Author: Ina Stevens
“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, not much between despair and ecstasy. One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble, can’t be too careful with your company…” Do you still remember these lyrics from the popular song?’
Thailand is most renowned for its GoGo bars, golden temples and tropical beaches… Phuket, Pattaya and Kho Samui are synonymous with white sand, palm trees, cocktails, and its adventurous and sun-seeking tourists. Once you start to peel back the layers, an array of wonders unfolds that reveal the true essence of this awe-inspiring eastern gem of Asia.
Travelling to Thailand’s northern capital offers an escape from the whirlwind pace of life in the southern part of the country. A leisurely stroll through the back streets reveals a city that is still firmly Thai in its essence, atmosphere, and attitude. Chiang Mai is blissfully calm and laid-back. This is the place to relax after the chaos of Bangkok where you can recharge your batteries in the forested foothills and local villages in search of its mysterious longneck inhabitants.
Visiting the Karen Long Neck village in Thailand offers one of the most exotic experiences on the planet. The mystery and beauty of the brass rings used as caricatural jewellery are something one needs to experience for yourself, as the narratives in books do not do justice to this practice. While it may seem that the Karen women have unusually long necks, these traditional brass rings actually force their shoulders and rib cages downwards, making their necks appear longer. These rings, which they also wear around their shins and arms, are made from solid pieces of metal and are therefore quite heavy. Each time a woman adds a ring to her neck, she gets a new piece that coils around her neck. During our visit, many of the women wore more than 25 rings around their necks! The rings are not only worn for aesthetics but serve a practical, more traditional, purpose as well. In the early days of the Long Necks, the practice of the brass rings had the objective of protecting them against wild-tiger attacks. Walking through the village you will see many women busy weaving, creating beautiful scarfs and garments to sell. The men still work the land and travel by ox-cart which, in itself, was a treasured experience of a long-forgotten era. Life in the village is content and relaxed.
The main occupation of these Thai hill tribes is farming. In fact, they have preserved their way of life for the past thousand years and things have changed very little. Of course, this different and unique way of life has considerable appeal for inquisitive travelers who love to experience cultures worlds apart from their own. Heck – that’s the reason why most people want to travel, isn’t it? The road less traveled presents an opportunity to open the treasure chest of unforgettable life experiences, making new discoveries that are destined for very few.
Many people visit Thailand to see the elephants. Farmers have been using these gentle giants for centuries to assist them with hard labour. We took the opportunity to visit an elephant sanctuary; it must be one of the very few places on earth where you can watch an elephant painting itself on canvas while its handler keeps the brush in its trunk steady! An elephant painting an elephant! After lunch, we also did some bamboo rafting on a slow-flowing river through the lush tropical jungle of the Chiang Mai countryside. Vegetation and trees border the riverbank and the roots of the huge trees reach deep into the water, making it seem as if the branches are trying to scoop up a few drops. All this provided a magical backdrop to the experience.
A few kilometres south-east of Chiang Mai, local artisans produce the world-famous Sa Paper umbrellas. You can watch the whole process during which these artists meticulously craft the paper fans and umbrellas by hand. From making the bamboo struts and covering them with paper to putting them out to dry before they are hand-painted. The artists at the handicraft center, who skillfully decorate the umbrellas, are always willing to paint a variety of beautiful designs on any items that you bring to them (I had my small handbag painted). They traveling a design for you and add a name or date. Even very complicated scenic designs can be painted on your object right in front of you within minutes. They are truly masters of their trade.
There are a staggering 40,717 Buddhist temples in Thailand and 33,902 of them are still in use today. They are without a doubt the most beautiful and impressive structures you are ever likely to see. Luckily there was still time left to visit one of Thailand’s most sacred golden temples… Gleaming like a star from the heights is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. This temple, situated in the mountains, is one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand and, as such, large numbers of Thais and foreigners alike come to experience the special magic of this holy place. It is decorated in a blanket of golden leaf, the sweet aromas of incense and lotus blossoms fold snug around you like an invisible cloud, creating a magical sense of calm, peace and tranquillity…
We decided on the less straining option of travelling by lift to the top. However, we braced ourselves and descended via the 306-step staircase flanked by magnificent mosaic serpents! A little girl with a charming smile, and dressed in traditional attire, posed ever so sweetly for a photo, but the moment my husband snapped the pic she stretched out her hands in a begging gesture and, with a tiny firm voice, she said, “You must give me money!” This quickly became our catch phrase at every shop where we wanted to buy something. “Dad you must give me money,” I would say, with a sweet and innocent smile on my face…
Thailand is such a diverse and interesting destination that each and every visit is sure to provide you with new places to discover and fresh adventures. From its street food, that includes a huge variety of fried insects, to its majestic Golden Kinnaree Restaurant, the biggest in Asia that can seat 4 000 guests with ease. Then there are the ice bars where not only the floors, walls, and seats are completely constructed from ice, but even the glass you drink from! Their floating markets and exotic orchid gardens are also something to behold. From the King’s Grand Palace to crossing the famous bridge over the river Kwai – The death railway, a haunted relic from WWll. You can also explore sites such the ancient ruins in a tuk-tuk. Snorkelling in its turquoise waters and sipping from coconuts are all in a day’s work. Get swept away by the pulsating nightlife of Patpong, Bangkok’s infamous red-light district with its numerous massage parlours on every corner. The list is never-ending!
But that is a story for another day…