I don’t know when I made the decision to start every one of my blog posts by talking about coffee, and I don’t have much to say about coffee in Thailand, but in keeping with tradition I will say one thing. Thailand is the first country since Spain to have a Starbucks. In fact, Thailand doesn’t have just one, but many. I made a vow to myself before I left on Semester at Sea that I was only going to get coffee at local places, and while I did experience some major cravings, I managed to stay away from the tall white chocolate mocha that was calling my name. So hard though! I’m getting to the point in the voyage where I wouldn’t say that I am homesick, but I am starting to really miss some simple comforts of home like the ability to curl up on a couch and watch a movie, to drive a car, to order a pizza, or to drink a tall white chocolate mocha at a Starbucks with a friend.
All that being said, Thailand felt much more like home than India. It was much cleaner, traffic laws were actually acknowledged (for the most part), and chain stores and shopping malls were common, as opposed to the little street-side stands that make up nearly all of India’s shops. Our ship was docked at the Laem Chabang port, a port city that is just that—a port city. There is nothing there except for a shopping mall, and even that is a 10 minute cab ride away. Nothing is within walking distance. Pattaya, a town that is just a 30 minute cab ride from Laem Chabang, is where I spent the majority of my time. I spent my first day in Thailand there at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo. That was a bittersweet experience. While I was there I got to feed a baby tiger while holding him in my lap and was picked up by an elephant with his trunk! But we also watched a tiger show, a crocodile show, and an elephant show. The tricks these animals performed were amazing—did you know elephants can walk on tight ropes and hula hoop? I didn’t—but I couldn’t enjoy them because it felt wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I saw no evidence that any of the animals were being mistreated, but you could tell the tigers didn’t want to dance across the stage on their hind legs. They were only doing it because of the whips that were in the trainers’ hands (I never saw them used) or the raw meat being dangled in front of them. The elephant show was more enjoyable because the elephants just looked like they were having fun. I spent a lot of time around elephants while in Thailand and am convinced that they actually like doing the tricks and playing the games. After the Tiger Zoo I visited Mini Siam, a park full of miniature replicas of major monuments throughout Thailand and around the world. It sounds lame, but it’s actually pretty cool! It was fun to see the miniatures of monuments I have seen before like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph, Big Ben, and the London Bridge. They had a replica of the Statue of Liberty, so now I’ve seen her in France and Thailand, but still not in the United States! Probably the best part was when I saw Mount Rushmore. People may have no idea where South Dakota even is, but we’re still leaving our mark around the world! That evening I got dinner with a few friends at an authentic Thai restaurant and ordered a soup. The menu said it was spicy and I like spicy, but I’ve never had anything like this before! My eyes watered, my sinuses completely cleared, and my whole mouth and lips were tingling. It was actually really good though, and I had been battling a cold so it was nice to be able to breathe for a while! After dinner we wandered around Pattaya and saw the Hard Rock Hotel and a strip of shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs called Walking Street. Thailand, or more specifically Bangkok, is known for its nightlife so I can’t write a blog post about Thailand without mentioning it. It was actually more sad than fun for me, walking down Walking Street and seeing all of the prostitution, strip clubs, and children trying to sell roses and other trinkets. It’s not pretty, but if you ever go to Thailand, it has become such a part of the culture that I think it is important to see.
The next day I took a day trip to Bangkok to visit the major monuments there. After a two hour bus ride there we were ushered onto a boat for a river cruise. I was expecting Bangkok to look similar to Venice because I had heard that it was a canal city, but it doesn’t at all. It looks like most big cities with a few rivers running through it. The primary mode of transportation is still by vehicle on a road, as opposed to Venice where there are literally no cars. It is all canals and boats. Anyway, we sailed down the Mae Nam Chao Phraya canal (the River of Kings) and saw the Grand Palace and Wat Arun, both monuments we would tour later, from the water. Our first stop was the Wat Arun temple. Wat Arun translates into the “Temple of Dawn” and is a steep tower representing Mt. Meru, the center of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. It is incredibly ornate and covered in mosaics made from actual broken china fragments from China. After an amazing lunch at a riverside restaurant we visited Wat Pho and the famous reclining Buddha. I couldn’t hear my guide because there were too many people in the group, so when I walked into the shelter that houses the Buddha I was completely unprepared for what I was about to see. This Buddha is 46 meters long and completely gilded in gold leaf! I can tell you it is huge, but I don’t think you will understand how impressive it is unless you go see it. Our final stop was the Grand Palace, the capital of Thailand in 1782 consisting of the royal residence and various throne halls and government offices. I won’t bore you with a bunch of historical information, but you should look up photos of the Grand Palace. I can’t describe it. There is too much gold, it’s too ornate… I won’t do it justice. If you are really interested, you should look up the story of the Emerald Buddha. It’s pretty cool.
The third day I spent back in Pattaya. I visited the Pattaya Orphanage and School for the Deaf. There really isn’t much to say about what we did there—we were given a short orientation and a tour of the facility before being shown the baby room and getting to play with the babies—but this may have been the highlight of my time in Thailand. There are over 170 children at the orphanage ranging from babies to university students. The orphanage is not government run or funded, so it relies on a small staff and many volunteers to keep it running. I think I might return as a volunteer there someday.
I spent the fourth day at the Pattaya Elephant Village. The elephant is the national animal, so it makes sense that I saw so many during my stay in Thailand. At the elephant village we learned about elephant masters, the work that elephants used to do, the differences between Asian and African elephants… probably more than you thought there was to know about elephants. Then we got to ride them! First bare-backed, then on a seat. There was another elephant show but this was less about tricks as it was about showing the intelligence of elephants. After the elephant village I stayed in Pattaya for shopping and dinner before going back to the ship.
My final day in Thailand was spent at the Nong Nooch Cultural Village. We saw a beautiful garden of orchids, a show of traditional dances and costumes of Thailand including a boxing match and a battle scene showing how elephants used to be used in battle, and then yet another elephant show. I know, this is getting a little ridiculous. By this point I wasn’t really paying attention. I had seen all the tricks. Instead, a little girl who was selling bananas to feed to the elephants sat down next to me and, once I told her I had no money to buy bananas, introduced herself as Zin Maroo. She was 12. I wanted to ask why she was working so young and how she felt about it, but she didn’t understand much English and I didn’t know if it would be appropriate to do so. Anyway, she just sat and chatted with me for about ten minutes before going back to work. She is one of the few Thai people I sat down and had a conversation with, and I regret not talking to more people. Visiting monuments, riding elephants, and feeding tigers is fine, but the people I meet will be what I remember years from now about Thailand, India, South Africa… wherever I go.
From this point until I leave Japan I will be almost constantly in port. We have five to six days in each country with only two days at sea between them. It’s going by so fast! I’ve already been to Vietnam. If every country is as physically draining as Thailand (I got so tired there!) or emotionally draining as Vietnam, all I’ll be able to do between Japan and Hawaii is sleep!