Trip to Thailand

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(Railay Beach)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since I left Vietnam; and even more mind-boggling to think that South Africa has been my home ever since – and if all goes according to plan, it looks like we’ll remain here for at least four more years. I never would’ve imagined that I’d spend a decade of my life here in Pretoria…meanwhile, if you haven’t made plans to visit us yet, there’s still plenty of time.

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(Street scenes of Bangkok)

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(China Town)

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(Grand Palace)

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(Golden Buddhas)

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(Paying respects to Buddha)

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(Reclining Buddha)

As much as I love living and working in Southern Africa, I’ve been craving the hustle and bustle of South-East Asia. I miss the chaos of the city, the divine street food, the gorgeous silk clothing, and the general vibrancy of the people. So for the festive season, Darren and I packed our bags and headed to the hills of Thailand where we spent three glorious weeks exploring the country.

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(Darren at Wat Arun)

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(Amazing detail)

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(Life along the River in Bangkok)

Both Darren and I have been to Thailand on numerous occasions, so the trip maintained a relaxed vibe as we revisited some of our favorite destinations. First stop was Bangkok, where we immediately jumped on the sky train and worked our way to the boat docks to take the water taxi to the Grand Palace.

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(Street Food – our first meal in Thailand)

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(Fresh Chilis)

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(Tuk-tuks)

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(Flower Market)

An interesting tidbit of history…the Grand Palace, an impressive complex of buildings along the Chao Phraya River, dates back to 1782. The original palace was built entirely out of wood, but King Rama I slowly began to replace the wooden structures with masonry, rebuilding the walls, forts, gates, throne halls and royal residences. As material became scarce, King Rama I sent his men to pilfer from the old capital city of Ayutthaya, which was destroyed in 1767 during a war between Burma and Siam. They eventually dismantled everything in sight, levelling the old royal palaces to the ground. Bricks and other materials were ferried down the Chao Phraya by barges, where they were eventually incorporated into the walls of Bangkok and the Grand Palace itself.

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(Climbing the 309 Steps)

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(Beautiful views of Chiang Mai)

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(pagodas)

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(Reflections)

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We spent HOURS walking around the Grand Palace, exploring the various temples, walking around the reclining Buddha and visiting the various halls and structures on the grounds.

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(Snacks at the night market)

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(Craftsmanship)

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(Thai pancakes)

We then went across the river to Wat Arun, named after Aruna, the Indian God of Dawn, which is easily the most stunningly striking temple in Bangkok. I never tire of seeing its beauty, with its colorful tiles and pearly iridescent glow from the sun’s reflection.

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(Patara Elephant Farm)

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(Brushing the elephants)

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(Feeding the elephants)

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(Me and my elephant…)

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(Getting sprayed by the elephants)

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We spent two short days exploring Bangkok before flying to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We picked up a rental car and set out to explore the hills. We timed it perfectly and arrived just in time for the HUGE Sunday night market…endless blocks of interesting art, crafts, clothing, and food stalls. It also happened to be Christmas Eve, so the streets were packed (as an aside, Darren proposed to me on Christmas Eve three years ago in Kandy, Sri Lanka)…

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(Darren with his elephant)

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(Amy with Mekka)

Our first adventure took us to Wat Phra Doi Suthep, a sacred site to many Thai people. One needs to climb the 309 steps to reach the pagodas, but is instantly rewarded with impressive views of the countryside below. I remember climbing these steps during my first visit to Thailand more than twenty-five years ago…surprisingly (or not surprisingly) the place hasn’t changed (although the surrounding area certainly has become increasingly developed).

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The next day we organized a trip to Patara Elephant Farm where we became an ‘elephant owner for a day’, a special program designed for individuals to interact with elephants while partaking in their daily tasks.

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(My elephant with his Mahout)

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(Riding)

The traditional caretakers, called Mahouts, spent the better part of an hour getting a feel for each of our group as they assign you an elephant based on your personality as well as the elephants. I, of course, got an ornery teenager, Mekka, who was extremely stubborn and didn’t want to listen to my commands (hmm….wonder why they assigned me this guy?!?). But despite a few hiccups here and there, we bonded!

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(Our lodge in Pai)

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(Chinese Village)

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The elephants in Thailand are deeply integrated with the human world, having been raised in captivity by Mahouts, a tradition that dates back thousands of years. We were asked to don the traditional wear of the Mahouts to make our elephants feel more at ease, but I’m sure they saw right through that façade.

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(Beautiful views in Pai)

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(Wedding Shoot)

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We started off our morning by feeding the elephants a healthy supply of sugarcane and bananas. I couldn’t believe how gentle and agile they were when picking up food with their trunk. Meanwhile, if elephants eat roughly 10% of their bodyweight in food every day, it would take an exorbitant amount of food (and money) to keep the Patara Elephant Farm operational – hence, the hefty price tag of our excursion (but totally worth it).

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(Mor Pang Waterfall)

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(Town of Pai)

Next we learned how to clean the elephants. In general, elephants use dirt as a way to cool down. We gathered a bouquet of branches/leaves/grass to help brush the dirt off their backs; then took them down to the river to continue the cleansing process. But once we were near the water, the elephants were more interested in playing!

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(Longneck Hill Tribe)

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Finally, they taught us different ways to ride the elephant. I had mixed feelings about riding elephants at all, but they assured us (as they would) that riding them while sitting on their necks is absolutely fine. What’s painful for the elephant is when you ride them via a Howdah, or saddle/seat with hooks attached. An elephant’s spine is not built to support the weight of a human being – so elephants that carry tourists on their backs for hours every day experience discomfort and can suffer permanent spinal damage. The Howdah can also cause irritation against the elephant’s skin and may lead to infection. So it’s important to be informed about the tour operator before making reservations.

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(Market on the road to Mae Hong Son)

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(Buying Sarongs)

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(Beetle nut)

Despite my conflicted feelings, it was a magical and memorable day! Ultimately, I’m grateful to have been a Mahout for a day…

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(Hills of Northern Thailand)

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(Stopping for a roasted sweet potato)

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(Cute baby)

After our time in Chiang Mai, we jumped in our car and set out to discover Mae Hong Son province, the nation’s last frontier for off-the-beaten track exploration. We spent five days taking in scenic stretches of road, complete with sharp hairpin turns, steamy jungles and epic panoramas across mountainous mist-covered passes.

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(Lake Mae Hong Son)

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(Beautiful pagoda in the hills)

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(Mae Hong Son at sunset)

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(Reflections)

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(Longneck Hilltribe Village)

Our first night was spent in the chilled town of Pai, which in retrospect, wasn’t nearly enough time. Pai reminded me of a throwback destination for hippies, backpackers, nature lovers and everyone in between. The main street had lots of hip and trendy restaurants, artwork, jewelry and clothing.

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(Monks)

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(Karen Hilltribe)

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(Many faces of Northern Thailand)

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We stopped by Santichon Village, also known as a small Chinatown, which was perfect for an authentic Chinese meal and a quick walk about before heading to Mo Paeng Waterfall. Again, one day didn’t do this region justice. If we ever come back this way, I’d like to spend more time hiking throughout this area.

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Next, we worked our way to Mae Hong Son, my favorite town in Northern Thailand! With its remote setting and surrounding mountains, Mae Hong Son feels more pristine and authentic than anywhere else I’ve been in Thailand.
I especially loved the picturesque Mae Hong Son Lake with Wat Chong Kham along the water’s edge! We spent hours walking around the city, climbing nearby hiking trails, and dining on delicious Thai street food.

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(Sutongpe Bridge)

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The next day we ventured to the Long Neck (Karen) Hill Tribe Village. I was here twenty-five years ago when it was an actual village, where you could physically walk around the community and interact with people in their homes, in the field, and in the streets. As a photographer, I constantly struggle finding that balance between exploitation and cultural awareness. I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures, customs and traditions and think it’s important to educate others on how people live in various parts of the world.

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(Amy & Darren on Sutongpe Bridge)

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But fast forward a quarter of a century later…I was incredibly disappointed to see what has become of this village. It was the worst kind of tourism, where they charge $15 per person to enter what is, in essence, a craft market. The entire ‘village’ was condensed into a single row of vendors selling cheaply made trinkets! It seemed like a pretty dismal existence. Meanwhile, I happily bought items from most of the vendors to help support their livelihoods, but the ‘village feel’ is long gone.

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(Turned off to see the beautiful cliff formations)

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(Not sure what happened to his head)

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(Thampla Forest)

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(Monks at Thampla Forest)

We worked our way back to Chiang Mai to meet up with one of Sami’s old high school friends, Stuart Spencer, who has been living in Thailand for years! What a fabulous treat to meet up with fellow Kansans! Amazing to think how far we’ve come (literally and figuratively) since our days at Shawnee Mission East!

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(Tha Pai WWII Memorial Bridge)

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(Dinner with Stuart Spencer and his lovely wife)

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(Room with a view – our hotel in the old quarters of Chiang Mai)

I prefer Northern Thailand, whereas Darren loves the South; so we caught an early flight to Surat Thani and had a marathon travel day to reach Koh Phangan. It felt like planes, trains and automobiles, but instead of trains we suffered through a five hour ferry ride in horrendous storms (staying true to the fact that Darren and I have horrible luck with boats and weather). Granted, we woke up to gorgeous views of Mae Haad Bay – which made the pain and torture of the day’s travel totally worth it.

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(Sunsets on the beach)

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(Gas Station)

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(Making friends along the way…)

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best weather during our stay (between Christmas and New Year’s), so we opted to rent a jeep as opposed to motorbikes. Plus, between my camera equipment and the rains, not to mention the slick, winding roads, I felt safer in a vehicle.

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(waiting on the pier for our ferry to Koh Phangan)

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(Bathing in Koh Phangan)

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(Ominous weather)

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(Our mode of transportation)

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(Hiking to Phaeng Noi Waterfall)

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(Phaeng Noi Waterfall)

Koh Phangan is Darren’s favorite destination, so he was truly in his element while showing me all his beloved hotspots. We stayed on the northwestern coast at Mae Haad and Chaloklum, which were stunningly beautiful. Mornings were spent strolling up and down the beach whereas afternoons were spent exploring via jeep the rest of the island.
I loved having the freedom and flexibility of the jeep! We ate at random restaurants, drove down arbitrary roads, and stopped at odd destinations just to see what was there.

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(Chinese Temple in Koh Phangan)

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We hiked Phaeng Waterfall, explored the Kuan Yin Chinese Temple (my favorite discovery), drank cocktails at multiple beach bars and admired the sunset and panoramic views from the hip and trendy Three Sixty Bar.

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(Gorgeous Views)

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(Darren happy as can be…)

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(The view from our room in Mae Haad Bay)

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(Many hours spent by the pool)

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(View from 360 Bar)

Ironically, Koh Phangan is where thousands of people flock to partake in the infamous Full Moon Parties! On New Year’s Eve, we decided to skip the full moon party (only because the site was a 45 minute drive and we’re at that age where large crowds and illicit drug use is no longer appealing). Fortunately, our hotel was holding an event, complete with performances, music and dance – which seemed like a fabulous alternative! Lo and behold, the entertainment stopped at 10pm so everyone could take taxis to the full moon party. Alas, we had an unusually quiet NYE on the beach. Still an improvement from the year before last where we spent NYE in Sossusvlei, the Namibian desert, where there wasn’t a soul around! In fact, I think we fell asleep by 9pm…at least we stayed awake until midnight this time around!

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(Our beach)

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(Love my funky dress)

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(Boats in front of our place)

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(Amy & Darren on NYE)

From Koh Phangan we worked our way to the other side of the country to Ao Nang! Twenty-five years ago, this was MY favorite part of southern Thailand! Sadly, this region has become insanely touristy and overly-developed – so much so that it distracted from its beauty. That said we still had a wonderful time doing the touristy things, i.e., shopping at the souvenir stalls, island-hopping via longboat taxis, and Thai cooking classes.

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(Ao Nang)

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(On our way to Hong Island)

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(Hong Island)

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(Boat Trip to other islands)

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(My favorite fruit – Mangosteens)

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(Sunset in Ao Nang)

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(Darren got a tattoo while I took a cooking class 🙂

Next stop, Railay Beach, which is only accessible by boat! Even though it feels like an island, Railay is actually a small peninsula attached to the mainland, but with no roads and only footpaths, it takes on a different vibe.
What a tranquil respite from the hustle and bustle of Ao Nang. Railay is also quintessential Thailand – with gorgeous white sand beaches, soaring limestone cliffs, incredible viewpoints, caves and lagoons all within walking distance. In some ways, it reminded me of Treasure Beach, with its laid-back atmosphere. They even had several reggae bars, with Bob Marley blaring over their loud speakers. Granted, it only made me long for Miss Ruby and all my friends back in Jamaica…

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(Darren super excited to get to Railay)

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(Monkeys in Railay!!!)

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(Beautiful Railay Beach)

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(We bumped into our neighbors in Railay)

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(Reggae Bars in Thailand)

By and large, our days in Railay were the most relaxing of our trip. We spent the majority of our time lulling on the beach (and getting Thai massages), exploring the caves, having private boat tours of the surrounding islands (my favorite); and we even met up with our neighbors for Thai food and traditional Thai kickboxing (not my favorite).

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(Pensive)

For my birthday, we spent several days on the less developed island of Koh Yao Yai, situated in the heart of the Andaman Sea halfway between Phuket and Krabi. Despite the fact that we hated our accommodation, our ‘Hillside Resort’ sat right on the main road with a lovely view of a construction site and buildings (we were duped by the advertisement) — we ended up having a lovely time!

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(Cool Caves)

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(Main Beach on Railay)

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We rented a scooter and traveled right around the island, exploring every nook and cranny along the way! I fell in love with the traditional handcrafted stilted wooden homes, often surrounded by bougainvilleas. The island also contained many rubber plantations, coconut groves and the numerous piers to discover. The entire island runs about 30 kilometers in length from top to bottom, so easily navigable over the course of a few days. I also loved the slower pace of this island compared to EVERYWHERE else that we had been. Its population is primarily comprised of conservative Muslim Thais who seem largely content to keep with a more traditional way of life.

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(Snack Bar)

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(Thai massages on the beach)

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(Chicken Island)

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(Soda Island)
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(Sunset)

We left the peace and tranquility of Koh Yao Yai and went to my least favorite spot in the country, Phuket! Talk about an over-priced and over-crowded tourist trap. Everything that I despise about Thai tourism is rolled up into this place…but the saving grace was our accommodation, Villa Baan Phu Prana. This boutique villa situated high in the hills above Surin Beach was GORGEOUS! We spent most of our time at the rooftop pool admiring the views! At least we only had one night in Phuket before having to work our way back to Bangkok for our final days.

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(Love being out on the water)

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(Boat to Yao Yai Island)

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(Markets in Yao Yai)

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(Cooking curry)

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(The serene island of Yao Yai)

For round two of Bangkok, we stayed closer to the Grand Palace at another magnificent hotel, Riva Arun, located right on the river! Our room had an incredible view of Wat Arun, which made for magical mornings waking up to the sight of sunlight reflecting off the temples.

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(Water Buffalo)

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(Traditional Teak Houses)

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(Our mode of transportation)

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(Our room with a view)

We jumped in a tuk-tuk and decided to check out The Golden Mount, the highest mountain in Bangkok. We were pleasantly surprised by its beauty. What made this destination worthwhile were the impressive views over the city…and the last stop on our whirlwind tour was the Jim Thompson House. Again, I’ve been coming to Bangkok for years (especially when living in Hanoi), but have never taken the time to do this tour. We thoroughly enjoyed it!

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(Darren on Surin Beach)

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(Old pier on Yao Yai)

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(Golden Mount)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jim Thompson, he was an American entrepreneur who worked to bring Thai silk to the world. He also built an incredible teak home and filled it with antiques, pottery, silk and curiosities. He mysteriously disappeared in the jungles of Malaysia while on holiday with friends. An extensive and extended search failed to reveal any clues about his disappearance.

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(Pier)

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(Discovered this gem of a hotel while exploring the island – not a bad birthday after all)

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According to an excerpt from ‘Jim Thompson – The Legendary American in Thailand’, by William Warren, “In the twenty years before his ill-fated holiday in Malaysia, he had accomplished more than most men in a full life. He had built a major industry in a remote and little known country whose language he could not speak; he had become an authority on an art that, previously, he scarcely knew existed and had assembled a collection that attracted scholars from all over the world; he had built a home that was a work of art in itself and one of the landmarks of Bangkok; and, in the process of doing all this, he had become a sort of landmark himself, a personality so widely known in his adopted homeland that a letter addressed simply ‘Jim Thompson, Bangkok’ found its way to him in a city of three and a half million people.”

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(Sunset in Phuket)

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(Our lovely Villa)

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In short, we highly recommend that you see this work of art for yourself.

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(Jim Thompson House)

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(Sunset overlooking Wat Arun)

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(Golden Mount)

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(Views at Golden Mount)

I’m finally in Pretoria after a year of non-stop travel. I’ve been relishing these last few weeks of quiet time in the office before the craziness picks up again. Marshelle is currently visiting us from Maine, which has been fabulous. We’ve taken her on many adventures…we always love showing people around South Africa.

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Sending much love to all,
Amy

 

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