Category Archives: Travel

Getting a Sak Yant in Chiang Mai

Detail of hand poked Sak Yant tattoo for compassion kunpanchom tharod between shoulder blades on upper back.

Why not became a running theme during our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, and led to some of the most memorable experiences of our lives. We rode motorbikes without licenses in crazy traffic, tried scuba diving, shot rifles at a dodgy shooting range, snorkeled in the company of sharks, ate scorpion and learned to fearlessly step out into roads to cross the street. Getting a hand poked Sak Yant tattoo was another one of those things, and a permanent memento to remind myself to say why not more often.

Sak Yant are sacred designs and inscriptions tattooed onto the skin, which are said to grant their bearers certain powers or benefits. We had heard about the temples in Bangkok and Chiang Mai that you could visit to be given a sacred tattoo by the monks there, but this can mean queuing for hours with many others and often the same needle and ink is used for every person. Monks are also not usually permitted to touch women, and because of this many will refuse to give a women a Sak Yant. As much as I liked the thought of receiving a tattoo in this way, I didn’t want to risk my health for it, so we had ours done by an ajarn at a sannak.

An ajarn is a master of his chosen craft and is usually a former monk who gained his skill and knowledge of his art form whilst practicing at the temple. Despite being a little more relaxed, ajarn’s still follow a strict set of rules and will refuse to give a Sak Yant to those who do not show proper respect. There are also many rules around which Sak Yant can be tattooed, so you cannot just pick any design you like. Certain inscriptions can only be applied in specific areas, some are specifically for men or certain types of people, and others are so sacred they are reserved only for those who have earned them.

When we arrived we were ushered upstairs to present our donation and offerings of flowers, incense – and the requested menthol cigarettes! Nat already had in mind exactly what type of blessing she wanted, and as it was something incredibly important to her it made things all the more emotional as she sat down to receive hers.

As I watched, I thought about what I should ask for. There wasn’t anything that I felt I needed, so I chose something a little more generic, but still important to me. I told the ajarn that I would like something to help keep me kind and compassionate towards all living creatures. He nodded his head with a smile as if he knew the perfect thing and motioned for me to come kneel. Each monk and ajarn has their own way of doing things, and will adapt the inscription to personalise it to the wearer and their needs, meaning even standard designs have many variations and are often unique. I asked where he would place it and he replied that the most beautiful and powerful place for this Sak Yant was between the shoulder blades.

I sat down in front of him and gritted my teeth as I waited for him to begin. As a bit of a control freak, I was anxious about having no real idea how the design would look, or even what size it would be, but once he started my apprehension soon disappeared. The sensation was sharp and methodical, and as he worked I found myself in a kind of meditative state, focused on the quick, hot poking of the long Khem Sak needle. Once it was over, he began chanting a prayer as he sprinkled me with holy water to bless the finished tattoo and infuse it with its powers.

The first time I saw exactly what it was that had been permanently inked onto my skin was as we climbed into a Tuk Tuk outside and quickly took photos to show each other. It was exhilarating to completely let go and put my trust into a total stranger in this way, and luckily I love the design he chose. It’s freehand and imperfect, but it captures a moment and feeling in time so beautifully, and that just makes me love it even more.

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Elephant Nature Park

Elephant eating at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand, Mum & baby. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Keeper at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Dog watching over elephants at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephants walking at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant feeding time at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand dog sleeping. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant family at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephants in river at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand. Elephants in river at Elephant Nature Park rescue and sanctuary Chiang Mai Thailand.

When we decided to visit Thailand, there was one place that neither of us wanted to miss, Elephant Nature Park.

That morning we woke up to a drizzly, overcast day, but as we stood in reception we were barely able to contain our excitement as we waited for the bus to collect us. On the drive out of town we picked a few others up along the way, and once everyone was on board our guide explained to us the plan for our day and put on a video to explain the story of Elephant Nature Park and why it was set up. I was already aware of the way elephants and other animals are treated in the name of tourism, but even still, the video was incredibly hard to watch and showed quite graphically the suffering that many elephants in this industry are subjected to. It was important to see though, as without fully understanding the horrors of the situation you can’t even begin to comprehend what these animals have been put through in order to ‘break the spirit’ and allow their handlers to control them in this way.

Established in the 1990s by elephant conservationist Lek Chailert, the park works tirelessly to rescue and rehabilitate elephants that have been cruelly trained and abused for the tourist industry, logging and many other jobs where they spend their whole lives distressed and living in fear of punishment. The park does not allow rides or force their elephants to do tricks or perform for visitors, instead you are able to get up close to these amazing creatures, walking alongside them, feeding them and gently stroking them. Over the years the rescue program has expanded and now hundreds of dogs, cats, buffalo and many other abandoned and abused creatures also call the park their home. Set within the most beautiful, mountainous countryside and covering over 250 acres, the elephants and other animals are given the space to roam and live out the rest of their lives in a safe, natural sanctuary.

Once at the park our guide Nancy took our small group to the main hut to go over safety for both us and the elephants, before taking us onto the balcony area to feed some of the bigger members from behind the railings. As we made our way out into the fields, we walked past a family playing in the mud and stopped to watch a small baby and it’s family bathing in the river. Nancy explained to us that some of the elephants simply don’t like to be around humans after years of abuse, and so they only let guests interact with those who are comfortable and enjoy it. We were able to feed one of the younger elephants with some watermelon slices, before being taken over to see Jan Peng or ‘Full Moon’, who is an older grandma elephant in the herd.

The feeling of standing next to Jan Peng was almost indescribable. I approached her slowly, a little scared, and as I stood by her side I remember suddenly becoming very aware of the size and sheer power of this creature, and the thought that if she wanted to she could so easily just stomp me out. But she didn’t. Instead she gazed at me as I patted her shoulder with these lazy brown eyes, and as she fixed them on mine I saw such an intelligent, wise and compassionate being behind them, and I wondered how anyone could ever mistreat someone who looked at them in this way.

Our day here was even better than we imagined and we left with a much deeper resepect and understanding for these amazing animals. If you are visiting Thailand and would like to meet an elephant please stay away from any parks or attractions offering rides, shows or similar and consider visiting Elephant Nature Park instead. Your visit helps to fund the rescue and care of these beautiful creatures, and by refusing to visit the attractions which exploit them you can help to prevent more elephants suffering the same fate.

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Bayon

Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, faces sculptures. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, Buddha faces and heads along the bridge. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, detail of carving. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, stacking stone garden. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, corridor with sunlight. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, details of carvings. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, stacking stones. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, faces sculptures. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, room with no roof and detail carvings. Bayon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia, tuk tuks. Baphuon temple ruins Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia.

With its narrow walkways and tall, imposing walls Bayon felt like the busiest of the temples we visited that day and it was easily my least favourite of them all. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t magical in its own right though, and it’s definitely somewhere you should see with your own eyes at least once.

I’m not sure if it was the crowds, the smaller spaces or even those huge faces looming overhead everywhere you looked, but to me it felt chaotic and claustrophobic. It had a very different vibe to the other open, airy temples, here it felt like a large temple squeezed into the space of a small one, with corridors and terraces stacked high on top of each other trying to contain all of its treasures. There’s so much to see in this tiny place that it makes it almost overwhelming and it’s hard to know where to look first, let alone be able to take it all in.

Constructed in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII, Bayon stands in the centre of the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom. The site has been altered, adapted and added to many times over the years, and this is likely why the temple feels so maze-like and cluttered. New towers, galleries, corridors and decoration were added by successive kings who wanted to make their own mark on it.

The main draw of Bayon is the famous smiling faces which adorn its towers. Believed to represent the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara, over 200 of these masterfully carved faces with their serene expressions, gaze down from the 37 remaining towers. They are truly spectacular, and much bigger and far more impressive than you could imagine in person. Each one unique, I couldn’t help but wonder exactly how they had been created, were the blocks stacked and then sculpted, or were they carved individually first and then assembled like some giant jigsaw? Of course, these are the main areas where the crowds flock, but away from the upper terrace and central tower there were spaces of more quiet beauty, such as the garden littered with hundreds of stacking stones and the open terraces away from the main crowds. This temple also has some of the more beautiful and intricate carvings along the galleries, which tell mythological tales and stories of the empire’s history, but these small details are easy to miss and are often overshadowed by the large faces drawing your gaze upwards.

As we left Bayon, we passed by Baphuon temple (last photo). Sadly we didn’t get chance to look inside this one, as we were already short on time after spending so long at Angkor Wat, but our driver stopped to give us a bit of history and let us out to have a look. I’ll definitely be heading back to Cambodia in the future, and these smaller, slightly less touristy temples will be first on my list to visit.

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Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple doorway Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and plants. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Ruins with large tree roots. Ta Prohm temple path Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and plants. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and plants. Ta Prohm temple arch hallway Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and plants. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Stray dog waiting by Tuk Tuk. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins with huge tree. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and plants. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots. Ta Prohm temple Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and plants. Ta Prohm temple doorway Siem Reap Angkor Cambodia. Crumbling ruins reclaimed by nature and overgrown with trees and roots.

Out of all the temples we visited whilst we were in Siem Reap, Ta Prohm was my favourite. Nestled amongst the ancient trees, this magnificent structure rises up. Abandoned and left to ruin by those who built it, its crumbling frame now becoming steadily reclaimed by the jungle surrounding it. Heavy, twisted tree roots creep down the moss covered walls as if melting in the heat of the sun, and tendrils spill over doorways and snake around pillars, smothering its remains.

Whilst walking around Angkor Wat filled me with an open-mouthed sense of awe, Ta Prohm left me feeling completely enchanted. Inside the temple complex it feels as if you’ve stumbled into a place where time has stood still, where each corridor, doorway and fallen brick seem to tease the possibility of discovery. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for those explorers who first uncovered it, but here you’re given that rare opportunity to get a small glimpse into that feeling of wonder for yourself. As it featured prominently in the first Tomb Raider film, it’s often referred to as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ by both locals and tourists alike. I must admit, being a huge fan of the games as a teen, I definitely felt like I was getting to live out all of my Lara Croft tomb raiding fantasies here!

Many of the rooms and passages through the temple are now impassible, blocked by jumbled piles of stone and the remains of long-dead trees. Wandering down a dark hallway and emerging into a small courtyard to find all other routes blocked, really adds to the sense of adventure and discovery, especially when there are no crowds to follow. We reached Ta Prohm around mid-afternoon, and this seemed like an ideal time. It was quiet and peaceful, with small groups spread out across the large site, a world away from the bustling crowds we found at the other temples we visited that day. This was a happy accident for us, but if you can, I’d reccomend trying to time your visit to arrive during the least busy times of the day. It’s so worth the extra planning to experience the site at a slower, more relaxed pace.

If you’re only in Siem Reap for a short while, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat should be at the top of your list. Both are unmissable and extraordinary in their own unique ways and you should allow yourself plenty of time to get lost amongst the walls of each.

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Angkor Wat

Pink purple sunrise at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Crowd with mobile phones in the dark waiting for sunrise at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia.

Angkor Wat has been somewhere I’ve longed to visit ever since I was a child. It always seemed like such an enchanting place, brimming with history and the promise of adventure. I dreamt of getting lost in its corridors, peering through windows, running my hands along pillars and carvings, and wondering what sights this ancient place must have witnessed over its lifetime.

I hadn’t been able to sleep that night, but it didn’t matter, the excitement of knowing I was finally going to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat had already kicked in and taken over. We set off from our hotel at 5am and headed into the night as our taxi driver sped off towards the site. Once we arrived we stumbled through the pitch black across the main bridge, guided by the light of the hundreds of phones and torches in front of us. As we approached, my eyes began to adjust and I could just make out the distinctive shape of the five towers in the distance. We settled ourselves in front of the reflection pool, and waited for morning to break.

The sky was very overcast that morning, and I admit I felt a twinge of sadness when I realised I wasn’t going to see one of those magnificent sunrises I’d seen in all of those travel photos I’d poured over. Instead, a hazy lilac pink wash enveloped us as the sky gradually faded from black. It wasn’t what I had pictured for all of those years, but the dusky colours and soft early morning light gave it a magical, otherworldly quality.
 

Early morning light sunrise at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Steps at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Monkey eating fruit at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Detail of carvings at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Stones labeled for renovation Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Details of carvings female dancers at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Monk at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Doorways at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Close up detail of carving inscription Khmer script at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Headless buddha statues at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Doorway Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Man with horse at Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia. Hot Air Ballon over Angkor Wat temple complex Siem Reap Cambodia.

Despite the number of people crowded around the pool as the sun rose, once we were inside the temple it felt much more relaxed. This is in part because a lot of people leave after the sunrise and return later in the day, but also because of the size of the site. I knew Angkor Wat was a huge complex, but I don’t think you can truly realise quite how vast it is until you’re standing there.

I went off by myself to explore as Nat stayed by the shrine, and whilst walking through the corridors there were moments where it felt like I had the place all to myself. I stopped to take a break and sat down on top of a platform by one set of stairs, as I looked out across the grounds I couldn’t see or hear a single other person. It was so peaceful and one of my favourite moments, one I remember telling myself to really drink in and savour.

The site itself was everything I had imagined. I felt like a child again as I stood in complete awe, viewing the same sights I’d devoured photos of through my own eyes. We spent most of the morning there, but I could honestly have stayed all day. It really deserves at least half a day to properly appreciate.

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