24.11.2015 - 15.02.2016 22 °C
From the minute we touch down in Bangkok, I can sense I'm going to love this city. We're whisked out of the airport on a modern, clean train whose wagons have been swept while we waited in single-file lines for the policeman's signal to board. We connect to the elevated Sky Train that moves the masses on several levels just meters above the densely packed streets of the city.
The River View Guest House is tucked away on a tiny "soi" (lane). The reward for finding it is a lovely room ($30/night) and a sweeping 180° view from the rooftop restaurant/lounge.
The city center is hot, humid and crowded, but the cooled Sky Train conveniently opens its doors in front of walkways and escalators leading to numerous shopping centers filled with stores, restaurants, spas and food courts all leading to more, ad infinitum. The range of offers, from malls filled with souvenirs and knock offs, to gleaming spreads of haute couture and luxury goods is astounding. The future is right here, right now.
In between the soaring skyscrapers and construction sites lie traditional neighborhoods connected by narrow (soi) lanes, filled with vendors peddling an array of street food unmatched in Asia.
And here, on one of the busiest intersections downtown, with determined peacefulness, people move about the small open-air Erawan Shrine where 20 innocent people (predominantly ethnic Chinese) lost their lives in an act of terror in August. Chilling to think of such acts possibly being "the new normal".
One way to escape Bangkok's notorious traffic jams is to ride the river boats which ferry passengers up and down the Chao Phraya. The boats barely stop to let passengers on and off and it's best not to sit by the edge as the choppy waves created by river traffic cough up sprays of nasty water. The piercing rattle of a metal canister reminds you to pay and don't think for a minute that you can bluff the lady in charge who's shaking it. She knows exactly how far you paid to ride.
We step off the boat and wind though a typical market that leads to the Wat Pho, the 16th century temple housing Thailand's largest reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf and intricate mother of pearl designs.
Next door is the Grand Palace, the royal family's former residence. It's only open thru mid-afternoon, so get there early. If the heat doesn't crush you, the hoards of Chinese tourists will. Within the palace complex lies the highlight, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaeo). Photos are not allowed. The actual Buddha is surprisingly small, but the temple itself and the atmosphere of reverence, as in the Wat Pho temple, is palpable.
It happens to be the festival of Loi Krathong, when locals pay homage to the goddess of water by releasing floating baskets with candles and flowers on the river as evening falls. Men with ingenious contraptions lower the baskets on this particularly windy night, eliciting cries of joy from those whose offerings remain lit on the choppy water.
Scoring seats on the train to Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is like a game of musical chairs with everyone scrambling when the doors open, but once settled, the 3 hour ride is a warm breeze. Good Morning Tamarind Guesthouse is pretty rustic, but for 16 euros, we've got clean sheets, A/C and a hot shower.
From the 14th to 18th centuries Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand. The ruins of the ancient city are easily visited by bicycle or with uniquely shaped tuk tuks. Although well-preserved, many of the structures appear ready to topple over.
One of the most intriguing sites is the Buddha head entangled in the roots of a tree.
As we watch the sun go down on the ruins of Wat Chai Wattanaram, little do we realize that getting back to town at night will be a challenge.
The tuk tuks have gone home and we are left standing on a busy road chewing the dust kicked-up by passing vehicles. Eventually, a Thai man in a rental car offers us a ride. He's here to run the marathon taking place tomorrow at 5:30AM to beat the heat. Up early, we see a few runners. The funny thing is that instead of us cheering them on, they all wave at us!
A hot day of sightseeing, ends on the night market for dinner. While I go for grilled fish and veggies, the photographer plows right into a medley of deep fried creepy crawlers including, ants, worms, larvae and ultimate favorite, crickets.
His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadei, is revered in Thailand and considered the "Father of the Thai Nation.” To celebrate his 88th birthday, Father's Day and the country's National Day, his son, the Crown Prince, has organized a countrywide cycling event to take place over several days in December. For weeks leading up to the event, locals have been proudly sporting yellow t-shirts with "Bike for Dad" and other slogans.
Over the last 3 years, we have been on many buses, but never have we seen long distance buses this glamorous. Standing two buses tall, Thailand's VIP buses are super modern and comfortable with extra wide, cushy seats and clean toilets.
Sukhothai, the older Thai capital (13th century) also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a beautifully maintained historical park completely set off from the town. A sorngtaaou, kind of oversized pick-up truck with benches in the back, runs to and from the park along the main road throughout the day, doubling as a school bus during peak hours.
EZ House is on the main road and our room for 18 euros is sparkling new. There isn't much around, but we manage with a local restaurant on the street and a 7/11, the most popular convenience store in Thailand.
With typical Thai kindness, the manager of our hotel purchases our bus tickets to Chang Mai and drives us to the station where again we ride in style. Chiang Mai is a 2-part bustling city. The tourist center with beautiful temples, shops and hotels sits within ancient walls surrounded by a vibrant, ever-expanding modern city.
Every Sunday afternoon, a walking market takes over the main street with food, clothing, souvenirs, makeshift massage stalls, and musicians. We inch along when suddenly the Thai national anthem blares from loudspeakers and the thousands of people in the street simply freeze for the duration. We saw this in Bangkok as well, at 6PM everyday, everyone just stops and then, without a beat, life resumes after the last note.
Perched on a hilltop about 20 minutes out of town is the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple. While the temple itself is quite beautiful, it is on the steps leading to it where we have an epiphany: mini coconut pancakes washed down with a cappuccino from a local in the know with a pro coffee machine!
Also doing a thrift business on the steps are children from local hill tribes dressed in traditional garb. Notice one little girl's enthusiasm... Regretfully, as long as tourists continue to pay for the pose, these kids won't go to school and their parents will continue to use them as a source of revenue.
It's a minivan ride on endlessly winding roads to Pai, the hippie enclave on a river that got stuck in time. The scene at the bus stand is hilarious. Dozens of tattooed 20-somethings with guitars and hiking boots pour out of several vans clamoring to find cheap guesthouses and rent scooters. I'm feeling old as we walk to the Canary Guesthouse on the other side of a rickety bridge, until I spot a few real hippies.
Our spartan room has a good bed with a mosquito net, though there haven't been many since we arrived in Thailand and here in Pai, the weather is downright chilly at night. The bathroom is attached, but somewhat open-air. This is one of the nicer rooms, facing the river - 19 euros, and far enough from the party scene.
It's another few curvy minivan hours to Mae Hong Son a jewel of a town with few tourists surrounded by green hills near the border of Burma (Myanmar). Two pretty temples sit on the small Jong Kham lake in the center of town. In the evening, artisans and food vendors set up around the lake which lights up like a postcard.
After one night at an overpriced dump, I don't care how nice they are, called Boondee House, we move to Piya Guest House right on the lake. The lovely room is only 19 euros! Over breakfast at the Sunflower Cafe, we meet an Austrian transplant who unknowingly provides the title of this blog entry when he proclaims, "Thailand is the Monaco of Asia". At the time, I'm not exactly sure what he means, but as I write this, I have since visited Burma and Cambodia and while both countries have many wonderful qualities which I promise to write about soon, neither comes close to the cleanliness, culinary achievements and comfort that Thailand offers.
The city of Chiang Rai really doesn't do it for me. Maybe it's the neighborhood. Tourist bars and massage parlors, with an assortment of women and transgenders hawking their services, line the surrounding streets.
There is however one site not to be missed: Wat Rong, the White Temple. Brainchild of the excessively talented, Chalermchai Kositpipat, a prolific local artist, the renovation of a crumbling temple has morphed into a massive personal project that will eclipse his own life. Pieces of mirror embedded in bright white plaster glimmer in the sun from every angle. This is the definition of bling, but beyond the Disneyesque facade lies one man's vision to offer his community a grandiose center of Buddhism.
Our Thai visa is about to expire. It's time to make a visa run. We dedicate one full day to go to Laos (pronounced Lao) and back. Start 8AM. It takes 2 buses and a tuk tuk to reach the border where our Thai visas are stamped for exit. Another tuk tuk takes us to the official shuttle bus across the bridge to Laos. Fill out the form, pay the fee (or not depending on your passport), get the entry stamp, step thru the turnstile, turnaround, get the exit stamp, take the shuttle back across the bridge, tuk tuk back to the Thai border, fill out the form, get the new Thai visa, tuk tuk to the bus stand, 2 buses back to square one. Finish 9PM.
In a prelude to Cambodia we are heading to the small town of Phimai (central Thailand) to visit a couple of Khmer temples built in the 10th century, 100 years before those of Angkor Wat. To break up the long journey, we spend a night in the town of Phitsanulok "Philok". It's a warm breezy evening and we head over to an open-air bar just in front of our hotel. To our surprise and delight, they have a long list of Belgian beer. And, as if on cue, a street vendor pops into the bar with a tray full of savoury snacks to accompany our drinks!
With no reservation in Phimai, we settle on the first guest house we find for a mere 10 euros, but we can barely move in the tiny room. After a cold shower the next morning, we move to the nicest place in town, Paradise Hotel for 12 euros. It's luxurious in comparison and boasts a swimming pool... In the parking lot...
It's been over a month in Thailand and we've yet to see a beach so we make our way to the island of Koh Kood (Ko Kut). The ferry from Trat takes about 2 hours. It's a good idea to reserve lodging in advance because on arrival, you are directed to one of the waiting sorngtaaous according to your hotel. Aside from these pick-ups and a few local vehicles, there are no cars on the island which is really nice. Scooters are available for rent and everyone's got one. The island is very hilly and it takes some getting used to the dramatic ups and downs, but once you feel comfortable, it's a fun way to explore the island which never feels crowded. Every beach is beautiful, with crystal clear, warm shallow water and nice white sand.
Our first hotel, Siam Hut (23 euros with breakfast) is on the prettiest stretch of Siam beach. Although our bungalow is technically on the sea, it's second row in between 2 bungalows which would be fine if the ground around it was a bit more manicured. For now, cement planks, tires, building materials and garbage litter the area. The wide spaces between the floorboards make me nervous about creepy crawlers, one of which I eventually have to vanquish on my own. However, the restaurant area is pretty and overall the setting is quite nice.
We explore the other beaches on the island and decide to stay longer moving to the small but charming bungalows of I-Lay House on Ao Phrao beach (44 euros with breakfast).
A day of snorkeling with BB Divers takes us to several dive spots in Koh Rang National Park. While the coral isn't spectacular, it's a fun day of swimming with colorful fish and making new friends.
Koh Kood (Ko Kut) is one of those places that you want to tell everyone about yet hesitate to do so fearing overdevelopment. For the time being, it seems that the parties, jet skies and rambunctious tourists are content ravaging the bigger island of Koh Rang leaving the rest of us to chill here in tranquility.
What a perfect way to end our visit to Thailand.