EXPLORER: Thailand’s “Festival of Lights”
Location: Chiang Mai (via Bangkok)
Pretty sure this is going to be a long one. Hi! It’s been about 6 days since I returned from Thailand and I still think about it everyday. I fell in love there. You always hear people say that they are in love with somewhere they went or that they left their heart somewhere on vacation—and this must be exactly how they feel. I loved every single thing about it. The people were sweet, welcoming, smiling, and generally lovely. The air was CLEAN…even in Bangkok. The street vendor food was to DIE for…hands down the best food I’ve had since being in Southeast Asia, and the shopping and adventures were never ending. Oh, but I digress. Let me tell you about the trip from the beginning before I go off on a tangent, yes?
We set off from Saigon on a Wednesday morning to fly into Bangkok. All we had for this trip was a flight to Bangkok and back 5 days later. No hotel, no transportation to Chiang Mai (10 hours away)—nothing. We were prepped for an adventure with nothing but our rather large backpacks and the wind at our backs. (Oh, you like how I wax poetic don’t you? Hahaha) So, we land. We hop a taxi to the train station—a hot pink and orange mini-van taxi, mind you, and off we go. When we arrive there we find that the sleeper train takes longer and is pricier than the sleeper bus. So we opt for that. (I think if I had had more time I would have taken the sleeper train. I hear that the ride up to Chiang Mai on a day train is beautiful and well worth the extra few hours.) I met a woman who dragged us up to a “travel agent” where a pick up at the bus depot and a hotel in Chiang Mai are arranged for us. It’s 12pm and our bus doesn’t leave until 5:45pm so we have some time to wander around and grab a bite.
Fast-forward 10-hours later, and we arrived in Chiang Mai. After much research, I found that this is the site of Thailand’s biggest Loy Krathong & Yipeng celebration. (To give credit where it is due…thank you to Karrianne Heintz, for getting me obsessed with the Festival of Lights to begin with) We had an entire day to kill—and I say that because the way it turned out, the day could very well have killed US—so we set off with our hired driver for adventure.
First stop, Tiger Kingdom. Some of you saw the pictures on facebook already, so you kind of know what happened here. You get to pick from 3 sizes: smallest, medium, or big cat. I picked big cat. If I was going to roll around with tigers, I wanted to do it with the biggest ones I could haha. It turns out we weren’t rolling, so much as we were laying on them. In the beginning I was nervous to get too close or pet it. I didn’t want it to maul me. I kept thinking, “with the luck I have had in Asia this thing is going to go all Siegfried and Roy on my ass.” Definitely not. It was more of a tiger cuddle-sesh than anything else. They were beautiful. I have to say that tigers are now inching their way up on giraffes for a place as my favorite animal…although those long necked little muffins are going to be hard to kick out of first place. Anyway, we spent a few hours going from tiger to tiger taking pictures and rubbing their giant bellies, which they loved! I wish I could go back and bite their big furry noses. I think about it now and how lucky I am to have experienced that. With my tiger t-shirt in hand we departed and headed for bungy jumping.
I was all gung-ho bungy, until I got into the lift. With my feet already wrapped and the cord attached, I made my way up 150 ft. The guy told me not to look down, but to look out (like that’s going to work!) and then to hop over to the edge. I stood up, took one hop, and sat back down. I was terrified. My hand started shaking and I knew I wasn’t going to do it. He somehow convinced me to hop over to the edge. I took one look down and told the guy to take me down. There was no way I was jumping. So, he did. I got out of the lift and practically ran around the lake to where my friends were sitting. I felt so disappointed, but I knew there was NO way in hell I was going to willingly hurl myself off of a platform that high off the ground. Kari kept telling me it was fine and to just do it…when would I ever bungy jump in Thailand again? She was right. I decided that I had to go back up. I’m not really the type to let a little fear stop me from doing things (clearly, since I left my entire world in NY and moved to Vietnam) and I wasn’t going to start at that moment. I went back over and they sent me back up in the cage. This time I rode up with my eyes closed, while convincing myself that I was only walking off of a diving board. I kept repeating over and over: “It’s just a diving board, you just step off and you land in the water. “ I hopped my way to edge and looked out. It was gorgeous. Mountains, jungle, clouds, sun…. I couldn’t have asked for a better day to jump. The guy yelled, “OK! 1…2…3… BUNGY!” I stood there. Nope. Not jumping. I turned around to him and said, “Can you just like, push me off or something?” He burst out laughing and agreed. He counted down again, and this time I went flying (and screaming) allllll the way down. Haha…only I would ask the operator to push me off the ledge. I’m just saying—I don’t know how any sane person could just leap like that. It felt great, but I think if I ever did it again I’d have to have someone push me again lol. We left there exhausted and ready to nap before the main event that night—the Festival of Lights!!
Loy Krathong is one of the Kingdom’s oldest and best-preserved traditions. I felt like a little kid getting ready to go out and buy lanterns and see everything first hand instead of through Google images. We walked down to the river and found a place (one of a million) to buy lanterns. I wanted to be right at the river’s edge so I could see the floating krathong and the lanterns at once. As the full moon lit up the night sky, groups of ornately decorated krathong (traditional banana leaf floats) were adrift in the river. I couldn’t capture this very well in pictures A) because my camera really isn’t too fabulous and B) because the river is surrounded by lights that reflect in the water and you can’t tell what is a krathong and what is a reflection. But, it was ok because the main reason I went was for the lanterns. We set up shop and lit our lanterns. I had bought a huge one…after all I had a lot to wish for. I figured the bigger the more likely it would come true. I waited as it filled up with hot air, and then I released it…eyes closed, concentrating on sending out my hopes into the universe. The legend says that for the romantic at heart, it is a time to wish a life of happiness with a loved one or wish for a loved one to appear. Others make personal wishes, and see it as their troubles are floating away into the skies or that they are connecting with the Buddha and seeking his blessings. I can say that each of those applied to me that night. I felt as if every heavy piece of me was taken away with my lantern and what I was left with was an incredible sense of peace and true joy.
After that I wandered into a park where a few hundred people were all sending up their own lanterns and sat down to watch and enjoy the moment. There were so many people around me, but it didn’t feel crowded. It felt like we were all a part of something bigger than us at that moment. Tethered together by some invisible string that had brought us to Chiang Mai to experience this magic. Everyone had an expression of awe and disbelief on their upturned faces, as if we were going to wake up from a dream at any moment. I can try to explain the feeling of connectedness, but I just don’t think I would do it justice. It was an enchanting night like nothing I have ever, or will ever, experience again. (Until I go back there, that is—and I plan on it.)
The next day, I set off on my own little walking tour of the temples of Chiang Mai. I’ve said it before on this blog that being in a temple or even just on the grounds of one absolutely delights all of my senses and completely clears my head of all worries. The burning incense, the Buddha, the colors, the feel of the stone, the sounds….it resonates with something deep in my soul, so I don’t really have to say that this day was remarkable. It was. I took my time wandering, exploring, and enjoying every second of peace I had. That night we boarded a bus back to Bangkok for a full day there and then our flight Sunday afternoon.
Let me tell you—when we got there it was party time! As soon as we got out of our cab (at 6am!) a drunk man in the street screamed, “Welcome to HELL!” at us. Hahaha….well, huny, if that is hell, send me there more often! Khao San Rd. is THE place to rest your head if you are a foreigner in Bangkok. The entire street is flooded with vendor food-shopping-beer & cocktails-clubs-people—it’s complete and total sensory overload and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Trust me. The energy there floods your entire being and you can’t help but light up as brightly as the neon signs at night. Ughhhh I’m dying to go back. DYING. Good thing I’m scheduled to be there again in January J
Needless to say, I was so very sad to head back to Vietnam. It feels like Asia in Thailand. It feels exactly how you would expect Asia to feel, if that makes any sense. It is alive in a way that nowhere I have been is alive and it lends its life to you when you are there. It’s electric…it’s breathing…it’s more than I hoped it would ever be. And I did…I left my heart there.
That’s all now. Hope you enjoyed the little journey with me. Miss you and love you all.