We’re back in Mexico after a month in the U.S. and a month in Thailand, which means more than 2 months (plus some since we’re lagging on the blog) have flown by! There are soooo many stories and photos/videos from Thailand that we thought we’d break the trip up into a few separate posts. This way you can decide which ones you want to read and which ones you blow off – how convenient! For now, though, here’s a teaser for things to come.
Wait, We Went to Thailand?
So, Thailand…how the…? who the…? what the…? Let’s back up just a bit…It all started when we met Jenn and Jason of S/V Danika in Chacala on mainland Mexico in Winter 2016. We became fast friends and sailed and played together whenever we were in the same anchorage through the following spring. Then as things go in this life, they went one way and we went another. We managed to stay connected over social media and knew we’d reunite at another time, in another place.
Fast-forward to Winter 2017 when we met Jeff and Brenda of S/V Adventurer. We’d heard a lot about this couple from mutual friends, and even spied their regulation-sized-racing (green)-striped chariot in a few different anchorages, but never managed to shake hands or exchange boat cards*. Finally, we made official introductions in La Paz, and we knew immediately we had a future together.
Jeff and Brenda and Jenn and Jason already had a past. They lived in the same marina in Seattle years ago, and sailed together down much of the U.S. west coast and Baja in 2016. Come 2018, Jenn and Jason decided it was time to see SE Asia. They hailed Jeff and Brenda to gauge their interest in such a sojourn, and duh, they gave and emphatic YES! The four of them then sent out invites to other friends, us included, and who are we to turn down an international travel opportunity with four amazing humans? Jeff and Brenda secured 90-day visas and Jenn and Jason 60-day visas; they may or may not extend them, but will definitely visit neighboring countries, including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and the Philippines, Jenn’s homeland. We figured we could give it a month.
There you have it. We went to Thailand for a month. The six of us had a copy of Nomadic Matt‘s Guide to Thailand, but none of us really had much time before the trip to sit with it, and all of us have a tendency to wing it when traveling, so that’s what we did. And it was a-mazing. Traveling with Jeff and Brenda and Jenn and Jason was so easy and comfortable; deciding on places to go, places to stay and eat – although we may have eaten a tad too much too often – was a breeze. To offset the caloric inputs, we went on almost daily walkabouts (often exceeding the requisite 10K steps that makes one feel good about oneself) to see different parts of each place we visited, and take in as many sights as possible. As it turns out, one month was not nearly long enough, and we moved around a bit too fast, but we’ll go back someday to see more of the places we missed and settle into the places we loved.
For the fun of it, though, and in honor of Jenn and Jason’s tagline on their FB page, Chasing Summer, these posts should really be titled “Chasing Coffee” – the coffee quality devolved over the course of our trip, starting with yummy brewed coffee and espresso drinks down to Nescafé or no coffee at all; or “Chasing Change” – ATM’s spit out 1000 Baht bills, which is quite a large increment, and very few vendors have enough change after conducting a transaction (e.g., a cup of good coffee was about 50 Baht); or “Chasing Elephants” – it was Jeff’s goal to see an elephant in the wild. By the time we left, we still hadn’t seen one that wasn’t tethered to a human, but he and Brenda are in SE Asia for a couple more months, so there’s still time! Good luck, guys! And, come to think of it, the title of all the Thailand posts should probably be “Chasing Street Food” (and for this writer in particular, steam buns) because it’s really all any of us cared about.
First Thoughts on Thailand
Now that we’ve had a chance to digest the trip (ha! See what I did there?), let’s get to the teaser, which is really just our overall impressions/observations/amazements, loves/mehs, disappointments (which come from having expectations, something my wise old Pop told me NOT to have…oopsy), and regrets (a strong word, but you’ll get the gist). Hopefully this will get you psyched for the stories to come.
Same Same Like Mexico, but Different
Thailand is a developing country, in many ways just like Mexico; however, in many respects, such as highway/road infrastructure, transportation organization, cell and internet access, Thailand is at least one tick above Mexico. A notable exception is overhead electrical wiring, it’s worse than Mexico – there are a gazillion wires strung from pole to pole, resembling a rat’s nests. But I must say, the excess wire was neatly coiled, where it could be. There are still a lot of issues associated with economic development and the dichotomy of wealth. For instance, some areas – even within the limits of the highly developed/first world Bangkok – are riddled with blatant poverty. There are people in thread-bare clothes and no shoes living in shanty homes built with bamboo, sheet metal roofs, and tarps for walls, sprinkled amongst 70-story, architecturally-clever high rises with business men and women and cosmopolitan youth bustling about. The smell of sewage and rotting food permeates some neighborhoods, while the adjacent block has garbage cans and recycling. But this isn’t unlike anywhere in the world where there are huge divides between economic and social classes – the U.S. included.
Plastics – Geesh
Garbage and PLASTIC! Ugh! Straws and single-use bags (single-use everything) abound. This is just like Mexico, but, honestly, again, it’s a world-wide issue. Plastics have changed the way people go about daily life. It’s altered our mentality regarding what we purchase and when. Single-use products, or products of convenience, allow us much more flexibility, but ultimately lead to loads of plastic trash, particularly noticeable in impoverished or rural areas with no infrastructure to handle garbage disposal. Waterways suffer tremendously, getting clogged up with whole and bits and pieces of plastics and other unsightly offings. Did I mention there is A LOT of water in Thailand? It made us sad to see the condition of some places, and even worse, we were contributing by buying water in plastic bottles (because, like much of Mexico, you can’t drink from the tap) and street food in plastic clamshells. At least we didn’t get any plastic bags from grocery stores or 7-11s, because we brought our own bags, but wow, the guilt! Incidentally, we returned to Mexico to find that several states had passed laws banning plastic straws and bags. Yaaasssss!
The Paradox of the Glitzy Buddhist Temple
Oh the temples! Theravada Buddhism is practiced by more than 95 percent of the population in Thailand, so temples and spirit houses are prominent features throughout the country, within every little community and in peoples’ yards. There are more than 30,000 temples in Thailand, and they are compelling from an architectural perspective, as well as an aesthetic one, they draw you in. The many Buddhas that reside in these spaces (sometimes there are hundreds on one alter, small and large) are often golden – so much so that they seem to glow. The temples themselves, often made of wood and stone, are inlaid with minute pieces of jade, glass, bright paints, and other shiny handiwork, including recycled bottles. The patterns are highly symmetrical and the detail extremely intricate. The physical labor oh-so-many centuries ago that must have gone, and continues to go, into each one – and there are A LOT of them – is mind-boggling. And many of the temples are working temples with monks in their burnt-ochre habits present among the throngs of tourists.
So this juxtaposition of capitalism and religion was confounding – in particular since we’re talking about Buddhism, that teaches wealth does not guarantee happiness and wealth is impermanent – that everything is impermanent. That there is often a nominal fee – a higher nominal fee for foreigners – to enter temple grounds, was interesting. We imagine that these fees go to maintenance of the buildings and surrounding gardens, but we don’t really know. The areas surrounding some of the larger, more touristy temples are infested with street vendors selling, well, stuff – lots of it. Like Mexico, vendor after vendor offers all the same stuff, and will haggle with you over a few Baht (when we were there, the conversion was 33 Baht to 1 USD). We found it quite odd – the devout Buddhism, the renunciation of physical things, the size and stature of the Buddhas, the flamboyance of the temples – all if it so intertwined with capitalism. But again, it’s not unlike other places, and other religions, around the world. And I, for one, was captivated by the temples and could have spent much more time exploring all of them – ok, maybe not all 30,000 of them – and paid a few Baht to see them.
Oh My God, the Food!
Aside from the temples (oh, and the coffee, change, and elephants), food was a priority. It was really higher on the list than anything else, and we always seemed to be hungry. Even if we weren’t, we’d eat. FOOD, food, food, food, food. It was often either super fresh (veggies and fruit), or it was dried (shrimp and fish). It was colorful, flavorful, varied by region, and readily available. The smells that wafted about influenced our trajectories to this place and that, and it was nearly impossible NOT to try something, even though our bellies were full.
Everywhere we went there were massive markets – night markets, daytime municipal markets – all with endless street food and regional arts, crafts, and textiles. The individual stalls were very carefully arranged, very neatly and methodically to account for very limited space, and, of course, to make everything look appealing. There were raw meat vendors, too – presentation was, you know, as aesthetically pleasing as one could expect; however, refrigeration was, well, lacking. Many of the stalls had clever little mechanical fly swooshers whose effectiveness was questionable, but at least they were trying. Interestingly, throughout Thailand, one of the things we noticed was there just weren’t that many flies. Curious.
Anyway, all of the offerings at the markets were displayed to tempt the innocent tourist or passerby to pull out their wallets and put something in their stomachs. There was always pad Thai or some noodle dish, fish balls, meat sticks, sweet treats usually wrapped in banana leaves, cut green mango in plastic bags, and sometimes even ice cream! We fell in love with steam buns, too, filled with taro, custard, black or red beans, and bbq pork, but these were a little harder to find; a couple times we even resorted to searching the shelves at 7-11. Luckily(?), they didn’t have veggie ones.
Incidentally, finding vegetarian fare was way more difficult than we thought it would be. Since leaving the U.S. to effectively live in Mexico, we’d resigned ourselves to ingesting non-vegetable matter from time to time (including lard and, yes, bacon). For some reason though, in Thailand, I couldn’t bring myself to eat the meat or seafood (Rand was all in). The origins were unknown and all of the water bodies in close proximity to the places we visited were rather suspect – sometimes quite smelly and polluted. I ended up eating a lot of rice and eggs (probably cooked in some non-veg broth or oil), but often enough we found savory curries and delectable noodle dishes, and a few truly excellent vegetarian restaurants. And the street food vendors often had yummy fried treats, like taro, white radish, potatoes, and something we might call funny shaped donuts covered in coconut.
I must admit, however, had I been able to communicate my self-imposed dietary requirements, it would have made eating a lot easier for this baco-tarian. Overall, we should have tried a lot harder on the front end to learn some Thai. Basically, we were unable to communicate much past hello (swasdi-ka) and thank you (kob khun krub/ka) – this thanks to Jenn, who took the initiative to make the most of Google Translate.
Thailand is Scooter Country
Along with food being incredibly abundant, so were the moto scooters! We’d landed squarely in scooter territory – there were a gazillion of them! Everywhere we went, there were scooters and, hence, scooter noise and exhaust. Honestly, they’re probably the best way to get around, especially in areas with a lot of vehicle traffic and narrow roads. It can be a wet ride, however, especially during monsoon season, which we observed and experienced personally. Most people wear simple plastic (yes, plastic) ponchos with hoods. All good. We even rented a few scooters to get around the island of Koh Yao Yai and again in the northern city of Chiang Mai. It was scary and exhilarating all at the same time, especially since on Koh Yao Yai, they didn’t even offer helmets, and in Chiang Mai, the helmets weren’t sanitized between users. Don’t even think about it. Either way, we survived (despite Jason getting beat down with heat exhaustion on the first ride) and we even have the video to prove it! Fun times!
And (Cheap) Massage Country
Ok, last thing about overabundance in Thailand. Massage parlors. Gazillions of them. And one of our biggest regrets? We only had one massage in Thailand. ONE. What is wrong with us? In the U.S., you can barely get out the door for $100 for 60 minutes on the table. In Thailand, an hour-long, deep tissue/oil massage was about $13 USD. And we only had one. The traditional Thai massages were a bit rough, more like Sumo wrestling, but the oil massages, in general – based on our compatriots reviews – were the bomb. The one I had was quite satisfying, except for the breast massage that came with it. Strange, but short-lived. The rest of it was phenomenal. Should have gotten one every other day. Oh well, we’ll just have to go back!
Jody, Our Thai Guide (Huh?)
Alright, this is the last thing for sure – the people. The people of Thailand were gracious, friendly, incredibly helpful despite the major language barrier, and they were short! Never have I felt so at home! In fact, I was mistaken for a local most everywhere we went. They’re more comfortable squatting than sitting in chairs, wearing crocs and medical face masks, either to reduce the risk of inhaling/exhaling germs (food-handlers – yes!) or to minimize inhalation of scooter exhaust. Either way, masks came in all colors and patterns – some even had super heroes on them!
So, that’s it for the overview – enjoy the food vid! And for more excellent videos, go to S/V Adventurer‘s YouTube channel where they’ve done a kick-ass job of documenting, not only our trip together to Thailand, but their sailing and terrestrial excursions as well. But don’t forget where your allegiance lies and subscribe to our channel, too!
More to come…first up Bangkok, Phuket, and Koh Yao Yai!
*We don’t actually have boat cards, but lots of cruisers do and disperse them readily, almost before saying a proper hello.