Other bits and pieces from Chiang Mai

Roman’s last couple of weeks in India had him covering a lot of ground, so we weren’t too ambitious with our activities in Chiang Mai. A leisurely morning at the apartment followed by exploring the town on foot (with the occasional pit stop for coffee) was a pretty typical day for us. Chiang Mai has a laid back vibe and was a good match for our ambitions.

It reminds me a bit of a college town in the States. Somewhere between a town and a city, it seems like a place that has everything you could want without feeling too big. It certainly caters to tourists, but not so much that it feels overwhelmed by Westerners. The multitude of coffee shops, massage and yoga studios and colorful open-air markets give it a bit of an alternative feel. All that while still being distinctly Thai.

Here’s some more impressions and a few other things we experienced while we were there.

Thai fashion

I can probably count the number of native women I saw wearing jeans in India on my hands; mostly women were dressed in Salwar Kameez or Saris wherever we went. And no matter what exactly they were wearing or how rich or poor they were, they carried themselves with an innate grace. Women in India work hard – they till fields, wash children, sweep gutters, cook food, scrub floors, carry fire wood, do road and construction work – in these bright, traditional clothes, and manage to look more elegant than I would if I were covered in silk and diamonds. There is a poetic poise and beauty at the core of Indian femininity and women that I’m still trying to get my head around (especially because of the contrast of the anything but elegant way women are often treated there…).

I mentioned that Chiang Mai felt like a college town with a bit of an alternative vibe. Certainly after India, the fashion in Chiang Mai felt really youthful, playful and fun. It was actually almost a bit of a shock in the beginning to see that much skin again after getting used to covering up in India. Seems like a lot of women in Thailand have great legs and they know it! Short shorts and the shirt-as-a-dress are everywhere, and people seemed to have a really playful approach to fashion, mixing patterns and styles at will with some really fun results.

So I’ve been loving the people and fashion watching, and I have to keep reminding myself that I am travelling on a budget and with very limited space in my baggage. 🙂

Observation has shown me one must-have Chiang Mai accessory that I can do without though, which is the pocket dog. Tons of shops and street stands had resident puff balls like this one – often in doggie jackets and sometimes even in little doggie shoes. Cute but not my style….

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Night markets and street food

Chiang Mai is great for open-air shopping. The Sunday market is especially fun – not in the least because of the smorgasbord of exciting street food. Some more appetizing than others…

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Dried squid

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Spicy potato spiral on a stick – kind of like a cross between french fries and potato chips

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More squid and other things on sticks (like eggs – impressive!)

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Cute cartoon pancakes

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Fried bugs (no, I didn’t… yes, I’m a wuss, and I’m ok with that)

Not pictured but two of my favorite Thai desserts are now 1) fresh mango with sticky rice: total comfort food and 2) the banana roll – think spring roll pastry filled with sweet banana, fried and served piping hot with a topping of sweet condensed milk. Num num.

The flight of the gibbon – zip lining

One of the few tourist things we did do was go on a day trip zip-lining through a rain forest outside of Chiang Mai. There were posters for “Flight of the gibbon” all over town, and I’d read about it in Lonely Planet.

I’d wanted to try zip-lining for a while and “FotG”’s website talked about some of the proceeds going to preserve the ecosystem, so it seemed like a good opportunity. The zip-lining was fun enough but Roman and I were slightly underwhelmed by the program. Moving through the course with 10 other tourists made the experience feel a bit clunky and while the guides were nice, the joviality felt at times a bit forced. We’re just not ones for those sort of group activities I think. 🙂

That being said, I think it’s probably a great thing to do if you have kids, and the location was jaw-dropping beautiful. The trees were massive, ancient and just gorgeous, the real highlight of the day for me. 🙂

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Incredible tree!

Fish spa

Another thing we saw where ever we went was fish spas: small shops with big tanks full of little fish in the window. Apparently the fish have a natural habit of feasting on dead skin cells and a therapy was developed in Turkey based on this phenomenon. A bit weird, but, when in Rome… We ended up popping in to a shop one evening to give it a try. It’s a very strange sensation to have dozens of little fish nibbling at your ankles and toes! I was suffering in the beginning because it tickled and I had to fight the urge not to kick the fish off, but it was good practice to get into a Zen mind and eventually I could relax into the experience. Not something I necessarily need to do again any time soon, but I’m glad we tried it. 🙂

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The fish…

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…the buffet

Gross

Many of you know Roman is a smoker. If you smoke or know someone who does in the west, you’re probably familiar with the printed health warnings or cheesy guilt-tripping pictures all over the cigarette boxes.

In Thailand they take things a step further and include really graphic photos on the boxes. They’re really disgusting. Whether they are effective or not, I can’t say. Certainly they haven’t had any effect on Roman other than getting him to buy a case to put his cigarettes in cause neither of us want to look at photos of autopsies while we’re having a coffee. 😛 Here’s one of the less disturbing ones for your viewing pleasure. My advice if you’re a smoker and planning a trip to Thailand, bring your own cigarettes, buy a case, or, better yet, use it as a good time to try quitting! 😉

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Some other, random pictures

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Sculpture on a bridge close to our apartment. I don’t get it but I like it. 🙂

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The tuk-tuks in Thailand are similar but distinct from the auto-rickshaws in India (which totally have my heart – sorry tuk-tuks). Here is one particularly colorful one. Note the fake, red bullet holes and the “booty call” sticker. 🙂

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Monks and novices leaving a temple

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Incense, lotuses and chrysanthemums for sale in front of a temple

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Travel reflections: community

The time in Chiang Mai was really comforting and nurturing for me in a few different ways that got me thinking about what we’re doing.

Before I continue, for anyone that doesn’t know me that well let me put it out there right now that I am a greedy person and have a tendency to want more than should be possible by the laws of physics. 🙂 So, it is completely true and accurate that I 100% want to be doing this big trip and am still amazed and grateful for the fact that it’s actually happening.

But… I have also been spending a lot of time during this trip thinking about the future (not wanting to be there yet, but contemplating how I’d like it to be) and often feel somehow unfulfilled.

The things that felt best to me about being in Chiang Mai seem to be pretty at odds with life on the road.

It was great to have someplace that felt like “home”, to have someplace a bit more spacious and personal than another hotel room, to have the ability to do peaceful-feeling domestic things like laundry and cooking (I know, in “normal” life things like laundry can sometimes feel like a chore, but in this context it felt really comforting. 🙂 Allison, you’ll be amazed to hear I even didn’t mind (much) doing the dishes.).

It also felt very sweet to have a “neighborhood”. Finding the cute health food shop down the street (it became a regular shopping destination) and chatting with its friendly owner made my day. Finding a good yoga teacher in town was great too – Vari at Namo studio was a sweetheart and totally inspiring.

Probably the best part of Chiang Mai though was meeting Jaime, the amazing Ayurvedic director at the resort. Beyond being great at her profession, she’s also a totally nifty, heartfelt and fun chick, and I felt immediately at ease with her. Connecting so easily and openly with another person was better than all the massages I got at the resort combined. She lives in town and was generous enough to invite me to join in some group discussions on Ayurveda and digestion at a healing center run by one of her friends. It was such balm to my heart to have that time with the small group of like-minded women, sharing and chatting and laughing.

It helped to underline some of the dis-ease that I’ve been feeling. I recognize now that something I’m really longing for (while, as I said, still being excited for all the travel we have ahead of us) is community.

I think Roman and I are different in this way. He loves his friends and family for sure, but so far I don’t think he’s been feeling a lack of socializing, while I feel pretty hungry for connection. I’m have enough perspective at this point in my life to be able to see it relatively objectively (most of the time at least… 😉 ), rather than to just feel it and feel overwhelmed by it, thank goodness. But it still makes me a bit sad sometimes, even as I am enjoying where we are.

I don’t have any sort of pearl of wisdom or enlightening anecdote to share from this experience (yet??). I think perhaps I have more to look at and think about in terms of how I was living before in Switzerland and the choices we are making during this trip. One thing Roman and I have been talking about is trying something different for some of our next stops, like volunteering of WWOOFING, so we’ll be in one place for longer and having more interaction with people. And I can’t help but fantasize about what life might be like in the next chapter. At this particular moment, I’m picturing a big, cozy kitchen full of people I love dearly and lots of laughter.

One thing that is more solid than any of those speculative thoughts though, is the huge love I feel for my friends and family. Even though I keep moving physically further away from them, they remain very immediately present in my heart and thoughts. So to all of the people out there who I love, please know how very and truly grateful I am to have you in my life, and how much I’m looking forward to seeing you again. 🙂 Much love!

Chiang Mai field trip: Thai cooking class

After we left the Spa Resort, we rented a sweet little studio apartment in Chiang Mai for a couple of weeks.

For folks who are interested in that sort of thing, we found it on the trip advisor website and the guy (a dude from Boston) we rented it from was really friendly and helpful. It was small but lovely. In a newer building, tastefully decorated, with a washer/dryer, massive TV, free wi-fi, small but nice balcony, not dead center in town but close enough to the action for our tastes. We were paying USD 45 a night for it. I know Chiang Mai has cheaper hotels but we were really happy with our little temporary nest.

Our apartment in Chiang Mai

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The big highlight for me was the fact that it had a little kitchen and I could finally do some cooking again. Even simple things like making myself porridge for breakfast gave me no end of pleasure. 🙂 One of our days there I decided to splash out and go to Thai cooking class. There seem to be a ton of cooking schools in and around Chiang Mai. I don’t know how they all stack up, I just know that I loved the class I took. I ended up signing up at the Thai Farm Cooking School. It’s outside of town on an organic farm.

Our guide and teacher, Max, was great, he got the balance just right in terms of keeping the day moving while explaining things in enough detail, and he seemed to really know his stuff. He came to pick up all the students in the morning. We got to visit a local market before heading out to the farm, which was a neat way to start the day. Once we got to the school, we got an introduction to some of the ingredients they grow on the farm before we got to the cooking.

We got to make four different dishes, plus a dessert. The school’s website includes many of the recipes, so I won’t type everything out here, but I will say that everything I made under Max’s instructions turned out totally delicious and to this day remains some of the best Thai food I’ve eaten since we got here (I am giving the credit to the fresh ingredients and the quality of instruction!). I can’t wait till I have a kitchen again and can try the recipes. Take a look and get inspired! 🙂

At the market

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Pig heads and other cuts of meat

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Tiny but potent

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Laughing over lettuce

At the school

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Happy resident cat

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Our classroom. Notice the massive mortar and pestle – for making curry paste

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Max explaining ingredients by a papaya tree

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Fresh ingredients

Yellow curry with vegetables

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Pounding the ingredients to make the yellow curry paste – a good work out!

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The delicious finished product

My lunch – Yellow Curry, Chicken with Cashew Nuts (this turned out awesome) and Vegetable Coconut Soup

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Stirring up Pad Thai – also amazing fresh!

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Dessert: Banana in coconut milk

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Looks, sounds and is simple – but SO tasty

Snapshots: Arriving in Thailand

Writing about Chiang Mai has got me thinking about how it felt to arrive there after India.

Roman and I had said our goodbyes at the airport the night before in Cochin (after being driven there by the slowest cab driver in all of India!). Cochin is pretty touristy and felt more insulated than many of the places we’d been in India. Even so, landing in Singapore for my early morning transfer felt like arriving at a different world.

It was still dark as we landed, and the view from the plane of hundreds of glittering ship lights on the pitch-black water, followed by seeing the city itself all lit up was incredible. I will admit, stepping into the pristine, quiet, massive airport felt a bit like arriving at a lush oasis after crossing a desert. 😉 I made a bee line to the nearest Starbucks for a soy latte and then spent the rest of my layover enjoying the glittering temple of consumerism just outside my gate, the cleanest bathrooms I’d seen since leaving Switzerland and chatting with a nice guy who’d been living in Zürich but was on his way to Bali to coach the national football team.

The flight north to Chiang Mai was quick and easy. I loved watching the landscape change beneath the plane, watching scruffy green hills emerge from the plains as we got closer to our destination.

The airport in Chiang Mai seemed relatively simple (especially after Singapore!) but the team of people from the cell phone company handing out free sim cards to all the newly arrived tourists was a first indication that I wasn’t in India any more, Toto. 🙂

The hotel had arranged pick up and I was escorted into a spotless, air-conditioned little Honda that still had the smell of new car. The driver barely said a word and it almost all felt too quiet to be true (perhaps especially after the chatty driver in Cochin who had stopped when the urge struck him to pick up chewing tobacco).

Other things that left an impression that day:

how broad and clean the roads were (after India at least 😉 )

the number of 7-11s we passed on the way to the hotel – they seem to be everywhere in Thailand!

the large number of small trucks on the street (Apparently there is a tax in place that makes it more economic to buy a truck than a car.) which was funny to see after India, where for the most part the only trucks are the industrial-sized goods carriers

how good everything smelled. That first day it seemed like everyone I passed by was wearing pleasant perfume, and the resort especially smelled great, especially all the linens. It cost a bomb to have laundry done there, but it was worth every cent for how amazingly good the clothes smelled when they came back. 🙂

Chiang Mai field trip: temple tour

The package I had at the resort also included a couple of day trips. In the end, I only went on one – a temple tour in Chiang Mai. It ended up being a bit of a quirky but fun outing.

I’m not sure if this is typical of the resort, but I was the only guest on the tour and I was taken around to the different temples by a member of staff, a young Thai guy named Birdy who was very sweet but spoke almost no English! So, I saw lots of gorgeous temples, statues and holy sites and know nothing about them – in some cases not even their names. 🙂

Birdy was very kind though and did the best he could with sign language and his bits and pieces of English. Mostly though, we kept the conversation to a minimum and I just took in the peaceful atmosphere of the places we visited. Chiang Mai seems to have at least three Buddhist temples on each block; even with further exploration with Roman, I’m sure I only saw a fraction of all the temples in the city. Birdy took me to four locations (many had numerous temples on the grounds) which I have to assume are among the most important/well-known in Chiang Mai.

So far I’ve had pretty consistent reactions to all the Buddhist temples we’ve visited on this trip – I just love them. They always feel so peaceful to me; very often the anxious pace of life seems to slow down to just the present and I can feel my scurrying brain start to calm down and my heart start to soften. So I loved the outing, even if I didn’t learn any history or cultural tidbits.

Here are photos from the temples I visited – without names. 😉

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Temple-guarding dragon

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Massive buddha

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Beautifully decorated window shutter inside a temple

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Buddha statue that devotees have covered with gold leaf squares

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Detail of a massive, beautiful reclining Buddha. Buddha statues come in many different postures, which have specific meanings. Apparently reclining is symbolic of the Buddha’s entrance into Nirvana just prior to his death.

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Chairs for monks during prayer. They are square in shape and quite large; my guess is that the monks sit cross-legged on them, but I never saw them in use.

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I got a kick out of this poster of proper temple etiquette for Westerners. PDA and hot pants are not allowed!

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Buddha sitting on the coils of a many-headed snake. The image of the snake is reminiscent of some statues and paintings we saw in India (see Vishnu’s hood in the pictures from Hampi for example. Our guide there told us that Buddha was one of the god’s many incarnations).

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Stupa seen through the bars of a temple window. The yellow cloth wound around it has been signed by thousands of guests to the temple. Birdy and I signed cloths at some of the temples we visited too. 🙂

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The garden outside on temple was full of these signs with words of wisdom. Loved it there.

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Praying with incense and flowers in front of a stupa

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Detail of an incredible mural inside one of the temples. One of my favorite animals – the water buffalo!

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A clementine left in offering in the lap of a meditating monk statue

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New Year’s at Chiang Mai

The resort is about a half hour’s drive outside of town. For New Year’s they offered a shuttle into Chiang Mai for the city’s festivities. The whole area around Tha Pae Gate was closed off to traffic and it was buzzing with people, a massive open-air market, tons of food stalls, street massage and live music.

It was a great vibe and I ended up enjoying my first exploration of the city with a lovely English named Penny who was doing the full fast program at the resort. We were both still fasting, so the delicious smelling street food was a lovely kind of torture. We did take a break at one of the city’s Starbucks for a guilt-free cup of tea and a good session of girl talk – nourishing in another way. 🙂

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Open-air foot massage en masse

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Cooking eggs

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A massive portion of Pad Thai

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Fresh seafood

The night was especially beautiful due to the thousands of sky lanterns people were lighting and releasing into the night sky. Apparently this is a tradition in northern Thailand. There were streams of them floating silently up into the sky. I tried to capture it with my camera, but no photo could come close to capturing the glittering, magical sight. Eventually I gave up and instead, Penny and I bought our own, lit it and made wishes for the New Year until the lantern was full enough of hot air to start tugging at our grip and we released it and our dreams to the sky.

Feels like a lifetime ago now – I am trying to remember what my intentions were. 😉 What about you, did you make any resolutions or New Year’s wishes this year?

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Lantern lighting in front of a temple. The dots of light in the sky are lanterns.

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Releasing lanterns at a bridge by Tha Pae Gate.

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The biggest lantern in the middle of the shot is the one Penny and I released. 🙂

Detox and Ayurveda in Chiang Mai

My first stop after India was to indulgent health resort just outside the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

I am finding that one of the challenges for me with this trip is the difficulty to feel fit. The way I work, my mental state can be pretty strongly affected by how healthy I am eating and how much exercise I get. India involved a lot of time travelling – long hours sitting on trains, many meals consisting of airplane food or pre-packaged snacks, lots of inclusive hotel breakfasts of white bread toast, and far too much cooling off and refueling with stops at Cafe Coffee Day! 🙂

All this meant that I was feeling pretty flubby by the end of our time in India, so two weeks that offered both detox and yoga sounded just perfect. (I wrote more about finding the resort in an earlier post)

The Spa Resort offers all sorts of different packages with different health focuses. My stay included a four day juice and fruit fast at the beginning of the two weeks, plus daily yoga, Thai massage and time in the sauna. There were people there who were doing more ambitious programs – seven day proper fasts or intense boot camps with full day programs of exercise, but I didn’t want to shock my body after 4 months of basically doing nothing. 😉

The juice fast was in some ways easier than I thought it would be. You’re drinking different things all day long (including amazing coconut water – the best I’ve ever tasted right out of the coconut) and you get a massive platter of fruit at lunch time which was really quite filling, so I never actually felt hungry or anything. But I’ve done similar fasts before and had expectations about feeling more clear and grounded mentally.

In fact, I found I was only feeling more and more restless in my heart and mind as the days passed. The daily yoga wasn’t feeling satisfying; while my body was performing the asanas, the rest of me felt totally disconnected from the practice. A lot of the self-criticism that I’d been participating in during the time in India intensified, so I was spending a lot of energy feeling little and shy and lonely and sorry for myself. When I wasn’t doing that, my brain was busy stressing over visions of the future it was spinning out of thin air and I found myself having all sorts of worries about me and Roman.

After my fast was over, I signed up to have an Ayurvedic consultation, and this session happily ended up being a turning point. I’d always been interested in Ayurveda from the little I’d learned about it in my yoga teacher training. A lot of what it prescribes seems like common sense. Still, I didn’t expect to feel so much better so soon after taking the consultant’s advice.

I won’t go into too much detail explaining, since I’m no expert, but she identified an imbalance and suggested a list of simple things to try to help counteract this imbalance. Based on the Ayurvedic perspective, all the raw fruit I’d been eating was actually only making the imbalance worse. I started eating cooked food right away, going to the steam room instead of the dry sauna, getting oil instead of dry massages.

Walking out of my first oil massage the next day, I felt like I was really seeing where I was for the first time. I’d been able to mentally assess before that the resort was lovely, but only that day did I begin to really realize it and see its beauty. Being more grounded in the present, instead of thrashing about in a tempest up in my head, it was like a blind fold had been lifted and suddenly I could see the world around me. The dance of the butterflies on the path before me. The feel of the breeze on my skin. The glow of the flowers outside the restaurant in the afternoon sunshine.

Feeling this difference, I realize that I spent a lot more time in my head than being present while in India. There were definite moments of wonder and connection in India, but I can see that I experienced a lot of it through my head and intellect only, while not connecting emotionally. I’m trying to figure out why this might be, and I can see how I still struggle now sometimes to keep grounded and present at times. I have some theories; maybe I’ll write more about them some other time.

Getting back to the Spa Resort for now though – thanks to that grace, the rest of my time there was just blissful. I felt much more connected to what I really wanted to do (before this, I’d been making decisions based on thoughts like “well, this seems sensible” or “the guidebook says xxx”, rather than what I felt like doing) and started feeling the bliss of yoga again and having fun with some of the lovely people I met at the resort.

It was really a lovely place to be – amazing location, grounds and food – and I’m so grateful for the time I had there.

I didn’t take so many pictures while I was at the resort, but here is the view from my upstairs balcony, just to give an idea of how beautiful this place was!

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New year, new country

So we are already well into 2011. I’ve been in Thailand for over two weeks, which means it’s also been over two weeks since my last post, which is already starting to feel like a dream lifetime ago in India.

Technology conspired with me at the health resort where I’d been staying so that I was able to mostly unplug. Necessary is probably too strong a word, but it definitely felt good. 🙂 (more on the resort later…)

By now I’ve even left the resort. Roman arrived (filthy 😉 ) from India on Saturday. We had a day and a half together at the resort and now we’ve moved into a wonderful studio apartment in the Night Bazaar neighborhood of Chiang Mai. It’s got a basic, toy-sized kitchen – two hot plates, a sink, a fridge, the smallest electric kettle I’ve ever seen, a toaster and a microwave (which I’ll be ignoring). So I won’t be producing any Sunday roasts or anything like that, but I am nonetheless thrilled to have my own kitchen and cook for us again. 😀

Besides the accommodation, I seem to be falling pretty easily and quickly for Chiang Mai. I don’t want to write too much about it yet. I will at least attempt to do a couple more posts on India before my senses and thoughts are completely overtaken by Thailand. 🙂

So I’ll leave off for now, with the best intentions of catching up on posting soon…

And in the mean time, happy New Year from lovely Chiang Mai! 🙂