Saturday, July 01, 2006

My Thailand Adventure

Here's a delayed report on my trip to Thailand in late April/early May. For all the pix, click on the headline link above. Enjoy!

The second thing that hits you when you emerge from Don Muang airport and walk into Bangkok is the pervasive aroma of jungle humidity, mixed with spicy cooking odors and sweat. The first thing of course is the heat itself, weighty and omnipresent unless you find a building or room loaded with air conditioning. There would be days when I would find myself having sweated so much that salt crystals had formed on my body. What I found helpful, perhaps essential, was simply to embrace the aromatic humid heat, to welcome it as you would a fat, sweaty, garlicky friend, and let the city hold you close to its bosom.

Arriving at midnight meant a little less heat than at midday, but not by much. But my excitement over the days planned ahead with a small group of friends overcame any discomfort. The first half would be spent touring in and beyond Bangkok; the second half on Samui Island was reserved for rest, recuperation, and more fun.

The first full day our “chauffeur”—Pee, a local friend of one of our group, who works for the Thai CDC—drove us to Bang Pa-In to see the palace built by King Number 5 in the 17th century. Not simply a palace, it was an entire complex of palatial buildings, temples, meeting halls, fountain ponds, and a tower, with exquisite grounds populated by numerous bushes sculpted into elephants and other animal shapes.

As we traveled the countryside, we encountered ubiquitous motorbikes, on which whole families often rode. I saw as many as four people (including two small children) on one motor bike, not a one wearing a helmet. These motorbikes rarely follow conventional driving rules (as if anyone in Thailand does), so Pee had to be on the alert, though he was used to this.

We passed numerous ornate billboards honoring the King with photos of him either in full regalia, or informally and thoughtfully. Flags, both Thai and yellow for the royal family, lined long stretches of the highway. The primary reason for all this colorful display was that the nation was celebrating the 60th year of the King’s reign (he’s 78). The Thais dearly love their King. In fact, one afternoon we took a break and visited a local cinema. After the previews an announcement came on: “Please show your respect for the King,” and then we saw an incredibly beautiful film of lovely Thai places and people with the King and Queen as a chorus sang an anthem of praise to His Royal Majesty. Normally Thais would stand for this patriotic display, but we were the only people in the theater. By the end of the gorgeously orchestrated piece, so upbeat and moving, I nearly burst into tears of joy and gratitude for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also called King Number 9, whom I don’t know from Adam but in that moment loved nevertheless.

We also passed Buddhist temples seemingly every few blocks, like Baptist churches in the American South. Each has a big, ornate, brightly painted gate marking its presence on the road. Some were better kept than others, but all were rather spectacular. And these were just the run-of-the-mill temples.

We stopped for lunch on a barge on the river, across from a new white and gold pagoda memorializing Queen Baan Watcharachai. I was the only farang (foreigner, and you’ll hear the word frequently) on the boat, until later when one more came with a group of Thai women. We sat cross-legged at the low table and, while sharing tasty Thai dishes, enjoyed the river sights on one side and the floral garden on the dock side.

After Bang Pa-In, we journeyed on to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam, founded in 1350 by King U-Thong, Rama Thibodi I. In the middle of the central plains, it served as the capital of the nation for 417 years. We started at Wat Chai Mongkol, which has a huge pagoda surrounded by numerous Buddhas of various sizes and shapes (and one huge reclining Buddha). All of them had been draped with saffron material, the same you see monks wearing. I climbed up the narrow, worn steps to the huge dome, inside of which resided numerous sleeping bats hanging from the ceiling. By the way, virtually all the tourist destinations charge farangs extra.

Then we drove to the main palaces of Ayutthaya. We walked among the towering gray ruins of various ancient and mysterious buildings. We were actually walking among the very buildings of one of the most civilized cities of Southeast Asia for centuries—until the Burmese, Siam’s eternally bad neighbors, overran it sending the Thais down to Bangkok. It was quite an awesome realization. The ruins were marked by a patina of black mold caused by the humidity, and you would think that dark stain was caused by their age until you realized the same moldy patina colored many of the buildings throughout the humid kingdom, from downtown Bangkok condos and office buildings to ancient temples in the plains.

Finally we drove another hour to Khao Yai National Park, a beautiful jungle preserve. As we drove toward it on the level plains, suddenly it seemed tall, narrow mountains popped up on the horizon quite dramatically. The park was in a very hilly region that reminded me of North Georgia, except for the bamboo stalks, wild bananas, ferns and palms thick around us. Reportedly elephants wander through the jungles here, but we didn’t see any, though we did see a large monitor lizard, probably four or five feet in length, scramble across the road in front of us. We drove to a viewpoint for photos, and a plaque pointed out that a golf course and other original parts of the park had been removed to retain a pristine jungle condition. We ventured toward a waterfall but learned upon getting there—at 4:50 p.m.—that it was closed (though the sign said 5:00).

We drove back towards Bangkok through some stormy weather, having made a rather large loop through the countryside.

The next day was our day to tour the sites in downtown Bangkok. Traffic in the Thai capital city is notoriously slow. What was probably a 15-20 mile trip from our airport-area hotel took over two hours. The late morning traffic would stop for 10 to 15 minutes at a time and simply not move, for no apparent reason. So what you read or hear about traffic here is true, at just about any time of day, and like the heat you simply have to embrace it. Ninety percent of the traffic appears to be composed of buses, motorbikes, and Taxi-Meters (almost all of these pristine cabs were Toyota Corolla models just like the car I drive in Atlanta, but painted in various bright colors painted in blazing colors like fuchsia, orange, yellow and green, or red and blue), and motorbikes. The remaining privately owned cars were almost always Japanese, with a few BMWs among the wealthy.

Our large city bus was air conditioned and as comfortable as could be, and it gave us the opportunity to see the city as we rode south into the heart of town. We saw the King everywhere; office buildings dedicated one whole side to a magnificent color portrait of HRM. Red and gold temples were tucked between factories and office buildings every few yards it seemed.

I noticed a colorful sticker on the bus window with a cute cartoon boy and girl wearing traditional Thai garb. I asked a Thai friend what it said. He translated it roughly as “Beautiful language, beautiful manners… help the country, don’t forget you are Thai!” In other words, be proud of your Thai heritage. It was signed by the Ministry of Culture. Thais certainly are a proud people and justly so.

I spotted another sticker on a Taxi-Meter driving below our window, reading “I (heart) Farang.” I love foreigners. The subtitle explained that the driver speaks English. Even so, it was immensely helpful that we had a native speaker with us.

In the bus we passed numerous small, colorful spirit houses, and occasional spirit house retailers offering all colors, sizes, and designs of the Buddhist worship structures. We came to a mammoth traffic circle where construction was being done. “They keep trying to figure out how to make this traffic circle work,” our Thai friend explained. “They change directions and lanes all the time, and now they’re digging a tunnel underneath it for traffic going straight through.”

Motorbike taxis swarmed the city streets. Drivers wear orange vests to indicate they’re for hire. If a bus doesn’t go where you need to go, or if you’re in a hurry and need to weave through the traffic, you can take a motorbike ride. I spotted one well-dressed lady, obviously a business type, climbing on the back of one. Another one had two professional types riding on the back, including a woman wearing a skirt riding side saddle.

Occasionally I spotted people wearing T-shirts with an English slogan that made no sense, or with egregiously foul language. Apparently most folks have no idea what their T-shirts say, but if it’s in English it’s cool. And there are numerous non sequiturs and mistranslations of English. I saw an ad for the Honda Jazz subcompact car in The Nation, one of Bangkok’s two English-language newspapers, with copy that started, “It’s time to spark more funs and excitements.”

I shouldn’t make fun, though, as during the entire two weeks I was a functional illiterate, and the feeling is disconcerting. The Thai alphabet is gorgeously ornate, and nearly impenetrable to my Western eyes. I had never been in a country whose alphabet bears absolutely no resemblance to what I was used to, so I couldn’t even sound out a word on a sign letter by letter. And what’s worse, the Thais do not seem to believe in word spaces, choosing rather to run words together in a sentence most of the time.

We rode by Democracy Plaza and Victory Monument, honoring soldiers of the past. We stepped off the bus near some government buildings and a central park, then walked to one of many small restaurants near Silapakorn University (which is known for its arts programs) and Thamasat University. I had some tasty pork and rice and Thai tea, breaking a few rules laid down by the travel guides for farangs. Later I would suffer the consequences, affording me the opportunity to try out one of the authentic Thai toilets, essentially a porcelain hole in the floor.

We wandered first on the shimmering grounds of Wat Phra Kaew and the Emerald Buddha, with numerous structures covered with colorfully intricate patterns. The Emerald Buddha is housed in the temple, and signs implored visitors not to wear shorts or point their feet toward the Buddha. The Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most sacred holy image, rests atop a majestic golden structure, nearly lost amidst the awesome support. It appeared to be made of jade with golden highlights.

We moved on to the grounds of the Grand Palace, with royal living quarters, meeting halls, support buildings all lavishly and intricately decorated. The palace was built by the king around the time Bangkok became the capital city in 1782. We had heard that there would be a rehearsal of the river barge display that afternoon at 3 p.m., in preparation of the huge and magnificent celebration of King Number 9’s 60th anniversary as king (which occurred in mid-June), so we made our way toward the Chao Praya River to watch.

When we got there, someone told us it wouldn’t start till 4 p.m., and we nearly left when we heard the mournful drone of an ancient Thai chant echoing up the river. Here came a long, thin barge with numerous oarsmen, all wearing royal yellow shirts. The chant came from speakers mounted on the ends of the barge, echoing in the river valley. Then two more barges, and three more, and the chant continued stronger as the oarsmen rowed slowly down the river. Larger, more intricate golden royal barges joined the dozens of long boats in parade. It was quite spectacular, and the unending chant made the hairs of my neck stand at attention.

We walked back to where we had started, through the central park, to catch the bus that would take us back to the hotel. People seemed quite friendly to this farang. Thais typically smile in a friendly way when encountering others—hence the country is called the “land of smiles.” Of course, your smileage may vary, but I doubt it will.

Saturday was shopping day at the Jattujak Market (also called the JJ Market, and sometimes spelled Chattuchak Market). We took another bus to the new, modern Bangkok subway, riding for only two stops just for the experience. The subway station was absolutely pristine, with sliding glass doors opening when the train arrived, so no one would be falling onto the track. They’ll be expanding the system for years.

The Market itself is a seemingly endless collection of booths in various buildings. Narrow, winding, product-packed passages offer a suffocating experience. You’re entirely surrounded by people and things for sale, in dark areas, often in stifling heat, and the direction signs were nearly useless to me. I never had more fun shopping.

By far most of the shoppers were Thai, but there were numerous brave farangs as well. While there is a general sort of organization to the types of booths, they often didn’t seem to follow it. So you’d run into booths offering cheap souvenirs and expertly made crafts, tacky stuff, breathtakingly gorgeous stuff, silk and teak and jewels and plastic and more plastic. Even pets were offered for sale—dogs, cats, reptiles, birds. Clothes galore. Accessories. Toys. Products for home, kitchen, bedroom, patio, and more. We gathered up tons of souvenirs for family and friends and managed to spend so little it was embarrassing.

And there was food of all kinds, as long as it was Thai. Thais eat continually. They’re surrounded by food carts and tiny restaurants wherever they go, everything from the usual chicken satay to fried squid or grasshoppers or any number of other insects to various curries with rice. And the hotter the better for them. Most Thais love street food and could live on it, but with the travel book warnings, I only looked on with wistful regret.

Sunday was transition day, from Bangkok to Koh Samui. We taxied to Don Muang airport and checked in for our Bangkok Air flight. The waiting area had an extensive variety of snacks, and we enjoyed a full meal on the plane—even though the flight was only a bit over an hour. We flew over several gorgeous tropical islands and finally landed at the Samui airport, a thatch-roofed, open-air affair that looked as though it had been built by island castaways.

Nora Beach Resort & Spa was our home for the next five days, which we’d found months earlier online. It was even more beautiful, than the eye-popping pictures on the website indicated, much to our surprise. On the northern edge of Chaweng beach on the eastern side of the island were an assemblage of cottages and hotel-type rooms nestled on a hillside leading down to the beach. At the top of the hill was the reception area and lobby: a gorgeous, huge, open-air, teak structure which included a work-out facility, concierge, bar, internet computers, and other amenities. A pool filled with water pouring from carved elephants’ trunks cascaded down the hill in beautiful waterfalls, ending just above the large, palm-tree lined pool with in-water bar service. The property, though relatively new, was beautifully landscaped with palms and flowers of all kinds.

I couldn’t believe the view of the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea from my deluxe suite, which included a bar and dining table, elegantly set, and a comfortable living area. The large bedroom featured a king-size canopied bed whose duvet was strewn with colorful red and white flowers. The Jacuzzi bathtub was filled and the same fragrant, gorgeous flowers floated on the surface. It was gorgeous—but it was a bit of a pain to have to scoop all those flowers out to take a shower.

After we all settled in, we went to the pool and beach area to relax and recuperate from our non-grueling flight, treating ourselves to breathtakingly beautiful vistas. The island jutted out into the gulf to the north of us, and to the south was a small island or two, apparently uninhabited. On the beach several local merchants wandered about bearing goods. Each wore an official numbered red vest, hawking jewelry, watches, fresh fruit, ice cream, what have you. A European couple walked toward the north on the beach, and one of the merchants warned them in English not to go past some large rocks, pointing up the beach. The couple looked at them quizzically and I’m not sure they ever got the message, as they continued their northerly walk. Apparently sometimes in that deserted section of beach lurk thieves high on “yaabaa,” or speed. Even so, construction crews were at work building what would apparently be another resort next door to the Nora resort, even nearer that thief-ridden area.

The tide was low. It was peacefully quiet. Behind us as we lay on beach chairs was the spa, and gentle music wafted our way. The resort had a fair number of guests at the pool, couples, families, honeymooners. They were Asian, European, Australian, very few Thais. I don’t think we ever encountered another American, at least anyone who would admit it.

The resort offered an incredible restaurant and we ate dinner there nearly every day (the one time we ate in the nearby beach town was a major disappointment to both of us). The first night at the resort the restaurant offered a choice of a Western set menu and a Thai set menu, and we both enjoyed the latter. Another night featured an all-you-can-eat buffet of seafood and meat and we were all horrible gluttons. We never had a bad meal there. Breakfast was included in the room rate (at around $100 a day for my deluxe suite), and was a huge affair offering everything from typical Western favorites to Thai specialties, and fresh fruit galore.

The first full day on the island, I rented a car and volunteered to act as chauffeur. Big mistake. For one thing, in Thailand, driving is opposite what I’m used to. I had driven on the left side before, in Scotland, in a stick-shift at that. But the narrow, winding, and incredibly busy roads on the island were a different matter entirely. For another thing, there are motor scooters everywhere, many of which with more than one passenger. The drivers tend not to observe typical driving rules, but roam with abandon wherever they want, and quick as a wink.

This treacherous situation nearly caused me to run down two people on a motorbike, which appeared out of nowhere just as I was turning right onto a side road. In my peripheral vision I saw the person on the back of the bike holding on for dear life, legs—if my eyes didn’t deceive me—hanging off the back of the bike, while shooting me a look of intense dislike.

Somehow, we managed to drive the loop road around the island with no further incident. We stopped at one viewpoint for pictures of the gulf, and lunched at one of the inland waterfalls, where numerous Thais of all ages were celebrating Thai Labor Day in the water. We also stopped at Hin Ta and Hin Yai, Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks—a very popular tourist spot and if you see photos you’ll know why. While we had the car until the next morning, once we got back to the resort we called for them to pick it up. No sense tempting fate more than once, and it was easy and cheap enough to travel the island by taxi, van, or songtaew (three wheeled mini-taxis).

Tuesday a van picked us up at the hotel for our Action Island Tour to Angthong National Marine Park, a preserved and breathtakingly beautiful archipelago of 42 islands. Several movies have had “desert island” scenes filmed here, including “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio a few years ago.

At the pier on the north side of Samui Island we signed in. I noticed I was the only American who had so identified myself on the sheet at that point—mostly Europeans, Australians, and other Asians. We split into two groups and our group of maybe two dozen or so boarded a speedboat for an hour-long ride northwesterly to the park. On our boat were three rowdy Australian blokes having a great time, a couple of European honeymoon couples, a young South Carolinian man who was working in China for a few months, a middle aged woman accompanied by a young woman and a katooey (Thai lady boy), a dark and exotic young woman who explained to the flirting Aussies that she had been in the Israeli army and knew how to handle herself, some German tourists—apparently a father and his son and the son’s Asian girlfriend, and several other interesting sorts. It struck me, as we headed out to sea, that we might serve well as the cast for a reality show or, worse, a rip-off of “Lost.”

First stop was at Koh Wao for some snorkeling, which frankly I had never done before. The water was virtually clear and filled with colorful fish of all sizes and shapes—like swimming in an aquarium. Beautifully shaped coral loomed below our feet. The boat crew provided bread for us to feed the fish, which they feasted on like mad piranhas.

After an hour or so of snorkeling in paradise, we took the speedboat to another island, in the middle of which, surrounded by jungle, was the famed Emerald Lake, or “Talay Nai.” We had to climb very narrow, steep, and treacherous ladders and walkways, wending our way around rocky walls and jungle growth to find the green lake. After that we had some time simply to sit on some beach chairs under a thatched roof and gaze at the incredible ocean island tableau around us, before our speedboat departed for the main Marine Park island, where several park buildings were located. There an expansive, palm-tree shaded lawn stretched before us, behind the sandy beach. Rocky hills rose on both sides and behind the buildings. We had a lunch on the grounds of several delicious Thai dishes, then after a brief doze on the grass we had our choice of sea kayaking or hiking up one of the mountains. I picked the kayak and paddled around some beautiful jungle islands nearby.

We managed to pack an incredible amount of activity and eye-popping sights in about six hours or so, but eventually we boarded the speedboat to return to Samui. We picked up a couple of passengers for the return—the park warden and his young son and a buddy.

Our final full day on Koh Samui, Wednesday, was “spa day.” We all planned to spend a few pampered hours at the resort spa, receiving Thai or hot oil massages and facials—an incredible experiences in the open-air spa facing the South China Sea, the fragrant breeze wafting through along with gentle, soothing music. One nice touch: as I lay on my stomach on the massage table, placing my head in the hole so as not to smoosh my face, I could gaze at a bucket of water below on the floor in which floated gorgeous white and orange flours arranged just so. All this personal attention cost only about $60 each for nearly three feel-good hours.

Wednesday afternoon we recuperated from our strenuous morning in the spa.

Thursday it was back to Samui airport to bid a sad farewell to our island paradise. A day later and I was on my way home, my luggage full of souvenirs, my camera full of pictures, my mind full of memories, and my heart overflowing with peace and gratitude.


At 2:10 AM, Anonymous thailand adventure tours said...

Hello My friend and I were checking out your site. Very interesting and informative.

At 3:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello, about your trip to ayuthaya when you said you were sitting at a low table enjoying the Thai dishes accross a monument dedicated to Queen Baan Watacharachai, the monument is a dedication to Queen Suriyothai. Baan Watcharachai is the name of the restaurant you had your meal in. I know because I own the Baan Watacharachai restaurant. baan means "Home" in Thai, and Watcharachai is a mixture of my fathers, mothers and my first names. But thanks for plugging the restaurant and hope to see you again in the near future. Look me up, my name is Isra Sunthornvut.

At 4:49 AM, Blogger Don said...

Very interesting article. Thailand is an amazingly beautiful place. The country still exudes a special charm even as visitors numbers increase as Thailand's tourist industry thrives. Choosing to buy in Thailand property is a smart investment decision. The Thailand property market is set to BOOM from 2008 onward. Prices in Thailand are a fraction of those in Hong Kong & Singapore. Plus the cost of living & quality of life in Thailand is so much better. Places like Phuket and Koh Samui can offer buyers with the hottest property investments in Thailand.


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