Thanksgiving for Pam and I has always been a great time to get out of town and this year was no different. To facilitate our annual exodus during this holiday, we purchased a fractional ownership in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. So like past years, we booked our two bedroom villa overlooking the ocean. We were all ready to go on our relaxing vacation until we saw the cost to fly to Puerto Vallarta over the holiday. What was once a $500 ticket, jumped to $1,500 per person for this week. And, I indulge, in a moment of brilliance, I said to Pam “let’s see where $1,500 can take us”.
As frequent travelers hooked on Delta, we were lucky to earn a Delta One upgrade—so the farther we could go on $1,500 the better. As a part of our tradition for Thanksgiving, we wanted a place that is forecasted to be sunny and warm, so we lit up the internet looking for the perfect location. With no limitations except where Delta could take us, we found that Thailand would fill the bill. With a quick look at ticket pricing, we found that our $1,500 could get a round-trip coach ticket to Bangkok and we could use our Delta One upgrade—did I say champaign, gourmet food, movies, and reclining bed—sweet!
Ok, what to do in Thailand? Once again, jumping on the internet, we searched Google Earth, Trip Advisor, Photo Blogs of Thailand and more. We found that the rainy or monsoon season was just ending and the November would greet us with sunny, warm temperatures and limited humidity. Bonus: November is just before the peak season travel of December and January.
With ideal weather ahead of us, we decided on building an adventurous itinerary—two days in Bangkok, three days at an elephant camp in the rainforest, and 5 days on the island of Koh Yao Yai. And, despite being good at figuring out what, where, and how to create an adventure, we chose to tap our local travel agency, a Virtuoso partner, for help.
With just two days in Bangkok, we had to be very efficient. Where to stay? What to see? What to eat? According to our research, temples (Wats), Thai massages, and street food were the activities we must do.
Arriving in Bangkok on Saturday night at 11pm, we opted for a private car transfer to our hotel, the JW Marriott. It was the only way to go to avoid the chaos of the international airport especially at that time of night. After a 50-minute drive downtown, we were greeted by the most friendly staff and escorted to our room. Even though it was past midnight and after traveling for over 20 hours, we had to venture out to the streets—they were calling.
Bangkok is a city with a buzz, and as soon as we walked out of our hotel, we were hit with the smell of street food, the sound of booming music and the call of the street girls, ”massage?” Just across the street from the Marriott, we stopped in an open-air market called the Nana Plaza that had an open-air bar where we could sit, and people watch—three levels of girls on display and the “johns” buying them drinks as they watch them dance. After an hour of sipping a local Chang beer and experiencing the Bangkok buzz, we were ready to hit the sheets and get ready for our first day of adventure in Thailand.
With only one full day to explore the city, we got up early, grabbed breakfast and arranged with the hotel for a taxi to take us to the Grand Palace & Wat Prakeaw. Here’s a tip: while cabs all have meters, most won’t turn them on unless it is prearranged. Due to the continues traffic delay, you must negotiate the fare before agreeing to a ride. Having the hotel arrange for your transfer is preferred. One more important tip: make sure you get the business card for your hotel before you depart. When it is time to go back, the taxi driver might not understand you, and more importantly, they will most likely not read English. So, a must is to have the hotel card with the address written in the Thai alphabet. Trust me, it will save you time and a significant hassle.
I don’t have the time in this article to dwell on all the different Wats to explore. Each has a different store and feel. Please spend the time doing your research and learn about the culture and history of Thailand before leaving home. As far as temples go, I strongly recommend visiting the Grand Palace. Note: it is advised to go in the morning to avoid the crowds and humidity. The Grand Palace is the cornerstone of all Wats. It is a significant visual experience and has so much to see. We also enjoyed the Tall Buddha (Wat Intharawithan), the Lucky Buddha (Wat Chana Songkhram) and the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho). If you have any extra energy, save the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) for a nighttime visit. It is lit up and is almost magical from the Old City side.
One thing great about visiting the Wats in Bangkok (unlike attractions in Rome), they accommodate Western tourists. There is a dress code, but coverups are provided if is needed. There are Western toilets in the bathrooms, and they are free. Finally, there are even places to fill your water bottle with filtered water for free.
One quick note about traveling: always, with caution, be open to seeking a new adventure. We were at the Grand Palace trying to navigate our way to the next Wat, and we ran into a gentleman that offered us a tour of three Wats for only 300 Bhats (US=$9). Yes, or No? Why not…Yes! We were delighted with the tour, and it added one additional benefit that we would have missed. It seems that the tuk-tuk driver received a kickback for taking us to a custom tailor shop. Usually, we would be upset, but when we met the friendly owners, and we realize that we could have custom-tailored clothes made at a 40% discount to home, we were hooked. “Just look in this fashion magazine and select a dress? What about a custom fitted blue linen shirt for you?” said Rickie, the store owner. “Ok, I said,” “you had us at 40% savings to home.” In less than 24 hours, we had two custom dresses, three linen shirts, and a silk/wool blend tuxedo for under $1,000. They all looked and fit great and will let us stand out from the crowd for many years to come. Thank you BB Fashion!
Hey, since we were on vacation, I might as well fill you in on the local beer. There are two local Thai beers measure up to any standard—Chang and Singha. Both taste good and quench a thirst, and like Mexico’s Corona vs. Sol beer, usually, only one is served in a bar/restaurant. The going price for a can of Chang is as low as 80 Baht ($.38 US) —a great deal when it hot and humid out.
I would be remiss not to spend a minute on the people of Thailand. The ones we met, and I think it speaks for the majority of the population, were extremely warm and friendly. I attribute this to the national religion—or way of life—Buddhism. I’m not going to go into any details here on Buddhism, but this let me share one event. When we were in the tailor’s store, we were questioned multiple times—“ Are you good? If you are good, then I am good!” There appears to be an underlying desire for the Thai people to live in peace and generate goodwill. Their everyday life focuses on personal spiritual development and willingness to strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life. We could all do with a dose of that.
One final note about your visit to Bangkok: when you go, and you really experience the city, think about this. Remember the movie, with Bruce Willis, the “Fifth Element” where he flew a taxi cab in a futuristic city? Bangkok has the feeling that it is going to evolve into this type of city. On the street level, there are food vendors and call girls, the second level has walkways and car paths, and the third level has train transports. It is so easy to see that in the future, flying taxies will shuttle the rich above the smog and fray.
After the non-stop excitement of the city, we jumped on a plane and flew to Phuket—an island one hour south of Bangkok. And just two and a half hour van transfer later, we were transported back in time to the rainforest of Khao Sok National Park. With help again from our Virtuoso travel agency, we identified a unique, out of this world experience at Elephant Hills resort—reported to be the best caregivers of elephants, the environment, and their customers in Thailand.
Ok, so we have all traveled to a resort before. The day you arrive they make us wait to get into our room for hours and, on the way out, we’re kicked out of our room hours before we need to move on. This is far from the rule at Elephant Hills, they have the customer first.
Arriving at Elephant Hills starts with an opening drink as we sit under a thatched roof listing to the rain making music. But, unlike other resorts making us wait, they gave us a quick orientation, feed us lunch and get us into our room to change for our first adventure, all under an hour. And, quite the first adventure it is—a ride down a muddy river in an inflatable kayak. With your guide rowing and pointing out the native species, you are greeted with sights of lizards, birds, and even snakes hanging in trees over the river. While it’s raining cats and dogs, you take in the sights of the limestone mountains framing the valley with the clouds intermittently masking the peaks from view. After an hour journey down the river, we are transferred to the actual elephant preserve, and that’s where the afternoon of Day 1 peaks.
Elephant Hills is home to 10 rescued, Asian elephants, all females, 17 to 75 years old, and a Mahout assigned to each. If you’re not familiar with the term Mahout, it is the word used for elephant keeper. They are a particular class of people that are responsible for feeding, training, and nurturing of just one elephant. They are a combination of a boss, caregiver, and friend. It’s incredible to see how this tradition continues in this day and age.
FYI, the Asian elephant is different than the African elephant you usually see in magazines and on TV. They are shorter, lighter in color, have smaller ears, and the males of this species do not have tusks. Also, as they get older, pinkish, gold spots continue to develop on their trunk and ears.
The elephants are kept in three different areas — a large natural field with a small lake, a sheltered feeding area, and a sleeping area. We are able to view the elephant up close, so close that we pick up a coconut husk and hose to wash the dirt and stones off their massive bodies.
After a bath, it’s time to eat, and we’re the cooks. Not technically cooks—we just cut up pineapple, bananas, palm leaves and other goodies for them. When the elephants lined up to eat, it was so cute to see the two teenagers, standing side by side, swaying back and forth, waiting to be fed. And, feed them we did. We would hand out a piece of fruit, and they would use the digit on their trunk to take the food and stuff it in their mouths. Unknown to me at the time, their mouths are cavernous. They are able to fill their mouths with a full basket of food and then chew it all at once before swallowing. This feeding opportunity was a great bonding experience with the elephants—one for the books and I hope you all get a chance to try it someday.
Do you believe it, Day 1 is almost over. And with a Thai curry cooking class, a large buffet dinner, and great conversation with our new friends from Germany, Scotland, and Australia, we head to our luxury tent to dream about our fantastic day.
Day 2 starts with a big breakfast, an hour van ride with a stop at a local market, and our final destination—a flooded river, Cheow Larn Lake. We hop into a long-tail boat for an hour ride on this dark green lake that is part of their National Park system. Elephant Hills is lucky to have been granted a permit for overnight accommodations right on the lake in floating tents. The camp has a main dining area, two dozen plus tents, and kayaks to explore the never-ending shoreline. After another great lunch, we use the kayaks to look for monkeys in the shoreline trees, swim with the fish, and share stories with our new friends. When it’s time to go, we jump back into the long-tail boat in a torrential rainstorm—did I tell you we are in a rainforest—for our shuttle back. When we arrive back at camp, we grabbed a bottle of wine and sat outside our tent, under a canopy, in teak chairs, listing to the rain and the cicadas, watching the clouds drift by the limestone peaks. It doesn’t get any better. Day 2 ends the same as last night, good food, better friends and great conversation about different social and political events through the eyes of ordinary people living their lives in various countries around the world.
We’re on to our final day at the camp and, like I said before, Elephant Hills has it all together. Instead of kicking us out of our rooms 10am, they gather up 14 of us for a final epic adventure.
We grab life vests and are shuttled across a muddy, raging river in kayaks to a stream that comes down out of a mountain. Step, after every careful step, we hike up the rocky riverbed following a trail that only the locals know. We hike up about 1,000 feet and come across a rubber tree farm that the local Thai people harvest rubber the old way—one cut at a time.
The rain is getting serious now, and we can’t believe that we’re hiking in this torrent. We climb hand over hand down the rocky river bed not sure what’s next. Finally, we come to a flatter area and we realize that we are stopping in a shelter where another guide is preparing us lunch—chicken curry from scratch. It’s so hard to believe that we are getting a Thai cooking lesson, miles from civilization, under a hut, in a rainforest — just another ho-hum adventure on Day 3. Three hours later, we’re at Karon Beach, Phuket. We had to pinch ourselves to believe that we really squeezed all this into just three days. Whew!
The Southern Islands
It’s time to relax, so we head further south to an island in the Adman Sea—Ko Yao Yai. Via speedboat from Phuket marina, we pass amazing views of limestone pillars, turquoise waters and white sand beaches of the islands. After a 30 minute trip, we are transported to a real-life fantasy island hotel—the Santhiya. Their teak pier dotted with daybeds greets us, and we are escorted to the reception area where we are offered a drink and cold, fresh towels while our paperwork is prepared. In no time at all, we are placed in a shuttle and driven up the hill to our room. Nestled in a coastal forest of trees, we enter our teak-ladened room with a canopy bed and a deck with a soaking tub and a view of the sea. It is quite charming and the wood carved teak walls and ceilings makes us realize that we are defiantly someplace amazing. To say the room is great is one thing but to top it off, the whole property is impressive. It is located on a 3-mile beach, surrounded by a natural jungle that is the backdrop for the common dining areas, a 200-foot waterfall, and a swimming pool.
After our fast passed adventure in Bangkok and Elephant Hills, getting some sun and rest are welcomed—and we do for two days. However, being a person that thrives for adventure, I walk down the beach and find a Muslim girl offering excursions—“James Bond, Phi Phi, Krabi Islands—just pick one or all,” she says. We decide on renting a private long-tail boat with lunch, snorkeling, and swimming to Phi Phi Le and Phi Phi Don. And what a perfect choice. In my teens, I saw the movie The Beach with Leo Dicaprio and I never, in my life, would I believe I could go there. We not only scored one on my bucket list, but we also exceeded my expectations.
Approximately one and a half hours from Ko Yao Yai, through the Straits of Malacca, we finally see the tops of the Phi Phi mountains. It’s a grand sight to see especially when you have the vision of the movie The Beach in your mind’s eye. As you pull into the bay, straight ahead, there is it—just as remembered. The only challenge is that you want to walk on it, swim into the sea, even catch fish with a spear but unfortunately, at this time, the beach is closed. With years of no supervision, it was ruined by overuse. Thankfully, the Thailand government has finally decided to protect it. While it is prohibited to approach, I hope there will be a time that access will be allowed that provides for tourism with conservation.
Despite not going on to The Beach, the locals have worked out a system where the long-tail boats tie up to a rope that isolates the swimming area. As the row of long-tails move up and down with the swells, it’s time to jump into the sea. It is warm and welcoming, and all around us, small fish accompany us on our snorkeling adventure. The swim takes us to the rocky cliffs where we see more fish feeding on coral. There is a little cove with a small beach, and as I pull my dive mask, I look up and see a young man from India sitting in the shallow water covering his body with sand. The scene is surreal and brings back more movie footage that plays loops in my mind. We swim back to the boat and refreshed, we take off to another even more beautiful inlet. With limestone bluffs towering over us, we get in a procession and proceed to another snorkel stop. The color of the water is unbelievable. We have all seen the clear green water in photos but its hard for the mind to process the intensity of the color. From here, we’re off to another cove, and the highlight is seeing the monkeys that inhabit the rock cliffs. With tourists snapping photos, the monkeys do their best part to entertain the crowd.
Next stop, Phi Phi Don—the larger of the two islands. Our captain navigates our long-tail into the harbor and has us get out for an hour and a half walkabout. We’re in a coastal village with booths selling chicken on sticks, t-shirts, souvenirs and everything you can imagine. In the narrow walkways (no cars), people are coming and going. This is the Mecca for the young from all around the world carrying their backpacks to their hostel—getting ready for a cold beer, an afternoon swim, and an exciting evening of partying. Oh, if I was only younger.
Walking through the streets, passing shops and tourists, we see a vision through the buildings. Not sure of what it is, more like a mirage, we walk toward the vista. As we leave the tunnel of buildings, we are blown away with what we had a glimpse of. Right in front of us is another bay—not just any bay. It is framed by limestone cliffs, colorful long-tail boats, and people speaking in many languages—a wholly visceral experience.
After our sojourn into town, we meet back up with our captain, and he hands us our lunch—fried rice with chicken. We look around for chopstick but realize that the Thai culture does not use utensils, and like a local, we eat our meal with our fingers—and it was finger-licking good. With one last snorkel stop, we head back to our island paradise on Ko Yao Yai. Eight hours never looked, felt, or smelled so good.
In summary, Thailand is an extraordinary place that you have to visit in your lifetime. We really think we did it right—just the right amount of the Bangkok buzz, getting up close and personal with Asian elephants and finally, hitting the azure water and white sand beaches of the south. So when you realize you been to the same place multiple times and the airline prices seem a little out of control, check out Thailand for An Adventurous Vacation.