Thai­land ex­pe­ri­ence was va­ca­tion bar­gain, ex­otic in its sights, fla­vors

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SUNDAY LIFE -

I had never con­sid­ered vis­it­ing Thai­land. I had read “Anna and the King of Siam” as a girl, and it seemed just too ex­otic to think of go­ing there. But when my hus­band, Jeff, found a $1,250 Groupon from Af­ford­able Asia with six days in Thai­land and three days in China — air­fare, lodg­ing, most meals and some ex­cur­sions in­cluded — we got ex­cited. When Jeff’s sis­ter, Lynda, and her hus­band, Barry, agreed to go with us, we couldn’t re­sist.

Thai­land used to be called “Siam” and is a land of con­trasts. From the king’s unimag­in­able wealth to the bleak poverty of the slums, de­vout Bud­dhism to dis­hon­est cab­bies and preva­lent sex trade, abun­dant nat­u­ral beauty and agri­cul­ture to ur­ban sprawl. Even the gov­ern­ment blends an­cient tra­di­tion and law with West­ern ideas of free­dom.

We saw a 5½-ton solid gold Bud­dha, jewel-en­crusted thrones, sad­dles, crowns and as­ton­ish­ingly de­tailed wood­carv­ings and em­broi­dery. Nearby were the deep­est slums I’ve ever seen. Most of the

res­i­dents don’t even have a kitchen in their homes and eat daily from street ven­dors.

The ho­tels and re­sorts we stayed in were posh by West­ern stan­dards and in­cluded huge break­fast buf­fets. Rice, noo­dles, fish, chicken, soups, eggs, veg­eta­bles, waf­fles ac­com­pa­nied by sal­ads and fruits, omelets, pas­tries and cold ce­re­als. A 4-star beach-front ho­tel in Pat­taya costs $42 a night with the break­fast buf­fet in­cluded.

I tried the silk worms, (sim­i­lar to salty, gar­licfla­vored cheese puffs) in the street mar­ket, whole squid, cock­les (a shell fish) and rub­bery cooked oys­ters. The fresh pineap­ple was uni­ver­sally di­vine. Pas­sion fruit is named for the shape of the flower be­ing like a crown of thorns. Though de­li­cious, it has the con­sis­tency of half-set pud­ding with crunchy seeds. Thai pa­paya and white pitaya (dragon fruit) are blandly sweet.

The fried co­conut pan­cakes at the float­ing mar­ket are my hap­pi­est Thai culi­nary mem­ory. The worst was the durian ice-cream served with some­thing like STINKY toe jam. The whole area around the stand smelled like body odor. I de­clined the bar­be­cued rat and Ba­luts. Ba­luts are duck or chicken eggs with de­vel­op­ing chicks in­side that are boiled or fer­mented in the sand. In Thai­land, they are usu­ally dyed pink and sold as a street snack.

Our guide, Ken, men­tioned Thai mas­sages sev­eral times each day. Ev­ery­thing from full­body to head-neck­feet-only are ex­tremely in­ex­pen­sive, start­ing in some places at only a few dol­lars for an hour.

Travers­ing the coun­try­side

The Thai coun­try­side blends jagged moun­tain peaks with flat, agri­cul­tural plains. Mango or co­conut groves give way to rice pad­dies and sugar cane. Sea salt is piled on the ground at coastal salt farms, await­ing pack­ag­ing.

We rode bam­boo rafts and swam in the River Kwai near the fa­mous Bridge built by POWs dur­ing World War II.

Best of all was the ele­phant ride. The ele­phant how­dah sad­dle seated two, side by side. When I dropped my sun­glasses, the ele­phant on the trail be­hind us picked them up in his trunk and handed them back. We had tra­versed a hill­side and river when our driver jumped off and in­di­cated that “Mama” should de­scend into his place.

All over Thai­land, we saw orange-robed monks with shaved heads pre­side at elab­o­rately painted gold en­crusted Bud­dhist tem­ples. Monks re­frain from touch­ing women, beg for their daily food and fast (ex­cept for water) each day af­ter lunch. They per­form rites, teach novices and main­tain tem­ples. Ken ex­plained that Bud­dhist the­ol­ogy teaches that par­ents of a monk by­pass rein­car­na­tion as an an­i­mal with a fast track into heaven. All young men over age 20 are urged to spend at least a short time be­fore their mar­riage as a monk. The late king even did a two-week stint af­ter his mar­riage be­fore he as­cended the throne.

Though the weather is swel­ter­ing hot all year, vis­i­tors must re­move their shoes and cover their knees and shoul­ders be­fore en­ter­ing a Bud­dhist tem­ple. Wor­shipers kneel be­fore the Bud­dha statue and press their palms to­gether with their fin­gers un­der their chin. That ges­ture is also the re­spect­ful Thai greet­ing.

In Bud­dhist the­ol­ogy, Bud­dha was a mor­tal man who as­cended into heaven and is now the grantor of good for­tune. In the tem­ple of the 145foot re­clin­ing Bud­dha, ad­her­ents drop a coin into each of the pots lin­ing the wall the length of the golden im­age.

We chose to swim in the warm South China Sea and beach comb. Though the beach was clean and invit­ing, I hope to some­day visit the Phuket area of south­ern Thai­land where the beaches are spec­tac­u­larly scenic.

Things to be aware of

Tourists: be­ware of crooked cab­bies. Two par­ties of our tour group en­coun­tered price goug­ing. Once the price tripled when it started rain­ing and an­other when a cab­bie pre­tended not to know where the ho­tel was, stop­ping and ask­ing over and over while the me­ter was run­ning. Ken in­structed us how to find hon­est trans­porta­tion to night mar­kets and shop­ping des­ti­na­tions.

No­body may dis­honor the king with­out risk­ing im­pris­on­ment. We were in­structed never to step on dropped money be­cause all the money has his im­age and Thai laws re­quire his “wor­ship, honor and preser­va­tion.”

Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej (Rama IX) died last year and Thai­land will mourn him for a full year. His pic­ture, framed in gold, and of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by small, golden idols, hangs on al­most ev­ery street cor­ner and in ev­ery shop. We were told not to even talk about the king so that we would not risk in­sult­ing him or the Thai peo­ple. The gov­ern­ment spent over $500 mil­lion last year on pro­mot­ing his honor — which they claim is not pro­pa­ganda but only ed­u­ca­tion. Black and white bunting abounds through­out Thai­land in his honor.

Pic­tures of his son, the new king, Va­ji­ra­longkorn or Rama X, are far less com­mon. The Thai monarch’s net worth is about $30 bil­lion.

Though Thai­land was a va­ca­tion bar­gain, it’s as ex­otic in its sights, fla­vors, his­tory and ad­ven­tures as any world trav­eler could want.

[PHOTO PRO­VIDED]

Jeff and Beth Stephen­son ride on an ele­phant in Thai­land.

Beth Stephen­son bstephen­son@ ok­la­homan.com

[PHOTSO BY JEFF STEPHEN­SON]

Mon­keys and demons on a tem­ple wall in Thai­land guard against evil spir­its and bad luck.

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