My last visit to Bangkok was in 1997. I was backpacking my way home east after a two-year stint in Malawi and meandering south through Thailand, heading down into Malaysia to then drop off the edge of the peninsula into Indonesia. My fellow wayfaring friends and I were staying in the Bangkok backpacker haven Khaosan Road. I was immersed in my 20’s and lacked anything remotely resembling responsibilities. My arrival into Bangkok this time was not quite the same. 1997- hoisted up my backpack, bring it on! 2015- limped a cart overflowing with luggage and a ripped bag of snacks, leaving a Hansel and Gretal trail through international arrivals with two peanut butter-faced kids being corralled by two disheveled parents.
Backpacks are often a nuisance for airlines, as the straps and cinch cords tend to get caught up in conveyer belt machinery. We keep our backpacks in large nylon sacks at the airport, which scrunch conveniently up and into the packs once we’re off the plane. Well, mine used to. Sarah had by now accumulated so many purchases that my nylon sack (I’m not sure why mine) was commandeered to haul her loot. Fortunately, Thailand has perfected immigration services. We left our arrival gate and emptied into an enormous hall, filled with literally hundreds of incoming tourists. Officers were directing traffic, guiding people to correct lines and pulling special circumstances (such as a family with two grimy kids) into separate expedited areas. Our pictures were taken, passports stamped, and we were on our way in literally minutes. It was astounding. If that number of people had tried to get into Vietnam the previous week, we would still be there. The fine-tuned organisation continued outside, where we entered another undulating line to get a taxi. Within minutes, however, we were at the other end, where we pushed a button for a ticket giving us a number, and we walked to that number taxi. Done.
Our hotel, within the embassy region and the size of a small institution, was the Swissotel Nai Lert Park, and it was extravagant with a vast, open lobby, multiple restaurants, extensive water gardens, and a large swimming pool. We performed our usual “just arrived at hotel” ritual- up to the room, throw down our bags, and out to the pool to let out some pent up kid energy. After naps we took a taxi to Sea Life Ocean World. Cian and Áine are obsessed with the kid’s show and everything Octonauts, so were able to identify many of the marine critters featured on the program. Áine was almost manic, running and squeezing through the crowd at knee height, screaming things like, “Oh, wow! Wait until you see what’s over there! A porky pine (porcupine) puffer!”
Bangkok is decidedly my favorite Southeast Asian city. It’s got the perfect combination of Singaporean sensibility without sterilising that raw, flavourful, exhilarating experience Jakarta provides. Public transportation is user-friendly, cheap, and diverse. You can go by taxi, MRT, river boat, tuk-tuk, or the skywalk system above the major streets and between many of the metro stops. The people are absolutely charming and generously friendly. We spent our next evening in Asiatique, a riverfront night market sprawling with a number of restaurants, kiosks and small boutiques. That morning I was sent to explore the city so that Sarah could have time in the afternoon to shop for some cheap brand names (buying brand names in Thailand is like buying krab meat to make crab cakes). I goofed around with the public transport, strolled through a small museum featuring historical art and architecture, and melded with the other street pedestrians to get the feel of everyday Bangkok.
Our departure was by overnight train, heading into the countryside towards the northern city of Chiang Mai. Thailand has an extensive and convenient rail system. We were even able to buy our tickets in advance over the internet in Indonesia, which was prudent, since we were traveling in the high tourist season and our train was packed. In second class, we had our own small nook with two bunk beds, fold-out chairs and windows to watch the jungle and rice paddies flow by. The kids were overwhelmed with their new moving playground, and found all sorts of excuses why they had to go up and down the bunk beds one more time. Fortunately, we were not the only family with excited children in the train car- we could hear other parents in other languages telling their kids to quit climbing to the top bunk, too. Cian and Áine wanted to show you some of our train’s features:
The novelty of the overnight train resulted in little sleep despite the gentle rocking and white noise, but it was worth it for the experience. We pulled out the iPad in the morning to watch some “eat your breakfast” cartoons, which Pied Piper-ed the other nearby children to our section of the car. Before long we had reached our terminal to begin the final leg of our mainland adventure.
Northern Thailand has been inhabited for centuries and Chiang Mai’s influence over the region began in the 1200’s, when it served as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Today, it is considered a cultural and historical center of Thailand. Nestled in the more mountainous region of the country, the old section of the city is still bound by a moat and dotted with the stupas of Buddhist temples, some dating back to the ancient capital. Like Angkor Wat’s hub Siem Reap, you could spend weeks using Chiang Mai as a base to explore the jungle, drift through temples, shop, learn Thai cooking, or just eat Thai food. We were staying at the outskirts of the city in the Siripanna Villa Resort, and Sarah had saved the best for last. The entire hotel was draped in intricate Thai woodwork and detail. The swimming pool, symbolically shaped like a moat around a large patio, was just across the path from our private villa. There was even an indoor play center for the kids next to the gym and spa. It was luxurious and reasonably priced- a great combination.
Although the possible activities in Chiang Mai felt endless, we had one mission. Through her grandfather, a traditional healer, Lek Chailert was raised to understand the importance of nature and the crucial connection between animals and humans. In 1996, she opened an elephant sanctuary for animals that had suffered years of torture and abuse during their slavery in the logging industry, injury from land mines and traps, or neglect as night street performers in Bangkok’s urban jungle. Young working elephants are trained by their owners by “crushing”. They are confined to a small cage and strapped down, beaten, and often deprived of food and water until the elephant’s spirit is literally crushed into submission, a process that can take weeks. Lek has won numerous awards and is internationally recognised for her work in rescuing these amazing animals and increasing the awareness of elephant cruelty. Lek’s sanctuary has now expanded to become Elephant Nature Park, located sixty kilometers away from Chiang Mai and housing 41 rehabilitated and free roaming elephants, each with their own heartbreaking story (the elephant in the photo above was blinded by her owner with a knife when she couldn’t stop mourning over her stillborn calf).
Spending a day at the park is not for the casual observer, because Lek’s goal is to have her visitors truly experience the elephants. As soon as we arrived we were guided to the feeding deck, where trunks came snaking in to receive our hand-fed offerings of watermelon halves. From there, we toured the grounds around the park’s center to learn more about their history and philosophy as well as see some of the herds up close. After a lunch overlooking the park and a disturbing video on elephant treatment which the children did not see and Sarah has yet to recover from, we made our way to the river to watch the elephants play in the water and help bathe them (splash water at their bulk). Another quick fruit hand-out on our way to the van and we were headed back. Spending the day with these gentle, magnificent giants was emotional, awe-inspiring and a definite highlight of our mainland adventure. It was also the perfect setting for Áine’s fourth birthday.
Keep your eye on the baby elephant in the foreground of this video. He loves to swim!
The next morning we signed the kids up for something that in a couple years they would have never agreed to- planting rice. Siripanna has its own rice paddies for guests to try their hand at working the field, and the resulting harvests are used to make their refreshing welcome drinks. Cian couldn’t believe he was being encouraged to play in a huge mud puddle and Áine couldn’t believe she was asked. Cian got through planting about three rice sprouts before the whole activity dissolved into mud skating and a mud ball fight. His instructor was just as incorrigible, and it was hard to tell who was having more fun. Meanwhile, safely away from the banks of anything dirty, Áine was given a tray where she could delicately stand up the rice plants before they would be removed and planted correctly in the paddy. After hosing down our rice farmer, we picked mulberries, caught frogs, and ran in the grass with our new Thai friends.
On our final afternoon in Chiang Mai, we decided to go into town, explore some of the temples, and savour our last Thai meal. When we entered our first temple, Cian and Áine moved into the main gallery and knelt down among the Thais honouring the Buddha. “This is what you do at temples,” Cian whispered to Áine knowingly. Unfortunately, the drizzle that was coming down before we left the hotel had turned into a steady downpour. We were able to glance a few sights, but in the three weeks of travel it was the only time weather had disrupted our plans. We scanned through the Chiang Mai night market for any final treasures, then retreated back to the hotel via tuk-tuk (whose “now its raining on you” price back was much more than our trip into town) so the kids could soak in their last bath before bedtime. After, Sarah and I sat in the front garden of our villa to enjoy the stillness of a northern Thailand evening and reflect on our family adventure.
During our journey, as we dragged the kids through ancient temples, historic port towns, silk factories and elephant sanctuaries, I thought a number of times about what the kids were “getting out of” the trip, whatever that means. With little concept of time, how could they understand the astonishing 12th century construction of Angkor Wat? With little knowledge of culture, did they realise the uniqueness and complexity of Vietnam’s Hoi An or Thailand’s intricate stupas? If the kids are still trying to figure out what it means to live half way around the world from America (let alone what it means to be expatriates), are they aware of where they have been these last weeks? In the youngster bliss of living life day to day, were they missing out on the wondrous bigger picture? After baths, books and one last snack, we reminded them we were going home to Jakarta the next morning as they got into bed.
“I wish we were flying to Cambodia tomorrow,” Cian said dreamily as he wiggled his way under the covers.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“So we could start all over again,” he said.
“I love vacations!” Áine yelled a little too loudly with one fist pumped into the air.
Stuff the bigger picture, that was all I needed to replace any doubt with success.