After living in Japan for two years and China for five, I determined that the handling of racial inequities in the USA is very different from Asia. In America, race is an open book. It is a topic that we approach head on. We touch on race in televised speeches and graduation commencements; we comment on race on our TV shows and stand-up comedy (hell, we even have TV shows classified by race), and we openly discuss race among friends and family. Unlike in Asia, race is not something we shove under the rug in the USA. It’s out there for all to see.
Thailand. A backpackers haven. The heart of Southeast Asia. The land of smiles. A country that all travelers know they must check off ‘the list.’
I first became interested in Thailand in much the same way everyone else does: The food.
I mean seriously, when a country has food THIS good you can’t help but wonder about the rest of it. There has to be something unique and special about a country that makes some of the best spicy soup, mind blowing curry, and fragrant dishes to grace not only all of Asia–but the entire world.
In university and in Shanghai, I had dozens of Thai friends and they did nothing but spread positive PR for the entire country. All of my Thai friends have helped me with a smile, befriended me with nothing but the most honest of feelings in their heart, and added a significant amount of joy and love into my life. Really, I have little to complain about when it comes to the Thai people because they are, simply, magical.
Strangely enough, being half Vietnamese had me feeling a certain connection with Thai people. Vietnamese and Thai people aren’t really that related, but being Southeast Asian neighbors and sharing a somewhat similar cultural background always had me feel a closeness to the Thai people that I didn’t really feel with Japan or even China.
In addition to the food and people, the beautiful beaches, colorful temples, rich culture and tropical weather were more than enough to lure me to the country.
Before I left China I had an amazing opportunity to visit Thailand with the two most important people in my life: Z and Hali.
The result of the trip is mixed. Although Thailand was unforgettable, the experience left me feeling sad and empty for the country itself. The backpackers, the partying, and the absurd amount of tourism are slowly eroding Thailand’s rich and deep culture.
…But hey, let’s talk about the good stuff first.
Biking through the ancient capital, Ayutthaya
After leaving Shanghai, I have to be honest with you–going to Bangkok didn’t sound appealing at all. I wanted to get as far away from a big, noisy, polluted, Asian city as humanly possible. Although Bangkok is nowhere near as dirty or smoggy as Shanghai, it still wasn’t the relaxing, tranquil setting I had imagined for my ‘holiday escape.’
Luckily, however, a quick one hour ride out of Bangkok will take you to a small town called Ayutthaya, housing some ruins from 1350 AD (now THAT’S a long time ago).
I’m no expert on ruins, but I have to say that the remains of this ancient Siam capital were quite astonishing and rather intact. The photo listed above was the grand palace and, if you look closely, you can still see markings and black charred areas on the brick and mortar that reveal the cause of the city’s destruction: flame. After Ayutthaya was conquered by the Burmese army, it was ruthlessly charred to the ground. Ayutthyua’s only remains are what you see above. (Fun fact, Ayutthaya was a melting pot of cultures and a trading hub of the 1400’s. It was the first civilization in the world to establish freedom of religion!).
Still, some of the temples have withstood the test of time quite well. I mean, look at this temple! Tip top shape, and even the inside smells like ancient mold and dead animals (the stench was foul).
And without a doubt, biking through Ayutthaya is definitely the way to go. Riding through green fields, whizzing by ancient trees and feeling the wind in your hair as you awe at the temples passing you by is pure bliss. Z and I biked over bridges and pathways that looped around lakes and rivers, completely surrounded by temples at every turn.
The temples are interspersed throughout the town, but the area encompassing the temples themselves are only accessible by bike and foot (I think some tuk-tuks go there, but not for certain). This clears up any worry of traffic or congestion, and the area itself is quite open, empty, and peaceful. It was the perfect getaway from Shanghai–an ideal place to clear my mind and relax.
What can I say, I have a thing for biking through beautiful scenery. Whether it be in China or Bali, get me on a bike and out to the rolling countryside and you will have a very happy Mary.
Z and Mary were very lazy, however, and didn’t make it out to Ayutthaya until about 1 PM. We had no idea just how HUGE the place was, with some of the best temples being way out in the boondocks–almost 2 hours, one way, from the main city center. If I knew Ayutthaya was going to be such an epic adventure, I would have arrived at the site around 10 AM and properly biked through the area (doubting Z would be able to handle that, though).
After biking in the hot sun and visiting the giant reclining buddha (Ayutthaya style), Z helped quench Buddha’s thirst and begged to return home to the hostel for a hot meal and cold shower. I wasn’t able to see all of the temples I wanted, but I was content. So was buddha.
But that’s the thing when traveling. Sometimes we get so caught up in ticking everything off “the list,” we forget to just kick back, relax, and accomplish just what we came to do–explore and learn. Instead of stress myself out about visiting every epic temple on the map, I think Z’s easygoing nature and laid back attitude helped me to just sit, breathe, admire what was in front of me and take in the moment. She helped me explore the country at a proper “travelers speed.”
How to Get to Ayutthaya
I researched the hell out of it, and the best way is NOT train nor is it bus–it’s mini van. Take the skytrain to Victory Monument stop and ask around for the minivan that goes to Ayutthaya. The mini van comes every 15 minutes, is air conditioned, takes about 1.5 hours and costs something insanely cheap like 60 baht (no bargaining necessary). This is THE BEST way to go. Traffic can be bad depending, but it will still be faster than train.
Bangkok: Cheap Food, Palaces, and more Cheap Food
Z and I hit all of the standard tourist hot spots in Thailand, such as the palace and Wat Po (reclining Buddha).
So after seeing ALL OF THAT, I asked that cool cat up there (Indiana Z) what she loved most about Thailand. Was it the beautiful gold of the palaces? The enchanting and sad history of the Ayutthuya ruins? That deep and indescribable spiritual healing from gazing at Wat Po and wandering the temples?
“Nope,” she said. “All I want to do is eat.”
But hey, after what we feasted on, I can’t really blame her.
After touring the rest of the country, I realized that the cheapest food was (surprisingly) in Bangkok. Since southern Thailand is so heavily infested by tourism, the food prices there don’t differ much from China (or even the U.S.). Being in Bangkok and eating whole grilled fish with two orders of curry, a soup, papaya salad, and couple stir fry dishes was easily under 20 USD. I gathered from other travelers that only Chiang Mai could compare in prices.
The food in Thailand is colorful, fragrant, vibrant and refreshing. Thai food can be compared to a rainbow exploding in your mouth–almost like skittles, but spicy and not disgusting and full of food coloring and preservatives. It’s a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds. Although towards the end of my 2 week journey I felt ill just looking at tom yom goong (spicy coconut soup) and couldn’t eat another spoonful of curry if you paid me, I still rank Thai food up there in my top five. The fresh seafood, the raw vegetables mixed with the rich sauces along with the different smells of curry and spices, fish sauce and chilis all attacking you at once–oh man. That’s what traveling in Asia is ALL about.
The Floating Market
It looks awesome in photos, but it’s not. It’s a god awful tourist trap. DO. NOT. GO.
Thailand with a Z
Bangkok and my first few days of Thailand were not only special because of the food, people and culture of my surroundings–but also because I had my best Chinese friend Z with me there for the ride. Her easygoing and light hearted spirit made her the perfect travel companion, and I couldn’t have asked for a better farewell gift from her. Spending my last few days with her in Thailand were some of the most unforgettable moments of my life.