Mar 25, 2011

Amazing Thailand

It’s been an interesting time here in Thailand—we’ve spent 30 days, managing to visit Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Pai, and Aranya Prathet.  While this is my second and it’s Jim’s 3rd visit, each time it was under different circumstances:  travelling as a young twenty-something single (Jim), then as a couple in our early 30’s and now as a family in our 40’s with 2 young children.  These circumstances no doubt affect your perspective as well as your experience and type of interaction with others.  While we had been to all but Aranya Prathet on our travels before, we still managed to discover lots of new sights mostly as a result of travelling with children.

So our views on Thailand this time around include, in no particular order:

The Good:

Our $25 USD Room in Chiang Mai

....And the Pool
1.     Abundant Economical Accommodation.  By far the accommodation in Thailand has been the least expensive of Bali and KL, although in fairness to KL, being a major city, accommodation is naturally more expensive.  We usually were able to get a triple room (a queen-sized bed and a single bed which the girls would share) with AC and ensuite for 500-750 THB/$17-$25 USD.  Naturally you could spend a lot more, or a bit less, but we were always comfortable and in clean rooms. 

2.    Great Inexpensive Food.  In Thailand, good food is never too far away.  Street stalls are everywhere, readily offering a hearty bowl of noodle soup or pad thai.  Small restaurants didn’t usually charge much more than the street vendor.  Fresh fruit vendors slicing up cantelope, watermelon, papaya, pineapple and other fruit sold a small plastic bag full at 0.33-0.50 cents each(10-15 THB).  Beverage vendors served up cooling coffee over ice with condensed milk for .50-.70 centsb (10-25B).  Other vendors offered up BBQ skewerd meat, corn on the cob, sticky rice, fried chicken—the list goes on!  You are never hungry in Thailand! We’ve generally been spending on average $15.00 USD per day for food, and that’s for all of us.    

Fresh Fruit Vendor:  10B (0.30cents) per bag

3.    Child Friendly Culture.  Travelling with children gives you a completely different perspective on a culture and we were so surprised at this aspect of Thailand.  Never before had we encountered a society who collectively instinctively look out for the welfare of (small?) children.  For example, on the street random strangers would warn of on-coming traffic or a potentially dangerous situation (as they saw it).  LRT train security would perk up with attention when we approached the platform, keeping a protective eye on the girls that they didn’t get too close to the edge.  People regardless of age or gender would aid with the children without hesitation, such as steadying them on a crowded train or helping them enter or egress.  Children are even given priority seating on trains, together with the elderly, pregnant and of course the monks—people actually give up their seat for the kids!  Imagine that!  There are also lots of concessions for the kids, such as half-price tickets for travel on long-distance buses, trains and admission charges but of course this doesn’t allow for them to have their own seat either.   It’s been really refreshing to be in such a child-friendly country. 

Signage on Bangkok Skytrain
Signage on the LRT

4.    A Good Variety of Activites On Offer.  Thailand is a very large country and geographically very diverse.  To the south, you have your beaches and water-related activities on offer, especially good scuba diving.  To the center and north, you have wild-life and animals in zoos and sanctuaries.  You also have lots of national parks with beautiful waterfalls, particularly in the North.  You have vibrant village cultures and a strong religious element (Buddhism) that flows throughout the country.

1.     Lots of Wildlife Attractions.  Elephants, Tigers, monkeys, birds and reptiles abound in Thailand’s many wildlife tourist attractions.  You can get up close and personal very affordably.  We had a chance to visit not only Chiang Mai Zoo, but also Dusit Zoo in Bangkok which offered a really fun-filled day for all of us, without breaking the bank. Especially fun were the Seal Show, The Acrobatic Kenya Boys Show, the amusement park and the playground.

Hippos at Dusit Zoo, Bangkok

The Seal Show at Dusit Zoo, Bangkok

2.    Beautiful Wats and Temples.  Buddhism runs strongly through the Thai society.  ‘Spirit Houses’ are found at every house, shop, place of business to keep the spirits happy and contained.  Monks, in their bright orange or ochre red robes are seen not only at the wats but also going about day to day life.  And beautiful ‘wats’ can be seen throughout the country, adorned with tiny multi-coloured mosaic glass pieces and colourful serpents at the entrances to reflect and chase away the bad spirits from entering forth.


The Bad:

1.     Visa-On-Arrival By Land.  Most visitors to Thailand receive an automatic 30-day free visa-on-arrival when arriving by air.  However recent changes (in November 2010?) now result in visas-on-arrival by land borders to be only 15 days, which isn’t really very long.  This has also caused the immigration lines at the airports to be very lengthly as tourists return from trips ‘from nowhere’ just to get another 30-day visa.

The So-So:

1.     Flora and Fauna.  Again, everything is a matter of perspective.  Previously we always thought of Thailand as a beautiful and lush country.  But having come virtually straight from Bali, we were quite shocked by what we saw here.  The flora and fauna just wasn’t as ‘green’ nor as colourful as we’d remembered it and certainly nothing compared to Bali.  Everything just seems very dusty and dry here surprisingly.  Maybe it’s the time of year, we don’t know for certain as we have never visited at this time before.  But aside from the ‘wild’ vegetation, there just aren’t the abundance of private gardens as you see in Bali.  Even the remote dwellings there take care to plant nice gardens around them.  Not so much here from what we’ve seen this trip.

2.    Stairs Stairs Everywhere.  On our previous visits to Bangkok, we’ve mostly stayed to the older side of town.  This time around, we were based around Siam Square which is on the ‘modern’ side.  As such we were able to utilise the LRT (Light Rapid Transit) rail lines quite a bit and it was definitely a very handy and efficient way to get around town.  But the down side was encountering lots of and lots of stairs!  Up to platforms, down to platforms, down to the street, up from the street---so many many steps!  Couple that with the numerous pedestrian overpasses in this part of the city, while great for keeping the traffic moving (in theory), but they are so high off the ground resulting in lots of steps up one side then down the other just to cross the street!  It’s something that may not bother you normally, but with little people in tow with little legs, it starts to take its toll!  Occasionally there are escalators, but often they are more of a pain to access as there are only 1 set of them located in a central area.  

3.    Language Barrier.  It’s a little bit frustrating that lots of written signage and documents are only available in Thai.  Understandably English is not an official language, but for a country that relies so heavily on foreign tourism, offering English translations at major attractions such as major temples, bus stations, etc only goes to further the tourist experience.  In addition, our invoice from the Thai Travel Clinic, a clinic located in their major university aimed at foreigners, was only written in Thai.  As well, people employed in the tourism industry particularly those that are targeting foreign tourists, also generally do not have a good working knowledge of spoken English, and this includes front desk staff of fairly large establishments.

4.    WiFi Hotspots.  WiFi hotspots can be found in most guesthouses and hotels for free, although for the population, it’s not as widely available as you’d expect.  Haven’t really encountered free hotspots either in public areas nor at Starbucks or 7-11 as you do in Bali.    
5. Squat Toilets.  Not a huge fan.  Squats are still somewhat common in Thailand, especially in older establishments and in older areas.

    Our daily spend in Thailand was approximately $50 USD per day for all of us, which is very cheap especially considering the high quality of food and accommodation.  All ground transport (taxi, trains, buses, bicycle hires), food, accommodation and purchases (although it did not included the 2 pairs of Keen shoes for the girls as they were gifts) were included in this; our travel vaccinations were not. 

   Thailand is ‘cheap and easy’, and full of life—no wonder it’s a favourite among tourists all over the world.   Better yet, the cost of living is low yet the standard is relatively high--great combination for extended stays.  And travelling with young children, it's a terrific choice for a destination.

    Having chosen to travel slowly with the children in tow, coupled with timing our travel vaccinations in Bangkok, we've only managed to visit half of Thailand this time around.  Hopefully we will return later in our trip to spend time down south on the islands.  For now, it's onto a new country for all of us:  CAMBODIA!

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