I have had a wonderful past few weeks traveling to the north and celebrating Christmas and New Years with all of my exchange friends. My trip essentially started the 21st where a few of us relatively local exchange students met up at my friends house so that the next day we could carpool to Bangkok. From Bangkok we flew to Chiang Mai, and the travel took up a good portion of the day so we ended up just going to our first hotel when we got there. The hotel was a collection of little cabins, each having two separate rooms, with 2 students to a room. The evening was passed having dinner, playing card games, and throwing a football that one of the other students had brought as well as having a very spicy dinner and a trip to 7/11 for snacks.
All of us district 3340 exchange students setting out.
The next day (as with every day of the trip) we woke up bright and early, had breakfast, and set off to the Mae Fah Luang flower garden and the Doi Tung Royal Villa. The Royal Villa was gorgeous, and funnily enough designed in a minimalist Swiss style as Princess Srinagarindra (who it was built for) spent a good deal of time in Switzerland. The property was extensive, and filled with flower gardens, a passion of the Princess. The Villa is now a museum of Princess Srinagarindra’s life and her philanthropic efforts in the north of Thailand. We did an audio guided tour of the Villa and it was incredible how much the Princess did with her time as well as the thought that went into building the Villa. Possibly the most intricate part of the house was the constellations that were put into the ceiling of the main hall for the Princess’s love of astronomy. These constellations were made of inset lights, with carvings around the lights to show the animal or scene depicted by the constellation, and are all set relative to each other as they would have been on the date of the Princess’s birth in 1900 (a ridiculous but fascinating detail).
A photo of all of us exchange students in the Mae Fah Luang flower garden.
After seeing the beautiful Royal Villa we went to the Mae Fah Luang flower garden. This flower garden was created as a means to bring the beauty of temperate flower gardens to the Thai people unable to travel abroad, and also as a way to bring money into the area. Locals raise the flowers that are planted in the garden, and the tourism that the garden attracts has become the livelihood of the people in town. The villa and flower garden are just 2 of a set of projects that were designed to end the heavy bearing drug trade in this part of Thailand, and they have largely succeeded, as people no longer have to grow opium or transport drugs in order to make a living.
A tea plantation in the mountains of northern Thailand
After spending the morning in the gardens we had lunch, and then traveled to Doi Mae Salong to see the tea farms. These farms mostly grow oolong tea and we were able to sample some of the tea. We also got to walk along the terraced tea bushes and watch some of the workers picking the leaves.
Once we had our fill of trying tea we moved to go see the tomb of General Tuan. This tomb is inscribed in Chinese because General Tuan was part of a group of anti communist Chinese who had to flee China when Mao came to power. His tomb lies in Mae Salong because his fortune was later made in this part of Thailand (unfortunately as part of the drug trade). There is actually a guard on duty at the tomb at all times who stands watch over the landmark.
One of the things that makes Wat Rong Khun unique is that it has a lot of different murals and statues like this one.
Wat Rong Khun AKA the White Temple, is one of the most intricate temples I have ever seen (and much larger than it appears in the photo)
That night we stayed in a gorgeous resort in Mae Salong and got to do some shopping in town, buying a lot of handmade things from locals. The next day we went to Wat Rong Khun also known as the White Temple. Perhaps one of the most famous temples in Thailand, the White Temple is truly incredible. The temple was completed in the 90’s and features many pop culture murals and statues along with the traditional Buddhist ones.
The hands of the underworld reaching up
The temple itself is of course snow white and covered in fragments of mirrors that reflect light back that makes it look even more striking. In order to get into the temple people have to walk across a bridge that goes over hands of the underworld, and pass guarding statues that deter evil spirits. Inside the temple there is a figure of a monk that is such a lifelike statue that at first it appears to be a real person who just is staying perfectly still. This statue sits in the hall of the temple, and behind him is a statue of Buddha.
The lucky metal souvenirs hang down from a stand, and they also hang from a covered walkway
From this angle you can see the covered walk and Wat Rong Khun behind the trees
After walking out of the main room of the temple there were more white statues, and beyond that a covered walk. This covered walk at first glance looks like it has a textured roof but the “roof” was actually a metal frame, with thousands of thin sheets of metal hanging down. These ornaments are sold at the temple and people write their names on them for good luck. They also had a little wishing well which was really beautiful.
Driving through the mountains.
After we visited Wat Rong Khun we had lunch, and began our drive to my favorite part of the trip, the homestay in the Mae Kam Pong village. This was by far one of the most unique places I have been and just gorgeous. The village and homestay are both tucked very far into the mountains, which made for a long drive. The roads were also very narrow, so the drivers had to honk before rounding corners because it would be hard to avoid hitting another car if we were caught by surprise.
A homestay is exactly what it sounds like. People rent out parts of their houses for guests to stay in, which was very interesting in this part of Thailand, as the people lead very simple lives growing coffee in the mountains. The homestay itself was in a kind of valley with a river going through the middle. The girl’s house was built into a hill, with the doors of our rooms literally 3 steps from the road. The girls stayed in the upper level of this house built into the hill and the guys stayed in another house across the gully and river.
The girls rooms were the highest level of this building, with the 2nd highest tier for the owner, and the bottom two for a small restaurant and sitting area
The room I stayed in was just a single room, a balcony, and a sort of attic room. All that was in it were 2 beds on the floor of the bottom room, a line of beds in the attic room, and a bathroom with shower. I actually loved this because it was so simple and nice. There was no air conditioning or heat, so it was warm in the day and cool at night, and it was all around really cute.
The upper level of one of the girl’s rooms
The bottom levels of our homestay were also a restaurant and to get there you had to go outside, and go down steep stairs to reach the lower 2 levels. The stairs were interesting, but not too bad, just a bit too steep, and in some places the railing was barbed wire (this was a part that was not steep at all).
We stayed at the homestay for 2 nights. The first night we played cards and other games, and the second night was Christmas. The people who ran our homestay actually set up a Christmas tree and lights, and for our Christmas party one of our chaperones dressed up as Santa Claus, and we all had a Secret Santa gift exchange that my friend Natalia set up. It was really fun, and even though it was not a traditional Christmas it was better this way (rather than having it “just like home”). We also had a member of the community come and say prayers over us, and got white string bracelets tied around our wrists as is traditional for welcoming people in Thailand. During Christmas day itself we actually went and explored the village a kilometer away, and walked around to see some waterfalls, the coffee plants, and buy some of the mountain coffee. There was also the cutest cafe which had tons of bakery including warm scones, which we treated ourselves to.
The hot springs
The day after Christmas we went to see the San Kam Phaeng Hot springs, and then we went to the Mae Taeng elephant camp. At the camp we went on bamboo rafts, ox cart rides, and saw an elephant show. We were supposed to ride elephants as well but many of us did not want to ride the elephants so instead we took a bus back to the main park and got smoothies while we waited for the others to finish.
Rafts at the elephant camp
After the elephant camp we moved to the city of Pai. Pai was INCREDIBLE. The city itself is one of the nicest I have seen in Thailand and they had a really lively walking street. We spent the night shopping around the street and we even found Mexican food, which my friends and I lost our minds over because we have not had Mexican food since we left home.
Decked out in gear before floating down the river
The next morning we went rafting on the Khong River which was not much rafting but light paddling because the water levels were so low. We were rafting for a few hours, and after we finished we all got changed and had a picnic lunch with some pretty gorgeous views.
Rice paddies near where we began rafting
After that we drove to our next location, stopping at Wat Nam Hoo, eventually ending at Wat Chong Kham before heading to our hotel. Once we dropped our stuff off out at the hotel we went back to Mae Hong Som (the town that Wat Chong Kham is in) to go to their walking street, which was low key, but very pleasant.
Wat Chong Kham
The lake in the town of Hong Som
I took this photo because I loved all the Thai flags and lights above this little walkway
The next morning we got up to see the sunrise. Now, the thing that people do not realize is that even though the north is largely the same temperature as where I live in Thailand in the day, it gets much much colder at night. So we all woke up at 5 am, and drove half an hour to a field where we had to stop, and have buses take us up the mountains to a lake to see the sunrise (because the vans could not make the steep hills). When we got to the field though our guide asked our van if we wanted to stay in the van for a while, and we of course said yes because it was very cold outside.
A chilly morning in the mountains calls for the sweaters, jackets, and blankets that most of us were skeptical about bringing to Thailand in the first place.
Little did we know that the extra 10 minutes in the van would become 30 minutes of waiting outside for the buses to come back because we did not go up with the rest of our group. That plus the 10 minute ride up meant that my van basically missed the sunrise on the lake, but when we got there it was still very pretty.
Sunrise in the mountains
After that we went and had a Chinese breakfast (this part of Thailand especially is heavily influenced by China) and we began our journey back to Chiang Mai.
The view from where we got breakfast
For lunch we also went to a Chinese restaurant, and by night time we were finally in the city of Chiang Mai. For dinner we went to a famous Thai restaurant that had traditional Thai music and dancing for entertainment, and after that we went to Chiang Mai’s massive walking street.
The famous restaurant in Chiang Mai
The next morning we went to Wat Phra That Doi Su Thep, a temple that overlooks Chiang Mai. We took vans to the bottom of the stairs to the temple, and then climbed to the top. This temple in particular was gorgeous was because everything was covered in gold.
All the stairs leading to the temple
One of the more extravagant temples in Thailand
The faint view of Chiang Mai below
After visiting this temple we made our way back to the airport, flew back to Bangkok, and went home. It was a wonderful trip, with so much traveling that we often had to look at shirts for sale to figure out which city we were in, but it was great all the same. I am really excited for our next trip in March because we are going to be island hopping the south, and that will be really cool. Until then I have to wait though, but I might see some other exchange students before the next trip.
The 13th of January marked 1 year since I found out that I was coming to Thailand, and is almost exactly halfway through my exchange, which feels like complete insanity. I feel like it was yesterday that I got the text. At the same time it feels like forever since I got here. I know that by the time I do actually go home though that it will be a blur, and I am kind of scared for that. There are so many emotions the closer I get to going home. Scared to go back some days, really thrilled to go back others, always missing my family, but not really missing everything. This year feels like it is in limbo, and that it is my life but not really. When I go home it is like hitting play on a paused DVD, and I will walk back into school and open my locker and go to class as if nothing has happened. That part scares me more than any other, because I know that some day what I experience today will feel as far removed as being home feels in my mind. Weird thoughts all around. Anyway, I am having a wonderful time and I am so excited for what is to come.