Gina’s Thailand Post
We knew we were on a completely different continent the moment we stepped off the plane . . . mostly because for the first time in a very long time we didn’t have to disembark the plane via steps onto the tarmac. There was actually a tunnel that connected straight to the Bangkok airport! After the customs lady politely informed us that we needed to go back through the Yellow Fever line since we were coming from Africa. When we were all cleared for that, we put a bag in the airport storage, and headed for the Sky Train. Even after the exhaustion of the overnight flight, Scott and I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of moving people from one place to another in Bangkok. The train was so smooth and just whizzed over traffic! We got to the northernmost stop on the line and headed for the bus station to Chiang Mai via taxi. No bartering over muzungu prices . . . just a meter that told us how much we owed.
At the bus station, we had our first taste of local Thai food and were awed by the various noodle and rice bowls with different types of meat or curries available. Just like Ethiopia, the vendors couldn’t speak a word of English, so it was more of a “point and choose” type of game, but for around $1 per meal, couldn’t complain. We were also surprised by the number of locals eating at KFC next door, but we did not want to venture yet into American chain stores.
Scott posted about the luxurious 1st class VIP bus on the way, so I’ll spare the details on that one, but let’s just say that we took a 2nd class double-decker bus on the way back to Bangkok that wasn’t nearly as nice, so Thailand isn’t a complete fairy tale. Anyway, we arrived in Chiang Mai that morning feeling like we actually got some real sleep, and immediately started walking around the city. The most amazing thing coming from Zambia and Ethiopia was the sheer variety of restaurants and retail stores packed into such a small space. There were Thai massage, haircuts, travel agencies, high-end purses, street food vendors, Thai handicrafts, coffee shops, McDonald’s and organic places where you could get a full American breakfast all within a few compact blocks. There were people walking around the streets from every country you could imagine, and besides Disneyland, I hadn’t seen so many foreigners in one place in my life. There were also giant temples and yellow-robed monks to complete the picture. The second thing we did in Chiang Mai was take almost all of our completely worn-out Africa clothes to a proper Laundromat to see if some of the red dirt and grime could be mechanically washed out of them. So exciting not to have to wash clothes by hand!
The next few days in Chiang Mai were spent gawking at every consumer item available for sale, visiting some temples and cultural sites, and eating real breakfast with coffee every morning. That was topped off by Thai massages, a rooftop swimming pool experience and a hike to the surrounding mountains where we were able be herded through a “traditional” Thai rural village. We also tried to rest during the days, since the evenings were like 4th of July for five days in a row. Locals and tourists alike gathered in the streets and on the riverbanks to set off firecrackers, release floating lanterns, and make little boats called krathongs as an offering to the river gods. Most of the activity happened in the evenings near the riverbank, but the evening with the most activity had a Thai beauty pageant and parade through town. One evening when we met up with our Peace Corps Zambia friends Chad and Jenna, Scott and I tried our own hand at releasing a lantern, and we were proud to say it raised itself into the sky without crashing and burning in the neighboring trees like so many others were doing. Many of the temples were open during festival nights as well to show visitors Thai music, dancing, and the ancient craft of spinning and weaving the monks’ robes. Although a bit overwhelming to the senses at first, Chiang Mai had a magical spirit that especially came to life during the evenings of the Loy Krathong festival.
But alas, we headed back to Bangkok on an overnight bus that was about 20 times worse than the one we arrived in and broke down several times along the way. Then, it started raining outside and on us through a leak in the vent of the upper story of this double-decker bus. So, can’t give props for all buses in Thailand, but the latter was booked through a travel agent in Chiang Mai, so buyer beware! We hopped on the Sky Train to the train station, where I thought we’d be waiting around all day for our overnight train down south. In an unexpectedly surprising day, we found that the Bangkok train station had both secure luggage storage and was located very near the central part of town (totally unheard of for African bus stations), so it would be silly not to explore the city for the day, even in our groggy state.
After nearly losing our lives crossing about 6 lanes of traffic coming out of the Bangkok train station, a helpful businessman directed us to an old canal to follow that would lead us to the river. From there, we could take the public river taxi for about 50 cents to the Grand Palace. Scott and I had no idea that was going to be our destination that day, but after glancing at the Lonely Planet, we realized it was one of those must-see tourist sites for every visitor to Bangkok. And probably about 1,000 other people had the same idea that day, from backpackers to people in huge tour buses. Scott said the lines and excitement for seeing this royal enclosure rivaled Buckingham Palace in London. Luckily we both happened to be wearing full-length pants from the bus ride because the palace dress code wouldn’t accept anything shorter for guys or gals . . . about half the tourists had to buy Thai-style trousers from hawkers at the gate. It was easy to become lost among the crowd, but even easier to become lost among the gorgeous temples and Buddhist murals found in the temple enclosure, or the royal palaces that housed (and still house) kings and diplomats.
We tried to make our way to another park with tourist attractions, but fatigue from the overnight bus got a hold of us, so we wandered back through Chinatown on the way to the train station and ate plenty of delicious street food along the way. The train itself was a long chain of sleeper cars that slept 16-20 people each filled with locals and tourists alike. They gave us fresh sheets, pillows, and curtains for privacy and Scott and I soon passed out as we slowly chugged our way to Southern Thailand. The morning light through the open window revealed humid air and lush green scenery before stopping at Surat Thani, a sleepy southern Thai town with absolutely no tourist attractions and plenty of pouring rain.
Our beach destination for southern Thailand: the Golden Buddha Beach Resort, an eco-lodge on the on a deserted 12-km beach on island of Koh Phra Thong on the Andaman sea. Because of the boat schedule, we stayed inland in the small city of Takua Pa, and were treated to a $10/night room with a balcony, delicious street food and very friendly locals. Because we were absolutely the only tourists around, we definitely had to use pointing gestures for food as we stumbled across a delicious local restaurant serving dessert Thai pancakes. Yum! Finally we made our way on a local bus to the pier for the Golden Buddha Beach Resort, and hopped on a longtail boat which dropped us on a crescent-shaped beach with long lines of coconut groves and not another soul in sight reminiscent of a desert island in the movies. The next five nights blended together with amazing images of long desolate walks on the beach, twice-daily yoga, swimming in warm turquoise water, mischievous monkeys trying to break open coconuts on rocks, and intermittent thunderstorms and sun. We slept every night in a treehouse-like bungalow complete with king-sized bed and hardwood carvings and awoke to the sound of waves crashing against the shore. After hearing about Thailand’s crowded beach resorts, I wasn’t sure a place like this existed, but indeed it does. Paradise!
Unfortunately the reverie was broken mostly by budget and the need to make it back to Bangkok and on toward home. Scott chose one more beach destination before we left, which was Railay, famous for having over 500 bolted rock-climbing routes and huge columns of rocks called karsts jutting out of the ocean. Just like the palace in Bangkok, it was far too many muzungos in one place, all showing more skin than we’d seen in the past 2 ½ years, mostly with accompanying young, tan, chiseled bodies. At least we were able to do most of the advertised adventure activities, including rock climbing, kayaking, and snorkeling, all within walking distance from our cookie-cutter hotel. We spent Thanksgiving night searching for some type of American food place, but alas, only found a restaurant that advertised minestrone soup, which turned out to be a vegetable broth, said to each other what we were thankful for, and ended the evening with cocktails in the rain on an anchored boat restaurant. Definitely a Thanksgiving to remember!
We took one more overnight bus back to Bangkok, this time one that didn’t have individual TV screens, but the recliner seats had a massage option! It dumped us at 4am at a random bus station, but at least I saw the early morning crowd exercising at Mo Chit park, which reminded us of Central Park. We took a shot at Couchsurfing Bangkok and got a local perspective of the city from the top of a penthouse on the 22nd floor, and walked to the nearest shopping mall for a little more “readjustment” to American culture. And we got it . . . between Annie’s Pretzels, Dunkin’ Donuts, and a 5-story Christmas tree, this 7-story mall was buzzing with both shoppers and Thais out to see and be seen. We watched the Hunger Games, the first show we’d seen in a movie theater for about a year and stood up with the rest of the audience after the 20 minutes of ads/previews to salute the King of Thailand during a song and slideshow. As we left the theater, we again gawked at the consumer-driven Christmas culture, but did end up buying a few gifts of our own! Definitely a stark difference from Ethiopia just a few weeks before, where Christmas (January 7th) is spent praying and giving gifts to the poor.
There were rumors of riots in Bangkok from opposing parties, so we decided to stay away from the city center for our last day there. Unfortunate, because the palace/river was beautiful and we were hoping to spend another day there. Anyway, we rented a hotel to rest before two overnight flights surrounded by the longest day of our lives—December 3rd, which probably lasted around 48 hours due to crossing the international date line.
And ready to set foot on American soil for the first time in 29 months!