When visiting any country for the first time it is a good idea to get a grasp of some of the basic rules, customs, and language for your place of destination. In Thailand the wai is the first thing that one must learn to get in good and show respect to the locals. The wai consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. The wai is used as a greeting, thank you and for apologizing. The position of the hands dictates the level of respect one has for the individual. Mostly people will place their hands around the chin region. Depending on where you are at and what you are doing you could have to do this many times in a day, so it is best to get a handle on this and do it in the correct way.
We arrived in Thailand from Australia in the middle of the night. Having done our research we knew we had to get to the taxi station and get assigned one the many pink or white/green taxis that ply the streets of Bangkok. However, Amy and I made a stupid mistake and forgot to write down the name and address of where we were staying. Here we were in a new city sitting in the airport trying to get an Internet connection to get access to of our email. By the way, we had already wasted our time filling out visa forms because we misunderstood the website about U.S Citizens needing file for a visa to enter Thailand. Just to be clear it is not required. Now skip to the present and we are back sitting at the airport unable to get a connection. We finally give up and grab a taxi, figuring that it would work out in the end. Lucky for us the cab driver had a list of places and ours happened to be on it. We stayed at a place called Presidential Park in the Sukhumvit District. This is an interesting district in that some of the swankiest places are located here along with some of the sleaziest. Not a place to wander to far from the hotel on an evening stroll unless you want to have an interesting conversation with the children about the Bangkok nightlife.
What I find amazing about Bangkok is that it is one of the busiest cities I have ever visited, but one in where the people are still polite, courteous, and peaceful. If you are stuck in traffic in say New York or Seattle and someone cuts you off it is usually followed by a certain extended digit or a few choice words.
Here in Bangkok locals stay calm in traffic and rarely if ever lose their patience or temper toward other drivers. I met a fellow traveler from Israel who horrified the local drivers with his loud and boisterous ranting about their driving techniques. I find the peaceful nature of the Thai people to be something that Americans should take note of and try to emulate to some degree.
We only spent a few nights in Bangkok and tried to explore and see what we could of the city.
Our first full day had us walking the streets in search of a place called the Jim Thompson House. Thompson is one of the main people responsible for the international appetite for Thai silk and his love of Thai art and culture is reflective in his home. The house itself is a collection of different traditional Thai homes that were brought together to form the large Thompson compound. The story of the man himself is an intriguing mystery in itself. Back in 1967, Thompson was out for a walk in the Western Highlands of Malaysia when he disappeared to never be seen again. No one knows what happened to the guy and the mystery has never been solved.
After visiting the Thompson house, we walked the streets of Bangkok in search of cheap local food. We discovered a popular local restaurant and we all ate top-notch food for the price of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.
We finished our day in Chinatown, checking out the local culture and visiting the first of many wats (temples). It was a 13th century temple called Wat Traimit which contained a 3 meter, 5.5 ton gold Buddha. An interesting fact about the Buddha is that its gold nature was not discovered until 40 years ago when a crane dropped it and the stucco exterior was broken. Many Buddha sculptures have been covered in this manner over the years to help protect them from thieves and marauding hordes.
The next day, we grabbed a cab to the Ko Ratanakosin District on the other side of the city. Traffic was crazy but we were able to get close enough to the grounds of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew to walk the rest of the way. Ko Ratanakosin houses the main attractions in Bangkok.
The first is Wat Phra Kaew also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The small green Buddha is clothed in royal robes that change with the seasons.
The wat itself is fantastically decorated with the Buddha as the centerpiece. The whole surrounding complex is full of interesting art, murals of the Ramakian, and a miniature model of Angkor Wat. It takes a few hours to get a full appreciation for the temple area. Outside of this area you can visit the Grand Palace where the monarchs use to live, which now houses museums and other attractions. After visiting the Grand Palace, we headed to the riverfront for another tasty and inexpensive lunch. After filling our bellies with Phad Thai and curry we headed across the street to Wat Pho. Wat Pho is another amazing temple that houses an enormous reclining Buddha. The reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high. It is huge! At this point everyone was a little burned out, but Nick and I kept exploring a bit and came across some 350+ Buddha images that lined the outside wall of the temple complex.
Upon further exploration Nick and I found monks in one of the temples in full chanting and mediation. We removed our shoes and sat in the temple for a bit of quiet contemplation. We are now one step closer to full enlightenment!
After a roller coast train ride, we arrived in Kanchanaburi, our first pit stop after leaving Bangkok. Kanchanburi is located about 130km East of Bangkok. Movie aficionados might know this area from the Academy award-winning movie “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”, which was set in this area.
The real bridge was known as the “Death Railway Bridge” due to the plight of the POW’s from WWII that were forced to build the railway from Bangkok to Burma (Myanmar).
The conditions and treatment of the prisoners was extremely brutal. The 415km railway system was built in 16 months by forced labor using only hand tools to cut through the rugged mountainous terrain. We visited the Hellfire Pass Museum and the Kwai Bridge both were sites worth visiting. We also did a pass through both the WWII and Jeath War museums. Interesting, but not very impressive attractions.
We stayed at a resort called the Oriental Kwai. It has been one of our favorite places to stay in all our travels. They had an outstanding restaurant on the river, fishing, a couple of dogs for the kids to play with, a pool, and an extremely friendly staff. They made us feel like we weren’t merely guests, but visiting family.
During our stay we decided to visit the Tiger Temple and an Elephant rehabilitation center outside of town. Our visit to the Tiger Temple was a morally conflicting visit.
Here we were within a Buddhist Temple, surrounded by monks and 500 pound tigers. However, the tigers seemed a bit too docile and we had to wonder how they came to be that way. Sedated or not it was pretty amazing to be right next to a full grown adult tiger.
By far one of the highlights of our trip came when we were able to enter a cage and play with 1 and 2-month old tiger cubs. When we signed up to feed the tiger cubs we thought we would get a few minutes to pet them. This was not the case.
We were escorted to a cage where we were given 30 minutes to feed and play with the tiger cubs with very little supervision. It was like playing with a bunch of playful puppies, but in the back of your head you keep reminding yourself that these were tigers.
For our next experience, we went from feeding cute little cubs to full grown elephants at an elephant rehabilitation center called Elephant’s World. We started our morning by helping to gather food for the elephants by cutting stalks of banana leaves with machetes. Next we rode the elephants into the nearby river with their mahouts (elephant caregivers) and bathed them.
Adding to this unbelievable opportunity we got the chance to hand feed the elephants rice balls with mango. Standing next to theses animals gave us a great appreciation for them, both for their beauty and for the power they hold. As much fun as spending the day with them was, we didn’t forget that if the elephant so inclined it could destroy us with very little effort.
Still, a very awesome day.
The following day was a travel day. We grabbed a sketchy bus (no doors!) from Kanchanaburi to Ayuthaya, which is the former capital of Siam (Thailand). Two buses and 4 hours later we were in Ayuthaya. Our first night dining in our new location, I guess I lost my mind because I decided to order a seafood dinner for everyone. Let me just tell you that Amy was none too pleased. On our walk back to our room from the restaurant we came across giant monitor lizards eating from a garbage pile. No kidding!
The things were enormous.
In the center of town are the ruins from the previous capital. The image that sticks with you from all the different areas is a Buddha head from a statue that tree roots have grown around in the area of the Wat Phra Mahathat The irony of this is the fact that Siddhartha found enlightenment under the Bondi tree.
We continued to walk around the park and saw elephants walking around and found an area with different shops and restaurants.
One of the shops was a favorite of the boys. It contained swords, throwing stars, and all kinds of different weaponry. I had to explain to them that we couldn’t travel around the world with ninja swords sticking out of our backpacks. I think airport security might have a problem.
We caught a northbound train from Ayuthaya to the monkey capital of Lopburi. Lopburi is a town in Thailand, which the monkeys rule. When I say monkeys I mean monkeys. They are everywhere. To walk the streets of Lopburi one must use caution. This we learned the hard way. After a quick trip to 7-11, which are on every street corner, we bought bread, chips, peanut butter, and some drinks to have a quick picnic in the park. On our way to eat, a gang of monkeys attacked Alex, ripped the groceries from his hands and proceeded to eat our food right in front of us. Nasty little creatures!
With hundreds of monkeys everywhere I have to say that Lopburi is not the most hygienic of locations. The ruins of San Phra Kan is their daytime hangout and in the evening they move across the street to Prang Sam Yot. The reason they survive in such great numbers is because Buddhists discourage the killing of animals and locals believe the monkeys are the reincarnated ‘children’ of the Hindu god Kala and to harm one would be to bring on misfortune.
We visited the ‘Monkey Temples’ and later caught an overnight train to Chiang Mai.
The train ride to Chiang Mai wasn’t too bad and we got a little shuteye before arriving up north. On our first day of wandering around we wanted to try something a little different so we went for the fish foot massage. Besides being extremely ticklish at the start it turned out to feel pretty good. However, it was a little creepy considering that the fish were eating the dead skin from our feet.
The boys only lasted a minute, but Amy and I squirmed our way thru the entire 15 minutes.
One of the things we were looking forward to in our visit to Thailand was the food. To further the culinary experience we signed up for a cooking class.
The class called for us to pick 5 separate dishes and learn to prepare and cook them. For us it was a bonus since as a family we were able to split up and learn about all of our 10 options. After the market tour, we were able to spend the better part of the day eating and cooking Massaman curry, fried rice, pad thai, papaya salad, spring rolls, coconut soups and black rice pudding. When we were finished, we rolled our way back to our hotel with full bellies and smiles on our faces.
Our next destination was the snake farm. Now I am not a huge fan of snakes. Alex has a corn snake at home and I make Amy get it out of the cage when we clean it. Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed the visit. Cobras, boas, and other slithery creatures were brought to the center arena where snake handlers put on a show.
One guy had two king cobras in the ring at once and kissed both of them on the tops of their head. They also had a kid about Nick’s age in the ring doing stunts with a snake. Unfortunately for him he got a good-sized bite on his arm (from a non-venomous snake).
In our original plans with didn’t count on visiting Laos in our travels. However, we had heard many good things about Laos, so we found a place for it in our itinerary. To get there we decided to take a slow boat from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang, Laos. Getting to Chiang Khong we had to travel through Chang Rai. Chang Rai was a cool little city where we got cheap massages and ate bugs at the local market. Yes, you heard right.
They had a stall dedicated strictly to bugs. They tasted rather salty. Everyone tried them except Nick, who has a rather finicky pallet. We signed up for a tour van in Chiang Rai that would take us through the mountains and get us to Chiang Khong.
The tour consisted of visiting two hill tribes, the opium museum, and the Golden Triangle. We were joined by another family on this tour, the before mentioned Israelis. The hill tribes were fascinating to visit and see how they live. The funny part was the clash between past and future. Next to the bamboo and palm leaf huts were satellite dishes. After lunch we did a tour of the opium museum. Surprisingly, this museum, out in the middle of nowhere, is a state of the art interactive museum.
It was very interesting to learn about the history of opium and its impact on the world trade routes. From there we went to a lookout and had a view of the actual golden triangle, which is the convergence point of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. You can only imagine the clandestine operations that have taken place in this area over the years. They actually have signs asking people to report any suspicious behavior.
We eventually arrived in Chiang Khong after dark. We didn’t have any place to stay, but the tour guide helped us to find lodging. At this point the Israelis somehow thought we were joined at the hip and wanted to find lodging together. We really just wanted a quiet place to rest before getting on a boat the next morning. Finally, we found a place that was affordable and would sleep all of us. I think most people that have traveled long term have a place that is a measuring stick for judging all other places. The place in Chiang Khong is that stick for us. We will forever say…”well, at least (blank) isn’t as bad as that place in Chiang Khong”. The lady that helped us to our rooms looked like she had just exited an opium den. She was sweet enough, but seemed a bit insane. The beds in the rooms were extremely uncomfortable and I don’t think had been cleaned for some time. The nightmare was only beginning. The Israelis decided they were going to have a contest within their family to see who could be the most obnoxious until the wee hours of the night. When they finally quieted down it was very unnerving to try to sleep listening to the many rats that were scurrying through the rafters. I kept expecting a huge rodent to run across my chest in the night. Morning couldn’t have come sooner and we packed our stuff and headed out.
Our time in Northern Thailand was at an end and we needed to catch our boat to Laos for our next adventure.
I now bring my hands together, place them near my forehead and give a deep bow to Northern Thailand. I would like to give the “land of smiles” special thanks for giving our family memories that we will cherish for a lifetime.