Our itinerary started in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok where we stayed a couple of nights. During our first day we took a city tour that included visits to the magnificent Grand Palace and to three renowned temples: Bangkok’s largest temple the Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), the white marble Wat Benjamaborpitr (The Marble Temple) as well as the Wat Trimitr (Temple of the Golden Buddha) and its 5.5 ton Golden Buddha! During the tour our guide explained that the diverse positions of the Buddha indicate different meanings. She also pointed out with some pride that the Thai Buddha was skinny unlike the chubby Chinese one.
The Grand Palace is a complex that includes many ornate buildings and temples including the Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which is one of Thailand’s most venerated shrines. In reality the 26 inch (66 cm) Emerald Buddha is made of one single solid piece of jade! The Buddha is dressed in gold clothing that is changed in conjunction with the changing of the seasons.
Tip: Dress appropriately (legs, knees, heels and shoulders covered) when you go visit these sacred places especially the Grand Palace. If not, entry will be denied unless you go back and rent cover-ups before the entrance. These are funny colorful baggy pants, which will draw a laugh from the other tourists. Be sure to wear inexpensive shoes, as these must be removed before entering a Buddhist temple and left in a large pile of shoes by the door.
On our second day we took a long-tail boat through the Klongs (canals) to observe some day-to-day scenes. We passed by a floating market and got off at the Royal Barge National Museum. We decided to walk back, but it wasn’t easy to figure out the way on foot, as we had to go zigzagging through small alleyways.
After finding our way back to the main river, Chao Phraya, we got on a taxi-boat, which proved to be an excellent way to get around and explore more of Bangkok. That’s how we got to the Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) with its 259 ft tall (79 m) central pagoda.
We ended our visit in Bangkok with a sunset dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River. During dinner, there was a show with traditional music and dance. Diverse Thai dishes were served, but we enjoyed better fares later on during our trip. Overall it was a fun experience and an easy way to admire the city lights.
Chiang Rai & Golden Triangle
The next morning we flew to Chiang Rai in the north and then continued on to Chiang Sen located on the Mekong River where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, better known as the Golden Triangle. Here, we visited another temple, the Wat Phra That Chedi Luang (Temple of the Big Stupa) before hopping on a boat to visit the area.
We had a brief stop in Laos to visit the artisanal market where strange foods and alcohol were available for the most adventurous tourist. We passed on trying any of it!
On the way to Chiang Mai
Before continuing on to Chiang Mai, we enjoyed a boat ride on the Mae Kok River to go visit a hill tribe and learn about their culture. Here and there locals were fishing on the shores of the river. In this isolated area travelling by boat is the only way to get around. I would highly recommend a knowledgeable guide.
Along the way we stopped at the Hilltribe Villages were we encountered five different tribes and observed how they lived and what made them distinct from one another. Their traditional costumes were quite ornate and colorful. The most recognizable tribe was the Kayan people or ‘giraffe women’. These are the women that have a stack of rings around their neck from childhood, which extend their necks making them oddly long. Some tribes also engaged in traditional dancing for our benefit (and our tips). We had to laugh as we walked through the muddy streets between the traditionally dressed women to find one of the Kayan women engaged in a conversation on her cell phone. We assume this is more a traditional village for the benefit of the tourists.
Tip: If it rains rubber shoes are necessary. It started to rain during our visit and our shoes were caked in mud. Our guide cleaned them for us despite our insisting she didn’t have to. She was so nice to us and wanted to do absolutely everything to make our trip comfortable and a delight.
To top off this day of exploration we participated in a Kantoke dinner and invited our guide to join us. We enjoyed a delicious meal while a traditional show took place. For a more authentic experience, shoes had to be removed and left at the entrance and we sat on pillows around a low table.
The next morning, we went to visit one of Thailand’s most important temples, the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is located in the National park of Doi Suthep-Doi Pui. This site is also like a bird refuge. To get to the temple visitors and worshippers alike must climb the 304 steps up a staircase adorned with dragonhead serpents’ rails. Climbing to the top is also well worth it for the panoramic view of the park and Chiang Mai. Legend says that whoever rings the temple’s bells will be blessed with luck, so be sure to give it a try.
In the Chiang Mai area we visited an elephant camp and enjoyed a ride* high on top of one of these majestic creatures. They all seemed healthy and well treated. The most amazing part was to see elephants paint and use different colors. One even drew a self-portrait!
We also visited another hill tribe village located on the Mountain of Mae Sea. This one was genuine and we had the opportunity to interact with the villagers.
We were told that, as many as 1300 types of orchids can be found in Thailand so visiting an orchid farm just had to be part of our itinerary. It was beautiful!
Tip: For an original gift or souvenir, you can buy jewelry made from orchids in the gift shop.
Of course, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get up close and personal with tigers*. Petting them and cuddling with them was such a privilege! They are surprisingly soft! However, we didn’t like the fact that the trainers weren’t treating them with the respect that we felt these incredible animals deserve. They should know better because when the day comes that one of those tigers decides that enough is enough, he would have very little trouble defending himself.
We ended our tour by spending a few days in Phuket mostly to relax on the beach before embarking on our long journey home. Of course as divers this was a fantastic place to explore the underwater world! Scuba diving was amazing; the water was clear and warm. We wish we could have done more of the sites, one day we hope to go back.
From Phuket it was easy to get to the Phangnga Bay and take a sunset cruise on the June Bahtra boat (an authentic Chinese Junk). The crew laid our pillows on the deck for us to lounge on while enjoying the beautiful scenery and sunset. Some excellent Thai food was served. We really enjoyed this outing and we recommend indulging in this excursion.
Phi Phi Island
On our last day before returning home we took an excursion to Phi Phi Island and had the opportunity to do some excellent snorkeling. Although since the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo Decaprio was filmed on this Island, it was overly crowded. There is nothing left of the movie set and the locals wanted it this way. However the scenery is still beautiful if you try to ignore the lined-up boats carrying loads of tourists that are parked like sardines on the beach.
*Knowing what we know now, we wouldn’t participate in those activities. These majestic animals need to be protected from abuse instead of being used as amusement for tourists.