Thai people are passionate about many things, and one of the most notable is their loyalty to the king. Like the United Kingdom, Thailand has a constitutional monarchy with the king as head of state and the Prime Minister as head of the government. However, that's where the similarity ends, as the Thai people are far more enamored with their royals than the Brits are of theirs.
All of the guidebooks warn travelers that they should never ever make disparaging remarks about the monarch. Even with all of the recent political unrest in Thailand, the majority of the population reveres the king almost as a God, and even an off-handed flippant comment could cause an international incident.
The vast majority of the Thai people are devout Buddhists. It is estimated that nearly 94-percent of the population are faithful followers of the great teacher. The hallmarks of Buddhism are everywhere. From small temples in the corner of nearly every home to enormous complexes called wats, which can cover many acres. Fresh fruit, refreshments of all kinds, food and even money are left at the altars to honor and aid their ancestors in the afterlife. Wats are virtually everywhere in cities, towns and throughout the countryside. The sheer number, complexity and ornateness are mind-blowing.
Ferry To:From Koh Chang
Thailand is a beautiful country with lush vegetation, gorgeous beaches, and a rich cultural heritage. The choices for tourists and travelers are almost endless. Chiang Mai in the north and Phuket in the south are generally high on everyone's list to visit. They are also overran by tourists most of the year. To truly see and appreciate Thailand, serious travelers look for off-the-beaten path locations that offer a truly immersive experience. One such place is Koh Chang, an island off the southeast coast of Thailand near the Cambodian border.
It was our fist time on a bus since we traveled from Johannesburg to Tzaneen in South Africa, more than three months earlier. The buses in Thailand are large, comfortable, and reasonably priced. In addition, the roads are smooth and well maintained, features we would learn to appreciate once we crossed the border into Cambodia.
The bus ride was four hours from Bangkok to Trat, the jumping off point before taking a ferry to Koh Chang. We stayed in a seedy guesthouse for one night and then took a taxi to the ferry terminal the next day. However, the word taxi is loosely used in this part of the country, since they are nothing more than small pick-up trucks with bench seats along each side of the bed, and a frame over the top covered by canvas. Most also have canvas on the sides that can be rolled up or down depending on the weather.
Ferries to the island ply the waters regularly. Passengers occupy the top deck and all types of vehicles are on the lower deck. Koh Chang is one of 52 islands that comprise the Koh Chang Marine National Park. The island has many small towns and villages, which are very popular with Thai tourists and seasoned global trekkers. There is no shortage of accommodations or food options, which are priced to fit any budget.
The island has plenty to see and do including enjoying pristine beaches, viewing thundering waterfalls and hiking challenging trails. Visitors can take elephant rides through the jungle and even give them a bath in the river. Some of the concessions treat their animals better than others. Make sure to visit the one that is a sanctuary for elephants used in the island's once booming logging industry. However, Koh Chang is probably best known as a place to relax, recharge and enjoy the unhurried, laid-back way of life.
We rented a car for half-a-day and toured the island. It was unquestionably the shortest rental car agreement I have ever signed. The jest of the contract was . . . pay the fee, bring it back without major (additional) damage and you can drive it for four hours. That's the good news, the bad news was I did not realize the gas tank was practically empty until it was nearly too late. Instead of leaving full and returning full like in most other locations around the world, the car rental companies on Koh Chang believe in picking it up empty and returning it empty.
Islands Off Koh Chang
Because of the number of mopeds and motorcycles on the island, Thai-style entrepreneurs have small roadside stands selling whisky bottles filled with gasoline. We were nearly ready to stop at one of the enterprising depots and buy 10 whisky bottles of gas, when much to our collective relief a filling station appeared around the next curve.
The next location on our itinerary was Cambodia. Like the Inca Empire, the once mighty Khmer Empire is only a faded shadow of its former glory. Also like the Incas, the only vestiges remaining are the vast temple complexes scattered throughout the country. The people were among the most friendly, the food some of the tastiest, and the bus rides the worst we had ever experienced, which is saying a lot. The bone-jarring ride on pothole-strewn roads and the driver blowing the horn nonstop were only two of the three things that made riding buses in Cambodia so unforgettable. The third was a not-so-subtle cultural nuance that made us dread the thought of taking another bus ride, but more about that next week.