May 21-May 28, 2010
Piyawadi “Tam” Jantrupon conducts her Amita Thai Cooking Class
in the socio-economic development of the country, going from 81,000 visitors 50 years ago to 14 million last year. The industry employs some 3 million people. Yet, it is clear that recent anti-government demonstrations have had a devastating effect. Tourism was 11 percent of the gross national product prior to the military coup in 2006; today, it’s only 4 percent. And while the effect of the demon- strations has not produced much of an effect outside of Bangkok, the clashes, violence and killings may set travel to anywhere in the country back for years. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s response has been to put on a new face by emphasizing experience and communi- ty. You decide what you want to do, even going as far as becoming part of the community you visit. Baan Salak Khok, a fishing village on the island of Koh Chang in the eastern Gulf of Thailand, is one example of community-based tourism. Largely unreachable, except by boat, the community of homes resting on stakes and connect- ed by small timber bridges sits on a picturesque bay a little more than a half mile wide and stretching 1.2 miles in length. Years ago, when developers eyed the land for a resort, the locals, who have owned it for generations, decided they had to do something to fend off any land grabs. Rather than trying to beat progress, they joined it by
forming the Sa Lak Kok Tourism Club to promote kayak tours of the area and surrounding bay.
For those who prefer to concentrate on the scenery, local fishermen piloting traditional “rua jaew,” gondola-like boats, will take you on an exploration of the mangroves to the outlet of Salak Phet Bay. Twilight gondola rides here are becoming a big attraction for many young Thais, who park in the middle of the water to watch the sun go down as they savor a catered dinner and a bottle of wine. To experience muay thai is also to experience Thailand. Unlike boxing, which uses two points of contact – the fists – this form of martial arts and the country’s national sport uses eight, including kicks, elbows and knees. Students come from all over the world to any number of centers sprinkled throughout Thailand, but none is more famous than Muay Thai Sid Yodthong, ouside of Pattaya, founded by world champ Yodthong (Senanan) Sriwaraluk. Watching muay thai, however, doesn’t compare to doing
it. At Muay Thai Sid Yodthong, you are invited to hop into the ring to do just that. It’s all in fun, of course. The real thing, however, takes hours of arduous training before mastering even the rudimentary. Still, you truly get a sense of what it may be like once you take off your shoes, put on the gloves and lift a leg to strike your opponent – if you’re in shape enough to lift a leg waist high, that is. Most tourists still come to savor culture. And Thailand oozes with it, especially in the north, the original seat of the kingdom. A glimpse into this rich past and culture is afforded at Khun Khantoke in Chiang Mai, which combines the 1,000- year-old tradition of welcoming visitors with food and dances from the region and elsewhere in Thailand. And if witnessing were not enough, visitors are encouraged to get up and partic- ipate in the show.
Chiang Mai is also Buddhist country. With two million people and 1,200 temples, that makes one temple for every 1,600 people.
“When you are a boy, our parents give you life. When you can’t pay them back with money, you enter the monastery,”
Temples such as Bangkok’s famous Wat Phra Kaeo, above, abound throughout Thailand. Below are two distinctive examples: Wat Phrathat Lampang Luang, left below, and Wat Rong Khun, also known as the “White Temple.”
related our guide, Anuparp Punnabutr, who studied sever- al months to be a monk – until his debt was satisfied. Monkdom, indeed, is a way of life for many young men in northern Thailand. On any given morning, beginning at 6 a.m., you see them in single file making their way up the road outside Doi Suthep, the most sacred temple in Chiang Mai, which contains a relic of the Buddha enshrined in a golden pagoda. Along the way, they are greeted by worshippers offering food in exchange for blessings.
works to finance his project, but con- siders all the craftspeople still work- ing on the project, partners. As testi- mony, they all wear T-shirts pro- claiming “We are one of the cre- ators.”
Assistant at Suphattra Land Orchard shows off jackfruit.
The architectural skills involved in creating these cen- turies-old temples that abound in Chiang Mai are a wonder in itself and could have been lost to future generations if not for the guidance of the holy man Kruba Sriwichai, revered as the saint of northern Thailand and whose statue stands to the left of the 309 steps leading to the top of Doi Suthep. You can climb to the top or, for a little pocket change, take the tram. Outside you are surrounded by pagodas, bells, shrines and statues, each drawing from different aspects of Buddhism and Hinduisim, which also has had a strong influence on the country, especially in literature and lore. Even more impres- sive than the architecture and decoration is the proliferation of young people visiting, even on a week day. Utain Dumrong, 23, who came by motorcycle with boyfriend Orathai Pektanoo, 24, is asked why she is there. “To pray,” she responds straightforwardly. It is a scene repeated at many temples in Thailand. Temples, indeed, abound in Thailand, but for sheer audaci-
ty, nothing compares to Chiang Rai’s Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple. Where most temples go back centuries, this goes back to 1998, when Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat decided to design and build his own Dali-esque homage to Buddha. Chalermchai sold many of his own
As you approach the stark white creation, you first thing that strikes you is a semi-circle of hands reach- ing out for salvation – or to be raised from hell, depending on your inter- pretation. From there, a bridge lead- ing to the temple rises as it crosses the recycle of birth leading to the house of Buddha. The mural inside can only be described as graphic novel of
humankind’s attempt to save itself amid the “hell on earth” symbolized by the attack on the World Trade Center. Almost as legendary as the temples of Thailand are the
country’s fruits. Many are familiar with mango, papaya and guava.
But it’s fruit not found elsewhere that commands your attention: langsat, longkong, pomelo, jackfruit, lychee, longan and rambutan, to name a few, which are available at roadside stands, in markets, at public fruit farms and in many hotels. What’s not so readily available is durian, known in Thailand as the “king of fruits.” Banned from hotels, movie theaters, vans , public limousines and aircraft because of its aroma reminiscent of a pair or dirty socks left out in the sun for a week, durian is definitely an acquired taste. That’s if you can get past its spiky exterior and fleshy inside, which looks more like an oblong-shaped clam than a piece of fruit. The trick is to find one that has just started to ripen. At that point, there is very little smell and the custard-like tex- ture of the fruit is palatable to the Western taste – even if it tastes more like custard than fruit. To savor durain, indeed, is a learning experience. You might even call it “experiential”.
(More on Thailand on page 19.)
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