monks chanting Chiangmai

My first time in Thailand was back in 2009, when I was still living in Sydney and had recently broke up with my ex-boyfriend.
It was November and I didn’t want to spend miserable Christmas holidays at home alone. I had never travelled solo before, so I prefered to opt for a group tour to Thailand. One day, during my lunch break, I walked into a travel agency located right below my office in central Sydney and asked for any group tour leaving on Christmas day.
After few questions, the travel advisor offered me what it turned out to be the perfect trip: a 8-day Bangkok to Chiangmai by Intrepid Travel, an Australian company leader in responsible travel packages.
As you can imagine, it was a very delicate time of my life, not only for the break up of a 2 year-long relationship that had took me to the other side of the world, but also for what was expecting me from there on. I had to re-organize my entire life that until that moment had been inextricably related to another person, with whom I shared a house and a work visa!
Where to start? What to do? Should I stay in a Country I strongly desired to live in or should I give up on everything I had built there and come back “Home”?

I relied on this group tour to Thailand to clear up my mind, and it was indeed a catharctic journey where I had the time to look within, ask myself all these questions and, more importantly, give myself sincere answers.
Some travels more than others, whether it be for the specific time in life or for your state of mind, can really represent a turning point, leading you to take decisions you wouldn’t even consider otherwise. There are travels that transform who you are and change your life, and this is what happened to me on my trip to Thailand (Read more about Transformational Travel).

tuk tuk thailand

Authentic Thailand: small group tour with Intrepid

I left for my trip to Thailand on Christmas day, arrived in Bangkok, where I met my travel group and leader, and went out the first night to eat the typical Pad Thai (noodles with veggies and meat or fish).
I am not fond of big and hectic cities so Bangkok didn’t make an impression on me, a part from the 46m long golden reclining Buddha (Wat Pho), where my camera battery died after the first pic 🙁

reclining Buddha Bangkok

Otherwise, I tend to prefer off-the-beaten path and small villages where you can experience what I consider to be the authentic lifestyle.

thai old lady
countryside life in thailand
thai countryside village

One of the distinctive features of Intrepid as a responsible travel company, is that they always include in their itineraries a responsible tourism project they support. On this trip we visited an handcraft studio that had the aim to enhance women employment. That’s where I got my lovely hat from 🙂

responsible travel project thailand

Next, we moved to Sukhothai, the 45 squared km park, where we rode among temples and ancient ruins by bike accompanied by a local guide.

I loved the tour and the town, however, I must admit, the thing I remember more vividly about this day is the food! We stopped at a small pagoda where our guide’s wife had brought pots & pans from home serving us with some delicious food and by far the best massaman (muslim-style curry made with stew beef) I have ever tasted.

sukhothai archaeological area
sukhothai thailand
detail of sukhothai temple

The following day we continued to Lampang, a small village located in northern Thailand where we stayed at a family homestay . We had a traditional dinner sit on the floor of the main room while musicians played live music for us.

We then prepared and let free paper lanterns, that only later became so popular in Europe, making our wishes for the new year to come.

Divided into male and female, we slept on thin mattresses sharing the floor of the main room where we had dinner. It was my first experience of a “real” homestay and I immediately loved the concept of staying at someone’s house. It felt like being more like a guest than a tourist.

homestay thailand
thai food
thai musician

Halfway between Lampang and Chiangmai is the Thai elephant conservation centre, a goverment-run centre offering medical care for elephants both onsite and across the Country.
You can visit the hospital, take elephant-back rides (which we did) and assist to the daily “shows”, consisting in seeing the animals bathing and drawing paintings, which I found I bit over the edge.

At that time there weren’t so many campaigns against animal exploitation and fuss about unethical elephant-back rides. Looking back today I am not able to define if this centre was “responsible” in this sense, for sure they were doing great work with the recovery activity and they also produced dung paper (if you are guessing what dung paper is, it is paper made out of elephant’s poo :), that were the activities that impressed me the most.

Thai elephant conservation centre
elephant ride lampang

The arrival of our itinerary was Chiangmai, the main city in Northern Thailand, but still relatively small and cool.

We visited the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the main temple of the city located on a hill that you reach with 300 steps and an elevation of 1000m (that you can skip taking the funicular). It is a complex of temples and shrines, and a beautiful panoramic terrace from where you can enjoy spectacular views over Chiang Mai, especially at sunset/night, like when we visited.

I must say I love temples, art and architecture, however the best memory I have of this place is the monks chanting prayers, one of those unforgettable travel moments that made me feel very emotional.

monks chanting Chiangmai
monk praying at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Authentic Thailand: cooking class in Chiangmai

We had a free day in Chiangmai where we could choose among a series of activities. I was interested in a tour to see the long-neck women tribes but after asking my guide I realized one day was not enough to reach authentic villages instead of the sort of “shows” set up specifically for tourists (I only later discovered that long-neck women are actually originally from Myanmar, that is where I met them on my Burma trip).
I then prefered to join a cookery class with Baan Thai and it was a great day!
We were a group of 10 people, we started at the local market where our guide introduced us to the different varities of chilli, rice, spices etc.

Once we gathered all the ingredients, we returned to the cooking school where we spent the whole day cooking (and eating!).

We learnt how to prepare our own curry paste with the mortar, pad thai, red chilli soup, papaya salad and, of course, the mango sticky rice. A fun day that helped me finally put all my worries and thoughts aside.

thai market

Market in Chiangmai

Baan thai cooking class

Cooking chicken curry

thai market rice

Market in Chiangmai

baan thai cooking class chiangmai

Baan Thai cooking class

Thai curry soup

Green curry soup

Pad thai food

Pad Thai

Sticky rice with mango

Sticky rice with mango

In the evening I went with part of my group to the popular night markets, but as I am not a keen shopper, I just had a look around and bought nothing.
I was travelling with people in their 40’s and 50’s, mainly single ladies and a couple, all very quiet, so when after dinner everybody went back to the hotel, I convinced my guide, who was going out with some friends, to take me with him!
I had a real taste of the local life, we went to a bar where we had few beers to wash down grasshopper and bamboo worms skewers (Read more about the 5 weirdest food I have ever eaten in Eat Local).
Ps: For those who are wandering what do they taste like, nothing much as they are seasoned in soy sauce and fried, so it really is more about the idea you are eating an insect, but the taste is not at all bad.

Chiangmai to Bangkok: NYE on the overnight train

The tour was finishing in Bangkok on the 1st of January so we spent the last night (which was also New Year’s Eve) on the overnight train.
We stored a bottle of rhum and one of Coke in our backpacks and travelled for 12 hours from North to South, celebrating the New Year (2010) with one of the most unconventional count down ever, standing between two wagons and sharing drinks from the same bottle.
That’s what happens after a week-long group tour, when you open up with strangers and talk about the most delicate and inner feelings, sharing intense experiences that creates a bond you would never build in such a short time in your ordinary life.

That’s the beauty of travelling, there is no age, nationality, status nor religion, we are all just people sharing the same world.

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