I recently returned from a trip to Thailand, the “Land of Smiles,” with a friend, Joyce Tucker. We spent five nights in Bangkok, a week in Chiang Mai in the mountains north of Thailand, and three days on the beach at Pattaya. It was very hot and humid this time of year, but it cooled off in the evenings and all of our hotels had swimming pools, which was nice. We had a great trip, as we each like to explore the back alleys, eat street food and browse through the local markets.
Bangkok is a very busy city with congested traffic – lots of motorcycles and “tuk-tuks” or three wheeled vehicles that you can hail for short trips. There are shrines everywhere to the recently deceased king who was very progressive and well loved. The temples are beautiful with intricate tiled roofs, gilded ornamentation and marble plazas.
And there are numerous street vendors – some preparing grilled meats and fish on sticks (about 30 cents each), others serving fresh mango, tiny bananas, and pineapple pieces in plastic bags, stir frying rice or offering a myriad of noodle soups. We each passed up the huge pile of wiggling bugs (bamboo worms) a vendor was getting ready to fry in a wok though.
Thailand is also famed for its massages. For the full body massages, you are completely clothed and your body is bent in numerous unusual poses and your back and legs are stepped on, but the foot massages, which usually last one hour and cost less than $5, were heavenly.
In Bangkok we toured Jim Thompson’s house to the east of the old city. Apparently he used to work for OSS (precursor to the CIA) back in the 50’s and 60’s. He planted mulberry trees, cultivated silk worms and started using Muslim workers to hand weave silk. The fine weave & gorgeous colors caught the attention of Hollywood and were used in the movie “The King and I.” After that, orders started coming in and business was a success. The six houses he disassembled and relocated to Bangkok were combined to make a memorable home and his early antiques were fascinating.
We spent one day wandering through Chatuchak Market north of the city, but saw only a tenth of the 8,000 stalls on 35 acres. What we did see included live plants (beautiful orchids), garden equipment & ceramic pots, pets (koi, dogs, cats & tropical birds like parrots), aquarium & pet supplies, clothing, fine jewelry, cosmetics, herbal medicines, furniture, beautiful leather goods, linens, china and ceramics, art work, sculpture, silk, wooden plates, trays, salad bowls, places to eat and, of course, massage parlors.
We weren’t too far from the Chao Phraya River and had wanted to take a boat ride so we managed to avoid the “private river tours” for 1,600 Baht and opted instead for the local ferry at 30 Baht (less than $1) for a great one hour trip. We saw a lot of strange fish around the piers that people were feeding and later learned that you can buy fish and snails at the market that you throw into the river as a symbolic gesture to rid your life of bad luck. These fish are not caught by anyone because no one else wants the bad luck!
Chiang Mai is framed by mountains and, although it is a city per se, it lacks the tall skyscrapers and congested traffic of Bangkok. There are remnants of a beautiful brick wall that appears to have ringed the old part of the city at one time and temples of a slightly different style. We stayed an historic Thai house in a walled compound with luscious gardens and a pool. The main house is shuttered to keep it cool. The original owner was a teak trader and the house has spectacular carved woodwork and smooth teak floors inside.
We had arrived in time for the Sunday night market, where merchandise for sale was different than in Bangkok (lots of leather goods and silver jewelry, soft Thai cotton clothing and a lot of teak carvings as well.) Did you know that Teak forests are under government supervision as they are endangered, and most teak today comes from Burma (Myanmar)? There are teak trees growing randomly throughout Chiang Mai. They have yellowish bark, large light green leaves and bunches of white flowers with a lacy appearance. Enjoyed people watching, musicians and getting in our walk in although it was in the crowded market stall-lined street instead of the countryside. We managed to get a foot massage too as there were places at the market set up to make people’s feet happy.
The next day, we hired a driver and went out into the country to the hot springs past rice paddies and open fields dotted with shacks reminiscent of the Philippines. We visited numerous silversmiths (the silver comes from Burma – often from melted down coins) and silk weavers, where we watched them spin thread from cocoons and then weave very fine cloth. We spent about an hour soaking in the hot mineral baths before returning to Chiang Mai.
While in Chiang Mai, we also took a Thai cooking class from Thai Farm Cooking School. We were picked up at our hotel in the morning and went to a large covered food market where our instructor took us around and showed us the difference between types of rice and identified various ingredients we would be cooking with (galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, hot basil, turmeric root and Thai ginseng or finger root). Then we travelled north of Chiang Mai to an organic farm and spent the day preparing five classic Thai dishes under an open-air pavilion.
When we went to the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary to play with the rescued elephants, we traveled in an open pickup truck with bench seats on both sides of the truck bed. We drove up to about 4,000 feet on a series of tight hairpin turns through small hill tribe villages (where fuel, should you need it, is dispensed from metal drums and charcoal was being made in brick beehive ovens) and then turned down a deeply rutted dirt road to the camp. This was not a modern, commercialized operation. It was a truly authentic experience. The elephant jungle sanctuary rescues elephants from logging (where the ones we played with had been used), circuses, riding and performing. Here they had 32 elephants who live in groups in the jungle and who are cared for by mamuts (handlers) from local villages. They can only safely maintain control of about 7-8 at a time with lots of tourists around, and we had seven and 35 people from various countries to play with the elephants for a day (French, Brazilians, Filipinos, Brits, and an assortment of Americans). After we arrived at the end of the road, we were all handed big bunches of bananas (just cut from the trees) and had to carry them down a dirt trail to the camp over bridges made from bamboo lashed together with twine!
First we met the elephants and fed them bananas and sugar cane. (Elephants eat 300 kilos a day) You have to yell “Bon Bon!” to get the elephants to open their mouths, although most of them wanted to take the food from us with their trunks! One of our elephants was pregnant (they have a gestation period of 18-24 months), one was a male (4-years old) named Peter who was especially playful. His mom, grandmother (she was 35 and had polka dotted ears), and his aunt were all in the group.
We got to pet them too. They have wrinkled, leathery skin with coarse bristles of hair on it. Their tongues are pink, their eyes are brown and they have the longest eyelashes! After feeding them and following them through the jungle while they snacked on bamboo, we all walked down to the river so they could get some water. The mamuts gave a command & they took up water in their trunks and sprayed us all! It was very hot outside & felt really good. Then we had lunch – stir fried rice with chicken, sautéed vegetables, fried chicken wings, and wedges of watermelon. Bottles of water were available throughout the day. A short rest on the woven grass mats under the corrugated tin awning and it was time to make “medicine” balls for the elephants. They were comprised of bananas, herbs, bark from a special tree, and rice – all pounded by us with mortar and pestle and then shaped into tennis ball sized “meatballs” which we had to feed to them. and rub mud on them. We ended up wet and muddy as well, but it was a small price to pay for such a great experience.
Pattaya Beach, about 2 hours by bus south of Bangkok, reminded me of Manila more than any other place we’ve seen in Thailand – the absence of wats (temples), Buddhist monks and photos or shrines of the recently deceased president was striking.
We spent our time at the beach where a wide, brick paved walkway bordered the beach and the sand is blanketed with beach chairs and umbrellas for rent. Power boats and jet skis whizzed around and there were platforms in the water like little aircraft carriers where people who were parasailing took off and landed. There were dozens of them in the sky.
People watching was lots of fun as the town was packed with tourists from so many countries. We enjoyed the vendors who came by carrying and selling: slices of pineapple, hot ears of corn or huge prawns steaming over charcoal braziers, fried soft shelled crabs, carved wooden elephants, steamed whole fish, Selfie sticks for mobile phones, cotton print dresses, imitation crocodile handbags, cotton candy, sunglasses, foot massages, ice cream bars, temporary tattoos, mangoes, parakeets in cages (?), Rolex watches, plastic blow up beach toys, lottery tickets, potato chips with flavored like wasabi and hot Thai basil, black velvet paintings of tigers, strawberries, durian (phew!), jewelry, and hair braiding in addition to toilet paper (The majority of Thai toilets were Western-style, but did not have toilet paper.)
We had an amazing trip – food was so good, lodging and transportation inexpensive and the people were very gracious. If you go, best time to travel is before the rainy season which starts around June.