Having spent a semester studying international business in Bangkok and passing through the city 5 or 6 times on various trips to Southeast Asia, I’ve spent more time in Bangkok than in any other city outside of Nashville, Tennessee and Durham, North Carolina.  Many people arrive in the city counting the seconds until their departure, overwhelmed by its size, congestion and pollution (which seems to be steadily improving).  I’ve only had the opposite reaction.  Of the many foreign cities I’ve visited, it is one of the few where I would consider residing.
During Shanna’s two prior visits with me to Bangkok, we skipped the sites and took advantage of the many cosmopolitan offerings of this large city, sampling the amazing food on offer at the countless restaurants and visiting the upscale day spas where a half-day at the spa costs the equivalent of 15 minutes in a American spa.  On this visit, however, I felt obliged to accompany Shanna and our friend Dana on an afternoon visit of the most prominent sites in Bangkok.
After a short boat ride down the Chao Phraya River (the heart and soul of Bangkok), we arrived at the Grand Palace – the former residential complex of the King.  ((If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you probably know that the Thai people LOVE their king.  Over 80 years old and the longest reigning monarch (having been on the throne over 50 years), the King is considered a champion of Thailand’s poor.  Although the King technically has no legal power in Thailand, his influence is immeasurable.  Pictures of him can be seen in virtually every business and home throughout the country, and utterances of a negative word about the King will put you in jail and will likely put you in the hospital or worse.  In January, the King’s sister died.  In response, the whole country went into mourning, building shrines to the princess on virtually every street corner.  I can’t imagine the country’s reaction when the King eventually passes away.))  While we are definitely at temple overload considering our six months in Asia and the approximately 1.2 million temples/wats/pagodas we’ve visited, the sites at the Grand Palace didn’t let us down.  The Grand Palace complex consists of multiple buildings (including the Grand Palace, which is unfortunately closed to the public) with the most impressive being Wat Phra Kaew.  This ornate wat, described by Shanna as the Taj Mahal of wats, contains the venerated Emerald Buddha, a fairly tiny Buddha statue actually made of jade (not emerald).
Next, we walked through the crowded Bangkok streets to Wat Pho.  From the outside, this wat would look fairly ordinary.  However, the interior contains the largest reclining Buddha statue in the world, measuring almost 150 feet long and 50 feet high and filling almost every inch of the wat.  The reclining Buddha, modeled out of plaster around a brick core and finished in gold leaf, contains a rather content smile – representing the euphoric feeling of the Buddha as he prepares to enter nirvana and end the cycle of reincarnation.

These world-class sites are a must-see in Bangkok and a fitting end to our sightseeing in Asia.

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After several days in Luang Prabang, Laos, we caught a short flight to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand where we immediately boarded a minibus headed towards the mountain town of Pai (pronounced “bye”). The road from Chiang Mai to Pai is legendary – three hours of countless hairpin turns that combine to create one of the best motorcycle rides in the world. As I stared out the window keeping my eyes focused on one object in order to quell the feelings of motion sickness, I momentarily thought I was back in Tennessee driving through the Smoky Mountains on my way from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove – the geography was strikingly similar.

Pai has achieved legendary status among the backpacker, hippie crowd. Its idyllic climate in a spectacular mountain setting combined with ridiculously cheap prices and all the amenities a backpacker craves (including abundant Internet cafes and travel agencies, day trips galore and a friendly, tolerant community) keeps travelers staying here for much longer than originally anticipated. We met several travelers who have stayed here for months at a time and continue to return here year after year. I understand the appeal. While I’m about as far away from a hippie as someone can get, I do enjoy the laid-back feel that the backpacker community generates.
After a three days of doing virtually nothing in Pai (other than an eventful elephant ride by Shanna and our friend Dana–Shanna’s elephant threw her over its head and into the river…twice) and a couple of days in Chiang Mai doing the same, we flew to Bangkok and headed straight to the most famous backpacker spot on the planet – Khao San Road. Due to Bangkok’s central location in Southeast Asia, backpackers tend to wind up in Bangkok several times during any trip to the region. Needing a cheap place to stay, travelers found a few, cheap guesthouses on Khao San Road (a small street conveniently located near most of the can’t-miss sights of Bangkok) a few decades ago. In the past twenty years, Khao San Road and the surrounding area have exploded with hundreds of guesthouses, restaurants (including the addition of Burger King and McDonald’s, inflaming many in the hardcore crowd), bars, Internet cafes and travel agencies.
Khao San Road may be the most diverse place in the world and is my number one place to people watch. Sitting in a roadside cafe for just a few minutes, you might see a young German couple passing through Bangkok on their way to the islands of Southern Thailand, a Thai hipster with pink hair, an aging hippie trying to relive his glory days when he came to Bangkok in the 60s, a wide-eyed 18-year old woman from England just starting out on her “Gap Year” ((In England, many high school graduates take a year off to travel the world before they head to college. The practice is so common that the term “Gap Year” has become common in England and has spread elsewhere in Europe and Australia. I fear the term will never gain traction across the pond…)), a dreadlocked Australian and even…a couple of 30-something lawyers from the States.

A visit to places like Pai and Khao San Road draws strong reactions. Many people despise these communities, commenting that these places are not the “real” Thailand or whatever other country in which they may be located. Others understand that, of course, they are not “real”, but they are a community nonetheless where fellow travelers can momentarily escape the stress that traveling in a foreign environment for a lengthy period can sometimes create. Regardless of a vistor’s reaction, travelers tend to keep coming back, seemingly incapable of avoiding their unique and sometimes overwhelming draw. Given that Shanna and I have already been to Khao San Road twice in as many years, I’d say the same is true for us.

The past few months have been incredibly hectic for us – leaving our jobs, selling a house, moving out of a house, preparing for this trip and…oh yeah…planning a wedding!  I’m not sure we could count the number of to-do lists that we have prepared and completed.  As we now look back on it, we’re not sure how we made it through it all without at least one nervous breakdown.

On our first day in Thailand 6 days ago, I was truly worried that neither Shanna nor I would be able to relax because we’re so used to being productive.  That fear was quickly allayed after laying in a beachside hammock for about 5 minutes.  We’ve now settled into a “routine” of waking up at 9:45 to make it to breakfast right before our hotel stops serving it and heading to the beautiful pool or beach for a few hours of reading and listening to our iPods.  ThongNaiPan 043.JPGAt around 3:00, we eat lunch at the same open-air, waterfront restaurant - the Beach Club – because the food is amazing and we have never paid more than $10 total (after ordering 3 entrees, 2 shakes and a large bottle of water each day).  In the late afternoon, we read some more, get a massage, take a nap and start thinking about where we’ll go to dinner.

I could definitely get used to this.

We keep talking about doing some activities, such as a half-day snorkeling trip around the island or a hike through the jungle.  However, we just can’t muster the energy.  ThongNaiPanNoi 031.JPGSomehow, we finally gained enough strength to go sea kayaking yesterday.  After an hour of this, however, we needed a nap. 

One side note: While at a beach bar last night, there was a commotion behind us.  A snake had slithered up under one of the tables.  After playing with the snake for awhile (!!), one of the locals caught the snake with his hands and put it in a bag (presumably, to release it in the nearby jungle…or to prepare him for dinner).  ThongNaiPanNoi 050.JPGWhen we asked someone if this happens frequently, his response was – “Yep, quite frequently.  Of course, that was ONLY a python; it’s more interesting when they are cobras.”  Only a python…

I haven’t worn socks in 7 days, and I have no intention of wearing them any time in the near future. 

I first came to Thailand in September 1996, crossing the Malaysian border in the South by bus on my way up the coast to Bangkok where I spent a semester studying ThongNaiPan 021.JPGinternational business as part of a business school exchange program.  Prior to arriving in Bangkok, I spent a couple of weeks in the islands (Ko Samui and Ko Tao) enjoying the island life and learning how to scuba dive. 

Ever since that first visit, I’ve been smitten with this incredible country; this is now my 3rd visit since I left in December 1996.  KoPhangan 021.JPGThe combination of its natural beauty (islands and beaches in the South and mountains and rice paddies in the North), ridiculously friendly people (Thailand’s nickname is the “Land of Smiles”), relatively cheap prices, peaceful Buddhist culture and arguably the best cuisine in the entire world make Thailand one of the world’s best travel destinations. This has not gone unnoticed by the masses in the past several years. 

While Thailand used to be a somewhat hidden gem for independent travelers and backpackers, it now attracts a much more diverse and moneyed crowd.  This has been a boon for Thailand’s tourist industry, but has changed the feel of parts of the country (e.g., Phuket and Ko Samui, which have several McDonalds, KFCs, Pizza Huts and Starbucks scattered around the island).

I was overwhelmingly surprised when I set foot on Thong Nai Pan beach on Ko Phangan island.  The beach is still pristine, the water is crystal clear and beach-front bungalows can still be had for less than $10 a night.  ThongNaiPan 010-1.JPGThere is also a secluded, laid-back feel here that would make Gilligan and the Skipper feel right at home.  During the day, the few people that are here lie on the beach and sip coconut shakes in the many beach cafes. 

It’s hard to know how much longer this will last.  Thailand will surely even get more discovered than it already is and the big companies will eventually come to this gorgeous beach.  However, maybe it will hold off a few more decades so I can enjoy this secluded part of the world just a couple more times.  Fingers crossed!

Errr, so much for roughing it.  After researching the lodging in the area and finding out about a new resort that is offering promotion rates at a fraction of its regular rates (because the place is brand-new and it’s the off-season), we loaded up our backpacks on a longboat ThongNaiPan 025.JPGand headed to Santhiya Resort on Thong Nai Pan Noi.  We’ve decided the resort is a combination of pretty much every nice hotel at which we’ve ever stayed.  Just the view from the deck of our room ThongNaiPan 029.JPGalone is enough to justify paying substantially more than we did at the White Sands.  And then there’s the room itself, the infinty pool and the fact that, 2 minutes after arriving at the place, we were drinking from coconuts and receiving “welcome massages.” 

We spent some time yesterday exploring the beach, and I think it’s even more beautiful than Thong Nai Pan Yai, its larger counterpart.  White sand, turquoise water and palm trees are, again, in abundance, and the beach here is even better for swimming. Speaking of which, that’s where we’re headed right now. ThongNaiPan 001.JPG

Thanks for all of the emails inquiring about our safety after the Indonesian earthquake.  It didn’t get anywhere near us, nor do we think it will affect our upcoming visit to Bali.

This September 11, Derek and I were without the sad remembrances that surely took place in America today.  Indeed, we seem to be without the company of Americans altogether.

We’re on a Thai island called Ko Phangan sunriseat a quiet beach called Thong Nai Pan Yai.  Because this island can be accessed only by ferry, it’s frequented by fewer tourists than many of the other islands (except during the monthly Full Moon Party, which is reputed to be something like what I envision as a tropical Bonnaroo, only with more rave music; our visit here doesn’t coincide with the full moon, so we’ll miss the festival).  Most other farangs here (the Thai expression for “foreigner”) seem to be either French or German, with a handful of Brits thrown in. 

We arrived here yesterday after ThongNaiPan 010.JPGa long series of planes, trains and automobiles.  In the last 24 hours, I’ve learned that, while $9 will buy me a Coke Light in Paris (for real, this is how much we paid on Sunday; Derek, in protest, refused to even take a sip…), $9 on Ko Phangan will get us a place to stay for the night that is literally 14 steps from the beach (we counted; the view from our room is pictured here).  Our bungalow at White Sands ThongNaiPan 008.JPGcertainly isn’t fancy–it lacks bedding and hot water, and an ever-increasing quantity of ants seem to be taking over our bathroom–but we came with our own bedding, the cool water feels good after a day in the sun, and we’ve learned to keep our toothbrushes away from the ants’ stomping grounds on the bathroom sink.  We’ve also made friends with a nice gecko that visits us often.ThongNaiPan 065.JPG

If our lodgings are less than luxurious (our own choice after Paris’s Big Splurge), this island more than makes up for it.  About other places, we always hear comments like “this place is great, but you should’ve seen it 20 years ago.”  I’m certain the same will be said about Ko Phangan in 20 years (or fewer), so I’m glad that we’re here now.  The beach is unspoiled, white sand, the water is clean and turquoise, and the pad thai and green curry are cheap and delightful. 

We spent the day today watching day break on the beach (Derek), sleeping in (Shanna), exploring a bit and getting massages.  Hour-long massages here, like a night’s stay at the White Sands, cost $9 and are adminstered on bamboo mats ThongNaiPan 052.JPGwhile the lucky recipient gazes off into the Gulf of Thailand.  Yes, it feels like something out of a movie (or a Corona commercial).  This evening, over a fairly embarrassing number of delicious coconut milkshakes and more Thai curry, we began what is to be a year-long game of Gin Rummy.  Tomorrow, we’re off via water taxi to this beach’s little sister, Thong Nai Pan Noi, hopefully for a day much like this one.