Scuba Diving in Koh Tao

Adding to our repertoire of experiences ranks very high up on our list of things to do in life.  Carine has told me a million times that she wants to scuba dive.  Since meeting the love of my life, there’s not many things that I’m not open to trying, but I must say scuba diving brought about a certain fear in me.

For one, I was deathly afraid of sharks.  Even if I’d had no interactions with one (up until snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef a few months prior).  This fear can be attributed to movies like Jaws, that sensationalize shark attacks.  In reality, you are more likely to live to 100 years old or being hit by an asteroid, than you are of being attached by a shark.

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A view from above of Koh Tao / © Roctopus Facebook

The next reason that I was sort of afraid of scuba diving is because of the unknown of the ocean.  It’s so vast, with so many creatures that are bigger than us, and that we are just not used to seeing.

I knew that both these fears were unfounded, so wanting to fulfill Carine’s wishes, I said let’s do it.

One of the reasons that Carine had always wanted to scuba dive was to see a whale shark!  For those of you that don’t know, whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean.  Also, their name is confusing, are they a whale or a shark?  Well, they are definitely sharks.  Add to that the fact that they are vegetarians (friendly giants as Carine likes to say) and it’s no wonder why she’s in love with them!  They can measure up to 12 metres long, and weight up to 21.5 tons.  Think about that for a minute.

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Glorious whale shark / © Roctopus Facebook

She did a lot of research, and I mean a lot (did you know that she is the research queen?).  So after looking into where the best place to get our scuba diving certification was, she found out that a little island off of the Eastern coast of Thailand, called Koh Tao, was renown as being one of the best places in the world.

Not only is Koh Tao a beautiful island that has plenty of marine biodiversity, but it is also one of the cheapest places in the world to get your open water certification.  So she looked into which of the 100+ diving schools we should sign up with.  Again, after much research, we decided to go with one of the best reviewed places on the island, Roctopus.

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The best dive school in Koh Tao! / © Roctopus Facebook

Another thing that Koh Tao is known for, is having whale sharks nearby.  But these creatures are not known to be easy to spot.  To give you an idea, there are instructors who have dived off Koh Tao over a thousand times who have not spotted one.

When looking for diving schools, there are a few things to look out for.  Generally, Tripadvisor is a great resource to see what others have to say about a certain school.

A few things to look for are group sizes (do you want to dive with just your buddy and the instructor, or in a larger group?), costs, boat types (if you easily get sea sick then look for a bigger boat), and very important, how is their equipment?

If you are having trouble choosing between schools, I would recommend narrowing your list to 3-5 schools, visiting each one and checking out their vibe and gear.  That is often the most important thing, for me at least.

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Roctopus shop / © Roctopus Facebook

Apart from the thousands of 5-star reviews on Tripadvisor, the communication with Roctopus before booking our course was excellent.  They really weren’t pushy, even if we were ready to book with them online before we got there.  They told us to just come to the dive shop when we get to the island, and if we were comfortable with what we saw, we could sign up then.  Talk about confidence in their business!

So we booked our ferry tickets to Koh Tao from Phuket with the idea of staying for about 5 nights.  Roctopus were also great in guiding us to choose which accommodations to book.

We got to Koh Tao and checked ourselves in pretty late at night, and first thing the next morning we were at Roctopus to see what the deal was.  We were shown their facilities by one of their very friendly managers.  He showed us the pool that we would be learning in, showed us all of the equipment that we would be using and how well it was cleaned and maintained (a very important aspect of choosing where to dive).  It wasn’t long before we were officially signing up.  We had the rest of the day to hype ourselves up, because the next day was going to be our first day of orientation.

So the big day arrived, and after a lazy morning, we strolled into Roctopus to meet our team.  First we met John, a British chap who has been living in Koh Tao as a dive instructor for about 2 years.  If you like direct, no-nonsense and a dry sense of humour, John is your guy!  He is also pretty fun to hang around, but don’t tell him I said so!

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John’s favorite hand signal!
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Lunch with our favorite Swedes

Then we met the other two people who would be doing their certification with us, Carl and Ernst, two Swedish firefighters vacationing in Thailand for a few weeks.

The first afternoon was spent going over the practical side of diving.  We were in a small classroom while John walked us through some of the course material we would need in order to pass the practical exam.  A few hours of this and then it was to the bar with our team and John to get to know each other a little.

We really hit it off with John, Carl and Ernst, but more on that later.  That night, John tells us that we would have some homework for the next day.  I LOVE homework…  Can you sense the sarcasm here?  At least this time it is stuff that interests me, so it wasn’t so tedious.

The next morning we get back to the classroom and discuss our homework, pass some more tests, and then finally we get suited up for the pool.

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Fins (not flippers!) by the Roctopus pool / © Roctopus Facebook

John showed us everything from getting the wetsuit on, to putting together all the gear.  Then we get into the water, and the first thing that he teaches us is how to breathe through the regulator (fancy/technical word for what you breathe through).  This was the first thing that really made me realize how different scuba diving would be.

When you are diving, the way that you breathe is so different than what we are used to.  Without getting into too many specifics, the main difference is how much you are trying to conserve your breath.  The reason for this is to use less oxygen, so you can dive for a longer time.  So the trick is to breath in little breaths, and breathe out for as long as you can.  It’s quite unnatural at first.

It’s pretty freaky when you go under water for the first time and start breathing through the regulator.  You stay below the surface of the water for so long, it was just the nuts, and we are only in the pool at this point!

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Don’t forget this! / © Roctopus Facebook

We then go through some drills.  How to retrieve your regulator if it comes out of your mouth, how to get water out of your mask (don’t you dare call them goggles, you will owe John a drink every time you do!), how to start getting your buoyancy under control.

Buoyancy, something I probably had never thought of before going scuba diving, is probably the biggest skill necessary, after learning how to breathe.  In layman’s terms, controlling your buoyancy is being able to control the depth at which you are swimming.  This is important for a few reasons, notably so that you don’t end up crashing into the coral, and also so that you don’t end up going deeper than you are supposed to.

So we get these skills done, and let me tell you we are starting to get really excited to go into the ocean!  But, one step at a time.  Class is over for the day, so back to the bar to take in the beautiful sunset, grab a drink with the group, and to talk about our day.  John tells the 4 of us that we are progressing nicely, and that once again, we have homework to do…

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Victors bar / © Roctopus dive

The good news is, this was the last of our homework, and the next morning we meet for breakfast and go over any last minute questions we have before the practical exam.  Well, all of this studying paid off because between us, we scored a 100% and a 98%, but I won’t say who scored which 😉

With the practical exam under our belts, it was now time to do what we came to do.  Back at Roctopus, we load up the pick up truck with our gear, and we head out to the pier.  A group of maybe 20 students, and 5 instructors jumped onto our boat and out we went into the great big blue.

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R1, take us out to discover the great blue / © Roctopus Facebook

While we headed out to our scuba spot, Carine and I are now freaking out that we are about to do this for real.  Carine was actually more nervous than I was, and more nervous than I would have thought she would have been.  This was all her idea after all!

We get to our dive spot, get our gear ready, finish up our BRAID pre-dive check, and here we go!  We jump in and gather together at the surface for one last talk before we head in.  Everyone ready, we grab the rope that anchors the boat, and we start our descent.

Maybe I never thought of how you descended before, maybe I thought you just swim downwards (if that even makes any sense), but let me tell you, that is not how you do it…  To descend, you actually just exhale, a lot.  As you exhale, your buoyancy decreases, and you start going deeper and deeper into the ocean.

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Just some of the awesome things you can see below the surface / © Roctopus Facebook

After descending to about 10 meters, we just take a moment to take in what is happening.  We are 10 metres, below the ocean, with a tank strapped to our backs, but at least we have each other to keep ourselves calm, and still feel like we are somewhat in control.

We had seen coral reefs before, while we were in Australia on the Great Barrier Reef, but this was something else.  The fish, wow, I mean there were schools of barracuda swimming within throwing distance of us.  And I’m talking thousands, too many to count.  What a scene.

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School of Barracuda / © Roctopus Facebook

A large part of our first and second dives on that day consisted of skills training, similar to what we had practiced in the pool.  Taking your regulator out and fishing for your secondary one is a lot more nerve-wracking  when you are out in the ocean though!

We did still get to just swim around in formation with our team and take in the beauty of the ocean around us.

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Coral Reefs / © Roctopus Facebook

And just like that, it was over.  We do a quick safety stop, 5 metres from the surface, something the body needs in order to flush the extra nitrogen out of your body, and then we break the surface and just float around for a few minutes.

“Babe, what did you think?  It was so cool”, Carine says.  I agree.  That was like no other experience I have ever had.  The greatest part for me, I’ll get back to that!

So back to the boat, and back to the bar (notice that there is a reoccurring theme here).  We debrief with John and our Swedes, and guess what, we are freaking great scuba divers!  Well, at least as so far as you can say for two people that have been in the water for a combined 60 minutes at least, but it’s a good start!

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The one and only, Sail Rock / © Roctopus Facebook

Now I should go back a bit here.  Koh Tao has a special dive site called Sail Rock.  It’s special for a few reasons.  For one, it is beautiful.  Two, it is a trek to get there, you have to leave well before sunrise to get there before it starts getting packed with other dive schools.  And three, this is where people see whale sharks…

So, when we were given the option to do dives 3 and 4 at Sail Rock (albeit at a cost) we jumped on the opportunity, because well… whale sharks!  Hopefully.

On day 4 of our open water certification training, in the wee hours of the morning, maybe around 4AM, we set out from our hostel towards Roctopus.  Man oh man, we are not morning people, we would much rather stay up until 4AM than get up at that time, but it was a little easier this time, given what we had in store for us that day.

So once again, we pack our gear into the pick up truck, get to the pier, and get on the boat.  This time we are in for a good hour and a half before we get to sail rock.  One of the perks though, was the beautiful sunrise we got to watch off the top of the boat while having our breakfast.  So peaceful so beautiful.  A perfect beginning to the day.

What was great about our second day in the ocean, was that our skills were mostly completed.  Today, all we needed to do was to swim around and take in the beautiful corals and fish near Sail Rock.

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Some more awesome things below the surface, hello ray / © Roctopus Facebook

I’m sure you have heard of coral bleaching, and what a big problem it is.  We did see that while on the Great Barrier Reef.  Luckily on our scuba diving experiences in Thailand, we did not see any bleaching, which was encouraging.

And the fish, oh man did we ever see a lot of fish, and so many different species.  We saw: a huge school of trevelly, pick handle barracudas, parrot fish, angel fish, remora swimming around my leg like I was a shark, butterfly fish, banner fish, trigger fish, grouper, etc.  Now, I didn’t know what any of there were before, but they sure were awesome!

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The great biodiversity that Koh Tao offers / © Roctopus Facebook

After the first dive of the day we all had a nice lunch together on the boat.  As a side note, it was the first time I ever had massaman curry.  What was wrong with me, never having it before?  So delicious!

At this point, there were a few people still in the water, just snorkeling, while the majority of us where chilling on the boat, waiting for our last dive.

WHALE SHARK!!!!!  Everyone grab a mask and jump in the water!

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Our favorite shark! / © Roctopus Facebook courtesy of @jellyman_uw_photo_video

You don’t have to tell me twice!

We grab a mask, and jump overboard.  We look under the water, and there it is.  A baby whale shark, maybe 3 metres in length, was swimming away from us.

But we knew better than to dispair that we missed our chance.  John had told us that whale sharks usually swim in figure 8 patterns, meaning if they are swimming away, they will most likely double back.  And this time was no different.

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The most exciting animal spotting of our lives! / © Roctopus Facebook

I saw it turn around, and this time it was coming straight at me!  I am a big guy, almost 2 metres tall, but this creature, it was just so big, so powerful looking, but also so serene and calm.  At no point was I ever nervous, I was seriously just so thrilled that I was seeing a whale shark, because how many people can say that they have?

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We’ve never felt so tiny in our lives / © Roctopus Facebook courtesy of @jellyman_uw_photo_video

After this whole ordeal, we still had our fourth dive to complete.  It was probably the “easiest” of our 4 dives, in the sense that we both felt very comfortable, performed the skills we needed to flawlessly, and were just great underwater buddies.

That’s another cool thing about scuba diving – you always dive with a buddy.  So Carine is now not only my best friend, my wife, and my tag team partner, but she’s now my scuba diving buddy too!  We worked great together!  Communicating underwater is also something I hadn’t given much thought to before doing it.  It is a lot of sign language, most of it taught to us before hand, but sometimes made up on the spur of the moment, and often hilarious!  I wish I could show you how I tried to signal her that I saw a parrot fish… hilarious.

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Giddy after our first dive!

Our last dive over, it was with great pleasure that John announced to us that were now certified open water divers!  It was hard work, a lot of studying and understanding new concepts, performing tasks that 72 hours earlier were foreign to us, but we did it.  And with distinction too if I may add.  John told us (and he swears he doesn’t say this to everyone), that we (along with our friends Ernst and Carl) were the best team he had dived with in a long time.

What was the best thing about scuba diving?  For me, it was the sense that nothing else matters at that moment, other than breathing, checking your air supply and depth, checking for your buddy (these are the 3 things you have to do every 10 seconds) and of course take in the beauty of the ocean.  I have never felt so disconnected from any problems I might have, or stresses nagging at me at that moment.  All that matters underwater is that you are scuba diving.

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I wish this could be my office! / © Roctopus Facebook

As for our team of John, Carl and Ernst, we couldn’t have had a better time with anyone else!  Laughs, buckets, great times underwater and above it, we will never forget the wanker from the UK and our two cute Swedes – friends for life!

Our next stop is going to be the Philippines, which is exciting because we have been waiting to go diving again.  And from what we hear, it’s one of the best places to go diving.

Until our next underwater adventures!


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Chiang Mai Street Art – A photoblog

A photoblog of Chiang Mai’s best street art. The coolest murals in Northern Thailand.

Chiang Mai is known for its insane amount of temples. It’s also home to plenty of digital nomads.  Its laidback and easy-going vibe is enough to convince anyone to stay and enjoy their time.  It’s no surprise then, that you would want to take your time and stroll through the Old City, with plenty of sights and sounds to take in. Oh, and food. Delicious food.

While strolling around, you’ll probably notice some awesome alleyways with beautiful street art. We just love the character it gives the city, mixing in the new with the old. Here are some of the pieces we stumbled upon during our time in Chiang Mai.

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Discover the beautiful street art in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Includes some tips and tricks to have the best time in the city. www.wediditourway.com

What to do in Chiang Rai

Tips, tricks and recommendations to make the best of your time in Chiang Rai, Thailand. What to do, where to stay, where to eat and everything else to enjoy the quiet town in Northern Thailand.

Chiang Rai is a sleepy town at the north of Thailand.  We said Chiang Mai was your gateway to Laos and Myanmar, well, actually, it’s Chiang Rai.  Most buses will connect through here.  This town is about a 3-hour drive from Chiang Mai and home to some impressive temples.  It’s a lot more quiet and chilled out than Chiang Mai.  It doesn’t quite have the same ‘je-ne-sais-quoi’ however, but if you’re looking to escape, this is the place for you.

How to get there from Chiang Mai

There are tons of buses that run daily from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. We used the Green Bus Company, which are some of the best buses on the road.  They don’t have wifi, but the seats are comfy and spacious, the drivers are safe and they give you a snack for the road.  Win!

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Chiang Rai temples are gorgeous!

You can take the bus from Chiang Mai’s bus terminal and they will drop you off at the main bus terminal in Chiang Rai.  The best thing about this bus terminal is that it’s surrounded by a market.  Fresh fruit and food galore!  Double win!

This terminal is also where the songthaews, tuktuks and taxis are.  The cheapest way to get around are the songthaews, for sure.  About 20-30 TBH per person, but they won’t drop you off at your exact location (well, actually, they might, but for an extra cost).  Tuktuks will be a little more expensive, as will taxis.  If you are staying near the center, you can probably walk to your hotel, and save the money to buy treats along the way!

Things to do

White temple

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Almost looks like an elephant graveyard

This is probably the most famous and crazy temple in all of Thailand.  It was recently built and is actually still under construction!  It has a crazy history which is fun to know.  At the end of the 20th century, the original Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) was in bad shape, but there were not enough funds to renovate it.

That’s when Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist from Chiang Rai, decided to rebuild the temple from scratch and fund the project with his own money.  He has spent THB40 million of his own money up until now.  He considers the temple to be an offering to Lord Buddha and so he believes the project will give him immortal life.  The temple will only be completed by 2070, so let’s hope he does get his immortal life so he can see its completion!  The cost for visiting the temple is THB50 for tourists, but free for Thai residents.

Getting there is pretty easy, and the price will depend on your budget and time availability.  We took a THB20 songthaew from the bus terminal, which took about 30 min.  It will drop you off on the ‘highway’, just opposite the Temple.  Just cross the street and follow the Stupa to get there.  Pretty straight forward! Tuktuks wanted to charge us THB200 (for 2) for the 1-way journey.  And taxis were up to THB300.  So you have plenty of choice!

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The white temple, one of the nicest we have seen in SE Asia

 

Blue Temple

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© Old & Lost

This is another recent temple that is still under construction, though it sure does look beautiful.  We really wanted to visit the Blue Temple, situated just outside Chiang Rai, but we ended up taking it easy (yeah, Northern Thailand will do that to you).  From the looks of it, it seems like an epic temple, but we found ourselves a slice of heaven we just didn’t want to leave.  More on that later!

If you have the time to go, this is well worth the visit, especially judging from what our friends told us!  If you want to know how to get there, here’s a great article for you.

Black House

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Giada Frigerio / © Zoom on contemporary art

Another must-see in Chiang Rai, but that we also missed!  If you’re wondering why we recommend these places, well it’s because if you’ve made it out to Chiang Rai, you probably want to know all the cool things you can see and do.  Seriously, we would have gone too, but when you find out why we didn’t, you’ll understand!

Black House is a bit of a drive out of the city.  Baan Dam (Black House) is created by a local artist, Thawan Duchanee.  It’s an art studio, a museum and a home, all rolled into one.  Well worth the visit, again, from what our friends told us.  If you want to know how to get there, check out this great article.

Temples in the City

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Smaller village temples can be found on almost every street corner

There are a ton of temples in the city of Chiang Rai itself.  We had access to bikes, so we just rode them around and hopped off when we found a nice one.  There is one that struck out to us, and it was Wat Phra Kaew, because it houses the Emerald Buddha.  This temple was upgraded to a royal temple in 1978, so it’s kind of a big deal in terms of Chiang Rai temples.

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A couple praying in front of the famous Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaew

It has historical importance because it’s the place where the Emerald Buddha was found, and it’s one of the main centres of Buddhist education and the Sangha’s administration in northern Thailand.  This temple might have also struck a cord with us because as soon as the monks and guards found out we were Canadian, they were so proud to tell us the jade used to make the Emerald Buddha was actually from Canada!  Also, there’s a great turtle pond there, which is great to watch while chilling.  Welcome to the north of Thailand, where chilling is a way of life!

Markets Galore

Walking around the city, you will notice that most things revolve around the market, which is also where the bus terminal is.  This is a great place to eat, with tons of cheap local food, delicious fruits, and some souvenirs to buy as well!

Clock Tower

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Town clock tower comes equipped with chimes and lights.  Fancy!

Ok, the gold clock tower is a bit of a stretch.  Do you need to see it?  Probably not!  But if you are walking around at night, it’s worth sticking around for it to strike the hour.  Music and lights will make the place shine. It’s a fun sight to see!

Where to stay

There are plenty of places to stay in and around Chiang Rai.  These are a few that stuck out to us.

Gita’s House

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Relaxing at Gita’s House

Gita’s House is nestled in a quiet part of the city, surrounded by beautiful green spaces.  Apart from the accommodations themselves, which were everything we expected, from the large room, very clean space, super comfortable bed, and great wifi, what really stood out to us were the people at Gita’s House.  Anything we needed, they were right there to help us out, and always with a smile!  The family-run guesthouse is homey and cozy.  You can really feel that the staff loves working there too, and we can’t blame them.

The energy in the place is palpable.  We even had the pleasure of taking one of Kay’s laughter yoga classes, which was a great new experience.  A homemade breakfast is provided, with tea and coffee available all the time.  Another plus, the free bikes you can borrow to ride around the city!  They make everything seem much closer, especially in the heat!

Naga Hill Resort

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Time for some R&R at Naga Hill

Staying at Naga Hill was a great little getaway.  This is actually the reason we didn’t visit half the things we wanted to – we just didn’t want to leave!  We stayed in a little bungalow that really made it feel like we were staying out in nature, in the middle of nowhere.  A really great place to disconnect!

The bungalow was big and clean, the bed was very comfy, and there was even a hammock on the front porch.  Plus, the bathroom and shower are outside, which is seriously cool.  MAJOR WIN!

One of the great features of Naga Hill is their very big salt water pool.  With the temperature well above 30 degrees Celsius during our stay, the pool was the best way to cool off.  The restaurant was also a nice feature, with so many options available, from Thai and Asian food, to Western food and snacks.  We even had the pleasure of eating a full traditional Lanna meal, all vegetarian food, which was really wonderful!  But what struck out to us was the incredibly sweet and attentive staff.  They were friendly and helpful, which made our stay even more memorable!

Naga Hill was a great escape for us.  Three days of total bliss in the middle of nature.  A perfect excuse to turn off our phones and laptop, and unwind.  For all these reasons, we just didn’t want to leave this place!

Where to eat

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Lovely sunsets

Heaven Burger: The name says it all!  This place has heavenly burgers!  They actually have all sorts of western food, but when you’re in the mood for a good veggie burger (they have meat ones as well), this is the place to eat.  Their buns are made fresh with local ingredients, which make the burger even more delicious.  And the fries!  Don’t even get us started on the fries.  They are to die for!

Melt in your mouth: A bit more on the expensive side, Melt in your mouth is set in a beautiful location, just along the river.  The decor inside is lovely, and outside, it’s just epic!  The food varies from local to western, but it’s all delicious.  We needed a break from Thai cuisine, so their pasta dishes were a welcomed treat!  A bit of a trek from the city center, but well worth it!

The Night Market: From local meals and cheap eats, you will find it all at the night market.  They also have a great variety of fresh fruits and veggies, so if you want to take some home with you, please do.  Just make sure you bring a reusable bag with you.  They sure love putting everything in plastic bags so if you can do your part to save the planet, please do!


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The ultimate city guide to Chiang Rai, Thailand.  Everything you need to know about having a great time in the city. Tips, tricks, what to do, where to eat and where to stay.  www.wediditourway.com

The most ethical place to see elephants in Thailand

If you want to see elephants in Thailand, Elephant Nature Park is the best place to do it. Learn everything you want to know about ethical animal tourism in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.

Walk around anywhere in Thailand and you will surely see a ton of elephants.  Not necessarily the actual animals, but symbols of elephants are everywhere.  Elephant pants, elephant t-shirts and bowls, elephant statues sold as souvenirs and displayed in temples.  Basically elephant-on-elephant-on-elephant.  So it’s no surprise that elephant tourism is huge in Thailand.

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The elephant on the right was injured in the logging industry, but she is getting better!

Like most things that involve animals, it’s always best to do your research before going.  Animals are often not treated well, especially in developing countries like Thailand.  As majestic and colossal as these elephants are, they are no exception to this rule.

We debated long and hard about going to an elephant park. So many pretend to be sanctuaries who treat their animals ethically, but once the tourists are gone, it’s a different story.  That’s why we’re really happy a friend told us about the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai.

Elephant tourism in Thailand and SE Asia

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Always hungry!  She even gets her watermelon peeled, must be nice!

All over Thailand, you will see tons of offers to see elephants and play with them.  It’s very important to know that if they offer you to ride an elephant, to watch it paint for you or to see it do tricks for you, you should know that these are unethical elephant practices and you should find a different place to visit.  Maybe even yell at them a little for being cruel animal-torturers.  We kid, but barely!  These are all places that abuse their elephants.  With roughly only 6,000 Asian elephants left in Thailand, we all have to do our part to help save these majestic creatures.

The best way to do this is for tourists to stop going to see these abused animals.  If they do, their caretakers (known in Thailand as mahouts) will have to find ethical ways of treating them.  If you see someone sign up for this type of activity, kindly and gently remind them what they are actually supporting.  Most of the time, people just don’t know how these animals are treated, and the cycle of mistreating elephants will repeat itself.

What was hard to see during our drive to the Elephant Nature Park, was that there were other parks lining the road on the way there where many tourists were riding elephants.  Had they chosen to go a few hundred meters further, they would have participated in a much more ethical form of tourism.

Our day at Elephant Nature Park

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Where they keep the male elephants (bulls) to control the population

Our day started much earlier than we’re used to.  At around 8AM, a mini van came to pick us and the rest of our group up from our respective hotels.  We all had a chance to bond a little during the ride and get some backstories.  We had the pleasure of visiting the Elephant Nature Park with couples from Spain, the US and Turkey.  One couple was on their honeymoon, another was eloping and getting married at the Elephant Nature Park!  We can’t blame them.  What a magical setting getting hitched surrounded by these gentle giants!

During our ride, we had a chance to watch a video that spoke about the Elephant Nature Park, the elephants there and their journey.  They also showed us what unethical elephant tourism practices are, such as having them perform tricks, riding them, seeing them beg for money in the streets of Bangkok.  Interesting information, but heart-breaking all at the same time.  More on that later.

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Being cat lovers, this was a nice unexpected treat! Cat Kingdom!

Our arrival at the Elephant Nature Park was amazing , we spotted the kittens right away, cuddled up in their Cat Kingdom.  Yes!  We’re in heaven.  After a few cuddles with some cats and dogs, we were taken to the main seating area, where our delicious vegetarian lunch would be served later on.  As we got there, another man brought out a huge basket of bananas and watermelons.  Like clockwork, an elephant approached us.  It was time to eat!

We were then told that this elephant was working in the logging industry until she was injured and could not work anymore.  She gladly accepted all the fruit we offered her… except the peels of watermelon.  She didn’t like those too much!  It was still impressive to see her shove a bunch of 10 bananas in her mouth all at once.  She was insatiable!  We learnt that all elephants are, they eat up to 10% of their weight in food every day!  That’s about 200kgs of corn, fruit and leaves (long live the vegetarian diet).  The Elephant Nature Park grows some crops, but has to purchase a ton more because of the sheer amount of food these mammoths consume.

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Feeding time again! This time on the menu, it’s corn

We then spent most of the day walking around the park, learning about their various elephants, feeding them along the way, and just showing them some love.  Something they had been lacking for most of their lives.  It was so good to see them walking around the park, free to enjoy the rest of their days living a carefree and peaceful life.

Some of the stories we heard about these elephants broke our hearts.  The pain and suffering they have been through is quite shocking.  It’s hard to believe that humans, who are usually empathetic and compassionate beings, can be capable of causing so much pain to animals.

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The spots are actually sunburn

We heard about elephants that were working in the logging industry and were forced to continue even after breaking a leg.  One elephant that was blind because her mahout stabbed her in the eye after she disobeyed.  Another who was hit by a car while begging in the streets of Bangkok.  It’s hard to imagine what these elephants have been through, but one thing for sure, they finally have a life they deserve.

We loved our time at Elephant Nature Park.  It was truly one of the most magical days we have spent on our trip so far.  Surrounded by these gentle giants, we watched them play together and bathe like they didn’t have a care in the world, fed them insane amounts of food and gently pet their mud-covered skin.  There can be nothing better!  We hope that one day, you will be able to experience this, because as much as we can try to describe it, nothing quite beats the feeling of being there and connecting with these spellbinding creatures.

About Elephant Nature Park

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Here a family is cooling off, and the children are misbehaving, as usual

The Elephant Nature Park was established in the 1990’s to provide a sanctuary and rescue centre for elephants.  The Elephant Nature Park is part of the Save the Elephants foundation.  It is located 60km from Chiang Mai, and is home to over 70 distressed elephants that were rescued from all over Thailand.  To rescue the elephants, the Park must buy them from their previous owners.  This can cost them anywhere between USD$4,000 to $125,000 or more depending on the elephant’s gender, age and health.

The Park is also home to water buffalo, dogs, cats, monkeys and pigs.  All these beautiful animals were rescued from difficult situations – strays that lost their homes due to flooding, saved from slaughterhouses or from abusive owners.  If you choose to go to the Elephant Nature Park, you can either go for a day tour or stay and volunteer for a few days.

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One of the may water buffaloes trying to keep cool

The elephants there were all rescued from a troublesome past.  Most were abused since they were calves, working either in the circus, part of night acts, working in the logging industry, abused for forced breeding or even begging in the streets.  The Park rescues one elephant at a time because 85% of the elephants they save get to the sanctuary with mental health problems caused by the abuse they have suffered.  By focusing on one rescue at a time, they allow them to recover and integrate into the herd naturally.  They usually end up herding around a female elephant.

The oldest elephant at the Park is 94 years-old.  Although she’s the leader of the pack, she’s actually a bitter old lady!  She just wants to sit in the river the whole day and hates socializing with others.  Sounds like my grandma!

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Grandma relaxing in the river by herself

The oldest male is nowhere near her age.  He’s actually only 18.  Him and his 2 other vigorous male friends have to all be locked away and separated from the herd.  They are far too fertile and want to get with all the ladies.  What players!  A fun story we heard was that one of them actually managed to get one of the ladies pregnant through his gate.  Talk about having game!  Because of the cost of running the Park, they have to control the population there.  Even with their efforts, the Park has seen 8 baby elephants born in captivity.  The love is strong!

The majority of the proceeds needed to feed and rehabilitate these elephants come from tourists visiting the park as well as a smaller portion coming from private donors and companies.  The ultimate goal of the park is to release the elephants into the wild once they have been properly nurtured back to health.  If you want to help support the Elephant Nature Park, you can do so!

About elephants

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The oldest male elephant, named Bad Boy!

Elephants are the largest land mammals and are highly intelligent.  Their brain weights 5kgs (or 11lbs), which is 4 times more than a human brain… our guess is that they are more intelligent than we are as well.  Seriously tough, it is often said that their intelligence is comparable to those of primates and cetaceans.  We have all heard the saying that someone has a memory like an elephant, and that is also true!  That’s why it takes so long for them to get over their abusive pasts.

They can communicate together through touch, sight, smell, and sound – they use infrasound, and seismic communication over long distances.  Plus, they appear to have self-awareness and show empathy for dying or dead individuals of their kind.

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These two are inseparable, looks like one of them just landed a killer joke!

While at the Elephant Nature Park, we were told of two elephants who had become friends and would hang out together all the time.  One day, the eldest of the two fell ill and passed away.  Her friend, heart-broken about the ordeal, would spend her days searching for the fallen elephant, crying out to her day-in and day-out… until she got over it one day and found herself a new friend!

Elephant abuse

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Another family with two children aged 2 and 6.

Elephant abuse is nothing new.  Often, many tourists just don’t know about how these gentle giants are treated to be able to put on a “good show” for tourists.  To get these wild animals to interact with humans, they must first undergo a cruel breaking process called “Phajaan”.  This will ultimately render the elephant submissive to their human trainers by breaking their spirit.

The Phajaan starts at a very young age – usually baby elephants are taken from the mothers between three to six years old.  They will keep the babies in small crates with their feet tied with ropes and their limbs stretched.  They will be repeatedly beaten with sharp metal hooks with hits to their head, slashing their skin and tugging their ears, constantly being yelled at, and they will be starved of food.  That’s why most elephants you will see in captivity have shredded or torn ears.

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Another way to stay cool is to throw dust on themselves, which after coming out of the water turns to mud.  This is elephant sunscreen!

Eventually, the ropes will be replaced with chains, but the abuse will not stop.  The Phajaan may last for weeks and these poor animals will have no rest from physical torture and mental domination.  The elephants must never be left alone because often, they will try to commit suicide by stepping on their trunk.  Gradually, their spirits break and their handlers achieve the control they seek.  The mahouts will not be the ones abusing the elephants, instead, they will come in and “save” them by offering them their first meal, and by taking them away from their crate and chains.  Just another form of manipulation.

We said it once, and we’ll say it again.  Research is imperative to be sure you are supporting the right type of organization.  Of the roughly 6,000 elephants left in Thailand, two thirds of those are in captivity, and as of 1986, have been considered to be endangered.

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Another way to stay cool is to hang out under these elephant umbrellas.  They get crowded during peak hours

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The best place to see and interact with elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand. An ethical way to being with elephants. Learn more about these beautiful creatures. www.wediditourway.com

The best of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand

Tips, tricks and recommendations to having the best time in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Where to stay, what to do and where to eat in the chillest city in Northern Thailand.

Ah, Thailand!  It seems as though we just can’t enough!  Our second round here was for a very specific reason: Songkran.  We weren’t sure where to celebrate it, but since we had already seen the southern islands, we figured it was time to discover a new part of the country.

We had heard all the hype about Northern Thailand: the chill vibes of Chiang Mai, the insane temples of Chiang Rai and the hippie town of Pai.  We wanted to see for ourselves, especially since Songkran was supposed to be pretty epic in Chiang Mai.

How to get there from Bangkok

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Street art around every street corner

Our journey started in Bangkok, and there are a ton of ways to get from the capital to Chiang Mai.  Keeping an eye out on flights, you can get a pretty cheap one to Chiang Mai. Ours was a little under $100USD for the two of us, including luggage. A total steal! And it’s the fastest way to get there, for sure.  And sometimes, it’s just slightly more expensive than taking the bus or train, but a hell of a lot shorter!

Just know that the buses and trains are also good options to get to Chiang Mai.  There are plenty of day and night buses and trains that go to Chiang Mai that may be a little more budget-friendly but less time-friendly.  So there is something for every type of traveler.  We hear the bus and train are great ways to see the country-side, unless you go at night, of course!

 Chiang Mai

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Around another corner

Chiang Mai is your base to explore the north of Thailand.  It’s also your gateway to Laos or Myanmar as it’s the largest of the northern cities.  Most buses leave from here so it’s pretty convenient.  And the city is pretty cool too.

A little history for you – Chiang Mai was the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558.  Many places still carry on the Lanna traditions and vestiges, like the Old City which still has its walls and moats.  Chiang Mai is also home to hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples.  But more on that later.

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All the temples in Chiang Mai are so beautiful!

One thing you will surely notice in Chiang Mai is that it’s a little paradise for digital nomads and expats.  They are everywhere, so it sometimes feel like you’re not really in Thailand anymore.  Still, it’s a pretty chill city, so we can understand why so many have chosen to call it home.  And you can totally understand why we spent more than 10 days here.  Just keep in mind that the north is more than just a bunch of cities and things to do.  It’s a vibe.  So just let go and enjoy your time here.  And don’t feel bad that you didn’t do and see everything on your list.  The whole philosophy here is to not have a list.

What to do

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So many of the temples in Chiang Mai feature sweet dragon carvings like this one

One of the main things you will notice about Chiang Mai is the impressive number of temples. There are hundreds of them around the city. Just walk around and you will see a ton of them, one around every street corner. We kid you not! Some are worth checking out more than others, but here are the main ones.

Wat Chedi Luang

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Being silly at Wat Chedi Luang

This temple is in the historic Center of Chiang Mai.  It’s one of the oldest temples in Thailand, dating back to the 14th century.  There are different parts to this temple.  One of which is the city pillar.  Somewhat upsetting is the fact that women can not enter it, because we menstruate, and will ruin the sanctity of the place.  The feminist in both of us dies a little when we read things like this!  Anyway, two other temples are still pretty cool, especially the one in ruins.

The temple is situated in the Old City, and there are signs directing you on how to get there, so it’s a fairly easy temple to visit.

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Restoration is happening at this oldest of temples

Doi Suthep

15 km away from the city, Doi Suthep is situated on top of a mountain that gives you amazing views of Chiang Mai.  You can easily hire a car to take you there, or take one of the songthaews there.  We didn’t make the trek there, because we were all templed out, but from what we hear, it’s quite lovely!  There are also tons of tours that include this stop in their itinerary, if you prefer visiting places hassle free.

Sticky Waterfalls

We totally wish we could have gone here, but the trek was a bit too much for us.  These are the famous Bua Tong waterfalls near Chiang Mai that have so much calcium built up, that they have become “sticky”.  You’ll have crazy grip on them, just channel your inner SpiderMan.  The falls are over an hour away from Chiang Mai, and there are many ways to get there.

You can hire a private car or a songthaew to get there.  Just make sure you split it with a few people so you make your buck go further. We didn’t know anyone in town, so this was not a great option for us.  If not, you can always take a scooter or motorbike if you are comfortable, which we were not.  This way, you can drive up there on your own, and spend as much time there as you’d like.  This just gives us another reason to go back to Thailand (as if we needed any more!)

Elephant nature park

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The biggest friend we have made so far!

This is probably going to be the highlight of your trip in Thailand!  You will see a ton of offers to see elephants and play with them.  The only thing we ask is that you do your research!  If they offer you to ride an elephant, to watch it paint for you, to see it do tricks for you, you need to refuse it.  These are all places that abuse their elephants.

We chose to go with Elephant Nature Park, for many reasons. You can read about our experience and see for yourself, if this is the type of place you want to support.  We sure hope you do!

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Got to get that sunscreen on!

Tons of day tours

If you are strapped for time, and can’t visit any other cities in the North, there are a ton of tours that can take you up to Chiang Rai to see all the famous landmarks there, including the White temple, Blue Temple and Black House.  We saw some as low as THB1100 for a whole day out including transport and food.  Expect to be crammed into a bus and on a very tight schedule with little time to explore.  But if these are a must-see on your list, it may be worth it.

Just walk around and take it all in

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Can’t get enough of this street art

One of our favourite things to do in any city is to just walk around.  You get such a good sense of the city by seeing what life is like on the streets.  Luckily, there are tons of shops and food stalls around to keep you entertained.  And Chiang Mai has an impressive number of street art for you to enjoy.  So take a day of two to just stroll the streets of the Old City.

Where to eat

There are a ton of places to eat in Chiang Mai. Especially in the Old City. An lucky for us, there are plenty of vegetarian options out there too! Here are a few places we really enjoyed.

Cat House: Right at the edge of the Old City, the Cat House is a great option for breakfast, lunch (even brunch) or dinner.  Their meals range from Western to Middle Eastern to Mexican.  Whatever you are in the mood for, they have it, and it’s delicious!  Our favourites were the omelette (boring Derek) and the chakshuka with hummus.  Delish!

Cooking Love:  There are 2 of these kitchens.  We went to the smaller one, that’s not attached to the hotel.  All the food is affordable and delicious!  Try the Khao Soi soup, a Chiang Mai staple, or the pineapple fried rice.  Either way, you can’t go wrong with much on the menu!

Peppermaint guesthouse: A quaint little place that serves vegetarian and vegan meals.  It’s small, but cozy, with just a few tables.  The owner, an old lady, is quite a pleasure to talk to.  We loved the massaman curry here.  The critics are split on this place, so it may be hit-or-miss for you.  We quite loved it here though!

North Gate Jazz Co-op: As the name suggests, the bar is at the North Gate of the Old City.  With bands coming out to play pretty much every night, and cheap beer, could you really ask for more?  An awesome place to grab drinks and just chill while listening to some good beats.  With seating inside and outside, on the sidewalk, try to get here early (around 9pm) as it does get quite crowded.  Some nights are open mic, so the quality of the band may not be the greatest.

Night market: A staple, a must-do and eat!  There are tons of night markets around the city.  We checked out one near Pantip plaza, and another called the Bumrung Buri Market.  Both have awesome options for vegetarians, and meat-eaters.  Take your pick of the busiest stall – those are usually the best ones anyway! Bon appétit!

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They sure love their elephants

Where to stay

We didn’t stay anywhere that we would actually recommend.  But what we do suggest is finding a place with a pool.  The heat becomes pretty unbearable.


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Songkran, everything you need to know about the best water festival

Everything you need to know about celebrating Songkran in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tips, tricks and etiquette about the Thai New Year.

Welcome to the wettest party of the year and the main reason we came back to Thailand.  This is Songkran, the best way to ring in the New year.  It combines family, temple visits, and the biggest water fight you’ve ever seen.  And how lucky were we to celebrate it in 2 different cities!

Before we talk about the water fight, let’s talk about what Songkran is and why this water fight is actually an important part of the ritual.

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Drive by scooter shooting, no fair!

Songkran is the moment that most Thais (and tourists) wait for every year.  It is the New year in the Hindu and Buddhist solar calendars.  It’s usually celebrated between April 13th and 15th.  Locals have these days off to celebrate and ring in the new year with friends and family.  Usually, big cities like Bangkok, experience a mass exodus with residents traveling back to their home towns.  But don’t worry, there are still tons of people in town ready to celebrate.  Just know that traveling around on those dates may take longer than expected and tickets get bought up fast.

Celebrating the traditions of Songkran

During this religious holiday, people pay respect to Buddha, to the monks, to their families and friends.  That’s why the Songkran celebrations actually start at home.  Traditionally, Thais perform the Rod Nam Dum Hua ritual on the first day of Songkran, the National Elderly Day.  During this ritual, young people pour fragrant water into their elders’ palms as a gesture of humility and to ask for their blessings.

The second day of Songkran is National Family Day.  Families wake up early and give alms to the monks.  Then, the rest of the day is spent sharing quality family time, either cleaning out their homes or just being together.

 

 

Another important religious ritual on Songkran is ‘Bathing the Buddha image’, in which devout Buddhists pour fragrant water over Buddha statues both at the temple and at home.  More religious Thais engage themselves in Buddhist ceremonies and merit-making activities throughout the holidays.  We visited some temples on this day to see what making merit was all about.  Devout believers would line up and pour water on buddha statues in temples.  They would sit and pray, make donations and spend a peaceful moment at the temple with their families.  We saw people of all ages, from children to the elderly, make their way to the temples to make merit.

As you can already see, water plays a big role during all the Songkran ceremonies.  Just like in the water fight, the splash of water is a symbolic way to wash off all the misfortune, to start a fresh and clean new year.  A perfect way to start the year!

The water fight

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Free water refills in Chiang Mai

Ok, now for the fun part.  The famous water fight.  Basically, for these 3 days, everyone takes to the streets to participate in water fights.  They usually start in the morning and are “supposed” to end when the sun goes down.  Though it seems like it never ends.  If you think you are going to get out of Songkran without getting soaked, think again.  No one is dry for the next 3 days.  Even if you don’t have a water gun.  Even if you walk with your hands up.  Even if you wear a raincoat.  No one is safe.  If you want to stay dry, stay home.  And this was true for both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Bangkok

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Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!  I might have been out of water, and definitely outnumbered.

The festivities take place in a few main streets.  Yes, you can stay dry if you are far from the action, but don’t bank on it.  Kids will often sit on balconies and pour water on passers-by.  So, good luck, you’ll still need it!

We celebrated the first day of Songkran in Bangkok, on Silom Road.  A stretch of the street, near Lumpini Park, is blocked off for the epic water fight. People walk up and down the street, splashing each other with water guns and buckets.  They will also splash you from the platform of the MRT station that is above the street.  The buckets, and sometimes hoses, are reserved mainly for the Thai shop-owners.  That’s because in Bangkok, they charge you to fill up your water bottles.  And water doesn’t come cheap.  You’ll be paying between 5 and 10 THB ($0.15 and $0.30USD) to fill those puppies up.  So keep some change on you.

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Silom Road insanity.

The water here is mainly clean water from the tap, but still, try not to drink it.  But again, good luck as many people will aim for your face when they spray you.

After you’re done spraying and getting sprayed, you can head to Lumpini Park where the main festivities are taking place.  The park is full of games, rides for kids, festival fare and shows.  They also hold an annual beauty contest during this time!

All in all, we had a great time celebrating Songkran in Bangkok.  The vibes were good, the fights were fair but paying for water was less fun.  And best of all, we were staying at Cloud on Saladaeng, a stone’s throw away from the action.  But more on that later.

Chiang Mai

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Chiang Mai insanity.

For Day 3 of Songkran, we were in Chiang Mai.  And wow, were we in for a surprise.  If we thought Bangkok was crazy, Chiang Mai was on a whole different level.

We celebrated mainly in the Old city, but people everywhere were armed with buckets and hoses, ready to splash anyone and everyone.  Forget any rules you may know about Songkran, they dont apply here in Chiang Mai.

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When she just won’t share the cold water.

Kids were lining up at the river, pulling water out to splash everyone.  Firefighters had their hoses set up splashing and filling up bottles.  People were sitting on the back of pickup trucks and splashing pedestrians as they drove by.  No chance you were getting them back.  It was total chaos and it was a freakin blast!

Within 5 minutes of leaving our hotel, we were already soaking wet.  From head to toe, drenched in ice cold water.  We got ambushed by kids hiding behind a wall.  Then, the sneak attack by the old couple on their balcony.  Finally, the quiet restaurant owner who  snuck up on us and poured a whole bucket of ice water on our backs.

Strategy

Just like in any war, you need a good strategy.  Here are the techniques that worked best for us:

  • In Chiang Mai, grab a bucket, find a watering hole and splash away
  • In Bangkok, get a few people together, all start screaming and spraying in 1 direction.  An epic water war will follow.
  • It might sound mean, but aim for the kids.  Their response is usually hilarious (they are ruthless and will fight back) and their parents will counter attack too.
  • Try to get a gun that has a large reservoir and a lot of power.  It will make things more fun.
  • Work out your trigger finger.  It will be sore by the end of the day.
  • Make as many friends as you can, you will need them during and ambush (and yes, you will get ambushed.  No one is safe)
  • Don’t shoot people with bigger guns then you
  • Be a water fight ninja.  Shoot, then look away.  They will never know who hit them!
  • The colder the water, the better!
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Kids make for the best targets!

FYI

During Songkran, most office buildings, banks as well as family-run shops and restaurants shut down completely, while big shopping malls usually remain open.

Songkran rules of engagement

There is more to this festival than the water fight.  Try to experience as much of it as possible.  Give alms and make merit, or if you prefer, just observe people who are doing it.

  • Protect your gear.  Use waterproof bags to protect your valuables.  If you can, avoid bringing tons of things with you.  Some money, your phone or GoPro, and you should be good
  • Watch your belongings.  Pickpockets are more present as people are less observant when getting splashed.
  • Wear dryfit or quick drying workout clothes.
  • Use public transportation if you are heading to one of Songkran ‘hotspots’.  Traffic gets rough and accidents are more prone to happen on this holiday.
  • Wish the locals a happy new year in Thai – “Sawasdee Pee Mai!”
  • You can’t splash just anyone.  Monks, babies and the elderly are off limits
  • Obviously, don’t drink and drive
  • Only use clean water, and without ice.  Though it does seem that the kids in Chiang Mai using the river water didn’t get this memo.
  • Safety first.  Don’t throw water at motorcyclists.  But again, this was not respected in Chiang Mai
  • Smile and have fun.  Don’t get upset, just splash back.

Where to stay in Bangkok

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Welcome to Cloud on Saladaeng

We were so happy to stay at Cloud on Saladaeng.  Close enough to the action on Silom toad and Lumpini park, but nestled away on a little street, so the party was never a bother.  And the helpful and friendly staff always made sure we knew what was going on so we didn’t miss a beat.

This beautifully designed hostel opened 3 months ago.  Inspired by the Chinese family who used to live there, they have kept some of the charm of the old building, like the gate at the entrance and the dragon columns.  You can really see the attention to detail that went into the design of this space, from the communal kitchen where breakfast was served every morning, to the living room where people would play on the game consol, to the tables and mats set up in the hallways.  Everything to get people talking to each other.

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Cozy room.

Ready to host travellers with a range on budgets, they have dorm rooms, private rooms with shared bathrooms and deluxe rooms with an ensuite.  The rooms may not be big, but they are perfectly sized for the amount of people that they hold.  We had a private room and it was cozy enough for us with plenty of room for our 2 backpacks.  And don’t get us started on the bed!  After spending countless nights on mattresses as hard as rocks, this bed was literally like sleeping on a cloud!

We loved this hostel so much.  More hostels should actually follow some of the basic things Cloud on Saladaeng does to go above and beyond.  Little things that add up to make a huge difference.  From the free snacks available all the time, along with free drinking water and coffee, the kitchen and fridge that were open to our use, the showers that were equipped with shampoo and body wash, no detail was left unnoticed.  Especially since most of these little things were good for the environment.

We could not recommend Cloud on Saladaeng any more!  During Songkran or not, it’s well-situated, cozy, friendly and overall awesome!  Like being on cloud 9 for a few days in the hustle and  bustle of the Kingdom’s capital.


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Everything you need to know about Songkran in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand. The wettest New year's party in the world. www.wediditourway.com

Bangkok, a go-to city guide

Tips, tricks, and recommendations to make the best of your time in Bangkok. What to do, where to stay, what to see and where to eat.

Bangkok.  If you’ve ever heard anyone talk about it, they either love it, or they hate it.  It’s big, it’s loud, it’s crazy.  But if you dig deep, it’s beautiful, wonderful and can be quite magical.  This capital city has plenty to keep you busy, whether you are a temple freak like us, looking for some shopping, great eats, or just to explore the city.

We only had a few days to explore the Venice of the East. Laugh now, if you have never been here, but it really is like it’s Italian counterpart.  We still managed to pack in some great sights.  If you really want to see all the musts, we would suggest staying in Bangkok for a good 4-5 days, and get ready to go, go, go.

Bangkok is a pretty big city, but it has a well-run public transport system. Your options are endless, so be ready to ride the subway, the sky train, taxis and tuk-tuks.  If you love boats like we do, you won’t be disappointed either.  See, we told you it’s like Venice!

Temples

Did we mention we’re temple freaks? If you’re like us, then Bangkok will not disappoint!  If there are over 30,000 temples in Thailand, so you can only imagine how many of them are in the capital.  Even if some may be small and tucked away in alleys or soi, there are plenty of big ones that will surely impress anyone.  Here are the most impressive ones we found.

If we have one pro tip for visiting these temples to avoid the large tour groups, it’s to go either at opening, or close to closing time.  We preferred the latter as the light is better for photography, it’s a “little cooler”, and you can catch a pretty wicked sunset.

Wat Arun

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One of our favorite’s, Wat Arun.

Also known as the Temple of the Dawn, Wat Arun was a very impressive sight to be seen.  It is unlike so many of the temples that we’ve experienced in Asia.  It stands out thanks to its many white Buddha carvings, exquisitely painted in beautiful pastels.  It has the iconic stupa, pyramidal shape that we have come to see everywhere in Northern Thailand.

As you are coming up the Chao Phraya river, Wat Arun will catch your eye from miles away.  If you head there near dusk, you will be able to catch a great sunset right behind it.

We really loved this place, it has a certain je ne sais quoi about it, at least for us!

Opening hours: 8:30AM – 5:30PM

Ticket prices: 100 Baht (roughly $3USD)

Getting here: The best and easiest way to get to Wat Arun is to grab one of the water taxis going down the Chao Phraya river.  The boat stops at the pier directly in front of the temple.

The Grand Palace

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Kit Dale / © Culture Trip

Bangkok’s must see attraction, the Grand Palace was built in the 18th century, and for 150 years was the home of the King of Thailand.  Today, it is the spiritual heart of Bangkok.  Unfortunately, we were not able to visit the Grand Palace, but that just gives us one more reason to come back to Bangkok another time!

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Kit Dale / © Culture Trip

Opening hours: 8:30AM – 3:30PM

Ticket prices: 500 baht ($16USD)

Getting here: From Wat Arun, you can jump onto the ferry that crosses the Chao Phraya river.  One stop away, this short boat ride will only cost you 9 baht per person.

Wat Pho

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Gold everywhere at Wat Pho.

Wat Pho, boasts the largest reclining buddha at 46 metres long and it measures 15 metres in height, quite impressive if you ask us!  At its conception, it was the first centre for public education in Thailand.  To this day, it is still the home of a school of Thai medicine, as well as a training centre for Thai massage, where you can still enjoy this ancient practice at a very reasonable price.  It is one of the largest and oldest wats (Thai Buddhist temples) in Bangkok.

Apart from the large reclining buddha, Wat Pho is also home to over 90 stupas (a mound like structure containing relics or remains of Buddhist monks) which serve as places of meditation.  They vary in size and colours, but they are all magnificent to gaze upon.

 

Opening hours: 8AM – 5PM

Ticket prices: 100 Baht (roughly $3USD)

Getting here: From the Grand Palace, walking to Wat Pho will take you less than 10 minutes.

Wat Saket

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One of the best places to get a view of Bangkok.

Also known as the Temple of the Golden Mount, this Bangkok landmark is unique in its own way.  Located on the top of an 80 metre “mountain”, Wat Saket was once the highest point in all of Bangkok.  Today, this golden temple is still a great place to visit to get a 360 degree view of Bangkok.

On the way to the top, up 300 steps, are many resting areas which are ornamented with a multitube of bells and gongs.  As we visited it during Songkran, many locals were visiting it as a part of the traditional merit making practices that are performed during this holiday.

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Merit making for Songkran at Wat Saket

There’s a little shop in the wat that sells all sorts of refreshments.  So, on a hot day, which are often in Bangkok, treat yourself to a cold ice cream once you reach the top!

Opening hours:9AM – 7PM

Ticket prices: 50 baht ($1.50USD)

Getting here: From Wat Pho, Wat Saket is a 30-minute walk, if you are up for it.  Otherwise you can jump on bus 2, though somehow, this takes more time than walking.  If you don’t mind paying a little more, you could also always jump into a taxi or tuk-tuk.

Getting Around on the Rivers

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Sunset over the Chao Phraya river.

As we cruised down the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok’s main naval artery, we thought how it reminded us very much of Venice.  Not 2 minutes later, in a new developing area on the river, was the bold statement, Bangkok: the Venice of the East!

One thing that we love about many cities (Venice, Bangkok and Brisbane to name a few we have recently visited) is when you can get around by ferry.  This is certainly the case in Bangkok, and was a nice surprise.  Although the waterways are quite polluted, they are also the living centres of the city.  As we rode down one of the smaller rivers, we could see Thai families sitting on the edge of the river, preparing meals, eating together, or washing their dishes or clothes.  These boat rides are a great way to see how every day life takes place in Bangkok.

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Bangkok canals, our favorite way to get around the city.

From water taxis, to longboats, to river cruises, Bangkok has you covered if sailing down the river is your thing, whether for transportation, or for leisure.  It is the main mode of transportation for the locals of Bangkok, and is quite affordable.

Check out this great reference if you plan on making your way anywhere via the river.

Opening hours:6AM – 7:30PM

Ticket prices: 10-15 baht ($0.50USD)

Markets

Patpong Night Market

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Siaw Tan / © Daily snippets of life

If you are on the look out for some souvenirs, clothes, watches, or jewelry, the Patpong market is the place for you. This market has anything you need, shopping wise.

People often associate Asian shopping with fake Chanel bags and knock off Rolexes. While you can and will certainly be able to find those here, they do have some rather nice and quality local products as well.

Pro tip for you: like most anywhere in Thailand, bargain, bargain, bargain!  The first price you are given by any vendor at the market will always be more than what the item is worth. Be respectful in your negotiations, if someone tries to sell you a watch for $100USD, don’t be insulting and offer him $30…  Yes, they are trying to get as much as they can from tourists, and you can and should try to get a lower price, but they are most likely living a tougher situation than you, and trying to rob them is not the answer.  The best bargains leave both parties happy with the price they agreed on.

Opening hours: 5PM – 1AM

Floating markets

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Janaline / © Janaline’s world journey

Again, we were unfortunately not able to head to any of the floating markets in Bangkok, having only spent a few nights in this city.  We do hear though that, given enough time to fit into your schedule, these are must-sees while in town, even if  they are all kind off far away from the centre of Bangkok.  None-the-less, here are the go to floating markets.  Check at least one out!

  • Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – Thailand’s best known and most touristy floating market.  They mainly sell food and fruits.  Just know it’s far (100 km outside Bangkok) and swarming with tourists, so it doesn’t feel “real” anymore. Make sure you get there early!
  • Amphawa Floating Market – The second most famous market, and another touristy one.  This one is slightly closer at 90km out of the city.  Cute, fun and lined with little wooden houses, you can find anything from souvenirs to snacks ans sweets.  Just make sure you get there early and leave around noon, before the other tourists show up.
  • Talin Chan Floating Market – At 12km from the city centre, this is the most accessible market.  It’s much smaller, but still has everything you’re looking for in a floating market.  It’s also attached to a local market, so you can keep exploring.
  • Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market – Much smaller than the other markets, and mainly for locals, this is as authentic as they get.  Although the main market itself is on solid ground, with only a few boats, here’s your chance to sample all kinds of fun sweets and fruits.  It’s located just near Taling Chan Floating Market, so you can explore both in the same morning.
  • Bang Nam Pheung Floating Market – The smallest of them all (with only a handful of boats), this market is situated near the city, in an area called “The Lung of Bangkok”.  Even if it’s close, it’s still a bit of a trek to get to.  It’s surrounded by trees and a mangrove which offer you some shade.

For more information on these markets, check out this great guide.

Pak Khlong Talat Flower Market

Ah, the flower market. This is where to go if you are looking for some beautiful flowers or just see hustle and bustle of local Thai businesses. It is the biggest flower market in Bangkok, and the cheapest place to find them.  You can get anything you are looking for, from roses and orchids, to lilies and classic forget-me nots, and here you will find the best prices.  Walk through this wonderful garden market and take in the smells and the sights, you won’t regret it.

Opening hours: Amazingly, this place is open 24 hours, but the best time to visit is just pre-dawn, when the vendors receive their flower deliveries.  We won’t hold it against you if you decide to sleep in though, we sure did!  We ended up going the day before Songkran, and it was still buzzing, well after 5pm.

Getting here:The flower market is right near Wat Pho, so if you are not already in the area taking in some epic temples, just jump on the ferry on the Chao Phraya river and get off at the Yodpiman stop.

Where to stay

When it comes to accommodations in Bangkok, there are plenty of offers, from budget-friendly to high-budget.

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Welcome to Cloud on Saladaeng.

We were so happy to stay at Cloud on Saladaeng, especially since we were there for Songkran.  Close enough to the action on Silom road and Lumpini park, but nestled away on a little street, so the party was never a bother.  The helpful and friendly staff always made sure we knew what was going on so we didn’t miss a beat.

This beautifully designed hostel opened 3 months ago.  Inspired by the Chinese family who used to live there, they have kept some of the charm of the old building, like the gate at the entrance and the dragon columns.  You can really see the attention to detail that went into the design of this space.  From the communal kitchen where breakfast was served every morning, to the living room where people would play on the game console, to the tables and mats set up in the hallways.  Everything to get people talking to each other.

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Cozy room.

Ready to host travellers with a range of budgets, they have dorm rooms, private rooms with shared bathrooms and deluxe rooms with an ensuite.  The rooms may not be big, but they are perfectly-sized and well thought out for the amount of people that they hold.  We had a private room and it was cozy enough for us with plenty of room for our 2 backpacks.  And don’t get us started on the bed!  After spending countless nights on mattresses as hard as rocks, this bed was literally like sleeping on a cloud!

We loved this hostel so much.  More hostels should actually follow some of the basic things Cloud on Saladaeng does to go above and beyond.  Little things that add up to make a huge difference.  From the free snacks available all the time, along with free drinking water and coffee, the kitchen and fridge that were open to our use, the showers that were equipped with shampoo and body wash, no detail was left unnoticed.  Especially since most of these little things were good for the environment, we were hooked.

We could not recommend Cloud on Saladaeng any more!  During Songkran or not, it’s well-situated, cozy, friendly and overall awesome!  Like being on cloud 9 for a few days in the hustle and  bustle of the Kingdom’s capital.

Where to Eat

Breakfast: The Good One hostel. We went to this lovely hostel for breakfast each morning  we weren’t at Cloud.  And couldn’t have been happier. The coffee was great, the food delicious, and best of all, for budget travellers like us, the price was right.

Lunch: Yai Yaa Kitchen. Our first afternoon in Bangkok was spent walking around and exploring, so once we built up a hunger, we stopped at this cozy little lunch spot on Silom Road.  They had plenty of vegetarian options, which is a key for us, and again, the prices were very reasonable.

Supper: Taling Pling. We were treated for supper when we visited some friends from Montreal who were just starting their honeymoon.  Nothing beats a big potluck style supper, and that’s what we had here.  The variety was great.  Again, there were quite a few vegetarian options, and everything left our mouths watering.  While a tad more on the expensive side, if you are looking to treat yourself for an evening, Taling Pling won’t disappoint!

Quick eats: Holy Cheese!  I mean, holy!  When we travel to different countries, we love eating and discovering their local cuisine, but sometimes you miss some good old comfort food from back home.  This eatery was just that.  Nestled on the 4th floor of a mall near Lumphini park, the decadent use of cheese in the pulled pork sandwich that Derek had, mixed with the cheesy fries that we shared, was just the comfort we were looking for!

Street food/markets: Around any corner, you


We put a lot of time and effort into the content we create.  Please like, comment and share, every action on your part helps us out tremendously and is very much appreciated.

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The ultimate guide to having the best trip in Bangkok, Thailand. Where to go, what to see, where to stay and eat, tips and tricks. www.wediditourway.com