My wife and I have been home for over a month now from our latest traveling adventure: Thailand and Bali. A lot of people have asked about the trip--highlights, favorite things--essentially stories that explain what we experienced over the three weeks we were away. Now that we've been back in working our butts of mode again, I figured I'd write a little piece on our travels based on questions friends and family have asked us. Of course, this is from my perspective and my wife may have a different one.
Why did we decide to go to Thailand and Bali?
A couple years ago we made a top 10 list of places we wanted to visit in years to come. We actually framed the piece of paper and put it up in our place as a reminder of something we both wanted. One of our first choices was Turkey, which we looked into, but that quickly went away with the ISIS situation and threats of terrorism and political strife. My wife who had already been to Vietnam and Singapore loved Asia from those past experiences and convinced me Thailand would be a good choice as it was a fairly stable country and had amazing food and sites. Since we were already on that side of the world we picked Bali again mostly because of my wife wanting to see it. We almost added Australia, but being away for a month was a bit too much.
So yes, basically much of the trip was decided upon by my wife, which was totally okay with me and it ended up being a good choice! I get to pick the next trip I'm told.
What did we do in Thailand and Bali?
We used a small group (no more than 12 people) travel company called Intrepid Travel--which I now highly recommend using--to book the trip. This took away from having us have to plan every aspect of the trip in places we knew nothing about. Thailand was a food based tour of the country, so in general we were always eating something or walking through a market and at some points seeing rice fields and farms where their food is from. There were also two cooking classes we took. We did also get to visit several Buddhist temples to round out our visit. The trip began in Bangkok (which I didn't like much) and ended in Chang Mai up north (which we loved).
Bali was a fast paced tour of the island. Just about everyday we were in a different town and terrain ranging from bustling towns to remote villages high up in the volcanic mountains to beautiful beach havens. It was a bit of a whirl. The trip was much more physical with walking tours and even a climb up a volcano. We were both exhausted at the end of the trip.
What were some of the favorite parts of the trip?
Here are my quick and dirty favorite parts of both countries:
- Certainly the food was a highlight. I was very open to trying anything as long as it was made properly, which it was because Thai people regard their food and eating highly. They don't ask in Thai "how are you" but instead "have you eaten today". I'll have more to say on the Thai food experience below. But I will say their diet seems much more healthier than an Americans rich with vegetables, spices, rice and lots of pork.
- The people of Thailand are very peaceful, friendly, and at ease with life. I believe much of this has to do with their Buddhist culture and the values it instills in them. Speaking of Buddha, he is everywhere. In temples and statues he is in different poses each having a different meaning. One can relate to a pose depending on what is going on in their life at that moment.
- Our guide, a Thai woman named Soon, was a genuine person who truly conveyed Thai culture and its food to us. I not only learned so much about the history, food, and everyday life of living in Thailand, but without her the trip wouldn't have been as valuable in understanding why things are the way they are in Thailand. She really opened my heart and mind to the country and I'm grateful for that.
- Learning to cook a variety of Thai dishes was also a big highlight. We had two cooking classes when we were there. The best way I can describe Thai cooking is that it is all about mixing several flavors together in a balanced way and doing it gradually. By that I mean for every dish we cooked there was a meat or several different spices or vegetables and usually rice. Much of the way Thai food is cooked is not to add everything at once, but to put ingredients in gradually, sometimes at different heating levels and instead of stirring it all at once, letting it sit to mix in. There is sweet, sour, salty, and bitter throughout every dish.
- Seeing a Lady Boy Show. Basically this was a caberet style show where men were dressed as women--many pulled it off really well. The hour long show involved them dancing and singing to pop songs, going on in the crowd to embarass people a bit, and yes getting some audience participation as a few guys were pulled back stage only to come out later dressed in drag. But it was all in good fun. One of the members of our group had his birthday the night of the show and was sat front and center garnering a lot of attention from certain cast members. Hilarity ensued.
- Monks. Monkhood, if that's even what to call it, is something men usually do at some point in their life. Some go on to lead a full life as a monk while others do it for a short period of time as part of the Thai culture. There were a couple highlights involving monks. One was watching a ceremony high above Chang Mai at Wat Phra That Doi Suthrep temple involving monks chanting and praying together. The other highlight was giving alms (a meal) to monks early in the morning which involved bowing to the monk, giving them food in their basket, and kneeling to receive a prayer. Both were beautiful and peaceful.
- Meeting rice field workers was quite humbling. Rice is used in just about every meal in Thailand and made year round. In a remote part outside Chang Mai we pulled over to watch how rice field workers did their job. They took a break and as they walked up to us they were all old people, seeming frail but committed to making rice. Mind you it was 90 plus degrees out with 90 plus percent humidity and yet they were all smiles. They'd been doing this much of their lives and as the younger generation does not want to do this work, they stayed behind in the village to do one thing they know how to do well.
- Having been to another volcanic island, Hawaii before, Bali's landscape was more impressive. In one day for example we were high up on a volcano almost 8000 feet high with cool temperatures and a couple hours later getting fried by the sun at the beach. There are a few volcanos on Bali, even one underneath a big lake.
- Though we saw our share of rice fields in Thailand, Bali's were arranged differently in a tiered staircase type of structure to allow water to run off the hills. Yes, like Thailand they eat a lot of rice here, but with tourism booming, more and more rice fields are going away in favor of hotels, restaurants and places for visitors to shop.
- Due to the booming tourism industry, especially the last ten years of it since the book and movie "Eat, Prey, Love" came out, I noticed two things that Bali probably didn't have before. One was the relentless selling of things trying to be pushed upon us and second was the result of selling certain items--lots of pollution mainly in the form of plastic bottles and bags. It was sad to see both. People who tried to sell things never gave up, even followed you desperate and begging for you to buy whatever it was they sold. Even if you said "no" or "no thank you", they dug in deeper. One woman even followed us to our van knocking on the window to buy something from her. As for the pollution, efforts seem to be underway and little things like not getting a plastic bag or using a water bottle you can fill at a hotel do help. But when you look down in the streams and in the ocean surrounded by beauty and see plastic bags and floating water bottles, the island loses its magic a bit.
- Driving around was quite entertaining at times. There was only one highway we rode on, which was in the south by the capital and airport. But other than that there are very little roadways and quite often they are very narrow (maybe 20 feet across) with two way traffic and everything from normal cars to dump trucks to motor bikes riding on them. And even some people riding motor bikes would carry 60 foot bamboo trunks over their shoulder while riding as well as chain saws--just using one hand to steer and brake. Everyone drives however they want, passing each other, even if the roads are windy and you can't really tell what's coming around the corner. Yet we saw no accidents!
- Our trip to snorkel was probably one of the more great times I've had swimming. I had never seen a coral reef before in my life and kicking my way across it two feet above all sorts of ocean life was incredible. At one point we followed the reef to it's edge and it dropped off at least 60 feet below us, the water clear as day with amazingly colored fish swimming along side us the whole time.
What are some interesting or thought provoking things we encountered?
Of course when I travel I see things that are different than what is "normal" for me. Which is one of the main reasons why I love going away, especially somewhere far and very different.
I found Thailand to be a peaceful country that made good use of its resources, always trying to think of how to better itself. The Buddhist religion was humbling to be around. Buddhism's goal is to relieve suffering in life in order to reach what they call "enlightenment" where you understand how not to suffer. They believe in reincarnation, whereby if you don't reach enlightenment in life you get to try again--not always as a human being. The temples were a special place to feel the energy of this in its people.
The people in daily life like to maximize whatever resources they have. Markets for example were tight to move around. Many people selling goods and foods took up every inch of space that they could. What's one more inch of floor space to put something out someone may want? The best example of this was the railway market where people's stalls are literally inches from train track and when the train comes through, the awnings and goods are moved back temporarily.
Similar to the American Indians I learned about growing up, with food Thai's eat just about anything and use every part of an animal or plant. There is nothing that should be wasted--even when you eat they want you to eat everything or it's considered disrespectful.
The one big thought, which is something our country promotes and has gone through too, is Thai traditions versus the new convenient ways of life. One of our cooking teachers noted this is happening to Thai food where the younger generation doesn't have the time or know how to make food the way their parents and grandparents did. Everything is now quick and microwavable and not healthy. This too was also true in Bali as so much focus was on the tourists and giving them a "Western" experience but in an "Eastern" culture. I could tell this is causing tensions between generations, between families and communities.
Bali showed me a different side of how a surge in tourism can really begin to change a people's culture. While Bali is beautiful, with the uptick in tourism--especially the last 10 years with the book "Eat, Pray, Love" popularizing the country, I could tell sparked an economy that had not really done tourism before. I was saddened to see how people beg you for your money as well as all the pollution and development was destroying the ecosystem slowly but surely. I'm not sure what the identity of Bali is beyond this besides its Hindu roots will become and I could see it's people getting lost in the transition. It was obvious children of Bali are growing up with the tourist culture and hope they can fix some of the issues it is causing their country.
I hope it also preserves much of it's dynamic natural beauty as well. Sometimes there's nothing worse than hearing "oh this used to be ______"--fill in the blank with something that was once very relevant to the natural setting of a place. Especially in Ubud, the first town we went to in Bali, the rice paddies are disappearing in favor of hotels and restaurants.
Would I go back?
Yes! In Thailand I'd love to spend more time in Chang Mai as it was a laid back city, much cleaner than Bangkok, and had an art culture to it. I'd go back to Bali as well--perhaps to do some yoga training and spend more time at the beach and in the mountains, but also to possibly help clean some of the mess up. I'd also like to learn more about Buddhist religion and culture as it seems more my kind of vibe in what it teaches and how it's practiced. As travel goes, there's always much more to explore somewhere, something new to experience that didn't happen the first time. While our trips were filled with something everyday, I feel better going on our own to either country and spending more time in certain areas we got more out of.
For full album of photos and videos, go here.