While I was happy to say goodbye to 2020, it did start out extremely well for me and my then Bavarian partner Manuel with a new year trip to Thailand. Thankfully, we visited this southeast Asian gem before the tsunami named COVID-19 hit.
Thailand is known as a honeymooning paradise for good reason with its white sand beaches, stunning sunsets, bountiful flora and fauna, luxurious hotels, elegant dining, inexpensive massages (think $10 an hour) and outstanding service that can accommodate almost any request. (Unfortunately, these same attributes also attract seedy tourists who want to “Thai” one on, exploiting Thailand’s liberal social policies and services and people who can’t say “no” financially.) Thailand means “Land of the Free” for better or worse.
This country is unlike any other with its constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, architecture, language (Siamese has the longest names in the world and seems impossible to write), hedonistic lifestyle and healthy cuisine. Thai food uniquely covers five tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. Many of its primary ingredients have medicinal properties like garlic, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, ginger, turmeric and coriander. Perhaps that’s why Thai people smile all the time.
Our taste of Thailand began at the brand new InterContinental Phuket Resort on Kamala Beach. The hotel has stunning, modern Thai architecture featuring a white “temple” (tea room soon to be a spa) that’s lit up by multi-colored lights at night. The property’s private beach was a five-minute walk from our room that overlooked a magical pool garden. Every day included pool dips, beach massages, tropical drinks and dishes, sunset-watching and stargazing. In a word, it was paradise.
We rang in 2020 on Kamala Beach with friends, gourmet Thai cuisine and bottomless champagne. Then Manuel and I lit paper lanterns in the Thai tradition to send heavenly thoughts toward heaven. We were also “on fire” and danced the night away at a swanky club down the beach. Then we took late-night swims in the ocean (almost getting caught in a fisherman’s net!) and our hotel’s rooftop pool, turning in around 5 am.
Manuel and I stepped out of our utopia a few times to see Phuket’s wild side, each ending with a disco tuk tuk ride. The famed strip (pub intended) Pang la was jaw-dropping, even for us world-traveled urbanites. Just walking down that street was enough to make us jump into the nearest tuk tuk to return to our pristine bubble.
The other wild side of Phuket is much nicer: boat tours and ethical elephant sanctuaries that rescue and protect displaced animals. Tourists can spy on them in natural habitats and even feed and bath them. While we missed this opportunity due to a navigation snafu, friends reported it was worth treading in muddy waters. But we did swim in turquoise waters daily.
Next Manuel and I flew to Rayong, a sizable city a few hours’ drive from Bangkok, to visit a Belgian friend. It was a glimpse into contrasting ex-pat and local life. Common denominators were beautiful public beaches, stunning sunsets, bustling restaurants and the largest, golden Buddha in Thailand.
Our trip concluded in Bangkok, Thailand’s capitol that magnifies the contrast between wealthy and poor to the nth degree. I remember watching a Thai boat worker purchase a bowl of soup from a local fisherman as tourists from a five-star hotel poured on board. At every turn, there were displays of both rags and riches.
Ironically, Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who lives in Bavaria, is the richest king in the world worth $40 billion in assets. But instead of improving conditions for Thai people, he squanders his inherited wealth with frivolity. Moreover, he bans freedom of the press, especially when it comes to himself (criticism of the king is prohibited by strict lèse-majesté laws). That’s no surprise as his personal life — as reported by international press — is questionable to say the least.
As for the glittering part of Bangkok, it has exquisite examples of Thai architecture at The Grand Palace of Thailand and multiple temples (“wat” in Thai). Most notable are the palace’s emerald and giant reclining Buddhas in Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, respectively; Wat Arun with its multi-colored, skinny pyramids; Wat Benchamabophit made of white marble; and Wat Saket of the Golden Mound. (Note you have to cover up legs and arms to enter all of these sights. We didn’t know until we arrived the palace, so we had to buy clothes to get inside … that meant walking around in elephant prints, a hilarious tribute to the national symbol.)
Also well worth seeing is the weekly flower market where orchids of every color and shape and other tropical plants adorn sidewalks and a covered market. It’s a feast for the eyes. Flowers are important in Thailand as they are used as offerings, lucky charms, gifts and decorations. Bangkok’s flower market is a far cry from its Pat Pong night market, which sells cheap trinkets and rivals Phuket’s Pang la strip in its grotesque hedonism.
Luxurious shopping and lovely views may be found at ICONSIAM mall (it also has a beautiful fountain light show at night), Asiatique and River City arts and antiques center. They are all conveniently located along the Chao Phraya River that cuts through Bangkok, which has excellent public boat transport. When possible, it is best to travel by water in populous, traffic-laden Bangkok. For this reason, plus magnificent rooftop views, staying in a hotel on the river is ideal (we stayed at the Millennium Hilton).
The hustle and bustle of Bangkok, one of the world’s largest and grittiest cities, makes massage venues enticing for zen alone. They are the only quiet public places aside from temples. No wonder Thai people find emotional healing in massage and solace in Buddha. Perhaps that’s what makes them so peaceful and happy.
Manuel and I were so full of zen ourselves from our Thailand paradise that we floated back to Brussels. Less than two months later, all zen was undone by the pandemic. But COVID-19 did make us dream of Thailand-20 and grateful for all experiences in life — both for better and worse — and ultimately, for life itself.