My trip to Asia was capped off by two too-fast, but marvelous weeks in Thailand. Before leaving France someone warned that I’d probably get sick of visiting temples. Au contraire. I adored touring the temples, each one with its own magic aura; they became part of our short-stay way of life, just like our practically daily meal of pad thai or the entertaining Thai characters we met along our way…
I was traveling for parts of this leg of my trip with Julien le jeune (some of you might recall him from the Roll in the Hay Chapter of Je T’Aime, Me Neither, he’s also the scooter driver in my profile photo) and Rose (who’s featured in a few blog posts such as this one). I started off with Julien in Bangkok. I’d arranged for a private guide for the morning of our first day hoping to get a good intro to the city and the main sites. Our guide Sa, was nice and well-meaning, but we unfortunately didn’t learn all that much. I did learn that Thai people are very sweet … and very pious.
A whopping 95% of Thai people are Theravada Buddhist. Seeing Sa making little prayers or offerings at the temples we visited, I enquired a little into religious practices. How often did she go into temples? Why? When? It seemed they could go whenever they wanted and for whatever reason; there was no Sunday service to attend or strict regulations (from what I gathered). Sa thought Julien and I were married (ummm no), so I asked her if she had a boyfriend. Yes indeed, but not engaged yet. When we were touring the palace museum, we “picked out” a few royal diamonds and jewels her boyfriend could offer her. I think some of the prayers she made that day had specific romantic aims… I have the impression that having their fervent faith feeds the Thai optimistic and fun-loving way of life. Not such a bad approach at all! I’ve always liked the ideas of Buddhism maybe I should look into a little more?
Why wait until I was back home? I could have delved further into it when I was in Chiang Mai, our next destination. The relaxed city in the north of the country is a mecca for temples and at many you can arrange a chat with a monk. We didn’t really have time, but I was tempted. We were busy… our threesome had formed with the addition of Rose and it was a tough schedule of laughs, Chang beers, lady-boy shows, getting lost at local night markets, eating more pad thai and red-car taxi rides. These endeavors were all fine and dandy with me, but the one thing I absolutely had to do while there was visit the Doi Suthep temple perched on a mountain on the outskirts of town.
Julien succeeded in tempting us to rent scooters to get up to the temple. According to him, that way we could stop by some waterfalls or other sites along the way and go at our “our pace.” I’d never driven a scooter before, so my pace was that of a tortoise whereas his was the hare, Rose was a little more daring. We made it out of the city without anyone getting crushed under a tuk tuk, so that was a good start.
Reaching the summit, we were not disappointed. While I was expecting a larger complex, I was entranced by the calm splendor of Doi Suthep. As we entered the inner temple a light breezed glided in whisking to life the little brass bells decorating the building’s trim. Visitors and pilgrims alike respected the otherwise silent stillness. We admired from afar the bowing rituals, the children learning the ropes and the solemn monks bestowing blessings, we even joined in on the latter, the little shower of holy water possibly protecting us for the journey back into town.
Those weren’t the only splashes we received. The Thai New Year was about to begin. Called Songkran, it’s a celebration of water. It could actually be nicknamed splash-fest; that night we were ambushed by water pistol and bucket bandits, gleeful kids and some tourists getting in on the action, more would follow in the coming days. The next morning Rose and I had a little free time before our flight to the south, therefore, we made the most of scooters visiting the temples we hadn’t seen in the city-center. Inevitably getting lost, we happened upon a monastery. We were invited in for a wander where we were greeted with shy smiles by groups of monks and even some girl monks in training. We somehow found our way back to the other temples, rushing through for at least a quick glimpse, our regret over not staying longer for the country’s best Songkran festival mounting.
Arriving in Phuket Town, our sadness over no longer being in Chiang Mai began to fade during our delightful amble around the historic core’s charming colonial style streets. It was meant as a stopover en route to Ko Phi Phi, but it became a pleasant surprise, one which continued on. After dinner at the night market, Rose and I found ourselves a table, and some Lion beers, at a cafe terrace. It was full of locals enjoying their Saturday night. Out of nowhere, someone from another table was doused with a bucket of icy water. The crowd burst into a hubbub of laughter and more splashes. The girls at our neighboring table, not knowing we were aware of the festival, nicely leant over to explain what was going on, sparking a friendly conversation.
Our sweet neighbors were Apple and Tilky, easy for Western-ears nicknames. When we saw them packing up their bottle of whisky (“bring your own bottle” is allowed), we asked what they were up to. “We’re going dancing!” Tilky enthusiastically replied. “Can we come along?” I chimed in and thus began our “real” Thai New Year’s celebrations. We were couriered over to their favorite bar/club by scooter, (Rose got to go in between the two them), and in no time we’d been introduced around to all their friends.
Ahhhh Thai people are wonderful! I marvelled in between sips of my mysterious Phuket Paradise cocktail. It was probably around then that my admirer sidled up by my side (beside me below). I could tell that he was lingering around but I wasn’t really in the mood for flirting. Nevertheless, my suitor was persistent. Tilky, gave me a wink and a nudge; “go for it,” she teased. The whole night she was trying to flirt with one of the bartenders (below in green). He was 18 and she was about 35. “I like younger men,” she proudly admitted. Our Thai cougar was a great evening companion, though I was not up to matching her game. Mr Thai could barely speak English, I might have been tempted had he been absolutely gorgeous, instead, I was content with hanging with our new friends.
At around midnight our cheeks were adorned with wet handprints of talcum powder and the crowd cheered on amists the occasional squirt from the water guns of some naughty boys who’d snuck into the bar. We eventually headed towards our hotel around 2:00 am much to the demise of my Thai friend. In the end we let him scooter the two of us “home” earning him a kiss on the cheek. Julien must have regretted not hanging out with us, well, especially because we drenched him with bottles of water and happy New Year screams on entering our room.
The last of our Thai friends were not made at our next stop, the paradisiac Phi Phi island (some photos at the beginning of the slideshow – they speak for themselves!), but at our final destination: Railay Beach (the latter photos). Just Like Phi Phi, it was surrounded by breathtaking cliffs and engulfed by turquoise waters. Here, I’d found a gorgeous two-storey bungalow to stay in, nestled in the jungle with a backdrop of the jagged cliffs. There didn’t even seem to be a town here, a line of shops and the twin beach decked out with more bars, shops and massage parlors. I suppose the first friends we made were at the “Thai Local Restaurant” – yes that’s really its name. We were drawn back on day two after an unsatisfactory meal at one of the nice hotel restaurants. The staff seemed to recognize us and were happy to have us.
The second friend we made was also on our first day, we passed a bar and its owner begged us to come in, we said maybe tomorrow. And so we went back on the next night to the “Bang Bang Bar” named after its owner, Bang – yes that’s his real name (or so he said). He was so friendly that we were having a fabulous time, we even tracked down a great rendition of Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang,” which we listened to about six times before eventually putting on something livelier and Bang used that as an excuse to start dancing around, behind us, his hands finding their way to our bottoms once or twice… it was time to move on. Maybe the bar’s name, and his friendliness… had other significations… We were free of wandering hands at our other favorite bar, the Why Not?
Our last night we tried to sneak by Bang Bang but it was on our way to and from the other bars, we said we’d be back later, not really wanted to tempt his hands again. Though I could barely make it through my last Pina Colada, food poisoning coming on from another meal at a fancier restaurant. Our last day I managed to make it to this other beach we’d been wanting to visit, gripping my aching belly. Passing the Thai Local and the staff seeing us go in the other direction, beckoned us in, we said we’d stop by on the way back. We darted by Bang’s without him spotting us on the way by.
I passed out on the beach eventually roused by screeching children. I struggled my head up high enough to see the beach platooned by large speedboats of tourists making Rose itching to leave. I mustered up enough energy to slide into the water to cool down. Perhaps I looked pathetic collapsed in the low water, but within no time the group of screaming kids next to me was giggling and whispering together. One little naughty boy dared to give me a first little splash, unleashing WWIII (Water Wars). At the end a truce was made and I posed for photos with them; happy holiday memories solidified with water and smiles.
We didn’t manage to sneak by Bang on our way back, but did stay out of his reach, his pleading hands begging us to come in (featured in the photo). Bang Bang to Bang Bang! We did however stop in at the Thai Local, we couldn’t disappoint those friends and their cute kids, even though I couldn’t stomach my last meal, maybe my illness was brought out out of depression over leaving? Indeed, as our boat to the port (and to the airport) was pulling out into the bay I teared up. I didn’t want to leave my little paradise! As sad as it was, I had to comfort myself with an “I’d be back.” There were more temples to visit, more friends to be made… and more temptations to accept!
Note: this is a long post which could have been split into two (or three or four)… but there are more exciting stories and news piling up! Upwards and onwards!