The Set Up
This post is incredibly overdue – but, to date, it is truly the best trip of my life! I went to Thailand over Chinese New Year 2016. The holiday fell during our Winter Break at school so I spent 11 days in a country I’d dreamed of visiting. My brother, Ricky, flew over from Savannah, GA, to meet me. Ricky had never been to Asia before so everything was new for him; I had been living in Asia since August 2015.
We were approaching this from two vastly different perspectives, and I knew this would create some challenges. Also, I had been planning this trip for months, and, for me, a lot of thought, research, and anticipation went into it. For him, a lot of anticipation and worry went into it, but he had no idea what to expect. He left all the details up to me.
The trip started out at Suvarnabhumi Airport, one of two airports in Bangkok. I had a three and a half hour flight, and he had a 22-hour flight. Our flights were scheduled to arrive at the same time. We decided I would find him in the baggage claim area for his flight and, if we hadn’t found each other in an hour, then we would find our own ways to the hotel. Being me and a bit of an optimist, I had no doubt we would find each other.
My flight got delayed. I tried not to worry, but I constantly checked my watch. Ricky is afraid of flying so I knew he would arrive in Bangkok tired and anxious and grumpy. I wanted to be able to find him quickly. If I was late, that couldn’t happen! My flight left about 20 minutes later than scheduled, and I sat in a ball of nervous energy the entire way. On landing, the customs line was long and slow. I kept anxiously looking around people and around the customs’ desks to try to spot my brother.
I made it through customs at 11:50 pm. Our deadline was midnight. Undecided about whether to go to his baggage claim area or mine, I stood still wasting precious time. Then I saw him – tired eyes and a huge smile on his face. I started laughing. Of course, he found me even though I was so sure I would be guiding him around the country with all my knowledge and research.
When he saw my luggage, he said, “That’s all you have?” He looked at his giant suitcase dwarfing my small suitcase and duffle bag. “I feel stupid. But I needed all this stuff.” I said, “Okay. I didn’t want a ton of luggage to carry.” And we trudged tiredly through the airport to figure out how to get a cab.
The Cab Ride
Our next adventure was the cab ride. Good lord. I had been told to be sure the taxi driver turned on his meter so I made him flip it on before we left the airport. He did not seem happy about it. He weaved in and out of traffic, slowed down where he seemed to have plenty of room then zoomed around cars once it got crowded. Lines in the road and speed limit signs are apparently only a suggestion in Bangkok; suggestions that our cab driver decided to ignore. We got out of the cab with wobbly legs and relieved sighs and paid the fee he told us that was above the fare on the meter – so much for asking him to flip the meter on at the airport.
The next day we ventured out of the hotel and walked into absolute madness and a wall of heat. People were everywhere, swarming narrow sidewalks. Taxi drivers accosted us every block asking if we wanted a ride somewhere. And we weren’t sure where to go. We were hungry and hadn’t made a firm plan for the morning other than to explore the area and get our money exchanged.
After walking around for about two hours, we did get some breakfast eggs from a street vendor, not the eggs we wanted since she spoke no English and we spoke no Thai, but they were still delicious. We munched as we walked. Fifteen minutes later, we finally accepted a ride from a tuk tuk driver. He asked if he could take us to a place to shop where he would get a fee for bringing us; we didn’t have to buy anything. We agreed then changed our minds. He tried to persuade us, but we held firm. He finally turned around and drove.
Tuk Tuk driver who probably legitimately hated us!
After a five-minute ride on busy roads, he turned into an empty lot and began driving into a seemingly deserted area. My anxious brother freaked me out by whispering that he might be taking us somewhere to be beaten and robbed. This thought had never occurred to me. I nervously watched every turn we took, repeatedly asked him if we were going the right way, and breathed a sigh of relief when I recognized a store that I’d read our destination was near. The driver delivered us safely to our destination and left, I’m sure shaking his head at the crazy farangs (foreigners) as he drove away.
After exchanging our money, we found a place to eat lunch then decided to take a river ride to see some temples and other tourist spots. Did I say it was hot? It was HOT. It was hard to believe it was February as we dripped sweat and the sun beat down on us. Before we reached the docks, I had to pee. A dirty-looking restroom stood on the side of the street. As I headed in, I realized I had to pay to get toilet paper. When in Bangkok…I forked over the 5 baht.
The line for the boat to get to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew looked long but moved quickly – a blessing since the air was still and hot on the dock. We crowded onto the boat and were lucky to find a seat. I was tired and hot but still practically bouncing on the hard plastic – or bouncing and sticking to plastic. The views on the river were exotic with old and mildew-covered buildings changing to temple roofs glittering in the sunlight, barges and longtail boats and tourist boats all around us. I was enthralled. The water splashing on me and the wind from the ride was a welcome relief.
Disembarking the boat took us to a dark market with vendors on either side selling food and clothing and other trinkets to take home. We bought some snacks from the vendors and ate outside before walking. A nearby park had more pigeons than I had ever seen in one place, fat pigeons, and I spent at least 20 minutes taking pictures of them. They covered the ground and the statues, foraging for dropped or thrown food. It was a veritable smorgasbord for them due to the sheer number of people milling about, many of whom were willing to provide food.
Although I was happy to be here and to see everything, I was disappointed at the Disneyland feel of the area. In Taipei and Hong Kong where I visited temples, there was a reverence to them. I didn’t get that feeling outside the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew. It felt like a tourist attraction. I didn’t go inside as it was too hot and crowded and late in the day so it may feel differently inside. Outside, it was bedlam.
Smelly and sweaty, we took the boat and skytrain back to our hotel to shower. We had dinner in our room and fell into bed – refreshed and exhausted.
The next morning, we checked out the Silom area on the way to a cooking class I had booked about a month ago. It was less touristy and crowded than the Siam area where our hotel was located. The people watching and street food were awesome! Nervous about being late, we went early to the building for the cooking class then found a nearby cafe to get some drinks and relax. The heat alone took the energy right out of you, and my brother was jetlagged on top of that.
We met at Silom Thai Cooking School for our cooking class on time and had an absolute blast! We started out at a market to get our vegetables and spices then piled into a series of tuk tuks to head to the class. We had three rooms we worked in – the preparation area, the cooking area, and the eating area. We had four courses – appetizer, soup, meal, dessert. My favorite part of the meal was the mango rice dessert even though I could barely fit it in after all the other courses!
Menu: spicy sour shrimp soup, fried noodle Thai salad (pad Thai), fried fish cake with sweet chili sauce, red curry with chicken, and sticky rice with mango
We met people from all over the world in the class. The teacher called everyone by their country so we had Mr. China, Miss Argentina, Mr. Germany, Mr. Phillipines, and so on. The teacher did a great job – infusing lots of humor and personality with a ton of information, most of which went over my head as I am an extremely amateur chef. We left there with very full stomachs and cheeks aching from smiling. It was a wonderful experience that I would recommend to everyone.
The next day we got up super early to head to the other airport in Thailand – Don Muang Airport. We checked in for our flight to Krabi. I was practically vibrating with excitement. It was a short flight but felt like forever! We landed, found a bus going to Ao Nang, and piled in. I’d never been in a bus like this – luggage literally stacked in the front area of the bus then seats behind. We waited until every seat was taken then lumbered away.
The trip took over an hour with multiple stops. The driver had stacked the luggage in a way that made it easy for him to get each person’s bags as we went, and I was very impressed with how organized it was. We finally arrived at the last stop which was our stop at a restaurant on the water. Ricky and I had no idea what to do next. We followed the crowd to a little hut outside the restaurant that was selling boat tickets to various destinations. We purchased two and were given no directions from there. Now what?
We looked around and followed people to the edge of the restaurant where we stared in puzzlement at a vast expanse of beach with boats anchored in the water, not at the shore. A couple next to us noticed the same thing, spoke to each other in another language then promptly stripped down to their underwear and changed into shorts and t-shirts. Ricky and I looked at each other, I trying not to laugh and he in complete frustration. No way was that an option for us.
After about 10 minutes, someone came up and started speaking in Thai to everyone and we followed the crowd again down the beach. Ricky had brought a very heavy suitcase that he now regretted having as he lugged it over the sand and over his head to wade through water to the boat. Good times. We settled into the longtail boat – hot, tired, and hungry. Once the ride began, though, everything fell away. The wind and water spray cooled us down, and the views took our breath and thoughts away.
We anchored offshore again at Railay West Beach and lumbered awkwardly through the water to shore, suitcases and shoes held high. Once there, we found our way through narrow concrete sidewalks poorly marked to our hotel. Fortunately, the hotel was as nice as I had hoped from the internet pictures so we dropped our suitcases and headed out for food.
The food in Thailand did not disappoint me even once on the tasty scale. Every meal was the best meal I’d ever had. Unfortunately, one meal or one item did not agree with us and we both got sick. Ricky got VERY sick – in the middle of the night – and, after him throwing up for about four hours, I called for a doctor. The hotel sent one up, and they hooked him up to an iv, gave him fluids, antibiotics, anti-nausea medication, and Tylenol intravenously. He was running a fever which was higher when they came back to check on him in the morning. By that afternoon, his fever had broken, but I was feeling sick. They told me to take his medicine if I got sick, and I wound up vomiting for a few hours that night as Ricky slowly recovered his strength.
The next day, I was feeling a lot better and went by the clinic to replenish our me
dication. Ricky was still miserable so I spent the day wandering around without him as he lay in bed. I ran into some friends from Taipei who were also there, but they were going on a boat trip which my stomach was still not quite up for so they went without me.
I observed rock climbers on various walls with varying levels of difficulty. It looked so fun, and they all looked so fit with their back muscles and leg muscles flexing with each movement they made. My favorite was watching them dangle at peaks and hook up to the next handhold. I kept looking around myself in awe at the beauty around me. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a postcard and wanted to pinch myself to make sure it was real.
Sunday we had a rescheduled snorkeling and island-hopping boat tour. What a day! We were picked up at about 9:20 am and found ourselves in the front of the boat with three other people. Turns out that riding in the front on a windy day is a wild ride! We bumped around and laughed for the next few hours as we went from island to island. We got to see beautiful beaches and adorable monkeys and colorful fish. Snorkeling was a little sad to me because the corral appeared to be dying. It wasn’t a surprise. The area was so crowded and they had so many people out snorkeling and gave very little instruction.
We left the next day for Kanchanaburi. The trip was a boat ride from Railay to Krabi, a taxi ride from the dock to the airport, a plane ride from Krabi to Bangkok, then a three-hour taxi ride from the airport to Kanchanaburi. Fortunately, our hotel was within walking distance of some local restaurants as well as the Bridge over the River Kwai. We ate more delicious Thai food then headed to the bridge. There were people everywhere, posing for pictures in places where I wanted to take shots, and the sun was just setting. Despite all the people in the way, it was a picturesque view.
The next day was our trip to Elephants’ World where we spent the day feeding, cleaning food for, cutting sugar cane down for, and washing the elephants. We didn’t work as much as I expected, but it was rewarding all the same. Just being that close to the elephants, being able to observe their behavior and feed them, was an unforgettable experience. They are the most remarkable animals. We watched a short film about elephants and learned why the animals there needed to be rescued. Some had worked for logging companies hauling trees, some had carried tourists on their backs in metal seats for many years which is terrible for their backs which are not very strong, and some had been entertainers.
Side note: PLEASE do not do elephant rides. For details on why, here is an article that explains the cruelty these gentle creatures endure for that ride.
All of the elephants had been domesticated and mistreated yet they were kind to each other and to the mahouts who took care of them on a daily basis. Seeing the bonds between the mahouts and the elephants was the best part for me. The elephants would wrap their trunks around them as if hugging them or reach toward them to touch them on their bodies somewhere. The elephants were affectionate toward humans and other elephants, never alone.
The babies were the funniest – there were two, a boy and a girl. They would run away sometimes then stop when they were yelled at. They would knock down a fence and walk over it. There was a spare tire lying on the ground that one of the babies picked up and threw around. They were never still. They poked each other with their trunks and rubbed against each other. One of the older female elephants had adopted them and would check on them and nudge them into doing what she wanted. It was so sweet.
At the end of the day, we were exhausted. Between the heat and the physical labor, it had been a long day. We headed back to the hotel to shower and change then went out for dinner nearby – our last night in Kanchanaburi.
We spent the next morning in town, ate lunch on the River Kwai, then took a long taxi ride to Bangkok for our final night at a hotel near the airport.
Turns out that the hotel I booked was not near any restaurants. Sick of taxis by then, we ate at the hotel restaurant which was also a karaoke bar. The food was so good – but I couldn’t stop laughing.
There were all of six people in there other than us, and one man kept singing. The accompaniment was live piano music, and the female player came to our table to get me to sing. At her insistence, I badly sang a song that I can’t remember now and hope nobody could actually hear.
It was a great ending to our trip. We slept fitfully that night as our very inexpensive hotel that was close to the airport had NO SOUNDPROOFING, but we were up at 4:00 am to begin our separate trips home.
The end of the trip was as uneventful as the beginning was chaotic, and, just like that, it was over. The trip turned out to be so much more than I expected in every way – the good was bigger and so was the bad. Thailand is a vibrant and unforgettable country, and I will never forget the time I spent there with my brother.