Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Thailand Travels

Our second full day in Bangkok was a quintessential Thai tour: elephant riding, the favorite pad Thai (Thai fried noodles with vegetables, bean sprouts, peanuts and spice) of our van driver, and driving around the city.  We wanted to see the Grand Palace, but the King was actually in that day!  Instead, at the park across the street we cheered on at least 100 runners who were running laps for a 9-hour ultra-marathon -- in that heat, it was extremely commendable.

Our elephant trainer liked Kat and I, so he allowed us to sit on the shoulder blades rather than just the bench.  It was a short ride, but such an incredible experience because our elephant (a 40 year old female) was extremely intelligent and kind.

Mr. Green, our fantastic Thai taxi van driver, brought us to a weekend market and then to eat what he knows as Bangkok's best pad Thai.

A view from outside the Grand Palace walls.
One of the characteristically colorful runners at the ultra-marathon.

Instagram shots with the elephants :)

Listening: The droning lecture of my international relations class (oops).
Thank you for everyone's lovely comments!  Hope you're enjoying the photos.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Bangkok ~ กรุงเทพมหานคร

This is awfully overdo, but I have to post some photos from my spring break trip to Thailand!  We were there for over a week starting May 4th, and it was paradise!  It was a really good opportunity to gain perspective on another Asian country.  We started out in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand and the most populous city at almost 8.3 million people.
Judging from the brief time I spent there, Bangkok cleaner, quieter, and friendly than Shanghai.  Obviously there are a lot of factors here, and we didn't really seek out the darker side of things, but I appreciated how drivers didn't honk their horns (and drive on the left), the slower pace of life ('Thai time' -- I theorize that it's so darn hot, no one wants to move any quicker to sweat more!), vendors and taxi drivers are courteously pushy but not relentless, and if you make eye contact with other individuals, they would actually smile back.  The Thai culture seems to value politeness, which was refreshing.
 Us seven ladies stayed on the 33rd floor of the Anatara, a luxury hotel experience that probably won't be repeated for a while (Expedia was had 50% off all hotels and it helps splitting the price between so many people).
 The views from our two(!) balconies were spectacular.
 Thailand is almost completely Theravada Buddhist, and I loved seeing the shrines and temples.
 We squeezed seven of us into these scooter-carts that they call Tuk Tuks (Charlotte took this photo and piled in after)!  Even the driver thought it was hilarious.  
That afternoon we took a cruise on the Chao Phraya River, which gave us so many views that we would never know from the street.

 We also took a look at one of the most famous temples in the city, Wat Arun.

 The Theravada Buddhist architecture is so distinctive and colorful.

To cool down from the heat of the day, we lolled about the infinity pool at our hotel with some cocktails.  
Oh, how I wish the Shanghai skyline burned during the sunsets like Bangkok!  

If you've seen The Hangover Part II which is set in Bangkok, maybe you remember the scene when they're at a rooftop restaurant and a helicopter shooting occurs?  We were able to go to that Sky Bar!  It's the world's highest open-air bar on the 63rd story of the Lebua State Tower.  Unfortunately I don't have any decent photos, but the 360 views were unbelievable.  It was a classy establishment, with attendants in suits and a dress code for patrons.  Because you weren't allowed to linger on the stairs and patio that lead to the restaurant,  we were all ushered to the crowded bar and viewing platform.  Afterwards, we went to a night market called Patpong, which was complete with food vendors, counterfeit goods, sex shows and bars.  It was a fun area to wander around, but no, we didn't have any experiences like The Hangover Part II! 

Friday, May 3, 2013

玉龙雪山 & 丽江 // Yunnan Days 6-Return

We voyaged a bit further south to the ancient town of Lijiang 丽江  and Jade Snow Dragon Mountain 玉龙雪山.  Our hotel was right in the old town, which was so exciting because we could wander the streets full of Yunnan souvenirs, bright lanterns, and eager vendors until the end of the night.
My friend Caroline has an amazing haggling talents.  She is always able to charm and persuade vendors into the price she desires, even if it takes 20 minutes!  The man here etched these wonderful carvings and since we kept bringing friends back to buy, he liked her even more, telling her to stand behind the counter while he dealt with all the customers!  Based on those few days, it seemed that Lijiang vendors were much more good-natured and genuine than the ones in Shanghai.
Lijiang is an ancient town (city) from the Tea & Horse Trading Road, but in the distance towers Jade Snow Dragon Mountain.  It is positively epic, and the glacier geo-park was the first of its kind established in China with a 5A rating (the best of the best).  We attended Zhang Yimou's (director of Hero, House of Flying Dragons, the Beijing Olympic Ceremonies) 70 minute production of "Impression Lijiang", which told the natural history of Yunnan with the mountain as its backdrop!  Not only were there 400 actors of Naxi, Yi, Bai and  other Yunnan ethnic origins, but also 100 horses, drumming, singing, dancing, a folk tale and love story woven with a soaring soundtrack.  I cried out of awe.  This is merely one of three "Impression" shows that Yimou has produced around China.  If you'd like to read more, read here.
My impression of the Mountain only began there, because then we took buses and a cable car over 15,000 feet to one of the glacial peaks of Jade Snow Dragon Mountain!

Sights of the Lijiang valley below in between the swirling clouds.

I can't lie, the walk up the stairs was tough!  The air was so thin, my body felt tired after a few flights.  Many of the Chinese tourists had oxygen cans to help themselves.  On the way up, we had a snow ball fight and watched tourists in their long red coats body-tobaggen down the glacier!  Too funny. 
The Naxi people named this snow mountain from the way the jagged formations resemble a dragon.

My friends and I made it about 4750 meters before we had to turn around and rejoin the group, because you're not supposed to spend more than a half hour on the peak (we were there for at least an hour).  It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I've ever had.  It felt like conquering the world!

Back at ground level, we had more time to discover the huge ancient town.  It looked a lot like "Spirited Away" at night when the shutters closed and the lights turned off, and we joked about turning into pigs (movie reference here).

The Naxi pictograph writing is supposedly the last of its kind that is actively used, in the world!
Our CIEE Yunnan group.  We had a last lunch together in Lijiang then took a flight to Kunming, delayed a bit during the layover, then flew 3 hours back to Shanghai at 10 PM.  And so my Yunnan adventure came to an end with a stumbling return into my host family's apartment in at 2 AM.  I truly hope I can return one day because there were still so many incredible sights that we didn't have time for.

I am pumped to let you know, though, that I am leaving in the next hour to the airport for my independent spring break!!  Yes, I promise you I actually have classes and homework with CIEE, but it is fantastic to have another week to fulfill our own wanderlust.  I'm vacationing in Thailand with 5 other ladies, where we'll be in Bangkok until Sunday and then the island of Ko Samet for the rest of the week!  We haven't planned a very busy schedule because relaxing is the first priority, but I am sooo excited to finally go to Thailand because I definitely would have opted to study abroad there had I already been to China.  But as it turns out, I have the best of both worlds!

I'll update when I'm back, and I hope you all are doing well!  To my St. Lawrence friends and family, I wish you all the luck and strength during finals week.  I'll try to send the paradise vibes your way.