Thailand offers an exotic experience that is almost out of this world

With Bangkok sinking, tourists might plan to visit sooner than later.

By ARI BAR-OZ
March 4, 2017 21:00
THE PROW of our boat points down between the mountains on both sides of the Pretchaburi River

THE PROW of our boat points down between the mountains on both sides of the Pretchaburi River. (photo credit: ARI BAR-OZ)

 
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Offered lunch, I might not have even asked the menu, but offered travel, I didn’t bite until they said, “Thailand.”

Travel shares every inconvenience of childbirth: pain, expense, exhaustion and a desperate need to shower long before it ends.

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Then, just as the baby’s arrival reminds us how to see the world for the first time and eases painful memories, landing helps erase any trouble recalled in getting there.

A shorter flight to Bangkok would begin above Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran; a safer one starts above the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea.

“Thailand’s not another country,” my brother said, “it’s another planet.”

Interplanetary experience aside, such brotherly wisdom was supplemented by other sage advice: (“Thai women are beautiful – but too beautiful, and she is likely to be he”); wonders (the first face on the El Al in-flight video belonged to Mel Gibson); and signs (“Exit” became “Way out” and a bathroom suggestion box was labeled “Feedback toilet”). These indicators were portents that this trip would need new – if not necessarily naive – eyes.

Thailand has succumbed to the modern age the same way all nations have, but its roots are in the Siam of old: baroque with decoration, expansive in spirit, lush with giant forests that let the soul breathe and suffused with remnants of a particular “flavor of thought.”



While the first jet-lagged daylight made Bangkok seem a sinking mass of 10 million doomed souls, the simple truth is, a new metropolis was built on ancient marshland better suited for floating houses of bamboo and palm fronds.

That world of plants would make the city disappear in a year if people and cars stopped that long. But they don’t – not even for a second.

We are on a bus to Hua Hin, three hours to the south, and monsoon season is months away, so Bangkok will have to stay in the hands of Buddha. He will be watching, for he is grand, serene and his image is everywhere.

The king was everywhere, too, though he had died 100 days earlier. Rama IX, or King Bhumibol, was wealthy, powerful and revered. Each morning at 7, bands still play for the dead monarch in Hua Hin, where townspeople built a station house of teak wood on the train platform to greet earlier kings en route to the summer palace.

Klai Kang Won Palace on the beach at Hua Hin was built for Rama VI in 1924.

“In the house of the king one must show utmost respect,” say signs in the palace.

Still, there is a gift shop and we get to see the 1920s royal toilet. Life goes on.

Separate walkways for male and female royals lead to the shore. “But can mix at beach,” my Thai friend says with a wink.

Surely they did mix. Rama VI had 10 royal consorts. One, Phra Sujaritsuda, was an older sister. Another, Indrasakdisaji, became queen after becoming pregnant, but was demoted back to consort after she miscarried.

Depending on who is speaking, the king was or is the reincarnation of Vishnu, rides on the mythical bird Garuda, or reclines next to the elephant-god Ganesh.

Today in the palace-turned-museum, we watch royal musicians listen to their teacher sing, then hear the neophytes do their best to repeat each note. It is not always precise, but it is charming to hear hardwood xylophones ring out, reed instruments squeak (to Western ears) and gongs chime from an eight-foot circle around a seated player. It sounds like the Gamelon music of Bali and Java. From what I see, Thai culture has been highly cross-pollinated.

Heading back to town, the roads are decorated with shrines of the neatest trim, some home-made. They are gilded with brilliant yellows or lavishly painted in bright blues, greens and reds. All the paint in Thailand must surely be gone.

It seems that every rooftop, yard and space that human hands can decorate holds a place for Buddha.

At the monastery of the Great Vase, or Luang Pu Taud, we visit Thailand’s largest Buddhist statue. Perfectly painted temples grace the gardens nearby. As for why hundreds of painted clay roosters are lined up in front of a martial-looking fellow atop a great horse – the details have escaped me, but not the image.

Other Buddhas are wonderfully imaginative and beautifully made. A unique Buddha of wood sits on an elephant woven of tree limbs garlanded with flowers.

There are old, young, standing, sitting, fat and emaciated Buddhas. My eye was even caught by a small singular image of a bespectacled Buddha, outside the small fishing village of Bang Pu. The village is built on a river leading to the Gulf of Thailand.

A colorful assortment of brightly painted boats lines its banks.

Nearby is Khao Roi Yot National Park, home to an elegant temple, high up a mountain, deep in a cave and not easily reached. We travel by longboat across a bay to what might as well be a private beach.

The sands are surrounded by mountains, trees, grasses and islands, but they are nearly devoid of people.

The hike up the mountain is steep and strewn with rocks, while the descent into Phraya Nakhon Cave is slick with mud. The effort is worth it. The reward is seen deep in a limestone cave made by a sinkhole, where a small golden temple is brilliantly lit by the sun just now passing above. The hike, combined with this temple, make the day breathtaking, both figuratively and literally.

Buddha is not for decoration. “Respect is common sense,” says a billboard. “Disrespect to Buddha is wrong. Tattoo is wrong. It’s the law.”

From the highway, roadside bus stop benches pass too quickly. But the blur leaves time enough to see, instead of ads for real estate agents and lawyers, instructions to abide by the principles of truth, kindness and gentleness for the betterment of society.

All that is true, of course, but I can’t help wonder if such seemingly widespread agreement on religious principles contributes to the happiness of the citizenry or is a manipulation to encourage acquiescence, passivity and the status quo.

There have been military juntas here – one as recently as 2014 – although the military presence seems hidden behind painted walls and manicured gardens. There have been massacres of student protesters and a brutal war on drugs that has cost thousands of lives, some taken in extra-judicial ways.

Still, the military is pervasive if one looks.

In any case, one doesn’t criticize the military, the Buddha… or the king The streets are filled with scooters. Three passengers is not uncommon, four not too rare. Monks and women sit side-saddle, children sleep facing backwards in the arms of a parent who holds a drink in one hand and handlebars in the other.

Roadside signs are indecipherable to me, so as we gingerly traverse a washed-out patch, I imagine these read: “The roads ahead are slick and wet... The Buddha says don’t be upset… all things die, but don’t you yet… Burma-Shave!” Flea markets are everywhere – so many of them that what is bought today is sold tomorrow. The people are hard-working, though some sleep soundly through the traffic.

Field workers in masks stoop to pick pineapple.

It is backbreaking work, and yet every laborer, covered in sweat, dirt and chemicals, smiles and waves at tourists on the air-conditioned buses rolling by.

Why is there no resentment and why are they so open? I am told that a Thai worker in Israel can earn enough in seven years of agricultural work to return home and buy a house. Knowing how kindly they treated me in their homeland and the nature of their work, I vow immediately to treat each one I meet with kindness and grace.

Saturday night I go to the Soi Bintaban. It is not as raw as Bangkok’s red-light district, I’m told, but plenty edgy enough. My idea is to hire one of the ladies for a few hours just to talk. But the intrepid journalist in me fails. None of the prostitutes seem to speak English.

“Pat” sidles up to me at the bar, touches my head sweetly, laughs at everything I say, but doesn’t understand a word of it. Seeing how miserably the women are treated by drunken fools takes the wind out of my sails. Why isn’t this legal? It would be so much safer for everyone involved.

But there is no one to ask. “Pat” just smiles. I buy her a couple of drinks and head back to the hotel.

As ugly as some realities are, the beauty here is many times more. From Hua Hin, we reach Ratchaburi in about two hours.

It’s about the same distance to the Pala-u waterfall. Mountains are velveted in green, others are stark and brilliant in sharp outlines of red stone. There are temples that seem to float on water, beside fish farms.

Later there will be another feast in a restaurant looking out at a full moon on the harbor.

One trip takes us to Kaeng Krachan Nature Reserve. There are tigers in the reserve, but they stay in their own section of the park.

They have plenty of room, as the park is some 3,000 sq. km., or about one-seventh the size of Israel. I am not disappointed.

Besides, I will see several elephants, lots of monkeys, countless butterflies and birds before the week is over.

Tours never appealed to my independent, or perhaps snobbish side. That changed with this trip. Prices were low, people were friendly, food was incredible.

The troubles with travel are easily overcome when you’re pampered. A taxi gave me door-to-door service out from and back to Jerusalem, contributing to make the trip eight days in which all troubles were forgotten.

I flew business class, stayed oceanfront in a luxury hotel, ate and drank like a gourmand and traveled with a feisty bunch of Israelis.

Nearly 2% of Israel’s population visited Thailand last year. Now I see why. A week of quality adventures, top-level accommodations and exotic memories starting at prices around $1,400 seems a bargain to me.

The seas are rising and Bangkok is sinking – estimates range from just under half an inch to four inches per year. Even at the lesser estimate, in another dozen years or so, when it rains much of the city will be under several feet of water and stay there.

The world is changing. My recommendation: See it now.

The writer was a guest of El Al and Eshet Tours.

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