Greg Alexander

As Good as Gold, June 19, 2007

Thailand is a country rich in cultural and geographic diversity, and yet most Americans are familiar with only Phuket (due to the devastating tsunami in 2004) and Bangkok (thanks to a certain ‘80s pop song and a few poorly made Hollywood movies about the dangers of drugs in Bangkok). However, Thailand is more than just the cosmopolitan city of Bangkok and the picturesque beaches in Phuket. Up north lies an undiscovered section of the country where visitors can view three countries at once – the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos come together to form an amazing mélange of cultures, language and attitudes.

My partner and I traveled to Thailand, a place that has been on my “travel radar” for years. Most international flights arrive in Bangkok, and due to the time difference and the long flight, we decided to spend three days here. Hotel accommodations are aplenty in Bangkok, including the Bangkok Marriott Resort & Spa, a sprawling resort with traditional Thai architecture and conveniently located on the Chao Phraya River, yet away from the hustle and bustle. During our stay there last year, fresh orchids were placed on my pillow every night, and I was given a small porcelain elephant as a token of my stay. At the Marriott, you can take the resort’s free shuttle boat in order to connect to one of the Chao Phraya Express Co.’s boats, the fastest and most inexpensive – a ride will cost about 35 cents – way to get to the tourist sights downtown. If you only have a few days in Bangkok, be sure to tour The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo (housed together and are both included with your ticket price, around $5), which houses the royal residence and throne halls. Plan on spending most of the day here and be sure to dress appropriately (as a sacred royal ground, guests are required to wear long pants and shirtsleeves that cover the upper arms).

Other sites in Bangkok include the Wat Arun, with picturesque views, especially at sunset, and Wat Po, home to the leading school of Thai massage. For excellent shopping, head to Khao San Road, a vibrant, small street packed with vendors ready to bargain. Here you can get anything from clothing, t-shirts, souvenirs to jewelry and gorgeous silk pillows. Bangkok can be extremely hot, so be sure to allow time after shopping to relax in the Marriott’s enormous pool.

After a few days in Bangkok, head north to the Golden Triangle. Flights on Thai Airways fly from Bangkok to Chang Rai, the closest airport to the region. Hotel accommodations are limited – which is why this area is so beautiful and unspoiled – but for a truly memorable experience, stay at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort, where upon arrival, you will immediately feel like an important guest by the welcoming and beautiful staff.

The level of service at the Anantara is amazing – from the refreshing punch served at check-in and the attentive pool staff that “makes up” your chair as if it was a bed to the turndown service that includes candles, incense and a revolving entertainment center that is spun around toward the bed for late-night viewing.

I decided in order to take advantage of everything the region has to offer, I’d opt for the “Taste of Thailand” package offered by the resort. One day I experienced a three-country tour led by a personalized guide, who handled all arrangements, including immigration papers at the various border crossings. My guide, Toy, was warm, inviting and extremely knowledgeable about the area’s economics and cultures. In Thailand, I toured a factory were jade is made and was able to stock up on some Christmas gifts before heading toward the Myanmar border and the town of Ta Khi Lek, Myanmar where Asian masks made of teak and antique Buddha statues can be purchased at a much lower costs than in Thailand. Toy explained all of the immigration procedures and aided me in pointing out which stores were “tourist traps,” acted as a translator with merchants and even bargained for me. Unlike some tour guides I’ve encountered when traveling, she never pressured me to buy anything and did not lead me to stores where she would get a commission for bringing me in there. She also carried my packages and always made sure that I was comfortable and felt safe.

Traveling by tuk-tuk, we made our way to a few villages, the Shwedagon Pagoda (where Toy warned me about giving handouts to imposters dressed as monks) and Shan Quarter, a Myanmar ghetto to see the primitive nature in which many locals live. Here, Toy was straightforward and pointed out sad examples of children addicted to glue and young girls who would be forced to marry and bear children at the age of 13. Her honesty truly made the experience eye opening and educational.

Next, back to Thailand and to Chiang Saen for lunch ($1.25 for Pad Thai and a beer) and to a boat landing to travel by long tail boat to Don Sao Island, Laos. After a short stop here, the long tail boat then took us to the Golden Triangle, the exact spot where all three counties meet and the location of a gorgeous shrine in honor of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit.

Bright and early on Day Two (6:30 a.m.), it’s time for mahout elephant training. I have dreamed about riding an elephant for as long as I can remember but wanted to ensure that the place I chose was not hurting or endangering the elephant. In an effort to save elephants from illegal logging practices, the Royal Thai Government set up the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre to act as a central body for the conservation of elephants, and the Anantara Resort Golden Triangle is the host for the northern extension of the Centre’s activities. At the resort’s elephant camp, I spent the early morning feeding, bathing and bonding with the resident elephants. A mahout taught me basic commands and allowed me to practice driving the elephant in the camp. Next, the mahout rode with me back to resort for breakfast. In the early afternoon, I returned to the camp for more driving practice and a cooling bath with my elephant in a small pond. Then, I drove my elephant up a steep – and at times scary – terrain into the forest so that she could rest. Definitely, a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

We spent the next day on a long tail boat on the Mekong River to Chiang Khong where we were transported back to the resort by private car. That night, an in-room massage is followed by a unique bath created by your own “bath master” is the perfect way to end the day. The “Taste of Thailand” package’s final day involves an all-day Thai cooking class where we accompanied the chef to a local market to learn about Thai food and helped choose ingredients before returning to the resort so that I could create my own masterpiece for lunch. Aprons, a recipe book and chef’s hat were even provided. That afternoon, we toured the Hall of Opium Museum, located across the street from the resort, to learn about opium’s important role in the region’s history. Later, I was able to adopt a tree as part of the resort’s reforestation efforts. I was given a wooded sign to personalize and then planted a tree on the grounds, along with my sign, which dedicated the tree to my brother, who passed away a few years ago, a truly moving experience.

If you happen to be visiting in November (which is after the rainy season), be sure to attend the resort’s special dinner in accordance with the Loy Krathong Festival, a nationwide holiday held on the full moon in November. A personalized Krathong (a small floating floral centerpiece with candles) is made for you to set free in the river to carry away bad luck and sins. To celebrate, you are given a hot-air paper lantern to light and set free into the sky. Like everything else in this region, the experience is unique and truly memorable.

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