March 12, 2013 by travelinggrits
One day, as a guest at a cocktail party, I’ll regale friends with stories of my trip to Thailand. My companions and I will swap our best “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences, and I’ll have a few that will be hard to top.
Can you believe an elephant sneezed on me while I was taking it for a ride?
Can you believe I walked the bridge over the River Kwai while whistling the familiar movie tune?
Can you believe we only planned three full days in Thailand?
My companion and I realized the challenge we faced as we sat at the reception area in our hotel, browsing the book of day trips that the desk could book on our behalf. The sweat was rolling down our brows, and we couldn’t believe we were wearing shorts and T-shirts in mid-January.
Doing everything was impossible, so we had to stick to our once-in-a-lifetime priorities.
Hold onto your hats.
We toured the Grand Palace, the longtime royal residence of the Kings of Siam. The Thai architecture featured there was nothing short of a marvel: tiered roofs with pointy adornments evocative of the Buddhist serpent naga, gold leaf and jewels lavishly spread over the entire surface, interior and exterior.
But first we walked in the wrong direction searching for the main entrance, forcing us to circle the entire palace complex. Seeing us eyeing the chained side doors, a local approached us and tried to convince us that the palace was closed for a special holiday. We didn’t believe his scam, and our suspicions were confirmed when we finally found the entrance, packed with sightseers from far and wide.
Later, we took a night tour of Ayutthaya, the ruins of the ancient capital of Siam abandoned after the Burmese invaded and burned it in the 1700s. If I’ve learned anything from my self-led UNESCO Heritage tour in Korea, it’s that UNESCO never goes wrong when choosing significant and impressive pieces of history. We took a breezy river ride around the complex and were dropped off on the bank just in time to watch the sun set over the crumbling stone stupas.
Many of the Buddha statue heads in the complex were stolen by vandals, but one stayed snug in the embrace of a fig tree, allowing it to meditate in peace with a smile as benevolent and mysterious as the Mona Lisa.
Can you believe that our tour companions were a group of Koreans? My travel buddy and I exchanged looks when we heard the all-too-familiar language pouring out of the backseat of the tour van. After introducing ourselves as English teachers in South Korea, we established instant camraderie. We just couldn’t believe when they brought out a tupperware full of kimchi at our dinner meal.
We took a long drive to Kanchanaburi, site of a war cemetery for British, Dutch and American POWs. Some of these were forced labor for construction of the Death Railway, a supply route for the Japanese during their occupation of the region in WWII. My experiential course in Asian studies has taught me that Japanese aggression has left many countries with a bad taste in their mouths – add this one to the list. We took a train ride on those infamous tracks, a much more pleasant memory than the experience of those who built it.
Can you believe that the bridge over the river Kwai was fiction? After the book and movie of that name were produced, visitors poured to the area to see the bridge, only to find that there was no bridge over the actual river Kwai. Soon after, the section of the river under the bridge was renamed to eliminate this confusion.
Can you believe that we fed an elephant bananas from the door of the tour van the day before? And during our elephant ride in Kanchanaburi, the trainer jumped off and motioned for me to take his place. For the rest of the ride, I perched precariously on the elephant’s neck, fighting back images of accidental circus-like acrobatics caused by its jostling gait.
My traveling companion’s top request for Thailand was to dedicate one day exclusively to lazing on the beach. At the request of my traveling companion, we spent the last day at Jomtien, one of Thailand’s coastal areas closest to Bangkok. It wasn’t the most picturesque, and the largely Russian population of visitors was an unusual sight. But I could not remember the last time I spent a day doing absolutely nothing except daydreaming on the sand.
Can you believe that exchange rate is so favorable that foot-high fruit smoothies come to around two to three dollars? And with names like pineapple sunrise or blueberry delight, why would you not have two?
In some respects, Thailand has become consumed by the tourism industry. Locals plod up and down the beach, shaking their wares in the faces of beach-goers reclining on chairs and towels. Sure, it’s nice to have all sorts of drinks and snacks brought straight to your seat, but I feel sorry for the way the natives are impelled to make a living by catering to the whims of a transient population.
We weren’t in Thailand long–there’s still a lot I would have liked to see, like Chiang Mai or one of the island hotspots. But even if I can’t hold the conversation forever, our time was the perfect stuff for “believe it or not” small talk.
Next up, I’ll visit Chinatown and Universal Studios, but I’m not back in the U.S. just yet. It’s a city-state where I’ll be spending quite a few dollars–but I’m not returning to Hong Kong, I’m going further south.