Northern Thailand highlights

Where to start...where to start...Do you know when you have a friend you want to email, but you have so much to say that you keep waiting for that opportune time to sit down and spend quality time writing, but, alas, that time never comes? So you finally just write something in haste without all of the details you had intended? Well, here we are. This is me writing in haste, probably forgetting many of the details of the very full and fun month I've just had, starting with Andrea and Jason's visit. One detail I certainly remember - and please don't laugh at me - is that it's been cold here. And not just Thailand's version of cold. Or even my version of cold. I mean, honest-to-goodness cold. In Nong Khai, it got down to around five degrees Celsius while I was there. I rarely took off my fleece - brought mainly to be used as a pillow on the train - and even slept in it one night. Because the temperature rarely drops this low here (hasn't in the past ten years to be precise), it makes sense that there would be no indoor heating. And cool showers are not usually a discomfort, but they kept me going without as long as I could get away with it. Even Bangkok, which felt like Atlanta's September at its coldest last year, has been chilly. The most common greeting I hear these days is now mai (are you cold?), a legitimate question. A monk actually froze to death earlier this month in Ayutthaya, only an hour north of the city. Things are warming up, though. The weather this past week - my first week back at work after our month-long holiday - has been close to perfect. I'd prefer the mercury stop right now because it won't be long before the sauna returns.

But back to December. My cousin Andrea, her husband Jason and I took an overnight train to Chiang Mai on the 22nd, an amusing experience in itself. We boarded and began making our way to our seats in the second-class sleeper car, counting down numbers on the way: 24, 22, 2-, wait, a group of highly intoxicated backpackers are having a party on our freshly made beds. One scary-looking guy who paid for the upper bunk is lounging on our lower bunk, muddy boots not the least bit concerned with the mess they're making on white sheets. It's an awkward few minutes as we try not to look bothered - yeah, we're cool - and they move their stuff around, spilling beer on our other lower bunk in the process. Then one couple with first-class tickets offers to trade beds with us so they can stay with their friends. No brainer - sure, we'll swap. We thought there'd be an extra bed to accommodate the three of us, but the blessed train kept stopping and letting others on. Poor Jason was bounced back to second class - to the bunk above scary guy because asking him to move was not a welcome option. In an unexpectd turn of events, Andrea went to check on Jason, who soon crashed, so she stayed up until three or four talking to scary guy. Turns out his name is James and he's an ex-convict carrying around a picture from a magazine of his "girlfriend". Somewhere in the conversation Andrea told him of his frightening appearance and in more or less words advised that life might get easier if he'd adopt a more pleasant demeaner. Not sure if he took her advice or not, but James, I hope you are doing well and enjoying your travels.

Ah, moving on. Chiang Mai once again delivered a great time. Highlights included meeting up with a friend at Zoe in Yellow, a great little place in the rasta bar area; bargaining with Andrea at the night bazaar, with a patient Jason in tow; celebrating Christmas and Hannukah there with help from the tall building across from our hotel whose lights formed a humongous Christmas tree topped with the Star of David (classic); and a lovely morning visit to revered mountain-top temple Doi Suthep.

To get to the temple, we took a songthaew up the mountain, about 45 minutes from Chiang Mai center.

Then we climbed these stairs to the top.

It's hard to capture it all in one picture, but you can go here for more... [um, after posting this, I realized I only have one more image from Doi Suthep up...I'll add more tomorrow]

We took a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, a much smaller town with lots of temples, a great night bazaar and delightfully slow pace. If you ever end up there, I highly recommend Morning Dew Lodge. The owner was incredibly hospitible. She hooked us up with the best restaurants and arranged our day trip to Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle.

Chiang Saen is an enchanting sleepy town with ancient ruins and temples dating back to the 1200s. The serene Wat Pa Sak was my favorite. I could have spent all day swallowed up in its Lanna-style architecture and teak trees.

We initially thought of skipping the Golden Triangle because of its tourist-trap label, but were happy we didn't. The two best reasons for going: the fascinating opium museum and the boat ride along the Mekong.

Taken in Thailand, looking out at Myanmar and Laos.

Just about fifteen minutes outside of Chiang Rai is the most unusual temple I've been to. Known as “The White Temple,” Wat Rong Khun was designed by famous Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat. Some people call it beautiful. Others think tacky coated in marshmellow puff is a more apt description. Either way, it's worth a visit because you won't see anything else like it.

A bridge over what appears to be some sort of hell leads to the temple. Inside, a beautiful but bizarre mural is painted on the walls. It includes all kinds of demons and characters from science fiction movies such as Star Wars and Superman. Unfortunately, you're not allowed to take pictures inside because I'd love to share.

That does it for now. Next up: my trip to Nong Khai, a little slice of heaven...


New year's resolution

[Amongst others] Take at least one photo each and every day throughout 2009. Sounds easy enough, but I'm very intimidated by this challenge. I know there will be busy days that find me rummaging around my apartment in the near dark, struggling to shoot something interesting right before crawling into bed. But I'm going to try my darndest in the hopes of improving my photography. Plus, I think it'll be nice to have a visual representation of my year at the end of 2009. So here goes...

Hello 2009!

I'm in Bangkok now, wishing you all plenty of peace and joy in the coming year and beyond. Some of you may have seen the news about the devastating nightclub fire in Bangkok. I was celebrating in another area of town that was completely oblivious to what was happening just a short distance away. We were out until three or so but didn't hear about the fire until this morning. What makes it even more sad is how easily it could have been prevented. Nightclub owners, listen up: say no to pyrotechnics! Good grief.

Here are some happier images taken on the infamous Khao San Road. It's Bangkok's backpacker strip and perpetual party. I would have thought New Year's Eve there to be too over-the-top, but we said 'What the heck?' when Andrea and Jason quoted a travel magazine article claiming it as the best place in all of Asia to ring in 2009. It wasn't the mob scene expected but a steady stream of just really happy (okay, moderately inebriated) people. We did see one girl, making a valiant effort to keep Khao San deserving of its reputation, walking and puking at the same time. Here's a shot of some revelers and grilled skewers. The lit devil horns were pretty popular.

Balloons for sale. Ms. Kitty still reigns supreme.

Here's Andrea and Jason with a nice group of guys we met who wanted us to pose in pictures with them - a frequent request of foreigners.

And here's one little guy who must be a huge fan of New Year's Eve. But he deserves it - after all, it is his year.