“They” say that by traveling with someone, you will always see their true colours (they say a lot of things). The way we handle stress is truly how we cope with essential moments in life. And traveling can definitely become stressful, especially with an excited, irrational, energetic toddler. Getting on planes, trains, buses, taxis, and motorcycles with Gaia has for sure made us a bit more patient, and it has made our partner relationship stronger. You learn to pick your battles.
After we moved to Vietnam our desire to travel exotic Asia started with a visit to Thailand during our first break in November. Flying with a toddler is stressful, especially if they are not sleeping. My best tip is to breastfeed to avoid ear aches from the pressure, relax, and get them to sleep so the flight can be enjoyed. When Gaia is awake, we bring coloring supplies, a few books, snacks, and in the worst case when all these items have run out of interest for her, [as much as we avoid it] we have to turn to technology. She has been getting used to planes, and so she gets happy about flying within the excitement of a new environment to explore.
It is very easy to get into Thailand as there is no visa required, which means less lines, less time, and less money. Thailand formerly Saiam in Sanskrit, was the name adopted from the Portuguese back in the 16 century. The name was then changed in 1932 under the dictatorship of nationalist and modernizer Phibun, in an effort to emphasize an anti-Chinese movement and promote the unique identity of “Thailand for the Thai”.
We started our adventure in Bangkok, known in Thai as Krung Thep. We were picked up by a tour guide who was recommended by an acquaintance. I found that Thai people, unlike most northern Vietnamese, are extremely nice, hospitable, and very well spoken (in English). I think perhaps the urgency for tips, more clients, and recommendations for future business, is a high probability as to why they are so customer service driven. In Northern Vietnam you seldom see this pleasant attitude.
Our first tourist attraction was the Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, named after the Hindu god Aruna, personified as the rising sun. Its impressive 230 ft (70m) spire is one of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks, especially when lit at night along the Chao Praya River. Once there you are able to climb the towers, however, with Gaia in the sling that made it tough for me. But honestly, it was more my phobia to heights what kept me from even trying and having Bert hold Gaia. This is as high as I could get. The details in the ancient bricks were intricate, as were the features of each figure that surrounds each tower.
We then went to see the floating market. A trip on a little boat which took us through small temples, close to Wat Arun, as we crossed “boat market sellers” who often stop to offer their popular products. After a 20 minute ride we stopped at the big floating market and we got to visit different vendors and taste typical Thai food. Watching them cook splendid but simple dishes was sublime, as my camera melted in the colours of tropical fruits, some which reminded me of South America.
Our next attraction was the Grand Palace. Not actually a temple per se, it’s a complex and impressive site and does house one of the most important temples in the country. In this location we also got to visit the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, typically regarded as the most important temple in Thailand. It is the home of the Emerald Buddha, a highly revered statue of Buddha in meditation, carved from a single block of jade. At this point in the heat of this tropical weather, my phone run out of battery, so I was not able to collect photos. The magnificent part of this trip was the tour guide. A middle age, skinny, wise woman who explained the history behind the intricate architecture, as she complained about the government and the massive Chinese tourists who, according to her, made the city dirty and never gave a tip.
Our final destination in this intense capital was a dinner which featured a show where we would see the performance of typical dances in traditional costumes that narrated the history of Thailand, as well as the explanation of symbolic icons, which we had seen in the temples, like the monkeys. We ate a feast while watching the Thai artists dance, and finally the crowd was invited to join at the end in the closing dance.
We departed on our second day to Chiang Mai where we would spend more time. This calm and kid city is located North West of Thailand close to the border with Myanmar (Burma). It is known for its mountainous landscape and home for hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples, it is considered a cultural and religious center. On our way to Chiang Mai, we went up the mountains to the Wat Tham Pha Plong, located in Chiang Dao in Northern Thailand. This peaceful temple partially carved into a cave, is located on top of a limestone hill, it’s reached by climbing 508 steps, with Buddhist teachings and quotes plastered along the way. It’s a place to relax and meditate with a marvelous view over the green, fresh forest. We did the steps down but on our way up we took an elevator. This was a majestic place where Gaia and I got to get blessed by one of the monks, and get a lucky bracelet which he prays on and gently wraps on our wrist. He did it on Gaia because he probably though she was a boy, for he did not do it on me because monks are not supposed to touch women, so then the person collecting the offerings did it for me.
In Chiang Mai besides visiting night markets, we visited the Elephant camp which took us to see the mysterious and secluded long neck village. It was mesmerizing, sublime, and almost impossible to realize we were actually seeing the Karen women whom I’ve seen on screen, yet now they were in front of me, smiling at Gaia, as they played their instruments or weaved clothes, pillows, hats. They do not speak much English, and you could think of it as a human zoo (which I read in some blogs), but I think that they, like anyone in the tourist business, live off of their business, which is the crafts they make. Whether the Thai government is unfair to their living situation, that is out of my limits. Their husbands work in the fields, while they stay in the village with their children.
With a simple smile they offer their art, and quietly get back to their music as you observe what they have in display. Adding the brass rings since age 5 is a tradition, I have also ready that initially it was used as a protection from tigers and predators. However, with time, traditions change and now they wear it to obey the village leader. This tradition seems to be diminishing with time, as their population decreases. There are around 40,000 Karen members today, thousands have left Burma over the decades due to political unrest. Thailand has been the closest and safest place. When I was teaching in Austin (Texas), my school served diverse political refugees. Three girls at the school were Karen, they had been born in refugee camps in Burma. They did not have the rings. I remember how interested they were in the way the toilets worked. Two of them had no English and so I was there to teach them a new language. Se Law Que (I believe that’s how I spell her name), the oldest one had very good English. She showed me their alphabet which she had learned in one of the refugee camps before coming to the US. Little did I know two years later I would actually see the way their lives would have developed had they crossed the border to Thailand. This was my most spiritual connection in our trip. How decisions and sacrifices change our lives. Now I was here, in a place where the Karen people live away from home, just like Se Law Que, who now lives in Oklahoma, and who would most likely will never have a brass ring around her neck, but probably around her finger.