that Chiang Mai is one of the best places to go for the festival, so we just went there and hoped for the best. As it turns out, Loi Krathong coincides with an ancient Lanna (people of northern Thailand) festival known as Yi Peng. Two festivals in one! Yi Peng is a special time for the Buddhist concept of making merit. (I learn more by traveling than I ever did in social studies classes.) Yi Peng is celebrated by sending rice paper lanterns floating into the sky. Yup, lanterns in the river, lanterns in the sky- magic.
Our first afternoon in Chiang Mai, we decided to wander around a few wats (temples) before making our way to the river. We wandered into Wat Phan Tao and were delighted to see dozens of orange robed monks busy at work. They were placing clay candles on almost every surface. The candles were in bamboo holders that rose out of the sand, lined low walls, and were even placed in a stream that flowed through the property. We enjoyed watching their methodical process of perfectly arranging and balancing hundreds of candles. We realized that they would be lighting all of the candles within a few hours, and then we were told that the monks would be sending lanterns into the sky. We found a spot to set up our cameras and settled in to watch the festivities. At dusk, the monks began lighting the candles; and I realized that we were so lucky to have stumbled upon this beautiful ceremony. Soon, the entire complex was twinkling; there were lanterns in the trees, and the candles gave everything a warm orange glow. The monks then performed their prayers before a golden Buddha. I am not a Buddhist, but there was something sacred about watching these calm souls softly chant in a courtyard of flickering fire. It was so beautiful, and one of those indescriable moments that remind me why I travel. I felt both how huge this world is, how much there is that I don’t know and haven’t seen, but at the same time connected to the moment. And then they started lighting the lanterns.
The monks used the candles from the grounds to light a piece at the bottom of the lantern, the heat and gases from the fire would fill the lantern, and then it would float up into the night sky. This was happening around the city, so the sky was filled with thousands of brightly lit lanterns (some of which had fireworks attached). My camera wasn’t capable of capturing what the sky looked like; you’ll just need to visit and see for yourself! So, there I was, in complete travel Bethany bliss, experiencing something new, and beautiful, and holy, and then they invited the tourists onto the grounds to join in the lantern lighting. I could have floated away with happiness. (Blissed-out Bethany did take a break when a Chinese man bumped into one of the many candles and splashed fire and wax all over my leg. I may have said some non-monk approved words.) We wove through the crowd, taking pictures, gazing in awe, and I joined some other tourists in sending up a lantern. We left the wat about five hours after we had just happen to wander in. It was so late by that time that we didn’t make it down to the river. We decided that nothing could have topped what we just experienced!
We tried again the next night. Our plan was to see the parade on our way to the river. It started raining about 30 minutes into the parade. It started pouring rain as we sprinted back to our hotel. So, we went to Chiang Mai to see the krathongs floating down the river and we never made it; however, we were so happy with our experience at the wat that we don’t regret it at all.
We spent our last day in Chiang Mai playing with elephants, and my love for the city grew. I already liked elephants after a National Geographic article I read a few years ago, and that increased after I read Modoc last year, but now it’s a complete infatuation. These animals are fascinating. I could write forever about all the amazing things they do: they are highly intelligent, have complex emotions, have been known to grieve over lost loved ones and will visit graves of their family members for years. You should really read up about elephants; they’re awesome. However, they are often very mistreated. In Thailand, there are many tourist organizations that offer elephant rides, and at first I was intrigued just by the idea of being around the animals. However, after researching it more in depth, Jared found that many of the tourist places mistreat the elephants either through neglect or physical abuse. However, the Elephant Nature Park fights against such brutality. They rescue injured and abused elephants from all over Thailand. At the park, there are elephants that used to work in the logging industry, some that stepped on land mines near the Myanmar border, and some that have been used to amuse tourists. They have built a large free roam park for the elephants to be rehabilitated. There are still tourists, but instead of riding the elephants, we were able to spend the day feeding them, bathing them, feeding them more, petting them, feeding them, and walking around. Elephants eat a lot, but that’s okay, because I never ceased to be thrilled when the elephants took a slice of watermelon from my hand!
We spent several hours at the park, in a small group about 9 people with a guide. We were first told about what precautions to take (though usually gentle, these elephants are still wild animals with quite a lot of power). We first fed the elephants from an elevated deck. We had baskets of fruits and vegetables to choose from, and the elephants would reach out their trunks for us to place food in the tip. They would curl the food up to their mouth and start chomping away, all the while reaching out for another piece. As we were feeding them, we were allowed to pet their trunks, ears, and sides. Their skin is very rough and thick, with very coarse hair that grows all over their body.
After our first introduction, we were allowed to be on the ground with the elephants. Our guide always let us know if we were getting too close or if the elephant was feeling distress. One lady had a very sad story. She was a logging elephant and lost her baby in a horrific mountainside accident. She became so depressed that she refused to work anymore. Her owners used slingshots to encourage her to get up; she was eventually shot in one eye and blinded. She retaliated against her attacker and was stabbed in the other eye. Whenever she hears a loud truck, like those used at the logging camp, she pulls all her feet together and sways in fear. We were always warned to back away when she did this, as she was obviously scared and couldn’t see us. Happily, another elephant quickly adopted her, offering guidance and comfort.
We also spent time bathing the elephants. We went to the river and used buckets to scoop up water and splash it on our assigned friend. I made sure to stay upstream of my elephant and enjoyed being part of a daily ritual. After a while, our elephant decided that she needed a more thorough cleaning. She walked out into the deeper area of the river and completely submerged herself! She kept diving under the water and then would pop back up after 20 or 30 seconds. She was obviously having a great time, and we were equally happy to watch! I could go on and on about all the wonderful moments at the park- being told to run from an exuberant young male, loving on a sick elephant at the clinic until her ears wagged in happiness, watching a mother and her young baby. I won’t say that it’s a once in a lifetime experience, because I’m determined to go again!
I still don’t feel that all these words are adequate enough to describe our time in Chiang Mai. However, I think our time in this city is the perfect example of what Jared and I search for in our travels- to witness something awe inspiring, to embrace a unique experience, and to be a part of something that reminds us of all the good the world has to offer. I hope that you find the same in your travels.