We left Bangkok after a few days of taking in the various monumental and ornate wats (temples) and palaces.  One of our favorite activities in sprawling Bangkok was traversing the city scape via water taxi, boats which carry both Thais and tourists along a major river which snakes through the center of the city.  This is a very calming and meditative means of transportation, one I’d imagine the average Thai worker coming home from their job couldn’t help but appreciate. 

We headed north via train 12 hours to Chiang Mai.  Although very tourist-centered, Chiang Mai is more run down and humble than Bangkok.    We had to negotiate with Tuk Tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers over the exorbitant fares they wanted to charge to take us moderate distances, plus arguing against their attempts to take us to various tailors they get kickbacks from to deliver us to their shops.  Subsequently, as usual, we spent a lot of time walking.   It was hot and lazy in Chiang Mai, and I enjoyed wandering through the city’s streets, checking out the wats,  which were not as spectacular and glitzy as those of Bangkok.  Without the crowds of Bangkok the wats seemed more human and less on display.  We explored little restaurants off the tourist path, eating a Thai version of hot pot and a jungle curry.  Our last day there I got ill for the first time in Asia, ironically after eating at a fairly fancy restaurant overlooking the city, which took us half an hour walking up a hill to get to after we refused to pay the extra 100 baht the Tuk Tuk driver insisted upon to actually take us the full distance.  I spent the night moving between the bed and the toilet, moving very slowly the next day until we got on a train back to Bangkok.

Back in Bangkok we paid 1000 baht to watch Muay Thai (kickboxing) fights.  At an exchange rate of roughly 30 baht to the dollar, this made for an expensive evening. Most of the fighters were teenagers, weighing around 100 pounds.  A couple of the fighters exhibited skills beyond knee strikes, kicks, and punches and were quite exciting to watch.  These guys had obviously been training for more than a couple of years. Of equal interest to what was going on in the ring was the frenzied betting going on all around us, with men winning thousands of baht per fight.  We stayed for seven fights, getting our fill after several hours.

Our friend Audrey from Portland arrived the next day and we took another train south to Surat.  We spent less than 12 hours there, mostly sleeping, and got a ride to the rain-forest of Khao Sok National Park with the owner of the hotel we stayed at.

Khao Sok has the remains of a 160 million year old rain-forest.  This was the jungle interior part of our trip.  We took long boats deep into the jungle ala Apocalypse Now, then trekked in even deeper.  Our Thai guides had mischievous smiles upon arriving at a cave complex, where the three of us and four Germans were led deeper and deeper into a dark, wet, huge cave crawling with water and life.  Several of us had headlamps which followed our gaze around the cave’s interior as we sloshed through ankle deep water in flip flops.  The guides advised us we would encounter chest-high water, but we didn’t know if this was real or hyperbole. 

Looking up towards the ceiling of the cave’s interior, we could see hundreds and hundreds of bats dangling from their feet, hanging upside down, twitching either from being disturbed by our lights or as part of their natural physiologic processes.  The cave was pitch black, as evidenced anytime one of us strayed far from the lights.  We crawled over boulders and through rocky crevices, encountering spiders as big as our hands.  Half way through we came across a spring, which soon turned into a stream and eventually a narrow, quite powerful river.  Climbing down between the rocks, sure enough, we were soon immersed chest high in strong currents of water, navigating through the darkness in a journey which didn’t come to any quick or tidy conclusions.  At one point we had to swim along the length of a gushing river squeezed between narrow rocks in the direction of the only way out.  I had to be careful not to submerge the battery attached by two wires to the headlamp I was wearing.  After close to an hour we finally saw the hint of daylight in the distance and soon returned to the heat of the jungle. It felt exhilarating to make it through the cave complex, seeing a world one seldom encounters, navigating the darkness to emerge on the other side.  At times it felt crazy to even be in there, Whose idea was this?  Upon exiting back into the light, we sat and drank water and laughed about what we had just been through.

In 1932 Thailand went from being a Monarchy to being a Constitutional Monarchy.  There’s a monument to this transition dubbed, prematurely, the “democracy monument” in Bangkok.  It was here, in 1973, that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered to protest the very lack of democracy in Thailand and the control by the military.  The military opened fire on the pro-democracy demonstrators and at least 75 were killed near the monument.  It was partly in response to this kind of oppression that many students headed south to the jungles of the rain-forest to gather and organize against the government.  Khao Sok National Park was a prime location for students and communist insurgents to hide out in during the 1970s. 

From the interior’s rain-forest we headed towards what most foreigners know Thailand for, namely the beaches.  We spent a night in Krabi, a sleepy little town with an awesome food night market, and a veritable Clown Navy of colorful fishing and transport boats.  At the night market we had Phad Thai, which was quite good, made by Muslims at a small cart.  From Krabi we took a longboat to Railay, a beach recommended to us for its beauty.

We found an affordable place to stay at the top of a hundred stairs.  Railay is where we got in the water and lay on the beach for the first time.  In Railay we went snorkeling, diving off a boat into water filled with myriad multi-colored fish.  The water is warm and embracing.  We visited surrounding islands, swimming and exploring beaches.

Unfortunately, Railay was clogged with tourists by the thousands.  It was far too dense with European, Australian, and US tourists to really be very enjoyable, and everything there is outrageously expensive.  The tourist circuit in Thailand is about as expensive as New York City, although Thailand is more affordable off the beaten path.  Railay was not always a tourist haven.  The area around Railay once sheltered pirates who used its extensive beaches and inlands to hide out in and plan attacks. 

From Railay we took a boat a couple of hours further south to the Island of Phi Phi (pronounced Pee Pee), part of which was made famous by the controversial filming there of The Beach.  Upon landing in Phi Phi it appeared as bad if not worse than Railay in terms of base commercialism, but some advanced research led us to a fairly secluded little beach where we found an affordable place to stay.  We ended up spending three nights there, lying on the beach, snorkeling, playing cards, writing and reading.  There was hardly anyone else there, and the people that worked there were very kind.  The only way back was by long boat, or an hour hike through the jungle.

Phi Phi was largely wiped out by the tsunami three years ago, and its rapid redevelopment is haunted by this recent cataclysm.  Many businesses and small shops give thanks in their advertising for the international support given in the destruction’s aftermath.  One day we hiked 1,000 feet practically straight up and over a bluff back to town to get some supplies, check email, make some phone calls, and arrange the next stage of our trip. 

Sadly, we had to leave. After a couple of boat rides, two ferries and a mini-bus we are now in a little working-class town called Trang on our way to islands further south.

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