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Friday, June 19, 2015

I have a tiger by the tail - really!

When one thinks about Thailand one usually visualizes Phuket’s crowded warm tropical beaches, the Phi Phi Islands, or which just happens to be  on my Bucket List (item 142),the bridge over the river Kwaii.  If you aren’t familiar with it, you’re under 60.  It’s from the 1957 Academy award winning film of the same name – I saw it about a dozen times at the Stanley Theatre in Vancouver when I was twelve.   I would have seen it more, but I was banned from the theatre due to the infamous “candy throwing incident” which I would like to forget – unfortunately the theatre owner didn’t forget about it for nearly ten years.

Colonel Bogie’s March across the Bridge on the River Kwai

Today's Bridge over the River Kwai
The movie is essentially fiction: It wasn’t filmed near Thailand and the current bridge looks nothing like the bridge in the movie.  Other than that, who wouldn’t want to whistle Col. Bogie’s theme song while marching across the bridge?

Me and Pablo Escabar's Brother
So I signed up for a couple of GAdventures tours to Thailand.   These aren’t  my first G Adventures tours; last year I visited Colombia with them.  It must be a highly popular tour, because every time I cross the border the officials want to revisit all the details of my visit to Colombia.  Perhaps it was my optional lunch with Pablo Escobar’s brother, Roberto, who , besides being an ex-drug lord, claims to have cured cancer - in race horses. 

I enjoy the small groups of GAdventures and their knack of combining culture and adventure. There are many opportunities to rub shoulders with the local population and the company practices sustainable tourism using local resources wherever possible.

GAdventure Thailand Group
One thing to keep in mind if you’re planning to travel to Thailand is it’s a long trip - about 16 to 20 hours.  I flew Cathay Pacific and the layover in Hong Kong was mercifully short.  Cathay Pacific’s service was right up there with Singapore Airlines, which helped make the trip tolerable – even in tourist class.   

Upon arrival in Bangkok I met the other 12 members of my tour:  There were two from the U.S., four from Germany, another Canadian, and five from England.  With the exception of two couples, all were travelling alone.

Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country – something you notice immediately upon your arrival.  It’s not so much all the Buddhas or the saffron robed monks, but the traffic: no horns honking – at all! The national slogan could be “Chill out. Everything’s cool, man.”  The Thais  bottle up all their hostility  - until New Year’s when unleash it with a vengeance engaging in a national water fight.

Happy New Year Greeting
It is a tradition, that during their  New Year celebrations they douse each other with water - and I don’t mean just a sprinkle – but a deluge.  You’ll be met with smiling Thai’s brandishing buckets of water, super soaker water guns and garden hoses – day and night for three days.   It’s sort of fun the first two hundred or so times but then it gets tiring.   My suggestion is if you happen to be in Thailand during this event, wear a bathing suit, carry your camera, phone and wallet in a plastic bag – maybe even climb in the bag yourself!
Our Version of Charlie's Angels
“Why don’t these people just get drunk, throw up and pass out in the street like normal people.” complained one of my fellow tour members.
“I’d like to see them try that in Detroit,” commented another after getting hit in the face with a super soaker squirt gun. 

The funny thing is that at the stroke of midnight on the third day, it all stopped – instantly. The Thais return to the quiet laid back people they are for the remaining 362 days of the year.

The Reclining Buddha
Thailand is the land of Buddhas - millions of them.  There are standing Buddhas, sitting Buddhas, reclining Buddhas, crouching Buddhas.  Phil, our Thai guide, was determined show all of them to us.

The "long dong" Buddha
On the first day, we visited the Wat Pho temple, home of the giant reclining Buddha, and about a zillion of his chubby buddies.  The Wat Pho Temple is a fairly commercialized operation – enough to make the people at Universal and Disney jealous.  In contrast is the World Heritage site at Ayutthaya we visited later. Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand until the 18th century when much of it was destroyed in wars with Thailand’s neighbours.  It’s a quiet park where one can wander in solitude among the unadorned ancient Buddhas, many of which served as models for their more ornate brothers in Bangkok. For me it was far more impressive than the hustle and hustling at Wat Pho.

How to move a tiger
Our first stop after Bangkok was Chiang Mai where we had a choice to partake in either a cooking class or spend some one-on-one time with tigers at Tiger Kingdom.  Sitting in a tiger cage seemed safer than eating my own cooking.

Tiger Kingdom, a branch of the Ubon Zoo, was chiefly created for the preservation of the endangered Indo-Chinese tiger.  For a fee we were allowed to spend supervised time with young tigers.  Evidently tigers are quite tame  until they’re two years old.  I stayed away from any tigers with birthday cakes with two candles or more on them.

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