I recently returned from a restorative and fun vacation visiting Thailand and Myanmar. I’d been planing the trip for so long though that I was a little worried. I was concerned that I had built the vacation up into something so lofty, that no reality could ever match it. More than match my expectations though, my two weeks visiting places both familiar and new were as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. As a little teaser, today I thought I’d share just some of the many Instagram highlights during my time exploring Southeast Asia.
137 Pillars Suites & Residences, Bangkok Thailand
One of my favorite cities in the world, returning to Bangkok is always a special event for me and that was certainly the case on my most recent trip. When it’s time for me to take a vacation, I tend to mix destinations I love with new places, and the start of this trip was all about the familiar. I’m not sure exactly why I love Bangkok as much as I do, there’s just something special about it and to be back there after a long 5 year hiatus was amazing. Bangkok also has some spectacular luxury hotels and resorts, including this one, the 137 Pillars Suites & Residences. Their Bangkok property may be new, but it’s already been winning awards and rave reviews, which is one reason why I wanted to stay here. I wanted a great hotel but also a quiet place where I could relax in privacy, and I found all of that and more at the 137.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
For the second leg of my trip, I decided to visit a city I’ve long read about but never actually visited – Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Staying at the luxurious retreat, 137 Pillars House, it was the ideal base from which to explore both the city of Chiang Mai as well as the surrounding area. I started my explorations by visiting some of the city’s most famous temples. Beautiful centers of worship and meditation in a city that is known for its scores of glittering wats or temples. As tourists though, it’s important that we respect local customs no matter where we go, and that’s certainly true in Thailand. It’s really all about respect and when visiting these gorgeous temples, we have to keep in mind that they’re just that, they are temples. Dressing politely and conservatively is key, as is removing one’s shoes before entering the temple. Finally, one must have respect for the religion itself, which means not touching the images of Buddha and keeping one’s head below the images of Buddha. Otherwise, it’s also about admiring these stunning sites, many of which are hundreds of years old and learning about what they mean to the people who call cities like Chiang Mai home.
Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai
While in Chiang Mai, I visited a place I’d long wanted to experience, the Elephant Nature Park. The sanctuary was started in order to rescue elephants horribly mistreated in the tourism and logging industries. It’s a place where they can be slowly rehabilitated and given the life that all elephants deserve. Sadly, many tourists don’t understand that riding elephants, watching them in circuses, painting or so on involves significant abuse to the elephant. When talking about responsible tourism, it’s important to know that if you see an animal doing something that isn’t natural for them, then it took severe treatment to get them to that point. In the case of elephants, they undergo a horrible ritual known as the Crush which destroys their resolve and will to live through slow torture. Add to that the pain endured during the activities themselves, and you hopefully begin to understand why elephant tourism is so incredibly harmful to these beautiful animals. At the ENP, these elephants are rescued and a team of professionals and volunteers start the long process of helping them enjoy life again. I visited as a day guest, one of many, there to learn more about the sanctuary as well as interact with the rescued elephants through feedings, bathings and more. It was the first activity I booked when planning my trip and it was everything I had hoped it would be. I’m more determined now than ever to help spread the word and convince as many people as possible that elephant tourism is something everyone has to avoid entirely.
The third leg of my trip was in a country completely new to me, Myanmar. For my time in the country’s largest city, I couldn’t have picked a better home base than The Strand Hotel. As a history geek, I always love hotels that have a history and The Strand is arguably one of the most famous hotels in the world. Built in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers, who also built a certain hotel in Singapore named Raffles, The Strand has been home to anyone who has been anyone over the last century, from George Orwell to Mick Jagger. I love that, I love the conversations that must have happened in these hallways and I love the modern elegance of the hotel, true to its colonial past but also incredibly up to date.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Standing at an incredible 325 feet, the pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline and its history is inextricably tied to the city itself. According to legend, the pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago and contains 8 strands of hair from the head of the Buddha. It gradually fell into disrepair until the 14th century and since then successful rulers have made subtle changes to the temple complex creating the massive site we see today. The gold seen is made of genuine gold plates and the crown is tipped with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies. Throughout the centuries Shwedagon has also played a central role in the both the lives of the city and country, making it not only one of the most recognizable sites in Myanmar, but also one of the most important.
The Strand Cruise, Myanmar
One of the reasons why I visited Myanmar was to join the luxurious Strand Cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. Arriving into Bagan on an early flight, I was excited to join the cruise not just to relax a little, but to see parts of Myanmar otherwise impossible to see unless you’re on a boat. My first night onboard was the perfect introduction to river life, as I enjoyed this beautiful sunset over the mighty Ayeyarwady.
Many say that the archeological region of Bagan in Myanmar is rivaled only by Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and after having spent the day exploring the beautiful temples of Bagan I couldn’t agree more. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Bagan was a capital city and the many wealthy elite who lived there erected thousands of temples, more than 10,000 to be exact. Today around 2,000 still exist, survivors of time, earthquakes and neglect. But for many visitors, including myself, visiting Bagan is one of the highlights of any trip to Myanmar. There’s something special about this place, holy and sacred for so very long that the temples inspire a certain kind of introspection. The ultimate though is of course getting up far too early to climb the steps of one of the temples in order to watch the sun rise over the countryside. Like little termite mounds popping up, the sun gradually bathed them in soft morning light, creating one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever had the great privilege to witness.
As a history buff, I had a great time this week exploring many of Myanmar’s most famous temples, monasteries and pagodas, but a fun diversion from those scholarly pursuits was a visit to the U Been Bridge in Mandalay. Dubbed the world’s longest teak footbridge, this 1.2 kilometer bridge spans Taungthaman Lake and is a popular diversion for tourists and locals alike. As an affirmed dog lover though, of course my favorite part was meeting the scores of homeless pups who call the bridge area home. It’s frustrating that I can’t do anything to help them, but I did what I could which was give them a little attention and love.