My two weeks in Thailand were sunny, warm, fun, delicious, challenging, eye-opening, and all together, just what I needed. While it’s always a little hard to be away from family and friends during the holidays, exploring a new – and awesome – country helped in abating my lonesomeness for home. The trip also came at a good time, when the grey days of Shimokita were slowly but surely wearing me down and the kerosene from my heater had taken up residence in my chest as a nasty cough. (Incidentally, this caused everyone to force masks on me whenever I entered a building. Funny, because it’s true.)
Although there were certainly moments I wished that I had a companion to share in the absurdity, admiration, or humor of a situation, I definitely took to traveling alone like a fish to water. I got to do what I wanted, when I wanted, depending on how I felt. It was grand. I also came to realize that traveling, especially alone, in a foreign speaking country really requires one major thing on the part of the traveler: letting go. You have to be okay with not knowing exactly what’s happening and why at any given time. This is a hard mental shift for someone like me, but probably a good exercise in character in the smaller scheme of travel and the bigger scheme of life.
Stepping off the plane into the December Bangkok heat felt like an August day in DC. Almost instantly, my whole body relaxed. No longer did I have to shiver myself warm. I found Bangkok to be beautiful, balmy, hectic, pungent, and colorful. My hotel was adequate and clean – in a convenient part of town, with a big open air restaurant for my complimentary breakfasts. I spent my time in Bangkok exploring mostly on foot or by way of the river and canal boat taxis – the Grand Palace, which houses the enormous gold reclining Buddha (I spent more time examining and admiring the minute paintings of the Buddha’s life covering the 30 foot walls floor-to-ceiling); Wat Arun, a rather phallic temple on the far side of the river nestled in sparkling mosaic tiles; the Chatuchuk Weekend Market, an incredible maze of shops and stalls, grouped together based on wares (pet supplies, fake flowers, electronics, young designers, Thailand tourist tchotchkes); the midnight Flower Market, heaps and heaps of the most kaleidescopic wholesale floral displays; the ultra-modern and sleek downtown, centered around high-rise consumer-driven shopping malls and a convenient above-ground Sky Train system; China town; a refreshingly ungentrified China town, streets so packed with open-air food vendors and tables that the traffic nearly stops. And the food! Oh, the food!
Flower vendors at night watching TV
Downtown Bangkok: Skytrain + ubiquitous traffic. *Note the pink taxis!
The street food was by far the best bet no matter where I was in Thailand. Red and green and yellow curries; wide chewy rice noodles; slippery vermicelli noodles; spicy chicken and pork soups that you could pile high with fresh vegetables and herbs (wing beans, cucumbers, bean sprouts, pickled cabbage, dill, basil, mint…) – beware the offal and chicken feet version, though…; papaya salads; mango sticky rice; all manners of protein on sticks; little, sweet coconut milk pancakes topped with corn or chocolate. There were fruit vendors on every corner hawking all sorts of exotic fruits (from delicious mangoes to durian to rambutan and tamarinds). Thailand, it turns out, is a gourmand’s heaven. Especially after the relatively spice-less Japanese diet, some heat did my taste buds good.
Street Cart Pad Thai - first night dinner
Crunchy young mango, with sugar & chilis
China Town street dining al fresco
From Bangkok, I traveled south via Krabi to Ko Phi-Phi, the island famous for hosting Leonardo DiCaprio and his movie “The Beach.” Ko Phi-Phi was certainly breathtaking, but was far too touristy and resort-filled for my tastes. While I will admit that I, too, was a tourist in Thailand, there are many different breeds of tourist, and the one I found in Ko Phi-Phi smacked of Spring Break Cancun 2009! In all, not my thing, and though I had a great time meeting up with a couple pals from Japan who were also there at the time, I could’ve skipped it altogether in favor of the next spot on my trip.
Phi-Phi: Longtails on the beach
View from "The Beach" & our longtail boat
Back on the mainland, I traveled to Ton Sai Beach, a section of Rai Leh peninsula, only accessible by a 10 minute long-tail boat ride from a neighboring town. I found Ton Sai to be everything that Phi-Phi was not. In fact, even arriving at dusk, after a hectic and round-about day of travel with an increasingly heavy pack on my back, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Where Phi-Phi was paved streets, neon tourist shops and sleek Swedish restaurants, Ton Sai was sandy paths from the beach into the mosquito-filled interior, delicious and cheap cart food, and quiet bungalows nestled among the hills. My cabin was up the mountain, with a fan purring on the ceiling, bats cooing under the eaves at night, and little green geckos slurping around the walls. The view from my balcony was that of jungles and cliffs and deep blue sky. Ton Sai was literally dripping with climbers. With more than a hundred set routes all over the peninsula, it’s a rock climber’s wet dream. Many of the other travelers I met were there for several months, at least, climbing every day, relaxing at night. I found it easy to find people willing to trade belays and meet for some morning beach yoga sessions – both of which satisfied some goals I had for my trip. And, in the end, I’m glad I spent New Year’s listening to reggae-ton and oldies at a bar at the beach, watching beautiful paper white lanterns filled with kerosene heat and wishes float off into the ether, rather than being assaulted by electronica and glow sticks at Phi-Phi.
Ton Sai: Yoga Morning
Ton Sai: Yoga before a day of climbing and beaching
Ton Sai: Climbers starting their day
Ton Sai: the sun sets on 2009
Hesitant to leave, my next stop was Khao Lak, Thailand, a beach town on the north west of Thailand’s southern leg. Mostly used as a jump-off point for scuba diving trips into the Surin or Similan National Park Islands (candidates for UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site status), that was exactly what I did, making good use of the PADI license I earned forever ago. I joined a 3-day, 3-night live-aboard trip into the Surins. Unfortunately, I damaged my ear on one of the first dives, and could only do half of the 9 total dives, unable to get down to even 10 to 15 of the 30 meters max we were diving. The dives that I did partake in, though, were breathtaking – all sorts of fishies (the parrot fish are my favorite), nudibranches, shrimps, bulging-eyed stingrays, tons of graceful turtles, jelly-fish, and reef sharks. Every dive was followed by a delicious Thai meal cooked by the Thai staff on the boat, maybe some beach time on one of the pristine islands, or some relaxing boat time, reading and swaying in the waves. Pretty rough life.
Sea Dragon MV Mariner - the boat
Surin Island Number...9?
Hangin out on the boat between dives
Surin Island Number...7?
I was impressed at my own planning and forethought, too, to realize that the nicest and cushiest accommodation I’d booked during the whole trip (at a whopping 34USD!) was right after my return to shore, after several days of sea-water bathing and a rocking cabin. (Though, the night I slept on the top deck under the stars beat any hotel room I had the entire time!) The comfort was short-lived, however, as I soon found myself on a creaking and cranky 12 hour, 2nd class night bus to Bangkok, 24 hours after arriving on dry land. (One of the most convenient things about being a small and flexible person is the ease with which I can get comfy curled up in even the most uncomfortable scenarios. And the fact that big things, obviously, come in small packages.)
The national flower of Thailand
The beach at Khao Lak, waiting for my night bus back to Bangkok
Bangkok Round II was mostly a wrap up of last minute gift shopping and of checking off the list some stuff I ran out of time for the first visit. I ended my Thailand adventure with a delicious dinner at an unassuming, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant, and a $6 ticket into a stadium-seating, Dolby surround sound, HD Sherlock Holmes movie (the first new movie I’ve seen since July) on the 1oth floor of some high-rise mall. And, in typical Thai fashion, seamlessly blending the ultra-modern with patriotic history and culture, we stood as the national anthem played over a montage of His Highness, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Street cart durian baby
Luxe and cheap movie experience. For 1st Class tickets you get: snack, dinner, and drinks + entrance into the 1st class lounge an hour before showtime + the loveseat option + slippers & blankies all for your viewing pleasure.
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