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Travel Guide: Chiang Mai x2

After time in Hanoi and Sapa, my sister and I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand on New Year’s Eve. I was excited to be back as soon as we landed.

We dropped our bags and headed straight for Sunday Walking Street, one of Chiang Mai’s many night markets. It sells food, clothing, art, home decor, and just about anything else that one might need or desire. For those who love to shop, there’s a regular night market and a Saturday Walking Street, too.

It was busier than usual because of New Year’s Eve so we ducked out for dinner once the crowds became unpleasant. Once it was dark, we joined groups of locals and tourists setting off paper lanterns along the river, just inside the walls that cordon off central Chiang Mai from the rest of the city. (I’d love to go to the Lantern Festival one day.) Encouraged by a friendly Thai man, we scribbled messages on our lantern before finding someone with a candle who helped us light it. With his help, we held the lantern to the ground until he decided, seemingly arbitrarily, that it was ready to hold itself up in the sky. We let go and watched the lantern float up and over the river, following hundreds of others. Such a cool way to send off positive wishes for a new year.

A few hours later, we rang in 2018 from Zoe in Yellow, a Chiang Mai club that absorbed the parties from every bar on its street. Security and bartenders were kind enough to look the other way as all patrons wandered from bar to bar, dancing wherever the best song was playing.


On New Year’s Day, we visited one of several massage centers in Chiang Mai where female ex-convicts are trained in the art of massage. Thai massage is very different from any massage that I’ve had (and I don’t always like being touched, so massages are infrequent) and I really enjoyed it. You’re fully dressed and the masseuse is right up on the bed with you, using her entire body to pull, twist, and stretch yours. She was contorted into as many positions as I was throughout the process. It was a new physical experience for me and a lovely way to spend an hour.

We spent the afternoon wandering around, the streets blissfully empty this time, and found some really lovely street art that basically exemplifies why I love Chiang Mai so much. It’s a small town with so much personality and so much good will. Really delicious cafés and coffee shops, too! We visited at least one every afternoon. Chiang Mai is laid-back, calm, and friendly, all of which were greatly appreciated after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

We also saw some of Chiang Mai’s many temples. They’re ornate, colorful, incredibly detailed, and very impressive. They can also get a little tiring and all start to look the same after a while. Since Chiang Mai has so many, though, one way of getting to know the city is by going from temple to temple and creating a mental map. That’s what I did the first time I was there and I was surprised at how much I remembered.

Visiting temples at night, however, was a new experience and a very different one. What is beautiful in the light can take on a very eerie, creepy quality in the dark. That was only enhanced by the man riding his bike in circles whispering, “Beautiful . . .” over and over.

We actually spent most of our time in Chiang Mai out of town and in the wider province. On our second full day we went on an excursion to Phuping Palace, the royal family’s holiday home, and Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai’s most famous temple. We were far more interested in the latter but I’m glad we saw the palace, too. We weren’t allowed inside but the gardens were lovely!

If you’re planning to go, one word of caution. Just like the Grand Palace in Bangkok, there’s a dress code that is more strict than the regular temple dress code. For men, it’s long pants (no shorts, even if they cover the knee) and a shirt that covers the shoulders. For women, it’s a skirt or long pants (no leggings, though fine in a temple) and a shirt that covers the shoulders (no scarves for this part, though that’s fine in a temple). Luckily, there are clothes to buy or rent if you’re in a bind.

After some time at Phuping Palace and a short drive, we reached Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and walked up 306 steps to reach it. Like every temple that we visited in and around Chiang Mai, this one was full of monks and worshippers giving offerings and saying prayers in the hope of a prosperous new year. Doi Suthep is actually the name of the mountain on which the temple is located and there were really beautiful views of the city from the summit. It was a cloudy day so I’ll keep those pictures to myself because they really don’t do it justice.

The primary reason I had wanted my sister to visit Chiang Mai was because of Elephant Nature Park. That’s what first brought me to Chiang Mai a couple years ago and I could not wait to share it with my sister. ENP is a rescue center for elephants previously in captivity from logging operations, circus performances, or as tourist attractions on city streets. ENP also has an expansive dog rescue program with its own set of volunteers. There are other animals living there, too, like cats and water buffalo. At ENP, no one rides the elephants. You feed them, learn about their individual personalities and life stories, bathe them when it’s warm enough (it is in September but some were wearing jackets in January!), and touch them if they’ll let you. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful animals and I was so glad to be back.

We spent our last day in Chiang Mai up in the mountains. We headed to Doi Inthanon National Park, which is part of the Himalayas and home to the highest mountain in Thailand that gives the park its name. The climate of Doi Inthanon is always chilly, hovering around 10ºC or 50ºF during the day, and I was glad for my jacket.

After about two hours of driving, we stopped at Wachirathan Waterfall. I grew up in upstate New York and spent summers camping in Letchworth State Park and this waterfall reminded me a little bit of home. I loved climbing down on the rocks to get as close to the spray as possible. We used to stand in the gorges trying to catch whatever fish darted around in there. We called them crayfish, but I’m not sure that’s what they were.

After some time at the waterfall, we took a quick drive to Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, the real reason we’d come to Doi Inthanon. We hiked for two hours through the cloud forest, which was really neat because we’d visited Singapore’s Cloud Forest in Gardens by the Bay two weeks earlier and here we were in a real one! Normally, the guide told us, there’s a stunning view of the mountain range and nearby temples from the summit. The day we were there, however, was an anomaly. We could see . . . nothing.

Knowing what I was missing because of a photo from the guidebook, I was initially disappointed. And then I started paying attention to everything I could see and my emotional response, attitude, and interpretation of the experience completely changed. I started looking around and found myself feeling calm and peaceful. I felt wrapped up in mist from the clouds, hugged by everything around me. Only being able to see a few meters in any direction forced me to focus more deeply than I often do when I’m outside and there’s so much to see. With less distraction, it was easier to experience beauty and serenity in everything that there was.

While I could have happily spent many more hours hiking in the mountains, we followed the guide to the burial site of the ancient Lanna kings. As everywhere in Thailand, there were people praying and leaving offerings, which I always like to see. Religious devotion is always interesting to me because I grew up understanding it so completely. My thoughts have changed a lot since then.

Another major attraction of Doi Inthanon National Park are the pagodas dedicated to the king and queen. Normally, you can see them from the top of the mountain but we had the additional surprise of not being able to see them at all because of the fog. The guide shrugged and told us to wander around the gardens, which we did. It’s still amusing to watch monks taking selfies, especially when there’s nothing to see. As we wandered, though, the sun broke through the clouds and the fog cleared for just long enough to allow us to see what we’d come to see.

The King Pagoda was surrounded by really beautiful scenes of the life of the Buddha and was absolutely empty inside, which is unusual. I really liked the brown and gray with hints of purple, which is also unusual. Temples are so pretty when they’re simple.

The Queen Pagoda was decorated with purple mosaics. This I had never seen and this I loved. This queen loved purple, the guide told us. So do I.

After some time at the pagodas, we went to a nearby market just for a quick look. Though my sister and I told each other we weren’t hungry, we used that quick look to buy a cup of strawberries and another cup of gooseberries!

According to the guide, the last stop with this particular tour is usually the Sirithan Waterfall. Though smaller and initially less impressive than the first, I enjoyed listening to the water.


However, since so many people in our group had asked about local livelihoods, he took us to a village that grows rice in the summer and coffee throughout the year!

Our visit to Doi Inthanon was such a great day and it was a little difficult to know that our trip was at an end. But it was such a wonderful way to say goodbye to a place I really love. Here’s to hoping I’ll be back soon!


Travel Guide: Sydney

Last week, I explored a tiny fraction of a huge country and I can’t wait to go back. Two girlfriends and I flew to Sydney and took a road trip south along the coast to Melbourne. We ate a lot of delicious food, drank excellent wine, and sang more than a few Disney songs. We laughed, took pictures, and walked everywhere we could.

The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Sydney was the weather. It’s spring in Australia right now and I was cold. I tend to run cold, which helps out in Singapore but is a detriment elsewhere. Feeling the fresh air of Sydney and being able to dress in layers and walk around comfortably undoubtedly had an impact on our positive feelings throughout the trip.

We started our Sydney adventure with a wander towards Circular Quay (that’s where the Opera House is) and through the Rocks, which was hosting a neat artists’ market. It was there that we first recognized the laid-back, beachy, relaxed vibe of the city. People everywhere were friendly and welcoming. There’s a certain calm, even in large groups of people, that reminded me of my trip to Southern California last December. The atmosphere felt like California, but the architecture and style reminded me a lot of New Orleans. We saw these wrought-iron balconies everywhere!


I rarely do any shopping when I travel and didn’t buy anything at the market, but did enjoy looking at everything for sale. Lots of good gifty things if you’re into that. Eventually, we made our way to Harbor Bridge, walked across it, and looked out over the water. That was my personal “must do” for Sydney and the view did not disappoint:


From the bridge, we followed the road around the harbor back to Circular Quay where we saw some really beautiful foliage and the bridge itself. I absolutely loved the purple trees! It was also fun to watch the sun begin to set, which happens later in the evening in Sydney than in Singapore. That was nice, too.

The following day started with a walk through Hyde Park, which made me laugh because that’s the name of the Chicago neighborhood where my family spent a year when I was very little. Hyde Park in Sydney was full of runners and bikers and is also the home to the Anzac Memorial. I first learned about Anzac from an Australian colleague in Malaysia a couple years ago; I’d seen a lot of war memorials but never one for Anzac.

Later, we made our way to the Botanic Gardens (walking through pretty areas with greenery was a theme of the trip), pausing at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The church itself struck me as odd because the architecture just didn’t seem to fit. But church architecture is church architecture the world over. I love identifying human commonalities because they act as a reminder that we are indeed similar, despite the very different ways that we interpret the world.


The Botanic Gardens, located across the harbor from Circular Quay, were really beautiful and a charming place to be on a Sunday afternoon. Like Hyde Park, they were also full of people. We saw more than one garden party complete with stylish hats. Legacy of colonialism, methinks!

When it started to rain, we visited the Australian Museum where we were happy to learn about some of Australia’s history. We saw the same names repeated over and over on street signs as we traveled and I appreciated the sense of grounding that comes from knowledge, a glimmer of understanding of what makes a place what it is.

For our last full day in Sydney, we decided to take a bus out of the city (Opal cards for public transit work throughout the state of New South Wales – so cool!) and visit Bondi Beach to see Sculpture by the Sea, a really cool annual art show set in a beautiful place. Many thanks to the Uber driver who told us about it! The bus ride took us out of where we were staying in the CBD through parts of Sydney where real people actually live. It was nice to see regular neighborhoods and get a brief glimpse of their individuality and character.

As we knew it would be, Bondi Beach was beautiful and so was the weather, another theme of our trip. The sky really was that blue!

Sculpture by the Sea was a really engaging show because the sculptures were designed to fit into the landscape. It was a very enjoyable walk up along the rocks, admiring and trying to understand the art while looking down at the beach below. Admittedly, my favorite piece might not have actually been part of the exhibition. I didn’t buy the booklet with the information so I can’t be sure, but it was too amusing not to share. Please enlarge the photos below. I promise they’re not all the same!

We headed back to Bondi and took the bus through rolling hills that gave us gorgeous views of the Sydney skyline. I was tempted to suggest getting off but we didn’t really know where the stops were or when we could expect another bus to arrive. All we knew was that we were heading to the bus terminus at Watsons Bay, again on recommendation of the Uber driver.

Upon arrival, we found exactly what we were looking for: lunch and a nice spot in which to eat it. The pelicans (enormous birds – I had no idea!) thought so, too!

Again based on the advice of our Uber driver (goodness, we are trusting people!), we used our Opal cards to take the local ferry from Watsons Bay back to Circular Quay. I love boats and was so, so happy to spend about 20 minutes standing at the railing, taking pictures in between closing my eyes to absorb everything I could from the water, sun, and air.

In a poetic sort of way, our Sydney adventure started and ended in Circular Quay. That was the first place on our list of places to go and where we were heading when we got distracted by the artists’ market at the Rocks. It was also the last real “sight” of this part of the trip, with a sense of familiarity this time instead of awe. After all, new sights are only new once. (Arguably, they’re new again if you see them through someone else’s eyes, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.)

After three nights in Sydney, we embarked on part two of our Australia adventure. We rented a car and drove about 1,000km along the coast to see pretty places on our way to Melbourne!


Finding a Secret

It’s been a while since I’ve gone hiking. It was last year, in fact, when I visited friends in Southern California over December break. I love hiking and exploring nature and breathing clear air, so I immediately said yes when a coworker suggested a walk through Silver Lake Preserve in Westchester County last week. We had a heat wave, too, so it really was summer for about three days, which is as good a time as any to seek shade and relief from humidity by wandering through trails and trees.

The vast majority of the trail was deserted and I’m not sure many people actually know Silver Lake Preserve exists. It’s beautiful, so I’m not quite sure why that is, though parking was a challenge so maybe that’s a deterrent.

Every so often, however, we came across signs that others had been there. And we felt strangely like we were documenting our own version of the The Blair Witch Project.

We did our best to follow the Heritage Trail around the lake but were not very successful following the trail markers, which also contributed to an uncanny Blair Witch sensation. We were pretty sure we wanted the blue trail, but saw an equal number of yellow, red, and white squares and groupings of circles painted on trees. But we must have done something right because here I am telling you about it!

It is not an exaggeration to say that we couldn’t hear or see any cars or any signs of civilization for most of our time in the woods. I felt a sense of peace and quiet that surprised me; I didn’t realize how much I missed places like Mendon Ponds Park back home in Rochester. I felt light and free and enjoyed myself without thinking too hard about it, jumping on rocks and logs and smiling at the sound of mud squishing underfoot. My new Tevas did not disappoint!

And then, of course, there was the lake itself. Water is my happy place. No doubt about it. I love the way it looks, sounds, and smells. I love throwing my head back and opening my whole body to absorb as much of its energy as I can. It makes me feel alive, each and every time.

I’ve been remiss in not really venturing anywhere in Westchester County aside from school. I’m glad to know that places like Silver Lake Preserve exist, especially when I spend so much time in the noise, crowds, and concrete of the city. The good company and very welcome change of scenery left me with a feeling of relaxation that carried me through the rest of the week. I’ve learned that there are other parks in Westchester and I’m looking forward to exploring them, too!

In nature nothing exists alone. – Rachel Carson