Sunday, March 23, 2008


From Kanchanaburi we travelled to Ayuthaya, stepping back in time to appreciate the legacy the ancient kingdom who established their capital here for nearly 400 years. But far from being a city lost to history, Ayuthaya has evolved into a prosperous commercial center that has earned its own place in modern Thailand. Surrounded by three intersecting rivers and situated just an hour north of Bangkok, it’s a surprisingly genuine city to visit, with some authentic local markets and relaxed riverside restaurants.

We began our explorations of the city with an early morning tour of some of the major temples. There are no tuk tuks or taxi cabs in Ayuthaya – just mini pick-up trucks that you ride in the back of – so, it makes for an interesting ride. In the afternoon, we continued our explorations by long-tail boat, an equally peculiar (and noisy) mode of transport that gave us a different perspective on this water-centric locale.

The temples we visited exhibit many different influences, including those of the earlier Sukhothai and Angkor empires. They are mostly in ruins thanks to the Burmese, who destroyed the capital and forced the Thais to flee to the present day capital of Bangkok. Yet, they are still impressive – giant brick and sandstone towers reach toward the sky, as flowering trees envelop them in an attempt to draw the sites back to a more natural state.

Although many of the Buddha images have been stolen or beheaded by looters, the city retains its religious importance and many younger temples have been erected nearby or on top of the ancient ones. Hundreds of pilgrims make their way here each day to honor the giant reclining Buddha or to give alms to the monks who reside here. At Wat Phanan Choeng, we watched a group of devotees wrapping a colossal golden Buddha in sacred yellow cloth, while others outside gave offerings to the fattened catfish swimming in the river.

It’s easy to get temple overload in a place so rich in cultural treasures, so we left ready and excited to head south to the islands of the Andaman Sea for week of rest and relaxation.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


We took the train to Kanchanaburi, a relaxed city spread out alongside the River Kwai. It’s a popular weekend retreat from Bangkok, which means the peace and quiet of this otherwise relaxed town is often disrupted by the noisy engines of the long-tails or the blasting sounds of karaoke barges plying up and down the river.

Kanchanaburi is an important historical site, because it is where the Japanese began building the legendary railway to Burma during World War II. The railway was a critical part of Axis’ offensive strategy, as it would forge a critical link between the Far East and India, allowing Japan to extend its strategic control in westward. The railway would be an engineering feat in its own right, as it crossed some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth – monsoon -fueled rivers, steep mountains and sweltering, mosquito-infested jungles – but, it was really the speed at which it was accomplished that made it so astonishing. Engineers estimated that it would take nearly 3 years to complete, but it was finished in closer to one.

Unfortunately, this speed had a terrible human cost. Thousands of Allied prisoners of war and a hundred times more conscripted workers from India and South East Asia died in the process from tropical diseases, malnutrition or overwork. The Allied POWs have a cemetery in town and there are a couple of memorial museums that tell this sad story. We traveled by train on a section of the original so-called “death railway” and walked across the infamous “bridge over River Kwai”.

Kanchanaburi is also known for its natural beauty, so headed out into the surrounding countryside. We started at Erawin National Park, which contains a series of 8 pretty waterfalls. Even though it’s the dry season and the falls were not at their most spectacular, there was enough water for Rita and Jen to take a quick dip into the icy waters of the 5th falls while Gil ran the rest of the way up to the top.

After lunch, we got rides from some gentle grey giants. After logging was banned in Thailand, thousands of domesticated elephants were unemployed and many have found new jobs in the tourism industry. There is vigorous debate about the proper role and treatment of domesticated elephants going forward, but it’s clear that their livelihood will continue to depend on interested tourists – whether it’s trekking, begging in the streets of Bangkok, performing in elephant shows or, preferably, just being themselves in a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, there is just not enough land or money for the latter to be a realistic option at this point.

After our hot and uncomfortable rides, we took a short, but refreshing trip down the river on log rafts (or, floating alongside the raft at times). We also visited a dark and cool cave temple with a large sitting Buddha, one of many sites of worship built into the surrounding mountains.
We took a trip to the Tiger Temple, another controversial wildlife initiative. The temple began as a sanctuary for hurt or abandoned animals of all types, but the tigers are clearly the stars of the show these days. For $10 you can enter the sanctuary and have your picture taken petting the tigers as they take their afternoon “cat nap”. The money will supposedly be used to build an island on which the tigers will be released to live in a close-to-wild existence, but some people question whether this in the real goal of the monks. Admittedly, it seems a bit unnatural to get so close to these giant cats, but after talking to some of the volunteers we are hopeful that the effort to improve the situation is genuine. And, hey, we did get some pretty amazing pictures out of the whole experience!

Monday, March 17, 2008


Bangkok is a big, modern city and for the month we were in Thailand, it became our home away from home. Each time we passed through we discovered something new, and became a little more adept at navigating its many neighborhoods and dealing with the unscrupulous (or occasionally, simply clueless) taxi drivers that tried to overcharge us on our numerous transits to and from the airport.

During the first leg of our trip we stayed in Sukumvhit, one of the newer parts of the city, chock full of expats, international hotels, and lots and lots of ongoing development. It doesn’t have as much character as some other neighborhoods, but it does have all of the modern day conveniences one could ask for, like easy access to the Skytrain and Metro, world class restaurants in any flavor you desire, swanky shopping centers and $8 massage parlors on every corner.

We had a couple of days in Bangkok on our own, so we took advantage of this time to take care of some necessary business, like securing our visa for Vietnam. We also visited the seedier side of Bangkok (namely, the Patpong District) that our parents wouldn’t want to see. Patpong was once the center of Thailand’s busy sex trade, but is now is more of a circus-like atmosphere with a bustling night market and go go bars advertising ridiculous “shows” that would make your mother blush. You can’t help but feel a bit more depraved after walking around here, but it’s a sad reality in most big cities of South East Asia that this type of work provides much greater economic opportunity for women than any other.

The rest of our time in Bangkok (Thailand, really) was spent with either Gil’s mom or Jen’s parents , who lined up back to back vacations here. It was an unexpected treat to see family after all this time and we cannot even begin to express how much we appreciate them having made such a long and arduous trip to visit us! They proved to be great travel companions and made our time in this part of the world extra special. We even got to celebrate Gil’s mom’s belated birthday with a delicious seafood dinner and a mango and sticky rice complete with candle.

With family in tow, we hit up all the major tourist destinations, beginning with the classic Siam-style home of Jim Thompson, an American silk magnate who spent his life in Bangkok, and continuing on to Siam Square, the fashionable commercial center beloved by Bangkok’s hipster youth. In the small lanes that line the Square you can find hundreds of emerging local designers selling their creations for a pittance. Unfortunately, if you are taller than 5’ 6”, weigh over 120 pounds or have feet larger than a size 7 (yes to all of the above) you have a slim chance of finding something that fits. The saving grace is that a face massage at one of the trendy spas here comes in one size fits all!

We also spent time in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which, like San Francisco’s Chinatown, is known for bargain basement prices on all manner of things you don’t need and infuriating traffic jams. It’s a very lively place, packed with throngs of shoppers during the day and lit up by an endless sea of neon at night.

A few ferry stops up river from Chinatown, you reach the old city where all of the big ticket attractions are found. The Grand Palace is no longer the primary residence of the King, but its classic European-inspired buildings give you an idea of the grandeur of this historic kingdom that lives on to the present day. The importance of the royal family to the Thai people is obvious in the reverential pictures you find displayed in homes and businesses big and small, but this reverence really showed through to us when we saw hundreds of Thais dressed in black and making a pilgrimage to the palace to pay their respects to the late Princess (the sister of the King) who passed away in 2007. The mourning period will continue throughout the next year and we came across flower-draped memorials to her in nearly every town.

Within the grounds of the Grand Palace is Wat Phrakaew, one of the most ornately decorated temples in all of Thailand. Millions of tiny mirrors and gold filigree sparkle in the sun like jewels, serving as a fitting showcase for the Emerald Buddha housed inside. The Emerald Buddha (which is apparently really made of jasper) has a long history, having traveled from Chiang Rai to Laos and finally to Bangkok, and is one of the most revered images in the country. The image even has different outfits that the king personaly changes each season (he was donning both his winter and rain-weather gear when we visited).

The courtyard surrounding Wat Phrakaew is quite interesting as well. There are several other beautiful buildings, a model of Angkor Wat, and hundreds of protective or lucky figures standing guard in gilded or mosaic dress. There is also a detailed mural circling the area that depicts the Thai-version of the Ramayana, a very colorful story indeed!

Nearby Wat Pho is another treasure of Bangkok. The main temple holds the largest Buddha image in the country, reclining on his side in relaxation. The golden image is barely contained by the walls that surround it and you are truly awe struck by the size when walking its perimeter. Wat Pho also has the largest collection of Buddha images in Thailand and some beautiful chedi that look like a little like frosting-covered wedding cakes. It is also home to a traditional massage school, evidenced by the peculiar sculptures depicting various yoga poses and massage techniques scattered amongst the temple structures.

No visit to Bangkok would be complete without spending hours upon hours shopping in the city’s many markets. From the tiny amulet market, where people go to purchase protective trinkets to ward off evil, to the Chatuchak weekend market, with over 15,000 mind-boggling stalls, there is something for everyone here – even if you just want to gape wide-jawed at the newborn parrots or freakish fish in the pet section.

We spent our final days in Bangkok at a market of a different type, the “farang” (foreigner) ghetto of Khao San Road. It’s a great place to replenish your travel wardrobe, buy a plate of pad thai for 50 cents, grab a 2 for 1 bucket cocktail at a make-shift street side bar or check out a cheesy Thai cover band. It’s not for everyone and not necessarily representative of Thai society, but it is a cultural oddity in its own right and certainly worth a peak if you want to inside scoop on the backpacker scene. We’re not sure if it scared our parents more or gave them comfort that we’re not the only crazy people trying to get out there and see the world.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Trivandrum to Chennai to Bangkok

From Varkala we headed south to Trivandrum, where we caught our overnight train to Chennai. We only had a few hours to get a feel for Trivandrum, but it seemed busy – like a good state capital should be – and friendly – as any place situated the far reaches of the continent would need to be to thrive. We visited a beautiful temple with ornate sculpture near the center of the city and had yet another delicious dosa before boarding our last train in this country so defined by the tracks that cross it in every direction.

We had just one night in Chennai and were busy with last minute preparations for the next leg of the journey, so unfortunately the charms of this city – the largest in Tamil Nadu and the 5th largest in all of India – eluded us, for the most part. It’s not that the place is unpleasant, but given that it’s quite spread out and difficult to navigate on foot, it just doesn’t offer much to the short-term tourist. Still, we relished our last few moments in the embrace of Mother India. From the swirling colors of the women’s saris and the skinny legs protruding from the men’s lungi to the mounds of colorful fruits or stacks of bamboo sold street side, there are always treasures to be found here.

We reluctantly loaded our bags into a tuk tuk and departed for the airport, with our minds brimming with thoughts and our hearts bubbling over with emotions. India embodies everything that is wonderful and horrible in our world and forces you to confront those things day in and day out. You cannot hide from humanity here, cannot brush it off or turn your back to it, cannot forget or ignore. Your only option is to jump in and surrender to the currents churning around you – nearly drowning at times, but otherwise getting the ride of your life.

We leave India like you might leave a scorned lover. Exhausted, remorseful, relieved. And sitting on the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, eating a meal at 2 AM, we were sure of one thing – we’ll be back for more.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Varkala has a couple of small and unremarkable beaches with crashing waves and a frightening undertow. But, the cliffs that silhouette the Arabian Sea here are quite spectacular and a unique feature along an otherwise flat coastline. It must be these cliffs that inspired the building of a temple to Vishnu here over 2,000 years ago, and it is undoubtedly this stunning backdrop that continues to draw pilgrims, tourists and yoga retreats to the area today.

We only had 2 short days in Varkala, but did our best to enjoy what was on offer. We sampled the fresh fruits being peddled by squat women wrapped in saris on the beach and spent hours choosing from the cornucopia of seafood on offer at the cliff-side restaurants. We relaxed on the black sand beach in the morning, moved to the shaded cafes to hide away the afternoon and then returned to the beach in the evening to get pummeled and pounded by salt water as the sky turned pink and purple.

We feel our time on the subcontinent winding down and can’t help but get nostalgic for a place we’ve grown to love. But, we suspect the friendly people and coconut curries in Southern India will provide a perfect transition to the friendly people and coconut curries of Thailand and so we balance our nostalgia with our growing anticipation of what lies ahead on the next portion of our world tour.