Travel Edition 2018: Smiles all around

Catherine Sodini
January/February 2018

In Thailand, a friendly nation, even the elephants smile.

Mesmerized, I looked in the eye of a gentle giant, one that had endured a tragic past, peppered with scars and wounds, but even so a beautiful creature who could now roam freely among buffalo in a Thailand nature park. I stroked the elephant’s rough skin, his mud now on my hands. He seemed to smile. And I had never felt more alive.

The Elephant Nature Park is one of my favorite memories from a recent Northern Thailand Highlights Tour with Contiki Travel, a AAA Colorado travel partner who specializes in travel for 18- to 35-year-old adventurers from around the world.

Elephants in Thailand have been exploited, abused, and mistreated in a variety of unethical and sometimes illegal ways—while forced to give rides, performing in circuses, and while logging. The sanctuary’s loving care of the animals makes it so popular that our tour manager said Contiki Travel had to book our visit two months in advance to make sure we could go. I was so thankful this was listed as an optional experience, meaning it was an additional cost, but so worth it.

At first, I had questions

The detail and colors of Buddha statues caught the author’s attention. © Catherine Sodini

I landed just before midnight in the hustle and bustle of Thailand’s capital city, a little dazed from two days of traveling to get there, carrying nothing but my backpack and a small suitcase. I have experienced plenty of solo traveling before—South America, Central America and Europe—but never in this part of the world.

When I met my fellow travelers—30 people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Luxembourg, Germany, the United Kingdom, Colombia, and the list goes on—questions raced through my mind: Would I mesh with the group? Would everyone else be in pairs, with their significant other or best friends? How would I remember 30 people’s names? But as I walked in, our trip manager, Jazz, waved me into the group, and her big smile put me at ease. All my doubts quickly faded; more than half of our group were solo, too. After our initial introductions, we dined together, played fun name games and icebreakers, visited a local bar for more than just your average nightcap, dancing to the rhythms of familiar songs, when sudden, torrential rain fell into our open-air dance floor. We didn’t stop dancing, and had a blast. This is what traveling is all about—putting myself outside of my comfort zone, embracing the culture, and making the best of any obstacle that comes your way. It was the best was to kick off this eight-day adventure!

One special entry in the itinerary fascinated me: bamboo rafts tied together, creating a raft hotel, an off-the-grid eco-hotel focusing on ecology conservation. I liked the sounds of that, but once on the boat, what I liked most was jumping into the river and floating to the flags that marked the place to get out. With an hour before dinner, I jumped in the water, floated down the river with new friends, and did it all over again, four times.

Our family-style dinner included locally sourced curry, chicken and pork, lit by kerosene lamps. The local pineapple plantation supplied our dessert.

Lead me to the water

Erawan National Park is home to stunning waterfalls and crystal-clear lagoons. © DeAgostini/Getty Images

I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire, right on the ocean, so water has always been a big part of my life. Living in the landlocked state of Colorado makes me miss the shore. So, I was delighted to arrive at Erawan National Park, Thailand’s 12th National Park, home to stunning waterfalls and crystal-clear lagoons. The best part? You guessed it—I could swim in them, all seven levels. On level five, a waterfall with a natural waterslide dropped right into the lagoon; I must have slid down more than 10 times. I felt like a little kid at recess … pure joy and excitement. It was a quick visit, just two hours, and I did not want to leave!

We visited some great cities on this trip; one of my favorites is Chang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital, surrounded by mountains. Upon arriving to the hotel, I hopped in a tuk-tuk with some friends to the Wat Phra Thai Doi Suthep temple, shrouded in mist atop a mountain that overlooks the city. My stomach churned as we crossed switchback after switchback into the clouds.

Wat Phra Thai Doi Suthep temple, shrouded in mist atop a mountain that overlooks Chang Mai. © Catherine Sodini

Upon arriving at the base of the temple, we looked up a staircase of more than 300 steps leading to the temple building. What we encountered at the top was worth the sweat—temples trimmed with gold and full of color, with astonishing detail. At the meditation center there, I found a peaceful, quiet space where I could calm my mind for a few moments.

The author and her fellow travelers learned about local produce and spices from the chef leading a Thai cooking class. © Catherine Sodini

That evening, I experienced another optional and worthwhile activity—a Thai cooking class. We met our chef in the middle of a busy market, filled with the smells of fresh spices, vegetables, fish, and meat. After shopping for our ingredients, we drove out to the countryside, where we lined up at personal cooking stations, and watched as the chef instructed us on what to do. We prepared a four-course meal, and finished it off with the popular dessert of mango sticky rice.

All these adventures come to life again when I correspond with some of my fellow travelers on social media, where we post our photos and share our memories. I cannot wait for the next adventure, and meeting new friends.

Ask the expert

The historic temples in Ayuttayah. © Catherine Sodini

Before you leave home, pack motion sickness medication, and snacks. Once in Thailand, buy bug spray (and anything you’ve forgotten) at any of the many 7-11 stores. The bug spray in Thailand is typically more powerful than what’s available in the U.S.

Be prepared to live life in “Thai time.” Food takes a while to prepare, service is slow, and no one is in a rush. Relax; you’re on vacation.

Thai meals cost a few dollars; one of my faves cost $1.10. But most vendors do not take credit cards. Therefore, bring cash, or a debit card you can use to get cash at an ATM.

Cover your legs and shoulders, and take off your shoes, when entering a temple. Be respectful of the nation’s worship of its king.

Tap water in Thailand is not safe, so I purchased bottled water from 7-11 stores, where it sold for 9-15 baht; 30 baht equals $1. The hotels where we lodged provided two free bottles per night.

The language barrier for Americans traveling to Thailand is huge, but it can be overcome with kindness, patience, and smiles. (I got good at charades.) If you haggle for something, Thais will likely drop the price if you smile, but not as much when you’re demanding and acting entitled.

AAA Resources

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Catherine Sodini is a AAA Colorado Travel Agent in the North Metro retail store, 5140 W. 120th Ave., Westminster, who specializes in adventure travel.