Fortunate Travel Timing in Chiang Mai: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng

When you travel, sometimes you get lucky. We didn’t realize how fortunate our timing was when we purchased our plane tickets to Thailand months ago. We finally arrived in Chiang Mai just in time for the traditional Thai celebrations of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng.

Chiang Mai Lanterns for Yi Peng

Chiang Mai Lanterns

Both of these events celebrate the full moon. While they are tied to two different Thai calendars, these celebrations often occur in November and always happen at the same time in Chiang Mai. Loi Krathong is a national celebration while Yi Peng is celebrated in Northern Thailand and especially in Chiang Mai. Wikipedia explains them best! Our arrival in Chiang Mai was a fortunate coincidence.

Chiang Mai Parade Loi Krathong

Parade in Chiang Mai for Loi Krathong

At first glance, I would describe Yi Peng as a more interactive “Fourth of July”. Yi Peng is best known for the paper lanterns that are released into the sky. The lanterns are also supplemented by fireworks, firecrackers, and pretty much anything else that explodes or makes noise. Tourists and locals take turns launching thousands of these lanterns. It is considered good luck to launch one and you can write your wishes for the the coming year directly on it. Some people also interpret the lanterns as a way to discard your worries and fears. Either way, it sure looks cool!

Molly and I wanted to give this a try. We found a temple near the center of the city where lantern after lantern were launched to illuminate the sky. We entered to watch for ourselves.

Chiang Mai Lanterns from Temple

Time lapse picture of lanterns launching from a temple in Chiang Mai

In the temple yard we found orange-robed monks helping locals and tourists alike to launch their own lantern. With the help of a monk we managed to launch our own lantern without issue. We watched it sail over the temple to join the migration of light.

Like Yi Peng, Loi Krathong also deploys fire in a celebratory fashion. In this case it takes place on the water. A ‘krathong’ is a small floating disk that is usually made from a piece of banana stalk. It is decorated with flowers, a candle and some incense and floated down rivers and canals.

Krathongs for sale at the market

Krathongs for sale at the market

Like the lanterns, you are supposed to make a wish before you release your krathong. We stood on a bridge over the river and watched the flickering candles drift with the currents. Launching lanterns and floating flower-encrusted boats created a colorful nighttime atmosphere in Chiang Mai. As long as you avoid the fireworks and firecrackers exploding all around you, you will be just fine!

Chiang Mai Loi Krathong Parade Pic

Loi Krathong parade proceeds down the street

The festival didn’t end there. Massive parades, performances and fireworks compliment the main activities. In the end, it was impossible to see everything that was happening in Chiang Mai while we were there. Events happened simultaneously all over the city for the celebrations. The quiet city was transformed into a festival without sleep during our whole time there. Even when we got on the night bus back to Bangkok, we could see the lanterns floating in the distance.

Lanterns in the sky Chiang Mai Yi Peng

Lanterns in the sky over Chiang Mai

When it comes to traveling, you can spend hours and days planning the “perfect” vacation destinations. You may even show up on your perfectly planned time only to be disappointed. Doing your homework is important but don’t let planning stop you from actually diving in. Sometimes the best activities show themselves when you aren’t looking for them and when you least expect it.

I wont forget Chiang Mai and the thousands of lanterns of Yi Peng anytime soon. “Long life and happiness.” What’s on your lantern?

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A Vegan’s Perspective of Elephant Nature Park

Molly and Dan with Medo.

Molly and Dan with Medo.

Elephant riding, tours, training, and feeding are big business in Chiang Mai, Thailand. If you are ever in Chiang Mai and consider “doing something with elephants”, please only consider Elephant Nature Park and do your research.

Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for retired and rescued preforming and working elephants. I learned a lot in my time there and thought I would share it with you guys so when you are in Chiang Mai you can make an educated decision on spending time with elephants in Thailand.

Elephant Nature Park doesn’t just care for their 36 elephants, they also have over 130 dogs that they care for that live on the santuary’s land.

This well-behaved guy really just wanted some people food! He is sitting on a stool!

This well-behaved guy really just wanted some people food! He is sitting on a stool!

There is also a herd of water buffalo that heard how nice it is there and took up residence.

The giant herd of water buffalo that live at Elephant Nature Park

The giant herd of water buffalo that live at Elephant Nature Park

Dan and I originally tried to volunteer for a week at the park but they were all booked up through mid-December. If you can, I highly recommend volunteering for an extended period of time. We were just day helpers and I personally felt that we were mostly visitors (and in the way of the people actually helping) and not so much helpers.

Dan cleaning Medo in the river.

Dan cleaning Medo in the river.

But to get to the important information: Asian elephants are smaller and tamer than their African cousins. In fact, if “broken”, Asian elephants can be trained to do all sorts of things for human entertainment. There are 3,000-4,000 “working” elephants in Thailand. What happens to those elephants when they can no longer work or carry tourists or paint pictures with their trunks?

That’s where Elephant Nature Park comes in. They provide a home, family, and food for “retired” elephants for the rest of their natural lives. There is no other elephant sanctuary in Thailand and there are an awful lot of working elephants. For the elephants at Elephant Nature Park, being rescued by Lek (the founder of the sanctuary) is the best possible thing that could ever happen to them. It should be noted that an elephant is worth a lot in Thailand. Obviously, elephants that cannot work are worth less, but this isn’t like a chicken that fell of the transport truck in the USA (worth nothing to the “farmer”). These horrible people who abuse the elephants still want compensation; and Lek does often pay for the elephants she rescues.

Lek and her children. The love there is palpable.

Lek and her children. The love there is palpable.

One of the things I did not know before spending time at Elephant Nature Park is that Asian elephants, after being trained, become like domestic animals. They cannot be sent back in to the wild as they no longer know how to care for themselves. This is really why Elephant Nature Park is so important! There is no where else for these beautiful creatures to go after they are no longer “useful”.

And since they are domesticated, but still huge (unlike your dog, for example) getting them to do the things you want involves bribery. Instead of punishing the elephants with bullhooks to get them to do what they want, Lek’s trainers uses bribes of the food variety. Each elephant has a trainer (mahout in Hindi) with him or her all day, and if an elephant needs to go from one end of the park to the other, for example, the mahout first tries voice commands and then if that doesn’t work: fruit.

Hungry elephants waiting for their morning fruit. Impatiently...

Hungry elephants waiting for their morning fruit. Impatiently…

Ultimately, the work that Elephant Nature Park does is vitally important as there is no where else for these elephants to go where they will be safe from harm and cared for for the rest of their 70-80 year lives.

Baby trying to steal fruit out of mom's mouth. Silly baby, you don't even have teeth yet!

Baby trying to steal fruit out of mom’s mouth. Silly baby, you don’t even have teeth yet!

My biggest problem with the sanctuary, as an ethical vegan, was that the elephants were “putting on a show” for us visitors. We fed the elephants fruits and veggies twice while we were there (in the wild their natural diet would generally consist of grasses and leaves) and got to crowed around them and take pictures with them at another point. They weren’t just left alone to be elephants. In some small way they are still working for their dinner. But things like riding the elephants is strictly forbidden at Elephant Nature Park.

And I obviously have a problem with paying for the elephants as well, as it encourages the people who use these elephants to continue, knowing that they get a reward even after their elephant can no longer work. But I don’t know how else Lek would be able to convince the “owners” to give up their old, blind, injured elephants.

A majestic elephant at Elephant Nature Park

A majestic elephant at Elephant Nature Park

Of course, it is obvious why they allow the volunteers to interact with the elephants at Elephant Nature Park. The tourists want to spend time with the elephants, not just watch them from afar, and it costs Lek $250,000 a year to run Elephant Nature Park. The money from visitors is desperately needed. So I was a bit conflicted. I know these elephants are used to spending time with humans, and they certainly were not showing any physical signs of stress, but it still felt off to me as an animal activist.

Panorama of Elephant Nature Park

Panorama of Elephant Nature Park

All of the behaviors I saw from the elephants, and their interactions with their trainers and visitors indicated to me that they are happy and well cared for. So, I am certainly not saying “don’t visit Elephant Nature Park”, I am just trying to examine all of the sides of the issue. In case you can’t tell from the pictures, we had a fantastic time with the elephants despite some hesitation. You should come to your own conclusions, but Elephant Nature Park is certainly the best option for these domesticated elephants that I know of.

Ultimately, I agree with this sign that I saw at Elephant Nature Park:

Amen.

Amen.

The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Stop what you are doing and get to Thailand right now. This is what I wanted to tell the world immediately after experiencing the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Bangkok has only a few ‘must see’ tourist attractions and the Grand Palace is at the top of the list. In our few days here, we found a city with a lot of character and culture. When you aren’t busy exploring the dynamic city, the Grand Palace will give you a great overview about how this city came to be (particularly if you get an awesome guide).

Bangkok Grand Palace Picture

Bangkok Grand Palace Complex

The Grand Palace is actually a walled complex of buildings in the middle of Bangkok. It can be a little overwhelming when you see the size of it. When we came through the tourist entrance, we were greeted by several prospective tour guides offering their services. We spoke to one guide who seemed particularly knowledgeable and decided to take a chance and hire him for a tour. It was an excellent decision which I highly recommend. There are so many details that the free English tour will simply skip over, and a paid guide is still very affordable.

Outside of the Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

Outside of the Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

Inside are excellent examples of Thai, Indian and Cambodian architecture constructed by several of Thailand’s kings. Everywhere you look there is something incredible. There is even a building that has an exterior constructed of broken Chinese tea cups. That’s about as ‘green’ as it gets (reuse!). The real gem among these buildings is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew).

Temple of the Emerald Buddah Bangkok Thailand

Temple of the Emerald Buddah Bangkok Thailand

While the Buddha housed inside is not actually emerald, (it is made of Nephrite – a kind of jade) it is a spectacular sight. The Buddha is surrounded by an ornate collection of golden art and artifacts. There are even three different golden outfits that the Emerald Buddha wears depending on the season! You can’t take pictures inside the temple, but your camera will still get a workout throughout your walk. I particularly enjoyed the architecture of the building below.

Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

Grand Palace Bangkok Thailand

The Grand Palace is a massive building located near the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. You won’t have trouble finding it! The architecture and manicured gardens look like they have been copied from a beautifully written fantasy novel. Our tour guide pointed out that the lower levels are painted white so that the building seems to be floating on top of a cloud in the sky. Sadly, you cannot enter the actual palace. You can, however, take your picture with one of several unmoving guards if you missed that opportunity in London.

Tickets for the Grand Palace are 500 Baht each – which is just under 16 USD. We paid 600 Baht for our guide – about 19 USD. The Grand Palace is one of the more expensive sights to see in Bangkok. This is probably due to the fact that the Grand Palace used to be the king’s home and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is still the king’s personal temple. With your ticket, you can see the three major sights in the Grand Palace complex. These are the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the Grand Palace and the Royal Regalia Collection. As an added bonus, your Grand Palace ticket includes admission to the Vimanmek Mansion and the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Both of these sights are at a separate venue near the King’s residence and you can use your admission up to a week after your visit.

Vimanmek is the world’s largest Teak Palace (or so they claim) and the Throne Hall is a beautiful building which currently houses some impressive works completed by the Sirikit Institute in honor of the king and queen. Getting there is difficult and involves going though a concrete barrier/razor-wire checkpoint. It was a little bizarre yet interesting once you finally get there. If you are in Bangkok for less than five days I would recommend skipping these last two sights. If you do go to Vimanmek Mansion, don’t forget to wear pants! You will not be allowed in with shorts and will have to purchase an eye-scorching neon green skirt.

If you finish the Grand Palace earlier in the day, be sure to check out the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho).

Temple of the Reclining Buddah Bangkok Thailand

Temple of the Reclining Buddah Bangkok Thailand

Wat Pho is located next to the Grand Palace. It is about 10 minutes walking from the main entrance. What you will find there is an enormous Buddha at approximately 43 meters in length. A Buddha stretching from the 50 yard line to the goal line? Sign me up! The entrance fee is well worth it at only 100 Baht (just over 3 USD).

Bangkok Grand Palace at Sunset Thailand

Bangkok Grand Palace at Sunset Thailand

Bangkok is a sprawling city and there are so many things you could spend your time doing. It is a combination of history and the needs of a modern society. We found that Bangkok is much more than just traffic jams and marketplaces. The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho are really essential from a historical perspective and you can see these major sites in just one day. We have just begun exploring Thailand, and for me, the Grand Palace has set the bar pretty high.

If you plan to do any traveling in Europe, be sure to check out the new page with Molly’s Long-Term Travel Tips!

Naples, Italy: A vegan pizza extravaganza!

Naples, Italy is famous for one thing: Pizza. The story goes that pizza, in it’s current form, was invented in Naples and that there are only two kinds of traditional Neapolitan pizzas: Marinara and Margherita. Lucky for us vegans a true marinara pizza is just pizza dough, tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Vegan and delicious.

Our first pizza in Naples from L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele, around the corner from where we were staying!

Our first pizza in Naples from L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele, around the corner from where we were staying!

While in Naples, Dan and I decided the only respectable thing for us to do would be to taste test as many marinara pizzas as our budget (and bellies) would allow. We were staying in the historical center of Naples and there were a bunch of “Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana” (“True Neapolitan Pizza Association”) pizzerias right near us. We made it to all three places. We even picked a favorite and headed back there for our last pizza in Naples.

First things first: There are no losers here. The worst pizza we had in Naples was pretty much the best pizza we have ever had. But everyone picks favorites, even us. And there was only one pizzeria we went back to during our 4 days in Naples. Lucky for us it was more or less around the corner from where we were staying.

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele is one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples. The crust is thin, but chewy with awesomely developed gluten (I feel so smart saying that!). It’s the kind of crust I always wish I was capable of making! The sauce was delicious, the garlic bits were delicious, the olive oil was delicious. In other words, so freaking good!

L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele pizza number 2! So good, we had it twice!

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele pizza number 2! So good, we had it twice!

The magic happening at L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele

The magic happening at L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele

If this picture above looks vaguely familiar, it is because you have seen the movie Eat, Pray, Love. This is where Julia Roberts had her Naples pizza in the movie. There is (obviously) a picture of her with the pizzeria staff up on the wall.

 

L' Antica Pizzeria da Michele

L’ Antica Pizzeria da Michele

It should be noted that there is a huge line at this place most of the time! But no worries, the pizzas only take 3 minutes to cook in that kickass wood-burning pizza oven, so your pizza will be ready lickity split. Just be sure to say “marinara” to them very clearly! I’m going to guess most of their orders are for margherita pizzas. Oh yeah! There are only two options here, margherita or marinara. And the “maxi” size is only 5 euros! We shared a maxi marinara the two times we got pizza from here, but I have no doubt I could have eaten one all by myself!

Molly with pizza outside of La Pizzeria di Matteo

Molly with pizza outside of La Pizzeria di Matteo

Pizzeria number two of the three places we visited was La Pizzeria di Matteo. They open at 9AM so we had this pizza for breakfast. Also, di Matteo had the cheapest marinara that we tried. The pizza below was 2.50 Euros. Isn’t Italy wonderful?!

La Pizzeria di Matteo's margharita pizza

La Pizzeria di Matteo’s margharita pizza

I think I liked this sauce the best. It was the sweetest. It tasted like it had been cooked the longest, so the tomatoes sweetened the most. The crust was our least favorite, but like I said, still better than pretty much every pizza in America! Also, apparently Bill Clinton visited in 1994, and was a big fan. They have his picture on the wall. (I’m sensing a theme here…)

Pizzaria Sorbillo

Pizzaria Sorbillo

Finally, we went to Sorbillo’s for lunch one day. This place had the most American crust of the pizzas we tried. A bit fluffier than the others, so if you enjoy some extra crust this might be the place for you.

Inside the oven at Pizzaria Sorbillo. Our pizza is in there!

Inside the oven at Pizzaria Sorbillo. Our pizza is in there!

Pizzaria Sorbillo's margharita pizza in all its doughy glory

Pizzaria Sorbillo’s margharita pizza in all its doughy glory

This seemed the least traditional to me, so perhaps that’s why it wasn’t my favorite. Or maybe I just like more sauce than crust. Either way this beauty cost a mere 3 Euros.

There may be things to see and do in Naples (we even managed to see and do some things ourselves!), but with pizza this good, who cares? I recommend that everyone make a pizza pilgrimage to Naples at least once in his or her life. It is simply too tasty to miss out on. If you are ever headed to Italy via Rome, Naples is a short train ride south. You won’t be disappointed (by the pizza), I promise! Just be careful of the crazy car traffic. It’s madness down in southern Italy!

Also, be sure to check out the new page we added to the website: Molly’s Long-Term Travel Tips. This page will be updated as we travel to new destinations and learn new tricks!

The Roman Forum and the Colosseum: A Visitor’s Guide

You may have heard: Rome is filled with old things.

Pretty much every street has at least one old thing on it, and it can be hard to appreciate the old things after a while since they are everywhere! But Rome’s golden age really shines at the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. If you want to understand what Rome used to be like, those are the two places to go. And clearly I’m not the only one who thinks so. A ticket to one of these sights includes the other (12 Euro combined ticket as of November 2013). They are linked. But I’m here to tell you how to spend the least amount of money and time and get the most out of your experience. This is going to be a fun game of “learn from Molly and Dan’s mistakes!” in the order that they happened.

Things you should do:

Go to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (they are one big excavation site, usually just called the Roman Forum) first. Once you have your ticket you can use it later that day or even the next day for the Colosseum and skip the line there. The line to get into the Colosseum is always long, so that is a big win.

Also, take the metro line B to the Circo Massimo stop, not Colosseo, then walk up Via di San Gregorio (past the Circus Maximus, which will be on your left) and enter the Roman Forum at the entrance on your left which will likely have no line. Most people enter near the Colosseum, so going this way will save you valuable time.

Things you should NOT do:

Get the audio guide at the Roman Forum. I repeat: DO NOT get the audio guide at the Roman Forum. What a waste of 5.00 Euros that was. And I hate waste. It was so bad and made me so angry that I actually filed an official complaint (and asked for my money back, which they obviously do not do).

This dramatic picture captures our dramatic morning in the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

This dramatic picture captures our dramatic morning in the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

You are supposed to follow the little numbers they give you on the paper map to different locations, and then punch in the number into the audio guide which then tells you to look right and left, but gives you no frame of reference! I spent the entire time, when I should have been listening to what the audio was saying, trying to figure out if I was looking at the right ruined thing! What a waste. Dan and I returned it after struggling with it for almost 3 hours and then walked around and just read the posted signs and looked at our surroundings and we felt that we got a heck of a lot more out of that.

Molly with audio guide in the Roman Forum. Look how happy I am!

Molly with audio guide in the Roman Forum. Look how happy I am!

Things you should do:

Bring a set of headphones if you are there with someone. Though the audio guide royally stunk, we did manage to share (and thus only pay for) one. The audio guide has a headphone jack. Dan smartly brought his headphones. Now you don’t both have to huddle close to the audio guide and try to hear over that tour group walking by!

Read the posted signs at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill! They are included in your ticket price and more informative than the audio guide (can you tell I didn’t like it??).

Sans-audio guide, in the Roman Forum overlooking the Colosseum.

Sans-audio guide, in the Roman Forum overlooking the Colosseum.

After you are done with the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill (or the next day), head over to the Colosseum. Now I’m going to really shock you. Go get an audio guide! The audio guide at the Colosseum is 5.50 Euros, but this time it doesn’t suck! They have posted audio guide numbers within the Colosseum and a clear route for you to take. The guide is informative without being excessive. You can feel like you got everything out of the Colosseum and audio guide and be in and out of there in an hour or so. (An hour and a half if you are there with someone like Dan, who takes a million pictures!)

Much happier Molly with the Colosseum audio guide. Learn from our mistakes!

Much happier Molly with the Colosseum audio guide. Learn from our mistakes!

So there you have it. My insider’s guide to the Roman Forum and Colosseum! Here is the abridged version: Enter at the southern-most entrance to the Palatine Hill, near the Circo Massimo metro stop. DO NOT get the audio guide at the Roman Forum, but DO get it at the Colosseum. Wander the Roman Forum first, so you can use your ticket to skip the line at the Colosseum later or the next day. Have fun!