Discovering the Heart of Thailand
Songkran Festival and Red Light District Adventures
Thailand’s wide range of activities and attractions, and the fact that it was the only country in Southeast Asia to escape European colonization makes it a premier tourist destination. Located between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, the country covers 198,000 sq. miles and has a population of about 65 million people.
From the sun soaked beaches in the south to the Hill Tribe villages in the north, the country has an unlimited number of beautiful locations. My April trip to Thailand was during the Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) and I visited Bangkok and the northern province of Chiang Mai. It proved to be a real blast!
The mountainous northern region borders China and Myanmar (Burma) on the west, Laos and the Mekong River to the east, and Cambodia in the south. From the must-see day and night markets in every rural town to Thai Boxing and the red light districts in the city, Thailand is an eclectic place to visit. The lush, tropical landscape of mountains, rivers, lakes, and the sea between 10
degrees and 20 degrees north of the Equator, made me totally understand why some people come for vacation and consider never leaving!
Songkran Festival = Big Fun in Bangkok!
Of the many festivals in Thailand, the Songkran Festival is the most celebrated. It’s widely observed not only in the former Siam, but also in Burma, Cambodia and the Lao State. Songkran is a Sanskrit word in Thai form which means ‘the entry of the sun’ into any sign of the Zodiac.
To all of Southeast Asia, its full name is Maha Songkran, or Major Songkran. This distinguishes it from other Songkran festivals, but the people of Thailand simply call it the Songkran for it is the main one they celebrate. It’s a traditional Thai holiday free of work and labor. Songkran occurs in April between 13th and 15th, and, in certain years, extends to the 16th.
It’s a celebration of the vernal equinox– the beginning of spring. Bring rain gear because they celebrate with lots of water. The Thai people use talcum powder mixed with water to form a paste and smear it all over their bodies for good luck. I ventured down Khao San Road, into the heart of the celebrations.
I was warned to protect my electronics, and was told, “You will get wet!” The popular street was a gauntlet lined with snipers yielding smiles and wielding water guns, from pistols to bazookas to even a power washer! I thought to myself, “I don’t want to get hit by that.” I quickly figured that if I moved to the sidewalk, I had a better chance of survival.
With my backpack strapped on my body frontwards, I held my camera inside under the safe cover of a ziplock baggie. Every now and then I felt brave enough to whip it out and snap a photo, then quickly tuck it back inside my bag. Indeed I did get wet, but I was prepared with my sailor girl wet dry clothing and I had plastic bags for everything electronic.
For the most part, people were very respectful of anyone with electronics as they would pause and allow you time to cover up before opening fire! You’ve been warned, so take care and be smart. All is fair at Songkran and it’s one of the most fun festivals I’ve ever attended.
Traditionally, Thai massage (nuat paen boran) is a vigorous combination of yoga, reflexology, and acupressure. I’ve had Thai massage in the U.S. and it has not been my favorite, but in Thailand I experienced what it’s really supposed to feel like. I highly recommend it!
Thai massage dates back to the first emergence of Buddhism and is related to Chinese acupuncture and Indian yoga. I experienced the top of the line, high end, expensive silk pajama massage in a beautiful Bangkok spa.
I also experienced the flip side of luxury when I visited the third floor of a street massage parlor where I put on cheap cotton pajamas in a room with no AC. Also, great!
The latter, I must admit, felt a little like a one night stand (so I’m told) when my Thai massage guy dimmed the lights, put on some soft music, and straddled me! No matter the choice, high end or low end, you are in for a great and surprising treat as the masseuse customizes the experience to your comfort.
And, why is it so good in Thailand? Since the 1960’s, Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest and largest temple and center for education, has been home to The Institute of Massage. Visitors can experience a massage or learn the art through a 10-15 day course taught in
Thai or English. The highly trained masseurs at the Wat specialize in pulling and stretching the limbs and torso to relieve various ailments emanating from tension to viruses.
Thai massage parlor locations are like Starbuck’s in NYC. They are everywhere, but unlike Starbuck’s, everything is negotiable. And, of all the activities available, my favorite daily treat became a Thai Massage. Oh, how I miss my daily 200 Baht (about $20.USD) ninety minute foot, head and shoulder massage! (Some days I would treat myself to a second one, just for fun!)
Not Just Any Market!
The Chatuchak Weekend Market is held every Saturday and Sunday and is NOT to be missed if you are in Bangkok. It’s the biggest market in all of Thailand.
This market offers everything from clothing, crafts, and antiques to food and drink. You name it and the Chatuchak Market has it. An estimated quarter of a million people visit this veritable shopaholic’s paradise each day.
The site has over 15,000 stalls and vendors, all grouped into sections to make it easier to find specific items. Here’s an inside tip:
Go to this market early in the morning to avoid the crowds and to beat the heat of the day. Bargaining is expected and some vendors will reduce there initial price by more than half.
I walked around this area for hours collecting souvenirs and snapping photos. This is where I met the blind ‘phallic master’, Dhakron, a Bangkok native, who was sporting a pink mohawk hair-do. I negotiated for about 30 minutes to purchase a hand-whittled phallic necklace that he was wearing. Unfortunately, the piece was very old and dear to him and I couldn’t seal the deal with the man who was once a Thai wrestler.
So, I walked away, empty handed and phallic-less with only my memory of Dhakron. On the ‘down side’ for me, the Chatuchak Market is also known for its sale of animals. The animal lover in me knew enough to avoid that section. Dogs, cats, snakes, tortoises, and songbirds are for sale as pets (or food) and the market also has a reputation for trading in endangered species.
The government tries to regulate the illegal trade. Several raids on dealers have revealed animals being kept in awful conditions.
While casual visitors are never likely to experience it, this illegal trade still continues out of sight. Last month, the Bangkok News reported over 150,000 Monitor Lizards were confiscated from the backs of pick-up trucks as they crossed the border into Bangkok.
Thai Flowers from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
The diversity of Thailand’s many flowers reflects its range of natural habitats. Most famous of all are its 1300 varieties of orchids. In the wild, they are protected, but illegal collection has depleted their numbers. My favorite is the Lotus Flower, Thailand’s most abundant and useful flower.
Everywhere you look in Thailand, you will be surrounded by the beautiful pink gem. The lotus plays a very important part in Thai life. It is the country’s most common flower, growing in ponds, swamps, small canals, roadside ditches, on top of pillars in temples, and even in jars. It is not only beautiful, but has many practical uses in the Thai culture, including as medicine in its petals, stamen and root.
The large tough leaf can be used to wrap cooked food and the seeds are also delicious to eat. Many handicrafts are inspired by the flower’s form and beauty. It brought back memories of my first introduction to the Lotus in China last year when I ate the lotus root. Its distinct flavor and unique texture made it my new favorite root vegetable.
Thai Boxing in Chiang Mai
In Chiang Mai, hop on a Tuk-Tuk (a three-wheeled motor bike taxi) and head over to the Loikroh Boxing Stadium for a night out that you’ll never forget! As I walked down the street lined with rowdy bars and pool halls, I heard loud music from behind a makeshift tarp and saw a sign reading ‘Muay Thai’, meaning Thai Boxing.
I got a ringside seat for 400 Baht (about $40US). The Canadian fighters were in Thailand on this night. The bouts were in every weight class, age group (even 12-year-olds), and even a women’s match. A Canadian won the heavyweight division with a swift kick to the abdomen of the overweight and out of shape Thai, sending him crashing to the mat with a broken rib.
The injury labored his breathing and made his stomach heave in and out. The crowd roared! The craziest bout of the evening featured three blindfolded boxers. In this event, even the ref took a few hits as he shoved the boxers toward each other.
As all three were swinging blindly through the air, you knew that when they did make contact, it would hurt because the receiver would
never see it coming.
The boxing ring is surrounded by bars and one, in particular, stands out in my mind. Check out Marina’s Lady Boy Bar for cold beers and eye popping free entertainment! Crazy fun!
Red Light – Green Light
Back to Bangkok the red light district was our next stop. In this teeming city of nearly ten million, there are three famous red light areas and I paid a visit to two of them, ‘Nana’ and ‘Soi Cowboy’. The third district, known as ‘Patpong’, was a seedy place that I chose not to explore.
‘Nana’ was more of a respectful “Lady Boy Bar” gathering and ‘Soi Cowboy’ was loaded with scantily dressed, extremely young Thai girls. Being a mother of three teenage daughters, this made me think about the safety of these young 15 year olds. Both districts feature a typical bar scene on two floors. The lower tier is lined with bars and loud music, neon lights and customers
drinking and having a good time.
The upper tier is where the action is. I was aware that I would probably be enticed to enter and spend money buying overpriced,
watered down drinks and to leave a generous tip. Curiosity won out and I made my way to the upper level. I entered a bar called the “G-Spot” and proceeded to buy ‘my lady boy’ a cocktail. As expected, it looked like a watery orange Fanta soda. Once she (he) realized I only wanted to share some laughs and make some lifetime memories, she (he) was more than happy to hang out.
I spent about 45 minutes at the ‘G-Spot’ and then moved along to the next place. I had a lot of laughs and I felt very safe. It was a gathering spot for ‘lady boys’ who are men in transition to become women.
Most already have breast implants and are strikingly beautiful. My ‘lady boy’ was proud of her new body and liked sharing her life’s experience with me. Most of them are waiting for their final surgery that will physically transition them to women.
Condoms- Use It or Lose It!
Mechai Viravaidya is the owner of the popular restaurant chain Cabbage and Condoms, and he is credited with being the person who single-handedly introduced safe sex to Thailand. Once one of the world’s hotspots for AIDS, Thailand has more than successfully brought safe-sex campaigns into the bars and the red light districts.
When the AIDS epidemic struck, the hugely popular Cabbage and Condoms restaurants freely distributed millions of condoms and gained the support of bureaucrats and law enforcement officials. In 1974, this son of two doctors created the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), one of Asia’s largest and most successful not for profit corporations.
Viravaidya has continued to freely distribute condoms and to promote safe sex education programs with everyone from Thai leaders to workers in Bangkok’s notorious red light district. I enjoyed a great dinner at a Cabbage and Condoms Restaurant located between Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy.
The theme restaurant was decorated with lighting made of condoms and posters about safe sex hung from the walls. I enjoyed the soft shell crabs in green curry mango lemongrass sauce special. Everything is tasty, including the desserts like jasmin sticky rice with mango sauce.
When my bill was delivered, condoms took the place of breath mints. On the way out, there was a full size mannequin holding a golf club made out of condoms with a sign that read, “I hope Tiger used them.” Of course, Tiger Woods is one of the most famous Thai people of all time. When in Bangkok, put this place on your list for sure! It’s not only a cool, fun spot, but educational as well, and the food is reasonably priced and incredibly tasty!
A World of Contrasts
There are only 350 miles and five degrees of latitudinal separation between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but the contrasts are great. For the adventurous purist, Thailand has areas and people untouched by European colonization. And, there are other areas of Thailand where human behavior has been influenced by the western way of life. Beautiful land, smiling people, and continuous entertainment on many levels are all within this area of Thailand. It is a unique area of the world for the adventurous traveler and is fast becoming a must see destination.
Other Useful Information
For more information on travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand contact the Thailand Tourism Authority at the following link…
For more info about the Songkran Festival
People and Places
For a real treat, check out The Sky Bar. It’s located on the 63rd Floor of The State Tower in Bangkok, also home to LeBua Hotel.
Dress code is strictly enforced, so no flip flops or casual attire. The Sky Bar offers 360 degree views of Bangkok, and is magnificent! Get there for sunset. Click this link for more information
For more information on Muay Thai Boxing The Loikroh Boxing Indoor Stadium in Chiang Mai, is located on Loi Kroh Road, just west of Le Meridien Hotel.
Marina, of Marina’s Lady Boy Bar is located inside of the Loikroh Boxing Stadium. for directions visit their website.
For more information about the Chatuchak Market and other popular markets in Thailand click here
Eating and Drinking
Check out Jim Thompson, Bar and Restaurant in Bangkok for a great meal, and you can also tour his house and museum while you are there.
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road, Bangkok 10330
Telephone ~ 02-612-3601 when in Bangkok.
Jirung, The Ultimate Life Retreat and Health Village offers healthy food and a place to stay. For more information about Jirung
Health Village click on the following link
Also check out The Gallery Restaurant and Art Gallery when in Chiang Mai. The Gallery
Also check out The Whole Earth Restaurant in Chiang Mai, with over 30 years experience with Thai and Indian vegetarian and non- vegetarian dishes served in an elegant ambience, overlooking spacious gardens. 88 Sridonchai Road, A Muang, Chiang Mai (phone) 053 282 463 when in Chiang Mai
Make sure you make it to Cabbage and Condoms when you are in Bangkok. Click on the following link to get directions and more information about Cabbage and Condoms
Where to Stay
The Grand Centre Point Ratchadamri
153/2 Mahatlek Luang1,Ratchadamri Road, Lumpini, Pathumwan Road, Bangkok
Le Meridien Chiang Mai
108 Chang Klan Road, Tambol Chang Klan, Amphur Muang, Chiang Mai
Siam City Hotel
477 Si Ayuthaya Road, Thatathai, Bangkok
To and From
I flew EVA Air from Newark International Airport with a brief stop over in Alaska and Taiwan to land in Bangkok, Thailand.
EVA Air. Eva went out of their way to make me comfortable, the staff was friendly and the seating was spacious. I flew EVA’s Elite Class and I was very happy with the expanded seating and leg room.
For more information about the BTS Sky Train in Thailand.