Since being in Khon Kaen, the occasional cabin fever feeling has fueled many of my last minute travels. My first trip was actually outside of Thailand. On a Wednesday I booked a ticket for Singapore and on Friday I arrived, much to the shock of both Colleen and I. Colleen, a fellow UR blogger, was one of the first friends I made at Richmond. She was my freshman hall neighbor in Laura Robins and we lived through the always awkward and transitional first year together. She is one of those people that can make me question how I went eighteen years of my life not knowing her, so when I found out we would still be living in the same hemisphere this semester, I could not have been happier.
My reunion travel began late Thursday night with an over-night bus adventure to Bangkok, taxi drive to the airport, and plane ride. At two in the afternoon Friday, I finally arrived on the island city-state. Standing in the Singapore airport that prides itself on being “an experience in itself” with a broken phone, I questioned if I would ever find Colleen. By pure luck, I bumped into her twenty minutes after landing and our adventurous weekend began.
After the exchanges of “oh my goodness I’ve missed you” hugs, “how is life” responses, and “look what happened” pictures, we ate dinner in one of the well-known ‘hawker centres’ filled with superb street fare (and Indian food I had been craving so much). We wandered about the city streets, perched on an apartment rooftop, and eventually made our way to the CÉ LA VI bar and observation deck atop the Marina Bay Sands Resort The dancing lasting until four in the morning and the amazing view of the modern city made for a pretty surreal night.
The next day, we walked…a lot. We were able to pack in an extensive tour of the city and even found time for yoga and a catnap atop a magical rooftop garden. We spent the rest of the night strolling through the Gardens by the Bay and laying in the grass marveling at the twinkling lights and harmonious music. This was when a “oh my goodness I can’t believe I’m here” moment kicked in and I left the gardens with such a love for this city. Of course, we could not have finished the night more perfectly than with the ice cream and chick flick we mindlessly consumed. This weekend getaway ended too soon as weekends always do, but it was so nice to spend time in such a wonderful city with an even more wonderful friend!
Continuing the last minute planning trend, my next trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand was very unexpected. Two girls on my program, Leah and Julia, and I mentioned doing a weekend trip on Monday. It was not until Friday that the subject came about again and one hour later, we were in a taxi on our way to the Khon Kaen bus station. A ten-hour bus ride to Chiang Mai was the only thing we knew we had booked for our weekend trip. We did not have hostel reservations, day tours, or tickets back to Khon Kaen, but we were not concerned.
I still stand by the idea that a lack of formal plans or expectations makes for the best adventures. Somehow for me, everything always seems to work out, even if I least expect it to. The three of us managed to check into a hostel at 8:25 a.m., and by 8:35 we were running to catch a songtow (a ‘taxi’ like mode of transportation that is essentially two-rows of seats in the back of a truckbed) with our half-cooked pancakes in hand for a day trip trek. What makes Chiang Mai one of the most popular destinations in Thailand is because of its combination of lively night markets, ancient wall ruins, and magnificent mountains, all of which we were able to take advantage of.
We began our day visiting an elephant recovery center. We fed the elephants bananas and bamboo, and even bathed them in the river. The elephant I was giving a bath, Di Jai, however, decided she did not want to take a bath anymore and walked out of the river. Meanwhile, I was still on her back left wondering how in the world I was going to get down.
After we visited with the elephants, we trekked our way up to a waterfall near where the Hill Tribes reside. We swam and splashed in the water until it was time to go rafting. Julia, Leah, and I were assigned to a canoe with another couple and our rafting instructor. He led his unexperienced team through some pretty incredible rapids and showed us the best views of vast mountains and lush rice fields. We ended the day with the largest night market in Chiang Mai filled with silks, Thai pants, and even live animals, and eventually made our way home to Khon Kaen the following day. Chiang Mai is an incredible city that is too big to see in a day and a half, so I hope to return there someday soon.
My next travel destination, Nong Khai, is a small treasure nestled beside the Mekong River just two hours from Khon Kaen. The capital of Laos, Vientiane, is situated just on the other side of the Friendship Bridge, an Australian infrastructure connecting the country with Thailand and aiding Laos development. From my guesthouse situated beside the calm running water, I felt like I could almost touch Laos.
The city of Nong Khai is quite tranquil and charming. Upon arrival, the locals welcomed me and four other ‘farang’ friends as if were family, offering their best English ‘hello, how are you’-s and calling us beautiful (“suwai”) as we passed the open shops. We stumbled upon the small downtown area early on our trip that was bustling with both indoor and outdoor markets. These stores had some of the most magnificent Thai silks and woodcarvings, along with some of the most unusual kanomes (snacks) I had ever seen, including buffalo hide and dried bat.
Nong Khai reminded me just how affordable Thailand is. For just 50 baht ($1.40), my friends and I were able to rent bikes for the full day which really enabled us to see the city’s nooks and crannies (and feel like young kids again). By simply looking at the skyline, we saw the top of an intriguing statue. We followed the figure like it was the North Star. After several close encounters with angry dogs and potholes the size of black holes, we were left amazed. We found the Sala Kaew Ku Park. This sculpture garden, constructed over a 20-year span, contains Luang Pu Boun Leua Sourirat’s Hindu-Buddhist inspired visions with some even towering at over 82 feet tall. I cannot describe how I felt at that time, standing so small beneath what I still think is the closest thing I’ve come to a Wonder of the World.
Following this portion of our day’s exploration was a race to get back to our guesthouse. At 5:30, a ‘sunset boat’ would leave the small port for an hour ride on the river if enough people were interested. Upon arrival, we were the only ones waiting in line for the ride. This actually worked well, because for just $30, the five of us together rented our own personal houseboat restaurant that sailed the Mekong for an hour under the cotton candy sunset sky. Laos was even closer now, and so were the Laotian dragon boat racers we once saw from a distance on the Thai riverfront. The night commenced with a margarita at the only cocktail bar in town and a wonderful four-hour night/early morning bike ride to the Friendship Bridge and through the market square. Nong Khai remains one of my favorite destinations in all of Thailand.