Celebrating a new year in Thailand | SteamboatToday.com

Celebrating a new year in Thailand

Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, is the largest temple in Bangkok. The gold-leaf-plated Buddha is more than 150 feet long.
Blythe Terrell

On the 'Net

±± For flights, visit http://www.kayak.com

±± Read about Thailand on Lonely Planet.

±± Hua Hin After Dark

±± Read about Hua Hin

Thailand travel tips

±± Show respect for the royal family, which is highly regarded in Thailand.

±± Remove shoes and cover shoulders in temples.

±± Women are forbidden to touch Buddhist monks. When a woman gives something to a monk, she must hand it to a man to hand to the monk.

±± It is considered rude to point your feet at a person.

±± Images of Buddha are sacred - show them respect.

±± Haggling at street markets is expected.

More tips from someone who's lived there

Stay cool and Thai people can be some of the most helpful and kind people on the planet, who, after you have earned their respect, will help you with anything you need. Never underestimate the worth of a local you can trust.

With that in mind, there are also a few tips for traveling in any major city in Thailand:

1. Tuk-tuk drivers are not your friends. They will overcharge you, and they work on commissions. Never take their advice for a place to eat or go shopping. Know where you're going, and negotiate your fare before you get into the cab. Be firm but polite.

2. No, you really don't want to rent a motorbike. Unless you are a skilled rider at home, renting a bike is the fastest way to find utter frustration and/or meet a grisly demise. Fatalities from inexperienced tourist drivers happen much more often than you would think (foreigners make up 60 percent of motorbike crashes in Phuket). Public transportation, despite its hassles, is the best way to travel. For longer trips out of main cities, there are trains or bus services to get you where you need to go.

3. Enunciate, but don't speak slowly. Most Thais, especially in urban areas, have a good grasp of English; just take a moment to make sure you are speaking clearly to make sure you are understood. If they don't understand, many Thais will be too embarrassed to ask you to repeat yourself, and you will find yourself following directions to the Royal Paradise Hotel instead of the royal palace.

4. The novelty of hostels is overrated. Cheap, clean hotels can usually be found for the same price as that grimy bunk bed with a shared toilet. It's worth looking around even if you're on a tight budget. On the same note, make sure you see your room before you agree to stay overnight.

A trip to Thailand can be enchanting and wonderful, as long as you aren't dragged down in the details or so set on one schedule that you don't allow any room for flexibility. The key to enjoying Thai culture is to adapt, relax and remember to smile.

- By Zach Fridell, who lived in Thailand while working for the Phuket Gazette for a year

On the ‘Net

±± For flights, visit http://www.kayak.com

±± Read about Thailand on Lonely Planet.

±± Hua Hin After Dark

±± Read about Hua Hin

Thailand travel tips

±± Show respect for the royal family, which is highly regarded in Thailand.

±± Remove shoes and cover shoulders in temples.

±± Women are forbidden to touch Buddhist monks. When a woman gives something to a monk, she must hand it to a man to hand to the monk.

±± It is considered rude to point your feet at a person.

±± Images of Buddha are sacred – show them respect.

±± Haggling at street markets is expected.

When your best friend asks you to visit her in Thailand for her 25th birthday, it might be ancient Thai custom to say yes. Maybe? OK, OK – personal wanderlust is far more likely to be the motivating factor. Either way, something took me over the ocean to Bangkok and Hua Hin in mid-April of 2008. Jordan’s plans to spend her final semester of college in Thailand had been in the works for months. That gave me plenty of time to save up for the $1,000 roundtrip Eva Air flight, which I booked through Kayak.com, my favorite flight-finding site.

After a white-knuckle drive through blinding snow on Rabbit Ears Pass, I arrived on the Front Range for my April 12 flight from Denver. I toted a backpack and a small carry-on, thankful that tank tops for a week in Southeast Asia fold into hankie-size squares more easily than the sweaters needed in Rocky Mountain springtime.

The crucial contents of my carry-on: iPod, passport, debit card and about $250 in cash. I would spend less than $400 the entire week.

The flight spun me to Los Angeles International Airport, where I found the international terminal and waited for the plane to Taipei, Taiwan. From there, it would be only a hop and a skip to Bangkok.

I left at 1:20 p.m. on a Saturday. I would reach my destination at 1:25 a.m. on a Monday.

The flight to Taipei was surprisingly smooth. I felt lucky, given that Jordan had spent the majority of her 15-hour flight emptying the contents of her stomach into a tiny white bag.

The Taipei airport was bright, clean and organized. It had occurred to me, midway over the Pacific, that I hadn’t bothered to learn a word of any Asian language. I smiled with relief at the English signs everywhere and immediately felt like a jerky American.

I arrived in Bangkok in the early hours, fumbling through customs as I realized I hadn’t written down the name of the town I was visiting (Hua Hin). “Bangkok” and “hostel” served me well enough.

I was in a new world.

A friend of Jordan’s had gone through a miserable day. Her wallet was stolen at the wild Songkran festivities, a celebration of the Thai New Year. Losing your passport and your cash abroad is a sobering – and terrifying – experience. It also served as an immediate reminder: Watch your stuff.

Jordan, her friends and I trickled out into the warm sponge of a night, and my lungs labored to adjust to the thick, low-altitude air. We took a pink cab toward the freeway. This cab, like every other vehicle whirring past, seemed to be piloted by a maniacal Joker intent on fleeing Gotham City’s finest, with no regard for the potential carnage.

I didn’t see a single wreck the whole week.

We camped out in our hostel. The next day, we headed for the rail system to experience sightseeing and Songkran in Bangkok.

Jordan and I wandered through a maze of incense, brightly colored spires and delicious-smelling food near the temple at Wat Pho. We stepped inside the temple, shoeless, and walked in awe along the 150-foot gold-plated Reclining Buddha.

Near the temple, we sampled spicy papaya salad and meandered toward the busy streets, peeking at the wares being sold along the roads. Jordan and I stepped into a water taxi station and made our way across the Chao Phraya River to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.

The temple, covered in colorful porcelain patterns, soars more than 250 feet above the riverbank. After Jordan had slipped a T-shirt over her sleeveless dress – shoulders must be covered at temples – we walked across the grounds and slogged up the steep steps. The view of Bangkok, in all of its grit and vibrant glory, was incredible.

Ringing in the new year

After seeing the sights, we headed for the party.

Songkran is a wild time. It runs from April 12 to 15 and features a lot of white clay and even more water. Thai revelers spray you with hoses and squirt guns and smear clay on whatever part of you they see fit.

The epicenter is Khao San Road. That’s where we went.

My key piece of advice to travelers heading to Songkran on Khao San: Wear old clothes.

“If they smear clay on you, it means they think you’re pretty,” Jordan insisted.

If you ask me, it just means they can tell you’re tolerant. We were sopping and clay-faced after minutes of tromping through the throngs of people on Khao San. It was a weekday, which might have made the street less crowded than it had been when Jordan’s friend was pick-pocketed the day before. We saw few other foreigners, called “farangs.”

Thais walked by us, smiling and smearing, sometimes telling us “happy new year” in English with giant grins.

No spot was sacred. A man lifted Jordan’s glasses to rub clay on her face, and my laughter at her expense earned me a gritty blob to the teeth. Karma. As we got to the end of Khao San, having stopped to watch dancers and eat ice cream, we noticed a sign that made us grimace: “brought to you by Coca-Cola.”

Those jolts of America became a theme of the trip. There were 7-Elevens everywhere, for example, where I would buy Chang beer and cigarettes bearing vile pictures of diseased lungs and sick babies.

For the ride back to the hostel, Jordan and I flagged down a tuk-tuk, a motorbike with an open-air cart attached. The driver, though he said little, had a sense of humor. As people hollered at us from the sidewalk, he changed lanes to get closer and allow them to hurl buckets of water on us. If they missed, gem that he was, he slowed down to give them a second chance.

We ambled into the hostel, soaking wet and grinning our good humor.

We spent the next day shopping and wandering, and we had dinner for Jordan’s birthday at a place called Cabbages and Condoms. The restaurant is run by Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association. The group’s founder, politician Mechai Viravaidya, “believes ‘birth control should be as cheap as vegetables,'” according to Yahoo Travel.

Viravaidya is credited with helping reduce the rate of HIV infections in Thailand through education and condoms.

Cabbages and Condoms, though it supports a serious cause, shone with festive lights and colorful paper lamps. The pad Thai is tasty, and the condom-themed decor provides a conversation piece – if you somehow manage to be plumb out of things to talk about in Bangkok.

Hua Hin

The next morning, Jordan and I made for the beach.

This was what I’d been waiting for. We headed for Hua Hin, where she was taking courses and living in a condo on the water. The town is a couple of hours from Bangkok, and we packed into a van with other travelers.

Thailand was cheap. The monetary unit is the baht, and the exchange rate was about 30 baht to the dollar. We could get a plate of vegetable fried rice for about 25 baht. Our van ride cost 150 baht, about $5, and everything was cheaper than in the U.S., except alcohol.

Jordan and I arrived in Hua Hin and headed to her condo tower, VIP, which had a crystal blue swimming pool. A few too many beached jellyfish kept me out of the Gulf of Thailand, but a walk along the beach offered a fun surprise: a crew of ungainly water buffalo being herded by a wizened old man.

But the night market in Hua Hin is the true attraction. People crowd in to peddle T-shirts, jewelry, food and more. I was salivating to sample the seafood and ordered sea bass with rock salt at an outdoor restaurant. It came, to my delight, with a fishy eyeball staring out of a fishy head. Delicious.

We wandered past the tropical fruit vendors and ate rotee, a pancake-like snack we ordered with egg and banana, topped with condensed milk.

We sipped a few beers and bought some trinkets before speeding home happily in the bed of a truck.

The next day dawned brilliant and sunny, and we went for more seafood. Several Hua Hin restaurants squat on piers over the gulf, and we chose the guidebook-recommended Chao Lay. Jordan ordered fried prawns, and I feasted on steamed prawns with curry mousse in coconut milk, served with steamed rice inside a hollowed coconut. It was spicy, sweet and amazing.

The night took us to Hua Hin Brewing Co., where we overdid it slightly on Dancing Monkey Lager. That severely impaired not only our judgment but also our ability to keep our breakfast down on the jolting van ride back to Bangkok the next day.

Bright lights, big city

We kicked it up on our last night in Bangkok. We met up with a couple of Jordan’s friends, who accompanied us on adventures in the bar district on Soi 11. After being rejected for our informal attire at a bar shaped like a spaceship, we played pool at the Hillary Bar before heading down the street.

After parting with new friends, Jordan and I made for the airport the next day. As I hugged her goodbye, I felt a spark of elation and smiled. It wasn’t because I was glad to go; I could easily have spent another few weeks in Thailand. But I was delighted with my visit and felt lucky to have passed it without incident.

I left at about noon April 19, making it to Denver before midnight on what was technically the same day.

Snow welcomed me home to Steamboat Springs, and the sultry Thai sunshine felt about a million miles away. I put away my tank tops and started plotting a return trip.

Remember to smile, and other travel tips

When visiting Thailand there is one rule above all else: Keep smiling.

Things will not always go as expected. Reservations, appointments and schedules should always be considered tentative, and they are likely to change without notice. But if you lose your cool, you also will lose the assistance of the Thai people.

This may sound like cheesy advice, but Thai culture is a complex dynamic of cool exteriors and fiery hearts. If your bags are lost, your reservation is canceled or your tuk-tuk (three-wheeled taxi) driver tries to overcharge you – and these things are likely to happen – you have two choices. You can yell and scream, or you can smile and work around it. Anger may be effective at changing the situation in the short term, but you will never get any more assistance out of that person or anyone near them.

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