Thailand has a great tourist reputation, but given the number of people we know who have been there, we assumed it was also touristy. We didn't really know what to expect (as was made clear when we completed a tourist survey about our expectations for the country versus the reality), but the country is a mix of beauty and rampant tourism that makes it a mix of amazing and frustrating.
Our first stop in Thailand was Phuket, a famous, beachy island that was not as tourist-crazy as I expected. We stayed in Phuket Town, which is where locals actually live and not on the beach, and just took a daytrip to the beach. As soon as you hit the touristy beach area, no more locals and everything doubles in price. The beach is gorgeous, though. Here is a sand castle that we built using mostly just the cup from the Slurpee that I had bought on the way to the beach.Why not build a massive serpent on the beach? Tourists love it, Buddha loves it, locals love it.
From Phuket, we headed to Bangkok. We passed through Bangkok three times. The first was spent on Khao San Road, aka the backpacker ghetto. If you like spending your time with thousands of backpackers between the ages of 18 and 24 who are normally drunk by 8pm, this is your scene. If you prefer to sleep without hearing the sounds of multiple, terrible cover bands wafting through your windows, we suggest staying elsewhere.
Lots of stores in Bangkok sell giant Buddhas. Some are plastic straight from China, some are stone, wood, or other artistic creations. Walking past so many massive Buddhas always made us smile.
Bangkok is full of malls. Many are as fancy as the fanciest malls in America. In the nicest of these malls, the one with Ferrari and Lamborghini dealerships in the mall, these are the bathroom signs. We thought this was hilarious.
Near Siam Square, the hub of malls, is a walkway over a busy road where about 10 people are taking pictures of the street at any given time. We joined in so as not to feel left out. It gives you a sense of how developed Bangkok is.
In another fancy mall, they were selling high-end vibrating chairs. Tara tried one out, and I stood by afraid that it was about to eat her. I don't think she was too impressed, despite the high tech look of it.
Many buildings have small shrines outside. This one, outside a fancy hotel, has become known as the shrine to go to for lucky lotto picks. Really. Tons of lotto sellers stand outside. If the shrine grants you luck and you win, you can hire dancers to dance for you in celebration.
Bangkok is home to Jim Thompsom's home. I had never heard of him, either. He was an American who stayed in Thailand after WWII and started a huge Thai silk business. He was also a CIA operative. He got rich, built a mansion by reconstructing old Thai houses, then disappeared without a trace in the forest of Malaysia while on vacation with friends. An interesting story and an interesting house to visit.
Thailand has more massive Buddhist temples than can be counted. We visited dozens and will spare you pictures of all of them. Here is one of some monks praying to an especially nice looking Buddha. The big Buddha often has helper Buddhas that are smaller. Strength in numbers seems to be the idea.
Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, is a center for Buddhist temples and has what seems like a few on every block. Several, like this one, date back to the 13th century. They are ornately carved and decorated. The first one you see is beautiful, the second is nice, and the third is repetitive.
Inside was this monk, who did not move at all. I thought he was fake and walked to about two feet away before concluding that he was real and veering away quickly. However, we saw some very life-like imitation monks in Thailand, leading to the question: is this a real monk or a fake plastic monk? I'm still not sure.
Thailand has 7-Eleven on every street. Even the monks shop there!
Carved soap flowers are popular tourist items in Thailand, and are really amazing. They start with a bar of soap and hand carve a flower, which is then painted.
In Chiang Mai, we visited an orchid farm as part our our day tour. It was more interesting than expected. They grow thousands of orchids for sale and export, so all the blooms are an impressive site.
Thai boxing allows you to hit the opponent with your fists, elbows, knees, or feet. A knee shot (presumably to the groin) is considered the most amazing. We watched this match where the guy being punched in this picture was destroying the other guy by kicking him in the side and the head. But, he got cocky, put his gloves down while kicking the guy, and got knocked out with a single punch to the face. Definitely more interesting than normal boxing, though not less violent.
Thailand is home to many Karen tribe "long necks" who have fled from northern Myanmar. We visited a village of about 40 of them, who now support themselves largely through tourism. Many of them speak English, though few speak Thai. Very interesting to talk to. And the neck isn't actually stretched--the coils are so heavy that it pushes down the shoulders and makes the neck look longer.
They change the coils about once each year. It is not true that they will die if the coils are removed, as is often believed, but they don't leave the coils off for long.
They start the coils from the age of five or so. Boys are exempt from everything--no coils, no costumes. It has apparently always been that way. Seems fair.
The baby elephant is just 11 days old. It was cute, but didn't let us ride it.
Several of the Karen sub-tribes also have massive hoop earrings. This woman's are big, but some groups have much bigger.
We hiked to a nice waterfall where we swam in the freezing water. Very nice in the hot, humid climate of Thailand.
These funnel spiders are common in Thailand. They sit and wait for food to come into their funnel.
We did a half day program with elephants that was a lot of fun. The place keeps 20 rescued elephants (mostly elephants that formerly worked in logging) and teaches people how to care for them. Here I am with the baby elephant (about a year old) kissing me with his trunk.
Great outfits, huh? Most of the mahouts wear blues and grays, so they give us these outfits to help the elephants feel more comfortable with us.
Just taking a stroll through the jungle on our elephant. More comfortable than it looks, actually. Riding the elephant bareback is at least as comfortable as riding a horse with a saddle.
Let's hope that elephant was clean! Tara hasn't come down with elephantiasis yet, though.
Want to see inside the mouth of an elephant? Okay. They have just a single, huge molar on each side that is behind the skin in this picture. They chew everything with those.
We were with two other Americans who decided to walk part of the way. They kindly allowed us to ride their elephant, so we each got our own elephant for part of the trip.
After riding them, we had to wash them. Then we had to pull Tara away from her elephant.
Back in Bangkok, we went to visit the Royal Enclosure and the Expensive Temple. No, that isn't the real name of the temple, but if you ever visit Bangkok, just ask for the Expensive Temple, and I think that anyone will point you in the right direction. In fairness, it is also the nicest. Lots to see there.
Some nice guardians to keep the evil spirits at the door. If I were an evil spirit, this guy would cause me to pause. Then I would realize that he was a statue and continue, but I guess that most spirits aren't as smart as me.
Wat Phra Kaew (the real name for the Expensive Temple) is surrounded by murals finished in gold leaf. The gold really makes them stand out.
Most of the buildings in the complex are surrounded by ornate carvings and decorations.
Next to the Temple is one of the royal palaces. Some of it is open to the public. Here is one of the thrones that is really beautiful inlaid mother-of-pearl. This is the best picture I could get with a guard standing in front of it next to the big sign that said no photos.
The temple is home to the famous Emerald Buddha, which is actually made of jasper. It was hidden for many years under plaster, and then one day they dropped it and found out that it was stone inside. The abbot at the time apparently thought it was emerald when first seeing it and the name stuck. He is probably the most famous Buddha in Thailand, but is only a few feet tall and sits about 50 feet in the air, making him hard to see. Here he is wearing his winter outfit. Right, they change his clothes seasonally.
Monks are according special rights in Thailand. For instance, on the subway, you move for old people, pregnant women, and monks.
On our third trip through Bangkok, we visited Wat Pho, another huge temple complex. It is famous for having the biggest reclining Buddha in Thailand and for having one of the first massage schools. Here are some of the many gold-plated Buddhas on display.
They are refinishing the murals of different massage points, but this is how you massage your client.
Unless your client is a ten-armed monster, in which case his massage points are fewer despite the increased number of limbs.
Here we are with the massive reclining Buddha, which symbolizes the Buddha's exact moment of enlightenment. Myanmar has a bigger one, but we didn't actually make it to see that one, so you'll have to settle for this one.
The feet of the reclining Buddha are ornately decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Despite being so big, they didn't stink at all.
Thailand loves the king. And the queen, but mostly the king. He is everywhere. Here is a fairly typical site, with giant posters of the king. Most of the time, they are from photos taken at least 20 years ago. Don't want your king to look old, after all.
Well, that finishes a long post on Thailand. We saw many great places in Thailand, and most of the people are really nice. However, like anywhere with so many tourist, a lot of shady characters exist. Most anyone involved in tourism, from taxi drivers to waiters, is a little bit slippery, as Tara rightfully said. From trying to charge you more to trying to provide you services you did not request to outright theft, the huge number of tourists sometimes lead to negative side effects.
Having said that, Thailand is still a country worth visiting and I'm sure that we'll end up going back at some point in the future.