Monday, November 24, 2014

Our Trip to Thailand 2: AYUTTAYAH ELEPHANT VILLAGE (Oct. 30, 2014)

November 2, 2014

Ayutthaya is about 80 km north from Bangkok. Just like Damnoen yesterday, we also reached this city in about two hours or so. Ayutthaya is the second capital of Siam (after Sukhothai) from the 14th to 18th centuries. This city is considered the highest point in the history of the Siamese kingdom. The style of Thailand we know today is borne out in this auspicious period in history.

Our driver Khun Noi dropped us off at the Elephant Village, which has been the top wish of the kids when we were planning our trip to Thailand. Honestly, outside it was quite desolate and dilapidated in appearance. There weren't as many tourists as I was expecting to see. But, this was indeed the Elephant Village as announced on their doorway, so in we go.

We were met by a soft-spoken Thai lady who spoke English. She told us that we have two choices for this tour of the ruins while riding elephants. We could either choose the one-hour ride at a cost of 1500 baht per person or the 30-minute ride at 1000 baht per person. Any way you look at it, this was an expensive entrance fee! The 1500 baht per boat price in Damnoen yesterday was nothing compared to this.

If it was me, I would only choose the 30 minute ride. However the excited kids overruled me and wanted to ride the elephant longer. My wife acted on a hunch and tried to haggle for the price of the ride. From 1500 baht per person, finally we settled for 1300 baht per person. For five of us, that was a grand total of 6500 baht, practically wiping out more than half of the US$300 I exchanged that morning. I did not think too much anymore, we were there and this is what we were there to do.

Aside from the driver, two people ride on each elephant. My wife and daughter got into the first elephant. My elder son and I got into the second. Our youngest got to ride the third one solo. The first elephant went so fast, we were not together for the first 20 minutes or so of the tour. At least, my two sons were with me. 
Along the way, we saw ruins of temples. Unfortunately, we do not get any commentary about each temple ruin. I only saw a name plate, but no description could be read. I had no idea about the significance of these ruins we were seeing. The drivers were not really English-speaking so no input from them at all. Honestly if riding an elephant was not in your plan, you could actually just drive your car around this area yourself and look at these ruins.

The elephants needed to eat or answer the call of nature, so they was not walking the whole time. While riding, I actually felt bad for these animals. Walking on the cemented road must be so difficult on their feet. The drivers were holding a tool that looked like a small pick axe with a long bamboo or wooden handle. My kids and I were shocked when the drivers hit the head of the elephant with the handle when it was not obeying. The resonant echo that came from its skull was haunting. Fortunately, our driver just hit our elephant once, and the other elephant also once. But that once was enough! I do not think I want to do this again.

On the other hand, I will not deny that riding the elephants across those grassy fields with the temples was quite an awesome experience. Even watching my wife and daughter on their elephant from afar as their elephant approached a ruin looked so beautiful. Those red and gold saddlecloths on the elephant's back and the similar colored umbrella above our heads may have looked old and faded close up, but they looked so good from a distance, and luckily also on our photographs. 

It was only in the last 20 minute segment of the "tour" that all our three elephants were walking together. It was only in front of the last temple ruin in the last field that we had a great family picture atop our elephants. The photographs that came out of this final photo session with the elephants was nothing short of regal in their elegance. The driver of my youngest son's elephant even let him sit on the neck of his elephant, which was quite a thrill for the little kid.

This last moments were sort of marred by the effort of our driver to sell me a simple bracelet of ivory-looking beads for what felt like an exorbitant 400 baht each. I am not a good haggler and I did not like this selling bit. But for some odd reason I felt sorry in a way for the driver, so I grudgingly settled to buy the bracelet for 200 baht. They were asking me to pay for an elephant tip of 100 baht which I stupidly paid I think 90 baht. My wife did not do this, she just gave a tip of 40 baht. Be warned!

Before we left the area, one of the drivers thought of letting each one of us ride on the trunk of the elephant. Of course, we all did it. Of course, there was a 100 baht charge afterwards for each! Ok it costs a lot for just one lift, but at least we could say we have been lifted by an elephant's trunk and we all had fun. 

I would rather remember this day for our close encounter with the gentle elephants. There were some human elements which were not too pleasant to remember, but I just did not let them bother me too much so as not to ruin my perception of this day. As I have decided earlier, this would probably be my first and last time to ride an elephant. 

From the Elephant Village, we went to eat lunch at the Samnoen River Restaurant for some basic but sumptuous Thai food. It had a good view of the river and the grand nice golden temple across it. Before we left Ayuttayah, we visited a giant marble reclining Buddha. Being outdoor, this looked much grander than the golden Reclining Buddha I saw inside a temple in the city proper before.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Our Trip to Thailand: DAMNOEN SADUAK FLOATING MARKET (Oct. 29, 2014)

November 1, 2014

We left our service apartment in suburban South Bangkok (called Parks 9) a little past 8 am in order to avoid traffic and reach our destination early. The trip took about 2 hours along fast-moving highway. It is right-hand drive here in Thailand, so the fast driving pace of our driver Khun Noi (his name is Noi, and "Khun" is a title of respect) looked precarious at times, especially since it was raining hard along the way. It was only our second day in Bangkok, so I was not used to his driving style yet. We reached the place safe and sound nevertheless. The town of Damnoen (read as 'dam-nun") Saduak felt like Laguna, Pagsanjan in particular.

We seemed to be the only people there at this dock. Our driver said it was because it was a weekday, so the place was not full. This place is packed on weekends. An old lady whom I assume was the owner of the place charged us 1500 Baht for an hour for a long rowboat and boatman. With the boatman rowing from the rear, there were four rows for us to sit on, maximum of two people per row. Because of clouds warning of impending rain, we were given hats and umbrellas just in case. 

Along the way to the market, we  saw other boats. These were better-looking than ours, were motorized and had a roof over the seats. These had mostly Russian-looking tourists on them. I do not know where they began their boat rides, nor do I know how much their rides were. I hope for our sake it was much more expensive than ours, haha!

The first ten minutes of riding along a quiet neighborhood was relatively calm. It gave me some sort of a "Pee Mak" vibe, recalling the hit horror-comedy film my kids and I enjoyed recently. Then, we went through an arch announcing the name of the market. When we turned left at one corner, and there it was -- a floating market bustling with activity. Our boatman took us from one merchant boat to another or canal-side stalls (most likely his relatives and friends), who tried selling us souvenir trinkets to Thai silk items to native food delicacies. There were some big items too, like paintings, or wall decor, or wood puppets and statuettes. 

These merchants were to be haggled with. Do not buy right away with their first price offer, unless you are willing to give them a huge profit willingly. I do not like bargaining myself so I do not really like markets like these. Fortunately, my wife knows how to drive a hard bargain (and enjoys it) so she was able to get some very good deals. The first items she bought were a silk shawl/jacket and a package of six silken coin purses. The silk shawl was first quoted at 800 baht. The purses were quoted at 500 baht per pack. My wife was able to bargain it down to 500 baht for BOTH items. I would not have been able to do that. My kids got a first-hand close look at the haggling process for the first time.

We did not really buy too much, just a few small souvenir items we were planning to give our family and friends back home. We were not really aware of how much these things cost in the city proper so we were apprehensive to buy. Anyway, it was the wonderful atmosphere of the floating marketplace itself that was the unforgettable experience. We saw Caucasian tourists eating their coconut ice cream from coconut shells, buying from old ladies selling them on their own little boats. (Maybe we should have been brave enough to try some delicacies, but we were not.) There were tourists posing with an albino python on the shore somewhere along the way. It was interesting to observe how the boatmen and merchants were able to make their way along the traffic on certain very narrow busy stretches of canal. 

On the way back, our boatman was paddling a bit faster since the rain was about to fall hard. We noted that this was already around lunchtime and good number of shops were actually closed already or closing down. I do not know if they closed for lunch or for rain. When the drizzle began to get stronger to a frank downpour, we have reached the safety of the dock just in the nick of time. We gave our boatman a tip of 40 baht, and he seemed satisfied. There were photos taken of us in the boat, selling at 100 baht each, but we decided not to buy them anymore. Looking back, maybe we should have bought at least one, huh? 

Overall, I thought this was a fun way to spend the morning. I don't know if I was ripped off or not with the price of the boat rental. It may have been too expensive and we could have haggled, but that is over and done with already. The merchants seemed to be selling stuff at a much higher price than the city, this place being touristy and all. It would be better if you had an idea of how much these things are in the city so you know how to haggle. Otherwise, just enjoy the boat ride and the unique rustic atmosphere like I did. As I cross this destination off my bucket list, this once is already enough for me.