It is long since I've been last to Thailand, at a time when it was not as popular as nowadays to backpack for months all around the country and back. To be honest, it was a very non or rather anti-adventurous trip, as for various reasons I decided to book a very classical tour at a Wörlitz Travel Agency in Berlin, with all hotel reservations, transportation to the country and back and through the country as well as a couple of meals at the hotels, paid upfront. I only had to take care of the visa myself that was given within one month and for free, part of a governmental program encouraging people to visit the country during the winter holidays.
Ironically, probably because of the local moisture and the old age too, my then camera died suddently and my only visual memories were only kept on an old phone. However, I kept a lot of beauty-filled images in my mind and soul, therefore, the memory of my travel stories in Thailand was not completely lost. Only a bit beautified as it happens with the memories of the good times that were before and after this happy shining Asian trip. I was not a travel blogger at the time, and the emergency of being able to deliver a comprehensive article soon after, was foreign to me.
The advantage of booking a trip through a travel agency is that you can have a fast view over a country, with specific destinations covered - such as the famous temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep - and explanations about the history and traditions, in just a couple of days. Our tour covered eight intensive days and so far, it was a good choice in both terms of the offer and the price. Given the fact that a couple of meals were also covered, also some local transportation costs, the amount of money spent besides souvenirs and some basic food was relatively limited.
One of my biggest pleasant surprise was that we stayed mostly in 4 to 5-star hotels, newly open some of them and therefore, offering very convenient prices to groups. It was the job of the travel agency to secure a great price part of the big travel package and the results were really impressive. Thailand still remains extremely affordable and if you want to do real backpacking the prices are even more convenient, but why not offer yourself a bit of luxury? Another surprise was the ridiculous prices paid for meals at the restaurants within the hotels. In Bangkok, at Marriott for instance, we had a basic meal for two for less than 10 EUR. It doesn't mean that for the people living in the country those prices are ridiculous, rather the opposite, therefore you have to be respectful, generous and give tips to make a difference in someone's life. People are so kind and a genuine smile is a beautiful reward for good deeds, not only a country branding motto. Life is not easy for most of the locals and I remember how our drivers and guide used to sleep in the bus during the night of our tour, in some improvised beds in the luggage area. A tip for their efforts was a compensation for the hardship of their work.
There are also inconveniences when you travel with a tour, particularly that you have to accomodate different people and travel habits, or that you have a given schedule that must be followed because otherwise the whole group will suffer. However, there were enough free time moments when we were able to make our own schedule and wander through the streets of the places we are visiting. In both Bangkok and Chang Mai we were mostly left on ourselves, which meant that we had to do our own program. Given the high amount of foreigners in both places, it was not so difficult to find new acquaintances and a common language of communication.
As a first impression, Bangkok felt like that of a greenhouse in terms of temperature - I visited the end of December, beginning of January coming from a frozen and snow-covered Berlin - and a bustling beehive in terms of human presence. I took the metro a couple of stations, with its monotonous background music in-between the train arrivals, then arrived in the central area to take a tuk-tuk until the Grand Palace, the residence of the royal family which can be visited but expect a long waiting time and very crowded spaces. Bangkok is also a city of temples, displaying exquisite architecture and traditions, such as the Wat Pho, in the vicinity of the Grand Palace, also called the Temple of the Reclining Budha.
But besides the intensive temple hopping, which actually continued all over the trip, which brought me close not only to the religious traditions, but also to the people and their way of life and mentality, there are a lot of other things to do in Bangkok. One of my favorite was to roam the street, observing the people, especially when involved in preparing foods out on the street, either as a family meal or as a food street treat. Until going to Thailand, my food experience was limited to the usual pad thai at the Golden Budha restaurant in Gleimstrasse in Berlin, that I recently discovered it closed down, which was by far a mild and rather unauthentic experience. The real Thai food is green chili pepper spicy, which can be hard to cope with at the first, second, thirds and even fourth time.
However, the advantage of going to the North of Thailand was the blessing of so many fresh fruits and vegetables, which can offer an alternative to various local meaty alternatives. Another interesting thing to do in Bangkok and Thailand in general, is to explore the food markets, particularly early in the morning when the vendors are about to arrive and the smell of meat and fish, often kept out under the sun, without too much care for keeping them into ice buckets - when it is middle of the day hot, it will melt anyway, is not yet filling the air with rotten smells. But before you want to buy or try something, it is always safe to ask what you are offered. On the way back to Bangkok from the North, our tour guide happily purchased some paper cones filled with some black something covered in some yellowish crumbs, that looked like seeds. She wanted to surprise us, and refused to disclose the content, at the first and second attempt. However, after I warned that I may be allergic to some ingredients, therefore my wish to accept a hospitality gesture was overcome by my need to keep myself safe and alive, she disclosed, with a hint of disappointment for diminishing the surprise, that there were crunchy flies. 'Very very tasty' she said while crunching on one of them. De gustibus, of course, but one of the lessons learned of travel outside the European realm is respecting the food habits of other people, while being able to keep up your own culinary choices.
My Thailand adventure had a well crafted schedule, that I personally fancied from the very beginning. We went to the beautiful temples of the Ayutthaya complex, where the imensity of the space is overwhelming, and there is so much Asian history in only a couple of temples that we, in Europe, are not much aware of. If you have enough time for more, you can easily rent a bike and have a throughout tour of the entire location. I bet that early in the morning it is a great moment of silence around which you can fully embrace and get your Instagram photo moment of glory too.
One interesting aspect that I noticed, and some of the guides that offered us short snaps of information also mentioned, was how much the architecture of the temples, or wats, was influenced by the surrounding nature. From the shape of some of them, to the colourful decorations, the constructors of the temples were inspired by nature, the shape of the leaves and the trees, when planned the main buildings.
Of course, everything was at a great extent connected to the religious beliefs, which also created the food habits and many social rituals still respected nowadays. Near many temples, people come to bring out to monks offerings which include all the bare necessities, from basic foods to tooth paste. In some societies, the distinction between those who work and those who pray is still alive, despite the high rate of industrialization that can be noticed in the big city of Bangkok.
Part of the local immersion was a visit at a silk factory and adjacent store, a good opportunity to support the traditional crafts, where we got to know not only the special art of silk painting but also the intricacies of the Thai economy.
A lot of unforgettable experiences in Thailand are connected with nature. A visit at an orchid farm, for instance, which included a lunch on a small island with a view over the lake, surrounded by flowers, ended up in a small greenhouse where butterflies of different colours and patterned wings were flying all over the place without any fear of humans.
Rafting on the Mekong river, particularly if you don't know how to swim, is a real adventure, but if you keep yourself sandwiched between experience swimmers, it is much safer and you get an unique experience. For swimming lovers, there are also the many hotels with pools open all round the night, where non-swimmers can also enjoy the wet heat with a colourful cocktail. Life can be good if you look in the right direction.
Although the best place to go for water sport lovers still stay the south and the islands - many of them with villas that make it easier to the glossy pages of real estate luxury design magazins - the North has its own wild charm, especially for those that travel with a low budget and are interested in a more original version of the country.
Especially if you travel with children, a short or longer stop at the Elephant Rescue Park in Chiang Mai is an opportunity not only to meet beautiful animals, but also to learn about being kind with them. The animals brought here are going through a rehabilitation and recovery process, often after being maltreated by humans in circus or other entertainment places. If you love animals and love to make a difference through your travels, check carefully the conditions of the animals living in some of the shows and entertainment parks that might be included on your schedule. Believe me, there is no fun to watch famished and tortured animals, regardless how much you are keen to pay for this distraction.
On the New Year Eve, in Chiang Mai, people of all countries are out on the streets together celebrating loudy the end of the 12 months secular cycle, hoping for their best for the next year. The mass sky lantern release is a symbolic way to take your wishes out to the sky. The best is to work hard to make them true, but a bit of hope that things can be better if you think good doesn't harm. So many years after, I still think about my trip to Thailand as an episode wrapped in a bit of magic, but I also know that it is up to me to work hard to make such dreams come true again. 'If you will it, it is no dream'.