Sunday, March 18, 2007

Final Thoughts on Thailand

Awesome, awesome vacation. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested.

Like I said many times earlier, Buddhism was huge over there. Thailand has a higher percentage Buddhist population than any other country in the world. As a result, they don't call it the year 2007. Instead, they use the Buddhist Era (BE) system and right now it is the year 2550, which corresponds to the number of years since Buddha's death.

Many of the Taxis in Bangkok were the attractive color of......Pink.

Temple Attire:
Out of respect for Buddha, women and men have to dress very modestly to enter the temples. Also, shoes must be removed and apparently "foreigner" shoes are different than Thai shoes.

They were everywhere and for the most part just roaming freely. One tour guide told us that the monks would take care of them if they went to the temple, but there were still a ton of them lounging around away from temples.
Thai Massage:
This was the best deal in Thailand. There were Thai Massage parlors everywhere. An hour massage only cost $5-$8. However, it was much different than American massages. The best way to describe it is forced yoga. It kind of hurt during the massage but your body felt very good at the end.

Birth Control:
Back in the 70's the government started a campaign they called "Cabbages and Condoms" to cut down on AIDS and overpopulation. They opened up restaurants and other stores with this name as a way to educate the population. It worked, family sizes were reduced from an average of over 7 initially to only 2 today. Also, HIV and AIDS have gone way down. We ate at this restaurant. It was a little odd to have a bunch of condom pictures lining the walls while we ate.

Canal Boats:
They all had these huge block engines with the shaft going straight back.

There was no order to their electrical lines. They went everywhere and were jumbled into a huge mess at every electrical pole.

After a weekend in Los Angeles to start the trip I didn't think traffic could get any worse. I was wrong. Traffic in Bangkok is the worst I've ever seen, basically a complete gridlock all day throughout the whole city. What blows me away is that their great subway and skyway systems are less than 5 years old. I can't imagine what the traffic must have been like 5 years ago!
Motorcycles are also a big part of their transportation system. There was about 1 bike per car.

The King:Everyone loved the King. He has been King for almost 60 years and as a tribute many school uniforms are yellow, which corresponds to the day of the week the King was born on. Signs everywhere read "Long Live the King." However, there are some very harsh laws about saying anything negative about the King that make me wonder how many people don't like the king. Recently a British man vandalized several pictures of the King while drunk one night. The minimum sentence for that crime is 7.5 years in jail!

As I said before, the cities most often smelled like either sewage or Thai food. Phuket had some serious troubles with their sewage system because big sections of the city had a potent sewage smell.

By far the most common store in the country was 7/11. There was one on every street. It was about 3 times worse than Starbucks in the US (there were also plenty of Starbucks there as well).

The Thai don't like chocolate or ice cream! We had to search hard to find any ice cream and we basically never found any chocolate. They are missing out! Our guide told us the young kids like candy but adults basically never eat sweets.

While passing on a two lane road you don't need to wait for oncoming traffic to clear. You just honk at the person in front of you and go into the oncoming traffic. The person in front of you will slide off to the shoulder, and oncoming traffic will slide onto their shoulder temporarily creating a middle lane for passing.

Everyone was very nice and friendly. They really are a nice people.

It was super hot. Every day it reached the 90s and this was still their "winter" season. From March through June is summer and then July through November is rainy season.
I'd describe the food as a spicy mix between Indian and Chinese. Geographically, that makes perfect sense. Also, they had rice for every meal and seafood was very common. I liked their food a lot, but of course I'm not very picky.

Very safe country. Erin and I never felt unsafe the entire trip, which includes back alleys and walking around late at night.

The Thai shop owners were helpful and not too pushy. Of course bargaining was a big part of the experience but if we decided to walk away they accepted our decision and weren't too pushy. This was an unexpected sight on the other side of the world:
Markets were always very busy and crowded.
The most pushy people were the hill tribe women walking around trying to sell their crappy trinkets. Every 2 minutes one would walk up and just stare at you. If you wanted to buy one of their items, there would be 5 others hitting you up for more by the time you bought your first.

Gate 1:
Gate 1 was a great tour operator. They were very organized, very affordable, and provided excellent tour guides. Our guide was Pensri. She was energetic, funny, very knowledgeable, and could speak great English.

Chinese Influence:
The Thai have traded with the Chinese for a long time. They would send a boat full of rice to China in return for silk and ceramics. But the boat wouldn't weigh enough for the trip back so they also took a bunch of stone Chinese statues, which have become a part of the Thai architecture.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


We closed our Thailand vacation with 3 days on the very popular southern island of Phuket. The island's landscape is beautiful with mountains coming out of the ocean and great beaches. Unfortunately, parts of it were quite a bit nastier than the rest of Thailand because of excessive tourism, but on the whole it was still beautiful.

Phuket was HOT. I mean really really HOT. Constant sweating was a given during the day, but even late at night it was still sweat-while-standing-still hot.

We stayed at a great resort. This is a picture of the breakfast "room."

And here is the pool and the view:

We spent a limited amount of time at our resort and went on two nice excursions. The first excursion was a day trip to see the main parts of the island. We went to a hill with a nice view, a rubber plantation, a cashew plantation, a Chinese mansion, the main Phuket temple, and a touristy elephant camp.
I had no idea natural rubber came from trees. They cut a slit in the bark every evening and about a pound comes out.

The elephant camp wasn't nearly as nice as the one in Chang Mai and the elephants were noticeably less happy, but it was still fun and Erin got to ride on the elephant's head. She also held a big snake.

The highlight of Phuket was the sea kayak tour. We drove across the island to the bay of Phuket and took a boat into the cove. In this area there are hundreds of limestone islands that come right out of the water in all kinds of cool shapes.

When we got near the limestone islands we jumped in a kayak and our guide paddled us around them. They islands were awesome with their stalactites and steep walls rising about 200 feet out of the water. It was also fun to jump off the boat (video) and swim in a part of the Indian Ocean.

The constant barrage of waves and tides has carved caves into the limestone and we could paddle into the caves.

Some of the caves were really tight. Our guide would have us fully recline, let a lot of air out of the kayak and still just barely be able to squeeze us through an opening with about an inch clearance above us.

Inside the islands were beautiful and peaceful mangroves. We could leisurely paddle around and see the wildlife in the quite atmosphere.

Finally, the tour ended with a beautiful sunset.

We stayed at Patong Beach which seemed like a big spring break hot spot. The main street had a wide array of night life so we spent a couple ours people-watching and saying goodbye to Thailand.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Chang Mai Elephant Camp

One of the highlights of our trip was the elephant camp we visited near Chang Mai.
The Indian Elephant is native to Thailand and about 4000 live in the wild. There are also about 2000 in elephant camps like this one. Elephants are fascinating. They live for over 100 years and generally die with their 6th set of teeth fall out and they can't eat anymore. They consume 500 pounds of food and 60 gallons of water a day. They are eating 16 hours a day and only sleep 4.
When we arrived we got to witness them getting their baths. It was comical and here is a video of the ordeal.
We could also tell right away that the elephants were really happy and all had their own personalities. They playfully took food out of our hands and gave us "hugs."
Many of the elephants were trained to do tricks. Interestingly, the trainers could predict which elephant would be the smartest by the length of their lower lip. The longer the lower lip, the smarter the elephant.

Their tricks ranged from soccer (click here for a video) to playing harmonicas (video) to painting, to doing a hat trick (video). I was astonished at their ability to paint.

We had the pleasure of taking a 1 hour elephant ride. They were very slow while carrying us and frequently got distracted by some food or water and would venture off the trail to feed their craving.

The trainers would sit right on the elephant's head but the elephant didn't seem to mind. It was encouraging to see how happy the elephants all were. Clearly they were well taken care of. The camp supposedly lets them run free most of the day and lets them go free for good when they turn about 40.

At the end of the visit we walked over to the nursery where there were 3 baby elephants. Each had a trainer watching the mother/child duo. When we walked up the trainer smacked the baby in the head and Erin was quite offended. Why would you hit a baby elephant? She soon found out. As we watched the baby we could tell it had a very naughty personality. It would poke at its mother, at people, and at the baby elephant next to it. It got close to Erin at one point and Erin thought they were friends...until the baby elephant realized Erin didn't have any food so it reared back and head-butted Erin about 10 feet backwards. Below is a picture about 2 seconds before the head-butt, for which it was promptly smacked (and now we know why).

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Chang Mai

Chang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand and it was the last city we visited on the guided portion of our trip.

On the way into town we visited an umbrella factory. It was an assembly line of Thai women making very impressive bamboo umbrellas all by hand. They made their own paper, cut the bamboo, sewed it together, and painted it all by hand. And they were extremely efficient at it.
The city of Chang Mai has a lot of history to it. In the olden days there was a large city wall that ran all the way around the central city.Now, everything inside the wall is considered the "old city" but there were a lot of great temples in there and Erin and I spent some time walking through them. We also to a tour of the most famous temple in northern Thailand, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep. It is a temple on top of the mountain overlooking Chang Mai. The temple itself is amazing but the view of Chang Mai is what I liked the best. There was also a very cool 306-step staircase to the top of the mountain that we had to climb.
Erin and I also spent some time exploring the rest of the city. We visited the local market, which was nice to see because all the rest of the markets we went to were more touristy. We also went to the flower market and the vast night market. In the night market Erin saw some jeans she liked so she asked the store owner if there was a changing room for trying on the jeans. "Yes, yes" was the reply "Right here." View the changing room:We lucked out one night and got to go to a Kantoke cultural dinner. We hadn't signed up for this optional tour but there several people that had signed up who had got sick of Thai food by the end of the trip and decided to skip, so we could go for free. It turned out to be a great night. It was a Thai dinner in the style reserved for royalty. We sat on the ground, had excellent food, and watched some traditional Thai dances.

They even called me on the stage to do one of the dances. It wasn't very difficult. Do you think she liked me? I think so.
Then at the end of the night they set off the lanterns, which signified releasing the spirits. It was pretty cool, everybody would hold the rim of the lantern and the flame would be lit in the center. As the air heated in the lantern it would start to rise and then everyone would let go. They went thousands of feet up and hundreds of the lanterns were released so it looked really sweet.