The Golden Mount and Wat Saket in Bangkok, Thailand is one of the most beautiful sacred sites in the city. Sitting on top of a small hill, the temple is crowned with an impressive 58-meter golden stupa (the monument at the top which points at the sky) which contains a relic from the Buddha. With 360 degree views of Bangkok encompassing both the old city along with the modern skyscrapers, the Golden Mount is one of the most impressive places to watch Bangkok’s famous sunsets.
334 steps lead you to the top of The Golden Mount. Originally built before Bangkok was the capital city, the original structure collapsed and eventually became covered in weeds, creating an artificial hill. When the capital was moved from Ayutthayato Bangkok, King Rama I began renovations of the grounds. The temple was continuously added to by his grandson Rama III and more by his son Rama IV. In the 20th century the sides of the hill were covered in concrete to prevent erosion.
As you head up the steps there are many rows of hanging bells and several large gongs. There are also speakers along the way where monks are continuously chanting, creating a very strong and calming energy as you head up the steps.
It’s amazing to see the contrast between the traditionally built temples and the modern skyline of Bangkok, Thailand.
The most popular time to visit the Golden Mount is during Loy Krathong, one of Thailand’s biggest holidays occurring every November during the full moon. People release “krathong” offerings — little boats made from banana leaves, flowers, candles, and incense — on the canals and lakes all over the country. The festival originated as a way to honor the river goddess, but it also has Buddhist meaning. “The candle venerates the Buddha with light, while the krathong’s floating symbolizes letting go of all one’s hatred, anger, and defilements.” (Wikipedia) Some people put their fingernail clippings or hair in the boats to “get rid of the bad parts” of themselves.
The Golden Mount and Wat Saket entrance fee is only 20 Baht and it is open from 9am to 7pm. If you are staying near Khao San Road you can walk to the temple, or if staying in another part of the city we recommend the canal boat. You can check out our article about navigating Bangkok’s many transportation options for more information. You can see the temple’s stupa from all over the old city, so don’t worry about getting lost!
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As soon as we arrived in Thailand we started noticing people’s traditional tattoos. After a few internet searches, we learned more about the “Sak Yant” as they are called– magic bamboo tattoos. Sak Yant are beautifully designed and come with a blessing, their goal to grant protection and to give strength to the bearer of the tattoo. The sacred tattoos are given by Buddhist monks, or ex-Monk tattoo masters called Ajarns. The Ajarns dedicated their lives to learning the ancient art, passing the traditions down to their apprentices.
Our Sak Yant Experience in Ayutthaya
After the initial research we put in, we were turned off by the whole “free tattoo in the temple thing” as from the accounts we first read the process seemed crowded and rushed, with questionable sterilization practices. We searched for a more personable experience, and that is when we found Where Sidewalks End Travel. WSE’s owner Ian has spent years traveling all over Asia looking for the best Ajarns masters of the art of Sak Yant. He now offers the most authentic Sak Yant experiences for travelers by providing a translator/guide and making sure participants really understand the purpose of the tattoos they are getting.
On the morning of our appointment, our guide, Coco, picked us up at our hostel and we took a taxi to Mo Chit Bus Terminal in Bangkok. From there we took a mini van for the 1.5 hour journey north to Ayutthaya. We chose to go to Ayutthaya because of the amazing things we had heard about Ajarn Wao, the sak yant master there, and his psychic abilities. He seemed like the best choice and we trusted him to use his mastery to help us decided on the right sak yant tattoos for us.
Once in the city, we stopped to buy marigold wreaths as an offering. After getting the flowers we jumped into a tuk tuk that would take us to the “samayant” the studio/temple where the ceremony would take place. After driving past the temples of the old Thai capital, we arrived and were welcomed upstairs into the sacred space.
The room was open with many windows. At the far end was a tiered altar containing many images of the Buddha, Ganesh (the elephant god and god of art), and other sacred figures. Incense burned in the corner and the master’s apprentices sat patiently at the side of the room. While we waited for Ajarn Wao, our guide Coco told us some guidelines to follow in order to be respectful. These included never pointing your feet towards the altar and walking with bent knees, aiming to never walk taller than the Ajarn.
When Ajarn Wao entered the room, we kneeled at the front and lit nine sticks of incense each, nine being the most lucky number in Thailand. We then presented our marigold wreaths which were hung on the altar. Carrie decided to go first, since she had more tattoo experience. Through our translator Coco, Carrie answered questions about her birth-date, along with a few details about some struggles she has had and her desire to be more mindful in her life. Ajurn Wao made a chart in his notebook, which he used to explain her future and recent past.
Carrie’s Sak Yant Experience:
Carrie’s tattoo was decided; she would receive a tiger to protect her and give her strength. The tiger would be depicted looking over its shoulder at her past, which was difficult but would make her stronger. In the future her enemies will become jealous of her strength and success, and will try to take it from her, the Ajarn said. But in the end she will overcome, emerging stronger than ever. Thus that tattoo was also a reminder to stay in the moment, to not worry about the future.
Ajarn Wao worked fast, but Carrie’s tattoo was large and it took nearly an hour. It was amazing the precision of his needle strikes. After he wiped the ink away, intricate patterns were revealed. As he went he was constantly uttering blessings, his mantras calming. After a few more blessings were added, the tattoo was finished.
But Ajarn Wao wasn’t done. He wanted to give Carrie a special additional oil sak yant tattoo, invisible but still powerful. Our guide said that this was very rare. Carrie agreed and soon a design formed on her upper back out of small bits of blood. The oil yant would fade over the next few days, but it’s lucky magic would remain.
Zach’s Sak Yant Experience:
As it was my turn the calmness left me and my palms became sweaty. I sat in silence with plans to share about some of my struggles, my idea that I was my own worst enemy. I knelt before the Ajarn and before I could speak a word, he said to me (translated through Coco) “You need to decrease your ego. Try to think before speaking.” This was shocking because ego was what I already knew to be a problem and exactly what I had planned to bring up.
He then figured out the meaning of my birthday. In the Chinese calendar, I am born in the year of the rabbit. However, Ajarn Wao based his predictions on the Thai calendar. Under these dates, I was born in the year of the snake, and on Saturday, the day of the snake. This double snake made me very powerful, but my biggest enemy was my ego. The Ajarn then asked me about what I wanted to share, and I exclaimed that everything had already been said. I felt as if Ajarn Wao could see into my soul, which was scary but also calming in a way, as understanding your weaknesses is the only way to truly overcome them.
My tattoo was to be a blessing, with an emphasis on a chicken. The chicken would distract the snakes (my ego) and help bring my consciousness away from my ego’s control. It would help me to listen and think more before speaking, allowing me to choose the right words at the right time. After a blessing I bent forward, away from the master who began inserting the inked stick into my back.
Traditionally given with sharpened bamboo, present day Ajurns use sharpened steel poles called “khem sak”. At first it was just a few pricks, but soon I could feel the sharpness grind against my spine. My knuckles turned white and sweat poured down my face. I was warned that the placement would be difficult, and I was given a mantra to repeat when it got rough. I noticed that the others present felt my anguish and my reaction was laughter which engulfed the room. Soon I was able to relax myself and I became numb.
I noticed the apprentices, who where holding me still, stand and the sak yant sacred tattooing was finished. Ajurn Wao splashed me with cool water and a flood of energy flooded by body. I felt a great power come over me, as if I was new. A smile spread over my face as gold leaf was rubbed into the blessed tattoo.
After we were both finished we thanked Ajurn Wao and presented our donations to him for his services. He told us that in our relationship we needed to stop trying to one-up each other, to listen more and let things go. He was spot on again! This man has real wisdom.
We chose this experience because of the reputability of WSE Travel. Other options include going to a temple where the tattoos are given in exchange for an offering. In these places you will wait in line and receive a tattoo for very cheap, but it may be rushed and you will miss the personal experience. While the needles at the temple are sterilized, they are dipped into the same ink from person to person. Theoretically this could spread diseases and even though our research never found any confirmed cases, we decided that it wasn’t for us.
This was hands down one for the greatest, most spiritual experiences of our traveling lives, and the lessons we learned have immeasurable value. WSE’s Sak Yant tattoo experiences are definitely not the cheapest, but you get what you pay for and this is a lifetime commitment. With their inside knowledge and their commitment to sustainability and making sure the sak yant tradition continues in Thailand, WSE was the obvious choice for us. They also offer experiences in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, with more cities in the works throughout Thailand as they search for more of the country’s best Ajarns.
We’ll write an update on our tattoos and how they are affecting our lives soon! Do you think Ajarn Wao’s predictions will come true?
Would you get a sacred tattoo to help you on your life journey?
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The Amazing Adventure Bangkok puts on several super fun tours around the city. They organize these trips like scavenger hunts, giving you new missions as you go, along with opportunities to collect bonus points. My tour choice was The Gastronomic Trail, a food tour which started at Suan Plern Market in Rama 4 Mall at 10am, and lasted until about 2pm. It took us too several different neighborhoods using many different transport options. Full disclosure: I got to go on the tour for free as a travel blogger ambassador, but my opinion is totally genuine and it is that this tour is awesome!
Our first mission on The Amazing Adventure Bangkok was find a ride to the Khlong Toei Market, the biggest fresh food market in Bangkok. Once at the market we had to round up all the ingredients to make “som tum”, the classic Thai spicy green papaya salad. At the start of the adventure you are given a purse with all of the money for the tour. By negotiating the prices and finding cheap alternatives, you can score more points by having more funds remaining at the end of the day.
We took a bus to the market because we had five people on our team (an awkward number for a taxi or tuk tuk ). The Bangkok local buses are super cheap and pretty easy to navigate; use our guide to get yourself around the city! Once at the market we split into teams, each taking half of the salad list. The market was a very local type of place, with every type of food you could imagine (and more). We searched for ingredients for our salad, first picking up a green papaya, some limes and chilies, peanuts, tomatoes, then the palm sugar. Along the way we found some fish in a bucket. One of the bonus points was to “kiss a live fish” so it was of course my job to complete this task.
With all of our salad fixings assembled, we split up into two tuk tuks and had a race to the next destination. We drove like mad and our tuk tuk won of course. We walked down a street to a small restaurant where they had some cooking tools set up for our salad-making. They showed us how to grate the papaya, how much palm sugar and fish sauce to add, long beans and garlic as well as tamarind paste, limes, chilies, tomato, and peanuts. Everything gets put into a giant mortar and pestle-pounded a little bit, releasing the juices which become the delicious sauce. I got extra points for eating the whole thing– not really a challenge for me.
Our next mission was the cross the Chao Phraya River. On to a ferry we went and minutes later we arrived on the far bank. This area was Bang Krachao, “the green lungs of Bangkok.” So close to the city, Bang Krachao seemed so far away. Small elevated sidewalks connect the villages and everything is slower paced. The peacefulness of the area made me feel happy and calm, the hustle of the city fading away.
After being dropped off by the ferry it was time for a bonus challenge. I had to eat a whole century egg. Century eggs are fermented in clay, lye, and salt for several weeks to a month until they turn deep black and become the texture of jello. The flavor is salty and fermented, the texture hard to overcome, especially when you get to the black, runny yolk. However, I won the challenge and we continued on to our next destination.
Mounting bicycles we rode for 5-10 minutes to a small lake. Waiting for us was a local woman with a basket of lotus flowers. She proceeded to teach us how to fold the flowers to reveal their beautiful insides, like a natural form of origami. The lotus flower is the most sacred flower in Buddhism, so after folding them we paced the flowers into our bike baskets to take to the temple later.
The Amazing Adventure Bangkok continued the gastronomic trail to our next challenge; a blind-folded taste test. We tasted two dishes and it’s amazing how hard it is to tell what food is without seeing it. My group-mates knew I was a chef so they put a lot of faith in me, but it was the Thai people who were way better at picking out the flavors. I could not distinguish between fish sauce, oyster sauce, and soy sauce…ah! Maybe in time.
We made our way back to the ferry, ditching our bikes at the shop on the river’s edge. Back in Bangkok we went to a nearby temple where we left our lotus flowers for the Buddha. The guides explained to me about the Kau Cim sticks, in a bucket near the altar. After kkneeling and praying, you pass the sticks around incense three times and then begin to shake the sticks, focusing on your question. After shaking harder and harder, eventually a single stick pops out. On this stick is a number which corresponds to a paper you draw from a basket to get your fortune. From here you find the paper with your number which then states your fortune. I liked parts of mine, but I’m not sure if I did the process right.
Traditionally after receiving your stick you should toss the Jiaobei blocks which have a round side and a flat side. A correct fortune will result in both stones facing opposite directions, while two rounded sides up means NO or that the gods are displeased with the question. Two flat sides up can mean NO or that the gods are laughing at you. If you get this you should repeat the process. My number was 13 and my Thai guides said “interesting”, but they didn’t go so far as to tell me what that meant!
One last mission of the Amazing Adventure Bangkok was to get back to the starting point and order lunch in Thai. The five of us, much better friends now, crammed into a four seat taxi. Very soon we were back at the beginning and we sat in the food court. Our last challenge was to use Thai words to order certain foods. All the signs were in Thai as well so we had to ask around, finding certain dishes. We got some Tom Yum soup, an omelet, and some stir-fried pork and basil leaf. The food was delicious and as we ate I tried to learn some new Thai words.
The Gastronomic Trail tour put on by The Amazing Adventure Bangkok was a fantastic time! Much more than I expected, the price of the tour includes everything listed above, even the large meal at the end. I really couldn’t have eaten any more. The guides were very knowledgeable and I learned a lot about the city, going to some places that I wouldn’t have found without the tour. Check out their website for prices and a list of other tours which they put on. The tour would be especially great if you only had a few days in the city. Being able to experience the local market and Bang Krachao are things that a normal three-day-tourist can’t accomplish.
Thanks Amazing Adventure Bangkok for a perfect tour!
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Thailand is a land of respect and “non-confrontational culture” where losing your cool is frowned upon and everything revolves around keeping a smile on your face. This is a list of what NOT to do in Thailand! Follow it if if you want to keep those Thai Smiles on the local’s faces. Mistakes happen, but trying goes a long way in keeping the locals on your side!
What NOT To Do in Thailand – A Guide to Thai Smiles
1 – Disrespect The Royal Family:
The Thai Monarchy is all-powerful in Thailand. As a foreigner, you shouldn’t voice any opinions about the King unless they are very positive. You should always give the Royal family your utmost respect. This includes not staring at posters of the King, standing up in the theater when the pre-movie film about the King is played, and standing still at 8am and 6pm when the national anthem is played over every speaker in Thaialnd.
2 – Get Upset:
Getting visibly angry or annoyed is considered bad form in Thailand. Keeping that Thai smile on your face is the best way to get the most out of a bad situation. Thai culture is based on respect and it goes both ways. It isn’t always easy, especially when you come from a place like the United States where you get upset with people every day. Test it out the next time you are about to lose your cool; a little respect goes a long way.
3 – Leave Your Shoes On:
Going into someone’s house or business usually requires you to take off your shoes. Thai people (and most Asian countries) think that shoes are super gross. If you see shoes at the front door, leave yours there too. It’s handy to wear sandals everywhere, making the removal process a lot easier.
4 – Ride the Elephants:
Elephants belong in nature, not cooped up as vehicles for your enjoyment. Most of the elephants that are ridden were taken from their mothers as babies, broken of their animal spirit and destined to miserable lives in cages. DO NOT RIDE elephants, EVER. Also, many of the elephant “sanctuaries” are just zoos where the animals are treated very poorly for the enjoyment of uneducated tourists. There are several places in Thailand that have more ethical sanctuaries, however these are a small majority and in general you must question the reason that any elephant is not in the wild.
5 – Eat Shark Fin:
Many places in Bangkok, especially Chinatown, serve shark fin. When the sharks are caught, their fins are cut off and the rest of the fish is thrown back into the sea. This is a very wasteful and unethical practice. Sharks are one of the most important parts of the ocean ecosystem and when their population declines it reeks havoc on all aspects of sea life. World fish populations are in drastic decline throughout the world, reduced by more than 50% since 1970. Keeping the top predators alive and thriving is the best way to support healthy marine environments.
6 – Touch the Monks:
Monks should be treated with the utmost respect. Never should you touch a monk, and always give them space in a crowded situation. Most transportation systems have special seats for monks so they can avoid contact with others. This is especially important for women. A woman touching a monk can bring the monk great shame and hurt his standing among the other monks. Women should also never hand anything directly to a monk, but instaed hand it to a man first who then hands it to the monk. Your best bet is to giv them as much space as you can to avoid awkward situations.
7 – Dress Inappropriately in the Temple:
Temples throughout Thailand and Asia in general are places of modesty and should be treated with respect. Men and women should wear pants below the knees, while women should always cover their shoulders and chest. Ignoring these rules is extremely disrespectful and puts a bad face on tourists. Also, the images of the Buddha should never be used in appropriate ways. The Buddha should never be displayed in a bar, or put on your body in the form of a tattoo. If you have a Buddha tattoo and it is visible when entering Thailand, Thai customs agents can deny your entry into the country and permanently ban you from entering the Kingdom.
8 – Display Affection in Public:
Thai people are very modest in public and couples should avoid displaying affection on the streets. Holding hands is frowned upon, while kissing with tongue in public is illegal. Keep your hands to yourself and save the smooching for your hotel room.
9 – Shake Hands:
Shaking hands is a very western thing. Asians are very clean people and dislike spreading germs through touch. Opt instead for the classic Thai wai. Many Thai people will wai you and this should generally be returned. Do this by placing your hands like a prayer at your chest and bowing your head until your nose touches your finger tips. Don’t wai people of lower social status than you, as this is embarrassing to everyone around you. This includes waiters, service people, and anyone who is obviously younger than you. Don’t forget those Thai smiles with your wai!!!
10 – Point at People:
Pointing at things or especially people should is considered extremely rude in Thailand. This is especially true when pointing with your feet. Use your head to direct attention in a certain direction.
There are more things that could have been added to this list. For instance, it’s bad luck to whistle at night, don’t dress sloppy, and don’t push too hard for the best deal. The most important thing is to always keep those Thai smiles on your face and things will work out just fine!
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I first stumbled upon Factory Coffee one day when walking down Phayathai Road in Bangkok. Since I’m always a sucker for hipster-looking coffee joints, I had to check it out. It’s super pricey by Thailand coffee shop standards, but you get what you pay for: super-gourmet coffee cocktails created with perfectly-roasted artisanal beans and high-quality ingredients.
Factory Coffee is now my go-to “treat yo’self” coffee shop and I’m slowly working my way through their menu of fancy pants barista creations. Since I don’t drink alcohol anymore and save a lot of money that way, I figure I deserve it! I love how at Factory Coffee they actually come to you and shake, pour, and garnish certain drinks tableside!
You can’t go wrong here with a straight-up espresso for a quick, tasty buzz, a powerful cold brew to get you through an afternoon of work, or a coconut-ice-cream affogato as a decadent dessert and “pick me up” all in one.
It’s no wonder Factory Coffee wins the Thailand Barista Championship year after year!
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Ayutthaya, Thailand rests just north of Bangkok along the Chao PhrayaRiver. Founded around 1350, the city eventually became the second capital of Siam after Sachothai. Because of it’s central location with easy access to the rest of Asia, Ayutthaya became one of the must important trading centers in the world. By 1700 the Siamese capital was the world’s largest city with over 1 million inhabitants. Today the Ayutthaya temples and temple ruins are some of the most impressive in all of Asia, drawing huge crowds to the small city.
Ayutthaya successfully held off many western invaders and Thailand was never colonized. However, the Burmese successfully sacked the city in 1767, riding on elephants and knocking the heads off of every Buddha statue they could find. The occupation was short lived, as the Chinese had seized the opportunity to move their armies into Burma. The Burmese forces retreated to their homeland with a majority of the Thai gold, burning the Ayutthaya temples in their retreat. The following years were plagued by civil war in Siam until control was taken by King Rama I. The founding member of the Chakri dynasty, which still reigns in Thailand to this day, Rama I relocated the Thai capital from the ruins of Ayutthaya to present day Bangkok.
Today Ayuthhaya is home to some of Asia’s greatest temples, and the history of the place is intruiguing. The Ayutthaya tempes are an easy day trip from Bangkok by bus or train, taking less than two hours to travel by either.
We booked a room at Yimwhan Hostel & Cafe just outside the old city. They had bikes for rent which we took advantage of and soon found ourselves among the temples. I purchased a large rainbow bag of corn puffs which I though would be funny to cruise around with in my bike basket. They tasted terrible and I was a bit disappointed until I was told that the puffs were actually fish food for children to throw into the river. We went to the river and threw some in as giant catfish swarmed all around. We laughed about this for a little while, then biked across the river to the more famous Ayutthaya temples.
There are temples all over the city, but the best area for biking is inside the old city’s moat where the temples are more numerous.
One of the most popular temples for tourists is Wat Mahathat which contains the famous Buddha Head in a Bodhi tree, where one of the knocked-down Buddha heads became entangled in the roots of a giant old fig tree.
Another of our favorites was Wat Ratchaburana which you could climb inside of. After heading down a very steep set of stairs you reach the crypt which has some ancient paintings on the walls and bats in the ceiling.
The customs process entering Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, was weird and a little complicated. First you had to apply online and pay. Next, you had to show up at the airport on the exact day as your visa approval letter. At the gate you had to pay again for a stamping fee and submit passport photos, along with another form. You drop all of this with your passport with the agent, who takes about 20 minutes to file the papers and stick the visa into your passport. Then you walk to the actual customs gate where they inspect the visa and stamp your passport, taking up an obnoxious 1.5 pages. But this was the cost to enter, and we were happy to pay it. This would be our second visit to a Communist stronghold country and we expected to jump through hoops.
Upon exiting the Ho Chi Minh City airport we were barraged with taxi drivers all offering different prices to the Saigon city center. All the taxis were supposed to be metered but no one offered us a metered rate. The lowest we found was 200,000 Dong (23,000 Dong to $1 US) which our Airbnb said was an OK price so we went with it. After leaving the airport the driver said that it was 200,000 plus a 150,000 airport tax. We had a big argument where he told us to get out and still pay 200,000. I said “No, you’re trying to cheat us.” But eventually we settled on 300,000, as I didn’t really want to get out. The driver was happy and we arrived already annoyed. For the record, the airport tax is 15,000 Dong and the trip on meter costs less than 150,000. Taxi drivers can really suck sometimes. They are the first impression travelers sometimes get in a new place and a bad one can start your trip in a bad way. We got over it; you live and learn.
Our first stop was for “bahn mi”, the classic Vietnamese sandwich. It was so nice to get good bread finally and the toppings were amazing. We walked around the city for awhile, hitting the sites. The hardest part was avoiding death by motorbike, as they drive very crazily and all over the sidewalks.
In 1976 Saigon’s name was officially changed to Ho Chi Minh City, but many people still call it Saigon today. We hit many of the attractions including the War Remnants Museum,Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and the Central Post Office which was designed by Gustave Eiffel and built between 1886 and 1891. We have seen many of Eiffel’s works throughout the world, this one being very similar to the main bus terminal in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
The Ho Chi Minh City Ben Thanh Market was definitely a must see. There are hundreds of vendors selling all types of food and souvenirs. We had our first pho, the classic Vietnamese noodle dish with amazing broth.
Once the sun went down it was fun to go to Bui Vien Street. This is backpacker central for Ho Chi Minh with cheap hostels and many bars on the street. It reminded us a lot of Khao San Road in Bangkok, but a little less wild. It’s nice to get a 15,000 Dong beer and sit on the street in a plastic chair watching the madness stroll by.
Our friend Flora has a cousin who was a very popular DJ around Saigon called D-Roc. We went to watch him spin at a fancy nightclub called Qui. This place was the worst– weird service and an annoying management. However, the music was great and we hung out for most of the night. After David’s set was over we went to another club called Lush. They had several rooms with different types of music. Their light shows were also very impressive. They were open until 4 but we headed out before 2 cause we’re not as young as we used to be. Clubbing is not really our scene but it’s fun once in a while with good friends!
Before leaving Ho Chi Minh City we went on an epic food tour with Flora and David (“D-Roc”). We tried squid beaks, salt water snails, spice soup with chicken blood, and many other dishes.
It was sad to say goodbye to them after such an epic few days, but we were full and our curiosity for Vietnam had increased greatly. We couldn’t wait to come back and explore more of the county.