|Thailand: A Kingdom, For Less Than a King’s Ransom|
Arriving in Bangkok, the shiny new Suvarnabhumi Airport was like a theater of dreams. Swooping, modern, sun-carrying ceilings of glass and chrome act as a canopy for sampling what Thailand has to offer.
Bangkok, the capital city, was the perfect gateway to the kingdom and place to sensitize to the sights, scents, tastes and energy of the country. The best way to see the city is on the back of a tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw), the perfect mode of transport for buzzing through busy streets, thick traffic and thin market aisles. Next we opted for the hop-on hop-off tourist water taxi running up and down the Chao Phraya River. Such fun! And a wonderful way to get a sense of what is where.
Being in a foreign land, we decided to splurge and get a private tour. At only $50 per person for a personal, knowledgeable guide, as well as our own Mercedes Combi, it was a perfect day out in Bangkok. We started with a visit to the heart of Bangkok’s history and beauty: the Temple of the Golden Buddha (Wat Traimit), the Grand Palace (Phra Borom Maha Ratcha Wang) on the bank of the River and the magnificent Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Po). Prior to leaving our hotel we were gently alerted that while Thailand is a nation which opens its doors and arms to tourists, it asks that its religions (mainly Buddhist) and traditions be respected, so appropriate dress was a must. Interestingly enough our temple day was on Christmas Day. Spiritual symmetry.
Wat Traimit is the traditional tourist temple starting point. This first stop was rather overwhelming with its crowds of tourists all scurrying about with candles, incense and gold leaf in hand, trying not to disturb peaceful saffron robe monks performing their ritual prayers. Yet it was at this place of spiritual scurry that one of the most precious moments of the whole holiday happened. Before entering the temple our local guide pulled us aside and in the quiet of a temple garden taught us how to fold back, one-by-one, the petals of a delicate lotus flower, preparing it for offering to the Golden Buddha. Here is where time stopped, the holiday began, and “discovery” took on a whole new meaning.
Next stop: the legendary Grand Palace. Entering the manicured palace grounds, the warm Thai sun shining down, the collection of traditional and highly ornate buildings from the 18th to 20th centuries (which were the residence of the then King) sparkled magnificently as tens of thousands of glass and mirror mosaic pieces called travelers and magpies alike to admire. Exquisite statues and pagodas stood alongside temples and chedis, with Wat Phra Kaew, the temple containing the Emerald Buddha, representing the crown jewel of the Grand Palace complex. Just next door to the Grand Palace we found Wat Po, the massive, graceful, 46 meter long and 15 meter high golden Reclining Buddha. It did not take long before we lost track of time, camera space and thoughts beyond the here and now. It was instantly everything a vacation was supposed to be.
Our following four days in Bangkok were filled with temples, Thai cooking classes, texture-ful traditional markets, fabulous fresh local food and fruit from street vendors, divine deep-tissue Thai massages and under-the-stars rooftop cocktails (Check out the magnificent Vertigo Bar at the Banyan Tree hotel).
From Bangkok we traveled on a quick hour flight north to Chiang Mai to experience a more natural side of Thailand. Chiang Mai is best known for its charming artisan centers and elephant trekking. There is something very special and authentic about Chiang Mai. High up on a mountain overlooking the city below stands majestically Wat Phra That Doi Sutthep. With brass chimes gently ringing in the breeze, the scent of incense and candles filling the mountain air with a hint of jasmine, and the muffled shuffle of worshippers baby-stepping around the golden images of Buddha and shining chedis. Here, our spirits were stirred, our words hushed and our hearts filled. Leaving the temple down a staircase of just over 300 gentle steps, a wonderful arts and crafts market run by the locals proved to be the perfect place to buy our Thailand artifacts as now our souvenirs and gifts carried within them our stories. Chiang Mai is where the artistic eye and spirit of Thailand is expressed most colorfully and gracefully.
Phuket, on the other hand, is where Thailand’s water spirit comes out to play! And after two very rich, very stimulating cities it was time for some serious relaxation. You first see the stretching-out-forever Andaman sea, just close enough to Phuket town to enjoy diving day trips, just far enough from the famous James Bond Island to make for a lovely longtail boat adventure. There are so many ways to spend the days exploring, you might find it all too difficult and just decide to visit the thousand islands around the sea…or the grains of sand on the clean Tsunami recovered beaches. And I haven’t even begun to tell you about the restaurants (but that will be Bill’s story). Oh yes, Phuket was also a wonderful place to purchase Thai pearls – an elegant way of stringing together all of the memories from what was without a doubt one of the most enjoyable, and surprisingly affordable, holidays we have ever taken…for all four of us.