As we descended from the clouds after about 16 hours in the air, little did we know what was in store for us. A good friend and I had enquired with a local travel agent about seeking adventure in an exotic destination. She recommended Thailand and, since we had never travelled to Asia, it was suggested we take a tour rather than the vagabond-type trips that were our usual modus operandi.
Neither of us knew much about Thailand beyond the somewhat notorious reputation that was prevalent among middle-aged Westerners. We had heard of the flagrant sex trade, where one could purchase any experience for very few dollars. I am not sure if I was even aware of this reputation at the time but I did notice that whenever I mentioned Thailand, I could discern a sceptical frown on almost anyone’s face, especially the women. This wasn’t why we were planning to go to this country, but rather from a sense of adventure and the knowledgeable recommendation of our trusted travel agent. Little did we know that a lot of the bad was true about Thailand, but also a lot more good was also true. It was ours to discover.
I was probably about as aware of Thailand as anybody else. I knew it had been called Siam until 1939 when it became the Kingdom of Thailand. The 1956 movie called, The King and I, starring Yul Brynner and remade in 1999 starring Jodie Foster, provided some of that exotic appeal and a little historical background. The present king is still that first ruler of the Kingdom of Thailand at 86 years of age. His name is King Bhumibol Adulyadej and he has been the much beloved head of state for 69 years and is, interestingly, the richest monarch in the world with assets of US $30 Billion. He is, however, very ill and there appears much turmoil concerning his impending death because of the people’s great dislike for his son, the heir apparent.
So, as I said, after about 16 hours in the air, a few hours in Hong Kong, and a few more tedious hours sitting here and there, we arrived at the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. Now this is a monster of an airport and fairly modern. We did not speak the language and had no idea where we were going. Luckily a trusty tour guide was awaiting our arrival to whisk us off to our 4 star hotel, where we soon discovered how the other half actually lives. We were in this enormous city that was seething with millions of people and strange looking vehicles while our hotel soared above mere earthly endeavours with a wonderful pool situated at the top of the world. Our meals were provided in the hotel and we were treated like rajahs…..at least that’s how we felt. Thailand didn’t seem so notorious at this point. I didn’t even see any sex trade workers and everyone seemed to be very helpful with big smiles planted across their sunny brown faces.
Bangkok is the capital as well as the economic and government epicenter of this most populous city of Thailand. It has a population of over 8 million, with over 14 million people in the surrounding area. Interestingly Bangkok’s full name is “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit” which means in English “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” Thai people must be very descriptive, at least about their capital city. We later learned that most Thai people actually learn the entirety of this name in school, what it means, and will recite it if anyone cares to enquire. I guess the jury is out on how Bangkok got its other name but I don’t think it has anything to do with banging or anything else. (Just an observation!)
In our shiny new hotel we were fed, housed, had a nice pool, and needed some adventure. Well, maybe later. Our first order of business was to find a place to run and overcome the jet-lag. This is not an easy proposition in a city such as Bangkok. The streets are perpetually clogged with all sorts of vehicles and pedestrians have no rights.
We were informed that there was a nice running track at a city park called Limpini Park. Asking the hotel concierge, he suggested the best way to get to the park was to take the very new Bangkok subway as the park was several kilometers away and the streets were far too busy to negotiate on foot. We found the subway, paid a few Baht and arrived at the park ready to run.
Limpini Park is surrounded by ancient walls that encompass acres of grassy fields, work-out stations, a rare open public space, playgrounds, an artificial lake with boats, and a variety of strange animals. You actually have to watch your step or a Monitor Lizard, which seems like the subcompact version of an alligator, just might latch on to an ankle. Most importantly for us, the paths around the park total approximately 2.5 kilometers of jogging trails. We had found our oasis in the city.
There were a number of other joggers loping along so we got in line. After about five minutes we were laboring so badly our run came to an abrupt end. I expected to run about 10 kilometers then re-board the subway and enjoy a nice cool swim in our roof-top pool. Unfortunately we forgot to consider the 40C temperature, the extreme humidity and the suffocating smog. On our first run we had faltered after one loop of the park….2.5 kilometers… were drenched from head to foot, and gasping for clean air.
Boarding the subway, with sweat oozing from every bodily pore, all other passengers congregated at the far end of the car, staring oddly at two sweating “farangs”, as we later learned we were called by the locals. When we finally found our hotel, I looked in the mirror and noticed that my face was lined with dark crevices of soot. No wonder the poor subway passengers seemed to be cowering in fear. I considered that it was very likely the smog had similarly stained my lungs.
With our run and cool down in the pool completed, we were now off to find some adventure. Down to the streets we descended and noticed a poster for a Thai kickboxing event. We, again, paid our few Thai Bahts and settled around a boxing-like ring on some wooden benches with about 500 other onlookers. The first bout began with two boxers flailing away at each other. It seemed quite interesting but the trusty jet-lag was too much for me and I could be seen slumped into a comatose state while enjoying pleasant dreams of the potential adventures before us. I think we were there about an hour but I only recall the beginning of one match. I did notice that everyone was very friendly and treated us with casual respect.
We spent about 5 days in Bangkok and went to Limpini Park a few more times. By the last day we were managing to complete four loops of the park but very slowly. The subway people continued to avoid us but we became accustomed to their fear-stricken stares. The only incident of note during our runs was my complete disregard for an apparent Thai custom that occurred during a run. We were jogging along the track with numerous other runners when a loud noise emanated from a central band shell and marching-like music began to play. I guess it was Sunday and they were paying special homage to something or other. I, however, was in my usual ethereal world blindly jogging along when everyone but me stopped to pay their respects. I continued a further half kilometer before finally noticing people were no longer staring at me but, rather, glaring. I stopped and paid my respects as the Thai National Anthem streamed through Limpini Park.
I enjoyed Bangkok and became aware that it is a contradiction in multi-layered personalities. We visited climate-controlled megamalls beside 200-year-old village homes; golden Buddhist temples that shared space with neon-lit streets offering all manner of sex; touristy river traffic being overcome by long-tail boats working the rivers; and streets lined with food carts and Tuk Tuks overlooked by restaurants in skyscrapers serving all manner of exotic cocktail. Bangkok is a dichotomy of new and old with the ever present Thai culture persistent throughout.
Our next stop was to be Chiang Mai. Our tour guide left us alone much of the time but when we were to be at a certain place to receive some sort of assistance, like flying or busing somewhere, there was always a friendly face waiting to enable our progress. We would never see them until they were required. Was there some sort of clandestine network for tour guides?
As Chiang Mai is about 700 hundred kilometers north of Bangkok, we boarded a little Thai Airlines plane and set off for a new adventure. Nestled into the foothills of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a sanctuary. In extreme contrast to Bangkok, the pace is laid-back, the landscape is picturesque and the city offers international-level attractions. Ancient Chiang Mai history still abounds with a moated quarter offering a multitude of temples and a castle wall surrounding much of the city. The art and architecture is everywhere with a little Western influence thrown in to keep us interested. After a couple days in Chiang Mai we noticed a very popular semi-outdoor bar call Cheers that provided services to an entourage of ex-pats who lined up for their morning eye opener at about 10:00 AM. One morning we settled in at Cheers just to see what life might be like if we cashed in our return tickets.
I think it was in Chiang Mai that we discovered Thai cuisine. Although our hotel offered breakfast, we were on our own for lunch and dinner. This turned out to be a gift as our hotel catered to more touristy tastes. They forgot that we were in Thailand to experience Thailand. In the years to follow I have come to love Thai cuisine as much as it is adored by the rest of the world. Thai food is like the Thai culture; generous, warm, refreshing and relaxed. Each Thai dish relies on fresh, local ingredients such as lemongrass, seasonal vegetables, chilies, meats, and seafood. Menus are built around the four fundamental flavors: spicy, sweet, salty and sour. Almost anywhere in Thailand the cuisine is quite international as the Thai people are very willing to please and offer any dish that is desired. Distinct from the Thai dishes I saw southern fried chicken, hamburgers, french fries, and thick sirloin steaks all for a very reasonable price. Of course the Thai dishes are considerably more inexpensive, and better, with a full meal plus whatever libation you desire for about seven Canadian dollars. This is not a place to begin a diet.
After a few days in Chiang Mai we decided the Cheers Pub was not where we would wile away our twilight years and boarded a plane for Ko Samui. Again, there was a little Thai guide patiently waiting for us at the appointed time, chauffeuring us to the airport and ensuring we were comfortably seated in our Thai airplane. I, however, instigated a minor incident when I foolishly left my Swiss Army knife in my carry-on luggage. The corkscrew had come in handy the previous night but should have been returned to my checked bags. The knife was politely confiscated. I expected I would not see the little white Swiss Army cross any time soon. Upon landing, however, I was approached by a friendly official while leaving the plane and my knife was just as politely returned to my possession. It seemed the tour guide spies were everywhere.
We landed on the island of Ko Samui to be greeted by a cool breeze in a beautiful little outdoor terminal complete with palm trees and a thatched roof. The lower Gulf of Thailand features the ultimate island experience of Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao. You may notice that each island has ‘Ko’ as a prefix which, logically, means island. This group of spectacular islands lures millions of tourists every year offering powder-soft sands and emerald clear waters. Of the three islands, Ko Samui was first discovered by the tourist world and now flaunts high-class resorts operated with uniformed butlers catering to every farang whim.
Our wonderful tourist agent had booked us for a whole week at a beautiful resort on an endless beach. We soon slipped into a sleepy lifestyle of sun, beaches, pools, and not a few Singha beer. We could be seen sitting on thatched mats overlooking white sands and blue waters as our massage therapists squeezes the stress from our supine bodies.
Our first experience with a Thai massage was actually in Bangkok. We had seen signs everywhere depicting hour long expert massages for very few Bahts. Having heard about the joys of this practice we decide to give it a try. Entering a clean and quiet establishment with lights turned low and soft music floating through the air, we were greeted by two, apparent, therapists, who spoke no language known to us. We were given towels and directed to separate rooms. Having no familiarity with this practice, we looked at each other and shrugged, heading for our respective rooms not sure what awaited us. I, for one, thought a massage was performed in the nude and consequently slipped beneath the sheets as I had entered the world. After a few minutes my silent therapist arrived and emitted a quiet titter when she took a quick peak under my sheet. This didn’t seem to offer any problem so the process began. For those who have never experienced a massage, you would think it is gentle and relaxing. Well, that is not a Thai massage. For such a small woman my therapist seemed to have exceptionally strong fists that prodded every muscle to depths never before discovered and hands that twisted my body until more than one small yelp escaped my lips. Then she began to crack my finger joints and I began to question my sanity. But, when the hour thankfully passed, a smile encompassed my face, my shoulders sagged, and I felt at one with the world. The Ko Samui massages were just as ruthless but on the beach gentle waves lapped on the shore, a breeze wafted through the palms, a cold Singha awaited, and it all seemed worthwhile. We did find, however, that one could not endure a massage every day as the following day was for recovery.
We spent a week on this beautiful island, swimming, walking and running on the beach, being twisted into odd shapes on thatched mats, and enjoying the wonderful Thai cuisine. After a week we were, begrudgingly, greeted by our secret Thai agent and placed back on a plane for the long trip home. We observed the seedy side of Thailand and were aware of the political conflict that has seen streets burned, people arrested and military action against demonstrators. In general, however, the people are extremely friendly and the country is beautiful from the beaches to islands to the interior and even the cities. We never felt in danger nor were we harassed in any way. The people were always helpful and we were never short-changed or deceived. I enjoyed this country so much I have, since, returned on two further occasions for much longer durations.