On the last day of my last trip to Thailand, I learned about two things that I could have done if I had more time: pet a tiger and swim in a shark tank. Ever since then, I've been looking for an excuse to go back.
My excuse came this year when I discovered that flying from Tokyo to Berlin would cost about $600 one way, but that a one way ticket from Tokyo to Bangkok and another one from Bangkok to Berlin would cost $500 combined. I wasn't getting a free trip to Bangkok-- I was getting paid to stop there.
Bangkok has some amazing malls- the apparent king of them being Siam Paragon, at the Siam skytrain station. Besides a movie theater with fold-nearly-flat leather recliners complete with pillows and duvets, a Lamborghini dealership stocked with cars, and one of the best food courts I've ever seen, it also has an aquarium. A big aquarium.
Central to the aquarium is a shark tank that holds nurse sharks, reef tip sharks, and leopard sharks. If you pay between $150 and $225 (depending on whether you're a certified diver or not), you can scuba in the tank with a guide, and get extremely close to the sharks, rays, and other sea critters.
It may not be wild like the ocean, but there's something to be said for being in such a small body of water so highly concentrated with interesting things to see.
It's amazing to get to see sharks so close, with no barriers between you. Not sixty seconds after descending to the bottom, a one swam two feet in front of my face. For the first time I got a real sense of their size and presence.
For the most part it wasn't scary, although they do have a habit of swimming straight at you and then turning at the last second. At another point (visible in the video), I looked around and realized that three of them were circling me. Another time one of them hit my head with its tail.
I highly recommend the experience, even (especially) if you're scared of sharks. It's a great opportunity to see live sharks from inches away.
The next day we joined a tour to visit the Tiger Temple. I normally stay away from tours, but it was far cheaper than organizing the trip ourselves, and had an extra stop at the bridge over the River Kwai. The bridge was actually built under the conditions described in the movie, but looks completely different.
The most interesting part of the River Kwai stop, though, was right around the corner from our bus. Sitting on top of a table in a food stall area were two baby leopards. Live baby leopards.
Would I like to feed one for $3? Of course.
Next thing I know, I'm sitting on the edge of a table, and a baby leopard has climbed on my lap and is pawing at me to get the bottle that I've been handed. Incredible! Because it's a baby it's very active, so I have to restrain it a bit with one hand while I pet it with the other. After it gulps down the first bottle, I'm handed a second. Possibly the best three dollars I've ever spent.
After that we went to ride Elephants, which was really touristy and cheesy. Afterwards I bought a bucket of elephant food (bananas) and hand fed one of them. For some reason no one else was excited about this option, so I did it alone.
Also falling under the category of "why is no one else doing this?" was jumping in the River Kwai. After eating a really good lunch that I didn't know was included, they took us on a raft up the river. I was a little annoyed at myself for signing up for something so touristy, so I decided to liven things up by stripping down and jumping into the muddy water. The water felt great, so I floated next to the raft all the way back down to the restaurant.
Finally, after a somewhat awkward bus ride where everyone else was fully clothed and I'm not wearing anything besides soaking wet underwear, we get to Tiger Temple.
Tiger Temple was a normal monastery until, some years ago, an abandoned tiger was left with the monks there. They took care of it, and were given another tiger. Now the've got a couple dozen of them, and visitors can come and interact with them. I had no idea what to expect, but I figured I'd be satisfied even if I just got to pet one once, and that I'd push for more if possible.
I wasn't disappointed. At the back of the grounds is a canyon that has about a dozen or so tigers lying around in it. Some critics accuse the monks of drugging the tigers, but I read everything I could about it and was convinced that this isn't the case. One by one a guide takes you from one tiger to the next to pet them and have your picture taken.
It's crazy, really. These are beautiful animals that you can usually only see through thick glass, and at the Tiger Temple you're actually laying down next to them and petting them. One of them laid on his back and let me rub his belly like a dog.
After all that, which only lasts five or ten minutes, we wandered off around the grounds until we found a monk walking a baby tiger. I asked him if I could walk the tiger, and he handed me the leash. For the next ten minutes or so, it was as if I had my own pet tiger. When we stopped, the tiger turned back towards me and licked my shin with his prickly toungue. I sat down in front of him, held his paw, and put my face near his. It sounds trivial in the retelling, but it was really an incredible experience.
Thailand is great country for a whole host of reasons, but the ability to get up close and personal with normally forbidden animals is at the top of my list. Next time I go I want to swim with the elephants near Chang Mai and do the four hour morning program at Tiger Temple where you get to hang out one on one with a tiger for hours.
A short while I ago, as an aside, I mentioned that I might be buying an RV to live in. It seemed like a good idea, so every day I checked ebay to see what sorts of deals were to be had. I wasn't ready to buy, but I figured it would be good to know what's available for when the condo sold.
I sat in my living room chatting with some friends on AIM when one of them brought up the RV idea. While I explained it to them I opened up ebay. By default it shows the most recently listed RVs on top. The very top one was an R-Vision Trail Lite, one of the few models I'd really liked. I glanced over at the price and it was $14,000, less than half of what they usually go for. There must be something wrong with it.
I opened the listing and read through the description. The front "shotgun" seat was missing. No big deal. They'd backed into something and the fiberglass around the tail light was cracked. No big deal. The couch wasn't the one specifically made for the RV. No big deal.
Three days–that’s all I had during my first trip to Asia.
I was set to take off just a few days after spending 3 weeks traveling to Sri Lanka, the States and the Bahamas and I was dead broke. A few months earlier, I found out that I had won a free flight to Bangkok from my bank here in the United Arab Emirates and was determined to make the trip happen–even if it meant traveling to Asia with only $300 to my name. This trip would also be my first experience Couchsurfing AND on the Asian continent, so I was excited and nervous all at the same time.
One of the first things that I always do when I travel alone is purchase a sim card so that I can stay connected with family & friends. I arrived to Bangkok, bought my sim, added some minutes & a data plan and headed to the house where I was going to be staying for the next few days. Bangkok was everything that I thought a stereotypical big Southeast Asian city would be–sprawling with skyscrapers, intricate metro rail lines, crowded, dirty and lively with millions of things happening all around me at the same time. It was a complete sensory overload but I must admit–I loved the energy.
Couchsurfing is a popular way to travel. You stay in the homes of locals or expats in cities around the world–for free. I met my host Amy through a friend of a friend who had Couchsurfed in Bangkok a year earlier. Before my trip, I had Skyped with Amy and her roommates to get things situated for my stay at their house. On the first night, I made it to Amy’s house and enjoyed some welcome drinks and conversation with her roommates about Bangkok, living abroad and traveling. Each of them had come from various parts of the world (Europe, Australia and the US) to intern in Bangkok for different businesses and NGO’s and they were renting a 3-bedroom apartment in the Sukhumvit area. That night, as I lay down to sleep on the couch, I remember thinking about how crazy it was to be in a complete stranger’s house in a foreign country. One of the things that always blows me away about most travelers and expats that I meet abroad is how amazingly open and welcoming they are to meeting new people.
Early in the morning on my first full day, I borrowed a map and an old Lonely Planet guide from one of Amy’s roommates and hit the city. For a girl with less than $300 in her pocket, I couldn’t believe how much I was able to do and see. I spent the next three days traveling around in tuk-tuks exploring temples, hoping on and off of the Bangkok Transit System (BTS), visiting wats, shopping, meeting up with more friends of friends, gorging on street food and partying with fellow travelers on the infamous Khaosan Road. By the end of the trip, I was exhausted. I enjoyed every minute of it and even boasted mosquito bites as battle wounds.