The Denver Post Travel Section
Sunday, February 5, 2006


4 Noble truths of Thailand Knowing what to expect can make a big difference
Story and photos by Bill Husted Denver Post Staff Writer

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism have been well documented - in short, that life is suffering, that the origin of suffering is attachment, that it is possible to cease suffering and that there is a path to the end of suffering.

What is not quite as well known is that these concepts can also be applied when traveling through Thailand, the Land of the Buddha. Here are the Four Noble Truths of Travel, some of which I learned the hard way.

Noble Truth No. 1:

You will suffer if you are not prepared

Thailand is the epicenter of three major modern worries - tsunamis, terrorism and bird flu - yet Thai natives seldom seem to worry about such things. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security.

For starters, it's not a bad idea to travel with a prescription of Tamiflu, which you can easily obtain from your family doctor but may not be covered by your insurance provider.

Also, be ready for potential credit card hassles. Case in (ball)point: Upon arriving in Asia I bought a $5 pen with my debit card. Next thing I knew, Key Bank canceled my card. (They assumed, I assume, it had been stolen by an Asian pen-smuggling cartel.) Just try getting that little mix-up corrected from 8,400 miles away. It took me $80 of phone calls and about an hour of my vacation. OK, it took me a bit longer because I couldn't answer the bank's standard security question - "What's your mother's birthday?" Hey, we weren't that close! So before you leave, let your bank know you're headed to the other side of the world and that there might be some strange transactions cropping up.

You'll need that credit card for Chiang Mai, a 700-year-old city so lovely that nothing can truly prepare you for that first glimpse. Situated about 400 miles north of Bangkok, this is the place to begin a visit to Thailand. Abounding with temples of breathtaking beauty, Chiang Mai is also very modern and somewhat sophisticated, filled with coffeehouses and English-language bookstores. One temple, called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, sits high above the city, and even though it's filled with tourists, you'll find it worth every elbow in the ribs to experience such an architectural marvel. Still, if you would rather find a less-overrun temple, don't worry - Chiang Mai has more temples than Seattle has Starbucks. And it has a few Starbucks too.

If you get lost, it helps to know about the tuk tuk, a three-wheeled scooter with two seats in the back. A ride back to your hotel is always cheap. Another option is the songtao, a small
pickup truck with two wooden benches in back. They circle Thai cities and neighborhoods looking for locals, strays and lost tourists. Cabs are plentiful too, as are motorcycle taxis: Just
jump on the back and hold on for dear life.

No matter how you get around, be prepared to barter with the driver.

Noble Truth No. 2:

Don't be too attached to your comfort level

Thailand is a land of dichotomies. Great beauty and wrenching poverty. Ancient religions and rampant prostitution. Expect to be dazzled and confused.

The beaches are one of the most frustrating contradictions. For instance, take Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand. I stayed there in a bungalow on Chaweng Beach, and while I loved the foot-caressing sand and the wondrous scenery, I expected a secluded paradise, mainly because Thailand has mastered the art of the seductive website.

Instead I found a Mexican beach town with twice the number of cheesy hawkers. An endless parade of vendors interrupted my "serenity" to hawk soccer balls, sarongs, bracelets, ice cream,
wooden flutes, henna tattoos, doughnuts, carpets and sunglasses. (They also sold delicious roasted corn.) The town itself was a postmodern madhouse, with hundreds of Germans who looked like Mike-Myers-as-Dieter, all shuffling down nearly nonexistent sidewalks or wedging
themselves into knockoff stores. (Fake watches, Armani suits, DVDs.)

Shoehorned between the knockoff stores are massage parlors. Most aren't fronts for prostitution (no need for fronts in prostitution-friendly Thailand) but places to drop in for, say, an after-dinner, one-hour foot massage, which goes for about 50 cents a toe. Luxury is a national obsession in Thailand, and the foot massages are well worth a try, as are the traditional spine-bending Thai massage. Aaah - right there - that's the spot!

One of the more interesting contradictions in Thailand is how people interact with Buddha, whose likeness is everywhere. Everyone gives offerings to monks who pass on the streets, and yet everyone also tolerates behavior that seems straight out of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Even the prostitutes are pious. When you see a go-go girl leaving a hotel in the morning, you'll also see her stop to bow three times to the Buddha. If you're not familiar with Buddhism, be sure to read some basic texts before visiting Asia. The more you know, the more you'll appreciate the way religion is woven into everyday life.

A word or two more about prostitution. It is as ubiquitous as the Buddha. It's a way, perhaps the only way, for females to escape the rice paddies of the countryside and earn money for their families. (At least this is how Thai people I spoke with rationalized it.) There seems to be absolutely no stigma attached to it.

Consequently, every lurid story you've heard about wild bars filled to overflowing with girls-for-hire is true. In some bars, the dancers wear numbers the size of plastic coat-check receipts as a
way of expediting selection. Guidebooks that claim families can vacation in Thailand and remain unaware of this seedier facet of life are off the mark. Prostitutes even come and go in the very
best hotels.

Noble Truth No. 3:

Don't be afraid to suffera little for good food

OK, at some street markets you can buy fried crickets, grasshoppers, worms and chicken heads. You are allowed to fear these delicacies.

In addition to bugs, Thailand offers every cuisine imaginable, much of it delicious. My stomach doesn't take to hot foods, but only the food in Chiang Mai seemed to be too spicy. Everywhere else, I ate well, perhaps too well. Three restaurants on the banks of the Ping River in Chiang Mai were hot, but standouts: The Gallery, the Good View and the Riverside. They all sit side by side on Charoen Rat Road, and they are always crowded.

Live music in the Riverside was mostly cover bands playing classic American pop, like The Doors. I had a ball. In Bangkok, lunch at the Oriental Hotel's patio overlooking the Chao Phraya River made me feel like James Bond. The New York Steak restaurant at the JW Marriott was a good break from pad Thai. And if you feel adventurous, drop into Galaxy (19 Rama 4 Road), a well-known "no-hands restaurant" in Bangkok. Young women and a mamasan feed you and wipe your mouth - it's like practice for being senile.

Cabbages & Condoms (10 Sukhumvit Soi 12) is a racy name for a tame (inexpensive) and wonderful Thai restaurant that raises money for Thailand's family-planning nonprofit.

On Koh Samui, The Shack, (88/3 Moo1, Bophut), is an open-air steakhouse run by Larry Snyder, a self-proclaimed nervous, heart-attack-prone New Yorker. Poppies (Samui Ring Road) serves the best Thai food in Thailand on Chaweng Beach. And Prego, run by chef Marco Boscaini, also on Samui Ring Road, is one of the best Italian restaurants I've ever encountered. Need a hamburger fix? Chaweng's most popular bar, Tropical Murphy's Irish pub, serves a tasty one on Samui Ring Road.

Noble Truth No. 4:

On New Year's Eve,take the path of resistance

On New Year's Eve at the Chaweng Buri Resort, all guests were compelled to buy a $100-per-person ticket to the New Year's Eve party. The buffet served a wide variety of inedible foods as a Thai variety show kicked off on a makeshift stage next to the pool. Unbearable. It was a rip-off to end all rip-offs.

But I thought to myself: What would Buddha do? Just roll with it. Eat a few chicken satays and head to town. As the dharma teachings go, "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional."

There really is something to those Noble Truths, after all.

Insider's Guide  

STAY

Chiang Mai

The Imperial Mae Ping Hotel, 153 Sridonchai Road, (66) 53 283900, imperialhotels.com/maeping. Sits just outside of the Old City, a block from the Night Market. The rooms are clean and adequate, though nothing to rave about. A nice poolside bar is a quiet reprieve from the bustle of the city, and the new spa and pool is very sleek. A deluxe double room is $111 in high season. The Rachamankha, Ratchamanka Road, Soi 9, (66) 0-5390-4111, rachamankha.com. A luxurious boutique hotel situated next to a beautiful temple in the Old City. Twenty-one rooms and one suite surround a quiet pool. More for a honeymoon than an adventure trip. Rooms starts at about $330 double, although discounts are available by searching online. Children under 12 not welcome.

The Four Seasons, Mae Rim-Samoeng Old Road, (66) 53 298-181, fourseasons.com. On a hilltop
about 30 minutes from Chiang Mai, too far away from the city and too quiet. Still, the grounds are lovely, and it is generally considered one of the very best hotels in Asia. "Today" show travel guru Peter Greenberg says it has the best spa in the world. Rates hover at about $500 a night.

Bangkok

The Oriental, 48 Oriental Ave., (66) 2 659 9000, mandarin oriental.com. One of the world's best hotels. If you can afford it, check in. If you have money to burn, check into one of the author's suites ($1,000 a night), named for writers who have stayed at the hotel: Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, James Michener and Noel Coward.

JW Marriott, 4 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 2, (66) 2 6567700, marriott.com. Smack in the heart of the city. Next to the Skytrain and Nana, one of Bangkok's wildest nightclub centers.

Marriott Resort & Spa, 257 Charoennakorn Road, (66) 2 4760022, marriott.com. Across the river from central Bangkok, but boats run back and forth every 15 minutes. The rooms, public spaces, pool and
grounds are beautiful. It's a quiet retreat after the bustle of the city, but others say if you're in a city like Bangkok, stay in town.

Koh Samui

Amari Palm Beach Resort, Samui Ring Road, (66) 0 2255-3960, amari.com. An expensive enclave on the quieter north end of town. The Italian restaurant Prego is across the street.

Poppies Samui Resort, Samui Ring Road, (66) 77 422 419, poppiessamui.com. On the south end of the beach town with 24 luxury bungalows and a good restaurant.

Chaweng Buri Resort, Samui Ring Road, (66 77) 422465-6, chawengburi.com. On the beach in the center of town. A big property with 117 bungalows, it's surprisingly quiet, set in lush gardens and
walkways. The bar tends to be dull and the restaurant OK for breakfast and lunch, but never dinner. The bungalows are large and clean, and the friendly staff keeps the property gleaming.

PLAY

In Chiang Mai, head to the Riverside for live music, Asian bands covering American pop.

In Bangkok, you'll want to stick your head into Nana or Soi Cowboy. Designed somewhat like Pavilions in Denver, these entertainment complexes hold dozens of go-go bars on three floors. Patpong is a famous district for observing some deviant behavior. It's safe, but suited only for the adventurous.

For a more sophisticated experience, stop by the Bamboo Bar at the Oriental for a martini and a cigar and some good jazz.

In Koh Samui, the Green Mango (Samui Ring Road) is the island's answer to Nana, but it also has a number of discos, some open all night if relations with the police are copacetic that week. Bars with patio on the second floor allow you to watch the action in some degree of peace. Reggae Bar is on the other side of the lake from Green Mango - an easy walk or tuk-tuk ride. It features big reggae or rock bands, a huge dance floor and lots of tourists and locals drinking and dancing until 2 a.m.

On Koh Pha Ngan, a 45-minute boat ride from Koh Samui, they hold the legendary Full Moon Party (featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "The Beach"). Go only if you are into dancing and staying
up all night (first boat home is 6 a.m.).

SHOP

You want to go home with some silk good from Jim Thompson, the American adventurer who revived the Thai silk trade. You can even pick up his goods at the airport as you leave the country.

Crafts are available everywhere. Stalls are filled with Buddhas between the Grand Palace and the Thammasat University. Bring one home for a wonderful gift or souvenir.

You may not feel right about all the inexpensive knockoff goods available throughout Thailand. It seems to be the shopping experience of choice, however.

SEE

The Jim Thompson House (6 Soi Kaseman 2, Rama I Road) in Bangkok, a lovingly maintained complex of houses in the middle of town. This is how the silk importer expat lived in Bangkok in the 1960s.

The Grand Palace (Sana Chi Road, Old City) in Bangkok, in which you'll find Wat Phra Heo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is opulent beyond belief.

Just a short walk from the Grand Palace is Wat Po (Sanam Chai Road, watpo.com), Temple of the Reclining Buddha. The Buddha is lying down, 150 feet long, covered in gold. Don't miss his 10-foot feet.

READ

"Bangkok 8," by John Burdett, a riveting novel starring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, reputedly Bangkok's only honest cop and a living Buddhist saint. A great inside look at Bangkok's politics, corruption and night life - it takes turns that will steal your breath.

"It's Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness,'' by Sylvia Boorstein, is an accessible introduction to the basic tenets of Buddhism.