When we were dating, DH left on a two-year religious mission (for a church we have now left behind). Near the end of that mission, we were still going strong as a couple, and I lived in Laie, Hawaii for a couple of months without him.
I loved that time in Hawaii. It was luminescent, it was aromatic, it was dreamlike. It was jalousies and trickling rain, rooster crows and tribal drumming, Tahitian dancing and generations-old cultural garb.
I wanted him to experience it. We decided, at some point or another, that we would go there for our 10th wedding anniversary.
Then we were almost at that 10th anniversary, and we were visiting friends in Utah, and we were talking about travel, and someone said Thailand.
And we looked it up.
And there it sat, the exact same cost as our tentative plans for Hawaii. Thailand won.
We took 9 days (3 for travel), and we loved every minute of it. It was striking, it was pungent, it was invigorating. It was open walls and condensation, Sufi supplications and Tuk-Tuk music, lady-boys and ancient massage rituals. It was incredible. But mostly…
…it was a paradox.
You’re welcome to travel through that paradox with me as I document my experiences and thoughts in my Thailand series (and these accompanying stories, summary-style).
The world is small, but the ways in which we each experience and process it are stammeringly vast.
Day One Itinerary: A preview for next time
— Hospitality on arrival — chilled cocunut cucumber water & ginger-infused towels.
— A beautiful view at no extra cost
— The new meaning of continental
— Failing at haggling, renting motorbikes anyway
— An opportune massage at an inopportune time
— Big Buddha and the big surprise
— Promthep Cape: stunning views, hawks on a leash, and barbers on demand
— Street food #1: Ice coffee & some amazing breaded thing
— Wat Chalong Temple
— Curry at Sunset Bay
From DIA to SLC
was a breeze (except that our flight left around 6:00 am, so that meant being super glad that G-ma was kind enough to drive us up there bright and early, crossing our fingers that the kiddos didn’t get too off schedule).
We met up with our travel friends right away in SLC, and then the four of us set off for LAX. First order of business in LAX: find Terminal Tom Bradley (not to be confused with Tom Brady), which may or may not have also been Terminal “TB” (I’m not sure we ever figured that out for sure…).
Lucky for us, we looked as lost as we were, so a luggage guy gave us a lift down a tunnel to our terminal entrance.
Then came the tricky part.
We’d read good and bad things about it, and, as it turned out, it was better than expected for us short people who are used to traveling nothing but Coach. There were tons of in-flight movies, games, books, and more; and the seats were as comfortable as can be expected. Most of the group had a hard time with the food, but I’m not sure we had a right to expect much more, given the price of the plane tickets (ours were through Groupon, but we looked them up separately as well. They’re definitely comparatively easy on the budget).
Pro tip though: take some Dramamine. It magically turns
13 hours on
into about 7 hours of sleep and only 6 hours on a plane! Wish we would have done this on the way out…
The first long stretch had us landing in Shanghai and then it was back on with China Eastern for another 5-hour flight to Phuket International Airport.
Travel Thought #1:
What a privilege it is to speak English.
This was the connection I was most concerned about, for obvious reasons. But everyone at Shanghai International spoke enough English to make it work. And smoothly too.
When we finally got to Phuket, it was about 12:30 am there, and we’d felt like we’d been awake for days.
We managed to find our driver, along with a handful of other Americans — two from Florida and two from LA.
After the ~hour-long drive to the Centara Blue Marine Resort, we got out of the bus, half-wired, half-tired, and the driver carried our luggage up to the open-air lobby.
Knowing that Americans can’t drink the tap water in Thailand, and being that we were dripping with condensation in the hot, Thailand air (even at night and under the lobby fans) we asked the front desk if there was some to buy. There wasn’t right there, but they told us to hold tight.
A few minutes later, our hostess brought us a silver tray arrayed with four chilled glasses of liquid perfection (aka coconut-cucumber water) and four damp and chilled hand-towels
folded into roses and infused with ginger
and other scented herbs.
is Thailand’s strong point is an understatement.
In addition to the coconut-cucumber water, the resort accommodated our request to be in adjacent rooms, and upgraded us to the Ocean View rooms in order to do so, at no additional cost to us.
And then there was the “continental” breakfast. So…when you think of a continental breakfast, you usually think light meals like toast or fruit. Centara did things a little differently…
Take a look:
We’re talking 5-star omelet bar (w/ onsite chef to make them however you want them), juice and cereal bar (with cucumber detox water, guava juice, and more), fruit bar (dragon fruit, pineapple, seriously awesome yogurt dip, etc.), hot dishes like sausages and, of course, massaman curry, and a Bakery corner.
Not pictured: coffee bar (even the instant coffee in Thailand is superb), noodle bar, seafood bar.
So, after breakfast
it was time to get out and see the sights. We specifically planned nothing this day, in hopes of basically just doing whatever we wanted. We strolled down the road outside our hotel and came across a nice-looking guy riding a scooter. When we asked him where the best place to rent was, he told us right away to go around the bend, down the alley, and tell them “Australian Jake” sent us.
We awkwardly walked down the alley trying to decide which door was a door rather than a storefront, which wall belonged to which goods for sale, which place to knock at…
Luckily, a ~12-year-old Thai girl came out of the sliding glass store front and make-shift sign-languaged to us that we could rent the scooters in front of the store. She got her mom out there and we started in on our best haggling effort.
In the end, “Australian Jake’s” name didn’t get us the price we wanted, but at 250 baht per day (about $7), we couldn’t really haggle with a straight face anyway.
And so we were off on our super cool motorbikes, ready to hit the (wrong side of the) road and scooter all around town. But first, we needed gas.
Now, there are no gas stations in Patong or the nearby areas. There are convenience stores (I’d bet at least twenty five 7-Elevens in Patong alone) and then there are gas stands, but never the two together. There, people just sell gasoline by the liter out of glass bottles (for about the equivalent of $3–4 a gallon). They use a funnel and you just trust that they’re putting the real deal in there for you.
Which brings me to
one of the paradoxes
of Thailand: the lifestyles are so humble (for most) and yet there seems to be an understanding of trust with regard to valuables. Very few things are locked or hidden, houses blend into one another, yards are shared, doors are left unlocked. You know you’re getting gasoline when you ask for gasoline, but there is clearly no way of regulating it. There is just
Well, right when we stopped to get gasoline,
it started to rain.
We had barely started our adventure when it was almost immediately stopped, quite literally in the middle of the road.
But where one door closes another door opens. And in this case, that door happened to be to the same place that sold us the gasoline. We were lucky because it happened to be a gasoline stop aaaand a massage parlor (of course).
So one hour and 250 baht (about $7) each later, we had just had the most amazing Thai massages of all time. Plus we met some super cool Thai ladies while we were at it. The one in the Dodgers shirt is a boxer. For reals.
Boxing is a major deal in Thailand.
After the massage, the rain had stopped and we headed up to see the Big Buddha. Another Thai paradox — promiscuity to the point of having to have signs like this on the massage parlors:
While at the same time being a culture completely immersed in a type of Buddhism that promotes extreme modesty. E.g., passing out skirts and shawls to anyone wearing shorts or tank tops at Big Buddha.
And speaking of
the most surprising thing
to me at that point was the paradox I’d noticed of an incessant coupling of things refined with things rundown, things immaculate with things inferior, things pristine with things unclean.
Here at the Big Buddha temple was a perfect example. The architecture, the detail, the stonework, the ornate, gold-plated tin leaves wired to every branch of the trees sending memorials to loved ones was coupled with shoddy, half-completed construction, obtrusive neon coloring on plastic fencing, makeshift stands for selling trinkets out of boxes, and the ever-present piles of garbage…
An ongoing theme of the trip would be the most enamoring and welcome natural scents from the flowers and trees and fruits and food followed swiftly by the offensive odors of heaping trash…trash which — at the temple — these splendid and stately monkeys stole from onlookers and then horded like kings, biting the bottoms off of bottles and imbibing on any leftover contents they could drain out.
There were flowers and butterflies galore, there was fresh coconut water and lychee juice to buy…
… sold by dirtied hands on dirtied stands hacking away at the tops of the coconuts with giant butcher knives, stern faces, and little or no thought for presentation, It was superb anyway.
We spent the rest of the day driving around the cities and exploring. We hit the southern tip — Promthep Cape — where we stood at the top of the hill looking out on the most amazing views, surrounded by ocean and, of course, by nothing other than a street barber (slogan idea: “trims on the tram”) and a man selling the experience of petting his pet hawk (and no, that’s not a euphemism).
We bought ice coffee and something bready and cinnamony and fried off a street cart in Karon. We bought elephant-decal tanks from a shop/house manned by two very young children doing homework. We passed scooter after scooter of white Australians, and then we were passed by scooter after scooter of entire Thai families packed onto one seat.
Then we hit the Wat Chalong temple where, once again, we met the ornate and majestic mixed with kitsch and plastic.
Not pictured: Thirteen mangy, stray dogs, surrounding these superb gardens.
It was an outstanding first day in Thailand. If a book or a movie had to portray a day that was
completely perfect in its purpose,
it would be this day.
As we came back to our hotel, returned our scooters (the 12-year-old checked them for scuffs and scratches of which there were, thankfully, none), and started chatting about dinner, we happened to spot a nice-looking restaurant just across the street from the hotel.
The hotel gate-man blew his whistle and waved his wand to help us cross the street (again with the hospitality), and we walked up the stairs to Sunset Bay, whereupon, we were pleased to order some of the best massaman curry we have ever had.
Travel note: in case you were wondering, the massaman curry in the states is pretty much the same as it is in Thailand. So you can feel culturally sound saying you like Thai food even if you’ve never been to Thailand. And if you don’t like Thai food then, well, you are a sad, sad person.
Jet Lag had nothing on us for Day Two. We had to wake up at 4:30 am for our sunrise tour of the Phi Phi Islands, but we barely felt the drain, since our veins were running swift with excitement.
Our driver picked us up at the hotel and we headed to the marina. Before boarding the speedboat that would carry us throughout the islands, we were provided a buffet breakfast at a beach shop, complete with a specially-made Thai dessert whose name escapes me.
If you know what this delectable, gelatinous-cocounut-rice-covered banana goodness is, please do remind me in the comments.
After that amazing wake-up call, we grabbed our snorkeling masks and fins, put our electronics in plastic baggies, and then headed out to the courtyard, where our tour guide, Jimmy, walked us through the safety rules for speedboats.
The next thing we knew, were were skimming on top of the water at high speed, cutting right through the lukewarm air and looking out at this view from our coveted spot at the front of the boat:
Eyes squinting, hair whipping our faces, uncontrollably smiling despite the salty air, we hoped that boat ride would last the day.
Until we saw the Phi Phi Islands National Park.
We anchored down a ways from the shore, one of the first boats there. (definite bonus of booking the somewhat-more-expensive sunrise version of the tour, btw!). The island was mostly empty as we carried our packs to the sand.
The first island was smaller, but full of explorable little corners. We minded the coconut trees as we headed toward the back of the island. Those willing to brave the rope ladder were welcomed by hundreds of rainbow-colored crabs, darting every which way, plus some creepy-cool caves.
The tour continued as we headed past the ling-ling island, where a group of monkeys had been marooned and had now taken over the trees…
…and onto a favorite watering hole, the perfect depth for swimming in the aqua-transparent water.
After one or two back flips by the boys, precisely one pair of fallen trousers (recorded in slow-mo, almost as if we had known it was going to happen), one off-color joke about feet and rear ends by our British boat mate, and one close call with myself and a see urchin, we continued on with the journey.
We passed the cave where birds make nests out of goopy bird saliva — which is then collected and sold like gold by folks who are allowed to shoot you if you trespass (we didn’t).
We stopped for some of the coolest snorkeling in the world — which was too cool to photograph (we’re talking giant clams, curious monster fish, coral as far as you can see in every direction).
And then it was time for lunch. By now, Jimmy had grown fond of us, and we likewise thought he was probably the coolest tour guide of them all. He was loud and funny…and barely understandable. He was super sincere and charming.
We stopped at an island with an open Thai buffet (amazing, yet again) and drinks for sale. Jimmy whistled to the bartender to give us each some coconut water on the house.
Business tip :
It’s the little things that make the biggest difference. This gesture cost close to nothing for Jimmy and the restaurant, but it locked the experience in our minds as a total positive forever going forward. (It’s the same sentiment I have about Disney World’s Birthday buttons).
Part of that memorable experience was that this was the kind of island that movies try to mimic. Along with the amazing food and drink, there were hammocks galore, beach chairs, fancy-schmancy powder rooms and showers, and, of course, beautiful scenery.
We also met an Asian Water Monitor:
Which brings me to
a note about the wildlife.
I was surprised (as I was when I moved to Hawaii as well) about the lack of dangerous wildlife. In this part of Thailand (Phuket area) there aren’t a ton of jellyfish or sharks to worry about. And neither were there a lot of other dangerous things like spiders, snakes, rodents (other than the monkeys), etc.
We did come across a giant centipede (which I’ve heard is poisonous) and some mutant snails from outer space, but other than that, the shriek-and-run factor was pretty low where we were at.
It’s basically just a crazy-beautiful land full of crazy-beautiful butterflies.
After lunch and a nap in the hammock, we headed to our final stop — another island with snorkeling and relaxing. Not as cool as the last snorkeling, but enthralling nonetheless.
Each stop was amazing and each interim conversation on the boat was fascinating.
One of the coolest things about traveling is
meeting new people.
In this instance, we shared our front-of-the-boat experience with a single dude from France whose impressions and thoughts and experience Jared proceeded to question thoroughly, as he is known to do. ❤
As the tour rounded back on itself and the loop was completed, we gladly tipped Jimmy and his crew (whatever you hear about Thailand not being a place for tips is false; e’rbody wants tips) and headed back to the hotel.
But the day wasn’t over.
Waking up at 4:30 am felt like nothing by that time, and we had yet to endure the haggling of the downtown area in Phuket, so we swapped our beach clothes out and headed up the street.
Passing by Patong beach, and having wanted to climb the trees at the National Park (but not having been brave enough to), I couldn’t help myself but try it here. It wasn’t as easy as it used to be (in Hawaii).
As soon as I remembered to act my age (a thing I rarely remember. Or do), we calmly walked a few more paces up to the shops. We passed by the fish spa but a few feet before we turned back.
feeling of all time. But notably effective. *We were glad we hadn’t googled it before trying it.
After some brief haggling and me getting talked (totally not schmoozed, I promise) into getting fitted for a custom three-piece suit, we finally called it quits for the night.
And if any day were ever
even more perfect
than our first day in Thaliand, it was this one.