As published in November 2020 Issue 17 of Planet Golf Review
Life is full of contrasts, but Westerners are often oblivious to these nuances. In Thailand, you will find cosmopolitan cities and rural villages that dot the landscape, pristine beaches and dirty canals, ancient temples amidst towering skyscrapers, luxury hotels and backpacker’s havens and a vibe that is either enervating or enriching.
Like most travellers, we arrive via Bangkok, a city that never sleeps and the most visited city on the planet, eclipsing London and Paris. It’s hot, humid, congested and chaotic but teeming with life and an energy that invites you to dive in with a ‘beginners mind’ and immerse yourself in the culture. Ninety percent of the population is Buddhist. It wasn’t long before we discover how this will influence every aspect of our journey to the other side of the world, a place like no other that invites you to get lost so that you can find yourself again.
It’s mid-afternoon, but after thirty-two hours in transit, I’m tempted to close my eyes as we make our way to our hotel, but the sights and sounds have already captured our hearts and our imagination. Horns blare, and we watch in fascination as mopeds wend their way around snaking lines of cars while colourful tuk-tuks jockey for position. We pass ancient temples, mega malls and streets lined with stalls and carts where the wafting smokiness from the grills have out tummies rumbling, but further exploration will have to wait until tomorrow. Jetlagged and spent, it was all we could do to curl up in our comfy bed at the Sukhothai Bangkok hotel before drifting off into a dreamless sleep.
Sukhothai translates as the “dawn of happiness,” which aptly describes how I felt after a twelve-hour ‘nap,’ but there is no time to dawdle if we wanted to make the most of our three days in Bangkok.
First on our list is the Grand Palace, the former residence of the royal family. This sprawling 23.5 million square foot complex includes more than one hundred buildings and houses many of the country’s greatest treasures, including Thailand’s most iconic and revered statue, the Emerald Buddha. A ‘must-see’ according to every guidebook I’ve read.
High with anticipation, we arrive at the entrance well before 8:30 in the hopes of avoiding the crowds, but this proves to be ‘Mission Impossible.’ There is no denying that the architecture, the sculptures, the murals and the artifacts are stunning, but after a few hours, we’re left wanting something more, something that would feed our souls.
Exiting the grounds, we wander in the opposite direction of the throng of tourists deciding what’s next, and that’s when the magic happens. We stumble across a small neighbourhood temple, and after crossing the threshold, we find ourselves alone before an altar laden with flowers and brightly burning candles – gifts from the community. As we inhale the perfume of frangipani, jasmine and joss sticks, we are suddenly at peace, engulfed in a sea of serenity that had eluded us at the Grand Palace.
After dropping a few coins in the donation box, we emerge and are met by a young monk who greets us in English. With an almost imperceptible movement of his hand, he motions us to sit so we could engage in conversation. For the next half hour, we’re entranced by his earnestness as he quietly tells us how temples are designed to honour the elements of earth, fire, air, water and wisdom. What was even more enlightening is his simple explanation of Atayana, the Buddhist philosophy that encourages you to use all six senses. Thai people intuitively know that if you rely solely on the mind and don’t engage your other senses, you will never fully experience the joy of being in the moment.
His stories spark something deep inside us, and we feel awake, aware and alert. Little did we know how much he would influence the rest of our journey as we set out to discover what lays beneath the surface of the places we would visit and the people we would meet. We barely sleep for the next two days as we explore everything the city has to offer.
The Chao Praya River cuts through the heart of Bangkok. Cruising its banks at night is spellbinding. The city skyline forms a captivating backdrop, and the lit spires of Wat Run temple and the Golden Palace reflected in the water bring a sense of peace and harmony missing from our onshore excursion. Many locals still live, work and commute along the river. If you want to experience the real Bangkok, you must take a longtail boat to the enchanting Amphawa floating market and explore the ‘klongs’ or canals to and the riverside communities. Here you can see women engage in conversation across their decks; fishers ply their trade, and children that will greet you with their pure and innocent Thai smiles.
Before we leave Bangkok, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share our introduction to Thai food, not the bland version of Pad Thai that we get at home but the authentic flavours that tantalize your taste buds and leave you wanting more. Thai food is intricate and complex, a unique blend of sweet, savoury and spicy.
Contrary to what you may have read, street food in Thailand is safe, affordable and absolutely delicious. While we were privileged to eat at The Paste and Batoey, two Michelin-rated restaurants, the evening we spent at the Chatuchak Market was an event in its own right. Whether you like to shop or not, you’re guaranteed to leave with some items you need, some that you don’t and a treasure trove of memories that will last you a lifetime.
A trip to Thailand would not be complete without some time on an idyllic beach surrounded by sparkling blue seas, so we made our way to Ko Phi Phi and the luxurious Pavilion resort. After our whirlwind tour of Bangkok and two days of golf, I admit that it was hard to tear ourselves away from our spectacular room with its infinity pool. However, I would have been sadly disappointed if we hadn’t opted for a day-long boat tour of Thailand’s most famous archipelago.
We’d seen pictures and read about the area, but nothing could have prepared us for the raw beauty we encountered. As we zip across the emerald green waters, in true James Bond fashion, we’re awestruck by the majestic limestone columns that erupt from the sea and the quiet solitude we experience sea kayaking in the hidden caves below. We’re equally entranced by our stop at Monkey Bay and a tour of Ko Panyee, the floating village in Phang Nga Bay occupied by the descendants of two seafaring families from Java.
More travellers these days are interested in responsible, sustainable tourism. In Chiang Mai, we learn first-hand how our choices can make a positive impact.
A sea of mist covered the mountain tops as we make our way to the Monsoon Tea Company to meet Ryan for a tour of their ‘plantation,’ unlike any I have seen before. As we hike the hills, he points out ancient miang trees that are allowed to grow naturally beneath the forest canopy, not only preserving and protecting the delicate eco-system but also providing employment and a steady income for the people that call this place home. Their unique teas have gained international recognition in less than ten years, and their method of farming is influencing tea cultivation around the world.
Elephants have a historical and cultural significance in Thailand. The people revere them but the wild population is declining, and many were trained as street performers or used for illegal logging purposes and can’t simply be released into the wild. The topic of elephant tourism is a complex one. Much has been written about the pros and cons of animal sanctuaries. Tourists are often left to figure out for themselves if they are making a responsible decision patronizing a reserve.
What struck us was the fact that the voice of the locals whose livelihood depends on the work they do is often missing from the dialogue. So, on the advice of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, we head to Patera’s Elephant Farm to learn more about their approach to rescue, recovery, reproduction and reintroduction. For the entire day, we pair up with an elephant and their mahout (elephant guardian). We learn about their history, their health and what is a natural behaviour and what is not. We get to bathe, feed and watch the elephants at rest and leave much more discerning and knowledgeable about the ethical way to interact with any animal. Definitely, a day well spent!
Before we head to the airport the next day, we have time to drop by the Chiang Mai’s Women’s Prison restaurant. You can’t make a reservation, but it’s worth the wait. The service is impeccable, and the food is even more delicious, knowing our visit serves a deeper purpose. The restaurant aims to rehabilitate female prisoners and prepare them for their return to everyday life. Participants in the program earn a decent wage and can keep their tips. The money they save goes a long way towards reintegration, so be generous and support someone’s fresh start. More than training, this thriving enterprise provides hope.
All too soon, our time in Thailand is over. From my window seat on the plane, I watch as the Himalayas recede, and I hear the young monk speaking to us once again. Wherever we travel, our choices impact the places we visit. I’m humbled by the many kindnesses we have been shown by the Thai people, who are indeed some of the most caring people I’ve ever met. As I nod off, I’m grateful for all that we’ve seen and done in two weeks, and I whisper Khob Khun Ka – thank you!
To read our ‘Licence to Thrill’ article as published in the November Issue of Planet Golf Review click here.