After my visa fiasco with my last assignment, I was potentially a little too enthusiastic about the fact that I didn’t have to get one for the Philippines. You mean there’s no way this country can formally reject me? What a time to be alive. We live on one or two month tourist visas here, which are a convenient way to avoid being rejected but a pain to renew. And of course they get progressively more expensive the longer you stay in the country. To renew in country, you have to spend most of your work day, and again more money than you would like, sitting in the immigration office for a stamp that allows you 30 more days in the Philippines. But if you leave the country, you get a shiny new visa stamp that lasts for another month when you come back. And we got a few days off for Christmas. And my ex teammate from our first assignment, Alli, was close enough to travel with me. And the first place we both wanted to go was Thailand. Sooooooo we did.
The first thing I noticed about Thailand was how great their public transportation is, or at least how great it is compared to the Philippines… The second was how many foreigners there were/are in Bangkok. There were humans from all over the world, in more diverse company than Alli or I had yet seen in Southeast Asia. Which is mainly to say, we saw more white people on the way to our hostel than either of us had seen during our whole first month in the Philippines. In the Philippines, at least the parts where I live, there are a decent number of older white businessesy type men. I’ll maybe see one every other day on my walk to work. There are a drastically smaller number of white women, a very few black men, and I think I’ve seen exactly 3 black women over my 4 months here. One African lawyer I met told me that he knows all 10 black men in this city of 12ish million people, and that they have a special nod of acknowledgement. The number of white women I’ve seen below 40 is pretty negligible, but they mostly just get confused if I try to nod at them.
Anyways. Bangkok was really great. Alli and I spent our first evening wandering around Silom, the part of the city our hostel was in. I honestly never imagined I’d find a place with as many places of worship as Texas, but Bangkok very well may have more temples than Texas does churches. We managed to find one on our first night without a single other tourist, and it was so cool to just observe. Honestly, after that, Bangkok felt like a succession of temples.
We (Alli) did find a church for Christmas Eve service, and that was a welcome difference. I really couldn’t tell you what the service was about. I was mostly thinking about home and family and enjoying the candle lighting portion if the service. I’ve never been the type to get homesick, but that church service was the first time I experienced how much being abroad means missing out on important things. It didn’t help that Christmas fell less than a week after a dear friend’s wedding. (Em, if you read this, know that I spent a long time looking at pictures of you/Bri/Steph/Kristen and imagining myself in a matching red dress standing up there next to you. Love you! Happy for you! Proud of you!) I’d never been away from my family for the holidays, and there I was, my first year out of college, missing Christmas at home. Much belated love to everyone for Christmas!
After the slightly emotional service, we fell in with a group of people headed to dinner. And here I was reminded that community is everywhere. We ended up having a huge Thai seafood dinner with people from at least 4 continents and 8 countries. There were some Norwegian girls who were just passing through like we were, a South African girl who was spending the year in Bangkok teaching english, a South Korean girl working in Bangkok, and then others from India, Thailand, and I forget where all. Most of us knew roughly one out of the 12ish people at the table before sitting down, but the meal was so full of laughter, love and praise. Definitely one of the more beautiful manifestations of the global church that I’ve seen.
For the rest of our time in Bangkok, Alli and I kept it pretty standard. Some more temples. A museum. We did do a bike tour that took us to some pretty out of the way places, like a temple that had been abandoned and consumed by a neighborhood until just a couple of years ago and another neighborhood that was built over the river. Alli and I both agreed that it was our favorite part of Bangkok, even though I for sure broke my toe, (which was my own fault because I decided it would be a good idea to wear freaking chacos) and Alli broke her hand riding through one of the too small streets that ridiculously suddenly doubled back on itself.
We met some really cool people on that trip, including a very happily married young woman who made a point of traveling for a few months every year, whether her husband could get time off from work or not. Note to any future spouse: she’s my idol. THEN WE WENT TO CHIANG MAI.
Chiang Mai was by far my favorite place in Thailand. It’s much smaller and flatter than Bangkok, and we spent as much time outside as we possibly could. Bangkok and Manila are very different of course, but they had that whole way too much concrete and way too many people thing in common. So Chiang Mai, with its lazier roads and mountains in the not to distant distance and quieter feel overall, was a relaxing change.
Also, Mom, if you hated the fact that I stayed in a hostel in Bangkok, you should really skip this next part.
I love hostels. I love the social element of them, that you can eat breakfast with a girl from Madrid and a guy from Bangalore, discuss the way it’s getting increasingly more difficult to visit China and India with a British professor in your dorm room, or tell some random girl in the bathroom about the different bike tours you’re going on and then have her turn up 5 minutes before yours leaves because hers was cancelled (yep same married girl, she was awesome).
And second to hostels? A really good homestay. Airbnb can be a bit hit or miss. You can get people who are too involved, hosts you never meet, or you can meet people like Ansaya. Her home was listed as the “Creative Place,” home of local artist, and I was very convinced from just that description that Alli and I had to stay there. Especially since it was like $5 a night. Everything lived up to expectations.
Alli and I exchanged a look when we pulled up to the address, because we couldn’t see anything resembling an apartment. We were in the right place, you just had to follow a little covered alley back to a semi-hidden staircase and then walk all the way around the building to an even more hidden staircase that opened into a rooftop garden, where Ansaya was waiting for us. Her home was arranged around the open space that housed her living room, one of the beds she rented out, and a kitchen that doubled as a bar sometimes. She had a few other rooms arranged around the edges of the garden, and we had one of these to ourselves. Ansaya herself was incredible! She was so kind and accommodating, helping us work out reservations for tours and making sure no one took advantage of the wide eyed tourists staying under her roof.
We spent the first night trying to get into an elephant tour, unsuccessfully. With Ansaya’s help, we got on a zip line tour roughly 8 hours before it began and an elephant reservation tour the day after that. Both tours left at 7, but Ansaya made a point to get up and make us breakfast of yogurt, eggs, and passion fruit both days.
The zipline day was awesome. We spent hours flying over a forest full of trees that our guides assured us were covered in poison ivy’s meaner older brother. They said people had to wear hazmat suits to construct the zipline platforms, but I’m not necessarily sure I believe them. We saw monkeys, sorry gibbons, and met some more really cool people, like a Croatian photographer and his girlfriend who traveled for most of the year. Apparently it’s that much cheaper to fly someone out of Croatia than it is to hire someone from the states to take pictures. I’d love to spend more time on the ziplines, but dang this is getting long isn’t it? So ON TO THE ELEPHANTS.
This is my favorite thing I’ve done in Asia.
I spent the first 13 years of my life watching almost nothing but Animal Planet, and this day trip was very much a childhood dream come true.
We drove into the mountains for 2ish hours in a semi-open truck, and several times we passed huge fields where we saw elephants just chilling in huge open barn structures. nbd.
We ended up on the side of a mountain in a hut, where we were told to change into local shirts and grab some bananas. The elephants came out of the forest, we fed them and washed them and all was right in the world for many hours.
Honestly, this day deserves its own post, but 3 months later I don’t even remember the name of the tour company so this is about all I have to say about the elephants.
(Oh except one more thing. If you’re ever looking for somewhere to do elephant tourism, please be aware that so many companies abuse their animals. The ones we interacted with we all rescued from abusive situations, so we weren’t allowed to ride them at all. Some places will let you ride them in a responsible way, but having more than 1 person on an Asian elephant leads to huge health problems!)
Chiang Mai also has some pretty great cafes and boutiques and also night markets, but I’ll move on to Phuket because SORRY THIS IS SO LONG.
The part of Phuket we stayed in was a sleepy little beach town that was perfect after all of the movement. The beach was beautiful! But for the love of all things good and holy, do not trust just anything that says it has UV+ 50 on it. Alli and I went to the beach the first day, well covered in what we thought was sunscreen, and I spent the day dozing/reading a copy of Steppenwolf I’d picked up at the hostel.
The sunscreen was A LIAR. It was straight up lotion. Which might not be a huge problem if your skin has any melanin in it whatsoever, but mine is TRANSLUCENT. Alli fared a bit better than me for some reason. Y’all. It was so bad. I still have very distinct lines, 3 months later, so that was a fun first day at the beach. It also made for a fun second and third day at the beach….
But, being in Thailand, we weren’t about to let something as silly as second degree burns on 50% of our surface area (oh sorry that was just me) hold us back. The best thing we did in Phuket was for sure the island hopping day. We were on a boat all freaking day, and it was WONDERFUL.
We went to a beach where there was a monkey, who was quite uninterested in us until some idiot started feeding it coke. We went to one beach where pre-Oscar Leo had starred in a movie, which Alli and I watched later and decreed was “pretty whatever.” We went one beach that had a secret beach. We went to a beach that wasn’t actually a beach at all, but more like a hollow island with cliffs surrounding a calm little piece of ocean. Finally, we went to another beach where there were friendly beach cats and pineapple drinks, and I think we probably went to some other beaches as well. Each of these islands had its own nifty name of course, usually Koh something, but I forgot most of them by the time we got to the next island. We made friends with an older couple, and spent much of the day with them. The woman was Corsican and had a good time talking at me in French and chuckling (with me, mostly) over my attempts at responding.
We spent another day in Phuket where I got to be that horrific tourist in a t shirt on the beach, before heading back to Manila. We landed, sunburned, bruised and with minor broken bones, at 10pm on New Years Eve. The tradition in Manila is to light off fireworks for New Years. The fun part about this tradition is that there are no restrictions on who’s allowed to do this, and sometimes they’re shot at passing cars. Alli and I met up with my roommates and tried to sneak up onto our roof several times, thoroughly annoying our friendly doormen, but ended up watching the fireworks from an apartment on the top floor which our friends had just moved out of but which I still had a key to/from the openings in the stairway. Overall ridiculous, but a great way to bring in the New Year in a still pretty new to me city.
If I were really trying to be one of those “I have more wanderlust than you” bloggers, I would for sure have broken this up by city at least… Promise I’ll try to keep it shorter from here on out!