Monday, June 22, 2009

The Kingdom of Thailand

The largest city I have been to since beginning this trip is Sydney, it has around 4 million people evenly spaced around the harbor. Then I arrived in Bangkok, the population is about 8 million. I was staying in the “quiet” area of the city called Hualamphong. It is near Chinatown and one of the most important train stations in the city.

Bangkok can’t be described. I was immediately overwhelmed when I landed at night. There was no sign of a real city center, there was oppressive heat for a 10 p.m. night, and there were 7-11’s block after block after block. I had to get into the city to book a bus and ferry to get to the islands, I was most interested in seeing. The city is really laid out like a big mess. Roads change names, meander in strange ways, and sidewalks end very quickly. On the 3km walk to get to the booking agent I had to walk through some of the more historic areas. On the walk there are impressive Buddhist temples, shrines dedicated to the King and Queen, and lovely gardens. Amid all the chaos, is beauty and serenity.

It is really hot in Bangkok, I felt like my organs were beginning to melt. In the morning, it was just the heat following me through the eating joints, flower market, and constant flow of consumerism. It was hot, but not too bad. But, by the afternoon the heat combined with the pollution, made it extremely difficult to even be outside. I would walk into a shop with air conditioning to recharge and look around. Since I didn’t have air conditioning in my room at the hotel, I didn’t sleep the two nights I stayed there, I laid down some towels on the bed to make sure some of my sweat would soak through it, not through the bed.

The Islands
I was completely surprised to see very few people when I was out on the islands in the Gulf of Thailand. I centered myself on the most central island Ko Pha Ngan. Each month thousands of party people descend on this 193 square mile island for the Full Moon Party. The party is centered on Sunrise Beach in Hat Rin, which receives an incredible amount of tourists in comparison to the rest of the island. Most of the island residents live near to Throng Sala, which is the main ferry drop off point for the island. On the island there are heaps of stunning beaches, an active fishing business, 20 Wat (Buddhist Temple), unbelievable diving, elephant trekking, waterfalls, and good food.

I stayed at a small hotel in Haad Salad that was offering a free night if you stayed for more than three nights. It was inexpensive, but also didn’t have air conditioning or hot water, but it was clean and quite comfortable. I got to the island from Bangkok via bus and ferry, which was a long trip, but let me see heaps of the countryside. This is very much an island and the residents are extremely relaxed and not as pushy as what I experienced in Bangkok. I got around mostly by foot, and rented a very cheap scooter for a couple of days to get further from Haad Salad. This is my kind of place, although a bit too quiet, I didn’t find many other travelers to meet up with, but an amazing experience.

Ko Samui is a completely different place. It is located south of Ko Pha Ngan and has become a rather luxurious spot for people to visit, complete with the higher prices. The island has been blessed with heaps of beaches on all parts of the island. Like its northern neighbor Ko Samui has waterfalls, diving, beaches, marine parks, but also has more spas and yoga facilities for those needing a bit of relaxation. The island also has some Thai cooking courses that are popular tourist activities.

Ko Tao to the north is a heaven for divers. According to what I have read, the island certifies more divers than those on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. This island north of Ko Pha Ngan has a great reef just off the shore, which makes the diving easy and accessible. Most of the island seems to focus completely on the diving, with a few spas and yoga facilities scattered about. There are also lots of expats that have made the island home after coming for a visit.

I am very sad about leaving Thailand. I really enjoyed being on the islands and wish there was more time to explore. The laid back vibe is something I completely appreciate. The heat is tough, but manageable if you are on a striking beach or a motorbike. The people here are comfortable and happy. I will be coming back to Thailand.

Interesting Thailand

- Near my hotel there were several shops selling coffins.
- You must remove shoes before entering any building with a Buddha, which is the rule in both hotels I stayed at in Thailand.
- There are phallic symbols all around Bangkok, the bigger they are, the more power it shows.
- I really wanted to go to the Forensic Medicine Museum, but ran out of time in Bangkok.
- When you are on Thanon Khao San you feel like you are somewhere else, there are so many backpackers and cheap stuff to buy.
- There are way more lady boys (gateui) around Bangkok than I expected.
- I think you can buy anything in Thailand, for a very good price. There are miles up on miles of stores, shops, and stands selling literally everything! President Obama even has shops dedicated to him (but I think they are unauthorized)

There are more pictures on my facebook page!

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