Travel Dates: February 19-March 3, 2017
Four years ago on our first date, Amit asked me if I could travel anywhere in the world, where would I go? Being far less traveled than him my answer was simply “Asia!” He laughed because my answer couldn’t have been more broad, but the truth was I wanted to explore all of it, especially southeast Asia!
Accommodations: The Siam
After a quick 2 hour flight from Myanmar, we landed in Bangkok. I could barely contain my excitement…beautiful beaches, delicious street food and mango sticky rice here I come!
We stayed at The Siam located along the Chao Praya River in the Royal Dusit district. This boutique hotel is a beautifully designed oasis with sprawling gardens, sleek modern decor and art deco accents, complete with a complimentary river shuttle to take us into town. But the best part of the hotel was our butler, Gub, who helped organize our stay, arranged all of our appointments and sent us off with cold bottles of water and printed instructions (in Thai) to give to our cab driver each time we left the hotel!
One evening we took a tuk tuk down to Khaosan Road (A.K.A backpacker district), a street lined with tourist shops, pubs, and street hawkers selling barbequed meats, fried insects, local fruits, and fresh noodles. The broad selection of food was a little overwhelming for a newcomer like me. As appetizing as it all looked (with the exception of the scorpions!), we decided to wait for our street food tour with a native who could properly show us the way.
One of the best ways to acquaint yourself with a new culture is by getting a taste of the local cuisine. The best tour we took in Bangkok was The Expique Food and Tuk Tuk Tour with our guide Net and driver Mr. Happy. We cruised around the streets of Bangkok at night visiting the flower market, Wat Phra Kaew, and Chinatown all the while sampling local street foods. We tasted three different kinds of shrimp sauces with local vegetables, sweet and tangy crispy fried chicken skin (my favorite), stir-fried noodles in the back alley of some obscure street we’ll never be able to find again, and ended with desserts in Chinatown.
Another great food option is Krua Apsorn, a well known restaurant amongst locals and foodies. The founder of the restaurant was a former chef to the Royal Family. When she left the Palace, she opened her first restaurant on Samsen road. If you want to experience authentic Thai cuisine that taste like “grandma’s cooking” you must visit one of her locations. Our favorite dish was the juicy, succulent stir-fry crab with a side of rice molded in the shape of a heart. And make sure to finish with the coconut sorbet ice cream! It’s super light and refreshing and just what I needed to cool down my mouth from the spicy papaya salad.
When we weren’t eating or thinking about eating, we took time to enjoy some of the activities at our hotel. Back home, Amit enjoys practicing different forms of martial arts with his trainer. Naturally when we came to Thailand, Amit wanted to take a class in Muay Thai, the national combat sport famously known for using eight points of contact (punches, elbows, kicks and knees). Afterwards we both indulged in The Siam’s signature Muay Thai Massage (Amit says it’s the best massage he’s ever had), and in the evening we scored a couple ringside seats at the Rajadamnern Stadium to watch a live competition. It was exhilarating experiencing a match that close up. Once I got past the raw brutality of it, I found there was an underlying rhythmic dance quality to the sport. I guess that’s why it’s called martial arts!
Whenever I think about the beaches of Thailand, I always picture Ko Phi Phi Leh, the location where they filmed The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Like all good things, once the word gets out, tourist flock and then it’s never as cool as it originally seems (especially coupled with gigantic tour bus and tour groups that have an uncanny ability to obliterate the charm). However Amit assured me that there were more beautiful beaches that we could visit that were far less commercial and crowded too.
We hopped on a 1½ hour flight to Krabi from Bangkok, took a 25 minute cab ride to the pier and finally boarded a 20 minute boat transfer to Rayavadee. It was on that short boat ride to the hotel that I caught my first glimpse of the massive limestone cliffs that are so synonymous with Thailand. Similar to the epic sunset in Santorini, or the beautiful rolling green hills and mountainous backdrop of Murren, I was instantly mesmerized.
It was at Rayavadee, that I discovered the best drink in the world, a fresh coconut ice blend! The contents of a young coconut (juice and flesh) are scooped out and blended with ice then the mixture is reintroduced back into the coconut shell to be enjoyed by the lucky recipient. Sometimes I would get a little crazy and have a mango blend instead just to mix things up a little.
Our days were mostly spent enjoying the beach at Phranang and Railay. One morning we got up early to kayak around the cliffs before the sun got too hot. Another day we decided to venture further out and hired a private boat to take us to Hong Island to swim in the Blue Lagoon. But the most enjoyable activity was taking a joint cooking class, beachside. We learned how to make Prawn Cakes, Pad Thai noodles and Massaman Chicken Curry. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in Thailand and we made it!
Accommodations: 137 Pillar
Besides eating street food and frolicking on the beach, another experience that I was really looking forward to in Thailand was spending time at an Elephant Sanctuary. I’ve really developed a strong affinity to elephants especially after observing them in the open savannahs of Africa. Such intelligent majestic creatures at risk of extinction because of exploitation, poaching and habitat loss. As we’ve traveled the world we’ve been learning more about these beautiful animals and the elephant trade that threatens their population. Sadly only 30,000 asian elephants remain in the world today!
We made our way to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand for the sole purpose of visiting an Elephant Sanctuary. As customary, Amit did a ton of research to determine which was the best reserve to visit, one that ensured the ethical treatment of the animals. His search lead us to Elephant Nature Park, a rescue and rehabilitation center founded by Sangdeaun Lek Chailert who has dedicated her life to protecting Asian elephants. Despite our last minute reservations, we were fortunate to book one of the last available daily excursions that would take us deep into the highlands to spend a day with a couple rescue elephants.
We were picked up at our hotel at 8am in the morning. On our drive to the camp we watched an educational video on the elephant trade in Asia, and the abuse these animals endure in captivity. Young calves are separated from their mothers, they are beaten, chained and starved into submission. Their spirits broken just so they can be forced into performing circus tricks and giving rides.
It was disturbing! Before coming to Asia, I was ignorant to these kinds of abuses and like most tourist I thought elephant rides and circus shows were harmless. Not the case. Fortunately, organizations like ENP are increasing awareness to improve the lives and conditions of these gentle giants through sustainable elephant tourism.
The day was spent pampering two incredible elephants, Dodo and “Grandma.” Most of the day consisted of food preparation and feeding them. FYI, Asian elephants can spend up to 12-18 hours feeding, consuming 200-600 lbs of food and drinking up to 50 gallons of water a day! Instead of riding elephants, we took a walk beside them, hand feeding them bananas along the way.
Contrary to what most people think, riding elephants can hurt them despite their enormous size. Anatomically their spines are not designed to carry weight on their backs. Carrying the weight of tourist and trainer can cause permanent damage to their spinal cords, not to mention the lesions and infections that are caused by the friction of the chair rubbing on their poor backs! After our stroll through the jungle, we cooled them down with a lovely mud bath (an activity Dodo thoroughly enjoyed) then washed them cleaned in a nearby river.
It was a long but fulfilling day. Spending time caring for and feeding these intelligent, sentient beings was incredible. Although, tickets for these excursions are pricey ($6000 baht per person, roughly $173 USD), the fees go towards maintaining the elephants (and you know how much they can eat!). It’s a small price to pay to support a good cause and help put an end to the darkside of elephant tourism.