Monday, September 28, 2009

Thailand - Eid Break '09

During the Eid break in Muslim countries, many of the ex-patriots take the time to travel in the region or beyond. Darbi wanted to go to Thailand for an adventure vacation that included sea kayaking, climbing, and other exploration in the Phang Nga national park. I joined in, but only for the preparatory portion of the trip which included Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Then we flew to Phuket and parted ways for five days. My journey took me to Phi Phi Koh (island inside an open water area southeast of Phuket) and Karon Beach (west coast of the lower Thai peninsula).

Where to start? One place is to pose the question – what did I expect? I had heard many positive things about Thailand from friends who had traveled here – mainly about the friendliness of the people and the natural beauty of different regions. I also had numerous jokes and warnings about a culture that attempts to sell you everything from worthless objects, old CDs, funky clothing, massage, and more. The other thing I heard, and one of the reasons for choosing this as a vacation destination, is that almost everything in Thailand is ridiculously cheap. I experienced all of these things during my travels from central to north to the south of Thailand – varying by degree but similar in general principle.

“Ridiculously cheap” makes travel in Thailand easier than many other areas of the world. I can’t tell you how many times I bargained, sometimes getting good prices and sometimes not. However, when I did the arithmetic of Thai bhat to USD, even expensive meals ended up being no more than $25 and hotels were anywhere from $15 to $40. This was the “off-season” for tourism so everything was about ½ of what it would usually be. Even if I doubled what I spent, buying things and purchasing services never failed to feel like a bargain. The bargains can take the sting out of some of the bad experiences – for instance in Bangkok.

Darbi and I arrived in Bangkok at 7:30 a.m.; having a flight out the same evening, we had to hit it hard. We started with the restored Thai palace complex. Coming up to the gate, we were greeted by a very helpful guy who asked if we’d come to see the palace. After responding “yes,” he informed us that there was a special ceremony today and the palace wouldn’t be open until 1 p.m. Seeing the disappointment on our faces, he motioned a tuk-tuk (a scooter with passenger compartment behind) over to us who was eager to show us around Bangkok from now until 1 p.m. He named a couple of the historic temples and locations we wanted to see and we were off. We saw our first chedi and Buddha, climbing to the top for a breath-taking view of Bangkok. Then we were off to a couple of other temples which were equally impressive. Then our driver asked if we wanted to go to a jewel dealer and we reluctantly agreed, thinking what could it hurt and we had time. We resisted the urge to buy, came back to the tuk-tuk and our driver again said we should go to a tailor; again, we reluctantly agreed and resisted the pitch when we got there. Returning to the tuk-tuk, it wasn’t quite noon but we said we wanted to return to the palace area to have lunch before it opened at 1 p.m. That request threw us into a 20 minute argument in the streets of Bangkok during which it became very clear that the driver was paid for every shop to which he delivered us. He kept on insisting that we go to other places until I threatened to just walk away. Finally, he returned us to the palace area, I paid him 50 bhat (equivalent to $1.50 USD), and to our surprise looked across the street to see that the palace was already fully open and operating. It took a while for what happened to sink in but we had been completely taken from the beginning – the palace had not been closed but seeing our naïve tourist demeanor, the original guy who invited us to take a tuk-tuk ride while we waited had obviously had a scheme. First lesson of Thailand learned in earnest – don’t rely on what you’re told by the first person you encounter anywhere, and second lesson – relax and enjoy it when you get taken for it is part of the experience!

The Thai Palace was unbelievable – filled with many chedis, temples, and the palace where the Thai (and originally Siam) kings lived over the centuries. The architecture is a curious blend of ornate Asian flourishes, frequently abutted by European-inspired public buildings. To think of the wealth represented by the kings of Siam and what they were able to do in building monuments for the public to witness their power and privilege. While we probably missed a lot of things, we made the most of our Bangkok visit with a little help from our friends.

Chiang Mai is very different than Bangkok, honey-combed with Buddhist temples with active communities of monks who live in, maintain, and build them. I can’t even tell you how many temples we visited but I soon found myself liking the older buildings better. Some of the newer ones are so over-the-top in ornamentation that they seem odd. However, the point of the temples is that they were built in neighborhoods by the wealthier Thai who erected the buildings and established the communities of monks to provide the opportunity for others to worship. And in the same way the European cathedrals were built, the Buddhist temples frequently used beautiful pictures to tell stories to those who could not read. Darbi and I spent a lot of time on bikes that were provided as part of our hotel arrangement. We loved talking with Sam, our Thai host who opened Sawansdee Hotel just a year ago, and we promised to tell everyone we know to come see Sam for a great deal and a rewarding time.

When Darbi and I parted ways, I was off to Phi Phi Koh. Seeing the islands from a distance, I could feel the anticipation rising. I so wanted the island to be as beautiful as I had been told. I was not disappointed and have to say that I’ve never seen anyplace so stunning that it actually exceeded the postcards. The hotels on Phi Phi were a little more expensive but still quite reasonable and the view from my balcony was quite something to behold! While I enjoyed hiking to the top of the island, shopping through all the little alley stores, eating Thai food, and witnessing what Darbi tells me is the “back-packer” culture in full swing after 10 p.m. at night, the best experience of Phi Phi was a day of touring the surrounding islands by boat, snorkeling along the way in waters so clear and beautiful that I forced myself to learn how to trust my snorkling spout so I could enjoy it. During the cruising, I talked with my six mates, two young Irish lads on their way to New Zealand to work on a dairy farm, one Norwegian guy on summer vacation, a couple from Isreal, and an Irish retiree who sold his business to travel the world after he lost his wife to cancer. I don’t even know our boat drivers name but he was great – introducing us to a world that should only have been his to enjoy, if tourism wasn’t essential to offer him a living.

The last stop was Karon Beach where I arrived with clouds and rain. This was the first time that the weather was less than perfect during the entire trip. Karon is a strip city nestled among several towns on the western coast. It is actually much more developed in terms of high-end hotels, entertainment, and shopping. It felt much more western than anywhere else I visited on the trip and the tourists out for a cheap vacation were to be found at every turn. I did what I could by enjoying my cheap hotel room, shopping, and enjoying the music festival that was scheduled for the weekend but could only intermittently carry on between the rain showers. This incredible sunset picture was taken as the sun sunk into the Adaman Sea and the amplifiers cranked up with Thai and western music.

What didn’t I expect to see in Thailand? First and foremost, I didn’t expect the poverty that I saw everywhere. Behind every resort, up every alleyway, and in the humility of many of the service people I encountered, you know how difficult it must be to make a living. When I tipped, I was always graced with praying hands in front of the chest, a sign of respect and appreciation in Thai culture. The second surprise was seeing the influence of U.S.A. soldiers on leave from various wars in southeast Asia. I can’t say for sure, but I presume (and witnessed one night in Karon Beach), how some soldiers on leave act and how this must have had a strong influence in creating the “massage” culture which frequently goes farther. In Karon Beach, the approaches by women are so assertive that I think I encountered my first experience of being treated like a sex object – good empathy experience for men in a world where women usually have to tolerate this. Finally, the last surprise was how easy it has become for me to travel. I keep thinking of pre-Luxembourg days when I was terrified to be in a place where I didn’t know the language, didn’t know where I was, and feared being “taken” by someone taking advantage of a foreigner. I’ve gotten over most of that, even though there were a couple of moments I was uneasy during the Thailand trip. The prevailing reassurance that I have acquired over the last four years is that there are good, helpful, and decent people wherever we turn – a wonderful realization for someone who has developed an insatiable appetite for international travel.

1 comment:

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