The best thing about traveling are those distinct moments when you’re experiencing something so profound and transcendent that you make a conscious effort to burn the moment into your memory forever. Then over time, those memories gather in a jar like a collection of coins from different places and times.
I recently returned to Thailand, a kind society and beautiful country where I lived for a few months in 2007. Thailand is a place that regardless of how many times you’ve been, you’ll always want to return. It’s a country of contradictions, where businessmen and taxi drivers dine on street corners elbow to elbow, while orange-robed monks pass by, chatting on their cell phones.
Thailand has all the ingredients of a great trip: mountains, jungles, cities and beaches, warm people, and of course, delicious food. The country is roughly the size of France, making it easy to incorporate Bangkok, the rice paddies of northern Chiang Mai, and relaxing beach time into one itinerary. With each greeting of saswadee kah, visitors notice quickly the distinct personal respect present in the Thai culture, a societal norm that is a breath of fresh air.
The natural introduction for most travelers is Thailand’s sprawling capital. Bangkok is a city where a maze of cracked sidewalks and alleyways snake through the shadows of gleaming sky scrapers. It’s both sophisticated and provincial, welcoming and intimidating. A few days in Bangkok is enough time to experience this vast variability (and the beautiful Mandarin Oriental is definitely my favorite home base). Despite spending five months living in the capital in 2007, I experienced the city from a new perspective during my return visit. Tucked into our typical itinerary were special experiences like exploring the backwater canals of Bangkok via longtail boat and spending one on one time with a monk at Wat Arun. Temples across the country have engaged visitors by offering “Monk Chats”. Our small group sat down for an intimate and candid discussion with a gregarious and chubby young monk. He taught us about the pillars of Buddhism, but also welcomed our fastidious questions about his chosen path in life. It’s easy to feel like a spectator when visiting Asia, but experiences like this engaged a personal connection, and instantly made me want to stop and chat with every monk.
We then headed north to the lush green mountains of the rural northern province of Chiang Mai. While the town of Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second largest city, the majority of the population tends rice paddies in the foggy hills outside of the ancient walled town. The city streets gave way to rice fields, and after a short 45-minute drive we arrived at the stunning Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Working for Indagare has led to many nights in beautiful hotels, but few with such a one-of-a-kind setting and soul like this one. The resort is set on 20 acres of teak forest and rice fields, that are tended to by farmers who live across the street from the property. Every day at 5pm, they signal the end of the workday with a ritualistic drum and bell jam session, briefly interrupting the constant serenity with an energetic rhythm that leaves you disappointed with the silence that follows.
Whether you’re 4 or 94, an experience not to be missed is spending a day at Patara Elephant Farm. The farm was founded by a straight-talking Thai with an Australian accent, Pat Trungpaken. Pat and his staff (from the local Karen hill tribe) observed our group from the moment we arrived, noting our personalities and manner in which we interacted with each other. Little did we know, this was part of their intuitive process to pair us with the right elephant. I was paired with one of the largest elephants at the camp (perhaps a clue I should lay off the green curry?), who clearly felt most comfortable leading the pack and setting the pace for everyone else.
I bonded with Preeya (which means diamond in Thai) by feeding her bananas, sugar cane and thick grasses, and washed her in the river. After we got to know each other, and I trusted that she wasn’t going to accidently step on my foot, the trainers taught me how to mount Preeya. She lifted me up gracefully with her muscular trunk, a process that looked much more intimidating than it actually was. Perched on top of my mammoth elephant, I sat on her neck with my legs folded behind her pink-freckled ears. The soles of my bare feet pressed into her shoulders, in constant contact with her rippled leathery flesh. My hands rested on top of her head, which was covered in sparse coarse hair that reminded me of the bristly whiskers of my childhood golden retriever. We walked in line with the other elephants, Preeya leading the way with her trainer named Kai, a local young man from the Karen hill tribe, walking along side us. We sloshed through streams bordering rice fields, looped through paths through the Chiang Mai farmland landscape dotted with scarecrows to protect the crops. Heavy afternoon clouds met the green mountains in the distance.
What struck me is the vast change in perspective seeing the world from that height. Colorful butterflies danced through the air, bright-red dragonflies popped against the lush greenery of the monsoon season. Wild zucchini vines exposed their huge yellow blossoms in patches of tall grasses. “Brooke, are you okay?” Kai asked softly every few minutes or so, each time I replied with a content smile that I was, and I was happy. Eventually we reached our destination, a waterfall where the elephants sprayed the cool water from their trunks as we had a picnic lunch on the river bank.
Leaving Chiang Mai was bittersweet, but eased with a short, 2-hour flight to Koh Samui. The natural way to end a vacation in Thailand is to spend a few days doing absolutely nothing on one of the beautiful beaches of the south. We arrived at the Four Seasons Koh Samui, where each pool villa has been thoughtfully built into a steep mountain, allowing a stellar view from each bed on the property. With not much else to do besides enjoy the resort and spend time on the water, Koh Samui was a nice break at the end of a very packed itinerary.
While other destinations in Asia can be intimidating, Thailand is easy. The culture is naturally hospitable, and the fabulous hotels throughout varied terrain make it a dynamic destination that appeals to everyone. And despite the amount of time I’ve spent there and the ground I’ve covered, I still want to go back. Next on my list: The Four Seasons Tented Camps in Chiang Rai, Trisara in Phuket and Soneva Kiri on Koh Kood.
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