Where do I start with Bangkok? First off, the thing that strikes you first when driving into the city is the size. Bangkok is enormous. A sprawl of skyscrapers, temples, mega-malls, and apartment buildings. It seems to stretch on forever as the smog obscures the true horizon line, one neighborhood blending into another. The second thing that you notice is the smell. Not necessarily a bad smell, but not a pleasing one either. The mass of humanity, mopeds, tuk-tuks, taxis, boats, busses and trains all blend seamlessly with the sewers, stagnate water, and street stalls specializing in exotic fried insects and banana pancakes. Bangkok is by far the largest city in Thailand and one of the larges in the world with 12 million residing within its boarders. This number does not account for the millions of visitors Bangkok hosts at any given time- more so during the Christmas holiday season. The city is a dizzying maze of streets, alleys, markets, and waterways. Even a GPS device is almost useless. The only way to truly find your way around Bangkok is to walk- to explore the mayhem by foot until you have your bearings then move on to the SkyTrain (an above ground subway) then graduate to the river taxis. Bangkok becomes manageable once you begin using all these option together.
We spent 4 days in Bangkok, not nearly enough to even begin scratching the surface. I had a few goals in mind when arriving- one of which was to see the new Star Wars movie. Seeing a movie in Thailand, especially in Bangkok, is an experience. The theaters are state of the art. Seating is usually in large recliners and some have the option for couches where you can spread out your dinner brought from outside and snuggle under blankets provided by the theater. Films always begin with a tribute to the king and all are required to stand while the royal hymn is played. The king is loved and revered in Thailand and is the longest serving head of state in the world. Most of the movie theaters are located within the many mega-malls throughout the city. In one area of the city there are at least 5 such malls within a couple miles of each other. We visited Terminal-21, a mega-mall built to mimic an airport terminal. Upon entering the main lobby, there are "officers" to salute you and "stewardesses" to guide you to your desired destination. The mall is 6 stories high and topped off with a 12 screen theater. Each floor has a speciality with one floor housing tiny pop-up boutique stores by local designers. Some are no bigger than a broom closet but items are often hand made, one-of-a-kinds.
We explored Bangkok for 4 exhausting days. One of the things you will continually see around the city are the many kathoey or lady-boys. Most often an effeminate, gay male, lady boys are perceived in Thai culture as belonging to a third gender. In many cases, the lady boys are nearly indistinguishable from their female colleagues. Another common sight is the older farang (a thai term for anyone of European descent) and young Thai companion (male, female or kathoey). It is so common that we began making a game of keeping count everytime we spotted such a couple. Obviously, the sex trade in Bangkok is pretty well known, but it was still quite eye opening to see it so out in the open. Partly regulated and routinely tolerated, prostitution is everywhere in Bangkok. In many cases the practice is protected by corrupt local officials.
Above all, Bangkok is a great place. The city has a pulse unlike any other place I have visited. Seemingly chaotic on the surface, but very sedate underneath. It has a natural coolness about it and does not have to try hard to impress.. Like an onion, it must be pealed away layer by layer to get to the good stuff. We will be going back in January to uncover more of that good stuff.
Ko Lanta is one of those places that you never want to leave. Not because it is any more stunning than the other islands that make up the archipelago of Krabi Provence in southern Thailand, in fact it is considered one of the least beautiful (although I beg to differ). Whatever it may lack in shear beauty, Ko Lanta makes up in character. The locals survive on the well controlled tourism market, fishing, farming, and raw rubber tapped from the groves of rubber trees found throughout the island.
To get to Ko Lanta you have to take a ferry, there are no roads or bridges directly to the island. The ride across the Strait of Malacca takes just under 3 hours and sails through the most incredibly blue water and palm studded islands, most of which are uninhabited. At the half way point, the ferry was met by a few long tail boats to pick up and unload passengers staying on some of the small resorts on various islands. Ko Phi Phi is also situated around the half way point to Ko Lanta. Phi Phi is a bit of a party island and has in recent years become the spot for EDM (electronic dance music) festivals and full moon parties. The movie "The Beach" was filmed there. While it is a absolutely gorgeous place, it was much too developed for our taste. We were more interested in some down time after leaving Chang Mai.
Arriving in the small port town of Sala Dan on the northern tip of the island, we immediately knew this was our place. After a short ride out of town, we arrived at our hotel. Situated on Klong Dao Beach, The Lanta Sea House was our home for the next 10 days. In that span of time we wore shoes only twice, as there was little need to ever leave the beach. Bars, restaurants, and small grocery stores were accessible without having to venture out to the one main road that circles the island. We quickly found our favorite places to eat, have a drink, relax, and meet people. Our go to spot for sunset watching became The Indian Bar. Run by a local named Pas, The Indian is a ramshackle beach hut with no kitchen, food was ordered from next door. Pas is the main reason we frequented The Indian. He is full of life and wants nothing more to make others happy. He greets every patron and quickly knows your name- rarely ever forgetting it. Pas puts on a nightly fire show which draws people from all over the island. We met a lot of fascinating people while on Ko Lanta. Paul is a Welshman living in Holland who spends months on the island, and has been for 15 years. Paul was there when the tsunami struck the island. We also met a great group from California and a solo traveller from Montreal. It's these connections that makes traveling fulfilling and we will remember these all to brief friendships for years to come.
The hardest thing about travel, especially long term travel, is separation from the people you love. This week I received news of the unexpected, and much too soon, death of a friend back home. As we crossed the Andaman Sea my thoughts were squarely focused on the loss his family and close friends would be experiencing and felt completely helpless. This tragic event also helped to solidify our reasons for doing this trip now instead of "waiting" for a better or more convenient time. To coin the trite phrase: Shit Happens. Within the same week others back home have had a death or illness enter their lives. We are lucky to be healthy enough and financially able to undergo this journey and am reminded everyday of this fact in the discussions we have with fellow travelers who have experienced similar things.
The last couple weeks have also brought us great joy. MJ's eyes have continued to improve, allowing us to venture out more. We have made our way to Thailand and spent time in Krabi and its surrounding islands, and the northern city of Chang Mai. Some of the highlights of our time in Krabi were the great night markets, an Italian Restaurant that rivals any I have had to date, and a sunset cruise that turned into a monsoon cruise.
We began sailing from the north eastern part of Phuket Island into the Andaman Sea on a small schooner captained by a crusty old man, Captain Mark, who checked off every cliche in the book, he even had the corn cob pipe and white beard, sans mustache. Turned out he was a great guy, a transplant from Australia who married a Thai woman 15 years ago. His company, Phuket Sail Tours, was one of the best rated in the area and for good reason. He ran a simple operation, keeping the guest numbers small and staying to the least "touristy" areas. The crew and staff consisted of family and a small number of young locals. We swam and dove off the boats roof for a coupe hours before swimming into a small cove on a deserted island to have some drinks and snacks. The clouds began rolling in soon after and before we knew it was pouring. We made our way back to the boat to have a traditional Thai dinner which was cooked on board and floated around the rain while we ate and traded stories with the other guests and Captain Mark. We didn't get to see the sunset that night, but I have seen enough of those in my life...this was much more memorable.
While in Krabi (at the Italian joint of course) we struck up a conversation with the owner. We were leafing through a magazine and came across information for the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng Festivals. We decided to visit Chang Mai to experience the festivals as the northern part of the country tended to be more traditional and the celebrations more authentic. We couldn't be happier with the decision. The sights and general feeling of those around us can not be described in words or photographed properly. We were among several hundred thousand locals and travelers from around the world participating in a centuries old cultural and spiritual event we will never forget. The city of Chang Mai held many surprises for us. We stayed in the old city which is over 720 years old and still has much of the old walls that surrounded and protected it from invaders. Full of Wats (temples), great coffee, small restaurants and even smaller bars and music venues (the North Gate Jazz Coop being our favorite), teeming markets of all varieties, and designed with green spaces and water features dotted throughout. It was fun to explore all the nooks and crannies by foot and tuk-tuk as the streets within the old city wound around and sometimes ended unexpectedly. You never knew what you might find by turning down a narrow, one way street: cock-fights, soccer playing monks, Thai Elvis impersonators, and fashion photo-shoots. Chang Mai is one of the few places I have found on our journey which I would consider living in. After about a week in the city we decided it was time to check out the rural areas as Chang Mai sits at the foothills of a large chain of mountains. We hired a guide to take us trekking in the jungle, visiting mountain tribes, deserted villages, and hidden waterfalls along the way. We also spent time at a elephant park which neither of us were keen on at first but it turned out to be ok...the animals were treated well and were loved by their caretakers. What I found more disturbing was the small village of the so called Long Neck Tribe who lived in a small, walled off section of the camp. The men apparently worked in the camp while the women and children stayed at home to sell trinkets to visitors. As soon as we entered the village I wanted to leave...it felt like we were violating their homes and not at all what I expected when told we were going to visit a hill tribe village. I carried my camera as always, but quickly put it away as I felt like a voyeur. I only snapped a photo when one of the women said it was ok. We finished the day with a hour long float down a river on a bamboo raft...I couldn't help but think this is what Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn felt on their adventures down the Mississippi...only 12000 miles away.