What’s your tradition for the Thanksgiving holiday—family, football, friends, turkey, ham? For Pam and I, it has always been the time to get out of town, and this year was no different. So like past years, we booked our two-bedroom villa overlooking the ocean. We were all ready to go until we saw the cost to fly to Puerto Vallarta. What was once a $500 ticket, jumped to $1,500 per person for this holiday 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. With a quick look at ticket pricing, we found that our $1,500 could get a round-trip coach ticket to Bangkok (can you say bucket list). 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? Jumping on the internet, we searched Google Earth, Trip Advisor, Photo Blogs of Thailand and more. We found that in November the monsoon season was just ending and we would be greeted with sunshine, not too warm temperatures and limited humidity. Bonus: November is just before the peak season travel of December and January so there were some good deals available.

With ideal weather ahead of us, we decided on building an adventurous itinerary—two days in Bangkok, three days at a rainforest elephant safari camp, and five days in the sunny south islands. And, despite being good at planning what, where, and how to create an adventure on our own , we chose to tap our local travel agency, a Virtuoso partner, for help.

Bangkok

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, the activities that are a must: check out the nightlife, visit temples (Wats), and find a tailor and have a custom suit/dress made.

Bangkok is a big city and like NYC there are many different areas to stay. Reviewing all the different districts,  we opted for the city center and JW Marriott hotel fit our needs.  Arriving in Bangkok on Saturday night at 11 pm, we opted for a private car transfer us to our hotel. 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 the Nana Plaza that had an open-air bar where we could sit, and people watch. It was fascinating. At 1 am, there were three levels of girls on display and the “johns” buying them drinks as they watch them dance. After an hour of sipping local Chang beer and experiencing the Bangkok buzz, we were ready to hit the sheets and get ready for our first full-day of adventure in Thailand.

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 in order avoid getting ripped off. One more important tip: make sure you get the business card for your hotel before you depart. When it is time to go back, it is 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 story so plan on learning about the history and what to wear before leaving home. 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 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. As far as temples go, I strongly recommend visiting the Grand Palace. 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 brilliantly lit up and is a magical site from the Old City side.

While we knew that there were great deals on custom made clothes, we did not know where to start. There are so many tailor shops to choose from but we got lucky. We were at the Grand Palace trying to navigate our way to the next Wat when we ran into a gentleman that offered us a tour of three Wats for only 300 Bhats (US=$9). We were delighted with the tour, and it added one additional benefit. It seems that this 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, we were pleasantly surprised. “Lady, 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. “What’s the price? How much time do you need?” I replied. “If you buy two or more, you will get a great price. And, I can turn around tonight,” he said. It was then that we realized that we could have custom-tailored clothes made at a 40% discount to home. So, in less than 24 hours, we had two custom dresses, three linen shirts, and a silk/wool blend tuxedo all for under $1,000 US. They all looked and fit great and will help us create a fashion statement in Boise Idaho. Thank you BB Fashion!

One final note about your visit to Bangkok: when you go, and you get out and experience the buzz of 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 pedestrian walkways and car lanes. And, the third level has train transports. It’s so easy to see, just like in the movie, that someday soon, flying taxies will shuttle the rich above the smog and fray. 

Elephant Safari

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 a 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 we were given a quick orientation, a great lunch and we were escorted to our room all under an hour. When we rallied again, we were put into groups for our first adventure. And what a first adventure it was—a ride down a muddy river in an inflatable kayak. While it’s lightly raining, your guide points out the native species including lizards, birds, and even snakes hanging in trees over the river. After an hour journey down the river cruising past the limestone mountains that frame the valley, we were 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 unique 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 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 elephants up close, so close, that we picked up a hose and coconut husk 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—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 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 giant carp, 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 arrived 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. Does it 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, as I said before, Elephant Hills has it all together. Instead of kicking us out of our rooms 10 am, 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 fashion 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 lined with daybeds greets us, and we’re escorted to the reception area where we are offered a cold drink and a face towel 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 special. 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 so for two of our four day stop. 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 the 80ies, I saw the movie “The Beach” with Leo Dicaprio and I never, in my life, would I believe I could visit this beach. 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 especially when you have the vision of the movie 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 in the sea, even catch fish with a spear like Leo 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 and then I’ll be back.

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 form into a long-tail procession and proceed to another snorkel stop. The color of the water is unbelievable. We have all seen the crystal clear, blue-green water in photos but it is 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 of entertaining 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. One that 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. 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 colorful 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 your own Thai adventure.

The End.