04 Mar Thailand? Yes, please!
You never really see the beauty captured in a photograph; a friend’s photo album presented at a braai or up on Facebook. It is the sudden realisation of how much beauty is lost when you don’t see it for yourself. A picture is truly a 1000 words; without the thoughts, the taste, the feel, and the sound.
You feel the heat first when you arrive in Bangkok. It delves into the very depths of you and drives you out into the open air. The streets are manic; blaring hooters and swerving bikes. Cars, bikes, taxis, tuk-tuks, bicycles and busses push forth with enticing offers, conversations between neighbours, and screaming kids.I wish I could say I did that eyes-closed-pick-a-place-on-a-map thing when choosing Thailand as a holiday destination. Instead, I weighed up flight length vs. the amount in my bank account; all this explained to a very peppy travel agent on the other end of the telephone. Thailand it was. Phuket. Krabi. Phi-Phi. Bangkok. 16 days. Exchange rate: 3 to 1. Check. Flight: 10 hours with a stop off in Bangkok. Check.
I could see why people came here or even stayed here. I could see it at the street food markets lining the pavements emitting the spit and pop of food deep-frying in hot oil. The snap and flap of wet dough hitting a steel surface (hmm, the smell of frying pancakes), attached haphazardly to a stall mounted on a vesper bike. The screams of children playing in the sea as the tide crept in. Each sense is taken up in their use. My senses became a group of toddlers about to throw a tantrum, all demanding to be felt, heard, tasted, smelled, and seen all at once. It was all in the thick air, the pulsing need to live, to be fed, to laugh, to enjoy, and to love.
It wasn’t the touristy Phuket – derived from the word ‘bhukit’ which means hill in Thai – that I fell in love with. Nor, was it James Bond Island, situated in a group of islands, famous for their limestone karsts, called Pang-Na Bay, that expands almost 400km2 – or so our tour guide told us. Phuket, Patong to be exact, is where you’ll find western-world profanities plastered on shirts, bangles and footwear. Famous for its Big Buddha, a 45m white Burmese marble statue; the Wat Chalong temple, a refuge in the 1800 during the Chinese-Coolie rebellion; Tiger sanctuaries, and Elephant ride offers litter sidewalks as tourist pay tooth-and-nail for bragging rights: ‘We rode an elephant, you know’. It is the Ping-Pong shows and Thai boxing that drag tourists from air-conned hotels at night, each an experience you’ll never forget.
Kho Phi-Phi, will always be the island we recovered on. Each of our party falling prey to the infamous food poisoning. We spent most of this visit hugging toilet bowls, and gnawing sweet crackers and suckling flat coca-cola on our hotel bathroom floor. This wasn’t the adventure we’d imagined. We managed a quick gaze out of the reception area, photo opportunities – we had to prove, more to ourselves, that we saw at least some of Phi-Phi island.
Exhausted from our escapades on buses, food poisoning, bar hopping in Phuket and the porcelain-express in Phi Phi, we retired to the Krabi. Our second stop in our 16 day tour. It was a hot day in Krabi. ‘You’ve just missed the rain,’ said a woman selling water at a stall, after waving us down and shaking my hand. So hot in fact, that it felt like someone had thrown a woollen blanket over my head. So we did what any tourist on an island would do, we headed to the beach.
This is where I fell in love. I sat up on my towel, the sand crunched as my body broke shells which made up the sand bed. I was sweating, aching and reeling from the heat. As a South African, I should be used to the heat, unlike the lobster-red Brits I had seen at breakfast. The sea water was bluer than a cliché crystal, the sand white, with dark-rocky mountains framing this moment. It was the endless expanse of white sand, the sea so vast that if you were to sail to the very tip of the horizon, you’d drop right off the edge of the world. Because there really isn’t anywhere else you’d need to be than right here.
The sense of calm quickly dissipates as you hit central Bangkok. The heat descends, suffocating and blazing, it seems to bring up every smell from food stalls to spilling sewers. Bangkok is the chubby Buddha to New York’s skinny model. It’s a shopping Mecca for tech lovers, and fashionistas. We laced up our sneakers and headed to the seven-leveled Siam Paragon, the biggest shopping centre in Asia, each level dedicated to a fashion item (bags, shoes, children’s clothing), and shopped till we proverbially dropped – from heat exhaustion in the hotel lobby our first evening.
It was our 13th day and we bartered like locals. We managed to barter our way into 20 caftans, only pairs of gypsy pants and a toddler – we did give the toddler back – giving-in once we discovered the shop assistant was deaf. The Sky train, though simple to use, was a constant source of entertainment. The turn-styles bashing our hips and the random hand-groping in an over-crowded train car was the least of our worries, until we came across a mother begging with her infant child in her arms? The child hadn’t moved since that morning making us question the little thing’s existence. We definitely were a bunch of Dorothy’s and not in Kansas anymore.
When our flight touched down in a freezing Johannesburg, OR Tambo International looking its ever friendly self was a welcome relief. Perhaps it was the overheard Afrikaans, or the notion that I would be sleeping in my own bed, or that I could now eat biltong that made coming home a relief. Thailand was a kaleidoscopic tour-de-force of tradition, culture, history, language, and food. In sixteen days I had fallen in and out of love with Thailand, food poisoning didn’t make it any easier, but if given the chance, I’d go back. Knowing where to go first, and where I wouldn’t. Perhaps my dad was right, ‘No matter where you have been in the world, Kelly, it is always nice to come home.’
- Take a Camera.
- Pack SPF variations of Sunscreen (depending on what tan you want to come home with – but nothing less than SPF30).
- Pack a hat.
- Get a map from your Hotel.
- Carry water, don’t dehydrate.
- Do every tour you can get your travelling paws on – be it a discounted one at a street merchant (they do give you great deals – make sure they have an office!); or your hotel. DO IT ALL!
- Carry cash and a credit card. Use cash in the markets, and cards in malls and restaurants.
- Barter for everything, but in Markets ONLY. It is considered rude to barter in formal establishments. Use the rule: If you get a slip, don’t barter.
- Street food is cheaper and tastier – choose a vendor that looks fairly clean.
- Know the exchange rate.
- Watch out for Gem Factory scams.
- Have fun!