While we were there, we stayed in Bangkok, but took a private car west to Ratchaburi and Kanchanaburi. After a few days in Bangkok, we headed to Koh Samed island, which was absolutely beautiful. My only regrets about Thailand are that we didn't get up to Chiang Mai and that we didn't stay longer. I absolutely fell in love with the country - the people, the scenery, everything! If I know anything for certain, it's that I will go back to Thailand again in my life.
|Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi are on the map to the west of Bangkok.|
Koh Samed is a small enough island that it's not on the map. It is just
off the coast of Rayong, which is on the map.
Now, we arrived in Bangkok at 11pm. I was a bit nervous of how the airport situation and transportation would go down. All I could think about was my first experience in China, arriving in Beijing at the same time. We found the international wing of the airport next to deserted, and were informed that, though the luggage and information counters had signs saying they were open 24 hours, "Chinese people value their sleep. It is very rude to disturb them." and we spent the next 18 hours waiting for Kirk on tile floors in the Beijing airport.
I was extremely happy to see that this would not be the case in Thailand. The airport was bustling, and everyone was friendly. Within five minutes of picking up our luggage, we had exchanged money and pre-paid for a taxi that would take us to the address of our hotel. All we had to do was go outside, give our ticket to the proper person, and she led us to the van that would be taking us and our luggage to our hotel. It was glorious to be reunited with an old friend I hadn't met in some time: efficiency.
This was one of the many reasons why I found Thailand to be so refreshing. It was so wonderful to be in a place where you could actually feel that people were proud of their country. No one was throwing their trash on the street; no one was defecating on the sidewalk. My standards have clearly fallen since coming to China if the requirements for visible national pride are that you don't deface your own country - but eh, so be it.
Anyhow, back to Bangkok. I was a little nervous about going to Bangkok, to be honest. Sadly, about the only image we see of Thailand involves sex to some degree, and I had no idea what the city was going to be like. I ended up loving it.
But first, our hotel. Dad left it up to me to plan out most of the trip, including booking flights and hotels. I think this was a decision he ended up regretting, as my only criteria for choosing a hotel was the cheapest option on Expedia. This prompted him to teach me a valuable lesson: never book a hotel that is less than three stars. Oh, well. (I was a bit pickier about flights. Even though I've flown to multiple different continents, I'm still terrified of flying!)
Our hotel in Bangkok was Pinnacle, and I believe it had 2 1/2 stars on Expedia. It was a bit far away from the airport, but actually ended up being only a few blocks away from one of the main shopping and tourist areas. I thought that it wasn't too bad, especially the lobby. It had a restaurant and bar! But, I had spent the last five months only staying in hostels. I was fresh off the Harbin fiasco. Almost anything would have been perfect to me. My parents, though, were apparently quite nervous as we pulled up in front of the building.
The room itself wasn't terrible. The only problem was the air conditioning unit. It worked just fine when it was on. The problem was that the electricity in the room was triggered by having the key in a slot on the wall. We had to take the key with us when we left each morning.
We got up for our first full day in Bangkok with no real plan. I had a list of things to see in the city, and I had read online about riding elephants. There was a room in the hotel with a tourism advisor, and he sent us with a car down to an agency. The agency set us up with a car the next day to drive us out of the city to a few famous spots, a van to Koh Samed island, and a private car to pick us up from Koh Samed and take us to the airport. While we were there, I met a guy who was an English tutor in Thailand. He was making US salary or better, but living in Thailand with their prices. Now that would be a sweet deal! After leaving the agency, we got back in our car to go back to the hotel, but our driver asked if we wanted to keep the car for the day. Since the car and private driver cost roughly $20, it wasn't even a question. It ended up being great. We saved a lot of time that we would have wasted by having to walk and take the subway everywhere. Since we had decided to spend the next day out of the city, it was really important that we saw as much as possible that day.
The first place we went was to see the big, golden Buddha. Both mom and I had to borrow wraps from the main office. Needless to say, we were rocking some really awesome fashion statements. The Buddha was really neat. My camera batter ended up dying, so we had to use dad's Blackberry for most of the pictures that day. After seeing the Buddha, our driver took us driving through Chinatown. All of the Lunar New Year decorations were out, but I'm glad we didn't stop. We were in Thailand, after all!
Next on our driver's plan was the Grand Palace. This time, all three of us had to cover up. Mom and I had to wear yellow collared shirts and dad had to borrow a pair of linen pants. The Grand Palace was absolutely massive. We easily spent close to two hours there, and could have easily spent more.
There were parts that were open to tourists, parts that were only open to Thai citizens, and parts that were still being used for government. The front part of the grounds were just a bunch of really ornate, beautiful buildings. As you walked further, there was a huge prayer building that you could go into. Even further in, there was the old palace that they had turned into a little bit of a museum - or, parts of the bottom floor, at least. It was mainly old weapons, so it was really cool. Plus, there were some guards around, so I got to add a picture with them to my collection.
There is a college right across the street from the palace, so there were quite a few students at the palace. It was actually really funny to see a bunch of students going around in pants and sweaters while tourists roamed around in shorts and dresses, dripping sweat.
After the palace, we had an awesome lunch next to the river with our driver. We got to talk to him a little, and he booked us a dinner cruise for later that night. After lunch, we headed to a Buddhist monastery. All around the outside were old statues of Buddha that had been found in different places all around the world.
Afterward, our driver took us to a jewelry store and a tailor. The jewelry store was so cool. It's the world's biggest jewelry store, actually. When we first went in, they took us to a back room where they showed a video about the store and the store's specialties: rubies and sapphires found in Thailand. There were women in dresses walking around to serve drinks. Then, we went to the workroom. We got to see the work in action. It was pretty awesome. The actual store was absolutely amazing. I couldn't believe how much jewelry there was in that room. There were tons of people working there, so someone was there immediately to talk to each new group that came in and to try to persuade them to buy something. The most amazing part of the store, though, wasn't even the jewelry. It was the prices. It was unbelievable. The jewelry cost probably about 1/4 of what it would cost in the US. Dad ended up buying mom a ring and a pair of earrings, and I got a ruby ring and sapphire necklace. It was awesome.
Next, we went to a tailor, where dad got a ton of stuff made. Again, the prices were crazy. They were really great about working with our schedule for fittings, too, since we only had two days in Bangkok They sent someone to our hotel twice since we couldn't fit it into our schedule to get to the shop during business hours.
That night, we were picked up in a van at our hotel to go to the dinner cruise. I'm pretty sure we were the only Americans on the boat. Dinner was served buffet-style. It turns out, everyone on the boat had taken a lesson on shoving and budging in line. One lady had a degree in, "using your child as a shield". The river cruise actually ended up not being as cool as I thought it would be, mainly because the only things that were lit up along the river were pictures of the king. That made it pretty hard to see or take pictures of anything else.
The ride back to the hotel was actually the most entertaining part of the night. There was a group of tourists from India in our van who were drunk out of their minds. They spent the entire ride back singing/screaming songs in the back of the van. I got a voice recording of them on dad's Blackberry. Oh, and they had all crowded around me, asking to get pictures with me before we got back in the van, so the driver saved me and let me sit up front with him.
The next day, we got up early to meet our driver to go out of the city. The first place we stopped was the Damnoek Saduak floating market (Ratchaburi on the map). This market was absolutely amazing. Each group had a boat and driver. These boats had some crazy motors on them, especially for how small they were. It was pretty awesome when we would get to the open parts of the river because our driver would speed down it. Once we got to the market, though, it was unbelievable. The river was packed, boat to boat, plus shops lining each side of the river that the boats could stop at. These market boats were selling everything you could think of: coconuts and food to clothes, souvenirs, and even knock-off bags. It was so much fun. If you wanted to look at a shop, your driver would just float on up! There was one guy who grabbed our boat as we were going by, and he had a box full of pythons. We got out to take pictures with them. It was kind of scary at first, but it was still pretty awesome. I'm not really that scared of snakes, especially if they're not just out in the wild. He got mom and dad to get in some pictures with me, which dad was not thrilled about at all. I got a bunch of pictures with the guy after he finally took the snakes off me, too.
After the market, we went a little way down the road to Elephant Village. It was great. Mom and I went on one elephant and dad took another behind us. We had a bucket of bananas to feed our elephant during the ride. We sat on a seat on the elephant's back while our guide just sat on her head. Every time she wanted a banana, she would stop, lift her trunk back toward us, and blow air. At first, it was just our guide feeding her, but then he let us do it. He jumped off the elephant to take pictures for us, and we ran out of bananas. I think it made her mad, because she stopped in the middle of the road and kept snorting at us. Our guide had to get back up on the elephant, which was also cool. She put her trunk down, he climbed up on it, and she lifted him right back up onto her head.
After riding elephants, we drove about an hour away to Tiger Temple (Kanchanaburi on the map). Tiger Temple is a place where monks raise tigers to roam around. Each monk has a tiger that it raises since it's a cub. They don't keep the tigers in cages or anything. The most they have is that some of them have chains that are like leashes for tourists to "walk" them. They have them on a feeding and eating schedule, and since tigers sleep so much, it works out that they're mostly just sleeping while the tourists are there. It's really crazy to see, because tigers aren't the only animals that are roaming around uncaged at Tiger Temple. They have everything, from chickens to deer just walking around. It's a really bizarre thing to see a tiger about 20 feet away from a loose deer, but have nothing happen. I'm sure that most of it is that they keep the tigers fed extremely well and wear them out with a lot of play time.
In addition to the monks that train the tigers, there are other trainers that stay in a dorm at Tiger Temple to help raise, watch, feed, and play with the tigers. They run most of the tourist attraction. When you get there, they have one or two tigers on a chain leash, and they take a group of people to walk along a stretch of dirt with the tiger. They tell you when to come up and how and where to place your hands on the tiger while you hold the leash. Of course, the monk is right next to you on the other side and the trainers are all around. But it is a huge rush to know that you're holding a chain attached to a massive tiger while you're stroking it's back like it's some sort of pet.
After walking the tigers, we were walked down to an area where about 15-20 of them were stretched out, sunning themselves, surrounded by rocks. This was where we could get our picture taken with them if we wanted. You could get your picture taken next to it for free. We had already done that on our walk. There was another option that you had to pay for, but a member of your group could sit with the tiger's head in their lap. Mom and dad let me be the one who sat with the head in my lap, but I don't think that either one of them really wanted to do it. All of the tigers had collars on, but most of them weren't actually chained down. They were just pretty much all sleeping. To get out to the tigers, one of the trainers would come up, and you had to put your hands on their shoulders and follow them in a line to get to your tiger. When we got there, they positioned us how we were supposed to sit, and then picked up the tiger's head by the chain, smacked him a few times in the face, and the plopped his head in my lap. I had to hold my hands in a certain position, with them wrapped around his neck and my fingers interlocked under his mouth. I assume this was to mimic the feeling of a collar around their neck. I got to do that with two different tigers. At first it was a little scary, but mostly exhilarating. It was a freaking tiger in my lap!
After our pictures with the tigers, we walked around the grounds a little bit. We got to watch some of the tiger cubs "playing". The way they played was that they took them down to a little area with a moat and some rocks, and the trainers had long sticks with garbage bags stuffed with things and other noise makers. They shook the sticks and garbage bags in the air and the cubs ran around and leapt up in the air to break the bags. One of them missed and ran smack into the rock wall behind him, which was actually pretty hilarious. It was fun to watch, but I don't think I would have wanted to be one of the people who had 10 tiger cubs launching at them.
Our last stop that day was the River Kwai and the museum (also Kanchanaburi). I had actually never heard of River Kwai or any of it's history. It turns out that there was a huge network of Japanese internment camps through Thailand, up to the border of Burma. The Japanese were trying to build a railway that would connect through to troops in Burma, and used prisoners of war to do so. (Nicknamed the "Death Bridge" because of how many POWs died building it.) The museum was all about trying to keep the history of those camps alive, because a lot of people don't know that there were prisoner of war camps in Thailand. I know I had never really heard of it before. The bridge over the River Kwai (which is apparently a book and movie) was a part of the bridge that had been bombed by Allied forces trying to stop the Japanese from being able to transport supplies to the front in Burma.
Our last stop in Thailand was one of the main shopping districts. To our surprise upon arrival, we found that it actually wasn't just a shopping area. We had actually been directed to Patpong, which is one of the "red light districts" of Bangkok. What was the most bizarre about Patpong, though, was that you could walk down this alleyway/street, and on the left hand side was a huge outdoor shopping market, much like the silk market in Beijing, with families and tourists roaming around. On the right hand side were a bunch of bars, sex shops, and people coming up to ask if we wanted to see a ping-pong show. There were also a lot of prostitutes walking up and down the street. It was pretty clear that, if that's what you wanted, it was easily accessible. But, at the same time, if you wanted to avoid it, that was just as easy. We shopped around for a bit, and then sat outside at one of the bars to have a few drinks and people watch. We were only there until about 10pm, because we had to be up early to get a bus to Koh Samed, but there was still plenty going on.
The last thing we did before heading back to the hotel was try some street food. We walked up and down the street, trying a few different things. Mainly, we tried different kinds of chicken. They were spicy, but extremely delicious. I thought street food in China was good, but this was even better! After trying a few things, we took a tuk tuk (kind of like a rickshaw) back to the hotel.
The next day we got up to begin our journey to my favorite part of the trip, Koh Samed island.