For me, arriving in Thailand from India was the most jarring transition of this entire trip.... even more so than going from Italy to Morocco, where the hustle, sounds, and rampant stray cats of Marrakech seemed like an alternate universe compared to the more ordered chaos of Rome. People had warned us that India's traffic, contrasting wealth and poverty, colors, etc. would feel shockingly different from anywhere else we had been, but by the time we got there, our systems had already been jolted once in Marrakech, and from there had become accustomed to the unruly street scenes in Aman and Kathmandu. By the time we arrived in India, careening through Jaipur's lawless traffic in an open motor-rickshaw felt ordinary, and we'd also been long exposed to constantly visible socieconomic disparity. After five weeks in India (and more than two months after setting foot in Marrakech), we imagined we would step into similar chaos in Bangkok. What actually met us there took me completely by surprise. Simon's friend Pavel (an old friend from Berkeley High who now lives in Thailand) picked us up in his shiny white pickup truck and steered onto a wide, smoothly-paved, southern California-esque multilane freeway that carried us toward a modern city skyline. The other cars stayed politely within clearly marked lanes, there were signs and traffic signals that everyone followed, and there were no stray cows or donkeys obstructing the road. We began to pass tall buildings, multi-story shopping malls with manicured gardens in front, and lots of busy-looking people on the sidewalks wearing stylish western clothing. There were also street food vendors, maybe a few too many wires snaking between telephone poles, and even a few colorful rickshaws (Pavel explained they're a tourist attraction, more expensive than regular taxis), but the contrast from Ahmedabad was striking....it felt a little bit like Los Angeles.
Actually, Bangkok is (thankfully) very different from L.A. We ate delicious, cheap, and safe(!) street food, visited the Grand Palace and its golden temple, and got lost wandering the streets. Bangkok (and all of Thailand) has a very modern infrastructure of easily navigable roads and public transportation, and while I welcomed this change, it took me several days to shake a knot of unexpected feelings about leaving behind the challenges of navigating India for the relative ease of traveling in Thailand. Having connected with my dad's past, bonded with newfound cousins, and having left feeling like I hadn't seen all that I wanted to in India (Mumbai, Calcutta, Varanasi....), arriving in Thailand felt bittersweet. Somehow at the forefront of these hard-to-define feelings, there was a small incident from our last day in Gujarat that I couldn't stop thinking about. Before boarding our red-eye flight to Bangkok from Ahmedabad, we'd hired a driver for several hours to take us to a famous Swaminarayan Hindu temple and to Mahatma Ghandi's former home, now a museum. We didn't form a particular relationship with our driver, nor can I remember his name, but he shuttled us safely through the typically nutty traffic, and both destinations exceeded my expectations. That evening, as he dropped us off at the airport in his battle-worn car, Simon paid him what we'd agreed upon, plus a decent tip, as we were trying to get rid of our last Indian rupees. As the driver counted the money and noticed the extra, he looked at us with genuine surprise on his face and asked “this is my tip?” Simon nodded, and we said thank you again, and the driver broke out into a smile so happy that my heart still breaks a little bit when I recall it. His entire face lit up as he thanked us, betraying palpable emotion that went beyond simple appreciation. The extra cash we'd given him had clearly made his whole day. We'd tipped him about five dollars. The following evening, sitting in our modern hotel room in Bangkok, after a day that included eating an overpriced lunch on the top floor of a luxury mall, I thought with guilt about our driver's glowing face in Ahmedabad just 24 hours earlier. I still can't quite unpack the knot of feelings. It wasn't just the driver....his was just the last of so many faces in my father's country.
Life is a mix of feelings, and we loved our time in Thailand. I've avoided using the word “vacation” to describe these months of travel, but Thailand really felt like a vacation from our travels. The previous few months had been ambitiously packed with activity, and Thailand ushered in a welcome slower pace that would set the tone for our travels throughout southeast Asia. We spent our first week in Thailand with Pavel and his girlfriend in Bangkok, Kanchanabury, and Pattaya. From there, we set out on our own to the gorgeous beaches off the Krabi peninsula in southern Thailand, and then up north to Chiang Mai before returning to Bangkok to fly to Laos.
Kanchanabury is a small town famed for a bridge built by Allied POWs for the Japanese during WWII.... a piece of history we hadn't been aware of. The bridge now stands as the centerpiece of a made-to-be-quaint collection of tourist markets and restaurants, surrounded by a tropical thicket of greenery, caves, and waterfalls. We hiked alongside a multi-layered series of clear turquoise waterfalls cascading into mossy pools along a rocky hillside, and climbed dozens of hillside stairs to be lead through a giant cavern by a Kanchanabury local with a flashlight. It rained steadily during both of these excursions, but the water falling from the sky didn't detract from the water falling on the ground.
Had Pavel not lived in Pattaya, we probably would not have visited this coastal city, having been warned by multiple fellow travelers that it is a seedy placed known for sex tourism. It's true, Pattaya 's seaside “walking street” is replete with neon-signed strip clubs, and its otherwise scenic boardwalk punctuated every few meters by a woman of the oldest profession, and by the shifty, shark-eyed types of men who solicit their services. It is also true that Pavel is far from being shifty or shark-eyed, and there is more to Pattaya, including an excellent Thai language school and many metropolitan conveniences that compelled him to make his home there six years ago. His fluent Thai, humour, and warm generosity made our first week in Thailand much more fun and authentic than we could have planned ourselves. And, the hotel that Pavel booked for us in Pattaya had a great rooftop pool.
There are few settings that make my heart happier than a glittering ocean and warm sand (with bonus points for a stunning sunset), and I had been daydreaming about Thailand's southern beaches since we embarked on this trip in October. Unfortunately in Pattaya, the busy street traffic and seedy dealings adjacent to the shore made our hotel pool much more pleasant for sunbathing (and even then, I couldn't help speculating about the single men lounging in the other chairs...).
When we finally flew to Krabi on Thailand's southernmost peninsula, I was ready for a real beach vacation. We chose Krabi over the more well-known Phuket beaches after hearing and reading some negative reviews about Phuket's over-built city overshadowing the beaches' natural beauty. The Krabi peninsula, in contrast, contains a sprinkling of small towns that, while geared toward tourists, have not lost their local and natural charms. The beaches along the Krabi peninsula and surrounding small islands (that are easily accessible by taxi longboats) contain some of the most stunning coastal silhouettes I have ever seen, with their characteristic outcroppings of rocks shaped like the gumdrop mountains on the Candyland board. We swam, sunned, snorkeled, snoozed on the sand, and baked ourselves three shades browner than when we'd arrived. It was wonderful. As I mentioned in a previous post, I lost my camera in India, and then my cell phone camera stopped working. The photos below are poor quality because I had to wrangle them through the lens of my my cell phone's selfie camera.....a tragedy, but a poor lens can't mask Krabi's beauty.
Chiang Mai, known for its many Buddhist shrines and nearby jungle excursions, is a town that manages to be very charming despite its urban dust and motor exhaust. Baking on the beaches in Krabi for four days was wonderful and also unsustainable, so wandering fully clothed through the temples, markets, and slightly cooler streets of Chiang Mai felt refreshing. During our stay in Chiang Mai, we went on one overnight excursion into the nearby wilderness, where we hiked through rice paddies and alongside jungle waterfalls, camped in a rudimentary hut alongside eight fellow travelers, and floated down the Ping River on Huck Finn style rafts.
At the camp site, our guide roasted chicken over the campfire as we sat under the stars chatting with the other campers. One was a Belgian opera singer who submitted to our requests for a song, her clear voice sending shivers down our spines. I admit that I had to be talked into the rustic camping trip, but once again, I was reminded that there's wonder everywhere. Leaving Krabi, sizzled as we were, I considered the possibility of scrapping our Chiang Mai plans and staying longer in paradise. While Krabi remains the highlight of Thailand for me, there's something magical about the thick concentration of spiritual spaces combined with noisy city energy in Chiang Mai.