Friday, June 15, 2018

THRILLS OF THAILAND


After a hectic schedule of three days in Singapore, we took the 2 1/2 hour flight to Bangkok, Thailand, which is 1 1/2 hours ahead of India (1 hour behind Singapore). Good airline and great lunch (AVML) - with tasty methi-paneer, aloo matar, rice, bun - butter and two spongy rasgullas

As usual, we had filled our Immigration forms during our flight. When we landed, we found there were a number of counters and the crowd was less, so the formalities were over within thirty minutes. After baggage claim, we moved to the exit with our trolley on the escalator.

Each of the tourists had been instructed before the tour to carry 700 $ with us on this tour as per the rules of Thailand. An unusual requirement. What for, nobody knew. Only some malls accepted USD. Otherwise we had to convert INR to Baht, the currency of Thailand (1 baht is equivalent to 2 INR). The weather there was hot but not so humid as Malaysia / Singapore. We bumped into a lot of Chinese and found flavors of sea food wafting around. Our local guide Thor was a Chinese and we had to listen with extra concentration to understand his English accent. We were looking forward to fabulous beach-time, Buddha-darshan, as well as exciting shopping sprees in Thailand .....

Day 1

We drove to Pattaya - a relaxing two hour drive - the scenery was not much different from India.

Alcazar Show


We had our tickets for the Alcazar Cabaret Show at 7 pm. 

Our guide told us that we could take pictures with the stunning ladies after the previous show, so that we wouldn't waste time later, as we had to head out for dinner. We were warned that photography during the show was prohibited.

We enjoyed our complimentary drink and took our seats with great anticipation. I had watched the cabaret in Paris and expected something of that sort. I had not Googled all the spots in our itinerary as I felt it would take away the surprise element and kill my curiosity. We were seated in an awesome theater - as the show progressed, we were awe-struck by the high-quality cabaret show, the spectacular stage sets, attractive performers, extravagant costumes, awe-inspiring song and dance routines, and astounding lighting and sound effects. Despite warnings, some could not resist the temptation of clicking some pics or even shooting videos during the show. The tell-tale flash would draw the attention of the security persons on the prowl who would stop them in their tracks. I stuck to my principles and let my cell phone nap inside my purse. But I could not resist the temptation of extracting a favor from my friend - 

to share some of the clips, which I have shared here. It proved to be a spectacular aesthetic experience lasting an hour, a far cry from a titillating cabaret. 
After the show, the dazzling beauties paraded outside and obliged willing customers to click photos with each for a good tip in $.

As we boarded our coach, our guide asked us how many of us had clicked photos with the performers. A number of people, mostly males, raised their hands. Our guide gave a wide grin and said, "The performers are not women but transvestites. Now you may want to delete those.... '. Unbelievable .... but true. The 'lady-boys' were looking so stunningly beautiful .... The popular notion is, "If you want to see beautiful lady-boys, go to Tiffany; but if you want to see a great show, head to Alcazar Cabaret Show". We admired the fact that society had embraced this group and not shunned them, as is typical in many parts of the world . 

We headed to 'Vedas' for dinner. The restaurant looked like one of those traditional houses of Kerala, the food was a spread of North Indian and South Indian - we really relished the 'rasam' (South Indian soup) which had tiny bits of veggies. The tangy and spicy 'vathakozhambu' of Tamilnadu tingled our palates. We couldn't believe we were getting such delicious Indian food in Thailand. And to think of the warnings from my well-meaning friends back home!

After dinner, we were glad to check in at Hotel FX. Our room was extra large - 2 ACs, 2 double beds,.... the bathroom had a shower cubicle as well as a bath tub ... whew! What a luxury! Super fast WiFi. But there was no hair dryer / iron.

Day 2

Breakfast at our hotel was comparatively a modest affair - without cakes and croissants, just toast, eggs, cereal, yogurt, fruits - especially, fresh pineapple, pineapple juice and coffee / tea.

Pattaya Beach

We drove to the nearby Pattaya Beach and boarded the speedboat and put on our life jacket. 
The speed boat ride was, in parts, a stomach churner. We first went to an island for para sailing. My husband who is seventy plus, was enthusiastic about it, so I too had to be his match. We took our tokens and waited in queue - 
the seniors in our group were surprised that we were being so adventurous at this age. When our turn came, we were asked standard questions on health. "BP?".  "Yes, but under control with medication", we replied, as if that was no issue with us. But it was - for them, obviously, as they turned us away. 
Sheepishly we joined the non-para sailors in our group and watched the others. My only consolation was that we could proudly claim to our children that we had tried to venture for it, for all you know they too might have heaved a sigh of relief that we had been turned down.

We then took another speed boat ride to reach Coral Island, where we undertook the glass bottom ride which was rather a tame affair. 

After that we had an hour of free time to indulge in rides of our choice - 

Banana boat, 

Water Bike etc. We enjoyed the kiss of the waves as we posed with such boats and clicked pics. 

The beach looked picture-perfect .....

We then chose to relax on chairs under the parasols, sipping tender coconut water, enjoying the bear hugs of the winds, even as the sun started glaring at us. Some managed to do some local shopping.

Once again the speed boat took us chopping through the waters speedily to the shores. We were happy to get back to our rooms and enjoy a nice shower before proceeding to Nong Nooch village.

Nong Nooch Village

The entire area looked more like a theme park, with daily cultural shows, restaurants and accommodation as well as a vast area showcasing individually themed gardens. 

After our tasty Indian lunch in the vicinity, we got just a little over 3 hours at the village.

Nong Nooch Garden

Nong Nooch Garden, set in a 2.4 sq.km. beautifully landscaped park, can easily make an all-day trip. During our drive, we could see a variety of vegetables - bunches of bananas and giant papayas flitted across our eyes but as we were taken by surprise, we couldn't click pics of those. Later we didn't have time for the vegetable garden.
We then managed to snatch a few minutes in the adjacent garden which wowed us with its awesome blossoms.


We came across a 'tame' tiger with which spectators could pose for pics for a price.

Pottery Garden

The 15 minutes we got to spend at the Pottery Garden could not satisfy our craving. This unique section had earthen pots and flowers and artifacts used to create unimaginable crafts exhibited in such an aesthetic garden. 
Everyone wished they had more time there, while hurrying hither and thither trying to pose for / click pics. Ain't I glad about my pics? I might have had just fleeting glimpses then of the actual display, but could get to see them all at leisure, browsing through the e-albums.

Thai Cultural Show

There were daily shows at the Thai Cultural Hall. We had to rush so that we could be on time for the Thai Cultural Show - it was an awesome spectacle of sights and sounds through classical Thai dance and ancient drum performance. 
It provided slices of Thai culture and history in a colorful and dazzling presentation with impressive props.

Elephant Show

We had been instructed by our Tour Manager to leave the hall soon after the 'Battle scene', so that we could find vantage seats for our next - 'The Elephant Show'. 
Needless to say that the show fascinated all age-groups, as elephants, big and small, put up impressive and attractive performances - playing basket ball, football ...... 

They even gently lifted volunteers from the gallery, curled up in their trunks, and gently set them down. It was fun to click the picture of a couple who got cutely lifted by two elephants simultaneously.


What stopped everyone's breath was the finale - brave volunteers offered to lie on the path of the elephants and the animals coolly marched without trampling on any, leaving them unscathed. 

It was with reluctance and disappointment that we allowed ourselves to be herded back into our coach - we hadn't had enough of the visual feast. But our guide dropped the magical word ever so softly and longingly that we sat up in glee. The word - 'massa....ge'.

Thai Massage

Yes! We had been so active during the hectic tour, that the tour company had thoughtfully arranged a complimentary Scientific Thai massage to soothe our limbs. 
Everyone was getting a massage - it had been paid for by our tour company; we had to just take care of the tip. There were separate rooms for men and women. The masseurs were local ladies. We had been taught two Thai words - 'nàk-nàk' (harder)  and 'bao-bao' (softer), the two essential words for instant communication for our requirement during the massage, in addition to sign language of course. These were the only words uttered by our group during that one hour while our hostesses chatted nineteen to the dozen (among themselves) in their language which seemed to comprise only of vowels. The problem in Thailand is the commoners do not  understand English. 

It was a huge room with mattresses lined up. All 18 ladies of our group were accommodated simultaneously. All of us felt relaxed and rejuvenated after the soothing one-hour massage from head to toe. For the rest of our tour, there were jokes resounding in the coach as every male in the bus tried to pull the legs of the others about the massage experience.

We then headed for the Indian restaurant Mumbai Magic. As we were all refreshed, we enthusiastically shook a leg as the DJ played popular Hindi / Marathi songs in the ballet room.
It was after a good 45 minutes that we lined up for dinner - the hot favorites were potato bonda with chutney and rasam and curd rice. The common sweet dish offered by  most of the hotels during this tour was 'sheera' / vermicelli kheer.

Day 3

Gemstone Gallery

After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and drove to Gems Gallery. 

We undertook the tram ride through the factory which provided glimpses of the various stages of the process of extracting gemstones from the ores.

After this, as the ladies took a look at the ornaments on display at each section, the male counterparts followed them gingerly, sending up prayers that their better halves be sensible enough not to make huge dents in their pockets.
We curiously checked out the prices - genuine precious stones were sold at prices ranging from 4000 Bahts to several lacs. Then there were those semi-precious stones for some hundreds to thousands - rings, ear rings, brooches, bracelets and necklaces as well as designer watches.

After that we went around the miscellaneous section which sold souvenirs from scented soaps to incense, to edible delicacies ... bought some but found them pretty expensive.

Store Shopping

Later we visited Ludkod Store, stocked with souvenirs and gift articles galore - all at reasonable rates. Our shopping baskets were overflowing as we queued up at the billing counter. Many items here were 40 -50 % cheaper than those in Gems Gallery; no idea about quality difference! 
We were also advised to visit the restroom there - it had bagged the best toilet award in 2015. Actually I found that it was painted in garish colors.

Lunch was at Annapurna restaurant, Pattaya.

Before bidding goodbye to Pattaya, we also visited ......

Pattaya Park Tower


We went up 62 floors by lift and enjoyed the panoramic view of the city. Then we climbed up to the next level for our next activity. We had two options - Speed Shuttle or Sky Jump. 


The seniors opted for the safer Speed shuttle while the younger lot chose Sky Jump. Yet another feather to our caps!

As we reahed Bangkok, we went to Rasoi Restaurant for dinner - the crunchy karela tasted so good ...
Next we checked in at Hotel Manhattan. We were handed traditional metal keys to our rooms. 
Every room had a couple of glass bottles with drinking water which were complimentary and a couple of plastic bottles of water which were chargeable along with the chargeable mini bar. 

Day 4

Safari World

The main agenda for the day was Safari World, a tourist attraction in Bangkok, that consists of two parks - Marine Park and Safari Park.

Marine Park
The Marine Park houses a spectrum of animals of land, sea, and air. 

There are several shows that steal your heart. 

Orangutan Boxing Show


First we enjoyed the Orangutan Boxing Show, a unique one. There has been controversy about Safari World for its treatment of animals. Their operation came under international scrutiny for their treatment of animals, particularly orangutans and elephants.

Sea Lion Show



Next it was the Sea Lions putting up their acts for the crowds - balancing the ball on the nose
and also riding a wheel, even clapping to their comrades' feats ....
.
'Hollywood cowboy stunts' and 'Spy War' shows fascinated the younger lot.
After this, we proceeded to the the sprawling eatery which had special tables set for each tour group (oh, there were so many tour groups from all over the world) and lunch laid out at different tables - with Indian/ Chinese/Thai, .... cuisines to cater to all.

Dolphin Show

Next we took our seats for the Dolphin Show. Before the start of the show, the hosts played patriotic songs of Thailand, China and India as a tribute to the hordes of tourists from these countries.

Our hair stood on end as they played a 'snippet' of the song,"yeh desh hai veer jawanonka", and the Indian crowd lustily started dancing.

This was followed by the hostess saying, "Bharat mata ki" twice and "vande maataram" thrice as the crowd of Indian tourists cheerily responded to each.




The Dolphins put up a spectacular show to captivate the excited crowd.

Safari Park

We then boarded our coach to drive through 8 kms of the Safari Park, an open zoo. During this slow, half an hour drive, we spotted  hundreds of animals from all over the world - zebras, giraffes, deer, lions and tigers and flocks of birds - all roaming around freely. 

Rangers kept a strict vigil so that daredevils did not jump out of their vehicles during their safari to get up close and personal with the animals. It was great fun watch the animals in their natural habitat, as our coach inched its way around.

Shopping


Our next visit was to the popular Indra Square - with malls and surrounded by street bazars - enough to satisfy the tourists' shopping mania. Shopping in Bangkok is fun, proclaim all visitors. We fully exploited the good 3 hours we got for shopping, the urge for which, we had sort of suppressed for the major part of this SE Asia tour.
First we went around the Mall, taking a sneak peak at the different levels before deciding the level we needed to linger on.... Tiny shops, non-branded stuff galore, welcoming sellers .... the prices were clearly marked - most of them cost 100 Baht. Before you knew it, you would have picked up bracelets / hair clips / pouches / even tops for family and friends too and then realized you had run out of Baht. No worries - you'd find Money Exchange counters within the Mall or across the street where exchange is quick and hassle-free.

For big shopaholics, more trivia at cheaper rates awaited them at the street bazaar.

Right across the street were eateries reminding us of our motherland - but none of us ventured to try out the dosa / idly there, as we simply didn't have the time! 

Some had lists for branded items from family members - they went to nearby malls with retail stores of big names.

Everyone had broad smiles as they boarded the coach with loaded bags and waning wallets at the end of their shopping spree.

Day 5

The last day of our 13 day tour of SE Asia - the morning was spent in visiting the Buddhist temples; we had to remove our footwear in some of them.

First we went to see the ....

Golden Buddha



It was on 14 February 2010, that the the new building was inaugurated at the Wat Traimit Temple to house the Gold BuddhaThe Golden Buddha, 3 meters tall, is a gold statue,  
with a weight of 5,500 kilograms. 
The gold in the statue (18 karat) is estimated to be worth 250 million dollars. 

It has an interesting story. At one point in its history, the statue was covered with a layer of stucco and colored glass to conceal its true value, and it remained in this condition for almost 200 years, ending up at what was then a pagoda of minor significance. During relocation of the statue in 1955, the plaster was chipped off and the gold revealed. When all the plaster was removed, it was found that the gold statue actually consisted of nine parts that fit smoothly together. A key was also found encased in plaster at its base, which can be used to disassemble the statue, allowing for easier transportation. The golden statue, discovered close to the commemoration of the twenty-fifth Buddhist Era (2500 years since Gautama Buddha's passing), created a lot of media hype. 

Wat Pho


After this, we drove to Wat Pho, a Buddhist temple complex housing more than one thousand Buddha images in Bangkok, including a 46 m long Reclining Buddha. The temple is considered the earliest center for public education in Thailand, and the marble illustrations and inscriptions placed in the temple for public instructions has been recognized by UNESCO in its Memory of the World Program. Wat Pho is regarded as Thailand’s first university and the birth place of traditional Thai massage. It served as a medical teaching center in the mid-19th century before the advent of modern medicine.

As per history, in 1782, King Rama I moved the capital from Thonburi across the river to Bangkok and built the Grand Palace adjacent to Wat Pho. 


He had the whole temple complex restored in 1788 and had Buddha images brought from deserted monasteries around the country to be installed in the ubosot. In 1832, King Rama III began renovating and enlarging the temple complex, and most of the structures now present in Wat Pho were either built or rebuilt in this period.


The temple grounds cover a large area with 91 small chedis (stupas or mounds), four great chedis, two belfries, a bot (central shrine), a number of viharas (halls) and other buildings such as pavilions, as well as gardens, a small temple museum and 
cloisters. The cloister is intersected with four viharas, one on each direction, all lined with 


Buddha statues.

Principal Buddha 

Phra Ubosot is the ordination hall, the main hall used for performing Buddhist rituals, and the most sacred building of the complex. 
Inside the ubosot is the Principal Buddha seated on a gold and crystal three-tiered pedestal (Buddha in the posture of concentration), and some ashes of King Rama I are kept under the pedestal. On the middle tier there are images of the Buddha's two leading disciples, while eight statues of the "Holy Priests" stand on the lowest pedestal. A lot of devotees were seated and praying silently.
The gilded Buddha is made of a gold-copper alloy, and over the statue is a nine-tiered umbrella representing the authority of Thailand. 

Reclining Buddha

The impressive Buddhist temple complex has 
a viharn, which houses 
the spectacular Reclining Buddha. You can view it part by part from three windows. To get the full view, tilt your head at a suitable angle.


The Reclining Buddha, depicting the Buddha's parinirvana (death of an enlightened being), was constructed from plaster around a brick core and coated with gold leaf. It is 46 meters long by 15 meters high. The right arm of the Buddha supports the head with tight curls, which rests on two box-pillows richly encrusted with glass mosaics.  
The soles of its huge feet are inscribed in mother-of-pearl with the 108 auspicious signs of a Buddha. Although the Reclining Buddha is not a pilgrimage center, it remains an object of popular piety.



There is a large number of "Chinese Dolls" (Up Chao) in the temple grounds. These cement and stone statues, as well as the  fierce-looking armored giants can be found guarding the temple gates. 


There was an atmosphere of serenity and peace at each of these shrines. 
The structures, typically Buddhist, are tall, tapering and brightly colored. 
The curved edges on the roof ends are typical... 
Some buildings in the complex had the look of Kerala temples!


We even spotted something like a 'shivalinga' on top of a small rock in the complex.

Lunch was once again at Rasoi restaurant.

Shopping 

As our flight back to Mumbai was at night, we got a couple of hours more of shopping time, this time at MBK Mall. 
Some chose to head for some last minute shopping - including new bags to carry the shopped items, 

others tried to finish the remaining Bahts they had, 
some went to 'just look around' and a few chose to find seats and cool their tired heels ...

Tropical fruits and 
interesting street snacks caught our fancy and some of us tried them ....

At 4.30, we started our drive to airport. It was some 40 minutes drive. 
Traffic was hap hazard - almost as in India - 

motor cycles, 'tuk tuk' (autorickshaw), buses, cars .... Metro ran underground and sky rail, above. We also passed by multi-level parking lots. 

The first half of the drive seemed as if we were driving through Mumbai during its worst season - 
traffic, buildings, electric poles with sagging wires, 
slums, and water-logged, moss-covered stagnant water bodies .....

After that stretch we drove through the posh area before reaching Suvarnabhoomi international airport.
What fascinated all of us was the impressive 'samudra-manthan' statues with all details ...
 - we felt we were in India.
After completing the formalities, we spent some minutes at the airport shops.

As our flight soared high and we bid goodbye to Bangkok, the spectacular images of our fantastic 13 day tour of SE Asia flashed across our inward eyes and brought a satisfied smile to our lips.