Experiences of a med student with an incurable travel bug.

Archive for the ‘Thailand’ Category

Reflections on Thailand

…coming soon. I have lots to blog for this, but I’m super behind. I’ll come back to this after I get other things posted.

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Patong Beach, Phuket

Spending four and a half days on the beaches and islands of southern Thailand was an amazing break in the middle of my travels. Since Phuket is such a tourist destination, there were few hostels around, particularly since it’s the off season. The only two that were running were in Patong, one of the most popular beaches notorious for its night life. I stayed at Sea Blue, a really nice place only ten minutes from the beach on foot, and I actually paid less than anywhere else so far — surprising, considering everything on the Island tended to be more expensive because it’s so touristy.

En route to the beach was a great collection of street vendors selling any food you could want: seafood or plain pad thai, thai iced tea, steamed buns stuffed with pork, all kinds of bubble tea, crab and other wonton type things, seafood and other spicy salads,
rotees/filled pancakes…the list goes on, and it was all cheap compared to any kind of restaurant in the area. It was so easy to grab food and carry it to the beach during the day or back to my hostel at night to eat while watching some House or Grey’s Anatomy (definitely the best cable programming so far! :).

Like the rest of Thailand, most people there were very nice, though it was definitely a creepy old guy’s paradise. As I said, Patong is (in)famous for its nightlife and entertainment. Bangla road, the main drag (no pun intended), is crawling with prostitutes who linger outside the go-go girl bars where old drunk men stand and gawk at the sights. This area is also known for its Lady Boys — men dressed as women — who are probably just as numerous as the real ladies on the street. Every one you talk to warns to be careful of the Lady Boys, and more than a few of them are speaking from personal experience; many men have taken them back to their hotels and were greeted with quite the surprise, I’m told. To be fair, it can be downright impossible to tell Lady Boys from real ladies. Remember how even on the beach it was hard for me to tell them apart? Putting them in tiny dresses, stilettos, and heavy makeup wasn’t any easier. It did make for some fantastic people watching, though.

I only spent one night on Bangla Road at the bars. Walking around alone was just obnoxious in this city after 7pm. Most people were drunk by mid afternoon, which meant that anywhere I went later in the day I was hassled continuously. Not in a bad, didn’t-feel-safe kind of way, just in an annoying, stop-wasting-my-time sort of way. I was hit on by middle-aged men from Russia, Qatar, Dubai, Australia…I was counting at one point, but trying to keep track was impossible. Patong is just a constant party, so nearly everyone is drunk all the time, including all the middle aged guys that couldn’t take a hint.

So, I only really went out one night, when I had someone to go with. The night before the British guy in my dorm left the island, we headed to Bangla road to check out some of the bars and the notorious cocktail buckets. We actually had a really great time; it’s ridiculous how much just walking next to a guy can ward off the creepers. First we tried the local beer, which was decent — a bit sweet, but way better than the local beer I had in Laos that I couldn’t even finish (turns out a 50 cent beer is a 50 cent beer, no matter what continent you’re on). While we were there, some guy rang the bells that gives free shots to everyone at the bar, so we got a shot of some weak rum something. Next we tried a bucket of “Phuket Paradise,” which was really good but not nearly as strong as everyone proclaimed. The final stop was to try Thai whiskey, which was pretty good. However, the best part of that bar was not the drinks so much as the crazy Aussie couple we shared the table with.

These Aussies were in their late forties and had been drinking since early afternoon, so they were loooong gone. They were both super chatty, and the woman in particular wanted to know everything about both of us. Once she figured out that I was from America, not Britain (this took almost 45 minutes), she just couldn’t stop gushing about the American Navy boys she met here a year ago and how “they were buying [her] drinks and dancing and being so nice even though they knew she was married!” She was quite the party animal, so I’m sure they were having a blast, too. Actually, she reminded me a lot of certain relatives of mine… 🙂

All told, I had a great time in Patong/Phuket. The beach was actually very nice during the day; most people spent their days sleeping off hangovers, so the beach was nearly empty most of the time and very quiet and relaxing apart from the motor sports. Parasailing was very popular, and it was fun (and a little nerve wreaking) to watch because some Thai guy always stood on the shoulders of the parasailor, not strapped in to anything, just hanging there between the sail lines. The white sand beaches and crystal blue waters around the islands made for a beautiful and relaxing few days before heading off to the last few countries and more adventures.

James Bond and Assorted Islands

Thursday was day two of my island hopping. This time I was off to see the famous James Bond Island, where “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed. I’m starting to think that I should maybe watch all these movies now that I’ve actually been to their filming spots. I should probably at least watch a James Bond movie, period, at some point. Maybe.

Anyway, it was a perfect day for the trip. There was cloud cover all morning, which was great because it kept the temperature down so we didn’t bake on the boat — unlike the day before, where we were in and out of the water swimming and snorkeling throughout the day, only our last destination was actually for getting in the water. Plus, the boat was only about a third full, so it was a nice and small group. Most of this crowd was a bit older, and I got to know a couple from Texas and another from Australia over the course of the day.

In addition to Khao Tapoo, aka James Bond Island, we also did some fantastic sightseeing at Panak, Hong, Khao Ping Kan, Talu, Khien, and Naka Islands. Our first stop brought us to Ice Cream Cave, named for the glittering rock formations it contains. After trolling around the impressive rock formations of more islands, we stopped at Talu Island for some canoeing. As it turns out, it wasn’t canoeing so much as sitting in a raft — there was a guide in the back of each raft that paddled us around, so it’s hardly fair to say that “we” canoed, but whatever. It was a nice, relaxing ride around the island, paddling in and out of the plethora of caves. We actually had to lay down in the raft-canoe to get into some of them because the openings were so low; if we’d been there even half an hour later, the tide would have been too high for us to get in. The caves and coves around Talu were all awesome; like most of the other surrounding islands, Talu has sheer rock walls with the jungle growing straight off the sides. How the trees grow out of the rock (or the sea, for that matter, as many in the caves did) is just impressive.

Lunch for this tour was on Panyee, the floating Muslim Fishing Village. The place was really interesting, all of the homes, market stalls, restaurants, etc. suspended across the water. The food was delicious: sweet and sour chicken, fried shrimp, squid, cashew chicken, tom yum soup and rice.

After a bit more sightseeing around the islands, we stopped to just spend some time on the beach before heading back to port. The day was well worth it; the islands were all fantastic to see and all very different from the things I’d seen the day before.

Snorkeling at Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Ley Islands

I spent Wednesday island hopping around some of the best snorkeling spots surrounding Phuket. The weather was perfect, sunny and calm with crystal blue waters. Our first stop was Phi Phi Ley Island, where we visited four different locales: Maya Bay, where the movie “The Beach” was filmed; Loh Samah Bay, a great snorkeling spotwith its sheer limestone walls and schools of colorful fish; Pileh Cove, an isolated bay with shocking blue water; and Viking Cave, known for its extremely old drawings on the cave walls and which is now used for
the harvesting of swallows’ nests, a Chinese delicacy.

From there we headed to the next island, Phi Phi Don, where our first stop was at Sam Ao, also known as Monkey Beach. As soon as we got to shore, all the monkeys came sprinting to our boat, launching themselves from the trees onto the boat to get the bananas the guides were tossing to them. Before we even landed, the guides vehemently told everyone multiple times to not touch the monkeys, so of course, the minute one comes within arm’s reach the French girl next to me reaches her hand out to pet it. I pushed her hand away just as the monkey snapped at her hand. “Oh, no?? ok.”…I’m sure she would have loved dealing with an infected monkey bite for the rest of her vacation, but I wasn’t particularly eager to have it jump on me next. They were cute, though, especially the ones with little babies clinging to them. They made sure to get every last bit of banana on the boat, the last one waiting until the last possible second to make its running leap off the back of the boat as we left the beach.

Lunch was a Thai buffet of fried vegetables, sweet and sour chicken, beef with cashews, rice, pineapple, and watermelon at a beachside restaurant on Phi Phi Don. From there we departed for our last stop, Khai Nok Island, which was 40 minutes away via speedboat. Between the wind, changing current and tides, the water was extremely choppy for the trip, and it turned into a 40 minute rollercoaster ride. I had a great time, though being tossed around and smashing into the seats and sides did start to hurt after a while. We spent the last hour and half of our day snorkeling and lounging on the white sand beaches of Khai Nok, a tiny little oasis on the sea. There were several other tours going around to the same places, so I hung out on the beach with an Aussie guy I’d met earlier in the day. We had a great time trying guess whether some of the other tourists milling around were guys or girls — it’s REALLY hard to tell here sometimes, and even with (probably not-so-casual) walk-bys we still had a hard time figuring some of them out. You’d think it would be obvious on a beach, but they manage impressively uni-sex outfits.

Unfortunately, that brought us to the end of the day, so we headed back to harbor and then back to Patong Beach for another night at the markets and more people watching. More on that later.

Sunday Walking Market and Food

The Sunday Walking Market was easily my favorite thing about the city of Chiang Mai. We arrived last Sunday just as it was getting started, so we spent the evening wandering through the huge expanse of handicraft, clothing, and food stalls. Little did I know, we were right in the middle of the BEST, and cheapest, food in Chiang Mai. I had fried banana spring rolls, a chicken and pineapple kebab, passion fruit punch, and “Thai Pancakes,” little deep-fried balls filled with coconut cream and chives for about $1 total, and it was all soooo good. It got me excited for a week full of incredible food, but as it turned out, nothing else I had was nearly as good as the food from the street market, and all of it was more expensive. All of the pad thai, rice, noodle, and tom yum soup dishes were good, but never quite as delicious as the food the first night. Also, the meat in I tried on occasion was always a bit questionable, particularly the mysterious white Thai sausage that had little bones in it. I did have some great rotees, a kind of fried bread with fillings; I had a banana and honey rotee at the Night Market before I discovered the mother of all rotees right outside my guest house one night — fried bread wrapped around an egg and banana and topped with chocolate and condensed milk. It sounds like a strange combination with the fried egg in there, but it was actually really good. Another good night market find was cups of corn: fresh roasted corn on the cob that you could eat off the cob or, if you’re the kind of person that makes a mess of yourself eating, they’ll slice it into a cup with salt and butter for you to simplify things (guess which version I had).

One thing that was just as good, cheap, and delicious outside of the Sunday Market was Thai Iced Tea. I don’t know what exactly they put in it apart from the ever present condensed milk, but it’s so good. The best part is the presentation: if you get it to go from a lot of road side stands, they’ll make it in a plastic bag and tie a rubber band to it so it can just hang from your wrist. If you actually get it in a cup, then they put the cup in a plastic sling of sorts. All of this so that you don’t actually have to hold on to the cold container that has waterfalls of condensation running down the sides. It’s pretty ingenious, really.

So, after a week of good, just not great, food, I was SO excited for the Sunday Market, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. The market isn’t scheduled to open until 6pm, but a lot of the vendors who are on the sidewalks set up much earlier than that to take advantage of business. One section of the market was totally up and running when I walked through on my way to some book stores around 1pm, and by the time I was heading back even more vendors were opening up. I went into the market with full intentions of just gorging on all the food, and that’s exactly what I did. Over the course of the next ten hours, I consumed the following, all for a total of less than $4:

-Pad thai (best I had all week)
-Fried bananas
-Three fish and vegetable cakes
-Shaved ice concoction that filled the small square styrofoam container it came in and tasted like a mix of fruits with a subtle hint of a flavor akin to bubble gum
-Strawberry bubble tea topped with oreo
-Banana-filled waffle topped with chocolate sauce
-Thai tea
-Spicy pork and sticky rice fried ball
-Sticky rice with mango and coconut milk

I was going to have banana spring rolls as well, but they must have run out of bananas because they closed up early. I could live off of fried bananas and banana spring rolls, mmm. Throw some mango sticky rice, pad thai and thai tea in the mix and I would be totally set.

I’m getting hungry just typing this up, and I just had crab won tons, corn on the cob, and kiwi bubble tea for dinner here in Phuket.

Anyway, over the course of those ten hours, I ended up walking around the entire market three times when I wasn’t just chilling somewhere. The market is positively huge, sprawling across blocks and blocks of the city center. You can find just about anything there: silk, wood works, jewelery, clothing, art, and more. Amongst the stalls are various performers, singing, dancing, and playing instruments for donations. The only thing that can be found in greater abundance at the regular Night Market as opposed to the Sunday Walking Street is the variety of counterfeit items that Asia is known for. (Knock-off) Ray Bans, Pumas, Gucci and more can all be found at the Sunday Market too, but this market caters more to the genuine Thai articles such as traditional pants and handicrafts. Between bites of snacks, I did manage to pick up a few souvenirs, too.

All told, the Walking Market was a huge success for multiple reasons, not least of which was being able to stuff my face with delectable food for hours on end while haggling over great souvenirs. Thus far, the Sunday Market was easily the best market that I’ve been to yet. It was a great end to my week in Chiang Mai!

Jungle Trek, Elephants, Rafting, and Massage

Friday morning I embarked on my two day, one night jungle trek adventure. The tuk-tuk ride to pick everyone up was, as usual, an adventure unto itself. When I was picked up for zip-lining on Wednesday, only two others were already in the van and we had at least five more to track down, which shouldn’t be too hard considering they have a list of the guest houses, right? Wrong. For starters, half the hostels and guest houses here have similar names and/or multiple locations, so that slows things down a bit. Then there’s always the confusion of whether people are getting picked up at their guest house or booking agency, and of course everyone is confused about what time this is all supposed to happen. So, after I got picked up on Wednesday, we drove around for no less than an hour, making half a dozen stops at random locales where nothing was accomplished. Thursday was more efficient, but everyone had been told to be ready at least a half an hour before the company planned on picking anyone up so there was just a lot of waiting involved. Friday proved to be no different than any other day; after driving around the city for an hour and picking up a few more passengers, we eventually ended up a block away from my guest house to pick up the last few passengers. I would think it would be most efficient to pick up people in the same area all at once rather than drive back and forth across the city a dozen times, but hey, what do I know; I’m just the tired tourist who would have appreciated an extra hour of sleep every morning. Meh.

Once we finally tracked everyone down, we started to head north toward Mae Tang. We made a quick stop at the Orchid and Butterfly Farm, which was cute, but 20 minutes there was more than enough. Next stop was at the Karen Longneck Hilltribe Village, where we walked through a market of their handicrafts and saw the girls and women with the stacked rings around their necks. A girl gets her first five rings on her fifth birthday and continues to get one per year until she’s 21-25 years old. Some of the women look comfortable, but particularly among some of the younger girls, some look very uncomfortable and look like they would have difficulty swallowing because of the position of their heads. Oddly, the strangest thing I saw in the village had nothing to do with the people; there was one lone monkey chained at the side of the pathway, seemly serving no purpose apart from being something for the tourists to look at. I’ve actually been surprised that I haven’t heard or seen any sign of monkeys during the different activities in the jungle, but I didn’t need to have one chained up in this village to appease my desire to see one, either. Not particularly humane or necessary to trap the thing in the sun with little to play with.

After leaving the village, we went to a local market where the New Zealanders and I discovered a little coffee stand that was selling huge blended Gloria Jeans-style coffees for about 60 cents, so that was a nice little treat. Everything was in Thai, but through a lot pointing, gestures, and references to the writing on a candy bar, I managed to get myself a caramel coffee with oreos. mmm. From there we finally headed into the mountains, where we stopped at the head of the trail for our lunch of fried rice.

After lunch, we started our hike through the mountainous jungle. The scenery was incredible, and the walk was enjoyable when we were in the shade and getting some breeze, but of course, that wasn’t constant. We were hiking in nearly 100 degree temperatures, and there were some patches where there was no air circulation and it felt like we were in an oven. Hiking up and down the mountainside in that weather proved to be rough at times, but stretches of shade and cool breezes helped us all recover between the more difficult parts. Despite the heat, we still kept moving at a good pace all afternoon, so we all thought we would get to the village earlier than expected since even the guide said we were making good time. Surprise! The two and a half hour hike advertised by the tour companies is utter rubbish; we hiked for a solid four hours that afternoon. Fortunately, we did stop for breaks on a regular basis, once at a cave, another time for tea in a different village, and a few times along the trail itself. Still, four hours of hiking in that heat was a long time, and we were all happy to reach the village where we were spending the night.

As it turns out, we actually spent the night in another Karen Longneck Hilltribe Village, though this one was far more remote than the one we stopped at near Chiang Mai. Staying in the village was such a great experience, it was nice to spend time in traditional culture and away from the tourist areas. We ate a traditional Thai meal, several dishes of potato curry, soup, and rice served family style, by candle light and then played cards while one of the older men played traditional music on a sort of mouth organ made from several bamboo pipes. As it was pitch black outside and he was still wearing his black Ray Bans, our guide kept referring to him as Ray Charles. Some of the women were going to dance, too, but there was pouring rain all night so that plan, along with the intentions of a campfire, were scratched. We were all pretty exhausted any way, so most of us crashed onto our mats on the bamboo flooring of our huts pretty early that night. Despite the hard bamboo floor that rattled around every time someone shifted their weight and the roosters that had a vocal battle to the death at 5am, I actually slept fairly well.

Saturday morning started with surprisingly good instant coffee and a little spa treatment from one of the cute little girls in the village. It started with a water balloon that she kept twisting into small compartments and then biting them open to squirt at us. From there she progressed to rubbing my legs down with super-fine sawdust, sometimes drawing pictures across my skin before rubbing it in. The final step was a mud pack, which was also performed by starting with a drawing before the final rub down. The whole process was pretty comical to watch as she worked down the line and did the same thing to three of us before our breakfast materialized and she retreated.

After a breakfast of toast and a hard boiled egg, our guide decided we needed to perk up and play a game. A few of us had already had a go at “Thai football”, which was essentially hacky sack with a bigger ball woven from some tough reed-like material. I was horrible at it, surprise surprise, but at least the locals were amused. The next game was even more entertaining for everyone involved, and all the villagers came out to watch us make fools of ourselves. We each tied a balloon to each of our ankles and then chased each other around, trying to pop the other peoples’ balloons while protecting our own. The whole thing was ridiculously comical, and the two left standing were quite the match: the big, burly rugby player vs. an agile little Korean girl. After dancing around for a good 10 minutes, they finally called it a draw. Now that we were appropriately perky, we set off on our last leg of trekking. It took us less than an hour to reach the truck that shuttled us the rest of the way to the elephant camp, so it wasn’t bad at all.

As soon as the truck stopped, I hopped out and headed straight for the elephants, not about to waste any time. There were a couple of baby elephants with their moms on our side of the river, so of course they were the destination. I immediately started to play with one of the babies, but if we’re being perfectly honest, it was really the baby that was playing with me. After sniffing my hand, he wrapped his trunk around my forearm and started pulling me around with him. Once I got my arm free, he decided that my leg would be a far better limb to have for his own. It took all I had to stay upright on my one foot while he tried to pull my other leg out from under me, and of course I couldn’t stop laughing through the whole thing.

Eventually the guide herded us across the river where we mounted our elephants for a bit of trekking. We rode around on the elephants for over an hour, stopping to feed them some bananas before we sloshed through the river and jungle. Each of us even had the chance to sit right behind its head and be the mahout, or driver; in reality, the elephant was still being directed by the actual mahout who had slid to the ground, but still, it was awesome.

After dismounting from our elephants, we climbed aboard bamboo rafts for leisurely journey further down the river. The rafts were maneuvered by two Thai men, one in front and the other in back, both wielding long bamboo poles that they pushed against the river bottom to direct and propel the boat. It was a very relaxing way to see the riverside jungle, if not the most comfortable; we were perched on low blocks in the middle of raft that didn’t offer any good positions, but we were only on them for about an hour, so it wasn’t too bad. All things were flowing smoothly until it was time to get back on shore. I was the last person off either raft, and everyone else had used the bamboo stairs to climb up the river bank just fine; of course, the minute I step foot on the bottom step the thing gives out and I plunge into the river. Luckily I was able to keep my camera above the water, so all was well apart from my soaking shorts. Since it was super hot again it actually felt nice to cool off a bit, but parading around with wet bottoms was not exactly at the top of my to do list.

Once we were all safely on land, it was back to the elephant camp for another Thai lunch of pad thai, sweet and sour, fried veggies and rice before heading for a nearby waterfall. The waterfall was actually quite nice an had a couple of natural pools to go swimming in, but I was content with just dangling my legs in the perpetually brown water. The best attraction at the waterfall was actually the litter of kittens; all of the kittens and cats were ridiculously cute and cuddly, happy to sprawl in our laps as long as we let them. After trying to get us to leave for at least ten minutes, the guide finally came over and literally tried to push us to our feet because four of us refused to stop playing with the kittens. We finally obliged, only because we knew white water rafting was next on the docket.

The white water rafting turned out to be great! I’d been told the rapids would be good this time of year, but I wasn’t sure. We hit some great rapids along the river; in comparison to other rapids I’ve been on, I would guess that these might have been rated class 3, but I’m not sure. There were a few times where we were nearly launched from the raft as we plunged over huge rapids, getting soaked in the process. Very fun! It was perfect to have this at the end of the day because we were on the river when the daily drenching rain opened from the skies, so everyone was already wet anyway. Once we reached the end of the route, we all changed back into a pair of dry clothes and we headed back to Chiang Mai.

After checking back into my guest house, I decided that the perfect end to two days of trekking and busy weeks of travel and activities was to get a Traditional Thai Massage, which was quite the experience. For about $3, a little Thai lady crawls across your body and twists it into all sorts of crazy contortions for an hour. Some of them tickled and some of them were just hilarious, so I was trying not to laugh half the time. Other times the intense pressure was almost painful as she put all of her weight behind her elbow, forearm, heel of her hand, or thumb and rubbed into my muscles. In the end it was all worth it, I felt great afterwards. Next time I might just opt for a shoulders, back and neck combo rather than the full body since that was the part I enjoyed most and felt needed the most work, but especially after all the traveling and hiking I’ve been doing, the whole body massage was great. For as good as it was and as much work as it requires, $3 practically felt like stealing considering they charge more than ten times that at home, but that’s the going rate here, and with a massage parlor every 50 feet no one can really charge much more.

I ended my night of relaxation by collapsing on my bed with a bag of cheap snacks from the 7/11 (they tried to overcharge me for all my sale snacks, but after a little group math session, we worked it out) and some cable tv. Two hours of Law and Order (SVU and Criminal Intent) followed by The Breakfast Club were the perfect end to the night.

Jungle Flight and Thai Cooking

After Tiger Day, we just spent Tuesday wandering around Chiang Mai and making plans for the rest of our stay. After several tour agencies and much haggling, I cut a great deal on a package of three activities: zip-lining, cooking, and an overnight jungle trek. This just about filled the rest of my time in Chiang Mai, so it worked out perfectly.

First on the docket was zip-lining. I’d gone once before in the Tsitsikama forest in South Africa and loved it, so I hoped this one would be fun as well, and it was! With 34 platforms, 4 abseiling lines, 2 sky-bridges, the longest line being 300 meters long and 50 meters above the forest floor, and breath-taking views of the vibrantly green jungle, it was a great day. The group I was with, both the guides and the other tourists, was very fun as well, so that always helps. Our guides were ridiculous, making the whole thing into a competition or game; the last one would come flying across the line with the first one was still unhooking the last person to cross, essentially racing to see if he could get all the way across before the other managed to unhook the person. They also kept themselves entertained by torturing this poor little Asian woman who was somewhat afraid of heights. They would drop her half-way down an abseiling line and then swing her around or start shouting like something was wrong, or they’d wrench on the zip-line cable to jostle her as much as possible while she crossed; as near as I could tell, they didn’t feel each station was successful unless they got her to scream at least once. This makes them sound terrible, but they were really good natured and actually quite nice to her, they weren’t outright mean — they just got garnered a little too much pleasure in her misery (schadenfreude!). She did end up having a good time and was glad she did it, but was certainly happy to be back on solid ground at the end. After five hours in the incredible jungle canopy, we hiked back to the base camp for a traditional Thai lunch of several curries, sweet and sour, soup, and rice before heading back to the city to explore the Night Market.

The next day, Thursday, was our cooking class. We went to "The Best Cooking School" which, despite the presumptuous name, actually is one of the best places to take a class and is run by a top chef. Before heading to the school, we stopped at a local market where the chef talked about different ingredients and how to find the best products. Unfortunately, the market was infested with cockroaches, to the point where they were dropping off of canopies onto people and continually running all over the floor and peoples’ feet, so it wasn’t too long before no one was listening and he just gave up, promising to tell us the information while we were cooking. We were more than happy to retreat to the truck.

The rest of the day was a blast. We each cooked four different dishes of our choosing plus three that the entire class did together. I made tom yam hot and sour soup, sweet and sour with chicken, panaeng curry, and pad thai in addition to the papaya salad, spring rolls, and sticky rice with mango that we made together. Everything ended up being delicious, but the sticky rice was far and away my favorite, I can’t wait to try making it at home. The best part of the day, though, was when we got to COOK WITH FIRE!!! That’s right, we did that fancy trick where massive flames explode from the wok but, if you do it right, the food doesn’t get burned and is just extra delicious. It was awesome, and the Thai omelet that I made out of my Pad Thai actually turned out really well — 90% perfect, according to the chef, which wasn’t too bad considering it was my first time cooking with fire and flipping food into the air and catching it with the wok instead of just flipping it with a utensil. The flames were just incredible, it was a lot of to learn how to do that without singing off our eyebrows.

That night my friend left for home, so I’ll be on my own for the rest of my travel adventures. Wish me luck!

TIGERS!

Monday was TIGER DAY! We went to Tiger Kingdom, a facility 10 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai, to see and play with tigers for the afternoon. Playing with tigers was number one on the list of things I wanted to do here, so I was obnoxiously excited about the whole affair. I was also really happy to be going to this facility because it seems to be the better place to interact with Tigers in Thailand; the animals are treated very well and are trained well enough that they do not need to be sedated for human interaction, whereas the other major facility is known for its maltreatment and constant sedation of the tigers. When you buy your entry ticket, you choose which size tigers you want to interact with; I choose to interact with all of them — babies (1.5 months), small (4 months), medium (16 months), and big (a couple years). Of course this was more expensive, but it was SO worth it.

First stop was the one and a half month old baby tigers, Ploy, Pai Lin, Pech, and Nin. SO ADORABLE. The cuteness is ridiculous. They’re disproportionate, awkward, clumsy, and weak; their legs splay out to the sides and their feet slide out from under them as they walk, and they don’t get far before they just give up and collapse. They also have these pathetic little growls, not far off from little Simba in “The Lion King.” It was snack time while I was there, so one of the little guys I was holding started growling his little kitty-cry until one of the handlers procured a bottle for him. I asked if I could feed him and at first they said no, but 30 seconds later the bottle mysteriously made its way into my hand anyway. After snack time, they all got more playful, so it was fun to play with them more after getting to hold them.

Next up were the small tigers, Ka-noon, Wan-heang, and Dok-koong. At four months old, they were already the size of small labradors but more powerful. It was clear from their playing that they were already quite strong but very well-trained. When they got a little too rambunctious or nippy, the handler would just shake his bamboo stick in their direction and they would sit down, lower their ears, and put on their best Puss-In-Boots cute, sad faces.

Did I mention they’re unreasonably cute?

From there I went to play with the “medium” tigers, Leonaldo and Edward. These guys were 16 months old and already about 100 kilograms. Leo was in a playful mood, and by this point, “playful” is toeing the line of slightly dangerous because they are so powerful and have tapped into their feline hunting instincts, but again, they were very well-trained. The shake of a stick garnered the same reaction in these guys as it did in the little ones, so I always felt safe. Edward was totally chill the entire time, letting me pet him and take a few pictures, at least until Leo decided to interrupt. Leo was prowling around the area the whole time, looking for someone to play with, and he kept sneaking over and nipping at Edward to get him to come play. The most he succeeding in doing was getting him to relocate, at which point Leo gave up and collapsed next to him for a bit. Seizing the perfect photo-op, the handlers had me sit down between them to snap a pic. As I sat down, my skirt brushed against Leo…as it turns out, tigers are ticklish, and Leo’s response was to roll over right into my lap.

Now, what does one do about a 100+ kilo tiger sitting in their lap? Not a whole lot. The handler suggested, “I think you stand up, now.” Um, sure, let me just shove the tiger off of me first, no problem. Leo actually decided to reposition and rolled back off of me shortly thereafter, but if he’d chosen to stay put, I would have been hanging out in that cage for the duration.

After a bit more playing with the Leo and Edward, it was off to my last stop, the big cats: Sticky Rice and Meatball. Both of these guys weighed in around 150 kilos, so they were massive, but still had quite a bit of growing to do if they were going to catch up with their 230 kilo father in the next enclosure. While laying my head on them to take pictures, the handler made it a point to show us exactly how huge their claws and teeth were, just to remind us how AWESOME it was that we could be so close (ok, and maybe dangerous, but really, I was perfectly safe the whole time).

Unfortunately, this brought me to the end of my time to actually interact with the tigers. For the rest of the afternoon, I just wandered between the different enclosures, watching the different litters of younger cubs play with each other, chasing each other around their enclosures and through pools of water, sometimes wrestling over the best toys (usually chunks of wood). I could have spent hours watching them play, or better yet, playing with them, but the afternoon eventually did draw to a close.