The traffic is maddening. The humidity competes with the 100-plus heat. Yet amid the contrasts and craziness, there is a gentleness. Individuals serenely greet each other with bowed head and hands pressed together, the traditional Thai welcome, wai (pronounced why).
Of Bangkok’s many attractions, The Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) tops the list. The tiny green Buddha is one of the country’s most revered images. Spires, red and green roofs, exotic chedis (solid spires that encase a Buddha relic) and prangs (Buddhist temple towers) dot its landscape.
Traditional Thai architecture fuses with modern high-rises. The new Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com/thailand) looks like it has missing pieces. The Peninsula (http://bangkok.peninsula.com), our digs, has a standard of excellence as high as its many floors. It borders the busy Chao Phraya River.
Before the roads, there were canals. A breezy longboat ride passing temples and middle-class neighborhoods is a respite from the maddening crowds. But, the best canal ride is about 65 miles from Bangkok. Navigating the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in a paddleboat is like driving the expressway at rush hour. Vendors hawk fresh fruits, noodles, ice cream, flowers and a plethora of tchotchkes. If you show interest in anything, they take a long hook and pull you to them. Bargaining is the rule. “This is so much fun,” says my granddaughter, Annie Bartosch.
This evening, we dine at the Mandarin Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com). Our meal is accompanied with by traditional dances and music. Back at the hotel and roaring with laughter, each of us does our own klutzy rendition of the dances.
It’s short flight to Chiang Rai. The luxurious amenities of the all-inclusive Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort (http://goldentriangle.anantara.com) begin with the van’s massage chairs. Check-in includes a shoulder massage. The hotel exudes tranquility and everyone treats you like family. From the window of our room, Laos, Myanmar and flocks of flying birds are visible.
The next morning my family goes elephant trekking. Though a bit scared, they climb on the elephant’s neck. To keep from falling, they cling to the elephant’s ears. It is their most memorable adventure. The hotel works with The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) to protect the animals and the mahouts. “We are trying to preserve and enrich the differences with culture and the elephant,” says Mutsa Munyaradzi, manager of the elephant camp.
He says the elephants are taught to interact with the vets so they stay healthy. They also care for the mahouts -who own the animals- and their families. “These animals have been with humans since their logging days,”
Later, we take a class in food carving. Our instructor produces lovely creations like leaves from cucumbers and roses from tomatoes. We quickly consume our failures.
The Golden Triangle in nearby Sop Ruak is on the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ruak rivers. It borders Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Souvenir stalls line one side of the street. On the other side sits a giant golden Buddha. The huge golden filigree walls honor the queen’s 72nd birthday.
Sadly, we leave Chiang Rai. We head for Chiang Mai with my favorite guide, Khem Sirisak.
First stop, the hill tribes. My daughter, Caryn, dances with the Akha ladies. Interestingly, most men are mahouts, a skill passed down from generation to generation. The Karen tribe, refugees from Laos, are the long-necked ladies. I cannot believe someone would wear brass coils around their necks for a lifetime.
Not far from Chiang Rai is the amazing White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). Designed by artist, Mr. Chalermchai Kositpipat, it was built to honor the beloved, recently deceased, King Rama IX. To help support his community, the artist financed and built it in his village.
The temple sits by a reflecting pool. Its white color symbolizes heaven. Mirrored accents sparkle in the sun. Upon entering, visitors ascend a bridge over “hell” and enter “heaven.” From the inside, the door resembles a demon’s mouth. A mural depicts modern life. It includes 9/11, Elvis, the minions, and eyes that have Osama Bin Laden in one and George Bush in the other. A golden Buddha sits above all of it.
Our early evening arrival allows us to explore in Chiang Mai’s famous night markets with blocks and blocks of open stalls. Vendors hawk spices, knock-off purses, silk scarves, tchotchkes, clothes and more. Bargaining is a given.
The next morning starts at 6:30. At Kruba Srivichai Monument, we get food and holy water. Kneeling, we offer the monks food and pour the water into a bowl. They bless us. Then we return the water into the earth. It is very moving.
So is the magnificent hilltop temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Serpent-crafted handrails slither alongside the over 300 steps leading to it. Tourists, the faithful and monks with flowing saffron robes and shaved heads weave through 400-year-old buildings and the gold covered chedi that houses sacred Buddha relics. By checking the day we were born, Khem tells which is our Buddha. I am snake, golden and my color is gold.
Our last stop is Elephant Poo Park where you can learn how poo becomes paper. A spinner rack of greeting cards is labeled “Precious Movements.” No one can resist buying something.
On our last day, we visit the village of Mae Kampong, a little hillside village with a population of 380. Spices grow wild in the jungle. A piece of cinnamon taken from one of the trees smells delicious. We then visit a local family. The flowing water of the creek under the house adds to the serenity of our Thai massages. We share lunch with them - soup, vegetables rice, a kind of a chili, a type of thin pork and fruit for dessert.
This is my eighth trip to Thailand. It never grows old, only better. I always discover new and interesting things to do. The country fascinates me.
Destination Asia (www.destination-asia.com), is a tour operator I would highly recommend. For more information, visit www.tourismthailand.org