Exploring Thailand, Authentically

Story by Whitney Thunder

Posted: May 4, 2018
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I took a long sip of ice-cold Singha as I watched the long-tail boats and water taxis maneuver around ferries on the Chao Phraya River. The sun was setting, and the Bangkok skyline was an ethereal silhouette against a golden crimson sky, hazy with tropical humidity. I reminisced about the previous afternoon's boat tour of the backwater alleys. My inner architect was still captivated by the waterfront residences, each with a distinct pavilion and spirit house. The quirky neighborhood temples left an equally resonating impression. I could have floated through the khlongs (canals) for hours, soaking up the mesmerizing, behind-the-scenes world of the Venice of the East.

The city lights began illuminating one by one, and my mind drifted to the fascinating story I had been told earlier. At the grand finale of our walking tour, my sister and I had been rather underwhelmed by the Great Swing. To us, the bright red structure looked like a disproportionately tall gate. However, things got interesting when our guide told us that the landmark had once actually launched men into the air. The acrobats, he said, wore elaborate headdresses and used their teeth to catch sacks of coins tied to an 85-foot-tall pole. The performance was a symbolic reenactment of the Hindu fable in which Shiva stood atop a mountain while Brahma mobilized an army of snakes to shake him to the ground. Currently, however, the gargantuan frame is merely an iconic monument to a near-implausible past. Perhaps the reenactment ceremony will one day be just as mythical as the Hindu fable.

Just as my thoughts shifted from costumed acrobats to the otherworldly chanting we heard at Wat Pho the morning before, I snapped back to the present as our guide shouted chone! to cue one last clinking of glasses before we kicked off the evening's Chinatown Foodie Tour, the next escapade on our Thailand Heritage Explorer itinerary. I drained my beer in anticipation of neon lights, buzzing Vespas, and steaming spicy-sweet treats.

 

Chinatown: Bangkok for Foodies

Our guide expertly navigated us down Yaowarat Road, past stalls of vendors hawking everything from gingko nuts and dim sum to suckling pig and smoked duck. My sister, a tea connoisseur, was overjoyed to find loose-leaf pu'er at a tea stall alongside several other prized varieties. I, on the other hand, was more inclined to check out the frog skins, chicken feet, and fried insect carts.

We were pleasantly surprised by the number of vegetarian options in Chinatown, and our guide explained how the influence of Theravada Buddhism has fueled an unparalleled fusion of fresh Thai veggies with Chinese meats and sauces. We sampled a smorgasbord of snacks and traditional dishes.  My favorite was a chili-oyster omelet in a fine dining restaurant. My sister, the vegetarian, raved about the coconut pancakes we tried at a stall beneath the legendary Chinatown Gate.

In terms of cultural fusion, Bangkok's Chinatown is replete. Thai Buddhism is intertwined with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism, creating a collection of temples with extraordinary histories and unique local rituals. The wats (temples) we visited in Chinatown were as much of a treat as the mango with sticky rice and kanom sai sai (sweet coconut milk steamed in banana leaves). Furthermore, I was once again in architectural awe when we ventured into the troks (alleys) flanking the main streets. The tiny, two-story wooden facades with intricate trimmings have stood in Bangkok for hundreds of years, since the days when Chinatown was an unassuming community of trade merchants.

By the time we sat down for a rooftop nightcap to conclude the epicurean excursion, the atmosphere below had transformed into a checkerboard of neon Mandarin and Thai characters shining up through the swirling miasma of exotic delicacies. I wondered if all Thailand Tours were as unforgettable as our first three days had already been.

 

Archaeological Must-Sees: Ayutthaya & Sukhothai

Upon our arrival in Ayutthaya, we united with the Chao Phraya River once again. We set out bright and early on a bicycle tour through local riverbank communities and past a church built by French missionaries. We also stopped at a couple of ancient Siamese temples before we arrived at Ayutthaya Historical Park, an island whose rusty-orange towers and stupas bear a striking resemblance to the Angkor complex in Cambodia. The sights were remarkable, and the in-depth knowledge of our dynamic guide was invaluable. Without him, we never could have learned so much about the Siamese capital's flourishing 15th-century continental commerce, and we certainly wouldn't have ascertained the story behind the national banning of the The King and I.

I was stunned once again in Sukhothai, another spellbinding ancient capital founded by 13th-century Khmer rebels. Bikes were a great way to see Sukhothai Historical Park, a gorgeously expansive complex with large ponds and lotus blossom canals. We took our time admiring dozens of chedi (stupas) and found it very curious that such a gem wasn't inundated with visitors. We later learned that mainstream tour operators skip over Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, which made us even more grateful for the unexpectedly intimate experience!

 

Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai ("Big Mountain") National Park should be a top priority for all trips to Thailand. The park is the country's oldest, and definitely one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. Plus, it's conveniently located just north of Bangkok.

We started our Khao Yai excursion by driving from Ayutthaya straight through the jungle until we reached Haew Narok, the park's largest waterfall. We stopped there for a picnic lunch and a marvelously refreshing dip in the pool below the falls.

When we were thoroughly rejuvenated, we set out on a nicely-groomed trail through the evergreen forest, hoping for a miraculous glimpse of a tiger. Although our tiger prayers weren't answered, we did see and hear a barking deer and several monkeys (according to our guide, they were gibbons and macaques).  The best part was when we spotted a Malayan sun bear! Although we only saw him or her for a split second, our guide was in utter disbelief at our good luck. We felt special and gushed about our once-in-a-lifetime sighting for the next two days straight.

 

Krabi Perfection

Krabi was the perfect ending to our Thai adventure. When we initially planned our trip, we envisioned the last hurrah as a beautiful beach with island hopping and sunset cocktails. We were drawn to Krabi as a laid-back alternative to Phuket or Koh Samui, and we couldn't have chosen a more ideal base from which to explore Phang Nga Bay's limestone caves, coral reefs, and postcard beaches with powder-soft sand.

Although we would've been more than content to spend three days on a lounge chair, we couldn't resist a daily adventure. Overall, we packed in snorkeling, hiking, rock climbing, and jungle biking. On top of it all, we still managed to find a few hours to relax on the beach each day and relive all we’d seen, done and learned in two weeks. It was a fantastic finish to a Thailand tour full of experiences unlike any we’d ever heard of and adventures unlike any we could’ve dreamed of.