Thailand lingers in our memories, triumphantly vanquishing the immediate pressures of work and household. A myriad of brightly-hued butterflies wafting by gilded chedis, the syrupy relish of ripe, exotic fruit counterbalanced by the sinus-rooting sting of chili peppers, bristly elephant trunks probing for treats, smiles as wide and white and natural as the remote island beaches. Thailand is a land that resolutely safeguards the style and grace of its ancestors while ambitiously striving to attain the rewards of a modern economy. Because we were more interested in the unique legacy of the country, we ignored the unsightly signs of industrialization and encroaching Western culture, and focused on the delightful manifestations of the traditional civilization. Because it is the only Southeast Asian country that finessed its way out of European colonization, it boasts a proud, independent identity.
Wishing to avoid a missed flight connection (such as the one that deprived us of a day in Auckland on last year’s Fiji trip), we spent the night in Los Angeles and continued to Bangkok the following day. Rather than opt for the convenience of a nondescript airport hotel, we indulged a long-time fantasy and booked a room at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. We knew we’d love the place the minute we noticed the rubber and wind-up bath toys alongside the candles on the marble ledge of the Jacuzzi tub. Every detail was exquisite, and due to its prime location, we enjoyed a long, invigorating walk on the beach in the morning, an antidote to subsequently being cooped up in a plane for 19 hours.
We arrived in Bangkok late at night and were escorted to the Mandarin Oriental hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. Our room was not a letdown after Shutters. The bottom floor consisted of a comfortable living room with couch, cable TV, fresh flowers, etc. and a separate breakfast room, both brightened by two-story windows overlooking the river. Every day a different native fruit - with an illustrated card explaining its origin, flavor and method of eating - was laid out on a brass leaf plate in the breakfast nook along with a rose-petal scented finger bowl and linen napkins. This thoughtful amenity was repeated at our hotels in Chiang Mai and Phuket, so we developed an avid appreciation for the local produce and got to sample a wide variety. Climbing the short stairway to the loft, we found our bedroom, freshly decorated with fine Thai materials, and a well-appointed bath. Though we might have been happy to spend lots of time in the room, the lure of the city proved irresistible.
We’d heard many complaints about Bangkok - crowded, smoggy, mercenary. We enjoyed it very much, though we are glad that it was not the primary focus of the visit. Although we arrived in December, after the rainy season, which normally dispels in November, there was an unseasonable storm front over the country. Though we missed the rain, the city was cooler than normal and apparently not as smoggy. Our first morning was sunny and mild and we started with homemade granola on the river terrace watching the sleek long-tail taxi boats and lumbering barges trawl the muddy river. The boat steward negotiated a boat tour for us in a long-tail - so called because of the long driveshaft and propeller used to power and steer the craft. We started up the Chao Phraya then darted into a labyrinth of small canals, called klongs. The klongs are bordered by family homes, ranging from flimsy shacks to elegant teak manors. Just ten minutes off the main river in a city of 10 million souls, the area feels remote and rural. People travel in narrow wooden skiffs and enterprising food vendors stir-fry noodles in huge woks, delivering dock to dock along the klongs. Wooden houseboats, strung with drying laundry, park along the shores and residents bathe or brush their teeth in the water off their floating porches.
Mingling the dominant Buddhist faith with a dose of animism, the Thai believe that you disturb the resident spirits of a place when you build a new dwelling. They erect spirit houses on posts outside their homes to appease the riled guardians, and leave daily offerings of flowers, food, drink and incense. Some of these spirit houses are large and colorfully decorated, dollhouse size replicas of holy temples, others are humble compartments reflecting the simplicity of the main house. It is not unusual to see spirit houses on the property of businesses, such as gas stations or office buildings.
After a leisurely spin through the klongs, we motored to the Royal Barges Museum and stopped to admire the elaborately adorned vessels. During important festivities, the King and his court parade down the Chao Phraya in barges festooned with brightly painted demons and heroes from myth and the Ramakien - Hanuman, the tricky monkey-god, loyal ally of Rama, Naga, the multi-headed serpent, Tosakan, the demon king.
Back on the Chao Phraya, we visited Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn. The main Kmer styled prang (tower) is ornamented with fragments of broken Chinese porcelain, a style that became popular in the 19th century during the reign of Rama IV - King Mongkut, and which we saw again at the Grand Palace. The design symbolizes Mt. Meru, each level of the tower representing a different plane of spiritual existence as you ascend to higher consciousness.
After lunch, a guide and driver took the two of us to see more sights of the city. We started at the Grand Palace, an extensive complex (about 1 sq. mile) of royal halls and magnificent temple buildings begun during the reign of King Rama I when Bangkok became the capital of the Chakri dynasty after the sack of Ayutthaya. Each succeeding king added structures, through to Rama V - King Chulalongkorn, the last resident. Although the current royal family resides in a more modern palace, some of the rooms here are still used for important ceremonies.
Temple compounds, or Wats, consist of many structures. The Bot is the most important building, the place where new monks are ordained. The Viharn is an assembly hall used by monks and the laity for sermons. The Chedi is a monument where hair, relics or ashes of the Buddha, or other important persons, are enshrined. A familiar shape is the Ceylonese, or bell-shaped design, though we came to appreciate the many styles during our travels. The gold-leafed Chedi at the Grand Palace is stunning. The Ho Rakang, or Bell Tower, harbors the bell that is rung to summon monks to prayer and one often sees long drums as well. The monks’ quarters are commonly within the walls of the temple grounds, along with schoolrooms. Ho Trai, or libraries, are usually perched up high to protect the valued manuscripts from floods, insects or rodents. There are often various meeting halls - Salas, and many Wats also include crematoriums. In Thailand, young men enter the monastery for periods of their life, much as young men enter military service in other societies. Length of time can vary from one month to a lifetime depending upon individual choice. Though we were told that not all young men practice this tradition now, we saw many young monks during our travels and it is clear that this is still a highly venerated practice.
Wat Phra Kaeo on the Palace grounds enshrines one of the holiest and most ancient Buddha figures - the Emerald Buddha. Initially dubbed Emerald because of its green color, it is carved from a single piece of jade, 26" tall. Discovered in an ancient stupa in Chiang Rai in 1434, it was moved to various cities, such as Lampang, and spent 250 years in Laos before King Rama I recaptured it and returned it to Bangkok. The Emerald Buddha has 3 golden vestments, one for each season - cool, hot and rainy. King Bhumibol himself changes the garments in an elaborate ceremony. Since it was the cool season, the Buddha wore a long golden cloak.
It would be impossible to do justice to the intricate beauty of this site in words. This is a place that simply must be seen to be fully appreciated.
Next stop was the nearby Wat Pho, another magnificent temple whose chief attraction is the golden Reclining Buddha, 150 feet long, 50 feet high. Inlaid mother-of-pearl images, representing the 108 auspicious signs of the true Buddha, embellish the soles of its enormous feet. The Wat also serves as a medical center where one can experience, or learn to deliver, a traditional Thai massage from the hands of experts. Although we had many occasions to try one throughout the trip, we never did schedule a massage.
We continued on to Jim Thompson’s Silk House. Thompson was an ex-CIA operative who settled in Bangkok and is reputed to have revived the Thai silk industry. He assembled a series of traditional teak houses into a charming residence tastefully decorated with Thai arts and antiques. Of course, there is also a shop where you can purchase some of the famous silk items still produced under his name. Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances in Malaysia - among the more colorful explanations is that he was savaged by a tiger.
We had time to freshen up at the hotel before taking a ferry across the river to the Sala Rim Nam restaurant for an excellent Thai dinner accompanied by a spellbinding dance performance. We were seated at a low table with a young couple from New Jersey and ended up chatting well after the show.
We hired a car and driver the next day to take us to the floating market at Damnoen Saduak. Once an important function in Bangkok, it is now considered a tourist sideshow there. Although plenty of tourists show up, it is clear that the market in Damnoen Saduak is still vital to the community’s commerce. Straw-hatted vendors paddle long boats laden with fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and cooked foods up and down the narrow canals, selling to stand owners and shoppers along the banks and to customers in neighboring boats. Succulent fruits abound - round, green pomelos, a sweet Thai grapefruit the size of a melon, red hairy rambutan, crisp, pale green champoo, spiky durian, reputed to smell like hell and taste like heaven, and fuzzy sapodillas which resemble brown kiwifruit but boast a rich caramel flavor. This lively and picturesque scene was among our favorite activities of the trip.
On the way back to Bangkok, we stopped at the world’s largest, though certainly not most attractive, chedi. Once in town, we visited Wat Benchamabophit, also known as the Marble Temple, because of the stunning Italian gray marble used in its construction. Unfortunately, renovations were in progress and much of its lovely exterior was masked behind intrusive scaffolding. We drove by the grounds of the Chitrlada Palace, the permanent home of the king and queen, and visited the Golden Teak Palace (Vimanmek Palace), Chulalongkorn’s favorite summer residence and the first building in Thailand to have electricity and indoor plumbing. We succumbed to the delicious seafood buffet at the hotel and spent the remainder of the day nosing around antique stores, where we salivated over several exquisite items that we would have gladly purchased if we had no need for food and shelter in 1999.
We attended a cocktail party hosted by the hotel manager in the colonial styled Author’s Lounge, former stomping ground of the famously literate who frequented the hotel. Between the hors d’oeuvres and the late lunch, we didn’t have the abdominal fortitude for dinner, though it was a struggle passing up an opportunity to sample the fare at another restaurant. The only disappointment of our stay in Bangkok was missing the National Museum, which is closed on Monday and Tuesday, the only two days we were in town. The next morning we boarded the Oriental Queen and cruised north to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. The scenery along the way wasn’t nearly as interesting as we had hoped, but it was a pleasant voyage nevertheless. Founded around 1350 by Ramathibodi I, Ayutthaya gained ascendancy over Sukothai in 1438 and remained the country seat until the Burmese sacked and burned it in 1767. We had only a half-day to roam the fascinating ruins of the area, which is not nearly enough time. The striking elegance of the remains is a haunting testament to the splendid treasure it once was.
After a few hours on the road, we arrived at a basic, but comfortable, motel on the outskirts of Khao Yai National Park. Most of the guests were Thai on holiday and they crowded the bar lounge cheering for their soccer team in a televised match. We just had time to catch a quick but tasty Thai meal and layer on additional clothing before being picked up for a night safari in the park. Standing up in the bed of a pick-up truck with a mounted spotlight searching the dark reaches off the main road is not our idea of a smart way to spot shy animals. However, we saw many Sambar deer, sweet-looking bambis with oversized radar-like ears, and the spiny retreating back of an ungainly but remarkably swift porcupine. The following day driving into the park, our car was besieged by troops of inquisitive macaques, including several mothers with tiny babies clinging tight to their undersides like furry remoras. We took a short hike to a waterfall spotting many lovely birds and butterflies on the way, followed by a couple more short strolls into the woods. Our luck held out and we came close to a hornbill, jet black with an impressive scimitar of a beak.
After a bizarre lunch at an "American" steak house at which we were the only Western patrons, our guide remembered having seen sunflower farms in the past, and after searching around awhile, we located measureless fields of platter-sized sunflowers radiant in the soft afternoon sun.
We bid farewell to our guide and driver at the airport and flew to the northern city of Chiang Mai that evening. The Regent is hotel heaven. The spacious rooms, each with its own outdoor dining and lounging pavilion (sala), harmoniously integrate native art and materials with state of the art amenities. Our sala overlooked the working rice paddies on the superbly manicured grounds, the vista expanding to the mountains in the distance. A well-groomed family of tenant water buffalo contentedly grazed, liberated from brute labor to beguile the guests.
After an early open-air breakfast in our sala, our northern guide, Sit (short for Prasit), and driver picked us up and we ascended to the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, commanding a view of the valley and surrounding peaks from the top of 5,283 ft. Doi Suthep. Pilgrims climb a steep stairway to this holy site, graced by a famous golden chedi. Murals of the life of Buddha adorn the surrounding cloister walls. According to legend, precious relics of the Buddha were entrusted to a white elephant, who climbed the mountain and expired near the top, establishing the site of the temple during the late 14th century.
We spent the rest of the day visiting the lovely temples in the area - Wat Phra Singh, established in 1345 and home to well-preserved murals vividly depicting ordinary life in 19th Century Chiang Mai; Wat Chedi Luang, with a memorial at the spot where King Mengrai, founder of Chiang Mai, was struck down by a lightning bolt; Wat Chiang Mun, the city’s oldest temple, with a remarkable chedi surrounded by impressive stone elephant heads, and viharns enshrining the 1800 year old Crystal Buddha and a 2500 year old Marble Buddha; Wat Suan Dok, with its cemetery entombing the remains of Chiang Mai’s royal family and Wat Chet Yod, with its Indian inspired seven spire chedi, adorned with ravishing stucco representations of 70 celestial deities.
Sit suggested a perfect spot for lunch, an old-style teak house with a veranda overlooking a pretty garden, the tables shaded by colorful handmade lacquered umbrellas. Although we had been greatly enjoying the fragrant jasmine rice served everywhere, we tried the northern sticky rice, served in diminutive covered rattan baskets. You eat the rice with your hands, rolling it up into balls and dunking it into the savory sauces of your main dishes.
We mingled with guests and staff at a complimentary cocktail party prior to dinner. When the head chef discovered that we shared his passion for scuba diving, he spent quite a bit of time sharing his experience of Asian dive spots. He also told us about the hotel’s culinary training program and suggested that we try a northern specialty, Kaow Soy Kai, a spicy chicken noodle soup that is not prepared in other parts of the country. We took his suggestion that evening in the romantic hotel restaurant, and had one of the finest meals of the trip.
The next day, we hired a car to visit some shops near town, though we didn’t find anything that we couldn’t live without. We had wandered into a couple of shops across the road from the hotel the evening before and spotted some terrific hand-woven baskets. Before buying them, we wanted to see if we would find any at a better price near town, but found none of interest at all. When we got back to the hotel, we had a Thai lunch delivered to our sala, then strolled over to the shop nearby and bought two nut brown covered baskets - a short box-like hamper with rounded corners and a tall dome-covered one, both propped up on wooden cross-shaped pedestals - and arranged to have them shipped home. Then we took a walk through an orchid farm down the road from the hotel, amazed at the diverse species and colors of the flower.
Barbara grabbed suntan lotion and "Cold Mountain" and headed over to the pool while Stu had a tour of the hotel kitchen and a private Thai cooking lesson. Stu came away with a handful of recipes and a canvas apron and we both enjoyed scrumptious Stu-cooked Pad Thai and Kaow Soy Kai for dinner. That evening, we hopped on the hotel shuttle to town to experience the night market. Although the majority of stands offered only the most tacky tourist kitsch, we found some shops with fine antiques and handicrafts.
The following morning after a leisurely breakfast admiring the rice paddies, we reluctantly checked out (we wouldn’t say they had to forcibly eject us from the room, a guard escort is probably a Thai courtesy) and headed farther north. First stop was an elephant training camp where pachyderms demonstrate their skill at logging for the amusement of tourists. The elephants line up along a split-rail fence, mahouts astride bareback, and allow visitors to stroke their bristly trunks and feed them sugar cane and bananas, conveniently sold at a stand nearby. The Asian elephant is smaller than their African cousins, though still massive. They have smaller, freckled ears, and only males have tusks, while both male and female African elephants sport ivory. The mahouts first lead the elephants into the river for a bath, a pastime that the animals clearly enjoy. The elephants return the favor by hosing their trainers with trunks full of water.
We followed the elephants up a trail to a small amphitheater and settled in to watch them perform - hauling tree trunks and stacking them neatly in a pile, transporting their mahouts in the cradle of their tusks, delicately bending a leg to allow the mahout to clamber up on their backs. There are 2 shows a day, ending by noon, when the elephants are free to forage for the rest of the day.
We stopped at Chiang Dao cave, a labyrinth of caverns dripping with stalactites. Handsome Buddhas gently smile down from their roosts high up the cave walls. Outside, Sit named the various roots and herbs for sale in stands on the grounds. On the road, we stopped to watch a troop of sinewy water buffaloes and their big-eared offspring reveling in muddy delight in a waterhole.
Tha Ton is the drop off point for our covered long-tail boat trip up the Kok river, a tributary of the Mae Kok (or as we would call it, the Mekong). This was an idyllic afternoon, cool breezes diminished the dry warmth of the sun as we passed industrious fishermen and frolicking children going about their daily routine. Too soon, we disembarked, continuing north by car to our resting-place at Chiang Saen. On the way, we stopped at a Yao hilltribe village where the women were cooking and sewing, preparing for a religious festival the next day. The simple thatched huts nestled in a serene setting encircled by wooded hills. Until a blue-jeaned young man zoomed in on his motorcycle. The modern world is never very far away.
The best part of the Baan Boran was our balcony overlooking the delta where the puny Sop Ruak river trickles into the Mae Kok as it surges past the banks of Laos and Burma (Myanmar). Luminous in the fading evening sun, in the early morning it is ethereal, cloaked in fog. This is the infamous Golden Triangle region, where opium used to be the chief cash crop. Though it is undoubtedly still cultivated, the Thai government has made a successful effort to help hilltribe farmers substitute other income-producing commodities, such as coffee, tea, strawberries and lychees.
In the morning, we glided down the Kok again to an elephant camp where we boarded an immense female and set off on a jungle trek. We become accustomed to the rolling gait without any vestige of seasickness and soon relaxed enough to enjoy the glorious view from our lofty vantage. No sign of unrestrained development marred the beauty of the unspoiled wilderness as we lumbered up the mountain. The only sounds breaking the stillness were the calls of birds, the occasional commands of the mahout and the extravagant concerto of the elephants’ flatulence, no doubt enhanced by their diet of massive quantities of fruits and vegetation. We dismounted in another Yao tribal village, one more prepared for tourists than yesterday’s, with crafts stalls set up throughout. The elephant ride, though definitely touristy, was a marvelous highlight of the trip.
We spent the afternoon visiting temples in Chiang Saen, particularly enjoying the stunning white Wat Phra That Pha Ngao, high on a hillside with panoramic views of the river and bordering nations. Since we really enjoyed the river boat rides, after strolling around the pretty town of Chiang Saen, we took a speed boat up the Mae Kok into Laotian and Burmese waters, slowing to enjoy the scenery and residents. A group of young monks draped their saffron robes over a bare, silvery treetop washed up on a sandbar in the middle of the river as they swam and horsed around like any other boys their age. A mother and father barbecued over an open pit fire on the riverbank as their bare-bottomed boys buried their toes in the soft silt at the river’s edge. Agile fishermen hauled fine nets, twitching with fish, into their spare wooden skiffs.
We had a day with no planned activities so we arranged for our guide and driver to take us to the charming mountain village of Doi Mae Salong. First we stopped in Mae Sai, a grungy border town where you can cross a bridge and spend a day in Burma shopping. We skipped the crossing and Sit led us instead to a wonderful open air market well away from the main tourist drag, where we amused the locals by photographing their produce, and enjoyed learning about the exotic fruits and vegetables on display. We discovered that the hottest chilis are the smallest ones. One miniature variety is so incendiary, it earned the nickname of firecracker chilis. We decided not to try one for fear of losing a tongue. In one stall a clutch of adorable baby bunnies snuggled together. We were encouraged to pick them up and stroke their silky pelts.
When we suggested to our guide that they were being sold as future stew ingredients, he insisted that they were being pedaled as pets. Sit helped us select a stem of small, sweet finger bananas, which we shared with him and the driver during the day.
We took a brief detour to admire the extensive Mae Fah Luang gardens and one of the Queen’s holiday residences, the Doitung Royal Villa, an amalgam of Swiss chalet and Thai Lanna style architecture. A poster in the villa depicting the Thai alphabet, which children memorize in the form of a song, just as American youths learn to sing their ABCs, particularly intrigued us.
The journey up the mountain to Doi Mae Salong afforded enchanting views of the surrounding hills and valleys. We stopped at one particularly photogenic spot where brilliant red poinsettias sprouted in profusion along the road, framing the rustic farmhouses and verdant tea terraces on the mountain’s slope. Although we ran into a few lone travelers in the hilltop village (including one overstuffed German who tried to hire Sit away from us), there were no chattering tour groups and no tourist attractions. This is home to members of the Akha tribe, whose women ornament the simple streets with their extraordinary costumes - lavish headdresses strewn with round silver bells and rainbow-hued ribbons, ornate necklaces, belts and leggings dressing up the plain black cloth of their pants and tunics. Even their infants, tightly bound to their backs in cloth slings, sport flamboyant embroidered caps with silver trim. It’s clear that the habit of chewing betel nut, so prevalent in the islands of Micronesia, is shared by some of the Akha tribe, as evidenced by their repulsive red, rotting teeth. It’s the first time we’ve noticed this in the country, as the Thai are predominantly attractive people with engaging smiles that they are quick to bestow. We happened upon a farmers’ market where a tea vendor insisted that we sample her finest brew, a tasty treat. Sit bought a bagful to enjoy in the evening at the guesthouse he occupied with the driver. We couldn’t help asking about a bottle of liquor in which a grotesque orange centipede was suspended in the clear liquid. We asked if these centipedes are poisonous, as other species we’ve seen, and were advised that they are. We imagine the jolt of this drink provides the same type of perilous thrill as Japanese fugu sushi. We declined the offer to sip some. The only place to eat was a hole-in-the-wall storefront for locals that specializes in Kaow Soy Kai. Sit and the driver ordered huge, steaming bowls and poured in plenty of supplemental hot sauce. Stu and I shared a bowl and skipped the extra spice. It was good, but a bit watery compared to the excellent version at the Regent. We all drank the mineral water that had been ubiquitous throughout the country, bottled by Singh, the major Thai brewery. Free bottles are provided in every hotel room, no matter how basic.
We headed out early the next morning on the long road to Lampang. Because it was the dry season, most of the rice paddies we saw were brown and arid, long harvested. On a winding mountain road, we spotted the rice paddies of our fantasy, lush emerald terraces cascading down the hillside, glistening in the tender rays of the rising sun. When the driver needed a break, we stopped at a pineapple farm. The family welcomed us warmly even though they had no ripe fruit to sell. We watched in amazement as a pair of frisky, plump puppies rough-housed with a flock of chicks, pinning them by the throat until their mother came flapping to the rescue, spurs digging into the puppies’ thick fur. The pre-school farmers’ daughter hurried to the house, returning quickly to show off the newborn orphaned puppy cradled in her arms.
Lampang is a thoroughly modern city, though it is the only one that still offers transportation in horse-drawn carriages. A ride had been arranged for us and we approached it with some degree of cynicism, it seemed like such a hackneyed tourist recreation. The horses are petite and appealing, more like ponies than full-grown steeds. Although tourists must frequently pass by in carriages, we were disarmed by the enthusiastic reaction of children along the route, who were clearly excited to see the horses. We smiled and waved and were gratified by the earnest greetings of children and parents alike. It was a pleasant way to get our bearings in the town. Visitors to Thailand who miss Lampang bypass some of the country’s most exquisite Lanna style temples. After close to 2 weeks in country, we were still enthralled by the grace and beauty of the wats and by the diversity of styles.
We arose before dawn the next morning to participate in a venerated Thai tradition. Buddhist monks eat twice a day before noon. Buddhists donate food, hoping to gain merit through their good deeds. In the morning the monks circulate with their alms bowls collecting food for the day.
We stood on a street corner with an elderly Thai couple, placing a packet of packaged food into the monks’ bowls when they approached. They recited a prayer for our good fortune before continuing on. It seems to be the same prayer from all, but some deliver it in a droning monotone, while others chant or sing it. Whether you practice Buddhism or not, this is a profoundly moving experience. Travelling back to the hotel, we passed street markets softly lit by kerosene lanterns.
After breakfast, we hit the road again, continuing in the central plains to Sukhothai the 13th Century capital of Siam, supplanted by Ayutthaya and Bangkok. We began our exploration at Si Satchanalai Historical Park, a satellite city of the powerful Sukhothai kingdom. The hauntingly beautiful ruins cover about 3 square miles. We especially appreciated the elegant Wat Chang Lom, a Sri Lankan-style bell shaped chedi uplifted on a square platform supported by rows of stucco elephants around the base. The entire chedi symbolizes holy Mt. Meru, the three tiers of the base representing hell, earth and heaven, the rings on the chedi’s spire signifying the 33 levels of heaven. At Chalieng, a nearby site on a bend of the river Nan, the splendid Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat offers an imposing Khmer style prang, corncob shaped, wonderful carvings and some of the most gracefully handsome Buddha statues we encountered. We stopped at the site of an ancient kiln to study pottery-making techniques and had lunch at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the river. By now we were adept at eating in the Thai fashion, scooping food up with a spoon held in the right hand, nudging food onto the spoon with the fork held in the left.
We arrived at the old city of Sukhothai where there are about 40 well-preserved temples in an area about 28 square miles. This is a spectacular site, the temples overflowing with marvelous statues and intricate carvings. At Wat Si Sawai, 3 towering prangs cluster in a landscaped courtyard, decorated with sublime angels and fierce nagas (serpents). At Wat Sri Chum, a colossal, enigmatic Buddha in the subduing Mara meditation pose peeks out of a tall, narrow portal in the unusual square mondop. We were blown away.
The next day, Sit and the driver (whose name we never caught) dropped us at Sukhothai airport. We were sad to say goodbye to Sit, who had been a charming companion, sharing information about everyday life as well as the religion and history. To our surprise, the driver, who speaks little English and hadn’t interacted much with us, gave us a wrapped package before heading off for their long drive home to Chiang Mai. It was a bottle of Thai whiskey. The airport was also a surprise, built in classic Thai style with open-air pavilions, pools studded with lily pads and beds of fragrant flowers. In the departure lounge, magazines and a bowl of bananas are offered while you wait. It is the prettiest airport we’ve ever seen.
We connected via Bangkok to the southwestern island of Phuket for the final week of our trip. After the warm and dry weather of the north and the hot and dry climate of the north central plains, the heat and humidity of the island assaulted us as soon as we stepped off the plane in the early evening. We arrived at the Banyan Tree Spa and Resort and were escorted to a comfortable couch in the spacious lobby. Guests stay in Thai-style villas with private gardens. You can have a garden villa with a small backyard, a Jacuzzi villa with a hot tub in your garden or a pool villa. We were supposed to have a Jacuzzi villa, but our host explained that all of these villas were full when we arrived. To our delight, they upgraded us to a villa with a private 9x27 ft. swimming pool. We were quite waterlogged and pruny by the end of the week. In addition to the fresh fruit delivered each day when the room was cleaned, a modest handcrafted item, such as a small shadow puppet or a cloth rose, would be left on the bed during turndown.
This was a week of pure relaxation, reading, swimming, and listening to music. We were scheduled to go scuba diving 3 days, but we ended up only diving 2 days. The dive operation was not very well managed and permitted unsafe practices, plus many of the dive sites were very damaged. We took a fast boat all the way to the Similan islands, which is supposed to have unspoiled sites, but we were a bit disappointed. Having said that, we still saw some interesting critters - a black and white striped sea snake, a sea turtle, a pink and green scorpionfish nestled in a matching pink barrel sponge, lots of spiky lionfish, gardens of green and purple anenomes, pretty powderblue surgeonfish, moray eels, sweet, doe-eyed pufferfish and an enormous bell-shaped jellyfish. We met some nice people on the dive boats, particularly an interesting US DEA agent stationed in Singapore.
We chartered a boat one day and cruised to the Phi Phi islands and Pha Nga bay, where we snorkeled and enjoyed the scenery. Pha Nga is renowned for its craggy limestone spires rising out of the sea. It reminded us of a combination of Guilin, China and the rock islands of Palau, though not nearly as satisfying as either of those places.
Banyan Tree is across the road from Bang Tao bay, a pretty stretch of white sand with no hotels on it (all of the hotels are built back from the beach around a series of lagoons). Walking along the beach we would find few tourists but saw locals hip-deep in the bay, fishing or swimming with their families. One late afternoon we decided to see the rest of the island. We had arranged for a rental car, but when we went to collect it, we were informed that our car had been in an accident and the agency didn’t have a replacement. We arranged for a car and driver to take us around the island, which ended up costing less than the rental anyway. We had heard that Phuket is overdeveloped and after leaving our peaceful enclave, we saw the evidence. Every other beach and bay was dominated by high rise hotels, very little sand visible around the edges of the beach umbrellas. The towns we drove through were crowded and tacky - overrun with cheap souvenir stands and bars. We stopped at Promthep point at the southern end of the island to watch the sunset along with hundreds of noisy revelers. We had a very good Thai dinner at the Boathouse, a small inn with a fine restaurant on a busy beach. We ventured out to another dinner in an old-style Thai teak house at one of the neighboring hotels, but we found that the food at the Banyan Tree was so consistently excellent that we were happy to stay put. We had breakfast out of doors every morning in our garden, enjoying the company of a pair of sleek mynahs hoping to snatch leftover crumbs. One night we ordered a barbecue in our back yard, a chef arriving to cook and serve in the privacy of our own villa. The New Year’s Eve party was festive, with Thai traditional dancing and music, followed by a dance band and fireworks.
It was a nice sendoff since, after a leisurely morning swimming, we checked out and flew back to Bangkok. We overnighted at the Amari hotel at the airport because we had a very early morning flight home. Our last meal in Thailand was better than expected, the restaurant in the hotel providing a good Thai buffet with dancers and music. Although the trip back felt as long as the trip itself, it was actually about 24 hours in the plane with lots of time spent hanging around in airports. Thailand was definitely worth it.