Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Thailand's Islands and Beaches

Okay, it took a little while, but the Tuk-Tuk finally took a ride to Thailand's famous islands and beaches. The most popular places to go for foreigners, for a variety of reasons, are the islands of Phuket (pronounced "Pu -ket," no "f" sound for those of you chuckling right now), Ko Samui and Hua Hin. Last week, thanks to some friends from Sweden, Paige and I got away for an all-too short trip to Hua Hin.
My one piece of advice for travelers to Thailand's islands and beaches? Do whatever you can to find your own secluded spot, which generally means avoiding the places mentioned above. All the worst of farang are revealed, in oh so many ways, on Thailand's islands and beaches...
No more rides on the Tuk-Tuk Talker until February 28th, due to a 10-day trip to India starting tomorrow. And upon my return, for one week, we'll take a ride on the Rickshaw Talker. See you then.
Pictures above:
1. - 3. Scenes from the most beautiful parts of Thailand.
4. As Thailand becomes more and more well known throughout the world as an alternative tropical destination, scenes like this one in front of private hotels are all-too common.
5. Paige finds the cutest Tuk-tuk driver in all of Thailand....

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Real Thailand

The other side of the coin to last week’s closer look at Bangkok is the area also known as “the real Thailand” (mega-cities can become frighteningly similar worldwide).

And it’s the rest of Thailand, Tuk-Tuk Talkers, that makes this place uniquely special for the traveler and temporary local.

Mountains with indigenous people groups, tropical forests with the ultra-exotic banana leafs and native animal species, beaches with lots of foreign tourists, islands with more foreign tourists, lowlands for rice growing, vast open fields and expansive land with the occasional village of people that barely even think of themselves as Thai…it’s the diversity, and the outright opposite of the oppressive mega-city, that makes Thailand so appealing and such an irresistible travel destination. This week, our ride on the Tuk-Tuk takes a brief look at all of these various regions of “the land of the free.”

In the north, Chiang Mai is many people’s most favorite place in Thailand due to the overgrown village environment, the variety of outdoor activities including river-rafting and elephants (but so far no river-rafting on elephants), the enjoyment of indoor activities such as Thai cooking and massage classes and an overall laid-back, “we’re not a metropolitan city and we’re proud of it” atmosphere.

In the south, which is one long, Baja-like stretch leading to Malaysia, the beaches and islands dominate with the Andaman Sea on one side and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. Though developing quickly, often without regulations or eco-conscious restraint, these locations provide everything the foreign traveler dreams of from his cubicle in the West. In addition to the islands and beaches, smaller towns provide yet another peak at rural Thailand life, this time of the tropical nature. Nakhon Si Thamarat and Surat Thani are two cities that I’ve experienced first-hand that welcome travelers, but are still authentic Thai experiences.

For a true experience of “far east” culture, heading to Eastern and Northeastern Thailand will reveal wide open fields of rice, an always teetering economical existence based on what the earth yields and small villages of rural “Isan,” a culture of people that goes back as far as the Bronze Age, and includes both Lao and Cambodians in addition to Thai.

Isan has its own language, food, customs and history. Long ago, someone drew up borders that created countries and divided up the Isan people. Same thing happened in the north of Thailand with Burma, Laos, Thailand and China. As an American, I’m not confronted with this reality much, but did you know that people came first, then countries? Taking some time to experience and discover Isan culture would put you in a very elite group of travelers.

All of these places in “the rest of Thailand” are accessible by overnight buses or trains, which generally cost about $18 - $22 for a one-way trip. Short flights are also a possibility and about three times the cost of a train, but still affordable by Western standards.

Together, the regions of Thailand are only growing in their reputation as a traveler’s paradise. Development and other environmental concerns are real, but any industry that helps some overlooked people outside of Bangkok put bread on the table, or in this case, rice on the mat, is good to see.

Why no pictures of those islands and beaches? Well, my experience in Thailand has been a bit different than your’s probably would be. But that, my friends, will be changing this week. Oh yes, that will be changing as I take to the sun, sand and surf of Siam. Come back next week for a glimpse of paradise…

Pictures above:
1. In the heat of Southeast Asia, refreshing rivers in the tropical mountains like this one outside of Nakhon Si Thammarat are an oasis for the foreigner.
2. Life outside the big city has its rewards (here, hammocks in a small village outside of Ubon in the east of Thailand).
3. Elephants, who used to be an invaluable source of work and contribution all over Thailand, have been reduced to entertainment for foreigners and their wild population is dwindling - the Asian Elephant is officially an endangered species.
4. A typical Isan meal of fish, chicken, vegetables and spices that pack a flavorful punch.
5. No better place to be in Thailand for festivals than Chiang Mai - Sean and Paige would agree.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sights, Sounds and Sun in Bangkok

Bangkok has quite the reputation worldwide.

While it continues to be the central metropolitan location in all of Southeast Asia, the business and transportation hub to all other locations in this region and the welcoming city for all tourists with their eyes on the beaches and islands, Bangkok retains its status as a bit of an enigma to the outside world. Sex trade and political instability continue to raise eyebrows in the Western world and keep Bangkok (and Thailand) on the edge of being considered a developed, reliable, trustworthy nation (as opposed to other Asian nations to the north).

What is Bangkok like for the temporary local, here now for over three months? This week’s ride on the Tuk-Tuk Talker explores this city further and provides a few insights for the tourist who spends more time here than just a layover.

While there are tourist sights to visit throughout the city, the kind of tourism is different than Western nations. Museums are not the focal point, the various temples are. History is not necessarily located on a wall in an air-conditioned quarantine, but might be a crumbling monument found in Bangkok or the former capital, Ayutthaya, to the north. The experience of this city is found in exploring the former Royal Palace and temple, cruising along the Chao Praya River downstream and stopping at a market for a local Thai-style lunch, then walking through Chinatown before the sun goes down and the revelry of the evening begins. One doesn’t necessarily come to Bangkok to complete a sightseeing checklist extraordinaire, but to experience Thai culture found in markets, districts and participating in the daily and nightly lives of the natives.

Parts of Bangkok are very rewarding and enjoyable for the tourist or temporary local. But you have to pick your spots and plan your route and location very carefully…by day, you may find yourself stuck in an unexpected traffic jam (the above ground transit system, BTS Sky Train, comes highly recommended and air-conditioned) and by night in an unexpected red-light district, which is unfortunately why so many foreigners venture to Bangkok in the first place.

Like so many cities, Bangkok can be broken down into smaller districts, which helps the new arrival to get oriented. The old city with the Grand Palace on the river, Chinatown, the seats of government and the shopping district are all the places where you will see the most farang (white foreigners usually from in order of quantity: Australia, America, Sweden, United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, France).

One big attraction for the foreigner to Thailand and Southeast Asia is the price. Once you’ve paid the pretty penny, krown or baht to get here, lodging, transportation and food options abound, coming at all different prices, which can make this part of the world particularly appealing for the budget traveler. A nice hotel for $30/night and a filling lunch on the street for $1 can indeed bring a smile to the traveler’s face.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I’ve learned that I fare better in cooler environments that aren’t so conducive to the unappealing aspects of the world’s largest cities such as traffic, pollution, endless concrete, over-urbanized population and the economic disparity between street sellers, labor and executives. Bangkok is the epitome of this type of mega-city. Many people thrive off of this, would be refreshed (especially this time of year in the middle of winter) with the incessant heat and humidity, usually between 90 and 100 degrees Farenheit and can manage through these disadvantages of large cities. I can’t quite get past it myself and, well, can often be caught daydreaming about the Swiss Alps or the rolling meadows of Sweden when I’m in my tuk-tuk traffic jam sucking on fumes.

Bangkok can work for you, but you must be prepared mentally for this type of city.

Pictures above:
1. The Democracy Monument, located in the middle of the tourist district of Bangkok, marks the triumphant change from Absolute Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy which took place in 1932.
2. One of the more popular wats, temples, in Bangkok is the Wat Pho, the Reclining Buddha. This is one of the only pictures that can capture the magnitude of this lazy Buddha, which is practically bursting from the temple.
3. The Chao Praya River is a central part of the Bangkok experience, serving trade and tourism for centuries.
4. China's influence in Asia extends far beyond its borders. The Chinese immigrant population in Siam, old Thailand, and now has created an entire district (not all that different from larger American cities with Chinese or International Districts), which is one of the most popular tourist areas in Bangkok.
5. Sean finishes his latest ride on a tuk-tuk (pass the oxygen).