Christmas Adventure: Thailand

I had a real thorough and enjoyable trip to Thailand for the winter vacation. Thailand is quite different from India, Kolkata especially. The roads in Bangkok are clean and so are the street vendor’s stalls that line the sidewalks. The food looked yummy but was ethically unappetizing to my vegetarian tastes. The night markets were a consumer’s dream.They were packed with counterfeit luxury goods from North Face backpacks to Louis Vuitton purses and itty bitty crop tops. The city itself is a street style playground full of young people making quirky sartorial choices like a beanie with bunny ears or overalls and platforms. I was only in Bangkok for a total of two days, give or take a few hours. But it was the jump off and ending point for my trip, which started on Christmas and ended on New Year’s Day.

First Christmas away from home
December 25th: I left Kolkata very early Christmas day. The flight was one of the best I’ve ever had. I flew premium class, to my surprise. Sometimes good deals just happen. I spent the whole flight in my cozy chair watching Beyoncé videos and sipping on coconut water. It was glorious. I had planned the trip with another one of my Fulbright friends that is based in Delhi. His uncle lives in Thailand and coordinated most of our trip.

GarlandWhen I got to the airport, they greeted me with a small flower garland which is traditionally given in Thai culture. Once I got settled into our hotel, The Lemonseed, we hit the town. Our first stop was the Jim Thompson Museum. Jim Thompson is an American businessman that brought life back into the Thai silk industry. His house in Bangkok was turned into a museum after he went missing in the Malaysian jungle in 1961. No one knows what happened. Talk about a Vietnam-era mystery.

After the museum, we slowly made our way back to the hotel to get changed for Christmas dinner. The restaurant where we had our meal was conveniently located across the street from the hotel. It is all small bistro that opened recently and is run by a cute woman by the name of Dee. We had bruschetta, a yummy pumpkin soup and Turkey. I had the veggies only, of course. After dinner, we walked around the night markets. I was too overwhelmed to buy anything. I just stared in awe as my brain tried to acclimate to the new environment and the unique activity of Bangkok.

All templed out
December 26th: The next morning we went to visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pho Temple (aka The Reclining Buddha Temple). We had to get an early start so that we could beat the morning traffic. Both buildings are located very close to where the protest activity is based so many cab drivers were hesitant to go.

The Grand Palace emits a beauty that can’t be captured in pictures. The architecture of the DSCN1593temples and the palace itself is over the top, but not in a way that turned me off. The gaudiness actually pulled me in and when I got closer, I noticed the intricate details of each fixture. After the palace, we headed to the Wat Pho temple, the home of the reclining Buddha. The Buddha’s feet are coated with mother of pearl and depict the 108 auspicious symbols of Buddha.

After all the temple touring we headed to the airport and hopped on plane to Chiangmai, which is north of Bangkok. That night, we walked around the night markets and had dinner at an open air restaurant with some live music.

Elephant ParkElephants for entertainment
December 27th: In Thailand, it seems that the elephants are a must see. Now, I have very strong opinions when it comes to the use of animals for entertainment and many other things. I was a little hesitant going into the experience but I didn’t want to be a dramatic Debbie Downer so I figured I would wait and see and then form my own opinions.

Well, I did not like it at all. Most of the elephants were chained up. The trainers would bring them to where the tourists were and nudge the elephant with his bullhook to make him or her pose in a crowd pleasing fashion. Most of the tourists would first shutter in fear and then go in for a picture. Every time I saw a bullhook, my stomach sank. I don’t care how tough an elephant’s skin is, the bullhook will always be a cruel and hideous instrument in my eyes.

After feeding the chained up elephants for some time, we were ushered to see a show where the elephants posed, danced, painted, and played sports. Then, we took an Ox ride (also questionable) to wait for our elephant ride. I didn’t quite enjoy the riding the elephant part, but I did like the view. I made sure to feed our elephant lots of sugar cane and bananas, but I still felt guilty. My friend and his uncle assured me that this is the best situation for the elephants since the money that is made at the park goes towards providing medical treatment for them. Sure, it’s a necessary evil that provides a better alternative to elephant work camps and keeps the number of elephants in Thailand up. However, the whole experience did not sit well with me.

After lunch, we went on a boat ride on the river. That was enjoyable (since no animals were involved) and it calmed me down. Later that night, I had a delicious glass of wine and some really tasty mushrooms at a Spanish restaurant. After dinner, we went to Tara bar where the live music was outstanding. The lead singer got the whole audience involved–including us– in this Thai song where we spelled out L.O.V.E continuously.

Three countries in one day
December 28th:  We went on another full day trip that made me feel slightly uneasy. It started off tame with a trip to some hot springs.

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We stopped by the white temple of Chiang Rai, too.

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Then, we visited an area that is kind of like Epcot featuring Thailand’s hill tribes. There were representatives from each of the different tribes in very close proximity to one another. Our tour guide shamelessly led us through the area, putting the different accessories on us and encouraging the whole group to take lots of photographs and buy things. We had to pay extra to go into the Karen tribe village area.

The Karen people, commonly referred to as the long neck tribe, are refugees from Myanamar (Burma) that reside in Thailand. Starting from birth, women put brass rings around their necks which push their shoulders down and make their necks look longer. A full set of rings worn in adulthood can weigh up to 9kg. Sometimes the role of a tourist is difficult to come to terms with. I felt a little bit like I was in a human zoo (I don’t even like animal zoos) and this made me uncomfortable. Was I participating in a liberating act by purchasing souvenirs that these women had made for myself and my family members? Or, was I participating in an oppressive act by handing over my 300 baht to enter and perpetuating a certain lifestyle for this hill tribe’s next generation of females? I honestly don’t know. Another thing I don’t know is the official refugee status of the hill tribes of Thailand. I have been told that the government is working on giving the tribes Thai citizenship but the procedure for evaluating the legitimate residency of current tribes has not yet been refined.

After the awkward tribal jaunt, we went for lunch and then a boat ride to Laos. The area of Laos DSCN1754that we were in was full of fake designer goods, souvenirs galore and whiskey aged with tiger penis, scorpion or dead snake. Apparently its an aphrodisiac. After the boat ride, we went to the northernmost point in Thailand where Thailand borders Myanmar. We went into Myanmar and did a quick lap around the gift shop. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time because the border was about to close and we didn’t want to get trapped in Myanmar.

Beach bumming
December 29th and 30th : We flew back to Bangkok in the morning and immediately hopped in a car to Pattaya which is a short two hours away. Once we got to Pattaya we went straight to the beach. The beach itself was small, there was just a little bit of sand and the waves weren’t too violent. The Gulf of Thailand was cool bordering on chilly in temperature but the sun was strong, so it felt nice to take a quick dip after laying in the sunlight. It was truly an indulgent two days, especially in the food department. I reveled in some quality Italian food and top notch hummus on top of all the coconut water and coffee that I consumed on the beach.

Pattaya is, without a doubt, a low cost destination for all kinds of self indulgence. The streets have simple names like Beach Road and Walking Street. The simple names make it easier for tipsy foreigners to find their way (I’m not sure if that is on purpose or not). Walking St. reminded me of Amsterdam’s red-light district. There were go-go bars a plenty and lots of men and women offering  “boom boom for a good price” on the street.

During my massage the second night, my masseuse described some of the realities of living in Pattaya. She talked about how random men solicit her for “boom boom” when she is walking around the city. In fact, she sometimes does “boom boom” for a little money to make ends meet. She married a man from Pattaya and left her home in the north to be with him. He was unfaithful so they split up and now it’s just her. Four years ago, she went to school to learn massage. I was surprised that I learned all of this in the course of one hour. The conversation didn’t take too long to open up. She was excited to have a black female customer because she wanted to discuss black men. She’s a big fan of Usher, Ne-yo and Flo Rida and any black man that can dance. She has a hard time trusting the men in Pattaya’s black community for their “butterfly” tendencies so she wanted my input. I didn’t know what to say. The combination of the massage, the “boom boom” talk and the racially directed observations rendered me speechless–in a neutral way. I was realizing that Pattaya was sort of like a fictional land where sexual fantasies–with racial undertones–flirt with the everyday. It must be weird for the people that live there.

NYE 2014
December 31st: We spent one more morning on the beach before we drove back up to Bangkok for New Year’s Eve. We went to the CentralWorld Plaza for the New Year’s activities. The CentralWorld Mall is the sixth largest mall in the world. Needless to say, it has many shops and a lot of great restaurants, so we ate dinner there. Around 11 o’clock we pushed our way through the crowd to get a good spot for the countdown and fireworks. There were about three different live music stages set up around the plaza outside of the mall. The crowd was like India’s worst bus for hundreds of yards. It all made up for it at midnight when the fireworks went off. After the Plaza shut down we made our way home. I had to pack for my flight back to Kolkata.

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