Thailand. I have been here before. A little over 6 years ago. But it was with a company that I used to work for back then, so it really doesn’t count.
Now I am back with my family. As a matter of fact, I was never really drawn towards Thailand as a country/place I wanted to visit. But we have been recommended to start with an “easy” spot for our long journey, and Thailand is located just en-route towards Australia, so it really was an ideal place to start with. It only ads to the pleasant experience, that everything, lodging and food, is almost ridiculously cheap. We are travelling on a budget, and want to spread it out as much as possible!
We started with a few days in Bangkok, and we will be ending our stay in Thailand with another 7 days in the hottest big city in the world. Hence I will not be writing so much about Bangkok this time.
As I write these lines, we are located in Phuket in southern Thailand. From Bangkok you either come here by overnight bus (10-12 hours), by train (somewhat faster) or by airplane, like we did. It only took about one hour. Then another hour by taxi, until we stood with our backpacks outside the hotel near Karon Beach.
The hotel was booked before we left Munich. It was a recommendation from a good friend, who is regularly travelling here. It is called Kata Villa and is run by a dane. It’s fairly small, just about 20 rooms, and has a nice garden, lovely pool and one of the best restaurants in the area. The rooms are nice and clean, equipped with fridges, safes, tv and air-condition. In all common areas they offer free wifi. It sounds trivial, but it has become one of my requirements. I will not pay for internet in a hotel in the year 2013!
The past week we have spent getting to know the area. Just winding down. Settling. In spite of the fact that this is one of Thailand's greatest tourist-destinations, I am pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming kindness (sincere kindness! - even though they just ended the high season of the year) with which the Thais meet the tourists. We are, after all, arriving in batches of thousands, and prefer our food and surroundings to be as close to our usual standards as possible. The Thais adjust and make sure that expectations are met. Oftentimes they adjust a little too much for my taste. But I do realize that in a poor country you cannot say no to all the money brought here by the rich tourists. Tourists might find local Thai folklore neat and cute, as long as it does not interfere with their immediate, general comfort and western cuisine! Thus the local Thai culture is withdrawn from the most touristed areas. We have, however, found some very nice restaurants. They do sell western food, but they also offer the finest Thai cuisine you can get. At very reasonable prices! When in Thailand, we prefer to eat Thai food. After all, it is made by local specialists. As mentioned earlier, our hotel restaurant is one of the best and most affordable ones around, so on days where we have walked a lot or stayed out long in the sun, we retire for a quiet evening here. By the way, local Thai folklore CAN be found both here in Phuket and in Bangkok. I have searched and found that you just have to look in the right places. I will write about this at a later point.
The whole purpose of this journey is to spend more time together as a family. Just be together. Enjoy the small and the big things. We have settled together well as fellow travellers. We emphasize on taking things pretty much as they come, and not get stressed over everyday things. Many of the guests around us seem to always be a little busy seeing and doing as much as possible, while they are here. Well, I don’t blame them. They have only one or maybe two weeks, before they return on a flight home. We have time. Plenty of time!
We have time to wake up slowly in the morning (Anton has started to sleep longer!), wedge out in front of the TV watching cartoons, spend hours over pancakes with syrup in the restaurant, play by the pool or by the beach... We do not have any specific plans. It is an absolute luxury, that sometimes seems unreal!
Of course we will make sure we get some of the most obvious experiences while we are here in Phuket. Alexandra wants to do a Thai cooking course. Anton and I think that this is a fabulous idea! If she can learn how to make a Yellow Curry Chicken the way they make it here at the hotel, it will be worth every penny of the fee! We also plan a visit to the “Big Buddha”, which is a giant statue, located on top of a nearby mountain. Construction started about twenty years ago and is still ongoing. The cost so far is many, many millions of Baht (even millions of dollars). The surface is alabaster, and it is supposed to protect the area from evil and bad spirits. It is one of the greatest and most important construction projects in southern Thailand in recent times!
We are also planning a trip into the jungle by elephant. I have read about the many elephants of Thailand, and that they have become somewhat of a problem. A problem because previously elephants were used to do all the tasks that now have been taken over by machines. So the modernization of Thailand has made many elephants unemployed. And since a domesticated elephant cannot just be put back into nature, many of the elephants and their caretakers (so called Mahouts) ended up on the streets as beggars. An elephant and its mahout usually stay together the entire lifetime of the elephant. In Thailand the cost of feeding and giving an elephant an acceptable living standard is about USD 1000 a month. That is a lot of money if you have nothing, and have to beg on the streets. In fact, it is the average household income of an upper middle class family. Therefore, many mahouts and their elephants are now living in sanctuaries in the jungle, where they offer guided tours along trekking paths through beautiful nature. In other words, tourism has become the lifeline for the mahouts and their elephants, so far solving a rather serious problem. But as an elephant can turn well above 70 years of age, and “only” works for about 50 years of its lifetime, retirement homes for retired elephants are also needed. There are quite a few of these, and most of them are run decently and honestly. However, I have read about unscrupulous hunters and middlemen that falsify certificates and veterinarian papers, just in order to make some extra money from the tourist industry. The Thai authorities are aware of the issues and are making many targeted efforts to put an end to it. Meanwhile, I have no problem getting up on the back of an elephant enjoying the ride through the jungle. In places where I know that things are in order!
Thai people are hard working people! They work from early in the morning until late in the evening, for a salary that seems like peanuts compared to european standards. Everywhere you go you will see a small shop or a stand selling fruit & vegetables, Thai-food or cheap copy-crap. But even though they work hard for many hours, there is always room for a smile or a friendly greeting. One of our favorite nearby stands is a fruit-stand, just 20 meters from our hotel. They offer some very delicious mixed-fruit shakes. Upon order, they are made from whatever is available. It varies from day to day. But it is always extremely refreshing and serve as a healthy substitute for lunch. We usually take our shakes back to the hotel, along with some fresh mango or watermelon. They are full of summer and sun, and almost melt in your mouth. The small bananas that you buy in bunches for literally no money, have become Antons favorites. We have, however, learned that we cannot buy too much at a time. It is perfect when we buy it, but cannot be stored very long.
We have had a small encounter with the Thai health care system. Anton has had a few nights with disturbed sleep, and has woken up, soaked in sweat, crying. We almost could not calm him down. He said he had abdominal and chest pains, so we decided to take no risk, and went to see a doctor at the local clinic. It all went very smooth and fast. The doctor is, of course, used to tourists (and their children) handling the heat, food and hotel air-conditioning in many different ways, and he could quickly calm the worried parents and tell us that Anton just had a common bug and a mild cold. He prescribed some antihistamine and we went back to the hotel. It took about 5 minutes, and then we could think about the next important decision: Pool or beach in the afternoon? And Anton is doing well again.
We are enjoying our time here in southern Thailand. Average temperature is never below 30 degrees celsius during the day and hardly ever below 28 degrees at night. It is a perfect start of a long journey around the world.