Seeing Unseen Thailand

A willingness to go with the flow does not come easily to everyone. For some, usually more Type A personalities, flexibility can be a challenge. An openness to letting go and allowing things to unfold as they may requires both a commitment to unconditional acceptance and joy as well as a release of fear – fear of what you can’t control, fear of the unknown. I’ve definitely struggled with this and I continue to. But each and every day, Thailand forces me to loosen the reigns by another millimeter.

Since we arrived to Lomkao, our weekend trips have been very spontaneous – the weekend we went to Chiang Mai, for example, we decided we would take this trip Thursday afternoon and boarded the bus Friday afternoon, the very next day. Rather than making our own itinerary, we asked the hostel for suggestions when we arrived. The result was a memorable waterfall adventure, the experience I will never forget at the elephant sanctuary, and the majestic temple of Doi Suthep.

Although I tend to be very Type A, I have never been a fan of planning far in advance, anyway. How can you live in today’s moments when you’re constantly concerned about tomorrow? It occurred to me that I’m unsure if this method of impromptu travel would work in the United States or other countries – most likely not – but on Thai time, within this relaxed culture, the relaxed and simultaneously exciting nature of impulsive travel is entirely possible.

So, when Jenn invited me to go to Lampang, explaining that she has no idea what is in Lampang, but that other teachers from our OEG orientation group were going, I thought, “Why not?” It would be nice to reunite with everyone we met in Bangkok and it’s highly unlikely I would miss anything riveting in Lomkao for the weekend. Besides, according to Jenn, it’s only a four-hour bus trip.

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Seven and a half hours later, we arrived in Lampang late on a Friday night. (I know, I know. I should have fact checked.) Regardless, our timing was impeccable – we took a songtaew from the bus station to the hostel, and the moment we pulled up, the rest of our OEG friends who had already arrived were outside getting ready to go to a local bar. We quickly rushed to check in, drop our bags and join the group. We started the night at a very crowded bar called “Dope” where we shared some beers while talking and catching up. Later, we visited a club down the street where we danced the rest of the night away to a live band playing popular Thai songs that we were very proud to know.

The next morning, Jenn and I spent some time exploring our absolutely breath-taking hostel. Not all hostels here offer free breakfast, so the coffee and egg sandwiches was a splendid treat we enjoyed while admiring the beautiful mix of modern and nature-inspired interior design.

Our whole group shared a songtaew to Wat Phra Chedi Sao, Twenty Pagodas Temple. Twenty bright gold pagodas towered over us as we walked through the open square-shaped courtyard. In the center of the courtyard, there was a small, enclosed space for prayer with a stunning Buddha for which to offer merit.

In addition to the pagoda courtyard, walking further behind the temple, we came upon an area with thirty arranged memorial gravestones. Each one sparkled with different colored stones and decorations. Roosters were absolutely everywhere – fitting, as Lampang is famous for its roosters.

Because Buddhist monks dedicate all their time to the temple, they rely on the public’s donations for food and other necessities. Legend has it that many years ago, Lampang’s monks were starving because the residents of Lampang never woke up early enough to feed the monks before they needed to fulfill their duties to the temple. After becoming aware of this problem, the Buddha filled the town with roosters so that their crowing would serve as an alarm clock for the people of Lampang to take care of their monks. It is because of this legend that roosters are prized in Lampang – paintings, statues and live roosters themselves are abundant throughout the city.

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Speaking of rooster statues: In the center of downtown Lampang, you’ll find the Lampang Rooster. If you were to read the reviews of this landmark on Trip Advisor, you’d certainly have high expectations for this marvelous monument.

After actually seeing the small statue, sorely in need of a paint job, and at the center of a busy roundabout, you’d realize why these reviews are so hilarious. When our songtaow driver took us through this roundabout, I couldn’t believe my eyes – this tiny, insignificant, dull ornament is supposed to be the famous “avian edifice”? One of our OEG friends, Tim, lives in Lampang and was equally surprised of the underwhelming statue when he first saw it after hearing so much about it. When I read him these Trip Advisor reviews, he was in stitches.

From Wat Phra Chedi Sao, our group shared another songtaew to downtown Lampang, marked by the Ratsadapisek Bridge. Since we are the only vegetarians, Jenn and I went off on our own to find lunch. Though vegetarian food is not very common in Lomkao, it is usually not a problem for restaurants to make accommodations. In Lampang, however, many of the restaurants specialize in one or two dishes only and could not as easily modify a menu item for us. Jenn and I walked for blocks asking, “Maan sa wii raat? (vegetarian?)” and receiving one polite rejection after another.

After passing the same man’s restaurant twice, he must have realized how difficult of a time we were having finding something to eat. Even though there was no one else to manage his restaurant, he offered to drive us to around Lampang to help us find somewhere to eat. He had a small side car attached to his motorbike, so him, his young son and I piled onto the motorbike and Jenn sat in the side car. He stopped at restaurant after restaurant, speaking with the cooks in Thai and asking for directions until he finally pulled up to an all-vegan restaurant, the first we have seen in Thailand. Jenn and I thanked him profusely and ordered our food with enormous smiles.

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In a weird way, it’s sad how shocking the generosity is here. The fact that we have a hard time believing this level of kindness shows what American culture has lost.

We reconnected with our group at a small cafe that served craft beer – a rare treat in Thailand. We enjoyed our beverages while the cafe owner’s precious little daughter played a ukulele. When she was finished, Jenn asked to play a song, and the ukulele ended up getting passed around our group, with many of the group members singing together.

The intense afternoon heat combined with a beer had us all ready for a nap, so we retreated to our hostel to enjoy exactly that. We met on the roof that evening, once everyone was rested and ready to enjoy a nice meal. One of the other teachers at Tim’s school in Lampang recommended a pizza restaurant in downtown Lampang that is owned by a man who moved to Thailand from New York. The pizza was absolutely fabulous – another rare find in Thailand since many Thai people do not eat cheese. On a Saturday night, eating downtown next to the Ratsadapisek Bridge was perfect as this is where the city holds Walking Street. Lampang’s Walking Street was similar to that of Lomsak, with colorful lights and decorations lighting up the bridge and the town, but it was much larger. Jenn was excited to find some affordable Thai traditional dress for teaching on Fridays and I was ecstatic to find some postcards, which have proven to be difficult to find unless you are in a larger tourist destination.

Our grip visited a nearby bar after Walking Street – unlike the bar we explored on the first night, this was much quieter, allowing for a lot more conversation. It was so nice to get to know some of the OEG teachers I hadn’t quite bonded with before. Kelly, Tim, Amy and I had a very deep conversation – not exactly the type you’d expect at a bar, but as someone who values real conversation over frivolous small talk, I enjoyed myself and was thankful for this quality time with new friends. We discussed everything from the differences between American and Thai culture, particularly pertaining to ego, to the 5 Love Languages.

Thai people really love karaoke, so our group decided to look for a Thai karaoke bar to continue our night together. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, Google led us astray, so after walking for twenty minutes or so thinking we would find a karaoke bar, we came up short. Because tuk tuks and songtaews do not run that late at night in a smaller town like Lampang, we needed to walk another forty-five minutes to our hostel. Some stopped at a bar we passed on the way for a rest, but I was so exhausted that I couldn’t wait to get back to the hostel and sleep. I had no problem whatsoever sleeping through the return of the other hostel-mates!

Without a doubt, Sunday was the highlight of our time in Lampang – other than visiting the elephant sanctuary, we agreed that it has been the highlight of our time in Thailand so far. It made me extremely grateful that Jenn initially misunderstood the length of the bus trip, as I might not have gone had I known how long the journey was.

Because of the extensive trip we needed to make back to Lomkao on Sunday, Jenn and I planned to take the 1:30pm bus out of Lampang to avoid getting back to town really late at night before a work day. We had been considering exploring the Chae Son National Park in Lampang, known for the Chae Son waterfall, caves and hot springs, but even after getting up early to leave the hostel by 8am, we realized this would not be possible if we were to catch the 1:30pm bus. The national park was a two hour trip from our hostel, which would have left us very little time to explore between the drive and our deadline. We also weren’t too keen on adding another four hours of travel to our already very long travel itinerary.

Isn’t it funny how, often times, when things don’t work out, it is because there is something better yet to come, and you simply don’t know it yet? This is precisely what happened on that Sunday, though we weren’t exactly spared in terms of lengthy travel.

That Saturday night, when I had decided to return back to the hostel to sleep, Jenn decided to stop for a rest at one of the bars we passed with some of our other OEG friends. At this bar, she met a traveling Bangkok resident who spoke English fluently after living in the United States for much of his young life. Arthur had a lot of tips to share with Jenn, including telling her about Wat Chalerm Phrakiat. He told her that, as it is somewhat off the beaten path near Chae Hom, over a 60km drive from Lampang City, this unique temple is considered a hidden gem of “unseen Thailand.”

Because this temple is a bit of a challenge to get to, it was difficult for us to find a songtaew driver who was willing to make the trek. When taking passengers to a distant location like this one, songtaews typically prefer to charge people for a roundtrip rather than one-way, as it is more profitable for them than it would be to chance driving all the way to a location and not finding any more customers for the long drive back. Though it was still early morning, the sun was already beating us up – dripping in sweat, we were getting more frustrated and hopeless by the minute. We finally came upon an older gentleman who very clearly had no business – he was lounging across the front seats of his truck leisurely smoking a cigarette. It was equally clear that he had zero knowledge of either English or how to get to Wat Chalerm Phrakiat, but after flashing our pearly whites and relying heavily on our translator, we were able to bargain an affordable price for a roundtrip songtaew just for the two of us.

We had decided the trip to Wat Charlerm Phrakiat made more sense than going to Chae Son National Park since it was supposed to be half the distance from our hostel. The songtaew driver had an older truck and was driving fairly slowly – within twenty minutes, I was fast asleep sprawled out on one of the benches. I awoke to a change in the air; my watch confirmed much more time had passed than I anticipated. Already going on an hour and a half, I gave Jenn a confused look, to which she laughed, “I think he’s lost.”

Still going quite slowly, our driver soon approached a nice local on the side of the road to ask for directions. Thai people place high importance on politeness, so at the end of every sentence, women add “Kah” and men add “Krub” as a sign of respect. This suffix is also used as a polite confirmation since Thai language doesn’t have words for English’s technical “Yes” and “No.” As our driver spoke with this enthusiastic local, clearly excited to be seeing two farangs in the back of the songtaew, he responded with a warm smile and, almost every three seconds, an animated “Krub!”

When we finally arrived at our destination, we needed to purchase two tickets: one for entrance into the temple and a second for the taxi ride up to the mountain. Four other Thai people piled into the back of the songtaew with Jenn and I, one of whom was holding an iced matcha latte. I’m not sure if any of us realized how treacherous this drive would be – about two minutes into the climb, Jenn was wearing the matcha latte, with nervous laughter and attempts at communicating, “I’m sorry,” through the language barrier coming from one of the Thai women.

The road leveled out to a flat section of land almost to the top of the mountain with an adorable coffee shop overlooking an incredible view. A sign pointing to an uphill trail read, “800m”. The songtaew driver parked and said, “You must walk from here.”

In an effort to pack light, Jenn and I take only one backpack with us on our weekend trips, which leaves room only for the shoes on our feet. We got very lucky – though we were only wearing walking sandals, much of the uphill climb was supported with metal walkways and railings. And thank goodness we did pack light – since we had already checked out of our hostel, we carried our belongings the whole 800m climb. Despite being much easier, the zig-zag nature of the hike reminded me of the hike to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park.

When we finally reached the top, there were three separate and equally incredible vantage points. The first one we visited was in the center – to the left and right you could see the two neighboring peaks and straight ahead presented a landscape view like no other. Tucked away behind this middle platform was an enclosed temple for prayer where we offered merit and bowed to the Buddha.

We climbed to the second, higher lookout on the left and could hardly believe our eyes.  A large gong and an even more grandiose Buddha lit up the open-air platform. Hanging wind chimes kissed our ears as we overlooked the most stunning view I have ever seen, with luscious green mountains as far as the eye can see. Looking the other direction presented interesting cone-shaped structures pointing toward the heavens, eight of various sizes shining white and one of tan stone, illuminated by rings of bright color. During our descent to the middle area, when Jenn grabbed on to a tree for support, a colorfully concerning caterpillar stung her on the arm and she immediately began to swell. Luckily, a nice policeman near the middle reassured us at the caterpillar was not poisonous and he gave Jenn some antihistamine ointment.

The third vantage point was the highest of the three. A resting point halfway up the stairs was crowded by a massive bell that we enjoyed sounding. The tallest point was crowned by a stupa-like gold monument with another place to offer merit and prayer to the Buddha. This lookout offered the most complete view, with sights of mountains that had not been visible from the first two. It was difficult to leave this brilliant scene, particularly since it was already clear to Jenn and I both that the 1:30pm bus would no longer be a possibility for our travels, but hunger (growing on hanger) convinced us to return to the songtaew.

The return trip from Wat Chalerm Phrakiat to the Lampang bus station was just as long – by the time we arrived, it was going on 4pm. The next bus for Lomsak was not set to leave until 5:45pm, so Jenn and I decided to get something to eat down the street followed by a massage. The funny thing about the language barrier in Thailand is that, because being polite is so important, Thai people will frequently tell you they understand when they really have no idea what you’re talking about. I use the word “funny” very loosely – it’s actually not funny at all as a teacher, and even less funny when you have only one hour to get a massage before you need to catch your bus and your masseuse clearly confirms that she understands your massage must end no later than 5:30pm.

I dozed off during the massage after such a tiring day, so keeping track of time was difficult. The clock on the wall read 5pm, but I could have sworn I had been there for much longer. When I asked the masseuse, she said, “It’s 5:50pm.”

5:50!?!? Jenn and I both sprang up, exclaiming that we were going to miss our bus, while two Thai masseuses’ alarmed eyes grew three sizes. Somehow, my bewildered masseuse thought I was simply anxious for her to start working on my back, so as I was talking to Jenn sitting up on the massage table, she started to frantically work on my shoulders. If I hadn’t been so upset about potentially missing our bus, I would have been rolling with laughter.

We started getting dressed as quickly as we could, unable to fully explain to the kind women what miscommunication had happened. A common custom after receiving a Thai massage is to be presented with hot tea – as Jenn and I were racing out of the salon, trying to pay, my extremely confused masseuse anxiously approached us with two hot teas and a concerned expression. Still, at the time, it wasn’t yet funny.

We sprinted to the bus station, ran up to the attendant at our terminal, panting and pointing to our tickets. He leisurely glanced at out bus number and said, “In 10 minutes.” We practically collapsed with relief into a celebratory hug, with a bus station full of Thai people looking at us like we had three heads. Thank goodness for Thai time.

And yet, the journey was still not over. Five hours into the tiring drive, nearing midnight, the bus pulled into a station in Phitsanulok, still a few hours away from Lampang, and an attendant told us to get off the bus. No one around was proficient enough in English to offer us an explanation as to what was going on other than, “change bus.” We waited at the Phitsanulok station for over an hour, as confused as our masseuses had been and cranky as ever. Finally, we were boarded onto a very cramped bus with no air conditioning, where we slept for another couple of hours until the attendant again approached us to tell us we had reached our destination.

“But this doesn’t look like the Lomsak bus station?” Jenn and I both inquired, uselessly, to an attendant who doesn’t speak any English. She gave us a glance that said, “You’re getting off whether you like it or not.”

Lomsak has two different bus stations, but Jenn’s motorbike, our ride home, was parked at the other one. We had never used this bus station either when arriving or departing, so we hadn’t a clue where we were. It was around three in the morning and both of our phones were dead, so we had a grand time struggling to communicate Lomkaophittayakhom School to two tuk tuk drivers who spoke even less English than our bus friends.

We laughed the entire tuk tuk ride home at the unbelievably bizarre and difficult nature of a bus trip that should have been simple. More than anything, Thailand has taught us to laugh, to shrug things off, to smile and to enjoy the moment regardless of how it pans out. We taught a full schedule of classes the next day on only a few hours of sleep, but was it worth it? Hell yes it was. Visiting Lampang was truly a weekend to remember, along with so many others we’ve already shared.

8 thoughts on “Seeing Unseen Thailand

  1. Living on “Thai time” agrees with you my dear Samantha Varie. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this with such detail and emotion that it’s as if I experienced it with you. Just love.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kudos on a great blog on your travels and Thai life !! And the life long memories and friendships. Now all you need is your scooter fixed for the short trips to town. Love the video and shared it hopefully as I am not great on the computer – but you already know that ! Love PaPPAW

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sam I read the whole blog today during work and I could not stop till I finished,
    Wow , Wow, Wow
    Thank you, so much for sharing all this and You answered so many questions I had from my visit to Thailand that I am forever grateful. Please continue with this beautiful blog I can’t wait to read alone some more amazing adventures and knowledge from Thailand. I hope you are able to help more dogies they worry me so much seeing them in the streets. it was truly sad, I loved the Coconut milk soup and their green papaya salad and green mangoes salad and their amazing smoothies. I was always asking myself why they wear yellow lol lol thank you for answering
    And by the way I loved , loved Thailand it was an experience I would never forget.

    Liked by 1 person

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