Thailand is often referred to as the Land of Smiles. It is a country with beautiful people, diverse landscape, and delicious food! When I first landed in Bangkok after my morning flight from Jakarta, I headed to the taxi stand outside of the Suvarnabhumi Airport. Each time I travel I like to do as much research on the country as I can - especially when I'm going to be traveling by myself. I had read on many forums to be weary of the Taxi drivers in Bangkok as they like to take advantage of tourists. Well, my first experience with a taxi in Bangkok couldn't have been more accurate to what I had read. All taxi vehicles have a large sign that say "Meter". It is actually the law that they use their meters when driving, but many drivers try to be sneaky and charge their customer a steep rate. The second I got in my taxi, I noticed the driver had a small towel laying over top of the meter with a Buddha statue sitting on top. I left the car door open and one leg outside of the vehicle so he couldn't speed off with me inside. I politely said "Meter please" to which he ignored me. I repeated again in a firmer voice. He ignored me again. At that point I said "No meter? Bye bye!" This was when he decided it was acceptable to scream at me and say "YES METER, YES!!" as he ripped off the towel and turned on the meter. After that I decided to head to 7/11 and buy a bag of chocolate. From then on I started bribing my drivers by handing a chocolate as soon as I entered the taxi. As I would hand them the chocolate, I would politely point to the meter and smile. This seemed to bring out the smile they're so well known for and assured me a meter rate and a safe drive!
The next day we did a long 10 hour tour in the areas surrounding Bangkok. We started the morning on a bus ride to the countryside where we boarded a rowboat and headed to the colourful Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. With the sun beating down, extreme humidity, smells of spices, meats and fruits, marketers yelling to make sales and splashes from boats bumping into one another it became a bit of a sensory overload. It was certainly a unique experience and it combined two of my favourite things (boating and shopping) - but it's definitely not something I would care to do on a regular basis! Men and women sat in their own boats that were filled with everything from fancy shoes and knock off designer purses - to souveniors - to beer and fish. When you see something you want, you wave over and the person in charge of rowing your boat does their best to fight through the crowd of boats to reach your destination.
The next stop was a Cobra show. I can't say this is something I would recommend doing. It felt a bit abusive to the snakes. Snake trainers came out and performed tricks like fighting a cobra, catching a jumping snake in their mouth, milking the venom out of the cobra (pretty much right over our heads), and swinging snakes bodies over the audience. At one point they rolled out a cage with a mongoose and dropped a cobra inside and let them fight for a few minutes. Although they didn't make them fight to the death, it seemed pretty unnecessary and cruel.
TIGER TEMPLE AND THE RIVER KWAI
The final stop of this tour was to the Bridge on the River Kwai. This bridge was constructed during World War II. The Japanese used Allied prisoners of war to construct a railway that went from Thailand to Burma. Many people died during the construction due to such despicable conditions. This railway is now known as "Death Railway". The bridge was crawling in tourists and had souvenir stalls all around it. I know tourism is a major part of Thailand's economy, but it still seemed a bit wrong to be selling picture frames and magnets at a spot where so many had suffered and died. I imagined what it would be like if somewhere like Dachau Concentration Camp decided to set up gift shops and souvenir booths all over the grounds. How would people respond to that?
After an interesting few days in Bangkok, it was time to pack up and catch another flight. This time I would be heading to Northern Thailand.
ELEPHANT REHABILITATION PARK
Of course anyone who visits Thailand automatically thinks about these beautiful giant creatures that roam the lands. We all want to come face to face with these animals and go for an elephant ride through the jungle. It's the tourist thing to do! It only makes sense that we associate elephants with Thailand. There isn't a corner you can turn in this country without seeing some form of elephant- be it a statue, a painting, carving, or the real thing roaming the streets of Bangkok. Elephants are considered sacred animals in this land, yet what most of us don't know is how these poor elephants are treated. It all seems quite hypocritical.
Wild elephants are now protected by the government in Thailand as the numbers continue to drop each year. There are currently only an estimated 5000 wild elephants in the country. Although these wild ones may be protected, the ones being abused have no protection or rights. If an elephant is owned, it is considered livestock and can be treated however the owner wishes.
The Elephant Nature Park has done an amazing job rescuing abused elephants and placing them in a loving and safe environment. As a visitor to the park you are no longer a tourist, but a volunteer helping wherever help is needed. My day at this park was rewarding in so many ways. I may not have done the typical riding the elephant through the jungle, but I did get to bathe, feed and help put medication on several elephants. I snuggled up close with a big ol' lady that has broken hips and has to drag her back legs in order to walk, I washed the dirt and grime from an elephant who has a skin infection and I helped bathe an elephant that has a poor digestive system. I fed an elephant who had been blinded by it's owner.
I am grateful that my experience with elephants in Thailand was so positive. Prior to this visit, I had no idea how elephants were treated and abused throughout the country. Of course not all tourist places you visit will have elephants that are abused, but after my day at the park I will encourage anyone who goes to Thailand to make sure they do their research prior to visiting an elephant show or taking an elephant ride.
PHUKET AND THE ISLANDS
One thing she said that really stuck out was how thankful she was that the tsunami hit at a fairly early hour. She said had it have been a few hours later more tourists would have been on the beach and many more people would have died. I couldn't believe considering she lost her family, that she would be thinking something like that. What an incredible person! We then shared a taxi and I heard all about her life. She travels a lot, just like me! We came to realize how similar we are in a lot of ways. I couldn't help but feel sad for how much love I have in my life and how she has no family. It definitely made me miss my family and reminded me how incredibly lucky I am!
I've been so fortunate in my somewhat short life to see as many places as I have. But what always amazes me more than the beauty of the land, are the people that I meet! No matter what country I'm in, what the culture is like, what religion dominates the population, or what daily struggles the people face, I always come across friendly and hospitable people who welcome me into their lives! What a beautiful world we live in!!!
My favourite quote: