Some people have suggested that I’m basically on a one-year vacation and I guess there is some truth to that, but I’ve tried to approach this journey more as a student than a tourist, so it hasn’t always felt that way. The past ten days, however, during which I have had a lovely traveling companion to help share the ride, has felt like a true vacation, with unique adventures and a great deal of relaxation.
Elle has to be one of the world’s bravest women to fly exactly halfway around the earth to hang out for ten days with a guy she didn’t know very well, but when I met her over a year ago she impressed me with her spirit of adventure, and when she accepted an invitation to come join me for while, I knew she was a kindred soul. She
adjusted quickly following a 25-hour flight, and we hit Thailand running with two days in Bangkok, two days up north in Chaing Mai, and finally three days back south at the beach near Hua Hin, with transition days in between.
In Bangkok we did a river cruise one evening which reminded me of New Years Eve on the Bosporus … great company, average food and cheesy entertainment. But it was a lovely night punctuated with views of the Royal Palace and a number of riverfront temples, lit dramatically.
The following night we had a phenomenal dining experience at a restaurant called Issaya, recommended by friends who know the local scene well, and after dinner we took a cab to Soi Cowboy, which I felt Elle needed to see. But the entire street was closed because of a Buddhist holiday; this quarter-mile of neon decadence was reduced by religious observance to a dark and ominous alley. But hey, even working girls deserve a night off.
Chaing Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand and only a 55-minute flight north of Bangkok, but it has a laid-back vibe that makes it distinctive. Because of my fortuitous stumbling around the Internet we stayed at a wonderful place called 137 Pillars House, the history of which ties back to Anna Leonowens, of Anna and the King fame.
Anna was a penniless, widowed schoolteacher with two children when she was summoned by The Borneo Company to open a school for the King of Siam, around 1860. Her relationship with the King has been romanticized in a book called Anna and the King of Siam and later by the Broadway musical and film “The King and I”, but her impact to this country is undeniable. One of her students, Prince Chulalongkorn, eventually became the most revered King in Thailand’s history, Rama V (the current King is Rama IX). His enlightened initiatives – including the abolition of slavery – were considered to have come directly from the lessons of freedom and equality he learned from Anna.
Anna’s son Louis was invited by the King to join Siam’s Royal Cavalry, which he did. Many years later Louis found a beautiful black wood home and moved it to the other side of the Ping River. It changed hands a number of times, was abandoned and overgrown but eventually purchased by the company who owns it now, and named for its number of teak columns: Baan 137 Sao, or 137 Pillars House. It is now an exceptional boutique hotel.
Our one full day in Chaing Mai included the following:
An authentic Thai market. We were the only “farang”, or foreigners, so it was special opportunity to see so many tiny women on their haunches grilling prawns, carving coconut, folding clothes. We bought fried banana chips, fried sweet potatoes and pork rinds that sustained us through the day.
An elephant ride. It was fairly uneventful for the first five minutes but then our “driver” hopped off and pointed to me, and I inched my way out onto Nomi’s neck. When you are in that position you have two responsibilities: don’t fall off, and feed the beast. In the course of our ride we went through six enormous bags of bananas; when he stopped moving and his trunk came back into your lap you had better put a banana by those nostrils or you are not going anywhere. Elle took her turn in front as well as we went up and down some hills and into a river bed before climbing back up to the disembarkation station. It was a surprising amount of fun.
A jungle trek. Our guide, who just said to call him Oh, led us on a 90-minute hike through the jungle, past some rice paddies and cornfields, up and down some hills to a waterfall, and finally back up a steep slope to the waiting car. It was a beautiful excursion and not a bad little workout.
An ant omelet for lunch. Well OK, a couple of bites of an ant omelet. Mr. Oh had purchased some ants and ant larvae at the market that morning and when we stopped for lunch he had his bag of goodies cooked up with some eggs. It wasn’t bad, and if I ever see it on a menu somewhere … there is not a chance in hell I will order it.
A river float on a bamboo raft. The raft was long but narrow, just nine bamboo poles wide. There are white-water rafting experiences available in Thailand and this was hardly that, but there were some tasty little rapids on this stream that get your attention when you are standing in the back with a pole, pretending to help the professional up front. That lasted until my pole got caught in some rocks and yanked me back onto my butt, where I stayed contentedly for the remainder of the trip. It was a peaceful ride except when the driver would whack the water with his pole and yell, “snake”. I figured it was just part of the show until I saw a couple of sticks start to slither away.
We had dinner that night on the outdoor porch at 137 Pillars House, and at one point saw some strange lights in the sky; there were four of them in formation that appeared to be stationary, and a fifth that seemed to be joining them. Close Encounters of the Thai Kind! When we pointed them out to our waiter he said, “Oh, flying lanterns.” They were probably part of a wedding ceremony, and an interesting end to an amazing day.
The following morning on the way to the airport for the flight back to Bangkok, we stopped at a village that featured members of eight different tribes. The real attraction is the Pagaung, an ethnic minority from Burma who are also known as the longneck tribe. The tribal belief is that the longer a women’s neck, the more attractive she is, so at age five or six girls start wearing brass coils around their neck, increasing the number of rings each year to push down the shoulder blades and elongate the neck. Human rights groups have tried to get the practice stopped but it generates a lot of revenue from tourists like us, so on it goes.
On the drive from Bangkok to the beach at Hua Hin the following day we stopped at Thailand’s original Floating Market, at Damneon Sadoak. One of the older James Bond films included a scene shot there, and there’s a mystical quality to these narrow waterways that pass by hundreds of shops with a lone shopkeeper squatting by the water, waiting for business, and on the wider waterways, homes adorned with plants and flowers. Some vendors navigate their own longboats with a paddle, selling bananas and mangoes and bottles of water or juice or beer. The canals intersect and often get so jammed with boats that you can walk from one side to the other on the boats.
The next three days were nothing but relaxing at Aleenta, a wonderfully remote and beautiful resort on the Gulf of Thailand, 40 kilometers south of the resort town of Hua Hin. We had been warned that the water was not good for swimming because of jellyfish, but we found everything about it to be perfect. Elle spotted one jellyfish about the size of a champagne cork, and that was it. At night there were lights from so many fishing boats offshore it looked like the coastline of Miami Beach.
We spent our time there getting too much sun, watching the kite surfers capitalize on the afternoon wind, riding bikes, getting brutal 90-minute, $10 Thai massages at an open storefront across the street, and dreading having to leave.
But as I post this Elle is on a plane to Tokyo before the long flight over Alaska back to Atlanta, and I’m getting ready to head to the airport for a flight to Phnom Penh for a couple of weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, before I also head back across the Pacific. All good things come to an end, and these ten days have been a good thing indeed.
My ultimate fantasy … oh, to be able to do this!