Thailand experience was vacation bargain, exotic in its sights, flavors
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.
Jeff and Beth Stephenson ride on an elephant in Thailand.
Monkeys and demons on a temple wall in Thailand guard against evil spirits and bad luck.