When you’re about to be unemployed, and have an already-mostly-paid-for (nonrefundable) trip to Thailand in your pocket, you go. Or that’s what we did, anyway. It’s a four-time-zone trip from Riyadh. After we go home, it’s an other-side-of-the-world trip. No-brainer.
People go to Thailand for a variety of reasons. I’m quite sure the 75% unaccompanied male population of our flight from Doha to Phuket were going for a different reason than I was. (Claim to be religious, do you? For shame.) But I think we managed to hit most of the others:
- stunning beaches
- unmatched hospitality
- fabulous food
- exotic experiences
- pinch-yourself sights
Okay, so the beaches are a gimme:
We were in Khao Lak, north of the Phuket, for the first few days. We were there for a detox, decompression trip, and the quiet vibe there—families, couples, older folks—was just what the doctor ordered. I was there to feed off of happy people:
A decade ago, a tsunami consumed everyone and everything in its way here, leaving this police boat stranded far inland.
But that’s the only sign you’ll see now. As Ann, our cooking instructor (ahead) told us, Thai people aren’t big for remembrances and memorials and looking backward. They want to be happy. So seeing simple joys on the beach, one drop of joy at a time replacing a flood of tragedy, was extra moving to me. This mother and daughter, for example:
For more than an hour, they held hands and waited for incoming waves to knock them over so they could come up laughing. This mother of the year wasn’t being self-sacrificing; she just loved doing what her daughter wanted to do. Life is good.
The hospitality is harder to take a picture of. It feels kinda awkward to say, “Can you reenact that warm greeting so I can take a picture of it?” So I’ll settle for this:
Which only tells part of the story. I mean, those are some mad towel-folding skills, but now check this:
Yeah, those are the Beloved’s glasses. We’ve gone beyond having people make the bed to getting the sense that they purely enjoy having us there. Then there were the ladies giving massages on the beach (1 hour, $15), who took one look at my nails and said, “Manicure? Pedicure?” ($12 total), then laughed when the Beloved accidentally dragged our bag across the wet nails so that they had to do one hand again, swatting at him and scolding him and laughing more. The beach shack restaurant owners, so excited to share their food with us (MaMa’s, best masaman curry around).
Which brings us to the food. Much easier to capture:
We both LOVE Thai food. The complexity of the flavors, the freshness of the ingredients, the variety… oh, my. So when Trip Advisor tipped us off on a private cooking class, had to do it.
Ann (her Facebook page is here) took us shopping first at the Khao Lak market, where I swear I recognized only half of what I saw there.
My takeaway? Suddenly the American diet looks impossibly boring. Apples, oranges, bananas. Green beans. Lettuce. You wanna guess what the greens on the left are?
Okay, so the caption gives it away, but seriously–morning glory stems. They’re delicious. I am clearly not taking advantage of all the resources available to me. It’s time to mix things up a little more. And thanks to Ann, I feel better equipped to do it. (She travels, as well, and teaches when she’s traveling–follow her Facebook page to see if she’s in your area.)
In Bangkok, where we finished the trip, we dove into the street food.
We learned that most Bangkok flats come without kitchens, and in the interest of minimizing fire risk and troublesome cooking odors, people are not allowed to cook at home. The public dining room is along the street, so street food is excellent and everywhere. And you can buy even the most incidental thing you might want to eat, the same way you’d pull something out of the fridge at home–a single piece of fruit, a cooked egg, a baggie of broth and vegetables. Our guide in Bangkok, wanting to be sure we were well taken care of, kept asking, “Are you hungry? Do you want a piece of fruit?” Yeah, that’s how people live in a place where wonderful fresh local things are available all year round.
Then, of course, there are the exotic experiences.
The picture may not look like anything special, but that’s the bridge over the River Kwai. (The modern version–the original was bombed during the war.) If you get there, spend time in the prisoner of war cemetery, too.
If that wasn’t surreal enough, that was followed by this moment:
Yup, that’s a real tiger, no stuffing, no photoshop. I’m VERY ambivalent about this. The Tiger Temple started when a orphaned baby tiger was brought to a group of Buddhist monks decades ago. One thing led to another, and there were 141 tigers there as of the time we saw it. Endangered Asian tigers, treated as a sideshow attraction. In response to international outcry, the Tiger Temple was due to be shut down the day after we were there, but received a temporary stay of execution. The problem is that there’s no good solution–this extremely unnatural life is the only one these tigers have known, and they have nowhere else to go. They’re healthy, with normal life spans, and seem quite at ease in the life they have. Should they be having this life in the first place? Now that I’ve seen it myself, I can unequivocally say no. But the ones who are already here? Eesh. That’s a tough one. Just closing it is not the answer.
I’m less worried about the elephants, though:
Yeah, these elephants have it way easier than their grandparents, who spent their lives hauling logs. I’m glad to have done it, but I’m not sorry that I’ll probably have access to only horses and bicycles in the future. Elephants are uncomfortable, especially when you’re sitting on the shoulder blades, trying to not get pitched off when one side goes up, then the other side goes up. And holding awkwardly onto the rope behind you because it seems like a l-o-n-g way down when you’re up there.
This, however, is not put on for the tourists:
This is known as the Train Market, at the Maeklong Station at the edge of Bangkok. The nearby market area was overgrowing the available space when somebody got the genius idea of setting up shop on the tracks. I mean, the station is right there, so the train is going super slow, and it doesn’t come by all that often, so…why not? The full width of the train reaches from building to building, so when it approaches, people fold back their awnings, pull in their tables, leave the items you see on the ground beside the track for the train to pass over them, and then pop everything back up again. Easy peasy.
Honest. Everything was back in place within a minute.
And then there are the moments when you pinch yourself and make sure you’re really there.
Ann’s take on the Thai way is a good one for me to keep in mind right now as our Saudi departure date comes careening toward us. Look forward, and be happy. Life’s good.