Joe Laufer’s Thailand Journal: February 18 – March 3, 2003
Preface #1 - The trip that almost wasn’t!
On Monday, Feburay 17, the East Coast was blanketed in up to two feet of snow in what was called the “Presidents’ Day Blizzard”. Half way through the day, I personally decided to cancel the Thailand trip because it was anticipated that the Philadelphia International Airport would not be able to open to accommodate our scheduled 9:15 a.m. Northwest Airlines flight. To further complicate matters, I was not sure that the individuals scheduled to travel with me would be able to get out of their driveways, or that the limo company contracted to transport us to the airport would be able to pick us up in Vincentown. Dozens of calls to participants, the limo company, Collette Tours and Northwest Airlines consumed my “packing day”, Monday. By the end of the night, we decided to plan on leaving as scheduled. Unfortunately, three of the ten participants in my group decided not to take the chance on Tuesday morning.
When we awoke on Tuesday, the snow had stopped, most of the primary roads had been plowed, and the limo company arrived in Vincentown at 5:30 a.m. as scheduled, as did the seven individuals planning to “chance it” at the Philadelphia airport. We were prepared to stay there all day, if necessary, and even fly out on Wednesday, if there was a possibility. As fate would have it, all went well and our flight was listed as “on time” and was, as far as we know, the very first flight out of Philadelphia after the major snowstorm. We took off only about an hour late, arriving in Detroit, then flying on to Tokyo, then to Bangkok, arriving at about midnight on Wednesday, February 19.
Preface #2 – Bangkok e-mail frustrations
Our itinerary included three full days in Bangkok: Thursday through Saturday, February 20-22. On Thursday afternoon I attempted my first “Journal entry” e-mail (to about 30 people on my special Thailand mailing list) from Bangkok. I wrote a lengthy summary describing our Tuesday adventure (as described above) and indicating the makeup of our group. For some reason, the e-mail did not go out. The following day, Friday, I did the same thing, from our hotel business center, and again, the e-mail did not go out. While I could send individual e-mails to family, the group e-mails would not go out. It wasn’t until we went to Chiang Mai on Sunday, February 23 that my regular Journals were able to be sent.
Summary of first three days in Bangkok
Our hotel in Bangkok, The Imperial Queen’s Palace, was conveniently located with direct access to the Bangkok elevated monorail.
16 participants from 6 US states and Germany
Front row: Beverly Marinelli (NJ), Eva Grum (FL), Ursula Grum (Germany); Marlene Ruebel (FL), Eileen Pankoke (NJ), AnnSelover (NJ), Edith Serio (NJ), Miriam Prickett (NJ);
Back row: Surot Ruamsuk ("Ron")- Tour Manager, of Chiang Mai, Thailand; Barbara Waszkewitz (TX), Fred Ruebel (FL), Joe Laufer (NJ), Martin Grum (FL), Darcel Stone (OR), Richard Selover (NJ), Devota Paulson (CA).
Missing because of a delayed flight: Heather Seely (CT).
Our group consisted of a total of 16 people: my seven from New Jersey, plus 4 individuals from Florida (two couples who had not know one another prior to the trip), a mother and daughter from the west coast, and the youngest member of our group, Heather, from Connecticut, who arrived a day late because of the east coast storm. One couple from Florida was accompanied by a daughter from Texas, and the a sister/sister-in-law of the other couple came from Germany. The size of the group allowed us to do things that larger groups can’t do, and somewhat speeded up coach exits and entries, and contributed greatly to the overall comfort of the group. We soon became one “travel family” and by the end of the trip felt that we had made lifelong friends.
Our group leader, a Thai gentleman in his early 40s, whose Americanized name was “Ron” was very friendly, informative and caring. We all agreed that he contributed greatly to the overall success of the trip. He introduced several “wows”, as he called them – things that weren’t on the printed itinerary, but which gave us both entertainment and insight into the Thai culture. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. There was no rain for the entire duration of our visit. While Bangkok was oppressively hot (95-102 degrees while we were there), it was a welcome relief from the snow and cold we left behind in New Jersey. The weather was a bit milder and less humid in the north, for the bulk of our stay in Thailand.
We pretty much followed the itinerary on Thursday, Friday and Saturday:
Thursday, February 20 : a tour of Bangkok, two of its major temples and a visit to the Grand Palace, where we had our group photo taken. We had dinner on a Rice Barge, where we were entertained by Thai dancers and feasted on Thai food. Thanks to the suggestion of one of our group, Beverly Marinelli, we all opted for an evening Cabaret show, where the beautiful female stars were actually men. It was a great review.
On Friday, February 21, we traveled outside Bangkok to ride the fabled Long-tail boats through the Klongs (canals) and then ended up at the Floating Market. After that we headed to the fabled Bridge on the River Kwai, and the museum there in honor of the Allied prisoners of war who performed the forced labor there, and the related military cemetery.
Our last day in Bangkok, prior to going north to Chiang Mai, Saturday, February 22, consisted of a visit to Ayutthaya, the 14th century ruins of the original capital of Thailand – a fascinating venue with well-preserved ruins. That evening we were feasted at a Thai restaurant with great cultural entertainment. That was to be our last day in Bangkok until our return from Chiang Mai on Sunday, March 2.
Once we reached Chiang Mai by plane on Sunday, February 23, I had access to two e-mail possibilities, one in the hotel and one across the street from the hotel. Thus, the following e-mails were sent as Journal items for the remainder of the tour.
The actual e-mails (edited upon return home):
Journal entry #1 – Sunday, February 23
This is just a short "hello from Thailand" note now that I'm half-way through the trip. I attempted to send two e-mails to all of you from Bangkok, but they never went out for some reason. So rather than type a long summary, I just wanted to let you know that we had a great 3 days there and flew north this morning to Chaing Mai. The weather in Bangkok was oppressively hot (high 90's). Here it is a few degrees cooler because we are in the mountains. Tomorrow we go to the Elephant preserve. We have a great group, and feel lucky to be here after all the ups and downs we went through last Monday wondering if we'd get out of Philly on Tuesday. But we lucked out and everything went like clockwork. Will write again later, hoping that this e-mail goes out. Cordially, from warm, friendly and far-away Thailand. Joe -
Journal entry #2 – Monday, February 24
We have completed our second day in Chiang Mai, "The Rose of the North". Everyone on our trip loves this part of Thailand. While they enjoyed their 3 days in Bangkok for its unique characteristics, they find Chiang Mai much more delightful because of the temperatures (less humid, yet warm), the people (more pleasant, less "city-fied", and the scenery -- absolutely beautiful. Today we went up into the hills. We visited an elephant preserve where we fed and played with the elephants, watched them bathe and perform for us in the arena, and had plenty of pictures taken with them. We did not ride them today -- that will come on Thursday. We then visited a Hill Tribe -- not a Disney World version, but the real thing, where we walked through the huts on the steep hills, went into a dirt floor home (family living there) and bought some of their hand-made crafts for pennies on the dollar. .
Joe interacting with Akha tribe children
We also went into their gardens where very valuable poppies were growing (if you know what I mean) and some interesting hemp. The government is trying to crack down (pardon the pun) on this kind of gardening, and making some headway, according to our guide. Unfortunately, there is more money in poppies than in strawberries. One member of our party deliberately left her credit cards at the hotel, because she had already overspent her budget for this trip, and we are only half way there. The fact is that there are unbelievable buys here. When you consider the time, effort and energy the people put into their products, you almost feel guilty giving them the first price they suggest -- yet bargaining is encouraged. Neckties that sell for $50 to $75 in the US are being sold here for from $2 to $8 each. Just to give you an idea.
By far, however, it is the people of Thailand that make the trip so enjoyable. They almost cower to you in their effort to be of service. They call Thailand the "Land of a million Smiles" -- and it truly is.
Just to re-cap the Bangkok part of the trip (which I couldn't narrate because of e-mail problems there), we visited the Royal Palace of "King and I" fame, several magnificant Wats (Buddhist Temples), and had interesting waterway excursions on rice barges where we ate Thai food. We visited the famous "Bridge on the River Kwai" and the World War II memorials there. While in Bangkok we attended a "Cabaret" show where all the girls were men (a special digression suggested by one of the members of our group, but everyone joined in and had a great night). We also spent many hours in traffic jams -- another reason we are enjoying the north so much more.
Well, that's it for now. To be removed from the mailing list, just request it. I don't want to bore you if you are not interested.
Cordially, from Chiang Mai, Thailand, Joe Laufer
Journal entry #3 – Tuesday, Feburary 25
It is Tuesday afternoon in Chiang Mai. Another beautiful day, in the low 90's with low humidity. This morning was "Thai Cottage Industry" day. We visited an umbrella factory, a silver factory and a bronze factory. Earlier in the week we visited a Teak factory, resin factory, silk processing plant and gem refinery. After a brief demonstration of the process -- most everything is done by hand here-- you are taken to the retail store, obviously, to hopefully purchase something. For those who may not have traveled to Asia before, this is a common practice -- in fact, a government requirement for tour companies to operate. We found this to be especially so in China. Thus, tourism is one of the major factors in the Thai economy. The funny thing about it is that most Americans enjoy this and don't seem too put out about it. In fact, some of them request to go back to certain outlets because they did not have enough time to shop. Again, on the plus side, the pre-selling demonstrations and orientations (sometimes films), are very educational and give us a great insight into the culture of the people. The bargains are usually great -- and here in Thailand, extraordinary. We cannot understand how the people survive and sometimes feel guilty paying the requested (often bargained) prices.
Tonight we are all attending a Thai cooking class, then sitting down to a traditional Thai dinner (hopefully, not what we cooked).
Joe doing some Thai cooking while Chef "Ed" looks on
Our hotel, the Chiang Mai Orchid, is very luxurious and has a lounge/night club called "The Opium Den". Last night we partied there and were entertained by a group of Japanese tourists who engaged in Karaoke, as only the Japanese can. For those who know me well, you can't imagine what I went through when one of the Japanese guys sang, of all things, Jambalaya!
Tomorrow, 7 of us are flying north to "The Golden Triangle" -- in the Province of Chiang Rai. The Golden Triangle is so-called because it is the northernmost tip of Thailand which borders both Burma and Laos, and is the center for Asian drug traffic. More about that when we return.
Meanwhile, we hope things are warming up in New Jersey. We are truly in a completely different world during our two weeks here.
Journal entry #4 – Thursday, February 27
Tried sending the information in this email last night, but it never went out. It seems that more and more people in Asia are using the Internet, and it is now much slower than it was a year ago when I was here. So let me tell you about yesterday's adventure (Wednesday, February 26) to the "Golden Triangle". We got up at 5:30 a.m. and were transported to the airport to board a "Jetstream" to fly to Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand. It was only a half-hour flight, leaving at 7:30 a.m. and arriving at 8. It is a bit more comfortable there -- about 85 degrees -- in the mountains. From the airport we were transported to two small hill tribe villages, each very authentic (not Disney or tourist type recreations -- the people actually live there). We entered private homes -- almost invading their privacy! The homes in one village were made of bamboo and on stilts with thatched roofs. The other had people living on dirt floors in cold, dank quarters. All the people were welcoming and displayed their unique customs, culture, crafts and costumes. From there we went to the northernmost border of Thailand at a bridge over a very narrow river -- I could throw a stone to the other shore - bordering on Myanmar ( Burma). We tried to cross the bridge, just to set foot on Burma soil, but were not allowed. We were told by our guide that it was both illegal and dangerous, as they sometimes immediately close the border and trap tourists there, forcing them to pay to leave the country.
From there we journeyed to the fabled "Golden Triangle", the border of Laos, Burma and Thailand. First we visited the " Opium Museum" where we were shown the history of opium in the area, the process of its planting and harvesting, and how it is processed and used as a drug, and the economic and criminal aspects of the product. It was very interesting and informative, and some of us were upset that at the end of the demonstration and tour there were no samples! The government of Thailand has cracked down dramatically on the drug traffic, but, as evidenced by the several times our van was stopped at drug checkpoints, there are still major problems. From there we boarded a longboat for a trip on the Mae Kong River, one of the largest rivers in the world. It starts in China, flows through or along Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam, emptying into the famous Mae Kong delta, of Viet Nam war fame. Our trip allowed us to hug the coast of Burma, so we could say we were in Burma, and we then landed in a village in Laos, then back to Thailand. I can now add two countries to my list of those visited up to now in my lifetime: Burma and Laos, bringing the total to 47. After the boat ride we had lunch on a terrace of a 4 star hotel overlooking the Golden Triangle. The sun and temperature were far from what you are experiencing back home, and we wish you were all here with us to experience paradise! We then boarded our van for a four-hour ride down the mountains to our base of operations in Chiang Mai. It was a long trip, compared to the short air flight up, but well worth it because of the breathtaking scenery. We had a quiet dinner in our hotel, and then retired early.
This morning (Thursday, February 27) we got up early to visit a famous hill-top temple, both magnificent in its design and pastoral in its setting atop a high mountain overlooking the city of Chiang Mai. After that we visited a Jade processing plant, where some of our group invested in some very beautiful Jade jewelry at prices hard to resist. Thailand is a shopping mecca -- and we still are having a hard time understanding how they can sell things so cheaply. This afternoon some of our group are in the rooftop hotel pool, others opted to go back to some of the shopping venues, and one guy is at the computer sending out emails. I am heading to the pool after I send this. The trip is coming to an end. Tonight we are going to a dinner and native cultural show. Tomorrow we ride the elephants and raft down a jungle river. More about that later. Take care. Joe
Journal entry #5 – Friday, February 28
It is 2:00 p.m. on Friday in Thailand. This is our tenth day here, with two to go. Tomorrow we have a tour of Lampoon, a town south of Chiang Mai famous for its ancient temple, and then on Sunday, we return to Bangkok for a full day there, then off to the USA on Monday. Hard to believe the trip is almost over. We have not had one single drop of rain since we've been here, and, as I've indicated earlier, the weather here in the north is as close to Paradise as you can get.
Last night we visited the Chiang Mai cultural park for a traditional Thai dinner (although we Americans did not have to lounge on the floor -- we were allowed to sit at tables, without shoes, however). At the dinner we had traditional Thai entertainment, primarily ethnic music and tribal dances. It was really very nice -- with images remembered from issues of National Geographic, which features traditional Oriental tribes and costumes. We then walked over to a small arena where we saw additional Tribal performances on a larger scale.
This morning we got up early to travel up to the mountain jungle to the Elephant preserve where we boarded our elephants for a caravan through the primal jungle. It was very primitive country, and our elephants took us along dangerous ravines and along, across and into jungle streams. Our "mahout" (young Thai boy who has bonded with the elephant over many years on the only one the elephant will obey) was an excellent navigator and had our elephant under control at all times. He sat on the elephant's head and guided him by moving his bare feet into different positions along the elephant's ear. At the conclusion of this exciting adventure, we boarded bamboo rafts for an hour ride down the Ping River, a muddy, jungle river with rapids. There were four of us to a raft, plus the "navigator" -- a Thai guy with a bamboo stick to steer the thing. This was an extremely exciting aspect of our tour.
We then returned to our hotel, where we have a free afternoon. As soon as I finish this I am going to join our group in the sun on the roof where the pool is waiting for me. Just a note on how inexpensive things are here. On the way back from the jungle, we stopped at a Seven-Eleven (yes, they have them here, along with MacDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and Sizzler, etc.) for a snack. I bought a Heineken Beer and a bag of Frito Lay potato chips (12 oz. bag) -- both for $1.25. And yes, they sell beer in the 7-11. Everything -- and I mean everything -- is dirt-cheap here.
Well, I'll try to send an email tomorrow after our visit to Lampoon, then one on Sunday, after we arrive back in Bangkok. Hope you are enjoying this travelogue -- and sorry you can't be here enjoying it with us. Take care. Joe
Journal entry #6 – Saturday, February 28
Well, the trip is winding down. Today is our last day in Chiang Mai. We visited Lam Phoon (or Lampoon) to see an ancient temple. Despite the fact that we have seen dozens of temples (or "Wats") on this trip, each one is unique and worth the visit. Lam Phoon is a city about an hour south of Chiang Mai. It is located in the countryside. When we arrived, a children's orchestra was playing in an outdoor pavilion. We paid our usual shoeless respect to the Lord God Buddha, and then walked around the grounds, mingling with Thai monks and novices, and making an occasional purchase of a local craft item. After the temple, we went a short distance to a cotton and silk weaving village - another example of the Thai cottage iindustries. Each home (just a hovel, really) has a weaving machine. All the villagers work together as a communal center for the creation and marketing of beautiful cloth to sell to tourists and in the cities. You can actually watch them hand weaving on very primitive wooden machines. They are actually at work, not performing for tourists. Last year I purchased a beautiful table scarf here, and did it again this year. The quality of the work is unbelievable, and the price even more unbelievable. They loved our group, because we loved their work and showed our appreciation by helping their local economy through our many purchases. Finally, on the way home, we stopped in the center of Chiang Mai to walk through the "wet and dry" market, so-called because it is about ten times the size of Philadelphia's Reading Market, with many of the same qualities, where they sell both fresh foods and packaged foods. (wet/dry).
Tonight we have a final Barbeque in our Hotel, and hopefully will be able to fit all our purchases in our suitcases for the trip home. I'm afraid that some in the group will have to purchase an extra suitcase. One thing I forgot to mention about yesterday's trip to the elephant preserve. Ron, our tour director, took us to a "rice noodle making" village. Again, a cottage industry where all the members of the village participate in producing a product for sale in the markets. We saw the process from start to finish from home to home -- from boiling the rice, processing it into a paste, then making noodles out of it. Ever have rice noodles? Well, you can actually get spaghetti here made from rice noodles. This was a very interesting stop and another glimpse into the real Thai culture. And this is one place where there wasn't a gift shop at the end of the tour -- what we saw was for local consumption, not for tourists. Our tour manager, Ron, is very good at this kind of thing -- he knows where to take us to see the real Thailand.
Well, its almost 2:00 p.m., about 93 degrees F., not too humid, and a good day to lie in the sun on the rooftop pool. Sorry to rub it in -- but that’s what Thailand is. Everybody should come here at least once in his or her lifetime.
One more email from me -- tomorrow, from Bangkok. Take care. Joe.
Journal entry #7 – Sunday, March 2
Well, this is the last day in Thailand. Arrived here in Bangkok from Chiang Mai at about 10:00 a.m. -- greeted by much more humid and hot weather compared to the North. Last night we had a nice "farewell Chiang Mai" dinner -- actually they called it a mini barbecue -- but I've learned that when it comes to food, there’s nothing "mini" in Thailand. On the way down in the plane I read an article about Bangkok. They describe it as the city of contrasts, where your senses are assaulted by the many sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions that are not found anywhere else in the world. I agree! We are staying in one of the most luxurious and elaborate hotels in Bangkok, yet a block or two away there are small tin-roofed, dirt-floor dwellings that reek with poverty. Yet the people never stop smiling. The Thai people are the most polite and gentle I've ever seen. You can readily understand why Thailand is called the land of smiles, and in fact, my jaw is sore after 12 days of constantly smiling back at these wonderful people.
Tonight we have our farewell Dinner at 7:00 p.m. Most of us are already packed, since we had to squeeze all our purchases into our suitcases last night. We have to get up at 3:00 a.m. for our trip to the airport for our flight to Tokyo at 6:10 a.m. Then off to Dallas, then Philly for a 3:15 p.m. arrival on Monday. Hard to imagine returning to winter after this two weeks of warm weather.
Well, that should do it for now. I look forward to seeing you when I return. Anybody want to sign up for the next trip to Thailand?
See you soon. Joe.
Post script – from home – Tuesday, March 4
Well, we all got back safely – but not without some last minute scares! We got up at 2:30 a.m. on Monday, March 3, to leave for the airport. Our flight home was scheduled for 6:10 a.m. Ron packed a boxed breakfast for all of us. We arrived at the airport only to find that our Northwest Airlines flight was cancelled! No reason given! Fortunately, we were easily re-scheduled for a United Airlines flight to Taipei, Taiwan, instead of to Tokyo. Then we would fly from Taipei to San Francisco, and from there to Philadelphia, arriving about 4 hours later than planned, at 7:30 p.m. The re-scheduled flights went smoothly, and our van was waiting for us to transport us to Vincentown. I was home by 9:00 p.m. So ends a wonderful trip to Thailand. We have a variety of great souvenirs and pictures, but most of all, great memories of events, people, places and friends who shared an adventure of a lifetime.