Saturday, November 9, 2013

Honeymoon Stop 8--Thailand

This post is long overdue. We've been back in the United States for almost three months. But with moving across country, starting a new business (Ziv) and looking for a job (Emily), our time has been spent elsewhere. Now that we're into a routine and Emily's job search has reached the stage of boredom, it's time to catch up on projects like our blog. Without further adieu, I present our adventures in Thailand!

After traveling most of the day, we arrived in Bangkok around 6:30 p.m. and found our way to the Royal Orchid Sheraton on the Chao Phyara River. The ride from the airport to the river area of the city is about 40 kilometers. A 30+ minute journey even without traffic.

The river is a main thoroughfare in Bangkok and many popular tourists sites are located on or near the river. Conveniently, the tourist ferry that goes up and down the river, making stops by the color of the boat line, is a very easy and inexpensive way to get around the city.

We only had one day in Bangkok, so to make the most of it we studied our map of sites along the river and tried to consolidate our stops. Our first stop was the Grand Palace, an enormous temple complex bustling with tourists.

Looking into the Grand Palace
In Vietnam we had encountered some wanna-be tour guides/scam artists. They were easy to identify and after some friendly banter we could easily walk away from them with our money and our dignity in tact. In Thailand, a country with a much more established tourism industry, those trying to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists weren't as easy to identify. As we were eying the Grand Palace a woman came up to us and told us she was from the official tourism bureau of the state. She offered to help us find our way to the entrance, find tickets, etc. We were skeptical, but she insisted she was legit. Three minutes into the conversation, however, her cover was blown. She had called over a tuk-tuk and told him to take us around town. We managed to walk away and entered the palace complex unattached.

The Grand Palace

Our next stop was the Temple of the Reclining Buddha or Wat Pho, an impressive golden Buddha, more than 40 feet tall and nearly 135 feet long. The Buddha is surrounded by a complex of temples and artifacts.

Reclining Buddha

Restoring artifacts at Wat Pho
After touring Wat Pho, we met a couple from South Aftrica who were also trying to get to Wat Arun. After avoiding the scam artists who wanted to charge the four of us 900 Bhat for a boat to cross the river, we found the legitimate ferry. It cost 3 Bhat per person. Wat Arun is a beautifully decorated temple with a super-steep climb made even more challenging by Bangkok's heat and humidity.

These stairs are no joke!
But the views from the top make the hike worthwhile
Then came the difficult part--getting down!
A not-so-brief afternoon downpour curbed our plans to visit more of Bangkok, but we found some amusement in the massive school of fish we found by one of the docks. Clearly these fish have come to rely on the tourists and locals who feed them for entertainment.

Not all of the fish survive the constant thrashing
We weren't interested in experiencing the seedier side of Bangkok and decided to avoid the traditional night market in favor of a new night market that had recently opened on the far eastern part of the river. Our first stop was food--Thai food--which was delicious at the time, but may have caused some problems for Emily later that night.

Enjoying fresh coconut water at the market
The market was full of vendors selling household goods, clothing, cosmetics, games & puzzles. The stalls were small but very clean. This was not a typical street market and reminded me of being at an outdoor mall in the States. We did some shopping, but spent much of our time amusing ourselves with these crazy skin-eating fish. Ziv went first and persuaded Emily to join him for round two.

Ziv being eaten alive by the fish
Fish love Ziv!
We both have ticklish feet and hundreds of fish gnawing at them is one of the strangest sensations I've ever experienced. I never got used to it, but Ziv came to appreciate their hard work. Later we heard this isn't the healthiest thing to do; the fish can carry bacteria that can enter open cuts and wounds in your feet. Something to keep in mind for next time.

The next morning we were back at the airport boarding a Thai Airways flight to Chiang Rai in the northern part of the country. After DIY-ing our trip in every other country we visited, we were getting tired of planning and thought we might get more out of our experience with a local guide who knew the area. Our friendly guide, Joey, picked us up at the airport with a driver and we set out for the Karen Longneck tribe. Ziv had seen this tribe years ago on a National Geographic show. The images of women with gold rings around their necks stuck in his mind and for years he had wanted to see for himself.

A Karen Longneck woman wearing her rings
It turns out this tribe of hill people are refugees from Burma that the Thai government allows to stay in Thailand provided they stay in designated areas. They earn money by working the land the Thai government provides and by selling handmade goods to tourists who visit the villages.

While their name implies that the golden rings the women of the tribe wear give them long necks, the weight of the rings pushes down their shoulders, giving the illusion of a longer neck. The rings were originally worn as protection from tigers while the men were out in the fields. They also became part of the culture and a right of passage. Girls and women would add rings to their collection as they grew older. When a woman married, she didn't have to wear the rings anymore. Although many married women we saw in the village were still wearing rings. Women and girls are no longer obligated to wear the rings, but many do because of cultural heritage and tourism.

Trying out the longneck look

With our new friends
From the longneck tribe, we made our way to the border of Burma (Myanmar) and then on to the Golden Triangle, the border of Thailand, Burma and Laos. As recently as 30 years ago, this border was the intersection of the opium trade in Asia. Opium traders would come to the region to exchange their goods for gold, hence, Golden Triangle. The King of Thailand has cracked down on the opium trade and farmers have been encouraged to grow crops other than opium. Today, opium isn't an industry in Thailand, but it is in Laos and Burma.

At the border of Burma
This is one way to get into Thailand

I don't recommend it

But it is effective

The Golden Triangle is a beautiful area and from the Thai side we had views of the greenery in Laos and Burma. But other than the views, the monuments to the area, the souvenirs and the opium museum, there wasn't much to see. We did find a small temple in the area with some intricate stone masonry. Unfortunately, so did the mosquitoes.

At the Golden Triangle

View of Laos & Burma
At the temple

Z on a break from swatting away the mosquitoes
We spent just one night in Chiang Rai at the beautiful Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort. It's tranquil and serene, the yin to the yang of the city hotel where we stayed next, the Le Meridien Chiang Mai.

View from our room at the Le Meridien Chiang Rai
En route to Chiang Mai, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chiang Rai, we stopped at a tea plantation high in the hill country. We saw workers harvesting the fields and stopped to sample a few flavors of tea. Red tea was our favorite, but it's dried leaves are longer and fragile so it doesn't transport well.

Z in the tea fields

Workers harvesting the tea

Tea leaves we sampled
Americans have a reputation for having a sweet tooth. While I don't doubt that's the case, we found that Thai food culture uses more sweeteners than American food culture! The tea we sampled at the plantation was no exception. The woman who prepared our tea loaded it with honey, so much so that the true flavor of the tea was stunted. Don't get me wrong; it was good. But I could have done with a little less honey.

About an hour before we got to Chiang Mai, we stopped at a local restaurant for some Thai food, delicious Thai iced tea and a visit to the White Temple. Pure white with intricate stone masonry, the temple is striking. We didn't see anything else like it in Thailand. It's modern; the architect who designed it started about 20 years ago and is still working on it. The interior temple area may be the most interesting part. It's four walls are a mural with an orange background and motifs of fictional and non-fiction villains and superheros. Think George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, Angry Bird, Michael Jackson.

The White Temple

With Joey, our guide, walking into the White Temple
Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, Ziv set off in search of what would become a daily ritual for him during the duration of our time in Thailand--a massage. Chiang Mai has no shortage of massage parlors, some of them cleaner and more legitimate than others. Even the nice parlors charge about $15 for a 90 minute massage. At least Ziv's addiction didn't bankrupt us.

The next day we were up early to play with wild animals. Our first stop was an elephant park. Trust me; we had conflicting emotions about our visit there, especially when we saw the animals perform in a show. Our guide and the park told us that these animals were born in captivity, so being at the park is all they know and their ability to survive in the wild is minimal. The presence of Western volunteers at the camp also made us feel a little better about the conditions for the animals and we saw no signs of abuse of neglect. The animals appeared well-fed, healthy and mothers and babies were kept together until the baby elephants were old enough to be independent. Still, elephants are beautiful, wild animals and seeing them in captivity just doesn't feel right.

Asking for a tip

Our adventure begins!

A sugar cane snack

Into the water we go

At the elephant camp we also rode in a cart pulled by oxen

By far the most uncomfortable mode of transit we rode!
Our trip down the river on a bamboo raft was much smoother

Keeping the sun away

We each took a turn at guiding the boat

It's as easy as it looks
If we were conflicted about the elephants, we were more conflicted about our next stop, Tiger Kingdom. We had heard tigers at these camps could be drugged and were kept in poor conditions. We didn't want to support a business that took advantage of tigers, so we did some research before we went and concluded that the tigers probably weren't drugged. When we got to the camp, we felt our research was confirmed.

Like all cats, tigers are nocturnal. By some accounts, they are six times more active at night than they are during the day. During the day, when they're already tired, they're surrounded by people. It makes sense that they would want a little snooze after being surrounded by people all day. But this was the most convincing piece of evidence for me: when one of the tiger attendants would attract a tiger's attention, his eyes would dilate immediately and he would perk up. A drugged animal can't do this.

Standing at attention
We played with four sizes of tigers:
  • Smallest = 6 weeks - 2 months, about 8-10 kilograms
  • Small = 3-5 months, about 30 kilograms
  • Medium = 12 months, 120 kilograms
  • Large = 18 months, 170 kilograms
The smallest were my favorite. They look like overgrown house cats. They wrestle, growl and pounce on each other. Their ears and paws are too big for their small bodies and they seem to trip on their gangly legs. If they would stay this size, I would take one home.

Ziv's new kitty

Snack break


A tiger-sized chew toy
Stepping into the cages with the larger tigers didn't get us the same "Aw, cute!" anticipation. We were nervous, especially with the largest tigers that weighed in at nearly 400 pounds. With one swipe, one of those tigers could end a human life.

Ziv makes a new friend

So soft

Family portrait

At each of the cages, we had to wait for a guide to accompany us. The guides instructed us to approach the tigers from the rear, never touch them near their faces and always pet them with a firm pat. This way, they know a human is touching them and they are less likely to become startled. These tigers are born in captivity and have never known the jungle, but they're still wild animals with the same instincts as any other large cat. Scary.

Just like Luna...

Do you think he'll fit in my suitcase??

Ziv got nervous whenever the tigers licked their paws
As a contrast to our day playing with wild animals, we spent the next day cooking Thai food at Siam Rice Cooking School. Ziv and I each made six dishes--an appetizer, a soup, a curry dish, a couple of noodle dishes and a dessert. We were stuffed by the time we left around 4 p.m!

Our outdoor cooking school

Ingredients for curry paste

Green papaya salad
Cooking the food was easier than we expected, and we've been able to replicate some of the recipes at home. The key is finding a good Asian market that carries delicacies like shrimp paste, lime leaves and galangal.

Preparing to chop

Following our day of eating, we found more gluttony at the Chiang Mai Cultural Center where we feasted on an unlimited buffet of food while watching a dance show. Fortunately for us, the food wasn't great, so we didn't feel guilty about not eating much of it. The show featured a half-dozen or more dances from different regions, cultures and ethnicities in Thailand. It was a fitting way to end our stay in Chiang Mai. We flew to Koh Samui the next afternoon.

Lounging at the show

The knife dance

Our second feast of the day

Music before the dancing began

One of the dances at the show

Before we flew to Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand off Thailand's eastern coast, we visited a temple on a hill overlooking Chiang Mai and another hill tribe.

Hiking up to the temple

Hill tribe girls outside of the temple

At the temple

Beautiful gardens that the hill tribe maintains

Our trip to Koh Samui was uneventful until just before our Bangkok Airways flight attempted to land. At the last second, the pilot aborted the landing and we circled the island again before making another attempt. The second attempt was successful. I have never been so ready to get off a plane!

In keeping with our Starwood theme, we camped out at the Le Meridien on Koh Samui. The property is tranquil and intimate with a lovely pool and beach access. Our room was small, but considering that we had booked it about 10 days before arrival, we couldn't complain.

Z poolside--probably after a massage

One of the many pina coladas we drank poolside

The beach on Koh Samui

A honeymoon surprise in our room!
Koh Samui is known for its diving. Although many of the best dive sites in the area are many miles off the coast and can take hours to get to, we found a company that operates speed boats to the sites. We got to the sites in less than half of the time, about an hour to Sail Rock and 90 minutes to Koh Tao. We dove at Sail Rock one day and Koh Tao another. Sail Rock features a large coral formation that juts out of the water and falls down to the ocean floor. Visibility was less than 10 meters on both of our dives at Sail Rock, but we were still able to see some cool fish and coral.

Our visibility at Koh Tao was mixed. On our first dive--Shark Island--visibility was about five meters. This coupled with a diver in our group who must have been panicking she was sucking down air so quickly left us with a short dive and not much to show for it. Our second dive at Koh Tao was better--more visibility and the troubled diver on the first dive controlled her air a bit better.

One of the things I don't like about diving is the early start time. For our dive at Sail Rock we were on the dive company's shuttle just after 7 a.m. and for our Koh Tao dive we were on the bus around 6:50 a.m! Fortunately, we were able to take it easy on the other days. Ziv continued his daily massage habit while I indulged in many-a-pina colada at the pool. We caught up on our reading and hit the later half of the breakfast buffet. It was the perfect way to end the tropical portion of our honeymoon before heading back to Bangkok and catching a Royal Jordanian flight to Tel Aviv.

At the Koh Samui airport