... time to eat and relax!
03.06.2013 - 03.16.2013 90 °F
Bangkok, Thailand. We arrived in Bangkok after a redeye flight from Dar es Salaam (via Narobia, Kenya). Traveling on a redeye will make anyone not feel their best. Fortunately, we had nice accommodations once we arrived in Bangkok at the Renaissance. After a month of travelling in Africa, the high-speed internet, a/c and complimentary snacks were a welcome change of pace.
I decided to take a yoga class at the gym in the hotel with a room overlooking the expansive city. I believe the yoga teacher was also a Thai masseuse because she kept manhandling the students into the positions. People in the class kept crying out when she stretched them, but I loved it because my body was tight and cranky from traveling overnight. After arriving to our hotel in the afternoon, Ryan and I were exhausted from traveling and decided to chill out in our hotel. It was fine because the lounge had really good Thai food. Already, I was falling in love with the hospitality and food and I hadn’t even left the hotel.
The next morning (after we’d recovered from our travel exhaustion) our first priority was to experience a Bangkok food tour recommended by friends back home. We set out to navigate Bangkok’s Sky Train and to find the station where our food tour would begin. The sky train and subway system in Bangkok are both state of the art. They don’t cover the mileage that most major city transit systems do, but Bangkok’s version has ice cold air conditioning on the subway cars and the bulk of it has been built in the last ten years or so. The stations are kept impeccably clean. Ryan and I want to thank NYC for helping us quickly navigate foreign subway systems and Atlanta for making us accustomed to sweltering heat. Bangkok is hot and muggy like Atlanta during the summer. Luckily, we were not in Thailand during the upcoming monsoon season. I read about how the rain comes down in sheets and you’re instantly drenched.
The sky train and subway systems in Bangkok have numbered exits to simplify meeting people and finding new places. It seems such a simple idea, but as a foreigner it’s really helpful to meet someone at exit 4 or head to a tourist site from Exit 2. We headed to “Saphan Taksin” Sky Train stop and met our Bangkok Food Tour group. Our guide was named Nushi and our group had 8 people from Utah, a couple from Singapore, and a couple from San Francisco. This was the most Americans on a tour that we had encountered on our entire trip. Our guide gave us ear pieces so she could talk to all of us at all times throughout the tour because a group of 14 would be tough to communicate with on the noisy streets of Bangkok.
If you’re a food lover, I would highly recommend taking a food tour in Bangkok. Our tour was around 3 hours and took us to five different restaurants. We would never have ventured to some of the places on our own—and I probably would not have tried such an assortment of food. We enjoyed traditional roasted duck served on rice, curry noodles with chicken, crispy catfish, green mango salad, Thai style green custard bun, Thai BBQ pork bun, original Thai curry, and coconut ice cream to name a few. Of course we also had tasty Thai iced tea. It was amazing; each dish was so flavorsome. Thai food has a wonderful balance of sweet, salty, spicy, and savory. When ordering a dish, the servers always ask if you would like it spicy. The Thai chili chopped up in your food can make your mouth go numb if you’re not used to the spiciness. Ryan has a much higher tolerance than I do and was always requesting more chili peppers. On our tour, some of the restaurants were off the beaten path owned by families through the generations and others were fancier where business lunches were taking place. Throughout the tour we walked quite a bit so we could quickly build up an appetite before making it the next place – sort of! Whatever weight that we had lost through our travels would quickly come back in Thailand.
Several things that immediately stand out in Thailand are the Monarchy, Buddha images, and monks. Everywhere you look there are images of the current king and queen: Rama IX and Queen Sirikit. It is a crime to speak poorly of the Thai Monarchy, and if you’re caught bad-mouthing the government you can receive up to 20 years in prison. Also, there are Buddha images or shrines on almost every street corner. There are multiple flower stands set up so people can purchase flowers to leave as an offering. We commonly saw people walking down the street and bowing to different Buddha statues and images. Monks come only just beneath the monarchy in the social hierarchy. We probably saw twenty-plus monks per day while walking around. Whenever other Thais greeted us with a wai (a bow with hands in a prayer form) we would reciprocate with the “foreigner” bow. There are multiple ways to wai, but as tourists there is no way we could figure out which type of bow was needed. The safest bet for us would be to place our hands under our chin and bow if they did it first.
The guide books warned us to stay away from the tuk tuk drivers that are everywhere in the city. One of the main scams the drivers pull is to take tourists to certain shops and gem stores were they get a commission for bringing unknowing tourists. Also, the tuk tuk drivers like to tell tourists that certain locations are closed because of a Buddhist holiday. Without fail walking around Bangkok after our food tour, tuk tuk drivers were trying to take us to “nicer areas” or show us Bangkok. They offered their services for 10 Bhat per hour ($0.33). I think we politely told a few of them we were not interested, and then we just started putting our hands up, ignoring them, or waving them away.
Thailand has a reputation for amazing massages. I am not referring to the “happy-ending” ones, but traditional Thai massages. Within 9 days of being in the country I treated myself to 3 different massages, and I made Ryan accompany me for his first massage ever. It was hardly a spending splurge. Each massage cost 300 Baht ($10 US) and they were so good that I usually tipped 30%. Amazing!! The technique of a Thai massage includes combining elements of yoga and acupressure. As well as stretching muscles and loosening joints, it seeks to stimulate pressure points along the body’s energy lines, in order to address energy imbalances and release blockages, stimulate blood circulation and detoxify organs. Holler! I wish a Thai masseuse could have been a part of all my dance contracts over the years.
One of the biggest attractions in Bangkok is the Grand Palace. It’s a huge complex, which encompasses Thailand’s holiest and most beautiful temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. The temple holds an emerald Buddha which attracts thousands of visitors per day. Ryan and I took the sky train to the “Saphan Taksin” exit and headed to catch a tourist boat on the Chao Phraya River to make our way to the Grand Palace. The boat ride cost 40 Baht per person, and it was a fun trip to see all of the different temples and shops heading north on the river. Once we arrived near the Grand Palace we had to weave our way through tons of street vendors and try to squeeze past all of the tourists trying to board tour buses. Since the Grand Palace is so popular, the fee to enter has been raised. For foreigners it cost 1000 Baht for two entrance fees and we opted for an audio guide to learn about what we were seeing. All of the shrines and temples were beautiful.
After seeing the Grand Palace, we elected to see the enormous Gold Buddha lying down at Wat Pho a few blocks away. This Buddha weighs in at a massive 15 meters by 43 meters making it the largest such Buddha in all of Thailand.
All of the walking around made us in the mood for another food tour. We enjoyed our first tour with Bangkok Food Tours so much that we booked a more ambitious one that went through China Town at night. This adventure would not be for anyone who has an aversion to strange foods. We met our tour guide and an Aussie couple near the entrance of China Town. All of the roads in China Town were developed to look like a dragon from an aerial view in Bangkok. After viewing a few temples we stopped near an ornate Chinese shrine to see the Goddess of Mercy. Although she is a Chinese goddess, Thais still hold tremendous respect for her. Around her shrine was a Children’s Hospital. Many people were praying and offering donations to help the children.
Our China Town tour included visiting 7 different places and tasting probably around 15 different items. It was a Saturday night and some of the restaurants were packed. The previous tour we did was in the morning, and restaurants were prepared for our group with the food waiting for us upon arrival. We had the pleasure of trying: dim sum, curry scallops, sea bass with ginger, river prawns with chili sauce, peppery soup, Thai tea ice cream, and several different types of tea to name most of the foods we tried. The street vendor that we got the peppery soup from was extremely popular. The soup tasted like the name implied and there were different organs from a pig in it. There was pig tongue, heart, lungs, “sack” (which we could never get our guide to more specifically define – YIKES!) and liver in the soup along with noodles. As we ate our peppery soup a line formed around our table waiting for our seats. In spite of the contents, Ryan said he thought the soup was among his favorites from the night.
China Town in Bangkok was buzzing with energy, and there were people everywhere. It was sensory overload… or rather an assault to all five of my senses. One of the Aussies on our tour noticed a family of 5 on a motorbike speeding by on the street. He had made a bet with his wife about who would see 5 people on a bike first. There were cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, and tons of vendors selling all sorts of food. I was trying just to keep my wits about myself and keep up with our guide. Fortunately, after eating all of that strange food I never got sick. I seriously was worried about my stomach for the next 48 hours, but both of us remained perfectly healthy.
(Warning—don’t read if you’re squeamish) The Aussie who was on our tour told us the strangest story about the last experience he had in Thailand’s Chinatown. He used to live in Bangkok and did business with a Thai and Chinese firm. For those of you familiar with the opening dinner from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – you may know where this is going: At a fancy business dinner in Chinatown he said that after dinner had been served, the hosts ordered a live monkey out to the table to finish their meal. It was supposed to be an honor and delicacy costing 100,000 Baht. Here is where it gets crazy… The restaurant’s servers pushed up a live monkey under the table with his head exposed through a hole in the center visible to all of the guests. Then they chopped the top of its head off right in front of the guests. After that, the business dinner guests ate the raw brains from the monkey. What!! Ryan and I were so shaken after hearing this story. Yet, walking through Chinatown you get the sense that anything is possible. The Aussie said he needed an enjoyable experience from Chinatown to replace that awful memory and our outing was hopefully going to do that.
On the tour, one of the more interesting foods we tried was deep fried duck beak. Our guide didn’t tell us what it was until everyone tried it. She said our group was more adventurous than her other clients. Usually all the group members don’t try everything like we did. I did regret eating some chili sauce with a river prawn. My mouth and cheeks were numb from the spiciness for about 20 minutes. Other than that, it was a very interesting experience. Ryan and I successfully tried probably 30+ Chinese and Thai dishes within our 10 days in Thailand. My preference is for Thai food while Ryan seems to like the Thai versions of Chinese food a little bit better.
In true McPherson fashion, we booked a bike tour around Bangkok. We went on the tour on a Sunday in hopes to avoid the most traffic. I feel that we are now bike tour specialist considering we have been on so many. Unfortunately, our standards have become really high, and this tour fell short in some aspects. One of the laws in Thailand is that only Thais can become tour guides. That is a great idea to preserve these jobs for locals, but only if their English is understandable. I should not criticize because I don’t speak Thai, but it was billed as a historical Bangkok tour in English. Our guide was super smiley, but he could barely communicate with our group. On one of the side streets near China Town an older woman from Belgium on our tour wiped out on her bike while trying to avoid one of the numerous cats. She was in such a cute outfit but now was covered in sludge from her fall. I felt that I basically spent four hours riding through the little streets around Bangkok and China Town trying not to fall off my bike or run over a cat. To be fair, we did see several key sites but I was more concerned with not getting run over by the erratic Thai drivers.
The highlight of the bike tour was meeting a couple tourists (one from Texas and one from Spain), eating lunch, and getting a pedicure from a bunch of fish. The U.S. has outlawed the fish that eat off dead skin on your feet probably due to sanitary reasons. That didn’t stop Ryan and me from squealing with laughter as we dropped our feet in into the fish spa.
Before our trip Ryan and I made some deals; Ryan took a tango class with me and therefore I had to go with him to a Muay Thai fight in Bangkok. It was by far the priciest tourist thing we did in Bangkok. To watch the fight a tourist ticket costs 2000 Baht each. We never found out how much the locals paid. Muay Thai fighting is a big part of Thailand’s culture. When we used to live in NYC, Ryan would take classes to learn the technique from a Thai boxing champion at his studio near Canal Street in Manhattan. Now in its birthplace we had to see how it was really done. Muay Thai fights take place every night in in Bangkok.
Once making it to Ratchadamnoen Stadium I was surprised that the stadium was not as big and daunting as I had anticipated. There were musicians who would drum during the 3 minute rounds of each fighter. We ended up seeing 5 different rounds of young fighters. The boys were in weight classes with the lightest being 77 lbs. and the heaviest contender was only 126 lbs. There was not an ounce of fat on these young athletes. Ryan and I ended up sitting ringside (thanks to our expensive tickets) and next to our bike tour friends that we had met previously during the day.
With two food tours, multiple temple viewings, a bike tour, a Muay Thai fight, and hours of walking through Bangkok we were ready to head to the beach and relax after so much activity. Our flight to Phuket went smoothly, but we encountered some trouble driving to Khao Lak. The JW Marriott Resort we were staying at was around an hour north of the airport and we were supposed to stay on route 4. At one point we came to a stop with 3 different options of roads to take that were all named route 4 with some other words in Thai on them. It was hysterical… Our first choice of Route 4 dead ended into a National Park. Eventually trying all the different routes we finally made it to the most beautiful resort that I have ever stayed in.
Khao Lak, Thailand. I feel like Marriott is sponsoring our trip. Our entire stay in Thailand was at different Marriott properties, and we are using rewards points that have accrued over ten years. Sometimes certain airlines make you feel like a 3rd-tier passenger for redeeming points whereas Marriott always made us feel really welcomed. Nonetheless, the luxurious accommodations were incredible and peaceful. After the fast pace hustle and bustle of Bangkok, this resort was relaxing. JW Khao Lak also has the largest pool in Southeast Asia. An enormous river pool connects all the buildings with larger pool areas that have bars. All five nights that we spent at this resort involved enjoying free cocktails in the Infinity Pool at Sundown. Whoever designed this resort was brilliant with placing the sunset in perfect view from the bar framed with palm trees.
Ryan and I ventured off the resort and tried beach front Thai restaurants that were amazing. It was funny being a “budget traveler” while staying at the JW. The fancy meals that were offered in the resort were really pricey and around 8 times what you pay at a local place… seriously. On our third night we finally found a gem of a restaurant called “Ma Ma’s Greeting”. The tables were set up on the beach with small white lights cascading around to provide the guests with light. A meal including several Chang beers for Ryan and me plus water, salads, entrees and a fruit dessert cost around 500 baht or around $16 US total. The food was so good! I am getting hungry just thinking about the tastiness and high quality of the ingredients. The Papaya and Mango salads were really fresh and tasty along with Pad Thai, Thai Curry, Green Curry, and Ryan’s favorite: Basil Chicken. Down the beach the JW offered a Thai buffet on the beach for around 4000 Baht per couple. I am sure it was amazing, but Ma Ma’s restaurant was perfect for us to spend three evenings watching the waves at night.
I have been blessed or rather cursed with pale Irish skin with freckles. I find spending time at the beach relaxing in the shade or when the sun sets. Even when I put copious amounts of sunscreen on, I usually manage to still get burned somehow. So, it was nice that Ryan and I went to hang out in the pool around 5pm every day, and then spent the evening on the beach at a local restaurant. We did float around the expansive river pool one day, but overall we were pretty lazy. I have never spent time at a resort like this before… but I guess that is what guests are supposed to do!
Of course with all of this laziness, I needed to get a Thai massage from one of the huts on the beach. I felt guilty for being so indulgent, but I rationalized that for three months out of every year for the past 8 years I have worked as a Rockette. Every season involves 90 + shows, rehearsals, and a lot of wear and tear on your body. By eating well and getting massages was healing me… maybe! Nonetheless, it was awesome getting a massage on the beach. The Thai women stand on top of you and stretch your body into all sorts of different angles. From dancing for the past 15 years, they are always shocked at my flexibility and make a big deal to their co masseuses. I felt like a big white doll at the beach front Thai massage place. My masseuse probably was no more than 5 feet tall and definitely weighed less than 100 pounds. When the massage was done she asked to braid my hair, and then wanted to fix my feet. She was not trying to earn more money from me because I tried to tip her for these unsolicited services- she refused. I finally had to just grab my towel and escape the massage hut. The whole experience was funny to me, and once again couldn’t be replicated in the States.
We did venture away from the resort one of our days and drove back to Phuket to experience a speed boat tour of the smaller islands across Phang Nga bay in the Phi Phi Islands National Park. While visiting the resort in Khao Lak we opted to rent a car to give us more freedom. Most guests that stay at the resort don’t rent cars - probably because they don’t want to deal with extremely erratic driving. Ryan had to dodge motorbikes coming at him from all different directions and large SUVs were prone to merge into your lane cutting you off. From my assessment, it seemed that whatever car was larger had the right of way. There were also no speed limits posted unless there was a sharp curve and then a warning sign would be posted to lower your speed.
Thailand has a reputation for amazing beaches and islands that sprinkle throughout the Gulf of Thailand- and we wanted to see what the hype was about. Our tour started at 8 AM in Phuket with Bamboo Island first on the itinerary. There were 14 other passengers on our speed boat including an Atlanta couple from Canton, GA (small world). Once at Bamboo Island, our guide ushered off the boat and quickly demanded that we take pictures before the hordes of tourists showed up. As you can see from the video and pictures, the views are breathtaking. The sights calm your soul and then all of the tourists start showing up. Large speed boats started docking and dropping off multiple tourists. We were able to get a quick video and some photos before the island was overrun.
Afterward we enjoyed snorkeling in a bay near Bamboo Island called Hing Klang. There are giant limestone cliffs overlooking the water, and just below the water surface the limestone structures have eroded making cool passageways to snorkel through. It was really fascinating going through the passageways and seeing the fish in the carved out areas. There were colorful Parrot fish everywhere. Back on the boat, our tour headed to Phi Phi Don Island for a traditional Thai lunch. It was another beautiful island advertising rock climbing on the giant limestone structures. The Thai food was excellent of course. As we sped away from the island, the guide pointed out individuals climbing the massive limestone structures.
Our next stop was Phi Phi Ley Island and Maya Bay. This island was featured in the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio. The water was pristine, the beach was white and sandy, and the limestone structures created a gorgeous backdrop. The only problem was that thousands of other tourists wanted to see it as well. Over half of the area on the sand was covered with speedboats parked right next to each other.
Afterwards, our guide took us to Phileh Lagoon to take some fun pictures while jumping off the speed boat. Ryan was able to do a back flip into the aqua marine water. The water was warm and it felt great to swim after cruising around on the speed boat. The last stop our guide pointed out was Viking cave where bird’s nest soup is harvested. This is one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking over 400 years. From the boat, I could see the workers inside the cave and the scaffolding used to extract the nests.
Kob Khun Ka Thailand! That is how a woman says thank you in Thai. Ryan and I really enjoyed traveling through this beautiful country. The food was incredible and the beaches were stunning. Next stop Siem Reap, Cambodia to see Angkor Wat!