Destination: Thailand & Cambodia

Angkor-Wat-by-Joey-Amato

Thailand is one of those places you always dream of but for some reason or another never get to experience. For the past decade I have wrestled with the idea but have always thought of an excuse not to go… it’s too far, it’s too expensive, my mother would be panicking the entire time, etc.

One Sunday morning in November, I was scrolling through travel deal websites and I came across Gate 1 Travel’s Thailand and Cambodia adventure. The stars finally aligned and I decided to take the plunge. This would be the biggest trip of my life and my first time visiting Asia.

The days leading up to our departure felt like years. Hours of research – and partial worry – led to over-packing. I purchased everything from insect repellant wipes to water shoes to linen pants – which proved to be quite comfortable in 100 degree weather.

Let’s get one thing clear, the flight to and from Thailand is awful. Nashville to LAX. LAX to Shanghai. Shanghai to Bangkok. By the time we arrived at our hotel, we had been traveling for 40 hours. Yes, there are easier ways to get there, but we were all about making this trip as inexpensive as possible.

On our first morning in Bangkok, we were greeted by Otto, our incredible tour guide from Gate 1 Travel. Otto stayed with us for our entire two week journey, which began with a city tour of Bangkok. First stop, Wat Po, the oldest and largest temple in the city, with the giant Reclining Buddha serving as the highlight of the temple. At over 150 feet long and almost 40 feet high, the statue is a sight to be seen. You really don’t appreciate the sheer size until you’re standing next to it.

Later that afternoon, we entered Wat Phra Kaew, also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, as well as the elaborate 18th century Grand Palace. This attraction was the most crowded of any on the entire trip almost to the point of being uncomfortable. Those who don’t fare well in crowds should avoid the palace unless you visit in low season.

About one hour outside of Bangkok is Ayutthaya Historical Park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city was once the former capital of Thailand. We visited Bang Pa-In Palace, a collection of beautiful buildings in various architectural styles, surrounded by a lake. Originally built by King Prasat Tong in 1632, Bang Pa-In served as the Royal Summer Palace for the Thai Kings. A few miles away is Chai Wattanaram Temple, built by King Prasat Tong to honor his mother and conceived as a replica of the Angkor Temple in Cambodia.

What I began to notice is how friendly and relaxed the people of Thailand are. Nearly everyone greeted you with a smile. The food in Thailand is also delicious and quite affordable. A great meal will cost you approximately $3. A word of caution; health regulations are not as strict as they are in the United States. You may see things that restaurant owners could never get away with here, but I guarantee, the food is safe and delicious – even the street food. Traditional Thai food is not too far off from what we are used to. Pad Thai is plentiful and available almost anywhere.

Visit the Old Town of Sukhothai with its impressive Historical Park, immaculately restored and set among leafy hills and peaceful lotus ponds, yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site on our adventure. At this astonishing site, most of the remains of the original city can be seen. Marvel at the ancient Buddha figures, palaces, temples and historical monuments. In case you haven’t noticed, there are Buddha’s everywhere!

Some of our most unique experiences came in the city of Chiang Mai. We had the option to visit Elephant Kingdom, a sanctuary dedicated solely to elephant conservation. One of the greatest experiences of the entire trip was having the opportunity to bathe the elephants in the river and hand feed these gentle giants.

Just a few miles away is Tiger Kingdom, a popular destination where guests can interact with tigers ranging from babies to what the park called giant tigers. I wasn’t exactly sure what a giant tiger was until I saw it. After you choose your experience, you are escorted into a cage by a handler carrying nothing but a tiny bamboo stick. After about 2-3 minutes of being in the cage, your initial fears begin to subside and you start engaging more with the cats, some of which are perfectly fine napping in the afternoon and posing for photos. Others however, are a bit more active and would prefer to play in their pool. Being able to be so close to these majestic animals is definitely an experience you should not miss.

Also in Chiang Mai is Basil Cooking School, run by a hilarious young lady named Apple. No more than 8 guests are invited at a time to learn how to cook traditional Thai cuisine. The school, run out of Apple’s home, provides a wonderful environment as guests dine family-style around a long wooden table. Each guest can choose six items to make from a list of about 20 dishes and includes various types of curry, spring rolls and coconut rice. The cost of the school is about $25 but was worth every penny.

We ended our tour in Siem Reap, Cambodia and a visit to Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. The complex is designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This sprawling city, built by Khmer Kings was once home to more than one million people at the height of the empire. Within the fortified city of Angkor Thom, we visited the Elephants Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King, all adorned with dramatic bas-reliefs.

Bayon Temple is the highlight of Angkor Thom, which contains 172 giant smiling stone faces. Some of the monuments remain untouched and the surrounding jungle encases the ancient structures. The highpoint of the day is the visit to stunning Angkor Wat, a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. World-famous for its beauty and splendor, Angkor Wat has the longest continuous bas-relief in the world, which runs along the entire outer gallery walls, narrating stories from Hindu mythology.

This journey is one that you should make when you are young and healthy. Don’t wait until you’re retired, as much of the trip is physically intensive and you will need to be in good health to enjoy all of the experiences.

To book your adventure visit www.gate1travel.com.

Pictured: Angkor Wat (photo by Joey Amato).