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2005 Return Trip
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2005 Return Trip

Below is a day-by-day account of our most recent trip to Thailand.  My wife Paiboon, daughter Cindy and I were there from January 17th until February 2nd, 2005.

2005travelmap.jpg
The yellow markings indicate the areas of the country we visited during this trip

Click here to view my photo album from this trip

Day 1: Sunday, January 16th

After a one and half hour delay, our China Airlines 747 finally took off at 4:30 am.  It was approximately 10 hours flying time to Taipei Taiwan, where we had about a 3 hour layover. 

 

Day 2: Monday, January 17th

Since we crossed the International Date Line, it was now a new day.  We departed Taipei at 7:30 am and arrived at the Bangkok airport at 12:30 pm.  We were met by Paiboon’s brother Tongkun, his wife On, On’s mother, their daughter Baifun, Paiboon’s niece, and the family houseboy.  Since there were so many people and our luggage, they brought their car (a recent model Mercedes) and their Toyota pickup truck.  After changing some US dollars into Thai Baht, we stepped out into the midday heat.  And I do mean heat.  It was about 95 degrees and the humidity was just as high.  If I were to describe this whole trip in just one word, it would have to be “hot”.  After driving through the Bangkok traffic for about an hour, we stopped at one of the many roadside cafes (for the lack of a better word) for lunch.  After about another 45 minutes, we arrived at Tongkun and On’s house in Prachin Buri about 5:00 pm.  Here Paiboon’s mother was sitting outside waiting for us and Paiboon got somewhat teary eyed after not seeing her mother for two years.  She is 84 years old and in fairly good physical shape for her age, but she is suffering from Alzheimer’s and at times didn’t even know who Paiboon was.  That evening we spent the time watching family members come and go.  Paiboon doesn’t have much family in the Prachin Buri area, but her sister-in-law On has quite a few family members living near by.  Her family has become Paiboon’s extended family over the years since they are all helping to care for her mother. 

 

Day 3: Tuesday, January 18th

Since this was our first full day in Thailand we decided to take it easy, relax and adjust to the time change.   On drove us into the town of Prachin Buri where Paiboon got her hair done while Cindy and I went next door to an internet café to check our email.  A young girl who worked in the hair salon offered to do one of Cindy’s nails while we waited for Paiboon.  We found that she was a college student studying accounting there in nearby Nakon Nayok.  She works in the salon with her mother a few days a week.  This 19 year old was a real cutie, and knew a little bit of English, so between her limited English and my limited Thai, we could communicate fairly well.  We took her next door to the internet café, and I showed her some pictures of Alaska which I had stored on a memory stick and taken along with me.  She offered to exchange email addresses and told Cindy and I that she is logged on to MSN Messenger everyday around 5:00 pm. She insisted that we log on to MSN Messenger so she could be sure we were set up with her correct address. Later that afternoon, we drove about 50 km south to the town of Cha Choeng Sao to visit a new temple that is still under construction.  We visited this one on our last trip three years ago, and it is really a work of art, as most of their temples are.  This would be the first of many temples that we would see in the next two weeks.

 

Day 4: Wednesday, January 19th

This morning we headed west on the first of our three road trips towards the Bridge on the River Kwai.  Joining us was On, her mother and our niece Baifun.  It took a little getting used to being called “Uncle John” by not only Baifun, but by everyone in their family, but that is the Thai way. 

 

We first stopped in the City of Nakorn Pathom.  It sits just to the northwest of Bangkok and is home to the country’s largest Chedi.  I visited here while on a USO tour during the year I was stationed at Utapao in 1972, and since it was along the way I wanted Paiboon and Cindy to see it.   The heat was a real killer here.  After walking around the Chedi on the concrete and climbing the stairs I was soaked with perspiration and was really looking forward to getting back into the air-conditioned van.   Our van driver on this trip was a friend of the family who drives for a tour company.  The driver that we used on our last trip wouldn’t be available for another couple of days.  I found that this is the most economical and comfortable way to get around when we travel over there.  We pay 1000 to 1500 baht p/day (about $25.00 to $30.00) and pay for the gas.  It sure beats having to deal with buses and all of the other means of transportation.  Besides, it’s nice to be able to stop for potty breaks when we want to, and have a cooler of cold drinks on hand.  Over the next two weeks, there was more than one occasion where I would just spot something off in the distance or on the map, and ask the driver to go there.  In addition, our personal drivers have learned to stay off of the major highways and use the rural routes as much as possible so that we can see the real Thailand.  We used this method of transportation the last time we visited, and I wouldn’t do it any other way.

 

Just outside of Nakorn Pathom, we stopped at the Thai Cultural Wax Museum.  If you’ve seen one wax museum you’ve seen them all, but the Thai’s in the group seemed to enjoy it.  It was filled with a bunch of famous Buddhist Monks, members of the Thai Royal Family, and all of the eight previous Kings in the current Chakri Dynasty.  The best part for me was the air conditioning. 

 

Next we headed to the town of Kanchanaburi to see the bridge on the River Kwai.  I noticed quite a few changes since I was there 33 years earlier.   In 1972 it was fairly remote with just a dirt entryway to the area where the bridge sits.  Now, there are buildings all around and they constructed a really nice brick overlook area.  We took a boat ride down river a few miles to visit a cave temple and I noticed that the river-banks all the way down river are now developed, where in 1972 it was more out in the country with buffalo drinking from the river bank and houseboats with thatched roofs scattered along the way.  It is still worth visiting though, because even though it is being developed it is being done nicely.  A few kilometers from the bridge, they now have a Death Museum (called the Jeath Museum) which shows the type of housing and some of the deplorable conditions that the Japanese put the Allied POWs through during WWII.  It was all very interesting.  We also visited the Allies POW cemetery in the town of Kanchanaburi.  We met up with Paiboon’s brother Tongkun at the Bridge around 5:00 pm after he got off work.  He is in the Jewelry business and travels quite a bit and arranged to meet up with us here.  This night we stayed at the River Kwai Hotel for the night where we paid about  $45.00 p/night.  It was a really nice Hotel which included a great American and Thai breakfast buffet the next morning.   After checking into the Hotel that evening, we drove down on the river-front for dinner.  Just name something, and we probably had it for dinner that evening.  One thing I learned from traveling with the Thais, they do love their food.  I think Cindy and I counted over 20 different dishes on our table at one time that evening.  You sure can’t beat the prices though.  One dish alone only costs between 20 and 40 baht and I think the bill for all 7 of us plus our driver was less than 20 dollars.

 

Day 5: Thursday, January 20th

This morning we got an early start.  Just after breakfast we drove about an hour south of Kanchanaburi to the Damnoensaduak floating market.  Again, I had visited it in 1972 on that USO tour, and I thought Cindy and Paiboon would both enjoy it.   It’s quite an experience traveling through all the canals by boat and having vendors all along the way trying to sell you their goods.  We got off the boat at a few places to shop around, but most of the buying and selling is done from your boat.  You just motion to the boat operator to pull up to a place and then the bargaining begins. 

 

After spending a couple of hours at the floating market, we headed south towards Hua Hin Beach.  This is about 150 km south of Bangkok on the western side of the Gulf of Siam.  Before the Tsunami hit on December 26th, we had talked about going further south on the Peninsula or perhaps to the island of Koh Samui, but we thought it best to stay clear of that area since that disaster was so recent.  The word we got was that the recovery is was going great in the Phuket area and they were actually doing what they could to entice tourist back to the area.  Our second driver was down in the area a few days before we arrived, and he told us that Phuket is pretty much back to business as usual.  Most of the Thais we talked to told us they wouldn’t go however because of all of the ghosts. 

 

On the way down to Hua Hin, and after driving through the western parts of Bangkok we made a couple of stops along the Gulf Beaches.  First we stopped at King Rama VI’s beach palace near Petchaburi.  Here, we had to give up our air-conditioned van for bicycles to be allowed to roam the acres and acres of palace grounds.  Although it was hot, being so close to the water made it somewhat bearable.  The entire palace was made of wood and was elevated above the ground by about 12-15 feet.  From one end of the palace to the other, it was probably about 1000 yards.  It is being kept in immaculate condition, and all of the walkways from room to room are made of polished teak wood. 

 

After spending several hours there, our next stop was at Kao Yoi.   Here we were greeted at the entrance to a huge cave temple by hundreds of monkeys.   We were warned to keep our hands on our belongings, since the monkeys loved to grab purses or whatever else they could.  Paiboon paid a few baht to feed them, and one of them grabbed at the basket of bananas and scared the heck out of her.  Now that we were a few kilometers from the water, we were feeling the heat again.  I thought that maybe as we worked our way into the cave that it would cool off, but I was wrong.  Actually, with the still air inside the cave it may be even more uncomfortable.   Working our way inside the maze of caves to the various Buddha images was quite a site though despite the heat.  I was concerned that the monkeys might steal our shoes while we were inside the cave temple, but someone pointed out a stuffed animal that looked like a crocodile which was placed nearby where you put your shoes.  The monkeys were scared to go anywhere near it. 

 

Now that it was getting towards evening, we drove about another 50 km to the town of Hua Hin where we checked into the Sailom Hotel on Hua Hin Beach.  Cindy, Baifun and I needed to cool off in the swimming pool, before we went out to dinner and then turned in for the night. 

 

 

Day 6: Friday, Jan 21st

This morning, I got up around 5:00 am and went for a walk on the beach while everyone else slept in.  I figured if I came all this way, I wasn’t going to waste my time sleeping.  Besides, I wanted to get some pictures of the surf and the sunrise on the Gulf of Siam.  It is truly a beautiful place, but the smoke in the air really kind of distracts from the beauty of it all.  Since it is the dry season, not only is there a lot of smog from the cities, but there are fires everywhere from the farmers burning the old growth off of their sugar cane, tapioca and rice fields.    The walk on the beach at this early hour was really quiet.  I saw only a few tourists on the beach at this hour, and I’d cross paths now and then with a Buddhist Monk and a stray dog here and there.  After my walk, I went back to the hotel room to roust everyone out of bed.  We ate breakfast and made a short stop at a nearby mountain temple on the coast just a few kilometers from the Hotel.  By 10:00 am the heat was getting unbearable already.  

 

From here, we started our way north again towards Bangkok and Prachin Buri.   Late in the morning we stopped at another of the former King’s palaces.  This time it was King Rama IV’s beach palace.  This one was on a mountain top, and overlooked the city of Pethchaburi.  Just when you think you’ve seen them all, you run in to another one that was just as spectacular as the one before.  After spending an hour or two here, we drove a few more kilometers to Samut Songkhram where we stopped at King Rama V’s son’s home.  It is located right on the coast at a river delta that is famous for its oysters.    We only stopped here for a short time and then worked our way across the city of Bangkok to Paiboon’s family’s home in Prachinburi. 

 

Bangkok is a huge city of nearly 12 million people.  As much as we could, we stayed on modern freeways and tollways as we crossed the city, but it still must’ve taken us well more than an hour to go from one end of the city to the other.  Traveling all over the US, I grew accustomed to seeing the downtown areas of cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago with their clusters of skyscrapers located at the city centers.  Bangkok however has clusters of skyscrapers for miles and miles.  It is truly a beautiful city from the elevated freeways, but the smog is so bad that the toll booth operators, traffic cops and many of the motorcyclists wear surgical masks.  I would say that this is probably not the best season to visit Bangkok due to the absence of any rain to cleanse the air.  In the 17 days we were in-country, we never felt a rain drop. 

 

Day 7: Saturday, January 22nd

After a three day and two night excursion, we decided to take today off.  We just kicked back around the house, spending most of it in the air-conditioned office/living room area of their house.  By early afternoon, the wheels were beginning to turn inside the heads of the Thais that were coming and going all day long to visit and eat.  By late afternoon, it was decided that the family and many friends of the family were going to take us on a camping trip to Kao Yai National Park.   It is located only about 45 minutes from Prachinburi.  Around 4 o’clock the car and truck were loaded with all of the camping supplies and we drove up into the mountains of this Beautiful Park.  We had to stop several times after entering the Park to allow groups of monkeys to cross the road.  This area is noted for its wildlife and although we saw several deer and a lot of monkeys in the mountain jungle, we didn’t see any tigers or elephants.  We did see plenty of elephant dung on the road though.  We were told that the elephants walk the roads at night.    I noticed too that a lot of the cement guard rails along the road were knocked down and  I was told the elephants knock them down as they walk along the roads.

 

Once we found a campground with some space, our group of about 25 family and friends unloaded the cars and trucks and set up the tents.  This campground, as well as the others we saw had hundreds of tents set up side by side, and in no particular order.  I told Cindy I felt like I was in one of Thailand’s refugee camps.   Not long after we arrived it began to get dark and the candles began to appear.  Just in the small area of our group, there were five or six of the bamboo mats laid out, charcoal hibachi’s fired up, and about six or seven tents. 

 

At one end of our group sat some Thai men who accompanied us to the park.  They kept encouraging me to go down to that end of the campsite to drink with them.  I came to find out that they were all relatives of On in one way or another.  Two of them were policemen on the Prachinburi police force, and one of them was a rather high ranking police lieutenant.  He spoke fairly good English, but the more he drank the poorer his English became.  As the night went on, he actually became the life of the party.  He kept telling us he could speak Thai, Cambodian, Laotian and English.  As he kept downing the whiskey,   he would say a word in English and then tell us all how to say it in the other languages.  As part of the conversation, I saw the full moon over head and I asked him how to say moon in Laotian, Thai and Cambodian.  He spouted out the word in Thai and then in Laotian, but became very frustrated when he couldn’t remember how to say it in Cambodian.  What was really funny was after a few minutes of racking his brain trying to remember, he pulled out his cell phone and said “I’ll just call Cambodia and ask them”.   His father lives in Cambodia, so he called him, drunk as could be, to ask him how to say Moon in Cambodian.  Like they say, I guess you had to be there. 

 

As 10:00 pm approached, he began to get very loud and his favorite sayings were “No problem” and “Thailand - Land of Smiles”.  It was obvious that his wife was very embarrassed at his behavior,  and all the members of the group kept trying to quiet him down due to 10:00 pm being the beginning of quiet time in the campground.  But, he kept on with his “No Problem” and “Land of Smiles” phrases, and then he began to sing.  After ten minutes or so of his Cambodian singing, the park police came and there was a little bit of a scuffle.  Even though he was a ranking officer in the Prachin Buri Police Force, the Park Police were not going to allow him disrupt the entire campground.  I kept my distance from the entire encounter, but eventually the other men in our group got the Park Police to agree to allow them to handle it.  They stuffed him in his car and had his wife drive him home.  Like he said, “No Problem”.    This phrase came up quite often during the remainder of our stay in Thailand.    

 

Day 8: Sunday, January 23rd

This morning we crawled out of our tents about 7:30 to a cool, maybe as low as, 75 degrees.  It actually felt pretty good to me, but I could see the Thais were shivering even with coats on.  All the Thais in our group seemed to be in a very big hurry to pack up and get out of there.  When I asked why, I was told that it was because of the disturbance in our area last night and they didn’t want any of the other campers looking at them.  They were all embarrassed by our friend's behavior.  So, we all gathered up our gear and took our time driving out of the Park.  We saw several deer, a few monkeys, and again some elephant dung on the roads but no elephants.  We stopped at a beautiful waterfall.  It looked like a picture right out of one of those nature magazines with the lush jungle surrounding a long waterfall into a crystal clear pool of water below.   We arrived back at the family home around mid-afternoon. 

 

Next on our adventure today was that we were going to attend a wedding reception of a friend of On’s.  The wedding was earlier in the day, but the big reception was being held that evening outdoors, not far from where we were staying.   We arrived around 8:00 PM and there were about 300 people in groups of six or seven sitting at the field of tables.  There was a big stage at the head of the outdoor area and one female Thai singer after another came out and performed.  There was also a dance group of about 5 Thai girls who really put on an energetic performance with their platform shoes, mini-skirts, and halter tops.  In Jerry Lee Lewis’ words, there was a whole lotta shakin going on.  As we sat and watched the performance and listened to the singers, waiters brought plate after plate of Thai dishes to our table along with all the others.  The dishes included all kinds of fruits, soups, rice dishes, you name it.  In the US, it definitely would’ve broken the bank. 

 

About an hour after we arrived I noticed a van pull up adjacent to the stage.  A nicely dressed gentleman stepped out and he had a group of five or six other men following, but not too closely.  This guy was going from table to table giving the traditional Thai Wai greeting gesture and shaking hands just like a politician.  I kept thinking; who is this guy that’s getting all the attention.  I came to find out that he was the Governor of the Province of Prachinburi.  I guess he was a friend of either the bride or the groom and he got up on stage and proposed the toast and said some words of congratulations etc. etc...  The Thai elections were scheduled to held in less than two weeks too, so since he was up for re-election I suppose he also saw this as a good opportunity to press some flesh and be seen with the little people.  Just like in the USA huh? 

 

Day 9: Monday, January 24th

This morning we began our second of three road trips.  We had no definite locations in mind other than south on the eastern side of the Gulf.  I belong to an Internet E-Group of more than 400 former military members who were stationed in the Utapao/Sattahip area in the late 60s to mid-70s.  One of the fellows lives in Banchang with his Thai wife not far from Utapao, and since he had given me his telephone number I planned to look him up.  I was looking forward to meeting one of the members of this group that I’ve been communicating with over the past 4 years solely via the internet.   We headed in that direction about 8:00 AM.

 

Just east of Pattaya we stopped at a mountain that on one side was a sheer face of rock.  On this rock was an image of Buddha that was in-layed into the rock with some sort golden material.  This monument was made in the early 90s (1992 I think) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the current King of Thailand's reign.  This was really a beautiful sight and could be seen for miles as we drove towards it.  Also in the area just a few kilometers from this Buddha Rock was a recently built temple.  The landscaping around this temple was probably the best I’ve seen in Thailand, and the all white Temple really stuck out.   By this time though the heat was on again and I didn’t care to spend too much time walking around outside.  Damn was it hot!   It was time to get in that air-conditioned van and move on.

 

Our next stop was in Banchang where I met up with my Internet-group buddy that I mentioned earlier.  I called his house from a cell phone and he gave us directions to his house.  He was a very nice fellow and we had a really nice chat for about an hour as Paiboon and his wife were yapping away as well.  They have a real nice place and they both seem very happy living in Thailand.   I could kick myself though because about ˝ hour we left their place it donned on me that I didn’t get a picture of us together.  I took over 400 pictures on this trip, and that was the one I didn’t get.  Oh well.  I found out later that he felt just as foolish as I did about not taking a picture.

 

From his place we drove further east towards the city of Rayong.  Along the way we passed the archway entrance to the famous Newland bar-town from the late 60s and early 70s when the GIs were stationed in the area.  The only thing recognizable to me was the archway entrance, the shrine beside it, and the remains of one of the bars.  Of course since I was only ever in that town once I wouldn’t recognize anything anyhow, right?  I was one of those GIs that only went to the library on base. 

 

While in Rayong, we stopped for lunch.  Paiboon and the driver wanted Thai food naturally, but with the Mall just across the street I saw a perfect opportunity for some real food.  Cindy and went over to McDonald’s where I had my first meal with substance since I left Anchorage 9 days earlier; a cheeseburger and fries.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Thai food but I also believe that too much of a good thing can be bad for you.  While in Rayong, we drove down to the beach area and looked out into the Gulf at Koh Samet Island.  We considered taking a boat out there to spend the night, but something about islands and Thailand this soon after the Tsunami just didn't feel right.  It just so happened that only a few days earlier, a ferry boat shuttling passengers to this very island sank and killed a number of people.  Paiboon just wasn’t ready to head out into the Gulf by boat.  Instead we decided to head up towards Pattaya.    We got a hotel room at Jomtien Beach, which is located just to the south of Pattaya, and that evening Paiboon’s older brother and his son met us at the hotel.  This brother lives just north of Pattaya at Bang Sean Beach.   His son lives in Bangkok, and I had met him a few days earlier, shortly after we arrived in-country.  Later that evening we drove around the beach town of Pattaya taking in the sights and sounds of all the bars.  If I was 30 years younger and a single guy I might have enjoyed it.  This old dog however just doesn’t see this as fun anymore.  

 

Day 10: Tuesday, January 25th

The next morning I got up early and headed for the pool.  After a brief swim and breakfast, we all got in the van and drove about 20 kilometers north to Nong Nooch.  This is a botanical garden with a traditional Thai dance and cultural performance, an elephant show, and several places where you can make contact with tigers and other animals native to Southeast Asia.  I took Cindy’s picture with three orangutans hanging on her and another one of her while bottle feeding a baby tiger.  Oh, and did I mention it was hot.  My God was it hot.  

 

After lunch, Cindy and I were dropped off at a place that had a huge temple being constructed entirely out of teak wood right on the water-front of the Gulf.  We toured the grounds and went through the temple watching the wood carvers busy at work.  They also had a dolphin show that we watched.  Paiboon and the rest of the crowd drove back down to Jomtien to pick up her nephew’s truck which he had left at the hotel.  They didn’t really care to see this Teak Temple whereas Cindy and I both were rather impressed with it all.   This evening we decided to find a bungalow on Bang Sean Beach.  It is probably the last remaining un-developed beach area on the east side of the Gulf of Siam.  We stayed there three years ago and really enjoyed the atmosphere better than the hustle and bustle of the tourist beaches.  We actually ended up staying in the same bungalow that we did 3 years earlier.  Cindy and I both walked the 50 yards or so to the beach and took a swim.  That evening we just sat around and ate and drank beer.  Paiboon got some good catch-up time in with her brother, and his wife and little girl joined us from their home just a short distance from where we were staying.  Their little girl "Ludee" is 4 years old and gives true meaning to the term Land-of-Smiles.  She was a real sweetheart, but was extremely shy of this big white guy, who talked funny.  It was all I could do to get her look at me and smile for a picture.  She was really making me work for it but I’d get it the next day.

 

Day 11: Wednesday, January 26th

This morning we slept in and really didn’t get going until after 9:00 am.  We met up with her brother and his family again and all jumped in the van headed for the Sriraca Tiger Zoo just a few miles away.  Here was a tourist attraction that offered another elephant show, crocodile show and circus performance with tigers.  Something rather unique about this place was that they showed us young piglets being breast fed by a Tiger, and young tigers being breast fed from a sow pig.  They also had an attraction where they demonstrated the intelligence of pigs and held pig races.  This is the place where I got my picture of my little 4 year old niece with the elusive smile.  All it took was a souvenir hat that I bought for her.  By later that afternoon, I even got her to hold my hand as we walked across a pier to eat lunch at an open air restaurant.  After lunch, we made one last stop at Koh Lay before we headed back to Prachinburi.  Koh Lay is just north of Bang Sean and is a small island with a temple at the top of a small mountain.  The temple itself is rather old, but the area surrounding it below is just now being made into a park.   Since our longest road trip was to begin early the next morning we headed back to Prachinburi by mid afternoon to relax and get our bearings before heading north.

 

Day 12: Thursday, January 27th

We headed east this morning with our only definite destination in mind being Ubon.   I was temorarily assigned there in 1973 for about eight months from Seymour Johnson AFB to work on the F-4s which were deployed there, and hadn’t been back since then.  To break up the rather long drive to Ubon from Prachinburi, we stopped at several places along the way. 

 

The first place was at the Temple of Wat Lahn Kuet.  This translates into The Temple of one-million bottles.  Yes you guessed it.  The entire temple was made out of glass bottles.  Not only the temple, but all of the surrounding buildings in this temple complex, including the chedi, the monk’s quarters, and even the crematorium and side buildings.  I didn’t bother to count them, but I’m sure there were at least a million bottles.  It was quite a sight.  

 

Another side stop, about 30 kilometers off the major roadway system was at Khao Phra Wihan.  This National Park is located right on the Cambodian border directly south of Ubon.  Here we walked the Park grounds which lay right on the border itself.  We could look across from a cliff and see the road to Phenom Phen.  Both here, and on the drive in, we could see areas fenced off with danger signs showing the still existing mine field areas from the Killing fields era of  Pol Pot's bloody "Year Zero" ethnic cleansing campaign.  It claimed the lives of over two million "undesirable" civilians.  After seeing the movie it actually sent chills up my spine to see the mine fields.  We also spotted a middle aged gentleman sitting on the ground with a wooden leg who no-doubt was a victim of one of the mines.  When we lived in Tampa, one of our neighbors was a Cambodian refugee who told me his story of how he and his wife and two children fled across the border into Thailand during that time.  We still had quite a few kilometers to go before the end of the day, so Cindy and I only stepped across the Cambodian border long enough to take a picture.   Oh and just in case I forget to mention it, it was hot here too.

 

We pulled into the city of Ubon just after dark.  As we drove across the Mun River from Warin, I noticed just a few familiar sights.    I don’t remember the name of the Hotel where we stayed, but it wasn’t far from my old stomping grounds.  After such a long day, we just ate and hit the sack for the night.

 

Day 13: Friday, January 28th

As I got into the habit of doing, I got out of bed early this morning and went for a walk around my old Ubon stomping grounds.  Since we weren’t far from the Ubon Air Base Main Gate, I took a short walk over there where I found guard who spoke fairly good English.  I showed him a picture from 1973 that I took with me, and explained to him that I was there 32 years earlier and worked on the F-4s.  He was quite fascinated with the picture, because the gate doesn’t look anything like it did back then.  I asked him if he was originally from the Ubon area, and he said that he was and that he vaguely remembered the American GI’s in the area when he was a young boy.  He allowed me to take a picture of the gate, and said that I could walk around just inside the gate to look around but asked that I not take any pictures inside the gate because some aircraft were due to arrive from Bangkok that morning. 

 

Since it was still early and I knew that everyone else was still in bed, I took a walk down the main thoroughfare to see if I could find our old bungalow.  Everything looked a little familiar, but there was more traffic than I remembered in 1973.  Back then the easiest mode of transportation was the Sam-law (Canopy covered tricycle).  Now, this street was way to busy for them.  It was probably a little more than one kilometer down the street and over one block but I finally found it.  It looked quite different, with the outside staircase missing, but I recognized the building and felt pretty sure it was the same building because of the large mango tree directly behind it. 

 

By now it was time to walk back to the hotel and roust everyone out of bed.  Today was On’s birthday, and I wanted to do something special for her but she let it be known, under no uncertain terms, that she did not want to celebrate being 41.  After being married to a Thai for more than 30 years, I took her for her word and never brought it up again.  After breakfast, we took a drive over to the Air Base gate, down to our old bungalow, and then to a temple downtown where I wanted to get a picture.  I had taken a picture of Paiboon on the steps of this temple in 1973 with her hand placed on the statue of a small elephant beside the steps.  I had the picture with me, and I put her in the same pose to take another picture.  The elephant looked the same, but she had aged a little bit.  After spending just a short time here (because it was getting hot), we drove west towards the Mekong River which marks the border of Thailand and Laos.

 

We stopped along the way at Sirinthon Dam, which was a project of the Royal Princess.  Here we saw her yacht moored just off shore of the lake.  We only spent a few minutes here, long enough to get an ice cream because it was so hot, and continued to drive to the border and Pha Taem National Park.  The English translation for Pha Taem is “Painted Cliff”.  As we drove into the park it reminded me a little of Sedona Arizona with the large sandstones even though they were not the same color.   We walked across the natural sandstone parking area and looked down over a very high cliff to the Mekong River below.  Now let me tell you, this place was hot.  I mean good God was it hot!  Tongkun, Cindy and I worked our way down a stone pathway quite a distance to see the cliff paintings, and by the time we got down and then climbed our way back up to the parking area we were toast; soggy wet toast from sweating so much.  This was by far the hottest day and place during our stay.   That air-conditioned van never felt so-good as we continued on our journey.

 

As we continued on northward, we drove through the town of Aminat Charoen.  As we were driving just outside the city limits, something caught my eye sitting back in to the left a few hundred yards.  The driver pulled in for gas less than one kilometer further down the road, so while he was getting gas I asked him to go back the other way so I could satisfy my curiosity.  Sure enough, it was a large statue of a sitting gold Buddha image; the same one that I thought was so beautiful when I was there in 1973.  So beautiful, that this was the one picture I had chosen for the main page of my Thailand website when I started it about four years ago.  It was just a stroke of luck that we stumbled across it, because I didn’t remember where it was located.

 

Our next stop was just to the east of the city of Roi Et at probably the most spectacular sight we saw during our entire stay.    As we drove down this god-awful road towards a lone mountain we all at once spotted the huge white Phra Maha Chedi sitting at the top of the mountain.  As we maneuvered around the winding mountain road, we arrived at the parking lot where this masterpiece stood.  Since 1987, it is still under construction but the parts that are completed are real pieces of work.  Nothing but the best marble and materials are being put into this structure, and the craftsmanship is truly something to see.  We arrived just as the interior was being closed for the day, but with some smooth talking by Tongkun, the gentleman at the door was persuaded to allow us to enter.  Not only enter, but he gave us a personalized grand tour.  The first couple of floors were still a bit rustic due to the construction, but as we climbed staircase after staircase all the way to the top, the more finished the areas appeared.  By the time we reached the top floor, Cindy and I were both awestruck at the beauty of it all.  Not only were the floors constructed of polished marble, but all of the gold work, golden Buddha images, painted ceilings, crystal chandeliers and hand painted stained glass window work was a sight to be seen.   In addition, the landscaping surrounding the chedi was immaculate.  We walked the grounds for a short while after our tour, and as the red sun approached the horizon, I felt that I was in a special place for some reason. 

 

Since it was now getting dark, it was time to find a place to stay.  We drove through some back-country villages on some pretty rough road until we finally reached the city of Mukda Han, again on the Thai-Lao border at the Mekong River.   Here we checked in to the Ploy Palace Hotel which was located right on the Mekong River bank.  We took a quick dip in the pool and went out for dinner on the Mekong River Front.  We all hit the sack pretty early, since this was another long day.  And yes, it was another hot one. 

 

Day 14: Saturday, January 29th

First thing this morning I wished my little girl Cindy, a Happy 28th Birthday.  Nothing she could say would prevent me from making it an issue like On had done the day before on her birthday.  This morning we got an early start and stopped at the market in Mukda Han.  There was nothing special here.  It was just another city market but it was located just on the river front.  I had been in this area while stationed at Ubon too and I remembered an orphanage close by, but I couldn’t find it.  This area of town was being refurbished so the orphanage was probably long gone, or I perhaps I just thought it was in this area.  Thirty two years is a long time. 

 

From here, we drove 30 kilometers further north to the town of That Phanom.  It is just 25 kilometers south of NKP Air Base which is another base from the Vietnam era.  We had taken a trip up here in 1973 when I was at Ubon and I wanted to once again see the tall white tower at the temple located in this small town.  This place definitely had changed in the years since I was last there.  First of all it was no longer a small town, and the original tall white tower had fallen down in the late 1970s.  There was now a new one under construction which still had scaffolding surrounding it.  Back in the day, this was one of those quiet little places, but today it is crowded with vendors, elephants looking for bananas to be hand fed to them for 20 baht, and people everywhere.  I was not nearly as impressed as I had been on my first trip here.  It was time to move on.  The Thais in our group speaking to each other “in their secret language”, all decided that we were going to drive half way across the country this afternoon.

 

We headed west through Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani, and then north to the Thai-Lao border city of Nong Khai.  It was a long ride, even in an air-conditioned van.  We stopped for a late lunch just outside of Udon at a lakeside restaurant, and even though we were on a lake it didn’t dispel the heat one bit.  It was another cooker, even on the water.  Just before coming to the city of Nong Khai late in the afternoon, our driver pulled into a place that was the site of an ancient Indian Hindu temple.  We never even bothered to give the temple a second look, because on the acres and acres surrounding the temple there were dozens of large statues of Buddhas, elephants, 7-headed snakes and more.  It was like being in an uncovered jungle of ancient statues and ruins, something like you would see in an Indiana Jones movie.  After spending about an hour here, we pulled into Nong Khai around sunset.  Nong Khai is the site of the recently constructed Thai-Lao Friendship bridge across the Mekong River, and connects the cities of Nong Khai in Thailand with the Laotian capitol of Vientiene.  Our plan was to get visas in the morning and drive across into Laos.  After checking into the Royal Mekong Hotel on the shore of the river and just a few hundred yards from the bridge we took a refreshing swim in the pool.  It sure felt good after the long day we just had.  After getting cleaned up, we drove to a few kilometers to a nice restaurant on the river.  Here, On’s plan came to fruition.  One of the waiters brought out a birthday cake all decorated up with “Happy Birthday Cindy” and gave each one of us a red rose to give to her.  We lit the candles, sang Happy Birthday to her and then enjoyed the next two hours eating and eating and eating.  There was quite a variety on the menu here.  We had fried ants, an order of bees, and a lot of other stuff that I was afraid to ask about. 

 

Day 15: Sunday, January 30th

Today would hold in store for us another long road journey to get back to Prachinburi.  We were now close to 500 kilometers away.  After waking up early, only to find our trip across the bridge into Laos had been nixed, we decided to go into the city of Nong Khai to the Indochina Market.  The Thais, speaking again in their secret language, decided that the hassle of getting visas for us and border passes for them to cross into Laos just wasn’t worth it only to see another typical Asian city.  They had gotten word that things were not all that great over there and that we would be better off moving on.  I didn’t really care one way or the other, and neither did Ciindy.  Especially, since we had such a long drive ahead of us.  We spent a couple of hours this morning walking through the market buying some souvenirs and haggling over the prices with the vendors.  Some people really get a charge out of doing that, but I can’t say that I care much for it.  It always seems like when I settle on a price, that I got taken; even though I’m completely satisfied with the price that I agreed on. 

 

As we headed south driving through the city of Khon Kaen, it was a struggle to keep from dozing off and missing all of the sights along the way.  There were fields and fields of sugar cane, tapioca, roadside fruit stands, and dried up rice patties.  The sights you see on the roads over there are definitely worth the effort it takes to stay awake.  We would see families of four or five people on one motorcycle, an ox crossing the road, and the trucks over there are just loaded down with sugarcane stacked 10 feet higher than what you would think possible.  At one point our driver made every effort he possibly could to avoid hitting a dog but the dog was just at the wrong place at the wrong time with this guy bearing down on him at 120 km p/hour.   I heard the thump, but the people sitting in the back of our van said the poor dog just rolled a few times and kept going.   Traveling on the road system of Thailand reminds me of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney Land. 

 

As evening approached, we entered Korat City.  I hadn’t planned to stop here since it was getting late, but the Thais were in charge.  I guess it is tradition that when you go through this city it is a must to stop at The Shrine of Lady Mo to pray.  The shrine is located in the center of the city, and is to a woman who, at some time in Thai history, led the people of the era to ward off the Burmese invaders.  This was one busy place when we arrived around 7:00 pm that evening.  With the Thai election just a week away, this was the sight of a huge election rally.  There were loud speakers blaring, and huge TV screens with politicians screaming in Thai.  Although I couldn’t understand what they were saying, I’m sure it was something like we heard John Kerry and George Bush screaming just a few months earlier in the US.  There were a lot of police in the area of the Lady Mo shrine, and we were told it was because Prime Minister Taksin was in the area.   We finally got out of there after about an hour and drove into the town of Sara Buri.  Here we would stop briefly to pick up Paiboon’s sister in law.  She is the widowed wife of Paiboon’s brother who passed away a few years ago.  She was going to accompany us on the remaining hour drive to Prachinburi.  This was a long day that both Cindy and I were glad was over.  We were pooped.  Our driver, when asked, told us we traveled 2100 kilometers in the previous 4 days. 

 

Day 15: Monday, January 31st

Since we were now down to just 2 full days remaining in Thailand we only had one thing left to do, and that was to shop.  Cindy and I both slept in this morning though, while Paiboon and all of the family went to the temple to pay respects to her father and deceased brother.  They had a big shindig at the temple and said they would be back by 12:30.  I knew it was going to be stinking hot with a lot of praying going on, so I decided to stay home.   They came home shortly afternoon and On drove us to the outskirts of Bangkok to the Future Park Mall.  This is a mall just like the largest malls in the USA, and was not the place for us.  After all, we can get this experience even in Alaska.  After about two hours there, we drove a short distance to the Thai food market where Paiboon stocked up on her food supplies and then back to Prachinburi.  Again, it was HOT – HOT - HOT!

 

Day 16: Tuesday, February 1st

This was to be our last full day in Thailand before heading back across the big pond.   Since we weren’t satisfied with what the mall had to offer us the day before, we had our van driver pick us up and drive us into the city of Bangkok to the city market.  Here we found what we wanted, with the street-side, open-air atmosphere with everything under the sun you would expect to find in an Asian city of 12 million people;  traffic, noise, people, lots of bargaining, fruit stands, smog, and of course 90+ degree temperatures.  It was a fitting way to spend our last full day in the Land of Smiles.  After spending about three or four hours here we drove back to Prachinburi and began the chore of packing our bags.

 

Day 17: Wednesday, February 2nd

Our flight was scheduled to depart Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport at 8:50 am and our check in time was 6 o’clock.  We arose early and were accompanied by relatives packed into the van and in On’s Mercedes Benz.  We all said our good-byes and left the 95 degree humid heat of Bangkok.  We spent about three hours in Taipei and after about eight and half hours arrived in Anchorage 45 minutes before we left Bangkok.  Amazing what flying easterly across the International Dateline will do.   It was minus 12 degrees when we arrived home on the east side of Anchorage.   Brrrrrr.  Damn it was cold.  I guess I’m just like a woman.  Nothing makes me happy.  Just a few hours earlier I was complaining about the heat.

 

All in all it was a fantastic trip.  We had a great time and learned once again that Thailand truly is The Land of Smiles.  The only thing bigger is their hearts and hospitality.  Everyone we met along the way during those 17 days, to include family members, restaurant workers, to the young girl in the beauty salon and internet café, all went far and beyond to show us the utmost respect and do what they could to ensure we were as comfortable as possible.  The one thing I find on every trip to Thailand it that the beauty of this place is not the country itself, but the Thai people who live there.   Anyone who has ever visited this place will agree that they are truly what makes this a special place.