Thailand

June 11, 2008 at 1:07 am | Posted in Thailand | Leave a comment

April 29 – May 26

After wrapping up a week in New Delhi taking care of administrative items such as securing our visa to Vietnam, contemplating whether to visit China, filling up on western fare, and booking hotels, we leave for Thailand. By a stroke of luck (and an error on their end), we are able to negotiate with American Airlines and secure a direct flight from New Delhi to Bangkok without having to take the long train trip south to Mumbai which we frankly didn’t have the energy to take on. We arrive in Bangkok ahead of schedule and snag a great hotel in the middle of the city.

Bangkok is very exciting and everyone is friendly and the men and women are exceptionally beautiful. Bangkok has modern stores, fashion, theaters, food, handicraft – everything! We couldn’t get enough. However, our first business was to book a train to south Thailand to head for the famous beaches. Despite low season, we still had to wait a few days before we could go so we enjoyed the city. We easily navigated the “Skytrain” which is a modern train that takes you high above the roads easily around town. We took the government ferries up the river to visit the 19th century stunning Grand Palace glistening with golden tiles, fierce warriors and religious temples. We watched our shoes very carefully. We visited the famous “Weekend Market” that stretched for miles yet we were melting in the heat but couldn’t resist scarfing up some colorful (and cheap) souvenirs. We heard that the movie theaters were like Carnegie Hall so we headed for the mall and saw a family movie. The theater was top-notch and popcorn was $1.00!

Thailand’s popular drink is fruit shakes! The boys slurped up banana, watermelon, orange and lemon shakes nearly 3 times a day. The overnight train to Koh Samui was fun. We slept in comfortable bunks, caught a bus the next morning towards the coast, took a ferry 2 hours to the island and then a taxi to the quiet north side where we stayed in a lovely bungalow owned by a French couple and which served great food! The area was dotted with authentic Thai fishing village homes turned into simple yet delicious restaurants and shops far away from the busy side of the island. We planned on staying 4 days but heard that the west coast was suffering from an early monsoon so we stayed put for 9 days just relaxing. We enjoyed massages right on the beach for pennies and the boys happily swam and built sandcastles. It was a vacation from our vacation. Everything was easy – we rented a jeep for the day and they simply hand you the key, ask you to put gas in it and say, “See you later!” We explored different beaches and tried to steer away from the rapid commercialism that is out of control on this once secret hideaway.

We reluctantly peeled ourselves away from Koh Samui and caught the overnight train back to Bangkok and then took a minibus 2 hours to Kanchanaburi with the sole intention of visiting the Tiger Temple. We headed straight there and got closeup and personal with a group of 15 or so tigers who are being taken care of by a group of monks. Monks are known for taking care of orphaned people and animals and one day someone left an orphaned tiger at the temple and since then more and more tigers have arrived. You would never be able to interact with tigers like this in America but we were able to here and under the monks’ watchful eye (and some sleepy tigers), we felt safe. We also visited Erawan Falls – gorgeous aquamarine waterfalls that fall from tier to tier each with its own swimming hole. We arrived very early in the morning and had the jungle to ourselves. We went on an elephant ride later in the day which included an elephant “bath”. This involved riding the elephants right into the fast-moving river where we learned that elephants can completely submerge themselves while artfully leaving its passengers above water (barely). We don’t think you would be able to ride elephants while they are completely submerged in a river or touch and walk with tigers anywhere in America! We are fortunate to have had the experience although we know there is a reason you can’t do these things at home. It was scary, yet exhilarating. On our way back to Bangkok, we visited a rare floating market – literally a market where the wares are sold by boat. The boat driver takes you up the meandering canals and pulls up beside different boats whose owners are selling souvenirs, melons, coffee, lunch, hats or coconuts. The market was initially created for all of the villagers who live along the canal and had no other way of transport except boat and the tradition continues (although today its filled with more souvenirs than daily necessities). We also got to see local arts and crafts and the boys got to help make brown sugar candies from coconut palm sugar.

We caught a bus back to Bangkok and hopped on an overnight train to the capital of the north, Chiang Mai. More Thai culture than international Bangkok, we got to relax in a nice hotel with pool and buffet for short money while we visited the Sunday night market (everything happens at night since it is so hot during the day) and the Chiang Mai Zoo to see the pandas that we forfeited with our abandoned China trip. We also made our way to the World of Insects Museum (boy stuff). It was quite cool. We visited a silk making shop – we never had any idea how silk was actually made as we watched the silk cocoons unravel and merge with other strands to form a single strong thread. We visited a monkey school (so called because they train monkeys to harvest coconuts but must also raise money to feed them) and we visited an elephant conservation center. In Thailand, it is all about the elephants – they are are built into the architecture and stitched into the fabric everywhere in Thailand.

We arranged a private van and driver (Mr. Wat) and set our sights on going further northwest into the jungle to visit the hill tribes – centuries-old hill tribes that have preserved their unique and colorful culture by settling far away from the modern world. However, they are not so far away that they don’t understand how to earn money from tourism. There are plenty of handicrafts to be had and we were excited to support these villages in any way we could. Several of the tribes are refugees from Myanmar (Burma). The Karen people have settled close to the border and we took a long-tail boat down a river which was the only way to access the village without a long trek (too hot). It was amazing to interact with these villagers when we had only seen them in picture books before and actually didn’t know that they still existed. Along the way Mr. Wat showed us much of the countryside that is famous for its extensive caves, waterfalls and rich soil as we embarked on a long trip into the hills zigzagging along the way as we had in India (and vowed we would never do again) but we couldn’t help but be drawn to the most authentic parts of Thailand.

Thailand was very friendly, very accessible and had it all – animals, beaches, culture, shopping and fantastic food. It truly was a land of smiles as its motto promises.

(click photo for slideshow)

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