Monk chat: a day at Buddhist University

‘Can monks have iPhones?’ Phra KK smiled at the question and pulled one out of his orange robes, joking about how he was using it for ‘sexy selfies’.

I’d never met a monk before Phra KK, and I was happily surprised by how chilled out, relatable, and sometimes downright silly he was.

While I didn’t want to be one of those ‘ya I went to Thailand and now I’m a Buddhist bla bla’ people, it seemed to me to me that to go to Thailand and not try to learn anything about the prevailing belief system (note, not religion) would be pretty ignorant and disrespectful to the culture. What’s the point in going to fabulous temples if you only take the pics for instagram and don’t really engage with the history, stories, and the importance of them in the lives of the people whose home you are fortunate enough to be able to visit?

I’ve always liked the ‘idea’ I had of what Buddhism was, but I didn’t know much about it apart from the fact that it was generally a peaceful thought system with an emphasis on meditation, kindness, and self understanding.  So I signed up for a day’s ‘Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation’ course at Wat Suan Dok, part of the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai.

A row of Buddhas at Wat Pho in Bangkok

The day started with an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’; the story of the life of Buddha, the finding of a ‘middle way’ between over indulgence in sensual pleasure and living in suffering, and an explanation of the ‘precepts’ (rules).

As expected, much of the philosophy appealed to me: the emphasis on peace and non-violence, including not causing suffering to others, not killing or eating animals, rejection of capitalism, treating everyone as equals, humility, and living in accordance with the eco-system.

Some of it would be more challenging: no music, no dancing, intoxicants, sexual relationships, and worst of all, no snacks.

The next part of the day was an introduction to meditation. Having come to Thailand as a ‘recovery holiday’ after a period of emotional crisis, I was very attracted to the idea of being freed from thoughts and finding stillness. It’s something I’d found impossible in the hubbub of London life, but maybe here in the peace of the temple, I thought I could find it.

A monk giving a blessing at Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Phra KK talked us through various techniques, and we practiced; sitting meditation, using beads, and a walking meditation in which you walk extremely slowly, with concentration of every moment of every gentle step. It was interesting to learn about how it worked for him and I can definitely see the value in it, but I found it too hard to detach. I was distracted and eventually bored, wondering what was for lunch and if he’d noticed if I stopped to scratch an itch. The focus on breathing definitely helps with calming and reconnecting with your body, and it’s something I’ve found useful as I’ve been learning to practice yoga. But as much as he promised it was normal to struggle especially to start with, I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever be able to manage.

The day ended with a question and answer session, in which Phra KK fielded all manner of questions about the belief system itself and the feasibility of practicing it in life in 2019. He was very honest about the issues and scandals that had been in the papers- with monks using brothels or dropping out of the monastery after falling for some of the other delights of modern life.

He also shared more with us about his life; being orphaned, and how he was taken in by monks, and the monastery became his family. Monks can’t have money, and live only from the donations of others, but he worked for the temple every day for free to raise donations to give back to the orphanage that fed and looked after him. It seems that it’s common for homeless boys to be taken into monkhood in this way.

While I could see that it had given KK shelter and another chance at life, it was moving to witness his sadness and loneliness. It seemed a shame that having lost his family, he was forbidden from entering a loving and intimate relationship with another human and the chance to create a family of his own.  While he claimed to enjoy his life and came across as a peaceful and understanding person, I wondered at the loss of the love he clearly had to give to someone, and feeling of receiving in return.

Monk Phra KK explains Buddhism.

One of my greater scepticisms was brought up during the Q&A: the fact that, for a thought system based on ‘equality’, the vast majority of the Buddhist church does not accept female monks. I had bought a book about Buddhism to learn more and noted that, for all the talk of humans being treated the same, it referred throughout only to male pronouns, because of course the presumed default human is male.

It was clearly a question he was asked a lot, and while he noted and seemed to believe that something should change, did admit that in the vast majority of the monkhood it was not possible for women to be ordained. It is possible for Buddhist women to become nuns, but they do not share the same status in Thai society as monks. Go figure. While there is much I have taken from learning about Buddhist teaching, it’s my biggest bugbear and barrier from taking it truly seriously as a thought system.

That said, the day and experience was one of the most valuable things I did during my trip, because it helped me to understand the history, culture, and the nature of the people I had met during my time there. I’m sure that because I’ve been blessed with meeting so many warm and hospitable people in my travels that I’ve been guilty of saying many a time ‘the PEOPLE from X place are the best thing about it, they’re the best people in the WORLD’ about a few places. However, in Thailand, the Buddhist influence really is noticeable in your reception and day-to-day interactions.

Sure, if you only hang out on Khao San Road or go to full moon parties you might get harassed and badgered at the seedier end of the spectrum. But if you take the time to get to talk to people you will experience their genuine warmth of feeling, patience, kindness, and most of all humility, to an extent that I’ve never known anywhere else. It’s a culture where people are in the habit of putting others before themselves not just for show, but because they genuinely mean it. I was promised a ‘land of smiles’ and it did not disappoint. With all the wankiness of ‘wellbeing’  aside, it really is a place that had a great healing power for me, but that came from learning from the people as much as from the cheap massages and fresh, healthy food. Buddhism seemed to me to be above all about empathy and being a better person, and while I’m not ready to give up snacks, I tried to learn to be a better person from them.

While I work hard in my career to redress the privilege I never earned in life, am a loving person and loyal friend to those around me, and live day-to-day in a way that I hope causes the least suffering possible, I’m flawed and there are many thoughts I have that I’m ashamed of. A little jaded from life, I can be guilty of being sarcastic, bitter, angry, bitchy, resentful, jealous, and selfish at times. When I’ve been hurt, I’ve taken a lot of relish in fantasising about that person being hit by a truck. None of these things I’m proud of.

The thing I took away most from what Phra KK said about living a life of kindness was about the need to let go of anger and trauma from the past. That if a person has hurt you, doesn’t care about you, that dwelling on that pain only serves to hurt you further. The person who hurt you isn’t thinking about it anymore. You can choose to let the ugliness grow inside you, or not, but if you live with ugliness, you will become ugly, by which he meant more unkind. Everyone, no matter where they have come from, has experienced suffering.  People will hurt you, bad things will happen. But that everything is impermanent. By moving forward it doesn’t mean that thing hasn’t happened, or that it won’t continue to make you sad. But it’s the choice to give another chance to yourself: to not be defined by your suffering, to surround yourself with love, and by doing so learn to channel the negative energy into positive, and suffering into peace.

With thanks to the Buddhist University and Phra KK for the experience. If you want to donate to the orphanage, or if you are going to Chiang Mai and want to learn more, you can book through the Monk Chat website or turn up at Wat Suan Dok on Mondays and Fridays.

Finding peace by the river in Chiang Mai.

‘Who wants to ride an elephant?’ How to see elephants ethically in Thailand

Elephant-riding has been high on traveller’s bucketlists for a long time. Awareness of the abject cruelty involved in forcing animals to perform for and serve humans is growing, and yet I was still horrified to hear travellers talking about this in groups, and signs advertising it around Thailand. Were they completely oblivious? Or did they just not care as long as it makes a good insta photo?

Elephants  are one of my favourite animals. I was overwhelmed to see African elephants living in the wild during my travels in Botswana and Namibia. However, I have felt extremely sad that I had only seen Asian elephants in India that were facepainted and forced to lug overweight tourists up and down steep slopes to visit forts as entertainment. It can be hard to avoid seeing animal cruelty as a vegan traveller.

A wild African elephant I saw grazing happily in Botswana

But a new trend is growing, and one which on the face of it seems to improve conditions for elephants: ethical sanctuaries.  While it didn’t seem I’d be able to see any elephants in the wild on my trip to Thailand, I was keen to visit an ethical elephant sanctuary. There are many that seem to have cropped up, particularly around Chiang Mai, advertised on boards and in hostels around the city.

But how ethical are ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries?

Inevitably, where there has been an increase in interest and tourist money, an increase in less than ethical businesses has followed to meet demand. While many sanctuaries market themselves as being a ‘home for happy elephants’, many still keep them in a situation of unnatural captivity. Some are still forced to play football or other activities with tourists that wouldn’t be possible if the elephants hadn’t been cruelly trained to do so.

Looking at reviews online helped me to find the right one: a review showed me an option I had been considering still shuts the elephants in tiny boxes as soon as the tourists leave.

Ethical Elephant Sanctuary, Chiang Mai

Happily, my experience at Ethical Elephant Sanctuary was wonderful and remains my most cherished memory from Thailand. Elephants here have been rescued from the tourism and logging industries.  Here was how the day unfolded:

Selfies with elephants

Breakfast with elephants

I opted for a full day and was picked up at my hostel early in the morning. After a two hour drive out of Chiang Mai, we pulled up in a giant open field where elephants were grazing. I wasn’t hopping any less than the children to get out and say hello.

First we were dressed in the cloth of the hill tribe who cared for them so that they wouldn’t be startled by us. Then we were able to feed them, holding out sugar cane and bananas that they would pluck from your palm with their ever-reaching trunks.

Going for a stroll

After a break, we went for a walk through the jungle. The elephants roamed freely and we walked alongside or behind them. Seeing them interacting with each other, pausing at will to scratch an itchy bum on the nearest tree (the elephant!), we really came to see how each elephant was a personality in their own right.

An elephant stops to scratch an itch

The importance of breaks

We had a two-hour break for lunch during which time the elephants had a break from us. This is really important for their wellbeing, as it’s not natural for them to be around humans all day. During this time they rested in the shade of an open field while we had a basic but tasty meal of veg, rice, and fruit.

Bath time for elephants

As it broke into the hottest time of the day we went down to the river to bathe and help the elephants to cool off. I was nervous as they all clambered in the same space to make sure I wasn’t going to get crushed between them.

Really seeing them up close like that makes you appreciate just how vast they are, and yet how gentle. We scooped water up to cool their bodies and helped them to rub mud against their flanks.  They retaliated by squirting water at us through their trunks!

Again, seeing them play together was really special. When they were tired of us, they got up and left the water of their own volition to return to the field, and it was when the elephant, rather than the keeper said so, that bath time was over.

Afternoon snack

Natural vegetarians, elephants generally graze all day in the wild, so by the afternoon they were ready for more snacks. It was impressive to see them munch through whole bunches of bananas in one go.

Saying goodbye

We left by late afternoon, leaving them to spend the rest of the day and evening alone. The little kid in me welled up and I felt a bit emotional leaving them, even though I know that for them this was the norm. I asked how much it was to rescue an elephant from logging: 2 million Baht (about £50k). So my dreams there were shot, but if anyone rich reads my blog, please save an elephant on my behalf.

If you can’t afford to save an elephant but would like to visit them during your travels in Asia, here are some tips for finding genuinely ethical sanctuaries.

Key things to look for:

  • Elephants should not be bound to posts by rope or chains;
  • They should not be performing for tourists or partaking in any activities they wouldn’t naturally do in the wild. Normal activities such as bathing are not okay if they are forced to do them more than they would naturally e.g. multiple times or constantly throughout the day;
  • They should not be made to interact with humans for too long without breaks;
  • You should not touch an elephant too much or climb onto their bodies;
  • They should always have access to food and water;
  • There should not be large numbers of tourists each day. Look for a sanctuary that takes restricted numbers;
  • Carers should respect the way the elephants express themselves and not force them to continue any activity.

What to do with one week in Chiang Mai

Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai has become a hub for digital nomads and other travellers that came to visit and ended up staying. A world apart from the chaos and stickiness of Bangkok, a few days here makes it easy to understand why. The climate is cooler in the northern part of the country. The structure of the city around the river and gates makes it easy to navigate. It’s friendly and fun but much less sleazy, and you can use it as a base to go out and explore in the Northern hills and beyond. Here is a rundown of my recommendations for a week of travel in Chiang Mai:

Learn about Buddhism

Buddhism is the beating heart of Thai culture and it would be ignorant to visit this country and not learn more about it. It’s a thought system that appeals to me for its peace-driven ethics, but I knew only a little of its history and practices.

 ‘Monk chat’ is a programme run by many monasteries with the dual purpose of teaching Westerners about Buddhism and helping the monks to improve their English. I went for a day course that was an introduction to Buddhism held at the Chiang Mai campus of the Buddhist University. Who knew monks are hilarious? Phra KK spent a day teaching us about Buddhist history, ethics, meditation practice, and constantly cracking us up.

The Buddha at the Blue Temple

Visit Chiang Mai’s temples

Every corner in Chiang Mai seems to be home to a temple, or wat,  with a history hundreds of years old, exquisite architecture and murals that tell ancient stories. Chiang Mai is no exception. Within the city, make time to visit Chedi Luang, arguably the most interesting since it dates back to the 14th century and part of the site is a ruin. Wat Phra Singh displays iconic Lanna architecture, while Wat Phra That Doi Kam is home to a huge Buddha that gazes down the steps as you approach it.

If you only have time for one temple, prioritise taking a songathew (a kind of pick up style bus with two benches in the back) up the mountain to visit Wat Phra Doi Suthep. You have short sharp hike up to reach the golden chedi but views, let alone the complex at the top, will reward you.

Wat Phra Doi Suthep

Go to an ethical elephant sanctuary

Sadly the majority of tourists still don’t seem to have got the picture when it comes to the abhorrent cruelty of elephant riding. However, as awareness has been raised in the last few years Chiang Mai has become home to a variety of sanctuaries for elephants rescued from the entertainment and logging industries. Do your research as some ‘sanctuaries’ still keep elephants locked in boxes at the end of the day – TripAdvisor is your friend for honest reviews.

I would recommend Ethical Elephant Sanctuary. It’s run by members of the Karen Hill Tribe, who have always lived with elephants. You can read more here about my wonderful day meeting, feeding, going for a walk with, and washing down the elephants. Although I prefer to see them in the wild, it is magical to be able to be up close and intimate with these gentle giants and to know that they are being well cared for.

Take a day trip to Chiang Rai

If you have more time I’d recommend staying overnight in Chiang Rai because a day trip is a bit of a rush. However, apparently the city isn’t much at night and since I was short on time I arranged a one day tour of the main sites through an agency. In a packed trip we managed to see the White Temple, that is downright bizarre, the beautiful Blue Temple,  and the ‘Black House’ full of historical artefacts. You can also opt to visit the longneck hill tribe. 

The White Temple at Chiang Rai

Eat your vegan heart out

Chiang Mai is home to some of the best vegan food in Thailand. Taste from Heaven makes the hottest and most fragrant green thai curry served in a coconut. The vibe in Aum kept tempting me to return again and again, enjoying a mix of local dishes and fresh sushi while enjoying the views from their open veranda upstairs. If you’ve had too much to drink, Munchies offers western style vegan junk food. Free Bird is a non-profit that uses the proceeds from its restaurant and zero waste shop to fund projects that support refugees from Myanmar. There is another branch of the fantastic May Kaidee restaurant chain. The markets are also a great source of cheap vegan snacks, particularly V-Secrets where you can get four small dishes for a steal to share with a friend.

Papaya salad and avocado maki at Aum

Check out the nightlife of Chiang Mai

The North Gate Jazz co-op is the go-to spot for locals and tourists alike. It has a super chill vibe with regular musicians performing improv, cheap beers, and so many people come that they spill out onto the street, some perched on stools, others swaying and dancing along.

Another popular night time destination are the ‘cabaret’ shows. I was a bit wary of the ‘ladyboy’ aspect, partly because I’d never use that word to describe trans people or those who enjoy wearing drag, although it seems the norm here, and partly because of my concern about trafficking. That said the performers in the street convinced me to pop in and see a remarkable rendition of Rhianna’s ‘umbrella’ that was fabulous, fun, and the performer seemed to genuinely be loving life. (I swear to god if I hadn’t known I genuinely might have thought she was the real Rhianna). So I leave you to make your own call on that.

Revellers enjoy music at the North Gate Jazz Coop

I stayed for a week and only managed a fraction of what this city has to offer. So whatever you do, make sure you make time for it in your trip to Thailand.

Best of Bangkok’s vegan eats

Thailand is a haven for vegan eating on a budget. Or at least it would be if it wasn’t for that damn fish sauce in everything.

I love street food, and no doubt it helps you to save your money for the really exciting things when you travel. In Bangkok, though, with the exception of the mango sticky rice (below) that is sold on every street corner for 30-40 baht (making a delicious breakfast for less than £1), by and large I was unable to trust that seemingly vegan street food really was.

No problem, though- there is no shortage of vegan and vegetarian restaurants where you can be sure what you’re getting is not only fish free but delicious.

May Kaidee

My number one recommendation for Bangkok is May Kaidee. This is a vegetarian restaurant and cooking school that also has locations in Chiang Mai and New York. The first time I visited I was ravenous after a long plane journey. I decided to start my trip with a classic Pad Thai. Because I was hungry I also got a ‘starter’ of deep fried tofu in peanut sauce.

It was phenomenal value, not least because when my ‘starter’ came it looked like this!

Huge! And for about £1.50. The deep fried tofu was perfect – crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, and the peanut sauce, wow.

The Pad Thai also really hit the spot. And for two huge courses (that meant I didn’t need to eat for a good twelve hours) with a couple of beers it only set me back around £7.50!

Take their cooking class

I would also strongly recommend their cooking class if you have the time to take an afternoon out. After tasting the food I signed up for one the next day and spent a hugely enjoyable afternoon learning how to make Tom Yum  soup, Massamam curry, Pad Thai, and mango sticky rice. Then I didn’t need to eat again for another twelve hours after staggering back for a nap!

The teacher was incredibly funny and upbeat and made what would otherwise have been a nice enough afternoon one of my favourite parts of the trip. Although it’s a vegetarian cooking school they can easily make the food vegan if you let them know by using coconut instead of egg.

Ethos

My other favourite haunt, Ethos, is just a few doors up. What was wonderful about this place is the extremely chill vibe they have created. Close to the main strip but tucked down a quiet alley, it’s an oasis of calm that serves up smoothies, salad bowls, and Thai dishes that are guaranteed to be vegan. You sit on giant cushions that are sprawled around the low tables. There’s a bookcase and a constant stream of friendly nomads to keep you entertained if you fancy a couple of hours of down time. I recommend the smoothies and the homemade tempeh with peanut sauce.

Mango

I’d heard great things about Mango but I must say I was disappointed. I had forsaken my favourite breakfast of mango sticky rice because I was preparing for a day of sight-seeing and a long journey and wanted something that filled me up.

However, I found the service slow, and the food unremarkable. I decided to go for a ‘chocolate smoothie bowl’ with granola and fruit that I hoped would be substantial but quick. As a solo traveller I was completely ignored while the owner tended to the needs of couples around. I actually had to seek them out to place my order after being ignored for twenty five minutes and then at the end to even attempt to pay.

It took an hour  to get in and out which would have been fine if the food was fantastic, but when it arrived it, although it looked insta-worthy in its presentation it turned out to be a small fruit salad with a thimble-full of a chocolate drink and some cheap cereal bites that you can buy on the street for about 10 baht. This cost over £6. Total waste of money and time, and the attitude annoyed me too.

Perhaps I just got a bad day and bad luck because other people’s meals looked fantastic, and it generally gets rave reviews. If you’re only there for a short time I’d recommend May Kaidee or Ethos over here in a heartbeat. Or better yet, be braver than me and push more street stalls to make you something vegan!

Koh Phangan’s secret hippie side

Think Koh Phangan and most people think of the full moon party. An armageddon of drunk teenagers: buckets of booze, drugs, fire-throwing, vomiting, hook-ups and UV paint.

If you fancy something a little more serene for your Thai island experience you might think to skip Koh Phangan entirely and head to Koh Lanta or one of the lesser known islands.

But Koh Phangan has a side a lot of people don’t know about. The north-west of the island is a haven for hippies and vegan travellers. If your idea of heaven is more Buddha-bowls, cheap smoothies, swimming and yoga every day, then Srithanu is the place for you.

Orion Healing Centre is a peaceful spot for a swing and swim.

How to get there

There are no direct flights to Koh Phangan, so the easiest way to get there is to fly to Koh Samui airport, which is only around an hour from Bangkok. When you arrive in the terminal you can easily book a boat on to Koh Phangan or Koh Lanta from a desk in arrivals, including a transfer taxi to the dock at Bangrak pier. Due to frustrating timing I ended up waiting around at the dock for a while before getting a relatively comfortable little ferry over to the island and Thong Sala pier. At the pier there are tonnes of taxis including motorbike taxis calling for your attention. I found the cheapest option was piling into a songathew (one of those busses made up of a couple of benches on the back of a truck) with other travellers heading towards Srithanu.

Where to stay

Srithanu is essentially a small strip of road along the coast that is lined with beach huts, little shops, bars, and eateries. There are lots of options for accommodation depending on your taste and budget. I stayed at the originally named ‘Nice Sea Resort’, which was in fact nice, affordable, and on the sea. A basic bungalow with a double bed , fan, and hammock is about a tenner a night. If you come during the hot season it might be worth forking out more to stay in one of the more modern air conditioned bungalows for about twenty. I liked this place because it was quiet, the owner was extremely friendly and accommodating, it had a little bar and a restaurant, and you could easily while away the hottest part of the day swinging in a hammock with a book and the sea breeze in relative privacy. Even better, there was a shaded wooden deck where you could get the best massage of your life for less than ten pounds, while listening to the sea lapping against the shore.

Sunset at Nice Sea Resort.

What to do

For the most part I came to Srithanu to do very little at all and I’d highly recommend it. There are, however, lots of relaxing activities on offer around and about this little town.

Yoga

Most days I headed to the Orion Healing Centre to take yoga classes on their blissful deck that overlooks the sea. It’s a centre where visitors can stay and partake in a whole programme of yoga and holistic treatments (some of which are a bit far out for me, but whatever floats your boat). It’s right on the beach, and it also has an incredible vegan café that is open all day selling smoothie bowls, salads, and a range of main meals all from the most natural and detoxifying ingredients (albeit they’re quite pricey for the region). You can just pay to drop in to classes, and the teachers are very accommodating of all levels. I particularly enjoyed the sunset flow classes, the perfect way to end a slow-paced day on the island.

Post-sunrise yoga smoothie bowl breakfast at Orion.

Treat yo’self

There are loads of places to indulge in massages, pedicures, facials, you name it, all for a fraction of western prices. I love massages but never usually treat myself to them; but for 20% of the cost at home, I ended up getting three during my time here! The masseuses at Nice Sea Resort were particularly skilled, friendly, and have a range of different herbal and coconut oils that leave you feeling supple and zen.

Feast yo’self

There are a plethora of vegan options in this tiny strip of land. My favourite were Pure Vegan HeavenOne Yoga Café, Orion, and Eat.Co. Karma Café is also meant to be amazing but was sadly shut for renovation when I was there. Importantly, though, I’d also emphasise that you should try a  lot of the little local food places along the same strip. Veganism is so well understood there that you can easily request a veganised version of anything offered, and I got the best pad thai ever for just 40 baht (about £1) from a woman selling it out of a blue van.

Delicious vegan Pad Thai for just 50 baht.

Head up the coast

If you want to explore more of the island you can easily hire a bike or motorbike, but I just chose to walk. It’s worth walking up to check out the ‘Secret Beach’ which is small enough that it’s easy to keep an eye on your belongings while you swim if you’re a solo traveller. Haad Salad and Haad Yao are also super peaceful beaches that are great for swimming to cool off from your hot hike, and with a spread of bars on the beachside you can easily grab a drink or a bite to eat before heading back.

So if you’re heading for a tour round the islands, or want to pick just one to visit while on a shorter trip (as I was) definitely don’t write of Koh Phangan as a crazy party town. It’s definitely still more touristy than other destinations, but the chill vibes, good food, and friendly people make is a great spot to wind down and replenish your health.

On the beach ad Haad Yao.

What to do with two days in Bangkok

Bangkok has a reputation for being sleazy, smelly, and loud. It’s reputation is not wrong. But it is the gateway to Thailand and South-East Asia, so the chances are if you are going that way you’re going to end up in Bangkok at some point.

I actually liked Bangkok more than I expected (since I expected to hate it). There are definitely some impressive temples, cool experiences, and great food spots to try out if you’re changing there for a couple of days. Here are my top five:

Have a traditional massage

You’re bound to be stiff and aching after hours of travel to reach your destination. If you’re also suffering from jet lag, the heat and noise of the city can be overwhelming. Having a Thai massage will help you to unwind, immerse you into the culture, and I never found one cheaper than in Bangkok. It’s the centre of many traditional massage schools (including at Wat Pho, below) so you know you’re getting a skilled practitioner. And usually for less than $10!

See the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.

There are so many temples in Bangkok, as in the rest of Thailand. For the most part I would skip them since you will see more jaw-dropping ones elsewhere in your travels. However, Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is something else.  The temple complex is huge, and the famed Buddha even bigger at a jaw-dropping 46 metres.

The Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Take a cooking class

There are cooking classes available in almost any destination in Thailand. However, if you are specifically looking for vegan courses they’re harder to come by. May Kaidee cooking school also has a branch in Chiang Mai, but if you’re interested in your food I’d recommend taking the class in Bangkok. First, it will give you an introduction to typical Thai ingredients and regional styles of dish, which will give you insight into what to pick later in your travels. Secondly, there’s just a lot more beautiful and interesting stuff to see in Chiang Mai. If you’re going to be stuck in Bangkok for a day or two, make the most of it by getting this great experience there. I’d strongly recommend May Kaidee.  The teachers are fun, friendly, and accommodating. You cook and eat enough courses to keep you full all day. And you get a free take-away cookbook! We made Tom Yum soup, Massamam curry, Pad Thai and mango sticky rice. Then waddled back to the hotel to snooze it off…

Getting my apron on at May Kaidee’s Cooking School

Find out if any local events are happening.

The main problem with Bangkok is that tourists are funnelled into an ugly neon westernised area full of drunk teenagers where you never see any Thai people except in service positions. One great way to get an insight into the culture and lives of local people is by witnessing a traditional ceremony or celebration. I was lucky enough to be there for Loy Krathong, the lantern festival that takes place on the full moon in November. Loy means to float, whereas Krathong is a container.  

Little lotus-style boats holding candles are released onto the river.  This action is meant to release you of any hatred or anger that you are holding.  People make a wish as they release the container. It is meant to bring you light and positivity. I wandered down to Phra Athit Pier and watched the locals gathering with their family and friends, picking their krathongs, making their wishes and releasing them. It’s the most special memory I hold from Bangkok.

Local people float krathongs as part of the Loy Krathong festival

See the city from the sky in Chinatown

I missed out on checking out the markets and temples of China Town on my way out of Thailand thanks to traffic. However, if you are coming for a couple of days or have a stopover and want to avoid the Khao San Road area, it is worth considering staying in China Town instead. I really enjoyed having dinner and a cocktail or three at the revolving Sky View 360 restaurant on top of the Grand China Hotel. Surprisingly, the food is terrible. They really could make a killing if they got a half-decent chef and menu. But they serve a killer cocktail, have live jazz, and most importantly you can see the whole of Bangkok lit up at night all around you as it revolves slowly enough that you can’t feel it happening. It gives you a really interesting perspective on the city. Ancient temples are lit up alongside billboards, a mix of old and new that is so Thailand. It was a great way to finish my trip feeling on top of the world.

Bangkok skyline at night