Thailand—Siam for those of you who are old enough to remember the movie King and I — is half way around the world and certainly wasn’t in the top 10 places I wanted to visit in 2012. But a very persistent member of our intrepid traveling group, Camel Club, whose name is for another story, convinced us that Thailand was the place to go. I am a “get-along, go-along” person, so I agreed and I am soooo glad that I did. What a magnificent place to visit. From the golden beaches on the Indian Ocean in the south to the verdant hill country in the north along the borders of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos, the scenery was a feast to behold by engaging all our senses. Historical note: the country officially changed from Siam to Thailand on May 11, 1949. Thailand means “land of the free.”
We arrived in Bangkok weary from the more than 20-hour flight to be dropped at a lovely hotel with huge rooms awaiting us with a view of the city that went on forever. The Pantip Hotel was our home for several days while we explored the Bangkok metropolitan area with its multi-cultural 14 million people. Other than the ubiquitous motor scooters, river travel is a main source of transportation. The Chao Phraya River knifes through the middle of the city interconnecting a myriad of canals, or klongs, that crisscross the city like a giant spider web. Multinational corporations with their modern high-rise buildings stand side-by-side with the Grand Palace, home of the King, and Wat Arun temples soaring into the sky. High-end art, fashion and entertainment meld with vibrant street life and cultural landmarks as well as the notorious red-light districts.
After a good night’s sleep we were ready to explore. It was a few days before Chinese New Year and the streets were festooned with streamers, balloons and other customary decorations. The wholesale flower market, which is open 24 hours every day, was humming with customers purchasing exotic flower arrangements for their homes and places of business. We snaked through the flower shops that lined the streets for many blocks along the Phraya River, overwhelmed with the fragrances and sheer volume of floral splendor.
Next, we hopped a long-tail boat to Ruan Khun Yaai, (grandmother’s house) where Jim, a charming and enthusiastic woman prepared local cuisine for our lunch. Thai food is a sumptuous combination of the five fundamental tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. Some of our group helped by chopping, peeling and stirring the delicious ingredients, and the entire group helped by eating everything from appetizers to dessert!
Our itinerary then took us to the Royal Barge Museum storing a dozen or so barges for use by the King for the ubiquitous celebrations found in Thailand. These historical boats are covered with jewels and gold and other trappings of splendor and wealth. I couldn’t help but think how awesome it would be for the Camel Club to float through the center of Bangkok, cocktails in hand, on one of these glorious barges.
The river journey continued to Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, which is a complex of Cambodian-style temples. The central prang (Khmer-style tower) is the largest, estimated to be about 260-foot tall, and covered from top to bottom with mosaics, pieced together with Chinese porcelain brought over as the ballast in sailing boats. It was tough slogging up the steep steps in the hot, muggy air but it was so worth the effort. The view of the adjacent river and Grand Palace gave us a clue to what might be in store the next day.
As the new day dawned, a visit to the Grand Palace was the main attraction. This has been the defining landmark of Bangkok since 1792 when it became the capital of Thailand. Yule Brenner…oops…I mean Rama IV, ruled from this complex that is comprised of the royal residence, halls, and pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards. This is also the administrative center of government and no expense was spared on either the building facades or interiors. It is impossible to describe the delicate and detailed artwork carved out of stone and then covered with overlays of 24 carat gold and every imaginable precious stone.
The focal point of the Grand Palace is the Emerald Buddha, carved out of jade and adorned with gold, which was discovered in 1434 buried in a temple stupa. It now resides inside the Royal Chapel of the Grand Palace where many Theravada Buddhists, both tourists and locals, pray for knowledge and understanding. The Buddha has three sets of clothing for the hot, rainy and cool seasons all made out of gold. I found the Royal Chapel to be an unexpected spiritual experience. In contrast to our zipping around the noisy streets of Bangkok, where traffic markings are only a suggestion, which we found exhausting. After three days spent with 14 million strangers, I was ready for a more pastoral countryside.
We then traveled northward toward the town of Kanchanaburi, stopping at one of several floating flower markets. Dozens of booths that sold everything from clothing, to crafts to food, were crowded together along a maze of canals. There was even a snake charmer wrapped in a yellow boa. I gave them a wide berth! Many shoppers utilized traditional long-tailed boats to navigate the market. These boats are similar to long skinny canoes with a diesel motor that is noisy and stinks. So, I walked instead to search out souvenirs. Continuing north we saw salt farms and a number of sugar factories. Thailand exports many of these crops throughout the world.
We reached the Hintok River Camp where our living quarters were in large tents with double zippers to protect from the ever-present evening mosquitos. Before dinner we took the opportunity to swim in a pool, seated on the edge of the River Kwai that was filled with spring water seeping in through several small waterfalls. Cocktails were served under a palm leaf cabana on a nearby dock. Dinner that night was an outdoor barbecue that was delicious. As night overcame us, we slept well in our tents listening to the sounds of the river and jungle surrounding the encampment.
Our location on the River Kwai was a reminder of the movie (and true story) Bridge on the River Kwai, which I am certain most of you have seen. During World War II, Japan demanded the right to move troops across Thailand to the Malayan frontier. Subsequently, Thailand declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom and took up arms to "assist" Japan in its war against the Allies, while at the same time maintaining an active anti-Japanese Free Thai Movement.
We walked through Hellfire Pass on a portion of the remaining rails of the Burma Railway, commonly known as the "Death Railway," constructed by prisoners of war (POWs) including thousands of British, Australians and Americans. The conditions were horrific and it is said that for every half mile of track, 38 POWs perished. We were able to walk on a recreation of the infamous bridge and saw a cemetery where thousands of Allies are buried. The names and ages on the markers were heartbreaking; so many young men were lost. An interesting fact is that the American dead were returned to the U.S. for burial on their homeland.
On our last day in Kanchanaburi we boarded a long-tail speedboat for a ride on the Kwai River. The scenery was ever changing from jungle to agricultural fields to small villages. We saw fishermen, farmers, women and kids, all making use of the river in their everyday life. After disembarking, we went to a large outdoor market to shop for our lunch. We each received a list of items written in Thai to locate and purchase with the money we were given by our guide. It was our job to “talk” to the folks in the market. Most of the shopkeepers did not speak English, so we had to figure out how to communicate what we needed and then purchase it. This was a really fun activity that encouraged us to engage in everyday activities with the local people.
We dropped off the food for preparation for lunch and then visited a local school. The children are always so excited to meet us, show us their classrooms, and tell us about their studies. After the school visit we broke into groups to meet with the students and their families over a meal prepared in the local tradition with the food we purchased. These two activities—a school visit and a home-hosted meal— are the highlight of Grand Circle Foundation’s commitment to improving lives in the countries we visit. A portion of our trip cost goes to the Grand Circle Foundation for distribution to schools and public works projects such as water wells.
Saying goodbye to our friendly tent camp we board our mini-bus to drive further north to the town of Sukhothai, the former capital of Thailand. Along the way we noticed remnants of the disastrous floods of 2011 that caused the rivers to rise as much as 10 feet and causing the largest natural disaster in Thai history. Many homes and businesses were flooded and the rice fields in the ever-so-flat country were still several feet deep under water. They told us it would be many months before the water was low enough for them to be able to harvest the rice.
There is much to tell about Sukhothai so I will end at this point in the journey. Next time I can share with you much about the northern part of Thailand, especially the cities of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai and the Hill Country people. As some of you may have noticed, my Flying Carpet has been absent from the first part of my Thai adventure. It was sorely in need of restoration and cleaning but will be joining me when we fly to Cambodia in Part 3.
“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” Confucius