A different side to Thailand

This past weekend was strange and thought provoking, as I ventured down  to the Thai seaside town of Hua Hin with two of my closest friends here. We originally were planning on going to Khao Yai National Park and trekking through the jungle, but last minute flash flood warnings were issued and we decided we probably shouldn’t test Mother Nature, especially in this tropical country. So, off to Hua Hin we went, by way of a three hour van ride from BKK. We arrived and strolled to our guesthouse, only to find out that some genius (that would be me) had booked a room for the FOLLOWING weekend! Brilliant. Luckily we had spoken with a guesthouse nearby as a backup and they had a room for us for two nights.

Hua Hin is a small town located about 200 km south of Bangkok, along the coast of mainland Thailand. The beaches are beautiful as usual, but nothing to write home about. The beach land is flat, and come Saturday it was littered with pay by the day lounge chairs, people selling kitschy souvenirs and overpriced clothing, and low and behold; horses for extremely tacky trots up and down the beach. This is not the ocean side horseback riding you may be imagining, where your horse is one with nature and you’re hearing nothing but the clop clop clop of hooves and crashing of waves. Not even close. This scene was horses dressed like racehorses (complete with numbered saddles), handlers trying to make a buck off their four legged friends, all the while the horses taking dumps all over the sand in front of your lounge chair. Not quite the perfect beach day I’d imagined, but it was hilarious to say the least.

Hua Hin beach

lounge chairs and horses galore

lounge chairs and horses galore

What Hua Hin has to offer beachside during the day, is nothing compared to what goes on after dark. We dined at a delicious Italian restaurant, complete with amazing pizza and we were told by the British owner that we were currently in the “girly” part of town.  As some of you may or may not know, Thailand is unfortunately quite famous for its sex tourism. Parts of Bangkok, Phuket, the city of Pattaya, and apparently Hua Hin, survive economically off western male travelers spending their time, money, and sperm on some of Thailand’s most beautiful ladies (and lady boys alike). World issues such as AIDS, poverty, and human trafficking are not surprisingly connected to this worldwide industry that’s especially rampant in SE Asia (The issue of human trafficking is a whole other blog post in itself, and not a topic that I know too much about).

It’s a scene I would expect to see in Bangkok’s red light district, but I was pretty taken aback to see it overtaking the small beach town of Hua Hin, where streets are lined with bars aptly named “Pink Panther” or “Nice N Easy”. Many (not ALL) middle aged Western men come to these various parts of Thailand for one reason – to have cheap sex with a woman, man, or sadly sometimes a child. The ugly truth behind this seemingly “good time tourism” is this: these women do not choose freely to become sex workers. I hardly think any little girl grows up thinking, “I want to be a prostitute when I grow up!” The fact is that they come from impoverished villages around the country and take advantage of the bustling industry in these large cities. About a third of the Thai population lives on less than $2 a day, and agriculture plays a large factor into so many lives.

The true statistics are unknown, how do you measure how many tourists come here for sex?  So many “businessmen” come here for legitimate work reasons, but their business activities extend far from the office. Selling sex has been illegal in the Kingdom of Thailand since 1960. Yet I can bet baht on it that many places Thailand you will travel through, you will see countless couples that consist of Western men and Thai women. It’s hard to tell whether these relationships are based on love, sex, and or money. If you analyze the general characteristics of these couples, it’s easy to understand why they end up together. Western men come here to find exotic, gentle, easy going women who will dote on them hand and foot. Thai women have a similar idea, they are looking for men who will treat them like queens, and take care of them emotionally and financially. Match made in heaven (or on the internet).

However with all that being said, do not think of Thailand as one giant red light district like you would find in Amsterdam, or some of the sketchier neighborhoods in New York City. Violent crime is low, HIV is on the decline, and most female solicitors are relatively free agents. The best you can do as a traveler in Thailand is to not support this industry with your own money. There are enough obnoxious tourists here that already do that. What any country needs from its tourists is respect, respect, respect. There is more to learn about Thailand than how many cheap drinks you can buy on Soi 11 or what ping pong shows you can hit up that night until the sun rises. There are endless things to keep you busy in Thailand without ever witnessing the goings on of sex tourism in full force. Except when you happen to go to Hua Hin for a random weekend, then you most likely won’t be able to ignore it.

Long story short: I’m glad I went to Hua Hin, even with all the prostitutes in the bars and cockroaches in our guesthouse bathroom. However, I will not be going back unless it is just for a stop on a longer travel to a destination further south. On the bright side, we got to ride the Thai train back and had front row seats to the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever witnessed. Now THAT’S what Thailand is all about.

perfect ending to a strange weekend

perfect ending to a strange weekend

Old Siam

It’s amazing what a weekend can do to erase your stress, lift your spirits, and recharge you. I’ve been teaching now for almost a month, and I am just getting in the swing of being up early and orchestrating a class of young kids to sing, dance, and most of all, getting them to fang khru.
Last week I was battling some sort of stomach virus. I stayed home from school Monday, but my stomach was killing me until about Wednesday. I realized that I was super dehydrated and started chugging liters of water which helped my stomach cramps immensely. I really didn’t feel 100% until Friday, so teaching through that all week was not the best. However, Friday night I felt great so Taylor and I went for a run in a nearby park after dark. This park is still under construction, it’s very modern and clean cut not only for Thai standards, but for anywhere. There’s a small lake, a running path, exercise stations, and a security guard, all in this park that sits under mammoth sky high overpasses that connect to the Bhumibol Bridges into Bangkok. I don’t think I will ever get over the sheer size of the bridge and the looping concrete skyways. A quick jog and some stretching felt great after a week of being doubled over fighting some unknown affliction. I just keep thinking that my immune system will be impenetrable in a year (fingers crossed).

ceiling of concrete

super-sized Bhumibol Bridge!
The next day we headed to the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya, about an hour and a half ride from BKK. This small city was once the home to Siam’s capital; a major trading port between the years of 1350 and 1767. At one point, the empire ruled over an area larger than England and France combined. The kings that ruled Ayutthaya ensured that no Western power ever ruled Siam.
The last battle fought in Ayutthaya was in 1767, when a Burmese army sacked the capital, destroying most of its treasures including cutting the heads off of many Buddha statues. The headless statues remain among the ruins today; eternally silent and still.

decapitated statues amongst ruins

The sun was was blazing hot, true to Thai form, but that didn’t stop us from exploring the palace and temple ruins that are located throughout the bustling city. In Thailand, they dress statues of a Buddha in bright gold robes that match the garb seen on Buddhist monks. The gold fabric glitters in the sun and billows in the warm breeze, bringing the images of Buddha alive.
Our group spent some time at each sight, with a trusty tuk tuk driver to drive us from spot to spot. This allowed us to see many of the ancient sights in a mere three hours.

 

bell shaped towers - Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

Khmer architecture

The massive temples in Ayutthaya range from Conehead-esque Khmer style architecture to bell shaped chedi. We visited many temples such as, Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, which is home to the tallest standing structure in the city. The chedi is an iconic image in Ayutthaya’s skyline. The wat is surrounded by a perimeter of Buddha statues, all dressed in the signature gold robes.

 

Another highlight in Ayutthaya is the massive reclining buddha. Like the rest of the architecture here, this statue is made of stone. He lies at the base of a field of ruins, propped up on his side.

 

 

golden buddha

We also walked through Wat Mahathat, which was once the provincial center of the Ayutthaya kingdom. All that’s left today are brick ruins and many decapitated Buddhas. The most unique thing we saw the entire day was located on the grounds of this wat. A bodhi tree has merged with the head of a Buddha statue, attaching its roots around the dismembered head creating quite the spectacle. It’s believed that this was caused when the Burmese attacked the city in 1767. The temple was deserted for about a hundred years, leaving nature to quite literally take its reign over the sacked city. The tree head combo looks intentional, but the fact that it happened naturally is just too cool.

natural wonder!
Ayutthaya was an amazing day trip, and an amazing end to a somewhat stressful week. I would recommend anyone traveling through Thailand to go visit the sites and revel in Thailand’s rich history that remains even today. I loved seeing the buddha head grown into the tree, but the image that is burned into my mine are the finely dressed Buddhas that are everywhere, donning sunshine golden robes that ebb and flow in the wind.

the group and the massive chedi at Wat Phra Si Sanphet

triple chedi action

blessed with gold flakes

Wat Yai Chai Mongkol

 

Slightly Homeless: Koh Samet

island cuisine

It’s been a few weeks since our long weekend trip to Koh Samet, and I learned a couple few important things from that trip:

1) Always book accommodation ahead of time for a holiday weekend. The rest of the country will be also traveling at the same time as you!

2) Cheap is always good, except when it comes with bed bugs and other creatures of the night.

3) The amount of sunscreen you used in the US is no match for the sun in Thailand. Re-apply, re-apply, re-apply!

4) Always pack your first aid kit, because the time you don’t will be when you hurt yourself!

All that being said, it was a great weekend regardless of a few little bumps here and there! That’s life, though. It all makes a funny story once it’s said and done. The girls and I left Phrapradaeng immediately after school and headed to Ekamai bus station in Bangkok. Large air-conditioned buses will bring you to the port in Ban Phe, Rayong for about 300 baht round trip ($10 USD). The trip takes about 3 hours, most of that time is getting out of Bangkok on a Friday evening. We checked into our humble little hostel in Ban Phe, which was appropriately named Ban Phe Hostel, and almost ran to dinner because we heard there was PIZZA. We ran into some OEG girls at the bar/restaurant, and all had a delicious Western meal that consisted of some burgers, pizza, and an omelette! The pizza was delicious, but I could have eaten twice the amount I did. We were to bed soon after to wake up early for the first ferry over to Koh Samet.

The next morning we loaded onto an interesting ferry which was packed with backpackers and Thai people alike. The ferry dragged on but for the cheap fare, I can’t really complain. I know now that if I am crunched for time, I would definitely spend some more baht on a quick and fun speed boat to get to a beautiful beach much quicker. As soon as we got to the island of Koh Samet, we were in love with its quaint quirkiness and natural beauty. The water was bright blue and clear, and the skies were overcast which was fine for our hostel hunt to begin. We began a leisure search for a place to crash and had no luck. That search soon turned a bit desperate, as we were hungry and tired and just wanted to put our stuff down to go have fun. Many many hours later, we found rooms at these tiny little bungalows that were in a peninsula like area of the island, so there was beach on both sides! We crawled to a hotel for food and some much needed drinks and a dip in the water. Koh Samet is dotted with hostels, big hotels, little bungalows, and restaurants all up and down the beaches. The beaches were flat but the land had a bit of an incline to it, so bungalows were stacked all over the hills amongst lush trees and plants. There is a long dirt road that travels from one end of the island to the other, and bright green pickup trucks will taxi you anywhere on the island for an agreed upon fee. It’s a fun and bumpy ride in the back of the trucks and if you don’t hold on tightly, you could literally fly off of the truck. It felt like we were touring through Jurassic Park, but unfortunately I didn’t spot any dinos.

After a strange meal of Spaghetti Americano (with chopped up hotdogs in it? They love those here.) and some relaxing time,  we went back to our bungalows for a better inspection of our rooms. A quick lookover revealed that one of the beds was infested with bed bugs, amongst many other lovely insects. The beds were on the floor, which would mean that many other of Earth’s creatures could easily get in and snuggle with you during the night. No, thanks! We quickly left that hell hole and we were back to being homeless. As luck would have it, we walked up to the desk at a really nice cabana hotel and they had ONE room left for the weekend. It was expensive (and I’m talking $40 per person per night here, that’s EXPENSIVE in Thailand) but it was probably one of the last rooms on the island to choose from, and it was getting dark. We’ll take it! The manager even brought in extra beds for our large group of six, and we had an infinity pool right next to our room! Not too shabby.

The rest of the weekend consisted of yummy meals (som tom made by a Thai man on the beach for 50 baht!), jumping off a rickety pier into the bright blue bathwater sea and floating around, drinking many Changs, hilarious karaoke at a reggae bar, and a late night dance party on the beach that spilled into the ocean under the full moon. I’d say that our nearly homeless, nearly bed bug infested, first weekend of traveling was a success. It felt amazing to be in the sun on that beach with new friends, not thinking about work come Monday morning. We all came back to the mainland pretty sunburnt but in good spirits, I slipped on a beach rock and acquired a nice deep scallop shaped cut on the knee, but that was the worst of the weekend. Koh Samet was easy to get to from BKK, and it’s a super chill beautiful place that you can either party hard at, or just relax and turn off your mind. I will definitely be back soon!  in my happy place

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