Susan and I began our adventure at 3:45 am in Shanghai. Our ayi’s husband took us to Pudong airport and we began a 5 1/5 hour flight that, of course, took all day to complete. We arrived in Bangkok by 5:00 pm and we were quickly underwhelmed. I guess once you have seen one large Asian city, you have seen them all. Bangkok is cleaner than Shanghai but it lacks Shanghai’s character. Bangkok, however, has two things Shanghai does not: (a) quality international food (including Mexican, whoo hoo!) and (b) Parmesan Goldfish. The city redeemed itself with the goldfish.
In two days, Susan and I saw all that needed to be seen in Bangkok: a nice river front with quality shopping and the Grand Palace where we witnessed the changing of the guard. Susan, luckily, has friends in Bangkok and we were invited to their house for dinner. I had ox tail soup (my first time and it was surprisingly good, if not awkward to eat) and a to-die-for pineapple/coconut cake with honest to goodness homemade whipped cream. I was in heaven, to say the least. After a year and a half of depressing Chinese bakeries where the sweets look delicious but have bizarre textures and taste, well, tasteless, the mouthwatering dessert was refreshing (and the fact that I’m thinking about it three weeks later, is a true testament to the abysmal state of desserts in China).
After perusing Bangkok, Susan and I hopped on the night train and chugged along (for thirteen hours) to the lovely northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. The night train itself was an experience. It’s not like the trains in Europe where you’re in a compartment with a few other people and you have your own personal human cubby hole. On the Thai train, you sit in seats until about 9 pm when the purser comes along to make up the beds. He pulls the two seats together to make one bed and then pulls down a Murphy-esque bed above the lower bunk. The train and its corresponding tracks are old and while trying to sleep, one feels every chug, pull, and wobble the train makes. There was, however, a western toilet and they served Oreo cookies for breakfast. What more can an American girl ask for?
We stayed at a lovely home turned B&B called Tanita House. The owner was a friendly Thai woman named Aor who grew up in the house before turning it into a quaint dwelling for weary travelers. Susan and I had our own cottage that was a 15-minute walk to a shopping and restaurant district. One of the best things about Chiang Mai was the abundance of used book stores. While Shanghai has a quality foreign language book store, its selection is lacking and its prices high. Chiang Mai, however, has current and cheap books that Susan and I quickly stocked up on.
While in Chiang Mai, Susan’s other friends (the woman knows everyone!) took us to an umbrella factory. It doesn’t sound exciting but it was an amazing stop. The factory makes paper umbrellas that are sold throughout the region. We were able to see the workers actually churn, cut, dye, and paint the umbrellas. A colorful find.
One of the most amazing stops in Thailand—in fact, one of the most amazing stops anywhere I have traveled—was the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for abused and injured work elephants. When logging was still legal in Thailand, elephants were used to perform much of the heavy labor. In Thailand, it was considered necessary to torture the work elephants into obedience. The torture took place over 3-7 days and involved hobbling, beating, and cutting the elephants until they lost their natural independence. One elephant, Jokia, was actually moving logs up a hill when she gave birth. The baby tumbled down the hill and died from injuries. Distraught over the death of her baby, Jokia refused to work. Her “caretaker,” called a mahout, blinded her in one eye with a slingshot and a rock. When Jokia still showed defiance, he blinded her in the other eye. The sanctuary, led by a small Thai woman named Lek, was able to buy Jokia and bring her to "Elephant Heaven" where she has formed a small elephant family of her own. She even likes to play nanny to the baby elephants. In addition to education regarding the plight of Thai elephants, we were able to hand feed and even bathe the elephants in the river. It was a hoot!
After a week in Chaing Mai, Susan and I decided we needed some beach R&R and headed to South Eastern Thailand to a lonely island, Koh Chang. It was quite a trek to get to the island but after rides in or on a car, a train, a bus, a ferry, and a taxi, we arrived at our beach bungalow. Our deck literally opened up onto the beach; we woke up every morning to the sound of the waves crashing into the white sand. Paradise, anyone?!
Although Susan and I spent most of our time in Koh Chang swimming (pool and ocean) and reading, we did venture out for the second best thing I have ever done on holiday: snorkeling! We snorkeled in the Bay of Thailand and it was a thrill. Imagine blue-green water in which you can see all the way to the bottom because it's so clear. Beyond the fish colored in hues I've never before seen, were coral formations and other unusual water species I did not know existed. I only had one scary moment in which a gang of swordfish-looking fish charged me--well, the didn't really but I could tell they were thinking about it. Needless to say, my eyes got huge, I said, "uh oh" which sounded like Scooby-Doo underwater, and I quickly turned around and swam away. Actually, I tried to swim away; the current was so strong I stayed in the same spot. I'm sure the fishies were laughing at me.
The relaxation, however, was tempered one night with the great Koh Chang spider attack. Now, I have been to Florida and Africa, but I have never, I mean never, seen a spider quite so big. It all began when I got out of the shower. Susan looked at me and asked, “If there were a very large bug on your bed, would you want me to tell you?” I promptly began to whimper and despondently look at my tainted bed. Susan recounted seeing something large, brown, and fast on my book and then jump onto the floor near my bed. She initially thought we were dealing with a crab of some sort. No such luck. We each grabbed one of Susan’s blue flip flops and prepared for battle. I pulled the bed back and watched a very large brown insect scurry for cover. I was, of course, on the bed screaming while Susan was trying to kill the thing whilst laughing at me (I’m no warrior!) but we missed the sucker. We looked and looked for the creepy crawly, but we could not find it so, we convinced ourselves that it must have found a crack and disappeared back into the wild. Yeah, right. I was doubtful and kept an eye on the floor near the window when I saw scurrying. I, once again, screamed (you have to be impressed with my consistency) and grabbed the flip flop. Susan knocked it onto the floor from its perch on the window sill. I then felt like I was in an arcade playing the gofer-in-a-hole game. I kept trying to hit the spider with my flip flop but I either missed or it dodged my blows. Finally, I nailed it and, sorry Buddha, enjoyed every minute of my crushing victory. The next morning, however, Susan was in the shower with the spider’s little brother jumped on her leg to say hi. I felt bad for Susan but I’m sure glad it was her and not me!
Susan and I made it back to Shanghai where it is cold and dreary. We arrived for the end of Chinese New Year, and I must say, I may never enjoy fireworks again. They are loud and non-stop. I even have a layer of firecracker paper on my balcony and I’m on the 15th floor! Jeez! I have one more week before I have to start teaching again. I’ve enjoyed my time in China and I love my apartment and I take pleasure in my students but I will be glad to move on to my next adventure—in a place without squat toilets and over a billion people.