The quiet side of Thailand
Editor's note: This is the second in a two-part series on
visiting Thailand, from the street vendors and bars of Bangkok to the
spas on Koh Lanta.
On our third night on our island
paradise, we found ourselves tucking into a beach-side barbecue
buffet and wondering aloud if our resort would be kind enough to
adjust our spa appointments for the next day.
Michelle brought us back to reality.
"You can order up an elephant, for heaven's sake," she quipped,
making it blissfully obvious that there was no end to the hospitality
or extravagance we had found on the southern tip of this island
facing the Andaman Sea.
Michelle, Hema and I met in Thailand in October for a two-part
holiday: four nights in Bangkok and five nights on the beach. We'd
spent our time in Thailand as typical first-time (female) travelers.
We stuffed ourselves with cheap food and beer, shopped so much that
we mailed boxes home ahead of us, and caught a few of the capital
city's shrines and museums. (Sorry, our Thailand trip was rated PG.)
By the time our boat pulled up to Koh Lanta, we were ready to forget
the belching buses and muffler- less taxis of the city and lie around
Earlier in the fall, we had typed several e-mails debating which
beach would be best for our holiday. Friends who already had traveled
to Thailand suggested that the farther south we went, the more
beautiful the water and beaches would be. Michelle also found out
another helpful, yet tragic, tip. The massive tsunami last year not
only lowered some hotel rates, but the cleanup afterwards had left
the western shores even more pristine.
So we opted for a five-star resort at the southern tip of Koh Lanta,
an island off the western side of Thailand. It was a mix of summer
camp and cruise ship -- snorkeling and kayaking that ended with
French- inspired Thai cuisine at the end of the day.
We relaxed into our little corner of the island with ease. I read two
books in two days. Michelle took a cooking class.
Hema opted for just watching the waves. "I would read, but it would
get in the way of doing nothing," she wisely said. She managed to
pull out her sketchpad instead. The thrill of each day came at
sunset, which varied each night from baby pink to deep
purple. It was like watching a color wheel in motion.
At the risk of becoming completely pathetic, we did pull
ourselves away from watching the changing tides to see a little more
of our surroundings. And, so, we ordered up a couple of elephants.
Already sunburned and still queasy from the previous day's snorkeling
trip (and probably the wine from dinner), we were all a little
uncertain about perching on top of an 8-foot-high animal.
Maybe we should have trusted our instincts. Riding atop an elephant
feels like, well, riding atop an elephant. If the elephant were
wearing roller skates. And jumping moguls. All while moving like a
child taking his first bike ride without training wheels.
Still, I trusted the elephant was better prepared for the trek than
I, and in about 20 minutes we were safety deposited inside the
forest. After Hema fed the elephant a pineapple – in one bite,
stalks, husk and all -- we went looking for a small waterfall.
Along the way, we spent time with a guide who grew up on Koh Lanta
with dreams of visiting Paris. He spoke wonderful English, which he
said he learned from talking with other tourists. We asked him about
the tsunami, and he described how high the wall of water was and how
he had scrambled into the trees for safety.
Then he asked us the most stunning question of all. "How did you know
about it?" he said of the wave that killed more than 200,000 people
last year. "Did you see it on TV?"
His view of his world brought us back to reality more quickly than
any of our compliments about the scenery or fumbling attempts to tip
As did my elephant.
My ride was a 30-year-old male who was born in the northern part of
Thailand but brought south just so he could take tourists like me 20
minutes into the woods. The routine must be tedious, and the handler
riding on the beast's neck constantly urged him on. Once, while the
elephant was stalled contentedly in a mud hole, the handler again
ordered the elephant forward.
Instead, he brought his trunk around under one ear, pointed it toward
us and let out a frustrated snarf. If ever an elephant snarfs toward
you, you'll realize it's not a dry breeze capped with scents of
jasmine. The handler and I both laughed as I used my shirt to wipe
myself clean, and the elephant resumed his rocking gait.
Safely back in paradise, and a little embarrassed at all the riches
we'd enjoyed for the past few days, we turned on CNN and began to
pack for home. It took an hour boat ride from the island, another
hour in the bus to the Krabi Airport and nearly two hours on a plane
before we were back in Bangkok, where we had to say good-bye.
We sadly went our own ways for separate flights. I went to spend my
last few baht on Christmas gifts, and Hema and Michelle headed for a
massage parlor. It was hard to say good-bye to each other, and to a
country where even the airport offers the comforts of home-cooked,
spicy food with fresh lime juice and foot massages in every terminal.