Discovering Thailand

This past weekend I was able to get over to Thailand, and this is one of the trips I was really looking forward to. In planning it, I wanted to try and get a feel for both the bustling urban side of Thailand along with some of the Thai beaches I had heard so much about. So my first stop would be Bangkok, which actually holds the Guinness world record for the longest place name. In Thai is spelled, กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานี บุรีรมย์อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์ or translated means, “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of Ayutthaya of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” Phew. Did you get all that? I’m 100% not making this up. I can see why they just call it Bangkok.

My flight departed from KL on Thursday evening and it was only about a two hour flight to Bangkok which put me in around 9 pm Thursday. Bangkok has two international airports, Suvarnabhumi which is a newer facility that handles most of the international carriers and then Don Mueang which is anything but new and handles the low cost carriers. So Don Mueang was my spot! The facility was very simple and dated, but going through customs was probably the quickest experience I’ve had to date. Once through customs I always make a beeline for an ATM to get the local currency. Now as I’ve been fortunate to travel to several places, I’ll admit that the different currency conversion rates swimming around in my head can prove a bit confusing, and this was one such case. After going to two different ATM’s that told me they did not have enough currency, it was at the third ATM I finally realized that I was adding an extra zero on to my withdrawal request. Once I made this adjustment, the ATM dispensed my currency and I left to grab a cab, thankful that I wasn’t carrying 2,000 USD worth of Thai Baht in my pocket.

So we left the terminal and made our way to the taxi stand which was fairly busy. I had saved the name of the hotel in my phone and soon showed the taxi stand attendant. He looked at me, looked at the phone, and then asked me in what I can only presume to be Thai, where the hotel was located. Quickly him and I realized we were at a bit of a communication impasse so he led me over to a woman that held, in essence, a master list of the hotels in Bangkok. The hotels were written in English and in Thai, so that once she could match the English letters of my hotel, she could then communicate to my driver the Thai name of my hotel and the street it was located. Feeling relieved that an understanding had been reached, we climbed into the taxi and headed into the city center. Because it was night time, much of the city detail eluded me, but I can say that Bangkok has a fairly colorful night skyline. As we got into the city center I noticed we were driving underneath the SkyTrain which is a primary public transit line serving the tourists and residents of Bangkok. Looking up at the elevated train line, I recognized the large transit line but had forgotten the three letter identifier they use for it. My curiosity getting the better of me, I attempted to engage the driver to find out the name of the line as I thought it must be the BRT or BST or the BTS. It was soon clear that my attempts were not proving fruitful. Not to be deterred by the small fact of speaking no common language I assumed he just wasn’t understanding that I was talking about the huge concrete platform above us. So to help provide some clarity, I quickly slipped my arm between the driver and his window and began vigorously gesturing towards the track. It probably goes without saying that startling a man that doesn’t speak the same language as you, by erratically moving your arm next to his face did not make the situation better. This sent the man into a small frenzy as he raised his voice and slowed down the car, saying “you get out here!” repeatedly. My good friend, C, who was traveling with me, was able to calm him down and convey the message that we certainly did not want to get out here. A few tense seconds then passed and the man continued. By the way, it’s called the BTS.

After driving for a while and the communication barrier continuing to grow, I was beginning to get a little concerned we weren’t going to find our hotel. But just as the night gets darkest and I nearly accepted the exorbitant roaming charges on my cell phone, the light appears. We arrived at the hotel. I’m filing that experience away as a good lesson learned, the address of your hotel in the native language of my next destination is a must!

We were staying at the Adelphi Suites which is right off one of the main thoroughfares, Sukhumvit Road. In researching hotels for Bangkok I was surprised about the number of really nice options for a very affordable sum. This one was centrally located and nicely designed. So I check in and notice out of the corner of my eye an attractive woman approach the counter beside me. I finish checking out and make my way to the elevator, right at about the same time as the woman was heading to the elevator. As I was looking at her I was thinking, my what broad shoulders she has. Hmm, that’s a fairly angular jawline. Ahh yes, barely an hour in Thailand I had just encountered one of the famed ladyboys and she/he was on her/his way to rendezvous with one of my fellow guests. Welcome to Thailand.

In all honesty I was quite prepared for this sight as I had been told by several people in advance about the prevelance of ladyboys or kathoeys as they’re called in Thailand. I’ll admit that while their was an initial jaw-dropped fascination, the more I traveled through Thailand I was surprised at the mundanity of seeing kathoeys working in all professions such as airport security, hotel management, waitresses, etc. and frankly thought it was pretty cool how accepted they were by the society. Well, I feel like I’ve hit the requisite Thailand ladyboy mention so onwards.

After dropping the luggage off, we were both starved and I was eager to check out the cuisine. I had done some research beforehand and had read multiple great reviews on a place called The Local which was within walking distance, so we quickly made our way over, knowing that the kitchen would be closing in 30 mins. We arrived with 15 mins to spare and I was so glad we did. I had many excellent meals in Thailand but this one was the best. Every dish that we had was truly exceptional. An incredible blend of sweet, sour, spicy, aromatic and just oh so fresh. I’m writing down the dishes we had, more for my sake than anyone else’s as I will undoubtedly forget them and I would love to find a match to these exquisite dishes. We had the pomelo salad w/ shrimp, Thai mackerel with coconut milk and leeks, and braised spare ribs w/ padang red curry. The next time I’m in town I will absolutely make a point to return.

Enjoying a cold Singha while waiting for the first meal to arrive.
Enjoying a cold Singha while waiting for the first meal to arrive.

After dinner we decided to take the scenic route and pass through Soi Cowboy which is one of the famed “entertainment” spots in Bangkok. Hearing about it beforehand I had expected to find one place called Soi Cowboy. So as we are walking down the street there is just bar after bar with attractive Thai women spilling out into this walking street, I couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of Dallas Cowboys cheerleader outfit-wearing woman. I was puzzled but at the same time appreciative of the effort (though I hate the Cowboys, go Skins!). It wasn’t until after walking through that street I realized that they use the word Soi to signify a street, so we were walking down Cowboy street and I guess these were just the waiting Cowgirls.

Soi Cowboy.
Soi Cowboy.

In walking back, the streets were abuzz with vendors of all sorts. There was everything from clothing vendors to small mobile bars set up on street corners. Bangkok has a definite buzz of life and the appeal was strong.

The next day we decided to go check out some of the more cultural aspects of Bangkok and tour some of the many temples home to Bangkok. Near to the hotel was a BTS stop so we took that, down to the river to catch a ferry boat upstream. Most of the major temples are situated along the Chao Phraya river and there are several ferry boats that run constantly up and down the river, which is used by both tourists and locals alike. You wait at the dock for a few minutes and then a boat pulls up alongside the dock for long enough to let passengers disembark and embark. Traveling along the river, I realized how this was just one more vibrant travel corridor of the city that afforded some great sights of the city.

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The first glimpses of the Grand Palace from the Chao Phraya river.

We took the ferry to a stop that was just alongside the Grand Palace, our first destination. The dock was absolutely packed with people attempting to get on the ferry, so I made a mental note that we would not be getting back on the ferry at that particular stop. Leaving the dock we were able to quickly find our way to the entrance of the Grand Palace. This compound holds not only the royal residence and throne halls, but a vast number of temples including the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The ornate detail that adorns all the structures was truly incredible and in lieu of attempting to describe them I’m just going to include some pictures from the walk around the complex.

Army soldier standing guard at the entrance to the Golden Palace.
Army soldier standing guard at the entrance to the Golden Palace.

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After spending the morning walking through the grounds of the Grand Palace, C and I were ready to grab some lunch. I had read about a good local place that was nearby and across the street from a local university. Before I had left the hotel, I had attempted to GoogleMaps the place but had no such luck, however I felt confident that if it was right across from the university we could find it. I was wrong. After spending about 10 minutes walking back and forth I approached a security guard who was working at the school and showed him the name of the place (in English, a mistake I made too many times in Thailand) asking if he knew where it was. I might as well have been asking him to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity as this gentleman had no idea what I was saying. Luckily, two girls from the university had been walking by and eager to practice their English were nice enough to lead the way towards our destination.

Two university students playing guide to the elusive lunch spot.
Two university students playing guide to the elusive lunch spot.

After going on about a ten minute walk that meandered through local shops and markets, making lefts and rights indiscriminately I really began to question the website I found this place on. It so offhandedly said it was across from the university as if any moron with at least one working eye would be entirely incapable of missing it. There are proctologists who have not been as far in the bowels of Bangkok as we were. Finally, we arrived at our destination and the girls provided a cheery smile and a warm wave, then continued on their way. The place was certainly a local spot, which is generally a good sign, as the waitstaff spoke very limited English. We managed to communicate our orders and the place did not disappoint. I had yet to try one of my favorite dishes, Pad Thai, so I ordered it and it was quite excellent. C got the Tom Yum soup which was also on point.

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After lunch we started making our way back towards the next temple, Wat Pho, which was known for its huge reclining buddha statue and a massage school. Without the gnaw of hunger distracting my thoughts, I could really enjoy the shops and restaurants that surrounded us as we meandered back through these back alleys. We even stopped by an art exhibition of local artists that opened out on to the Chao Phraya river.

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Students having lunch along the riverside at a restaurant located along the small back alley we had wandered for lunch.
Students having lunch along the riverside at a restaurant located along the small back alley we had wandered.
Local art exhibition open to the public.
Local art exhibition open to the public.

We soon made our way to Wat Pho and it too had some very intricately decorated temples scattered around the grounds. The main draw was the reclining Buddha which was pretty cool, but I enjoyed the buildings more than the huge gold statue that was full of selfie-takers (to be fair I did take a selfie next to the Reclining Buddha though in review of the picture it looks like it’s just a picture of myself and Reclining Buddha’s nipple).

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After walking the temples for a bit we decided to check out the famed massage school that was also housed in the complex. For essentially 20 USD I got a great massage. Let me be clear in that this not a calming, mellow, incense-burning, Yanni-playing massage. This is a dig their strong little fingers and feet into every tight muscle you have until you nearly cry out in pain. It was exactly what I wanted. Though because the massages were all given in what I could only assume an opium den would look like, the massage was often punctuated with brief shouts of pain from my neighbors.

After the massage we headed back to get ready for the evening as I had begun striping my black shirt with salt rings from all the sweat. I was hoping people would think it was a shirt featuring a Rorschach test type of a print, but I don’t think I was fooling anyone.

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A line of waiting Tuk Tuks in front of Wat Pho.
A line of waiting Tuk Tuks in front of Wat Pho.

For dinner we went to a place that was just a short BTS ride from the hotel. It was tucked away on a side street from the main road Sukhumvit, and was called Soul Food Mahanakorn and proved to be a great recommendation. The place had a solid selection of craft cocktails and well prepared Thai appetizers and entrees.

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The next morning we were heading out to Ao Nang which is a small town located on the Adaman Sea (Western) side of Thailand. The plan was just to get there and hang out for an evening to relax before taking a morning ferry to the island of Ko Phi Phi. Our flight got in to Krabi in the afternoon and we took a bus to the hotel in Ao Nang.

The luggage filled front of the Krabi - Ao Nang express bus.
The luggage filled front of the Krabi – Ao Nang express bus.

Just before we got dropped off by the bus the skies opened up. So when the bus stopped at the road that headed to the hotel, we took shelter under a nearby awning.

Taking a reprieve from a Thai afternoon shower.
Taking a reprieve from a Thai afternoon shower.

While waiting for the rain to cease, I surveyed the street which did seem a bit touristy but still very quaint. When the rain ceased we had a brief walk down a nearby side street to check into the Ao Nang Villa Resort. The hotel was located along the beach with well appointed rooms and great views of the water.

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View from my room in Ao Nang looking out over the Andaman Sea.

After depositing my stuff we decided to grab a drink at a beachside restaurant with a view of the sea.

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We grabbed a few Chang beers (I’ll admit that I prefer Chang over Singha)  and then went out looking for a place to grab dinner, ultimately choosing a place called Thailandia. The place was quite charming as it felt like walking into a domesticated Thai jungle and the women were all wearing traditional clothes. We grabbed a table, some drinks, and food while watching two cute young girls doing traditional Thai dances in the middle of the restaurant. The food was nothing exceptional (by far the least exciting cuisine I had in Thailand) but the atmosphere was really pleasant. After we had worked our way through dinner and were just enjoying the performance in the center of the restaurant I asked our waitress out of curiosity if the two girls (I’d put them at 8 and 14 maybe) were sisters. Our waitress did not seem to understand what I was asking so she brought over another waitress. With the two of them standing I asked if the two young performers were sisters. This latest waitress seemed none the wiser about what I was asking though they noticed that I was gesturing towards the girls performing. They then bring over another waitress and at this point I’m beginning to get a little flustered. Hopeful that this next waitress will understand I continue to ask the now crowd of three waitresses if the two girls are sisters. The third waitress is not understanding me… at all. As she attempts to understand me she inquisitively gestures towards the girls as if to bring them over. At this point my face is becoming quite flushed. With us being in Thailand, I’m now more than slightly concerned of what they may be thinking I’m asking for and images of Thai police and a terrible misunderstanding begin playing out in my mind as I emphatically signal no and that I don’t need anything else. I felt like Larry David in Thailand. Ahh yes, Thailand.

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The restaurant Thailandia.

The next day we made our way over to the island of Ko Phi Phi which consists of two islands, the larger called Ko Phi Phi Don has the hotels and the smaller island Ko Phi Phi Ley is best known for its appearance in the movie, The Beach.

There are four ferries leaving Krabi each day, and it takes about two hours to get to Ko Phi Phi Don. The ferry pulls into this large bay that is surrounded by staggering stone cliffs on one side and a jungle on the other. These series of islands are some of the more scenic tropical locations I’ve been to. The ferry pulls into the main town centre of Ko Phi Phi which holds most of the bars, restaurants, hotels, and dive shops.

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A view from the ferry dock looking toward the main town center of Ko Phi Phi Don.

We were staying on the other side of the island and I soon found out that the only way to get around the island was via longtail boat which I was quite excited to experience. Soon our ride pulled up and we loaded up our luggage on the boat to head to the North side of the island.

Our longtail boat for the journey over to the hotel.
Our longtail boat for the journey over to the hotel.

You’ll have to forgive the number of upcoming pictures but I was quite captured with the look of the weathered wood of the longtail boat and the bright blue trim as it contrasted to the aquamarine water and surrounding island.

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First look at the beach our hotel was set along.
First look at the beach our hotel was set along.
Pulling closer to the beach of the resort.
Pulling closer to the beach of the resort.

When we pulled up to the beach we were greeted by the hotel staff and a cool towel. We were staying at Phi Phi Island Village Resort which consisted of a large scattering of bungalows along a more or less private beach. The place was really quite beautiful and we spent the rest of the day hanging out just enjoying the beach and the food.

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The next day we had a snorkel trip planned around Ko Phi Phi Ley so we took an early morning longtail boat back to the other side of the island. Within our group we had a Norwegian guide, an Australian, and two Canadian pilots that were enjoying a few weeks leave. We grabbed our gear then made our way down to another longtail boat that took us to the cluster of rock outcroppings known as Ko Phi Phi Ley. The trip consisted of us making our way around and into all of the island, stopping sporadically to snorkel and swim. The scenery and array of sea life was great. We were fortunate to see baby sharks, a sea snake, sea turtles and a vast assortment of other coral and sea life.

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The trip took up the whole morning and proved to be a great outing to get a feel for the island. When we made our way back to the town center of the island we had been advised that all of Thailand was beginning to celebrate Songkran which is the Thai New Year. I would now be celebrating my third new year of 2015. I can’t even process what that means, but I guess cheers to new beginnings. All three of them. Among the several aspects in celebrating Songkran it most prominently features pouring water and ash-like paste being placed on the faces of family, friends, and other revelers to symbolize the start of new beginnings. In busier parts of Thai cities this essentially morphs into large street-wide water fights. If you don’t want to get wet, don’t go outdoors. After dropping our gear off at the shop we stopped to grab a beer at a small bar in one of the many alleyways situated in the town center to watch the large packs of super-soaker armed revelers joyfully spraying down each other.

A Thai family armed to the gills with water guns and smiles.
A Thai family armed to the gills with water guns and smiles.

It was a lot of fun to watch each passing person, sopping wet, smiling ear to ear, and wetting anything that moved. As we were finishing our beers and about to head out, a group of about 6 local teenagers gathered around the entrance of the bar, gleefully spraying down all patrons bold enough to sit outside. After waiting for a solid five minutes to see if they would move on, we made a break for it, getting absolutely drenched along the way. The streets were so festive, filled with laughter and water-sharing partiers.

We eventually made our way back to the resort on the other side of the island to grab some lunch. After lunch finished up and we were about to head out, we faintly heard drum beats and laughter towards the back row of bungalows. With our curiosity piqued we wandered back to check out the noise. As we rounded the corner we were greeted with a parade of local staff and their families in a long celebratory Songkran procession. They saw us and quickly asked us to join in. The women at the front bowed their heads then poured a fragrant water in our hands and over our shoulders. We were getting a look into the more traditional celebration of Songkran and quickly took them up on their offer to join in their procession. The kids were less reticent in their sharing of water and took great pleasure to douse the foreigner (read: white face).

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I realize this was the wrong day to wear a USA shirt, but I think that made them enjoy spraying me that much more. We spent the rest of the afternoon celebrating with the locals as they took the procession around the resort and then ended with some games for the young ones.

Later that evening they had a large celebratory dinner that featured the Miss Songkran beauty contest, comprising ten local women from the staff competing for the illustrious title of Miss Songkran. In between the contestant introductions they had traditional Thai dances performed on stage.

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The ten Miss Songkran beauty contestants greeting the guests on their way to dinner.

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The main event of the night featured the entrance of last year’s Miss Songkran being carried in by a group of young men and led by the ten contestants. This was all orchestrated to this moving traditional Thai processional song that was utterly captivating.

The entrance of last year's Miss Songkran as she prepares to hand her tiara and sash over to this year's winner.
The entrance of last year’s Miss Songkran as she prepares to hand her tiara and sash over to this year’s winner.

They proceeded to name this years winner and it was a fitting cultural moment to cap off an experience rich trip to Thailand. The next morning we were headed out early to leave Thailand, and in just a five day trip to this country I easily found the appeal that has drawn so many people to it. It carries this incredible dichotomy of traditional and modern, welcoming and overwhelming, sweet and sour. I will no doubt be back Thailand!

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3 Comments

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  1. Evan,

    Your mom shared your blog site with me. Glad to see that you are doing well!

    Kevin Wallace

    Like

  2. My Thai friends told me they learn the true name of Bangkok through a song. I had them sing it for me. I can’t wait for them to get married to I can visit Thailand!

    Like

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