A smile is the universal welcome.
Thailand, “The Land of Smiles”, has won our hearts.
We left Shanghai on a cold, polluted Sunday in February, joining the mass exodus of locals departing China for Chinese New Year. Off on our first family trip as ex-pats. From what I have learned, being an ex-pat does not mean you take a vacation “up North”, or drive two hours to another state. No, being an ex-pat almost requires you to acquire an adventurous spirit. Vacations become opportunities to see parts of the world you would most likely never visit while living at home. Our first trip was scheduled for Koh Samui, Thailand. We had been told it is beautiful and relaxing. Crystal clear water shimmering a beautiful blue-green, coconut trees dotting the hills, and a culture ready to serve. Needless to say, it did not take much convincing for us to hop on a plane and head toward our first island adventure.
Getting to Koh Samui was a bit of a challenge. Our first flight to Bangkok was delayed, as was our luggage. Due to these circumstances, we were close to missing our second flight to the island. This worried us because we traveled to another country, which took time to clear customs and had to change airlines, which took more time to check in again. Perhaps the second airline would not be accommodating. However, the agent in Bangkok checking us in was unconcerned. The laid-back attitude of the Thai culture was evident immediately. “We have another flight traveling to Koh Samui in 20 minutes, however, it is a propeller plane. Are you ok with that?” she asked while making little circular motions with her hands demonstrating how propellers spin. My first thought was, “no thank you, I would rather not travel on a rinky-dink plane,” but Jack was quick to tell me riding on a propeller plane was something he had always wanted to do and he was excited. What 9-year-old has a bucket list I don’t know, but apparently, Jack does. Well, I couldn’t let my youngest son be braver than me, so I put on a smile and agreed to take the flight. Of course, by this point, the flight was departing in less than 20 minutes so we hastily completed our check-in process and ran as we called it, “Home Alone style”, through the airport. I swear, our gate was as far away as possible and the 40-pound backpack I was wearing did not help matters. But, we made it just in time and boarded our plane to paradise.
When we arrived on Koh Samui, it was already evening. 12 hours of traveling is bound to get you to your destination in the dark. But stepping off the plane, we were immediately greeted by a warm, humid breeze that blew despite the lack of sunshine. As with many tropical destinations, most of the airport was outside. We enjoyed the warm, clean environment as we collected our bags and headed for the Kanda resort. As Brett checked in, we were greeted with lovely Phuang malai, or flower bracelets, a sweet fruit juice, and cold towels. It was a wonderfully special reception. So much so that I couldn’t even hold all my lovely gifts! Next, we were escorted to our room..or rooms. Truly a villa, we had a living room, master bedroom, and extra bedroom, all housed in their own buildings, surrounding a common patio and private pool. It was beautiful and well appointed. We didn’t even need to leave our villa to be impressed. A late dinner, swim in the pool, and off to bed with dreams of our island paradise lulling us to sleep.
Our first morning on Koh Samui took us to the resort’s restaurant for breakfast. The views were stunning. Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Sea of Thailand, the resort boasted million dollar views. Brett and I could not believe we were able to experience such luxury. What a blessing! We decided to enjoy an easy day, swimming in the resort’s infinity pool and traveling to one of the quaint towns that dotted the island. I was quick to find the resort’s spa which offered specials every day. Not one to give up a good deal, I made the spa my second home on Koh Samui. By the end of our trip, I boasted three massages, two facials, and one body scrub. I was certainly polished and relaxed by the end of our stay. The evening brought us to Chaweng Beach. A long street through the town offered shopping and dining. Brett continued to use the negotiation skills he acquired in Shanghai to bargain for good deals on items we couldn’t live without. One of the more unique things we found to do involved a tank of fish sitting outside one of the shops. “Fisherman’s Village Doctor Fish”, the sign read. According to the disclaimer, these fish would clean your feet and treat skin diseases. Jack was intrigued. He wanted to see how it would feel to have his feet nibbled on by hundreds of tiny fish. Once again, Jack was proving to be the adventurous one of the group, a theme I would see repeatedly throughout this trip. Usually timid, he hopped right up onto the seat and plunged his feet into the water. He giggled and sat for 15 minutes, enjoying the experience thoroughly. When he was finished, he said his feet felt amazing and he felt “glamorous”. Perhaps next time, I should give it a try.
Our second full day on the island we chose to participate in an island tour. This was no simple “get in a car and drive around” kind of tour. No, a rugged 4×4 off-road vehicle pulled up to our resort, gassed up and ready to go. We all climbed in the back and buckled up for an exciting day. Our first stop was the Big Buddha temple. We were impressed but perhaps more enjoyed the quick opportunity to shop in the stalls situated at the base of the temple. From there, we journeyed on to Grandmother and Grandfather rock. All I can say about these natural formations is that sometimes it is good to not know what you are about to experience. The tour guide walked us out to the shoreline where large rock formations jutted up from the water’s edge. He waved over to a group of rocks and said, “there is Grandfather rock”. We turned to look and had to do a double take. Standing proudly taller than the other rocks was one that looked exactly like a penis. Yes, a penis. We were very surprised and laughed childishly as each of us came to the realization of what we were witnessing. It seems the Thai culture is more phallic than that of our “modest” American society. We saw many souvenirs in shops depicting sexual objects or encounters. I would never have thought to see an ashtray with two people having sex, or a penis keychain for sale in an open-air stall. But there they were, readily available to purchase in many of the shops we visited. I fear I should be concerned that Jack rather enjoyed secretly inspecting these souvenirs, but I will save that issue for another time. Anyway, we got a laugh and went to our next activity. We arrived at Namuang Safari Park and saw an unimpressive elephant and monkey show, but the crocodile show was amazing. As we were waiting for the show to begin, we noticed a short Thai man emerge from an adjoining building. He strode fearlessly toward the crowd, smoking a cigarette. All muscle, his long black hair pulled back in a low pony tail, a large mustache, earring, and black leather vest. There was no hesitation as he entered the pool housing five large crocodiles. Even Brett was impressed by this tiny man’s prowess. Grabbing each croc by the tail, he moved them into position, then continued to delight and terrify the audience by putting his hand, then his head into the largest crocodile’s mouth. We thought that show would be hard to beat but were wrong. Our next trek was to the lovely Namuang Waterfall where Brett and Jack cooled off with a quick swim. Getting to the waterfall was possibly the best part of the entire trip. The boys were asked if they wanted to ride on two seats atop the truck. Jack didn’t have to be asked twice. He quickly scrambled up the ladder leading to the two prized seats and buckled in. Elijah, feeling as I had at the airport, reluctantly followed. Off-roading was this truck’s purpose, and we tested its ability driving to the waterfall. Potholes the size of basketballs, sandy dirt roads, small streams. We drove through and over it all. From the “safety” of the truck’s bed, Brett and I could hear both boys screaming with terrified excitement the entire way. I kept thinking, “this is so dangerous. We could never do this is the U.S., Lord, please protect us!”. As if that excitement weren’t enough, we followed the refreshment of the waterfall with an elephant ride. As we were riding, our elephant guide slipped off the giant beast and let Elijah take his place riding atop the elephant’s thick neck. Elijah vacillated between nervousness and exhilaration. I watched his bravery mount and was proud of the way he pushed himself outside his comfort zone in order to participate in such a rare experience. After elephant trekking, we were offered an opportunity to take our picture with a leopard. Again, very few safety precautions were taken. The leopard laid independently on a large table with a chain around its neck. With yet another prayer for safety, we quickly got into position next to the beast who laid still but growled the entire time we were sitting for the pictures. After that, a quick visit to the Mummified Monk, a Buddhist monk who died in the 1970’s and sits perfectly preserved in a glass case for all to worship. It was gross but incredible. Finally, we took a long trek up a mountain off roading once more, boys perched eagerly atop the truck, to see a panoramic view of the island and the Walking Buddha statue. At the end of the day, we returned to the hotel exhausted and amazed at all we had done in only a few short hours.
Day three. How do you top our second day? Funny you should wonder because it only got better. Our thought was to stay at the resort and relax. Perhaps another spa special? Swimming for sure, and a walk on the beach. We just thought we would take it easy and not do too much. Earlier in our trip, we befriended the restaurant manager, Oh, whom we had the pleasure of talking to quite frequently. While we were enjoying our daily conversation with her, she offered the boys a private cooking lesson with Lucas; the world-traveling, talented head chef of the Kanda resort. They had no idea what an honor it was to work alongside a chef of this caliber. Not to mention, they made wood-fired pizza from scratch in an outdoor kitchen overlooking the Bay of Thailand. After that, we decided to take a quick trip into another town, Fisherman’s Village. Since it was such hard work relaxing and shopping, we decided to take a break and enjoy Mai Tais on the beach. As the boys collected interesting beach treasures, Brett and I were approached by a local artist selling his paintings. We talked to him a bit. He told us it took him ten hours to complete each painting. He was pleased to sell us one of his pieces for $22. Such a small sum for so much work. When we returned to the resort, our friend Oh offered us a beachside dinner. Our new found sense of adventure had us quickly accepting her offer no questions asked. The boys were very excited about the possibility of ordering room service and watching tv, so Brett and I left them in the room and ventured down to the beach alone. Much to our surprise, we were the only ones expected for dinner. Oh had arranged a private tent be built with candles and our own wonderful server. She was trying new ideas she told us, and we were happy to be her guinea pigs. For 2 1/2 hours, we lingered there, listening to the waves and enjoying each other’s company. We feared how much this extravagant meal would cost us, but were so grateful for the opportunity we really didn’t care. When the bill came, we were shocked to find it was the same price as the restaurant! We were certainly happy to have Oh taking such incredible care of us.
Our last day was another one of relaxation. we went back to Chaweng Beach, mostly because I wanted to buy some prescription medicine, which is found openly and easily in Thailand. Much to our surprise, we found a Swensen’s Ice Cream shop which was a favorite of mine as a little girl growing up in Las Vegas. We all enjoyed a yummy sundae lunch, then returned to the resort for a bit more relaxing before we had to return home the next morning. Probably our most difficult decision of the day was deciding which of the three drinks ordered during happy hour to enjoy first.
Needless to say, it was difficult to return home. Island life suited us and we desperately needed a break after all the stress experienced before and during our Shanghai relocation. We felt so blessed and unworthy to have such an incredible experience, and we made sure to absorb every moment. Of course, we set the bar pretty high with this vacation. The boys may never be satisfied with a trip “up North” again. I hope they realize what a special time this was for us and will look back on it with awe, as Brett and I do now. Thailand, “the Land of Smiles”, certainly lived up to its name. We smile at the thought of all the incredible experiences we had, memories made, and the time we had together. Now I can’t help but wonder..where will we go next? The world awaits, and Spring Break is just around the corner!