Thailand is such a wonderful destination. Whether you’re here to work, to learn or to relax, this is one of those rare places with the capacity for all of it. Christina and I have been lucky enough this trip to do all three.
Here’s what we got up to in the past week; a convention of industry leaders, an important AGM and awards evening in Bangkok, and a trip up to beautiful Chiang Mai kept us very busy. But in the best possible way.
We hope you enjoy our latest Weekly Edition.
Cheers – Jim & Christina xx
After three days of intense learning from iconic travel writers and inspiring PR leaders, the first ASTW convention has left Christina and me ready to let our hair down… well, maybe not mine.
The ASTW (Australian Society of Travel Writers) is the country’s most respected and renowned travel media body. And with so many talented professionals being brought together at this convention, Christina and I are a little awestruck to have been accepted as members of this amazing organisation.
More than that, on the second day of the conference we delivered a 45-minute presentation to the whole congregation on social media strategies. We were so well received and welcomed, we really made to feel part of the society.
Tonight though, we’re enjoying a delicious meal and drinks at the annual ASTW awards evening. We get to see the most talented writers, photographers and PRs receive accolades for excellence in their field. It’s inspiring.
Congratulations to all the finalists and winners of the ASTW awards. You can see the results here.
The convention has been held here at the Anantara Riverside Resort in Bangkok… well, not here. This is our room. It’s big, but not big enough to hold the 120+ delegates.
The bed is enormous and truly comfortable, and the view out over the Chao Phraya River from our little balcony is engrossing.
The grounds of the Anantara River Resort are enormous. They even incorporate some of the mighty river into the hotel’s landscape. Just where Christina is standing is where you can feed the resident catfish that you can see swimming just under the murky surface.
There are so many fish in this part of the river – I think they’ve learnt the sound of the dinner bell. I also spotted a huge monitor lizard swimming alongside the bank, so I thing there may be other things living in this stretch of the Chao Phraya.
The only downside to the river’s proximity is at low tide things get a bit ripe as you cross the bridge to the restaurant and bars. But that’s Bangkok for you.
The Anantara Riverside Resort is a pretty place, full of detail and tropical elegance. Quiet little nooks to enjoy the humid warmth of Thailand, beautiful hanging orchids lining pathways and the romance of being somewhere so peaceful in a city so full of chaos.
The best thing about being so close to the main river running through Bangkok is this: a river cruise dinner in an old rice barge with Manohra Cruises. Apart from a flow of food as seemingly unending as the River of Kings itself, this cruise highlights some of the best parts of Bangkok.
We pass under iconic bridges and alongside grand temples that elucidate this city’s importance and magnificence. Best of all, many of the sights are either only visible or best viewed from the water.
The only difficulty is tearing my focus from my plate to enjoy the marvels of Bangkok as they glide by.
It’s our last day in Bangkok, so we’ve managed to sneak over to the neighbouring hotel – the beautiful Avani Riverside – to take a crafty dip in their magnificent infinity pool. This is also where their rooftop bar is and where we’ve become locals for the duration of our visit whenever there’s been an opportunity.
Wisely, however, this pool closes early just in case the party should ever spill over so to speak.
After being inside for the convention for the best part of three days, we’re excited to be allowed out! We’ve flown up to the northern city of Chiang Mai to explore the many temples, markets, mountains and food here. It’s our first time to this part of Thailand, which makes this trip even better for us.
This is a giant guarding the gates to one of the city temples. You see them everywhere in Thailand – both temples and giants.
The golden temple at Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep) is one of the most sacred spots for Thai people. Elevated high about the city of Chiang Mai, the views from this temple are incredible… on a clear day. For us, it’s a bit too hazy to see much below, but the temple itself is plenty.
It’s good luck to walk three times round temples like this in a clockwise direction. Most Buddhist stupas have a path leading you round. Walking round this beautiful lavish monument becomes quite meditative and you start to notice so many little details that before you’d missed.
Chiang Mai, like a lot of Thailand, is home to many temples, but the ones here seem so much calmer and zen than the hectic rush you find around Bangkok. It could have something to do with the sheer number of visitors to the capital, or it could be that things are just that much more peaceful up here in the north.
Even the local cats are welcome here.
Outside many temples in Thailand – especially the big or important ones – you’ll find little stalls like this selling amulets. They’re said to protect you from evil spirits and bad energy, but the protection can come at a price. The amulet this cheerful chappy’s holding up (how good’s that smile?) is priced at TBH50,000 – about A$2,000 or GBP1,200.
There are cheaper ones though.
You may not know this, but the north of Thailand connects directly to the Himalayan Mountain Range. The peaks to the west of Chiang Mai – known as Doi Inthanon National Park – are the foothills of this most famous set of mountains. But even at well over 2500 metres above sea level, we’re still a far cry from beating Everest here!
Within the Doi Inthanon National Park is another temple – or in fact two – dedicated to King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit of Thailand. The Pra Ma Ha Tat Noppamethanedon and Pra Ma Ha Tat Nopphonphusiri sit at the top of a broad set of steps and between them a monument to Buddha.
We’re so high up, these incredible buildings and the views down the mountain are shrouded in cloud fog today. In clearer weather, vistas across the national park to Chiang Mai are amazing… though I quite like the mysterious effect the clouds have.
Don’t be surprised to find monks wondering around the temple grounds here. This is an important Buddhist temple and the gardens – even in heavy fog and temps of 15dC – are beautiful. It’s the law that one out of ever three monks must not wear emergency ponchos. Even when it’s raining.
I made that stat up.
Heading east out of the Doi Inthanon National Park is the Wachirathan Waterfall. This hiccup in the excellently named Klang River is a popular tourist spot as you can imagine. The water cascades far downstream and causes this beautiful mist in the air.
On warm days it must be quite refreshing to stand here.
Back in town, but outside the walls and moat of the old city is the Wat Suen Man – or the Silver Temple. Chiang Mai is famous for its silver, so it stands to reason there is a temple made of it.
However, it turns out the only part of this temple that is sliver is the very top spire, which dates back to the 1400s. The rest is aluminium sheet and is part of the ongoing restoration of this temple, which started just 14 years ago.
It’s still an impressive sight and the only one of its kind.
This temple is also a bit controversial as no women are allowed inside. Leaving the ladies outside, I go in to find even more elaborate metalwork, decorations and quite intimidating gothic murals of terrifying monsters, skulls and hellish scenes. It’s a proper mancave.
And that’s what happens when blokes are left to decorate by themselves. Instead of tasteful depictions of tradition and history, you get Marvel superheroes.
Around the corner from the pagoda is a silverworks where monks carve images into silver panels to decorate walls and smaller ornaments. They can spend up to 8 months crafting these tablets all by hand. You can buy these artworks from them here too.
There are more temples within the walls of the old city of Chiang Mai. This is Wat Chian Man, which has stood here since 1296. This is Chiang Mai’s oldest existing temple and is definitely worth a visit.
Everyone has a limit on the number of temples they can go to in a day, but this one really deserves its place in your quota.
Known to be the most reputable temple in Chiang Mai, Wat Pra That Doi Suthep is one of those special places to visit in Thailand. The immense staircase up to the temple, flanked by dragons, is a challenge in itself – though for a little extra, you can pay to take the cable car up.
Apart from its beautiful golden pagoda that we talked about earlier, the grounds around the temple are full of fascinating details. This is the biggest gong in Thailand and even bumping it with your fist makes the air around you reverberate with an incredible resonance.
We try to imagine what the sound would be like if you had a proper donger thing to hit it with.
Talking of dongers… I’ve discovered this giant bell big enough to stand up inside. There are bells like this one (but not as big) all around the temple grounds. You can ring them (though you mustn’t push them into one another) for good fortune and energy.
Today, we’ve gone into the highlands around Chiang Mai to visit hilltribe village of the Karen people. Originally from Burma (Myanmar), these tribes have become famous for the gold necklaces worn by the women. These necklaces – added over time – stretch the neck to unnatural lengths. It’s seen as a barbarous tradition, so we’re glad to find out that this particular Karen village is a ‘non-longneck’ tribe.
Instead these Karen weave fabric by hand which visitors can buy. The work is incredible and the ladies working here make it look simple, but it’s not. At this village you can also try local coffee and see how these relatively primitive people live.
To be honest, I didn’t enjoy this part of the trip. Christina and I felt quite uncomfortable coming to look at these people. Buses of tourists come to this village every day to ogle them. And even though they have created a tourism industry for themselves, I’m not sure if the Karen are benefiting with this kind of attention.
However, from this dark side of tourism, we do get to see into the eyes of an incredible culture. As we sit around the open fire heating the coffee pot with some of the villagers, Christina spots this beautiful lady. She is the village’s oldest resident at the age of 96.
Initially she sits asleep. She looks ancient and tired. But presently, when she wakes, she smiles to reveal her younger self and a mind that’s clearly seen so much life.
As we are with a media trip with the Thailand tourism board, we’re allowed to visit the village proper. There is a school here where all the children of the village – and surrounding communities – come to learn to read and write. Some of them escape the classroom though, and show us how well they can jump and hide!
We explore the village a little as we make our way down the hill. Beneath the stilt houses, piglets snooze and a cockerel struts. It’s a pastoral life here, but there’s beauty in its simplicity.
Around the corner we find an old lady, teeth stained black from chewing betel nut, and weaving a low fence from bamboo strips.
She’s very shy and only speaks the Karen language, not Thai.
Back on the road, we stop at a handicrafts workshop run by local Karen people. We learn how to make little bamboo baskets, which turns out to be magnificently complicated. We all end up needing help weaving our baskets and the lady in charge does a great job making us feel like we’ve accomplished our task.
We also make tea pillows. These silk-clad cushions, full of crushed tealeaves, go into your wardrobe and take away that musty smell.
You can buy these pillows and baskets from the workshop, though getting them back through customs – if you live somewhere with strict borders like Australia – may be a challenge.
Back in town, we explore the Chiang Mai night markets that run every Sunday. These markets – known as ‘Walking Street’, which we all agree sounds better than ‘pedestrianised area’, are awesome. There’s everything here from delicious hawker food to handicrafts. You can buy clothes, jewellery, watches and any manner of souvenirs.
The markets are huge and run 4 blocks along the Chang Klan Road.
There are so many amazing places to eat around Chiang Mai. Apart from the traditional Thai style restaurants – any of which we’d be happy to enjoy – there is a movement here towards more ecological dining.
The dishes that come from the kitchens at Meena Rice Based Cuisine are definitely Thai, but with that subtle difference that makes a dish quite contemporary. This place used to be a rice farm, and the food that comes to the table is organic and locally produced.
This dish of crispy trout goujons with a sharp, spicy sauce in the salad is my favourite from lunch.
The restaurant itself is surrounded by water and has serene feel to it. We all agree it reminds us very much of Spirit House Restaurant in the Gold Coast hinterland in Australia.
One of Meena’s signature dishes is their rice triangle. The multicoloured layers are each made from natural ingredients. The blue gets its colour from the butterfly pea flower, which is used a lot in Thai cooking.
There are some amazing looking desserts on offer here at Meena. This mangosteen sorbet with fresh dragonfruit is a great example of that.
Tonight, we’re being treated to dinner and a show! Khum Khantoke is a traditional Thai style dinner served while a contemporary Thai dance performance happens in front of your table. It’s fascinating to watch and the food is excellent.
Of course, Christina and I can’t walk past the old rickshaw at the entrance without a photo! The ironic thing is Christina only mastered the art of riding a bike a few years ago!
In the name of this place, the word ‘khantoke’ is a traditional bamboo tray or platter that food is served on. We’re delighted when it comes to our table, overflowing with dishes of Chiang Mai style pork curry, steamed veggies with grilled chilli paste, crispy pork skin, deep fried chicken… the dancing is also delightful of course.
For our last lunch in Chiang Mai, our guide – the lovely Ruby – takes us to a rather surprising restaurant called Be Organic or Ohkajhu. As you’d expect, the food is all organic, which is always welcome. It’s also focused on a farm-to-table ethos, which is awesome. However, it specialises in European and North American style cuisine.
Of course, there are only local Thais here – I mean I doubt if many westerners visiting Chiang Mai would a) be able to find this place or b) want to sacrifice the chance of eating delicious Thai food for something we can get back home.
On the other hand, the menus here show that a lot of people are perhaps missing out on a pretty good thing!
I’ve never had a pork burger before – thinking it would be a bit weird, but this monster set records straight. Packed with flavour and delicate texture, the meat is perfectly cooked. Onion rings, cheese, an excellent dressing and a touch of spice make this a truly Thai burger. I’d come back for this.
The only problem is I am – once again – absolutely stuffed!
Christina orders the glazed ribs, which come out like something from the Flintstones. The result: she’s also very full by the end of lunch.
In an attempt to combat my vast lunch, I also order a drink that promises to help the situation. I don’t know how hard this freshly made fruit drink will work – if at all – on my cholesterol, but it’s very tasty. I’m determined to try and recreate this deliciousness at home.
Carrot, apple, celery, lemon and ginger. That’s all it takes!
All too soon, we’re back aboard our Thai Airways flight home. It’s been an incredible week full of motivating moments, inspiring people, unique experiences and an entire new group of friends in the making.
It’s the first time we’ve been to Chiang Mai and our first ASTW Convention too, but we’re looking forward to next year’s convention, and the sooner we’re back in Thailand the better.
You can find out more about these tours on the Tourism Thailand website here – or if you can wait a bit, we’ll be writing more about our time time Chiang Mai in more depth in coming weeks.
Christina and I hope you’ve enjoyed this (epic) Weekly Edition. We’d love to hear your stories too – have you ever been to Chiang Mai? What’s the last memorable travel experience you’ve had? Tell us in the comments!