Leonardo Da Vinci once said, “For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” I love this quote, almost as much as I love travel. Travel opens your eyes to new cultures, different ways of living and exciting adventure and that’s exactly what I experienced on my latest journey.
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see I’ve been an intrepid traveller of late as I recently embarked on the experience of a lifetime with Busabout and Student Flights Australia. I visited Thailand to celebrate Songkran (the Thai New Year), a place I’ve never been before and one I will definitely return to. The idea behind the water festival is a symbol of washing away all of the sins and bad luck from the previous year as you enter the Thai new year. This was something I learnt from my gorgeous guide but more on that as we delve deeper.
I began this journey with ten travel agents from across the country, a sales rep and an intrepid traveller who works as a Busabout guide across the world and what I left with was lifelong friends. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of the organised tour, however, I’d experienced Busbaout prior to this trip and therefore knew what to expect. It’s a ‘Hop On, Hop Off’ experience which means you can choose the level of involvement you wish to have. Perfect for this traveller who had never been to Thailand so needed assistance with where to go and what to do but someone who also liked to party with a group but have some solitude when needed.
The adventure kicked off in Chiang Mai – one of the largest and most culturally significant cities in Northern Thailand and where we as a group decided to celebrate Songkran. This was incredible to see, the locals – from young to old – embrace this three day long holiday to ravage the streets with water and make every tourist (me in particular) shriek with grief as copious amounts of cold water were tipped all over me. Let’s just say I never knew it was possible to shiver in 38 degree heat BUT IT IS! This truly is one of those once in a lifetime events and although it was hard to silence my inner girly girl at times, the hot bath and the wonderful memories obtained of a truly unique cultural experience was worth it.
Another must-do in Chiang Mai is a visit to an Elephant Nature Park (be careful to select the right one or go with Busabout). I’ve been obsessed with these mighty creatures since I was a young girl with my father even promising to take me to Africa one day when the World Cup Cricket was on so I could work in an elephant orphanage over there. It never happened (still love you dad) but at least I lived a lifelong childhood dream on this particular day. Busabout carefully selected this particular park based on the level of care they provide the animals with. There was no riding or cuddling the calves on this experience and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Just to be in their presence and help assist them and bathe them was honour enough, especially considering what many of them have been through. The way many of these elephants are ‘broken’ is through a torturing process. They are locked up for a week in a cage that is so small they can’t even sit. They are cut, starved and beaten. After this time, most elephants are left scared and too weak to fend for themselves. One particular elephant at the sanctuary was locked in a cage and raped up to 10 times a day, by male elephants twice her size, in the hope she would fall pregnant and they would have a healthy elephant to put to work again. The outcome was her hips being permanently dislocated. There were tears of sadness when hearing these stories but also an overwhelming feeling of relief knowing these beautiful souls had been taken in by the nature park and given the proper care and treatment they deserved and often need to heal. An experience I highly recommend to anyone visiting Chiang Mai.
How do you cap off an amazing day at an elephant park in Chiang Mai? With a ladyboy show of course…. And it was hilarious. I’ve loved a good drag show ever since I watched Priscilla Queen of the Desert back in 1994 (yes I was the youngest of three children, with liberal parents) and this show in Chiang Mai exceeded my expectations and more. I think what made it more entertaining was how jealous I found myself over some of their bodies… I mean I train five times a week to achieve similar results like and let me tell you, it ain’t happening! I also enjoyed the entire atmosphere from the waiters… I mean waitresses who served you drinks to the male backup dancers shaking their things, it was a real hoot and one I would gladly experience again and again.
As you’re all aware, I’m a little obsessed with food, particularly spicy food, and so a cooking class (a fantastic optional on the Busabout tour) was something my taste buds were ready for. Hands down, this was my favourite optional of the tour. From Drunken noodles and flaming woks to soothing curry and spice pots, I am now an expert Thai cook in my Aussie kitchen (well, I like to think so). I plan on continuing to bash my spice paste out from scratch and keep adding that chilli! The teacher, Apple was the star of the show as she laughed and joked throughout the entire class, prompting our hungover group to actually forget how crook we all really felt (#selfinflicted).
To top off the final leg of the tour, we ventured up to Pai. Best description is, it’s like the Byron Bay of Thailand. With it’s alternative vibes, kombucha tea and relaxed bars, it’s the perfect place for some downtime where you can soak up the sun at a hot spring or get a real dose of health and vitality from the many health retreats. As a group, we all got our health kick on by trekking the Hill Tribe Trek. It began in a remote village with few inhabitants apart from a couple of gracious families and their adorable children. This trek was hard and I consider myself a fit person but it’s honestly a remarkable way to see this lush landscape. What made the experience more incredible was our guide, Boo who happened to bring his young family along for the journey. His son simply wanted to be ‘just like dad’ mimicking his every move on the trek and showing off for the rest of us, as they swung on vines, made hats from banana leaves and chopped down bamboo to use as walking sticks. His children completely stole my heart with their vivaciousness for life and the outdoors. Particularly Fwren (the little boy) who would not remove his hat to reveal the Mohawk his mother had cut in his hair two days prior. When one of our boys stole it, his tears were relentless and reminded me of the sensitivity and vulnerability of children. He soon came around after a few laughs and a gift of Busabout sunglasses. An incredible day filled with love, smiles and precious moments.
On a final note, I was surprised the feelings I had towards Thailand as it was time to leave. I must admit, I had a feeling it might have been similar to an Australian in Bali experience where it’s all booze and Bintang singlets but it was the complete opposite. It was an adventure filled with cultural learnings, spiritual awakenings, fabulous food, frivolous fun and making lifelong friends and is now another place in the world, I plan to return to. Hopefully I can reunite the tour group one day and we can do it all over again, together.
Big thanks to Busabout and Student Flights Australia for this amazing experience.