Saturday, June 25, 2016

Thai On Life

Today, I would like to reflect on one of the most amazing trips of my life-- my 20-day solo adventure to Thailand. It is one of my favorite places that I have ever visited, and after seeing the following photos that depict the beauty and depth of the Thai culture, perhaps you will understand why.

The country is filled with art, from the buildings to the temples to the patterns that make up their everyday life. I was constantly in awe at the intricate details that adorned every inch and corner of this magical place. From the capital city of Bangkok to the countryside that lies in the outskirts, to the tropical island destinations, I stood in complete and utter amazement by this diverse country, whose people emanate kindness and warmth with their welcoming smiles.

Disclaimer: my trip took place at the end of May through the beginning of June of 2015, which is right at the start of monsoon season. I went after graduating from college, so that was the reason for my timing, as well as the fact that there are not as many tourists during this season so things (airfare, hotels, excursions, etc.) tend to be cheaper. One thing to note when visiting Thailand at this time of year is that it is extremely humid. Don't even think about having a good hair day because the second you step outside, the humidity will take hold. Prepare to sweat off your makeup before the sun has even fully risen. This was not a trip about looking cute, it was a trip about experiencing culture, and the heat is a part of that. It can rain at a moment's notice and drench you with a shower that lasts for 30 minutes (though I fortunately didn't have much trouble with this during my stay). The most important advice that I can give is to constantly drink water and stay hydrated. Luckily, you can buy bottled water for less than $1 everywhere throughout the city.

I flew into Bangkok, where I spent the first week of my journey exploring the temples, local vendors and even the malls that this busy city had to offer. Everything was perfect- the food, the markets, the shopping, the entertainment- the list could go on for days.

The first remarkable thing that you notice in Thailand is the architecture:

Wat Pho, my favorite temple during my Temple Tour through Bangkok.

It is a tradition at Wat Pho, in the room with the Reclining Buddha, to put a penny in each pot that lines the wall (there are 108 in total) and you can make a wish as you drop each one in. This costs 20 baht, a minor price to pay for the meditative experience. 
A note on appearances in Thailand: In most of the temples, it was necessary to have a shawl or sweater to cover your shoulders, a signal of respect. You also had to take off your shoes before entering.

The Marble Temple from the outside.
The Marble Temple from the inside.
The Floating Temple in the Summer Palace, Ayutthaya

The ruins of Ayutthaya

Buried Buddha 

Wat Lokayasutharam, one of the largest reclining Buddha images in Thailand.
The Golden Buddha, one of the oldest Buddha images in Thailand. 

The Grand Palace (and it certainly was grand)


Another amazing thing about Thailand is the exchange rate. You could live like a king (or queen!) on an average American salary. I stayed in full-service hotels with pools and top restaurants for around $35 per night. I came home with countless treasures from the street markets (the Chatuchak Weekend Market is a MUST if you're in Bangkok), boutiques, and even a wholesale mall called the Platinum Fashion Mall. You can leave with armloads of Thai silk for very little money, which makes for unique and beautiful gifts on a budget.

If you want to do a little more commercial shopping, the Terminal 21 shopping mall is a fun place to explore (and had the nicest bathrooms I've ever seen!). They have a mix of well-known brands and retailers and locally owned boutiques. The most notable thing about this mall is that it is airport themed (hence its name), and each floor represents a different country and its corresponding city. As you ascend the escalator from the first floor, Rome, you can pass through London, Tokyo, Istanbul and San Francisco. This mall was within walking distance from my hotel, so I frequented it a few times during my stay to grab a quick bite to eat, shop, and even see a movie.

One of the most mind-blowing things to me during my stay was how good and cheap the food was. Well, let me clarify; if you went to a restaurant in the city, you would probably spend about the same amount as you would in a restaurant in the U.S. BUT, if you are adventurous, the street food sold by local Thai vendors is more authentic and insanely affordable. The latter is how I chose to experience most of my meals. I gorged myself on thai teas, pad see ew, and "street meat" as I liked to call it (grilled meat skewers), and would pay less than $3 for an entire meal. I expanded my palate with curry and soups and sometimes ate things that I couldn't identify. If you like Thai food, then this was heaven.

If you're wary of the street food, there are still cheap meal options:

Yellow Curry Chicken Noodles: hot hot hot! I got this in a little food court attached to a grocery store; I ate here because I could tell that it was a spot where a lot of locals went. And I understand why: this bowl was only 50 baht, which is equivalent to about $1.50!

I had this meal at the Chatuchak Weekend Market at a little pop-up restaurant. It was Italian/Thai fusion: spaghetti in a Thai basil sauce with fried pork. To drink, I tried the roselle water, a sweet juice made from a hibiscus-like plant.

This was super refreshing and tasty: coconut ice cream served in a half coconut shell with sticky rice and peanuts. Another cheap and delicious treat! 

But if you DO want to splurge, Bangkok offers some superb dining options.
I was lucky enough, during my first weekend in the city, to make an amazing friend who also happened to be the most recent winner of Iron Chef Bangkok (2015). As such, he invited me to try out the restaurants that he managed in a nearby hotel. And they were AMAZING.

One was a rooftop restaurant that had amazing views called Above 11. They had a fusion of foods from sushi, including a Spider Roll that actually contains spiders (I refused to try this), to beef heart (which was actually tender and delicious).

Enjoying the view and admiring the menu of the rooftop restaurant, Above 11. 

But the best food that I consumed on my entire trip came from this chef's personal restaurant, Charcoal. Everything here is cooked on a charcoal grill. It is categorized as Iraqi food, which is similar to Indian (the chef himself is originally from India). From the summery strawberry cocktail that I drank to the lentils that cook for hours overnight before being served, this. food. was. the. real. deal. My chef pal ordered for me and I was overwhelmed with plate after plate of chicken that melts in your mouth and shrimp the size of lobster, each with its own sauce that pairs perfectly with the meat. The paneer (cheese with a texture similar to ricotta) was seasoned with the perfect amount of spices and served in a square on its own, no need for any garnishment. I had never cared much for Indian food before, but after this (almost religious) experience, I now love the cuisine.

The food from Charcoal, served poolside in a cabana outside. 

If you would like to look up this culinary genius, here are some links to his food webpages:



There is also a long list of incredible sites and activities to see and do in Thailand:

View from the Sky Bar/ Sirocco, which was used in the filming of The Hangover II and is part of the second tallest building in Bangkok.

Moon Bar Bangkok.

The sun rising on a night that I didn't sleep, but stayed out late and made new friends.

A Ciroc rooftop pool party at the Radisson Blu Hotel Bangkok, complete with complimentary drinks.

Sunday Funday, Bangkok style.
A lady-boy show that I went to see at the Calypso Cabaret. 

A view of the city by day. 

MOCA: Museum of Contemporary Art, Bangkok. It is a little bit outside of the city, so it's difficult to find a taxi willing to take you there. I happened to go on a day when there was free admission. 

Koi Pond.

I had the amazing opportunity to interact with real tigers, a dream come true for a cat-crazed, single white girl. The staff at the Tiger Temple told us that the tigers were not medicated or sedated, that they were healthy and happy and well looked after. They were only allotted a couple of hours at the end of the day for a "meet and greet," while the rest of the day was spent feeding and playing.

Unfortunately, I have learned since that this Tiger Temple was guilty of several horrible practices, as the bodies of over forty tiger cubs were found in a freezer on the premises and they were recently shut down. It was revealed that they had animals that weren't registered with the authorities, as well as illegal items on site, such as tiger pelts and teeth. It sickens me to have supported an establishment that could administer such cruelty to these beautiful and endangered creatures. I regret to have partaken in this activity, and blame my ignorance of the true nature of what was going on. It is easy to turn a blind eye in the moment and feel as though you are doing nothing wrong until you are hit with the realization of undeniable facts. My heart aches for the tigers but I am happy that they have been given a new home where they will properly be taken care of.

As for the elephants: before my trip I had read up on elephants and found that Thailand houses many sanctuaries for them. I read about programs where you can help take care of them and form bonds with them, and they will let you ride them. I thought that all places in Thailand would be like this, but again, I was ignorant. They commercialize the lives of their elephants and you don't realize until you get to your appointment that the people who are tending to them are not tender or caring with these gentle giants, but use brute force to control and operate them. I left my elephant ride feeling different than I had expected, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. I had fallen victim to this tourist trap, and was no better than the people who ride elephants at the circus. If you go to Thailand, please do not do this. 

If I someday get the chance to return, I will make a trip to Northern Thailand, to Chaing Mai, and stay at an elephant sanctuary. There, they are cared for and treated with the respect that they deserve as living beings. In fact, my biggest regret about this trip is that I didn't get the opportunity to do just that. 

After my initial stay in Bangkok, I ventured to Koh Phangan, an island that is known for its Full Moon Party celebration. Every month, thousands of travelers flock to the beach for this party. I flew into Koh Samui, where I then took an hour-long ferry to the infamous island. 

While I opted to stay in hotels during my travels in Bangkok, I knew that a hostel environment would be better for the party atmosphere of the island. I stayed at the Dancing Elephant Hostel, which I found in a "List of Best Hostels in the World" article... and it didn't disappoint.

The hostel had its own bar where they would have specials on buckets of alcohol. Yes, literally BUCKETS. I adopted the nickname of the "Bucket Queen" during my stay because I drank so many of them. The hostel was run by a young couple who were super chill and fun. They played drinking games with us by night and arranged island excursions for us by day, including a Wipe Out Water Course, a Slip N Fly trip (waterslides that curve up at the end so that you fly up into the air before landing in the pool below), and a booze cruise, complete with bottomless alcohol, a hidden beach stopover and snorkeling. The night before the Full Moon Party, they arranged transportation for us to the Jungle Party: a party in the middle of the jungle with DJs, lights, and Thailand's famous magic mushrooms (which I did not partake in).

I met some amazing people at this hostel, who I still remain in contact with today, thanks to social media. It was a fun, young crowd, with ages ranging from eighteen to early thirties.  If you go to Thailand, I highly recommend that you experience a Full Moon Party and stay at this hostel. It has since gained new management, but they are sure to be just as crazy and cool as the last. It is a little more expensive than some of the other accommodations on the island, but that is because it truly is the best option. It was worth every penny, and hangover, that I spent there.

Here is the Dancing Elephant website:

Dancing Elephant Party Hostel

Booze Cruise with new Friends from the Dancing Elephant Hostel.
The Wipe Out Water Course. 
The Bucket Queen doing what she does best

Jungle Party madness.

Pool party at one of the local hotels. Most of us didn't have a bathing suit handy so we jumped in with our clothes on or in our underwear. It made for some interesting games of Chicken. 

The night of the Full Moon Party: everything was glowing.

Literally THOUSANDS of people on the beach.

Fire play (people would jump rope with flaming ropes).

And when we weren't partying, there was plenty of time to relax and take in the beauty of the island.

Empty beach that I happened upon on a moped ride.

I went on my first ever moped ride with a guy from my hostel and we found a little secluded beach. It was beautiful and I found some shells to smuggle home with me. Note: I have no idea how I got any of those bruises. 

The airport at Koh Samui AKA the most gorgeous airport I've ever been in. 

I reluctantly left the island, though I was in great need of rest from the tireless nights of drinking, and returned to Bangkok for my few remaining days. I saw all of the sights that I hadn't gotten the chance to see my first time around. This time, I stayed in the historical part of the city, whereas before I was in the very commercial shopping district. It was much more quiet, but not far from a popular tourist destination, Khao Sans Rd. On my last night in the city, I walked there to get dinner and finished it off with another coconut ice cream. I was happy.

It was a near perfect trip and I loved every minute of it. I miss the culture, the energy, the people and the friends that I made along the way.

Thailand will forever hold a sentimental piece of my heart.

If you ever get the opportunity to go, don't turn it down. It just may be the chance of a lifetime.