Welcome to this week’s Postcard From – the feature where I chat to some lucky explorer about their recent travels. If you would like to take part please get in touch – firstname.lastname@example.org or @em_luxton – I would love to hear from you!
This week it’s the turn of 30-something Business Psychologist Ellen Bard, who’s been working for a consultancy for the last 12 years, and last year decided to take some time off to travel. Ellen left the UK at the beginning of December, originally for three months… but she’s now decided to rent out her UK flat and return for another 6 months. Ellen has mainly been based in Thailand so far, with a side trip to Cambodia, and is writing a travel blog – Whereverthewindtakesme.com about her adventures.Don’t forget to follow her on Twitter @ellenmbard.
Welcome to Postcard From, Ellen. So, where abouts in Thailand are you?
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second biggest city, in the North of the country. A 14-hour overnight train trip, or just over an hour on a plane, from Bangkok, not as many tourists who visit Thailand get up as far as Chiang Mai, as most stay in Bangkok or the island or coastal areas of Thailand. It’s a pretty and much smaller, and a less built up town than Bangkok (compare Bangkok’s population of 8 million with Chiang Mai’s 200,000!), with a rule that says no high rise can be built within 93m of a temple – and given there are over 300 temples in Chiang Mai, that covers most of the city! That means it’s easy to get around by walking, biking, using tuk-tuks or Songthaews. The old city is also surrounded by a moat that along with the temples gives Chiang Mai real character.
Chiang Mai has a lovely feel to it, and there are quite a few ex-pats and ‘travellers’ (in addition to tourists) who visit because of this. This means there’s also a thriving western community. There are a lot of yoga studios, vegetarian restaurants and other chilled out places to hang out – and most of them have wi-fi!
Where are you staying?
When I arrived, I knew I was going to be staying at least a month, so I chose to stay in the Puri Piman apartments, where for less than 10,000baht a month (£220) I have a beautiful, spacious, light room, with separate bathroom, AC, wifi, a sofa and fridge/microwave. It’s a great place to stay if you’re here long term, and you can also stay for shorter durations. Its a few minutes walk from the old city, where there are many, many guest houses, and many of those very cheap indeed, so you might be better off there if you’re only here a few days. There are a few Thai people staying here, with a smaller proportion of Westerners, and it’s in a more residential area, which is nice in terms of feeling a bit more part of the local life.
The weather in London has been hellishly cold recently. Make us all jealous, then – how is it in Thailand?
So far I’ve been here in the best season, December-Feb, which is the cool season – where it averages about 30-33 degrees every day. It’s hard to imagine it getting hotter, but apparently it will…a lot! So November-February is the recommended time if you’re only visiting for a week or so.
What have you been up to?
Well, there are a lot of temples! Another highlight for me was the Sunday Walking Market, where several streets of the old city are closed off and a market is set up from about 4pm on Sunday afternoon until nearly midnight. The products are fabulous, and it’s a Chiang Mai institution, as there are as many Thai there as tourists. I bought a lot of things on my first trip! There’s also a night bazaar every night, which is permanent and to the East of the city, and a Saturday Walking Market to the South, so markets are definitely something visitors should do. I’m personally on a mission to try out new things, so despite not having picked up a pencil for 20 years I’ve also been to art classes at Noina’s Art Studio (highly recommended), I’ve been to several different types of yoga (there are lots of drop in classes around the city), a meditation class, a live jazz bar (The North Gate, definitely recommended as an evening’s activity – sometimes it’s so popular people sit on the wall outside listening) and I hang out in coffee shops a lot, chatting to new people, and making friends, using wifi and eating and drinking lovely things…
Wow, there’s so much to do! Do you have a highlight?
So far, I think the Elephant Nature Park has been the highlight of my trip – I have a whole blog post coming about it in the next couple of weeks! It was a fantastic day out at a place in the mountains where they rescue elephants and treat them humanely (you don’t ride on the elephants), but you can wander round the park and you are allowed to help with feeding and washing them in the river. I learn a lot during the day, and it was a pretty special day out. They have 60 elephants there, and it’s really humbling to see them walking around in the park in herds, looking so natural and so majestic.
I adore Thai food (who doesn’t?!) – how are you finding it?
The food here is great. I’m a vegetarian, and haven’t had any problems finding good food. Thai food is always cheaper than western or other food, but there are many different types available. I would recommend Blue Diamond, Prego, Imain, the Free Bird Café, Good Morning Chiang Mai, IBerry, and Pun Pun, just to start off… Places like Blue Diamond and the Free Bird Café have a good range of vegetarian food, and also don’t put the additives like MSG and sugar that many places put in.
Living abroad always takes some adjustment. Have you had any embarrassing moments?
Well…I haven’t managed to ride a scooter yet…scooters are one of the main forms of transport here, for locals and many tourists and travellers use them too (walking isn’t at all popular with locals as it’s so hot!). The first time I tried to ride a scooter on my own (having had a few lessons from a friend in a car park first, using someone else who was away’s scooter) I was really sick with bronchitis. I got on, and wanted to pull out into a road, move a little bit forward, saw a car coming, tried to brake and ended up accelerating instead – straight across a road and past several cars who all had to stop quite quickly! The brake and accelerator are very close together! I then couldn’t even hold the scooter up, and the kind security guard at my building had to come and rescue me and wheel the scooter back into it’s parking spot. He then suggested that I should have a sleep…but we’re best of friends because of it!
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone planning a similar trip?
I think be respectful of the local customs. In temples particularly, it’s considered very disrespectful and rude to have your knees, shoulders or cleavage showing, and yet you see tourists doing this frequently, and Thai people wincing because of it. It’s also forbidden for a Monk to touch a woman, or talk to her without a man being present, so be careful of doing this, as otherwise a Thai person might come and move you away!
And finally, can you impress us with the most useful Thai you’ve learnt?
Sa-wah-dee-kah – hello
Kob kun kraab (long kraaab) – thank you (for men)
Thai people really appreciate a smile – they will almost always smile back if you smile at them, even if they weren’t before! And thank you and hello go a long way.
NB – all photographs are owned by Ellen Bard.