Since many of you are considerably younger than me, you may not remember the movie, The King and I. The story focuses around a middle-aged British widow who accepts the job of governess for the King of Siam in the 1860s. Siam….what an exotic-sounding place…particularly to a kid who had never been to a big city! Scenes from that classic production swirled through my memory as I winged my way towards Bangkok in November. Not only was I excited to at last see Siam (er, Thailand), but I was going to experience it all with my daughter and her husband. As I cleared customs and walked towards the transportation center, I was greeted with a musical-sounding “Sawasdee…Sawasdee” by a smiling Thai woman holding a card with my name on it! I soon learned that Sawasdee means “Welcome to Thailand” - and was greeted the same way probably hundreds of time over the next couple of weeks. I hopped into the waiting van and we made our way into the city. Although I had stopped in Sydney for 3 days on my way to Bangkok, I was in no way prepared for the tangle of traffic that is Bangkok! OMG – at times it was 6 lanes of traffic coming from four different directions...cars, taxis, vans, trucks, scooters, and tuk-tuks all crammed together and going nowhere fast. After Port Vila it was a real eye-opener. Let’s just say that I will never entertain the idea of getting a rental car in Bangkok – and at times I just closed my eyes, gritted my teeth, and held on – especially when riding in a tuk-tuk.
We visited several locales throughout Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and the last five days at a resort on Phi Phi Island. When looking back at the highlights of our stay in Thailand, I think it’s safe to say that we simply ate our way through the country! Although I’ve always enjoyed Thai food – nothing prepared me for the delicious, beautiful dishes that were a part of every meal. Whether it was street food or a meal in a small country inn, the food was fresh, spicy, multi-layered with flavors – and best of all inexpensive! To give you an idea of cheap, I feasted on a plate piled high with tempura prawns…very large tempura prawns…for the equivalent of $4 at the night market in Chiang Rai. There were also ample opportunities to sample grubs, crickets, and other unidentified beetles grilled on a stick!! But perhaps the most unusual was a fun little place nestled on a tiny, congested back street of Bangkok. I have to admit that it was the name of the place that drew us in – after all, wouldn’t you be intrigued when coming across a restaurant called Cabbage and Condoms!! The food was delicious and cheap – but the story of the restaurant is that it operates to support the activities of the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), an NGO promoting family planning and the health and safety aspects of condom use. Condoms are part of the décor of the restaurant – as an example, artwork is made from condoms, and a 6’ tall Santa was made of red and white condoms!! Not only was the décor entertaining – the food was great too!
Obviously a “must-do” in Thailand is a visit to a working elephant camp, so of course that was on our itinerary as well. After a drive through northern Thailand – which included a roadside stop to watch workers harvesting rice, we arrived at the Mae Taman elephant camp. Have you ever been hugged by an elephant? Well, as you can see from the picture it is quite a surprising experience! We also were able to hop aboard elephants for an hour-long ride through the hills above the camp – and last, but certainly not least, we actually saw elephants painting pictures…which were of course then sold in the gift shop. These big guys are the Picassos of the animal kingdom!
Early one morning in Chiang Mai, we headed up in the hills above the city to Wat Srisoda where we watched and listened while the Buddhist monks chanted their morning prayer, and we participated in the traditional Buddhist food offering. This was really a special moment. The morning was cool, it was perfectly quiet, and the just the sight of the monks proceeding down the hill and accepting the offerings of food was humbling. In Thailand, all young men are expected to spend a minimum of three months in the monastery. Many of the monks were very young boys – but they seemed to have the composure and mannerisms of a seasoned Buddhist monk.
A visit to Thailand wouldn’t be complete without visits to many of the ornate and historic temples sprinkled throughout the country. We visited many – one of which is recognized as the holiest temple in Thailand. It’s situated high in the mountains at the top of a 300-stair climb – so in the heat you may find yourself praying just to make it to the top! We also visited the Grand Palace and several very small but beautiful temples located in the hills of northern Thailand. And who could forget seeing the Emerald Buddha…not to mention the 150’ long gold-plated reclining Buddha designed to illustrate Buddha’s passing into Nirvana!
Our visit to “Siam” wrapped up with a 5-day stay at a beautiful resort on Phi Phi Island – located off the southern tip of Thailand about a 90-minute speedboat ride from Phuket. This area is absolutely gorgeous – the islands here are surrounded by the jeweled-toned Andaman Sea – highlighted by stark, towering limestone spires jutting up from the sea floor. The resort was absolutely wonderful – but not without its sobering moments. This area was severely hit by the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka several years ago. It now has several very large emergency sirens, and a large memorial to those who were swept out to sea when the tsunami hit. One of the more pleasant surprises of Phi Phi Island was the monkeys in the jungle! While I was having a “spa day”, my daughter and her husband hiked across the island and were lucky enough to see quite a few of those inquisitive, noisy little guys – thankfully, they weren’t chased through the trees by any wild ones baring teeth!
All in all, Thailand is an enchanting country to visit. The people are very friendly and welcoming, the countryside is absolutely beautiful, and the Thai people are eager to share their history and traditional culture with any visitor who will listen and smile. It’s definitely a spot to put on your proverbial “bucket list”!