Before moving to Okinawa, Thailand sounded like one of the most exotic places to visit with elephant rides through the jungle and a coastline dotted with remote tropical islands. Although the allure wore off slightly after hearing what a major tourist destination it had become from fellow travelers, it was still high on my list of countries to visit in Southeast Asia. After finishing a 6 month “deployment” to Australia, I took almost three weeks of vacation to travel throughout the area and visit many of my dream destinations. Thailand was the first stop before meeting up with one of my close friends for the final whirlwind through China, India, and Burma. The whole trip was planned around the Festival of Lights, Yi Peng and Loi Krathong, which takes place once a year in Thailand. Several years earlier, I had read an article about the festival of lights and immediately added it to the Bucket List. The more I read, the more I wanted to go because of the cultural aspect for its importance and wanting to witness the massive release of tens of thousands of lanterns in person.
Chiang Mai- The center of events for the Festival of Lights is in Chiang Mai which was the first destination a few days before the celebrations started. The whole city was buzzing in preparation for the festival with streamers being hung at the temples and lanterns being sold on every street corner. I spent my first few days exploring the local Muay Thai gyms, eating questionable street foods, drinking lots of natural fruit juices, and getting super cheap Thai massages. The old city in the center of Chiang Mai is surrounded by a square moat which remains largely untouched by the more urban sections of city that have built up around it.
Two other main things that I wanted to do while in Thailand was to play with baby tigers and to ride an elephant. However, animal abuse is notorious at many of these places in order to support the demand from the tourist industry. Many places drug the animals to allow visitors to get close for pictures and the elephants are often beaten which made me very cautious to find one that emphasized protecting the animals. To avoid accidentally visiting any of those places, I did a lot of research before going on which ones had good reputations for their animal treatment. The first I found was Tiger Kingdom and upon arriving and watching the playful tigers in person, it was clear that they were not drugged but very active. Even to the extent that the visitors were frequently escorted outside of the cages for their protection. The tour of the facilities started with visiting the baby tigers, and almost immediately I was separated from the rest of my tour group because I was the only solo traveler. However, this time it certainly worked to my advantage because the staff took me to my own separate pen and put two of the babies in with me. Maybe this was a little out of pity (the “You’re all alone?” question no longer bothers me and now I just laughingly respond that I have no friends), but it was fantastic because I got to have the undivided attention of two baby tigers and was in heaven!!
I got to wrestle around and play tug-o-war with the little guys while one of the staff members picked up my camera and became my own personal photographer. The next twenty minutes flew by and soon they were dragging me away from my adorable furry friends. Next we visited the cage of the adult tigers followed by the medium sized ones. Two of the young ones took a fancy to me and started guarding the other tourists from me in the cage. Over-all it was an incredible and very memorable experience. I was just a little disappointed that they did not let me adopt one of the babies despite my most persuasive arguments.
The next goal was ride an elephant. In the local area outside of Chiang Mai there are several elephant sanctuaries that do rescue work finding abused elephants and rehabilitating them. It was quite a trek to get out to the farm after the van dropped us off, literally following a winding dirt path out through a rice field, but hidden away at the base of the mountain was the Ran-Tong Elephant Sanctuary. They provided a change of clothes (for when we got muddy later) and introduced us to the elephants right before feeding time. I was paired up with Am, a young rowdy elephant, who they warned had a mischievous streak but they were working on training. Am most definitely had a mind of his own along the hike, occasionally giving me dirt showers with his trunk. At the end of the hike, we stopped by a pond for everyone to scrub down their elephants and have some play time in the water. Am clearly knew that I needed to be cleaned up following our trek and proceeded to thoroughly spray me down to the amusement of all the staff. It was apparent that the volunteers running the sanctuary genuinely cared for each of the elephants as they shared stories for how they were each rescued when I walked by meeting all of the others.
It was time to head back to the city and clean up (again) for the lantern release on the river which is the first part of the Festival of Lights. I met up with a fun couple who were on the same elephant expedition and had invited me to tag along as their third wheel. We found a few seats at one of the open air bars facing the street and started the night watching the parade stream through the city. We joined in with the crowd of spectators and festival goers cheering for the floats and ornately dressed groups as they passed by. After the parade began winding down, we followed the parade route down to the river where we bought little floating banana leaf and flower kratong (raft) lanterns. There were small lines to every entrance of the Mae Ping River where we released our kratongs to join the hundreds of others that were floating pass. The festivities continued the next night and I met up with a group of other backpackers from the hostel, and we set off several of the large lanterns into the sky as part of Yi Peng, the lantern release part of the festival which is the iconic view of the sky being filled with glowing lanterns lazily raising into the dark night. Streams of lanterns filled the skies as they were released around the city. Standing on a bridge over the Mae Ping River, the twinkling sky was reflected in the river by all of the floating kratongs sailing silently underneath. This was a surreal moment of beauty seeing all of the happy faces lit up and a mesmerizing panorama of flickering candles filling the sky.
Phuket- The next stop on the itinerary was Phuket, another well-known town on the western coast of Thailand, famous for its beautiful beaches and the nearby islands. Although almost all of my friends can attest to the fact that I am not a movie buff, this area is famous for the many movies that have been filmed here (most of which I watched only because I was going). Tours were offered from the port in Phuket including the full range of water sports from scuba diving to jet skiing, some of my favorite activities, but I started with a tour to James Bond Island where the “Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed. Despite a rainy start to the morning, we loaded up and set sail on a small double decker boat through the Phang Nga Bay. We visited the famous island and climbed all around the rocks where the various scenes were filmed before cruising on to a series of underwater rivers going through a local island. Kayaking through the dark limestone caves, the river opened up to hidden enclaves of mangroves where we climbed out and were able to swim around.
The following day I took the local tour out to Phi Phi islands, which is straight from the pages of any travel article about Thailand. Small wooden boats took us out to explore the mysterious and hidden island from Leonardo DiCaprio’s film “The Beach.” Although it did not feel as remote or private as the movie because of the tourists filling the beach, it was amazing nonetheless. A buffet lunch was served on shore before we were taken out to a spot filled with colorful fish to spend the afternoon snorkeling. At the end of the sun soaked afternoon, we loaded up and headed back into town.
Nightlife in Phuket is never ending, which is really no surprise because of the constant flow of tourism visiting the area. I was fairly accustomed to the wild shenanigans that took place on these types of streets after having visited many of the surrounding countries and I did not think there were many things that could still surprise or shock me. However, the Ping Pong show in downtown Phuket was 100% successful at doing exactly that. Walking down the pedestrian only Bangla Road in Patong Beach, where the lights were flashing and music blaring from the multi-storied clubs with scantily clad dancers swinging on all the open-front stages, I was handed a flyer for buy one get one free beers at the, you guessed it, Ping Pong show. It was bizarre and unimaginable to me that this was a real thing, so naturally I had to go. Stepping into a dimly lit and fairly seedy looking establishment off Bangla Road’s main street, I bought my beers and found a seat in the smoky room right next to the stage. The following performances were nothing less than remarkable if not slightly horrific as unimaginable things were pulled from places that can never be unseen. When they passed out balloons to the crowd, I have no good excuse for why I thought it was a good idea to take one, but wanting to get the full experience I accepted a balloon from the star of the show. Let’s just say I am extremely thankful for her accuracy with darts as she hit only the balloon and did it on her first attempt.
Bangkok- My last stop in Thailand was Bangkok, the notorious capital of culture, cuisine, and chaos. Starting with a quick run up to Wat Saket to get familiarized with the city, I cleaned up and spent the afternoon visiting several key landmarks including the Grand Palace, the Golden Temple, before exploring the Old City. After settling into my hostel on the chaotic Khaosan Road, I met up with another lovely couple that I had met in the Phuket airport. We all went to the Sky Bar Rooftap at the top of Lebua, famous for its spectacular views of the city and its appearance in Hangover 3. We sipped delicious cocktails while enjoying the unparalleled view and the live band playing jazz over the sound of traffic in the city far below. We continued on to Zanzibar, a local restaurant with live music and slightly off the street away from the chaotic crowds. The next day I took a tour of the city by canoe to visit the floating markets, buy some souvenirs, and see more of the city along the Chao Phraya River. While cruising down the river I spotted the Wat Arun Temple on the shore which I immediately proceeded to search for at the end of the tour. While the steep stairs climbing to the top are no joke, Wat Arun is definitely one of Bangkok’s most beautiful Buddhist temples. As I was leaving, one of the guards recommended a little restaurant across the river for dinner to catch the best view of the temple. Later that night I took his advice and got dinner at the Eagle Nest Bar, watching the sun set directly behind the temple across the river. Even though it is called the Temple of Dawn because of the way that it glimmers in the early morning light, it is equally as exquisite in the evening colors of sunset during the golden hour as the city lights begin appearing in the background.
Hostel Average Cost: $16
Currency: Thai Bat
Drink: Cha Yen- Thai Iced Tea
Food: My most adventurous snack from Thailand was a fried scorpion. It had almost no taste but was very rubbery and difficult to swallow especially since I did not plan ahead to have any drink standing by to wash it down. There is an abundance of delicious and cheap street food available almost everywhere.
Electric Outlet: Both US and European sockets
Visa: Not Required