6 months ago we were in a rice field shouting “Nam. You weren’t there! You didn’t know what it was like!” with full conviction of telling the whole world what an awesome place this was. We’d just finished filming Stray Asia’s brand new tour from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and were exhilarated by the beauty, madness and resilience of a country that had spent the last decades re-building its fascinating identity out of the rubbles of war. Then the phone call: “Hey, d’you guys fancy a project through Northern Thailand and down the Mekong through Laos to Cambodia?”. “We are a fan of rhetorical questions” replied team R&D, and *poof* appeared on our second flight of 2014.
Bangkok – one night here makes all sorts of things your oyster. We’ve been here countless times before but it’s baffling how you can discover new aspects of this crazy city all the time. We’re not talking new sites to ‘do’ (Bangkok can be seen as rather mundane in comparison to other tourist destinations), but how everyday life sprouts out at you from every corner. Street art and the trendy urbanite scene were our discoveries in April, cute family weekend markets and the embassy network in May. This time around we discovered the river and canal boat system as incredibly handy and thoroughly enjoyed hanging out in a park under Rhama 8 bridge, where groups of teenagers and families with small kids congregated at night to eat grilled quid, enjoy the river view, practice their skateboarding, drumming and acrobatic dance routines.
Starting in Bangkok, Thailand’s simplified reputation as a cheap, health & safety free and 3rd world charming backpacker’s stomping ground was to be challenged many a time throughout our trip. As we headed off with a group of Stray adventurers next morning to Thailand’s old capital and historical landmark Ayutthaya, we discussed the countries unique status as the only South East Asian country to have never been colonized by a European power, the strong presence of its university educated middle class, and its resulting hipster culture.
Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 by King U Thong (nope, we’re not making this stuff up) to escape a rather nasty smallpox outbreak just down the road, and lay the foundations for the royal courts Australian sandal making business. Declaring it Siam’s capital and the construction of some gigantic monasteries made the place a rather happening spot on the map, so by the year 1600 AD its 300,000 inhabitants (or 1 million inhabitants by 1700 AD if you believe the census manager Sober Bob) made it one of the largest cities in the world at the time.
Guided around by local Rita (who was awesome, and may or may not have once been a dude), we boarded a cooling river boat and visited several temples including Wat Chai Wattanaram (“fall down steep steps”), Wat Phra Chao Phananchoeng (“huge gold disapproving buddah”), Wat Phutthai Sawan (“Khmer mismatched tower”) and Wat Mahathat (“that one with head thing coming out of that tree”). Jokes aside, the temples were fantastic to view and showed off Ayutthaya’s incredible mix of historical cultural influences that were unfortunately all bashed to pieces by the Burmese army in 1767. Ruins of temples, monasteries and Thailand’s first church (pesky Portuguese building churches everywhere!) are now protected by UNESCO world heritage status. Beers and dinner lead to various bonding experiences, none of which was stronger than our overnight journey to Chiang Mai via sleeper train. We are constantly astounded at the ingenuity that goes into land travel outside Europe, and so new friends Lindsay, Sarah, Rebekka, RV, Saya, Sujan, Toto, Rat, Ped and Dragon emerged refreshed and giggling in Chiang Mai the next morning.
Mountain air and chilled out vibes greeted us in one of Trip Advisor’s 25 Best Destinations in the World (2014), not that we pay TA much attention, but we thought it would make our mates there proud. Founded in 1296 this city has had more time than others to develop an astonishing richness in architecture – especially of the surrounding temples, of which we visited two stunning examples. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (1383) is the most well known of Chiang Mai’s temples and offers panoramic views of the city whilst you snake past beautiful gold stupas and lots of colourfully clad tourists, monks, street vendors and workmen. Our especially arranged Thai guide explained the temple was built of a site that a white elephant carrying Buddha relics lay down to rest. Or may have outright died, no one was quite sure. Poor little Nelly.
Wat Pha Lat, (great instructions on this blog) on the same windy tuktuk ride through the hills, was a different story altogether. Built integrated within the forest, not despite it, we marvelled at the serene and stunningly beautiful carved stupas, statues, walkways and serpent staircases that melded into their natural surroundings. And by ‘we’ I mean just ‘we’ and some monks. No one else. We marvelled at the city view from the middle of a waterfall that, even in dry season, rushed with little streamlets of crystal clear mountain water and listened to the birds and bugs as they hovered around this piece of paradise. In fact, we shouldn’t be even telling you about it. It’s that special. Peer into the light at the top of my pen. We’re not the Men in Black. Who are they? There are of course many other temples to explore within the city limits, some of which date back to 1297. Yep, we’re going rather heavy on the dates here, but things are just so impressively old. As we said earlier, this ain’t no country of newly built bamboo beach huts and westernized cocktails.
A somewhat different experience awaited us later that afternoon, as we signed up to our first ever Thai boxing class. The teacher wasn’t as committed as he should have been, but one of the students (really cool girl with a half shaved head – spot her in the film!) picked up the pieces so we ended up having a good time. And as film makers, the golden hour light was to die for. What the class did do very well was put into context the actual fights we saw later that evening in the arena in town, and it was fantastic to see so many people engaging positively and respectfully in a sport that requires a huge amount of discipline.
For the templed out, Chiang Mai has a wide array of alternative activities to offer, one of the most famous being the Flight of the Gibbon zip-lining experience. And for good reason. With state of the art equipment and a world class guides, it was a fantastic way to see the jungle whilst flying through the canopy at the perfect height to grasp the immensity of the trees as well as the beautiful details of leaves, branches and flowers around us. That evening, we feasted our eyes on a stall after stall of useless but beautiful things at Chiang Mai’s Anusarn market (cue *giggles from our Rat & Rebekka*), some tourist tat, some really amazing jewellery, bags, clothes, scarves and knickknacks we would have happily paid a good price for at Westfields. The evening was rounded off by one of the most fun nights we’ve had out at a show: The Chiang Mai Cabaret Ladyboys. Bring tip money, it’s well deserved.
Our final stop before heading over the border to Laos was the white temple in Chiang Rai. You may or may not have heard of it – one of the most surreal and theatrical places, a huge sparkling macaroon of a temple that could have popped straight out of ‘The Never-ending Story’. Adorned with all sorts of references popular culture, it was crowded, kitsch and anything but serene, and we loved it. You can’t take pictures of the mural inside the main temple, you’re just going to have to see it for yourself.
And so we headed off to Laos, over one of the most relaxed border crossings in the world, and were rewarded with a tantalising glimpse of the mighty Mekong, on which we were to continue our journey floating down it the following morning. And what a journey it would be.