Review: Let’s not turn our back on Bankok - land of smiles will rise again after terrorism attack
PUBLISHED: 14:07 22 August 2015
A few weeks ago I was wowed by the welcome of Thailand, its culture and wildlife, writes Camille Berriman, of Bury St Edmunds.
This week, Bangkok was rocked by a terrorist’s bomb that killed many innocent people. In light of that, we thought hard about leaving out this account of my trip. But it’s important the world doesn’t turn its back on Thailand and other countries hit in this way. The nation earned a place in my heart. I hope tourists continue to enjoy this special place as much as I did.
As we stepped out of the hotel into the humid air, the aromas of freshly-cooked food wafted in our direction. We had just arrived in Bangkok and checked into our swish four-star hotel, but needed to travel across the city centre to join an excursion. The first adventure was finding the nearest Skytrain terminal − a 10-minute walk away, according to the maps app − in the busy rush hour.
Crossing the main road, we found the pavements filled with vendors setting up for a night market interspersed with stalls cooking all manner of street food, from barbecued corn on the cob to chilli-battered king prawns and pancakes. Despite an 11-hour flight I could barely contain my excitement at the vibrant sights and sounds assaulting my senses. Only a reminder from my husband that our pre-booked tour included dinner stopped me trying everything on offer immediately.
It was the furthest these two Bury St Edmunds bumpkins had ever travelled, so we were determined to make the most of our three-night stay in the capital city.
Before leaving the UK I had researched excursion companies, finally settling on a night tour by tuk tuk with Expique. After negotiating the air-conditioned Skytrain system with ease, we met our guide, Esso, and settled into the tuk tuk − complete with clear Perspex roof allowing us 360-degree views − for the evening.
At our first stop − another night market − Esso bought freshly-cooked sweet chilli fish balls, along with warm bread accompanied by a green sauce made from pandan leaves. “It looks like you haven’t eaten in days,” said Esso as he witnessed me wolf down the delicacies, before taking us to see spirit houses built in the middle of the market − complete with gift offerings of bottles of water and food from other passers-by. Walking along a jetty, Esso told us the popular Thai legend of Mae Nak Phra Khanong, the story of a beautiful young woman who died during childbirth but whose undying love for her husband caused her to return as a ghost to live with him.
Then our tuk tuk picked us up for the next stop: the Temple of Wat Pho. It started to rain when we arrived but we turned down Esso’s offer of umbrellas: the refreshing rain and the fact Wat Pho was deserted gave the Buddhist temple complex a sense of calm serenity.
A restaurant called Thip Samai, which Esso told us was world-famous for its Pad Thai, was our next destination. Despite a queue around the block we were whisked inside to a table and took Esso’s recommendation of Pad Thai wrapped in omelette. I can safely say it deserves its reputation. We were so impressed we returned the following night.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur, with trips to the giant swing, Grand Palace, night flower market and the bright lights of Chinatown, where we sampled unusual Chinese desserts.
The cool rooftop pool at our hotel was a welcome pit-stop on day two, between a morning boat tour of the city’s canals and floating market and an independent jaunt to the famous Khao San road − an area populated by backpackers who flock to Thailand in their thousands.
While we were staying in four-star luxury rather than a hostel, we enjoyed its boisterous bargain-priced bars and restaurants before engaging in friendly barter with a tuk tuk driver for a return fare to the hotel.
Our final stop before leaving Bangkok was Kanchanaburi. There we visited the Bridge over the River Kwai and the moving war cemetery, the main prisoner of war cemetery for those who died under Japanese imprisonment while building the Burma railway. Walking along the rows of gravestones − 6,982 PoWs are buried there − we picked out the graves of British soldiers, some from the Suffolk Regiment.
Before the two-and-a-half-hour drive back to the city we headed into the countryside for a ride on an elephant. Watching the impressive mammal walk towards me, I noticed the bull-hook used by the trainer slung casually over the animal’s giant ear. Climbing aboard, we were soon swaying side to side thanks to the beast’s gentle gait. Heading through trees and along a riverbank, I watched closely to see if the bull-hook would be used. Instead I was gratified to see our trainer guide the elephant using verbal encouragement throughout.
The next morning we caught a one-hour internal flight to Koh Samui. Coming in to land we spotted the famous 12-metre gold Big Buddha and idyllic white-sand beaches. A 10-minute drive from the airport and we were settled into our home for the next eight nights: the Imperial Boat House Resort, in the village of Choeng Mon.
The resort’s spacious premier rooms offer views of pools and the beautiful gardens, along with modern Thai decor and the deepest bathtubs I have ever seen.
Days on Koh Samui consisted of hearty breakfasts − with eggs and noodles cooked to order − lazy days either beside the boat-shaped swimming pool or warm, calm sea, followed by drinks and dinner at one of the many restaurants and bars in the village. After a few days recovering from the whirlwind experience of Bangkok we were eager to explore again. Joining a Jeep safari tour, we spent the morning visiting a temple with a mummified monk and swimming under a waterfall before lunch − Thai green curry, of course − halfway up a mountain, surrounded by lush tropical plants.
Then we visited the “magic garden”, with numerous cast-iron Buddhist statues and waterfalls. Built by a Thai farmer in 1976, the garden has a truly mystical feel. “It looks like a Tomb Raider film,” my husband said as he caught his first glimpse. Following the ascent back to the Jeep, our driver asked if we would like to sit on top of the cab for the final part of the day. The bumpy half-hour drive up rocky tracks while dark storm clouds gathered around us proved one of the most memorable experiences of the 11-night trip.
All too soon it was our final day on Koh Samui and a snorkelling trip to the islands of Koh Nangyuan and Koh Tao was on the agenda.
After sitting in the bow of a speedboat in choppy conditions for the one-hour, 45-minute journey, we finally climbed on the jetty of the private island Koh Nangyuan soaking wet, windswept and eager to get our masks and snorkels on. Soon the rainclouds were gathering overhead again, deterring many would-be snorkellers but clearing the waters for our first view of the sea-life. The sensation of swimming with heavy rain hitting our backs and the sound of thunder rumbling in the distance, while hundreds of colourful fish swam around us, was not to be missed.
Following lunch on the island we were soon back on the boat, heading to our second stop off Koh Tao.
“You can either use the steps at the back of the boat to get into the water or you can jump off the front of the boat,” our guide told us. In keeping with the sense of adventure we’d shared since arriving in Thailand we ignored everyone else taking the civilised route and stood on the bow together, masks and snorkels in-hand, looking into the clear waters below.
And so we ended our Thai experience by taking a carefree leap into the warm sea: relaxed, content, exhilarated and vowing to return to the “Land of Smiles”.