Initially our plan was to spend a full month in Thailand, but that all changed when forces started pulling us toward Malaysia sooner than planned, but more on that in the next blog. It was my fifth time in Thailand, a country that Haruka and I have both traveled extensively, and also one of those places that I feel like I’ll keep coming back to as long as I live, so our 9 day sweep through the country didn’t feel too slight. Crossing overland by bus from Cambodia wasn’t nearly as smooth as our border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia. Everything was fine on the Cambodia side of things, but once we got to the Thai immigration building, life kinda came to a standstill. It took over 2 hours to get through the massive line to the counters where only 3 and sometimes 2 agents were nonchalantly processing the crowd. Another hour and a half of disorganized hijinx from the bus company, and we were finally on our way to the traffic jams of Bangkok that got us in only 5 hours behind schedule.
Cambodia and Thailand have some similarities, but the nature of the people isn’t really one of them in my opinion, and that was so abundantly clear when the Thai staff of the bus company took over on the Thai side of the border. The very first thing this guy starts going off about is the ladyboys in Thailand and how fun they are. He then proceeded to ask each one of the guys in our group if we liked ladyboys and if we wanted him to set us up, as all of our significant others winced and squirmed. It was pretty gross. Certainly not all Thai men behave like this, but I’ve found that many Thais exude a kind of snarky, trickster vibe, and it’s definitely a place where you need to keep a tight grip on your valuables and moolah. Cambodians by contrast exude more of a sweet, smiley and pure vibe that perhaps Thais also exhibited before the past half century or so of heavy tourism jaded them a bit. That being said, there’s still something very endearing about the Thai spirit, and I always feel a sense of comfort returning to this country.
Our 4 day stay in Bangkok was really about two things… visiting our friend Huckleberry, who lives in the city and seeing some of the sights of the city that we’ve yet to get around to in past visits. In times past we’ve tended to use Bangkok primarily as a transit hub and a place to run errands, and then quickly get out of there to explore other regions of the country. This time around we were determined to delve into some serious urban exploration of both famous and obscure spots around the city, and part of the fun in all of that was hanging out with our buddy Huck every day, when he could get some time away from work. He runs his own jewelry making business focusing on Grateful Dead oriented designs, using precious gemstones and metals. He does beautiful work… classy yet deady. Check out Jai 108 Presents if you’re in the market for such things.
Speaking of precious metals… one of the spots that really captivated us was the Golden Buddha at the temple of Wat Traimit, which weighs in at a hefty 5.5 tons of solid gold. This guy’s nipples are probably worth more than any car I’ve ever owned. On another day, we went into full-on tourist mode and visited the spectacular Wat Arun followed by a visit to the massive reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. In retrospect it would definitely have been a lot less crowded to visit these sites early in the morning, but still we enjoyed these iconic landmarks tremendously. The next day we took a chill day and went to the lesser known temple of Wat Worachanyawas for traditional Thai massage. This place is the real deal with seasoned massage practitioners working us into crazy twists while deeply loosening up our tense points as we absorbed the hypnotic Buddhist chants wafting through the humid air. There are many massage shops here, but we went with the big one that overlooks the river. Even with a nice tip thrown in, these massages are an incredible bargain at 200 baht (about $6) for a 2 hour session.
Temples and massages are great, but for us, the best part of visiting Thailand is the food. Bangkok is loaded with street stalls and hole in the wall eateries that deliver deliciousness with remarkable consistency. We can’t remember the names of any of the spots we ate at, but by my estimation, it’s nearly impossible to find a bad meal in this land of intensely flavored curries, noodles and other delicacies. It was certainly a benefit to have Huckleberry steering us into favorable directions, not to mention a total blast exploring the city scapes at night with him after not seeing him for nearly 15 years.
From the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, it was on to the serenity of inland Krabi province, down south. Indeed the main impetus for traveling over to Thailand at this time was to connect with Haruka’s sister, Nodoka for the New Year’s holiday. She only had 4 days to spend with us, but we worked a nice bit of nature and relaxation into that brief period. Haruka found us an airbnb spot about 45 minutes inland from the frenetic tourist fray of the Krabi beaches. When we arrived at the Tonpalm Farmstay after dark to find a stylish cottage nestled into a beautifully lit up garden within a palm grove, we knew we had found heaven. The lush jungle surroundings and smart infrastructure of the accommodations would’ve probably been enough, but throw in the personalized hospitality of our host, Pond, the unbelievable deliciousness of his mother’s home cooking and the hot spring 15 minutes down the road by foot, and we had the makings for one of the best spots we’ve stayed in out of over 70 in the past year.
Namtok Ron hot spring is what drew us in to book the place, and it turned out to be even more spectacular than we could have ever imagined. Luxuriatingly warm water flows through a series of maybe a dozen emerald pools within a lush rainforest before plunging into the river below. This place gets crazy crowded during the day, but we never actually saw any of that. At night, when Pond was done working for the day, he would take us to the hot springs, where we could soak for free with nobody else around. Pure magic. The ladies and I also got up one morning around 5:00 for an enchanted sunrise soak in near solitude, so we got to know this onsen quite well, and it now stands as my favorite hot spring in the world. Pond took us to a few other hot springs in the region, which were also pretty amazing, and combined with the massages we got on the patio of our Airbnb, this place is basically an epic jungle spa. It was great to see Nodoka getting a chance to truly relax away from her hectic Tokyo life, and we had a blast relaxing with her!
We couldn’t go to Krabi and not spend some time playing in the Andaman Sea, so we hired a private boat to take us to secluded snorkeling spots. This turned out to be a lot more challenging than we thought it would be, as our boatman couldn’t speak a lick of English, and like most of the boatmen there, he’s preprogrammed to take tourists to the same four spots every day. When we pulled up to the first spot and it was a beach with hundreds of tourists on it, it was clear that we were not seeing eye to eye with this guy. It took some creative communication, but we finally resorted to pointing at small, random islands in the distance that had no boats around them and he gradually caught on to what we were looking for, and we ended up finding some gorgeous corals and wonderful fish diversity before the day was done.
And just like that, our week plus in Thailand was up and it was time for Nodoka to head back to Japan. While being a bit of a departure from our usual style of travel in which we generally spend at least a month per country, we felt like we got a lot of bang out of two distinctly different spots in Thailand. Surely spending time with friends and family always sweetens the deal, and that was certainly the case this time around. Thank you Thailand, and see you later…