An Epiphany in Thailand
I have a travel confession.
When the opportunity and funds allow for an international trip, my first, second, and third destination picks are invariably somewhere in western Europe. Like my good friends Hemingway and Tucci (forgive me, Ernest and Stanley), I’m captivated by the romance of an afternoon cocktail in a dimly lit Parisian bar or a sunset passeggiata along the weathered streets of Rome, in casual pursuit of tomato sauce and cheese. If there’s a television series or film set in a European locale, I’ve seen it and loved it. Quality is irrelevant. I’ve even been known to work out to Italian opera, not understanding the words but comprehending them, nonetheless.
There are terms for people like me, the Disney adults of travel. “Francophile,” “Italophile,” “Anglophile,” etc. The suffix “phile” makes anyone sound sophisticated (there are some known exceptions), making me sound sophisticated, like I should be holding a cigarette between slim and delicate fingers as I sip black coffee at a sidewalk café. But don’t waste your admiration on me, ma chérie, for I am nothing more than a one-dimensional tourist with the keychains and fridge magnets to prove it.
This revelation hit me at an unusual time, as revelations so often do. I was sifting through elephant dung on a sunny day in northern Thailand, trying my best to count the fibers, when I realized that I had never held animal excrement on any of my previous vacations.
Here I was on the other side of the world, learning to care for this sacred creature in an unfamiliar country where I did not speak a lick of the language. It was a transformative experience. After an enthusiastic declaration that my pachydermatous friend was in good health, I rinsed my hands from a nearby hose, the water a symbol of my regeneration.
My short time in Thailand was filled with expansive moments like this, though excrement wasn’t always involved. Whether riding in a zippy tuk-tuk, navigating the chaos of a night market, or observing Buddhist monks tending to their temple duties, I remained in a constant state of wonder, keenly aware that I was a long way from home and unsure if I wanted to go back. Why would I? In Thailand, I was totally present, surrounded by beautiful and dramatic landscapes, interacting with people eager to share their customs, beliefs, and sticky rice with a stranger.
Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with having a favorite place in the world, near or far, that you can’t wait to explore time and time again. And visiting a heavily-touristed country in Southeast Asia one time does not make me Marco Polo. But there is something to be said for mixing it up, for stepping into the unknown. So, as a changed person who feels the unsolicited need to share her experience, I invite you to enjoy the following abbreviated highlights from my recent visit to the Land of Smiles.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand and the former seat of the powerful Lanna Kingdom. Both ancient and modern, it’s perfectly normal for a hipster coffee shop to be located across the street from a 15th-century temple (wat). This province is home to more Buddhist temples than you could dream of visiting, elephant sanctuaries, ornate spirit houses, hill tribes, and misty mountains. Tour historic Chiang Mai by tuk-tuk; explore the famous Sunday night market inside the Thapae Gate; visit revered temples Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Wat Phra Singh, and Wat Chedi Luang; and spend a day at an elephant sanctuary tending to and learning about Thailand’s most respected animal.
Don’t forget to pack gloves.
Khao Sok National Park
If Chiang Mai requires constant activity, Khao Sok is the place where you just stand and stare in amazement, utterly incapable of speech, at the almost 500 square miles of jewel-toned lakes, giant limestone cliffs, and vocally gifted monkeys. This national park in the southern Surat Thani province encompasses the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world. It would be irresponsible not to visit if you are en route to/from the coast. Book a multi-day jungle safari, survey the lakes via long-tail boat, or do what I did and do nothing at all by going off the grid in a floating bungalow in Cheow Larn Lake.
This is the island you see pictured on screensavers everywhere that you didn’t think was real. But it’s very real. Sadly, my time in Phuket was limited. I made the most of it, though, and spent almost all of it on the water, touring Phang Nga Bay where the famous James Bond Island can be found jutting out of the Andaman Sea, kayaking through narrow tidal caves, and enjoying a plate of massaman curry on a secluded island.
- If you aren’t part airplane, consider a pit stop in Europe (yes, I know) to break up the 20-plus-hour journey. Just trust me on this.
- Arrange for a tour guide. Seeing the country through the lens of a local is invaluable. You’ll be able to communicate with people through your translator and find the best coconuts and mangos at the market.
- Requesting “medium spice” in Thailand is very different from requesting “medium spice” at Malai Kitchen or Thailicious.
- If you are asked, inspect the dung. It could lead to an epiphany.