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Passage to Bangkok – and beyond

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Palong women display their brightly coloured handwoven clothes. (Active Thailand photo)

On a quest to expose our three teenagers to a culture entirely different from that of Canada, I spent the darkest months of winter planning a Thailand itinerary focused purely on adventure. When we flew to Bangkok this summer, the goal my husband and I shared was twofold: keep the kids stimulated, excited and energized so that the word “boring” would never come up, and avoid the tourist hotspots in favour of off-the-beaten-path travel that would enlighten and inspire them.

One way to accomplish this in Bangkok is to hop on a bike. Jet lag was still a close companion the morning we joined Tom, a guide at Grasshopper Adventures, for an all-day tour that promised to take us on Bangkok’s back trails. Within minutes of leaving the bike store we were immersed in the peaceful corridors and alleyways of the city’s residential quarters. Our destination was Bang Kruai, 20 kilometres away and one of Bangkok’s oldest neighbourhoods, and to get there we crossed the impressive King Rama 8 bridge over the Chaopraya River.

Tom knew the quiet alleyways like the back of his hand and expertly navigated through tight residential corridors designed for pedestrian, scooter and bike commutes. The air was fragrant with lush potted plants decorating the alleyways and the heady aromas of freshly fried fish and chicken wings cooking over open flame. We passed uniformed children playing games during their school recess and friendly locals who welcomed us with warm smiles of surprise. It was a hot, sticky day so we stopped to replenish our energy with freshly cut mango, the heavenly juice of coconuts, and as lunchtime approached, plates of delicious tofu pad thai from an outdoor, riverside food court, watching as the catfish performed lazy somersaults on the water’s surface.

Later, we pedaled past quiet temples surrounded by tall trees, slipping our shoes off to enter the sanctuary and staring in amazement at the massive, gold-painted statues of Buddha. It’s one thing to read about idolatry in the Bible, but quite another to see it in full practice. We watched meditative monks immersed in their daily rituals and biked alongside banana and coconut orchards, their trees heavy with fruit. We dropped the bikes off feeling tired but exhilarated, energized by the beauty and serenity of Bangkok’s back roads.

Thailand must be one of the world’s largest consumers of pig products because pork is ubiquitous in this country. It’s readily available for breakfast, lunch and dinner and if you’re feeling snacky in-between, there are porky snacks to tide you over to the next pork meal. We stuck to vegetarianism during our visit, and, determined to expand our culinary repertoire, enrolled in a class with the Thai Cooking Academy.

The session began at an outdoor food market where we handled veggies we’d never before laid eyes on: galangal ginger, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric roots, banana flowers and the rich scents of lemon basil.

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Sarah and Amy (the writer’s daughters) try some Thai cooking. (Lauren Kramer photo)

In the classroom we chopped garlic and onion, bending over gas stoves as we prepared steaming plates of fragrant yellow curry, papaya salad, pad thai and sticky rice with mango. The secret, we learned, is in the mixture of (hechsher-less) sauces, tropical fruit and veggies that are, for the most part, impossible to locate in Canada. Still, we left with sated appetites, beautiful memories, recipes and good intentions.

The road was calling and it promised relief from the inching traffic and relentless noise and activity of Bangkok, a city teeming with high-rise hotels and lewd souvenirs (who can honestly say they need a penis-shaped soap on a rope?).

Determined not to raise Jewish princes or princesses, we flew to Chiang Mai for the next leg of our journey: a hike into the Thai jungle and a night in a Palong village.

The Palong migrated to northern Thailand from Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 1984, escaping unrest in their home country. With permission from the Thai authorities they set up several villages in remote spots, some of them deep in the jungle, and began small-scale farming operations on the lush mountain slopes. To reach our village we hiked uphill through steep bamboo forests, ducking to avoid the webs of spiders much larger than we ever hoped to encounter. It was a muggy 35C day, a regular temperature in Thailand’s monsoon season, and within minutes we were saturated with perspiration, huffing up a mountain with the aid of bamboo walking sticks. “Exactly whose idea was this?” I heard one of my princesses mutter under her breath.

The villagers we met upon arrival straddled the line between their Myanmar traditions and the draw of modern civilization. We watched as locals commuted on the muddy pathways on scooters, as a toddler sat with eyes fixated on a mobile phone and as the sound of  a radio and  TV testified that even in an electricity-free village like this one, generators  made these luxuries an irresistible draw. As night fell and the chirrup of frogs filled the air, a group of women and girls donned their traditional, handmade sarongs and colourful jackets to serenade us solemnly in their native Mon-Khmer tongue. Then they sat down with my kids for an animated game of cards, one that required no common language whatsoever.

We crawled beneath mosquito nets at bedtime knowing that our Thailand vacation would live long in memory. Quietly, we hope it will inspire our kids to travel meaningfully when they become adults, to venture beyond their comfort zones to remote parts of the world, and eventually, to discover and appreciate their own place within it.