When my friend asked me to go on a trip with her for her 40th birthday, I immediately accepted. Knowing her, I really thought she would want to go to an island in the Caribbean for a week and lay on the beach and drink cocktails with umbrellas. Nope. She wanted to go to Thailand. I can’t say that Thailand was high on my list of places to go, but I’m always up for a new adventure.
We booked a trip that would spend equal time in Bangkok and Phuket. Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and the most populated city with over 8 million people (about the same as New York City). Phuket is the country’s largest island with a much calmer feel.
We boarded our flight from JFK on May 9th and flew a little over 14 hours to Beijing, China where we had a very short layover that left me running through the airport with my electronics in my arms. I made it – but just barely. Another 5 hours and we were in Bangkok. We landed around midnight local time and several members of our group (include me) didn’t have their luggage. After filing claims with Air China, we finally made our way to the Amari Watergate Hotel at around 3am (luggage-less).
Day 1 – Bangkok
Our guide’s name was Noom and he traveled the entire time with us. He was knowledgeable and a lot of fun. Thai breakfast includes a lot of Thai dinner items…noodles and rice. However, they had plenty of traditional American items for us to eat too, so we always got our fill.
Our first stop for the day was the temple Wat Pho. The earliest parts of the complex were built around 1700. It is mesmerizing and has something new and exciting around every corner. This temple includes the largest collection of Buddhas in Thailand and is considered one of six ranked as the highest grade of first-class royal temples in the country. The main attraction is the Reclining Buddha, which is 150 feet long. Unfortunately, the way the temple is built around it it’s hard to get a full view of the entire Buddha image, but if you’re patient near the feet you’ll be able to snap a photo of the entire statue. Additionally, the Phra Ubosot is a must see, with its gold and crystal three-tiered pedestal topped with an impressive seated buddha.
This is a giant complex, so make sure you have on comfortable shoes. The biggest attraction here is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which many consider the most sacred temple in Thailand. They are unsure when the Emerald Buddha was actually made, but many believe it was in the 14th century. Unfortunately you cannot take pictures inside the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. An attempt from the outside yielded only blurry pictures because it’s also not very big (only 26 inches tall). But a stop by the Grand Palace is absolutely worth it.
Chao Phraya River Boat Ride
The Chao Phraya is the major river in Thailand and flows through Bangkok and eventually ends at the Gulf of Thailand. The boat ride gives you a great view of the city and allows you to see some of the local wildlife like that monitor lizard. We took bread to feed the salmon and it turned into quite the frenzy.
After the day was over, I schedule a two-hour traditional Thai massage in my hotel room. The tiny (and very young) Thai woman came to my room and spoke very little English. The massage included lots of stretching and pressure points. At one point she had her entire body weight in her knees pressing into my butt. It was quite different from massages in America, but it felt good after all the travel from the previous few days.
Day 2 – Bangkok
Coconut Flower Sugar
Coconut trees have flowers. Yeah, I didn’t know that either. But it turns out that part of the flower can be used to make sugar, and in turn, really sweet cookies. It’s quite the labor intensive process, but is fascinating to watch.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
I didn’t know what a “floating market” was, but I soon learned it was exactly what it sounded like. We took a long-tail boat to get there, which was half the fun. We zipped through small canals and sped-up on the long stretches. We were able to see what it looked like to live “on the water” and found out that the homes have been handed down through the generations and it wasn’t considered a luxury. When we finally made it to the market there were vendors selling everything from fans to fried bananas out of their wooden boats. There were also vendors set up on the sides of the canals that were only accessible by boat – you would simply point from your boat taxi at what you wanted to see. It was truly fascinating.
But the best part of the market? The introduction to mango sticky rice with coconut milk. This Thai staple is absolutely delicious and ended up being a meal we had several more times before we left the country. Throughout the market there were plenty of opportunities to have your picture taken with an exotic animal, but please think twice before partaking. Unless the animal has been rescued and can no longer live in the wild (which means they probably would live in a sanctuary, not wander around a market) then they were most likely stolen from the wild and ripped away from their family. By giving their “owner” a couple bucks for a picture it’s supporting this terrible (and sometime illegal) industry and encourages others to do the same. So even if you see a cute loris, sloth, monkey, etc. please consider the consequences before perpetuating the situation. I opted to get my picture taken with a python. Why? Pythons aren’t endangered and are commonly held as pets. The cute cuddly things are usually both endangered and not domesticated.
Day 3 – Kanchanaburi
Three hours outside of Bangkok is Kanchanaburi, a small town is home to the reason you should visit Thailand – Elephant World. Elephant World is an Environmental Conservation Organization that cares for over 30 rescued elephants. These elephants have been saved from the circus, jungle labor, riding camps, etc. By bringing in eco-tourists, Elephant World is able to support the sanctuary and continue to save additional elephants while educating the public. This place is absolutely amazing. You start out by changing into clothes you don’t mind getting muddy (and they WILL get muddy). You can rent a locker for 100 BHT and get it back when you return the lock. Next you learn the rules (1. Never go to an elephant on your own, 2. Never stand behind an elephant, 3. No shouting or running, 4. Dangerous: Elephant with red rope, 5. Do not take selfies). Finally you get introduced to the elephants! The elephants are brought to an area where they are fed. I had the opportunity to feed Norpol, the first pregnant elephant to be saved by the sanctuary (baby Norgael was born May 10, 2018). Since she was pregnant, we got to feed her two baskets of fruit. We had to stand behind a red line, but her trunk could reach us (and the food) just fine. After the feeding session, we were taken to the field to cut corn stalks for the elephants to eat later. Next we went to a large field where we were able to interact with the elephants while they ate. We truly didn’t think it could get better than this…but it did. We then followed the elephants into the mud where they took a mud bath and we helped. A smaller elephant dropped to its side and played in the water and even sprayed us with its trunk. This was the highlight of the trip for me. After the mud bath, we walked the elephants to the river where we cleaned them off with buckets and brushes. This is a MUST DO if you’re ever in Bangkok. It makes for a very long day but it is absolutely worth every minute. Don’t forget to purchase plenty at the gift shop since it supports the sanctuary.
Bridge Over River Kwai
On the way back from the sanctuary we stopped at the bridge over River Kwai. This bridge was built on the “Death Railway” by WW2 prisoners of war (POW). It was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma Campaign (a series of battles bought in the British Colony of Burma). There is also a nearby cemetery (Kanchanaburi War Cemetery) where many of the POWs were buried after dying from working on the bridge. Note that all American soldiers were exhumed and brought home for burial.
Day 4 – Bangkok to Phuket
After three days in Bangkok it was time to fly to Phuket. It only took a little over an hour to fly to the island, but it would have taken around eight hours by bus. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Mai Khao Beach, which was about 20 minutes from the airport. The hotel was phenomenal. It was right on the beach with plenty of hammocks, a giant pool, nightly entertainment, bike rentals, a trampoline, giant boardgames and pingpong. Breakfast was included, but we visited one of the nearby open-air restaurants for lunch and dinner (all of which served mango with sticky rice). But the best part, by far, were the ladies who had an area set up for massages near the beach for 500 Baht. I got a Thai massage one evening on the beach during sunset and it was wonderful. It’s not fancy, but it gets the job done.
Day 5 – Phuket
We arrived at Monkey Temple without knowing what to expect. We were instructed to purchase monkey food for 100 Baht as we got off the bus. As you approach a rock formation, you start to notice the monkeys (and more importantly, they start to notice you). We were told they were generally very friendly as long as you didn’t tease them. I wanted to be the first to give a monkey food, so as the first one approached us, I sat down my bag and reached to give it a banana. The rather large monkey reached to grab the banana which startled me and I dropped it. The monkey jumped down and instead of going after the single banana I dropped, he went to my bag and grabbed the entire container of nuts I had purchased. Luckily one of the other members of our group was able to negotiate with the monkey with another banana and he dropped the nuts (since he couldn’t get the top off). Eventually you make your way over to the rock and there are monkeys everywhere! You can throw them food and they’ll catch it. They’ll also come down and grab it from your hand. But beware: wear real shoes, not sandals, and bring plenty of hand sanitizer and maybe some baby wipes! After you’re done feeding the monkeys (and most likely you’ll run out of food before you’re truly done interacting with these awesome creatures), you make your way inside the Monkey Temple. At this point, it’s like most of the other buddhist temples we had visited, but inside a cave. You cannot feed monkeys inside the cave, therefore there aren’t any in there.
James Bond Island
Next was James Bond Island, named because The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed there. It’s a 30 minute long-tail boat ride, but the scenery is absolutely beautiful. When you finally arrive you figure out quickly that this is a popular (small) island. Walk around, take your pictures, buy your trinkets and then get back not the boat. It was beautiful, but too crowded for my taste. Just because a decades-old James Bond movie was filmed there doesn’t necessarily make it appealing to everyone. I’m sure there are plenty of less-crowded islands with scenery just as pretty.
Floating Village – Ko Panyi
The Floating Village is quite the scene. It was built on stilts (similar to Venice) and houses almost 1,700 Muslims from Java, Indonesia. When it was first being established by fishermen, the law prohibited people who were from outside of Thailand to purchase land, therefore they started building on stilts in the bay. Eventually the law was changed, and with the popularity of the village with tourists, the occupants were able to purchase the nearby land. We had lunch there (normal Thai fare) and then had time to explore. It was filled with winding pathways (again, very similar to Venice) and if you play your cards right, you can finally make your way to the Mosque.
Day 6 – Phuket
Scuba Diving – Aussie Divers Phuket
I went diving with Aussie Divers Phuket. It was about an hour and a half taxi ride from the hotel and then another 2.5 hour boat ride to the Phi Phi Islands. The boat served us breakfast and lunch. I was able to do three dives and saw black tip sharks, eels, sting rays, clown fish and plenty other pacific fish. The marine life was good, but the visibility wasn’t great and the current was very strong in some areas.
Day 7 – Phuket
Old Town Phuket
Old Town Phuket was about an hour and a half from our hotel. The area had a lot of
Chinese and Portuguese influence in the architecture. The first stop was a lookout where the sun first hits Thailand in the morning. Next we visited the shopping district where we tried Thai Tea and Roti, which is a flatbread with different toppings. There is a lot of street art in this area and plenty of places to buy souvenirs.
Day 8 – Phuket
I woke up early and rented a bike for two hours before the sun got too hot. I rode 13 miles around the area and stumbled upon a temple (Wat Mai Khao). It felt great to get out and do something I enjoyed so much. We then took a shuttle to the Patong Market, which was about an hour and fifteen minutes from the hotel (the shuttle was complimentary from the hotel). This is a huge shopping district with everything you could imagine for sale. There was a cruise ship in port, therefore it was extremely crowded.
Thailand was nothing like I expected. I don’t really know what I expected, but it was better…much better. The people were wonderful and I never felt unsafe. Our guide (Noom) was phenomenal and took wonderful care of us. The accommodations were excellent and the food was not bad (just very…consistent). Although Elephant World was my favorite part, the Monkey Temple wasn’t far behind. The scuba diving was good and I hope to return one day for a longer stay. I highly recommend Thailand and would recommend taking advantage of a tour company because many of my favorite parts were well off the beaten path. If you’d like to see a video of my adventure, check it out here.