discovering Thailand

With the gradual easing into our “new lives”, and the introduction of programmes such as Thailand’s Sandbox initiative,  international travel may again become a reality .

Thailand is the perfect holiday destination for rand strapped South Africans, hankering after an island adventure but hobbled by the exchange rate which makes travel to Europe akin to giving your wallet a High colonic.

This is a country of spectacular contrasts..From centuries old temples to glittering skyscrapers,  monuments to the 21st century.
Whether it’s the buzz of Bangkok, or the idyllic island life you are after, Thailand has something for everyone!
This is a country that assails the sense, steeped in culture and breathtakingly beautiful!
It is welcoming, accessible, and incredibly affordable! (and there aren’t many things we can say that about) Although travel to Thailand is still restricted, (but  possible with strict quarantine protocols), times they are a changin’.

In the interim, sit back and relax while we share with you some experiences of Thailand and indulge in a little vicarious travel!

Bangkok - The queen of cities!

“One night in Bangkok and the world’s your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free
You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she” (Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus)

Bangkok, Bangkok…you either love her or hate her…

For me she is the Queen of Cities….but certainly not for the faint of heart.

This ancient city of 8 million + people which sits on the banks of the bustling Chao Phraya river assails the senses.
It is a city that teems with life.. And seeps culture from every “ pore”.
If it is a quiet sedate holiday away from the maddening crowd you want…then Bangkok is probably not the place for you.
But if you are after a whirlwind of cultural experiences, dazzling nightlife, and astounding beauty…take the plunge!

Bangkok is a city that is lived in, with a history dating back to the early 15th century.
It is a city that teems with life…It is a city that has soul.
It is also a city that works…. From public transport, to street food markets…. Bangkok is easy (once you have the hang of it) to navigate, and has something for everyone.

We, very bravely, on our first arrival in Bangkok, had decided we were going to find our own way to the hotel… to hell with taxis and airport limos… we were going to use the MRT (The Metro Rail system , or Mass Rapid Transport…MRT is just FAR easier to say), and then intersect with the BTS (The sky train that runs throughout Bangkok).. don’t worry..you get the hang of the acronyms very quickly…and then walk the last 100 meters to our hotel…

Brave we thought…. Clever we thought….

Then we landed…..

Now folks finding your way to the Metro from the airport is a simple enough task…. And there is only one line that runs towards the city… But this was 9:00pm in the evening…
The airport was HEAVING with people…. It was a foreign country… we certainly didn’t speak the language… and well…the currency…it was pretty…but that’s as much as we knew…

So there we were…sheep in the big city…. The VERY big city!!

What we hadn’t counted on were the incredible Thai people….Who through an exchange of sometimes broken English, sometimes hand signals, AND…wait for this… the one gent even accompanied us to our stop (which wasn’t his) to show us where to change trains… Made the task alarmingly simple…
Our journey into the legendary city had begun!

It’s difficult to describe the journey on the Metro from the airport… It races through suburbs on the outskirts of Bangkok, before plunging into the thick of the city….
And at night it passes by apartment buildings where you can see families sitting down to eat their evening meal… wary workers returning home… and ahead of you the twinkling lights beckon…

This was Gotham City come to life!

In spite of the seemingly never ending surge of people on the train, the BTS and in the train and BTS stations, we managed to successfully, without much event, and with a tremendous amount of help from the local people who seemingly could not do enough to help us, find our way to our hotel.

And from then on the BTS became our preferred mode of transport…
reliable..clean..safe…and incredibly cheap, it has great coverage of the City.

Bangkok truly assails the senses…
From the street food markets, which proliferate, and which are SUCH great value for money… And the food sells very fast, and is very fresh.. so be brave… try something… even if its just a fresh coconut, to the temples and spirit houses which abound.

Perhaps to elaborate a little more on spirit houses…as you will encounter one at almost every building..
A spirit house, or “ San Phra Phum”, (yes yes, I’m trying to be posh…I simply called them spirit houses), is a shrine to the protective spirit of the land on which a building is built, which the Thai believe inhabited the land prior to the building being erected.
The spirit houses are then built to provide shelter for and appease the spirits who may otherwise be offended and cause problems.
These spirit house proliferate in Bangkok, and range from the simple, sometimes weather beaten to the incredibly elaborate.

Bangkok is an incredible spiritual city, with over 90,000 temples.
Do yourself a favour, (whatever your religion), book yourself a temple tour, and get to see just a fraction of these master pieces…
It is a moving and awe inspiring experience.

And for the shoppers amongst us, (yes, you know who you are!), Bangkok is a shoppers paradise..
Malls abound…from the high end Siam Paragon, where you can purchase a Rolls Royce, (no..literally!), to the legendary MBK Centre, where bargains abound!

However…some things to note… It you are buying clothes, be sure to ask for “ Western Size” (If the person in the shop doesn’t already advise you this, which they generally do)…
The Thai people are very much smaller in frame from most Westerners…so even if you buy a large, you may end up looking like a pork sausage with a knot in the middle..

And BARGAIN!

This is expected!
You will get a better price…is you ask…

Take the time out to explore…It is a little daunting at first, but remember…the nearest BTS Station or Tuk Tuk is just around the corner..so if it all becomes too much, you can whisk yourself back to the safe haven of your hotel.
Take a trip to China Town….you will know it when you see it….with large neon signs touting “ Shark Fin Soup”, and “ Birds Nest Soup” , (and no I wouldn’t suggest trying either…both have a significantly damaging effect on the environment..but that’s a story for another time).
It is a fascinating window into a culture few of us get to experience.

So if you are feeling brave..take the plunge..open your eyes..open your mind…forget Western ideology and immerse yourself in the fascinating, beautiful, humbling city that is Bangkok..

You may love it..you may hate it….but your life will never be the same.

Do’s:
  • Book a private temple tour – They are easily arranged through the hotel, and are worth the slight extra you pay. You have a driver and a tour guide in a mini bus. The tour guide will queue for you to get the tickets for any entrance fee (which is included in your trip cost), and you can take in the sights at leisure.
  • See the floating market The original (and apparently far better) floating market is about an hour and a half’s drive from the city, and you will need an early start. These tours are easily arranged through the hotel.
  • Visit Jim Thompson house.. a remarkable piece of architecture and serene garden in the heart of the city. Jim Thompson was an American businessman who helped revitalise the Thai Silk Trade in the 1950’s and 60’s…and the story behind this and his mysterious disappearance are fascinating. No need to arrange a tour. Simply hop on the BTS and jump off at the station closest to the site.
  • Try the street food! – Be brave! You can do it!
  • Let go of any preconceived “Western” ideology… immerse yourself in the city.
  • Walk around…. Don’t always take Tuk Tuks and trains..Walk a little. YES it’s warm..but it is also incredible!
  • Respect the culture and the people! The Thai People have great respect for their Royal family. Don’t be a putz and disrespect this.
Don’ts:
  • Don’t be blinkered … there is a big big world out there! Live a little.
Tip: We have been to Bangkok in November and March. November is just after the rainy season and is my preference. The city is COVERED in orchids (literally every street pole) and is very “green”. March is VERY dry…and you probably won’t see many orchids around.

Phuket...And Ping pong

This is one place I had always wanted to see…

My friends had been… my colleagues had been… hell, even my nephew had been… Yet I had never experienced the legendary Phuket.

The island of sun, cocktails, parties and …of course…ping pong shows.

We were going to get a tan, get drunk and party one down..after all, it was only two days since my birthday, and that alone was reason enough for me to let my hair down, (not that any excuse would not have done)

So when we landed at Phuket International Airport, I was, I think, understandably a little peeved that it was raining…
Where was the sun?

I wanted tropical! And this wasn’t it!

We poured ourselves out of the plane, along with throngs of Chinese tourists, (no really..THRONGS!) and made our way to the cab counter..
Now folks I have to tell you, the Thai people are geared for tourism… A cab counter?
I had never in my life seen such a thing.

We gave our destination, paid our fee, were given a receipt and cab number , and off we went…. Out into the rain….
The perpetual, soaking seemingly never ending rain…
Rain which after an hours drive did not abate.

By the time we turned into our hotel gates, I was questioning why we had ever decided to leave sunny Bangkok.

However we were soon to discover that rain, sun or ..well..rain or sun, in Phuket the party must go on.

We caught the hotel bus down to Phuket town…breathless with “an-ti-ci-Pation” at what pleasures this Pandora’s box held.

Our first stop.. the notorious Bangla Walking street.
A street with pedestrian only access… Lined with bars and strip clubs… and more bars.. and more strip clubs, and more…well, let’s just say that if you are in the market for drink or strippers, this would be your utopia.
This is a street of excess.. Of in your face down and dirty “what we have to offer” on a plate.
It is a fascinating, mesmerizing, chaotic, intimidating, must see place.

Phuket we discovered over the following week lives up to it’s reputation and then some.
The sun did come out… Every day… It was warm.. VERY warm.
Not a Bangkok warm, but more of a tropical rain infused warm.

Phuket is not for the faint hearted.
It is over commercialized, slightly tacky and run down, but you have to experience it, even if just once.
You will be harassed by at every turn, if not by “ladies” offering Massages, then by gentlemen holding up boards offering “the best ping-pong shows in town”

Our first encounter with the famous “Thai Massages” came within 2 minutes of stepping off the hotel bus… I felt someone grab my arm.. I was numb..

Was I being mugged??

Dear Lord! All the way from South Africa, only to be mugged in Thailand??
I didn’t have to travel 8000km for this! I could have saved the money, stayed home and simply headed downtown!

And then I heard it… not unlike the noise of an alley cat having it’s tail slowly twisted…

“Meeeesaggggeeee. Meeeeestah, you want Meeeesageeeee???”

I was relieved! I wasn’t being taken for my hard earned South African Rands. I was simply being offered a massage.

I turned and smiled sheepishly, and in typical South African fashion, (we are so desperately polite), mustered an “umm no thank you very much”.

Now folks, for those of you who have been to Phuket you will know, or those planning a visit to Phuket, be advised… “No” is not a word in these ladies vocabulary.
Ladies, be assured, the fact you are hanging on your mans arm will NOT deter the entrepreneurial spirit of these “therapists”.
My polite “no thank you” was ignored… And met with yet another sales pitch…

“you like girl, you like boy, you like ladyyyyyyy boy? We meeeeesagggeee you longgggg time” …

I was incredulous… Did she REALLY say “lonngggg time”?? Just like the movies?

This persisted.. every second or third store, quite literally, is a “massage parlour” , whose intrepid ladies line the pavements in their uniforms (yes, they actually wear uniforms), touting for business.
By day three, the novelty of this wears very thin..
And we could appreciate why many of the Australians, who seem to throng to the island, wore T-Shirts which bore the words “NO! I DON’T want a F****NG MASSAGE” .

Gotta love the Aussies.. straight to the point.

And then there are the ping-pong shows.
We, alas, never did get to see one.
The intent was certainly there… We figured “when in Rome” and all that.
However the “we will go tomorrow night” never materialized, and we left Phuket feeling a little like we had missed out on an important part of the “culture”.

For those who aren’t familiar with the legendary Ping-Pong shows, they are a dime a dozen in Phuket, and involve young ladies launching projectiles from orifices usually reserved for procreation and pleasure, with apparent alarming accuracy.
I am led to believe that skilled performers could launch a dart and take out the eye of a pygmy goldfish from 20 paces…..

Of course this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea…

And if you prefer simply to get a few drinks, well, Phuket is certainly not lacking on that front!
You may purchase 2 litre buckets, (yes, BUCKETS!), of red bull and vodka, (or whatever other mix takes your fancy), for, at the time, 150 Baht.. so for those of you from South Africa, that’s about R70!

This is the land hangovers were made in!

Whether it be Massages, Ping-Pong shows, strippers, Kathoey (lady boy) cabaret shows, paragliding, jet skiing, or simply lounging on the beach you are after, Phuket certainly has it all.
It is a place I am glad I have seen, glad I have experienced, and another check I can add to my bucket list.

Is this my favourite place in Thailand?
Not by a long shot.
It is over commercialized and vaguely grubby.

Would I go back?

Yes.. but not for a long period.
Maybe a night or two, just to relive the experience, and maybe a little nostalgia.

There are far more beautiful islands in Thailand… Islands that will take your breath away.
Islands which are just as accessible, and are not quite as frenetic.