For anyone that has seen The Hangover II, you probably remember “Bangkok has them now!” Let me be the first to tell you: Bangkok has ME now! I have always been drawn to the Far East and the culture and people that make it what it is. Buddhism has always fascinated me and I absolutely love Thai food, so when my family decided to spend 2 weeks in Thailand, I was ecstatic.
Getting to Thailand is no easy feat. We left Cincinnati at 10:00 AM and flew to Detroit. A 2 hour layover in Detroit gave way to a 13 hour flight to Tokyo-Narita Airport, arriving the next day at 3:00 PM. We only had 1 hour to spend in Tokyo before boarding a 7-hour flight to Bangkok. If you have ever gone from a 13-hour flight directly to a 7-hour flight, you know how miserable that is. We didn’t see the skyline in Bangkok until 11 PM, where a petite and joyful Thai woman greeted us. To say that I was tired would be an understatement. After a good night’s sleep and adjusting to a 12-hour time change, we set off on our journey into Thailand!
Bangkok (3 days): We woke up early to travel 45 minutes outside the city to the Damnoen Saduk floating market. These markets are comprised of elderly women and young men who bring in their family’s long tail boats at 4 AM to the market to sell fruits, vegetables, meats, coconut and banana “pancakes,” and crafts. You have to take a boat ride into the market and be dropped off on the market edge. Vendors with snakes, slow loris, and monkeys show off their pets and try to sell you fresh fruits, but since our stomachs weren’t yet accustomed we opted for cooked coconut pancakes.
From the market we traveled closer to Bangkok to the biggest fish market in Thailand…and the smell was horrid. However, despite the smell and slimy fish everywhere we found a quaint little restaurant overlooking the Chao Phraya river. A plethora of curries, Tom Yum soup, fried rice, and seafood was set before us, and I was in absolute heaven! We finished our first day at the Sirocco Sky Bar (where the Hangover II was filmed) and enjoyed delicious drinks while overlooking the impressive skyline.
Before leaving for the north of Thailand, we toured Wat Po, which is the temple of the royal Thai family. Its impressive stupas are decorated with broken pieces of Chinese pottery, giving them vibrant colors. This complex houses more than 100,000 families’ ashes, as well as the ashes of the royal families of the past centuries. From there, we walked to the Grand Palace, or the summer home of the royal family. Due to a funeral procession that day, we could not go into the house, but it was overly crowded with tourists anyway. This place also houses the Emerald Buddha, which is one of the most sacred Buddha relics in all of Thailand. It only stands about a foot in height, but it is stunning. We kneeled and meditated with the people who had come from far and wide to be in its presence.
My favorite part of the day was our last stop in Wat Arun (The Temple of the Dawn), which is across the river from the palace. Its structures are not nearly as lavish or colorful as Wat Po but its tranquility makes it beautiful. I stopped by the Bodhi tree to inspect the colorful ribbons tied around it, wondering what it would be like to sit where the Buddha sat when he reached Enlightenment. Inside one of the temples, a very short and happy monk greeted us.
As a woman, I am not allowed to touch a monk and there are guidelines about where your feet should point. We sat before him on the ground as he chanted Buddhist scripts over us for our travels ahead. My mom and I presented him with gifts of soap, rice, candles, and clothes, which can only be given to a monk by a patron. He then invited us all forward and placed a braided bracelet on our wrists while giving us good fortune and health through chants. I couldn’t think of a better way to learn about this culture!
Chiang Rai (3 days): We flew out of Bangkok’s airport 2 hours into the north of Thailand, where the landscape changes drastically to mountains. For me, I prefer more mountainous and rural areas when I travel, and in Southeast Asia, the sights are simply breathtaking. The roads are lined with overcrowded motorbikes and chickens. The people you drive by are always smiling. Our hotel was a boutique lodge on the bank of the Mekong River – we had to have mosquito nets on our beds because the bugs were so terrible. The path to walk to our villa was lined ground to tree top with wild orchids of every color and fragrance. While my family opted to bike into the town, I chose to journal and take a walk around the property.
In the morning we headed straight to the White Temple, which is a newer temple built by a young architect in the 1990s. The whole structure is white stucco with mirror glass mosaics on the sides. With the morning sun the glass and white shine brighter than a full moon. There is a pathway up the temple surrounded by rare white koi fish and stucco arms reaching out, representing the souls of Hell reaching up to you.
Inside the temple, the walls are painted with the mural of the Buddha story, but with a few twists. Instead of comets in the sky, there are fighter planes lined with famous world leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, George Bush, and Kim Jong Un. The artist had a real love for Hollywood, world politics, and cartoons, so his murals and decorations always have hidden figures from these places to crack a grin from passersby!
In the afternoon, we traveled even further north into the rural areas of Thailand. We stopped at a little village with four women cooking, 12 dogs running around, and about eight little girls making bracelets. They swarmed the car when we got out, and as I was trying to photograph the moment, I was dragged by my skirt through the town by the little girls. Their houses have no walls, the floors are all dirt, and the thought of electricity is but a dream. They are some of the poorest villagers in all of Thailand. Their husbands travel across the boarder into Laos or Myanmar daily to trade goods, work, and return at night. These women used to be shown off to tourists because of the neck deformities they used to inflict upon themselves with stacked gold bands, but they no longer practice these customs.
Our final day in Chiang Rai was spent in the Golden Triangle. This area is where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar all meet via the mighty Mekong River. At the official overlook, you can see every country for miles! Since I am all about adventures and seeing as many places as I can, I begged to pay for the visas over to Laos and Myanmar to visit for the day.
A long tailed boat picked us up in Thailand and motored us over to Laos. Our passports were stamped and we had a look around. Big glass bottles lined each vendors’ booth, full of tarantulas, snakes, scorpions, and other insects used to make a popular “whiskey.” I was not brave enough for this, so I opted for a local beer instead.
Our time in Laos grew short and we had to return to our boat, but were followed by a sweet little boy asking for a coin. He swam to our boat begging while trying to keep afloat in the Mekong’s swift currents. Our guide threw him one and he dove for it! When he resurfaced, he had the biggest smile I’d ever seen.
We had to drive to the border of Myanmar where the passport office is. Currently, Myanmar is under military rule, which makes travel into and out of their borders very sketchy sometimes. We were escorted to a very hot and cramped room around the side of a building where some very grumpy, cigarette-smoking mafia-like men in wife beaters met us. They stamped our passports and nodded us out hurriedly. Needless to say, we did not spend much time here. The streets are full of homeless women and children and the market is full of fake DVDs and gems. I did find some beautiful jade beads there that I couldn’t live without! I am eager to go back to Myanmar away from the border city, where I have heard the scenery and temples are almost untouched.
Chiang Mai (5 days): In the morning, we were welcomed by a boat for our 4 hour journey down the river to Chiang Mai. We stopped at a hilltop cave temple on our way where a woman was making herbal tea at the base for the monks living nearby. Up a steep set of stairs, we were faced with a carved-out temple in a cave full of bats. Golden Buddhist statues lined the walls and a three-legged cat came to make friends with me.
Several hours later, we encountered our new tour guide, “Tree,” on the riverbank. Tree is the epitome of a smiling, happy, not-a-care-in-the-world, Thai citizen. I was feeling tired by this point, so he took me to his secret coffee shop called Wawee. This coffee is like having a quadruple espresso with chocolate and milk.
We were scheduled to visit Chiang Dao cave temple that afternoon but I requested a stop at the Tiger Kingdom first. Most tiger “sanctuaries” in Thailand are anything but that, but this place had a pretty good reputation for housing orphaned Indochinese tigers. I was told I had the option of holding and playing with a baby tiger, a year old tiger, or I could meet an adult. My parents weren’t keen on the adult tiger, so I had to give in to playing with the baby tiger, which wasn’t so bad either!
Ten minutes down the road was the biggest cave temple system in Thailand. The cave is about two miles long with statues and altars along the way leading to a big altar at the end where couples can come pray for fertility. We ended our evening at a delicious Indian/Thai restaurant called A Little Bit Of Heaven, and that it was! Pakoras, naan, masala, curry, soup, rice, chicken, fish, rice, vegetables, and fruits adorned our table, and we only made a small dent in all of it.
The following morning, we stopped at a roadside temple made of aluminum. This temple had a rule of no women, so my mom and I stayed outside while my dad and brother went inside and photographed it for us. We moved onto the old royal family’s temple, which resides in Chiang Mai. The royals used to live there centuries ago, so that was the original temple. I felt like I had walked into a giant gold, blue, and red palace. Monks were chanting and walking about while we sat and listened to the story of Enlightenment and Nirvana.
In the afternoon, we took a bus and tram up to the Doi Suthep temple, which is on the mountain that over looks all of Chiang Mai. The temple is laced with gold and emeralds, making it glimmer in the late afternoon sun. Flowering trees and orchids surrounded the grounds, while monks in orange robes walked about the crowds ringing the bells as they passed and smiling at the tourists.
One of the most incredible parts of Chiang Mai was our hotel. The 137 Pillars House is a contemporary gated hotel in the middle of the city on a backstreet. It looks like a jungle inside and all of the rooms are villas with outdoor showers and balconies with swings. The main building is built on the same pillars of the house that Ana from the King and I’s son used to live in when he fought for the Thai army!
Our last day in Chiang Mai was by far the best and what we really came to Thailand for. The Patara Elephant Reserve is geared towards taking in abused or neglected family elephants and healing them for reproductive purposes. The land is thousands of acres and the elephants have free roam over it all. Every day, they come to the keepers for feeding and to educate tourists. We were each assigned an elephant to feed breakfast to, clean the mud off of, ride on an exercise route, and take to the waterfall for a skin cleansing.
These magnificent creatures seem to love all the attention they receive because they are like giant dogs! They had a 2-month-old runt that had no other goal in life other than to be a lapdog. He literally sat on my lap and laid on me wanting scratches and rubs. Spending an entire day with these beautiful creatures was memorable to say the least, but also educational and emotional.
Krabi (4 days): We flew from Chiang Mai to Krabi, which is a southern beach town on the Andaman Sea. This is the less touristy beach city compared to Phuket. Our hotel was on a remote peninsula that required a 30-minute boat trip to get to. The Rayavadee resort looks like a tree house like you would see in Tarzan. Our villa was about 100 yards from the beach and was surrounded by mossy trees and monkeys. We had a local restaurant right next to us called The Grotto, which is nestled in a cave on the sand. The water is the most beautiful shade of turquoise and felt like bathwater. The craggy rocks popping out of the ocean scattered along the horizon looked like sea monsters emerging from the depths.
Our first activity required us to go back to the mainland and go to some hot springs and the Emerald Pool. Both are natural springs that have crystal blue and green water due to algae. It did start to rain while there, so we decided to head into town for a local meal where we could watch the rain pour. Being the beginning of monsoon season means that it rains almost every day in the south of Thailand, so we weren’t too worried that it would last long. However, we were scheduled to take a boat tour around Hong Island Bay to several beaches and deserted islands to explore, and the rain was relentless. With 8-foot seas swelling around us our boat was literally bouncing like a ball in the water. Thankfully none of us got seasick. We did manage to see most of the islands and make the most of a soggy day at the beach.
One of the highlights of the day was a protected cove inside one of the rock formations that has a single swing hanging from a tree that you can swing on into the ocean! The last full day we had there was supposed to be spent going to Phi Phi Island (where the movie The Beach was filmed), but with the bad weather we decided we didn’t want to risk being stuck there without a boat home. I was so disappointed because it is supposed to be some of the best snorkeling in Thailand.
We had to leave for Bangkok to go back to the States the next day, but we did have several hours in the morning to relax at our hotel. I opted to go with a rock climbing company out to the cliffs to try my hand at climbing! After summiting several easier routes my guide asked if I would want to try one of the hardest routes available, and so naturally I agreed! My hands were peeled raw from the rocks and the heat made my open blisters burn, but after taking several breaks and almost giving up I reached the top of a 250 foot cliff to be welcomed by the most beautiful overview of the peninsula I could imagine. I could see both sides and both beaches, as well as many of the little rocky islands in the water. I had to spend a good 2-3 minutes up there just taking it in before making my decent back to Earth. We said farewell to Krabi that afternoon and flew home the next morning.
Usually when we go on a family trip like this, we are all ready to come home by the end, but this time I longed to stay. I’ve never returned to my home wanting to go back to a place and see more. This trip was so fulfilling, yet I feel like there’s so much more that has been left open for me to see. I will be making another trip back to Southeast Asia as soon as humanly possible. I want to include Cambodia, Myanmar, and Bali on my next trip to that part of the world, but I fear I will need much longer that 2 weeks to see all of it. Perhaps after I graduate from nursing school, I will take 3 months off and go on a big adventure to this area. Until then, I’ll satisfy my cravings for this place with The Hangover II and The Beach, because after all, Bangkok has me now!