The King & I: The Magic of Thailand, part I

Darlings, I recently spent a lovely two weeks in Thailand exploring local color, adopting native customs and soaking in the Siamese scene. Despite the devastation wrought to its famed coastline and pristine beaches by December’s tsunami, Thailand continues to attract international tourists. This Southeast Asian nation is an appealing destination for travelers of every age and nationality.

I visited the ‘Northern Capital,’ Chiang Mai, but understand that the peninsula and islands that were severely hit have begun significant recovery and reconstruction. Many tourists have traveled to the Kingdom for vacation and extended their stays to aid with the effort. Bravo!

Where is Thailand and how do you get there? This mushroom-shaped nation is located at 16.30° N, 101°E, bordered by Myanmar (the former Burma), Laos and Cambodia. Laos and Myanmar meet at the northernmost point of Thailand to form the infamous Golden Triangle. The ‘stem’ of the mushroom is a peninsula separating the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The southernmost tip of Thailand touches Malaysia.

Flights are available on a variety of carriers (United, Northwest, Eva Air, Cathay Pacific, etc) via the West Coast (i.e. SFO-Tokyo-Bangkok) as well as via Europe (London/Paris — Bangkok) my preference, of course. Where would you rather have a layover — Taipei or Amsterdam?

Either route takes approximately (deep breath) 26 hours of travel as Thailand is almost exactly on the other side of the planet from Beantown. How does one survive 26 hours of transit? Books, movies, iPod, Ambien, cocktails, I can’t explain it, you just do. If you prefer to get it over with in one shot, there is a new ‘Express’ Service on Thai Airways non-stop from JFK-Bangkok (a mere 17 hours). Some people prefer to break it up; others just want to get there fast. I won’t lie to you, that kind of intercontinental travel is hardcore, but the destination is well worth it. Airfares run about a grand, but early booking and bargain hunting can make a difference.

Because of the significant distance, one should plan a minimum of 10 days for any visit. This is not a weekend getaway unless you are a serious masochist or shopaholic.

Thailand is 12 hours ahead of Boston (or 11 depending on daylight savings) so you will experience jetlag of biblical proportions. That only adds to what I call ‘the psychedelia’ of Thailand. And no, I am not alluding to the legendary hallucinogens, which may or may not be harvested there. Thailand is a country of bountiful natural resources, exotic colors, fragrances, flavors and sounds. It is simply like visiting another planet — a very friendly, warm one, but an extremely foreign one as well.

I landed on Planet Thailand in the midst of the ‘monsoon’ (rainy) season. Monsoon in northern Thailand is not nearly as extreme as it sounds. Rather than daily, continuous rainfall, there were a few sprinkles one day, an overnight deluge the next, a few days with no precipitation, and in general, comfortable weather in the mid-80s. The climate is sub-tropical, which makes for lush, jungle-like foliage and shall we say, ‘aggressive’ humidity. Sub-tropical also indicates outlandish flora and fauna. And when I say fauna, I mean (of course) bugs. Should your interests lie in entomology, there is a dazzling array of ants, gnats, mosquitoes, roaches, crickets, dragonflies, praying mantis, et. al. who will greet you with great fanfare. Also noteworthy is the stunning variety of butterfly native to the Thai Kingdom. Lizard lover? Fret not; ubiquitous geckos serenade unsuspecting visitors nightly. I also had the pleasure of meeting several (hundred) ‘fruit bats’ one evening at dusk.

Me: Wow that swarm of small birds is swooping very close to our table.
My companion: Those are fruit bats.
Me: Really? Check please!

Thailand is a friendly place; all of the native creatures want to get to know you. And let me tell you, they’re all chatty. I was staying in the Koklang District — a village about 15 minutes from downtown Chiang Mai — and every sunset, there was a symphony of chirping, whirring, croaking (Thailand is home to very vocal frogs) and often meowing. Siamese cats, of course, come from Thailand. There was a cattery in our village where scores of cats lazed about on tree branches. Quite a sight! You could hear the purring from blocks away . . .

The Thai people are adorably friendly and helpful. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ and foreigners will be instantly enchanted by the relaxed, happy vibe. The nation is predominately Buddhist, which, I contend, accounts for the laidback attitude. Most Thais have a strong faith and wear a small Buddha figure encased in gold around their necks. Monks are often seen in the city cloaked in their saffron robes.

Thailand is also a monarchy (hence the term Kingdom), although it’s governed by a Prime Minister and Parliament. The King and Queen are highly revered, and every home, from hut to palace, has their portraits prominently displayed. At the cinema, the national anthem is played and a tribute to the King is shown before the main feature starts during which everyone stands respectfully. (As an aside, his Majesty was born at Mount Auburn Hospital, so Thai people have extra love for the Hub!)

The cuisine of Thailand is every bit as fabulous and foreign as you would imagine. The climate provides for an astounding selection of produce. Most of the native fruit are varieties that don’t exist in the West, and so there isn’t even an English translation of the name. There are myriad lychee: the lumyai and longan are among my favorites. Each one has a different color, texture and consistency, yet all are bursting with flavor. There are dragonfruit and durian. The former a magenta colored pome filled with crisp sections, the latter a fragrant yellow gourd. I gladly ate kilos of mankoot daily, which looks like a plum (round and purple ‘shellv) with an artichoke leaf stem. The interior is soft and luscious and separates into sections that have a faint grapefruit flavor with the consistency of a papaya. Delectable!

A typical Thai meal is heavy on rice, starting with sumptuous rice, chicken, ginger porridge, called khotom, for breakfast. (Tastes great and makes you feel like you could run a marathon or at least compete in the ‘Shopping Olympics.’) Flavors like lemongrass, curry, coconut milk and garlic are plentiful in many dishes � perfect when chased with an ice-cold Singha or Chang (local Thai beer). Or if you prefer a ‘harder’ beverage, check out the range of infamous Thai whiskey, usually served by the bottle with a bucket of ice. It’s delicious going down, but drink too much and the next morning you’ll feel like you went ten rounds with a Muay Thai fighter. (N.B. Muay Thai, AKA kickboxing, is the national sport of Thailand.)

Stay tuned for Part II of The King and I, adventures in Thai entertainment, style and shopping!

Crossposted from EDGE Boston

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