Temptations of Thailand and Laos

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Author and Photos by: Jeremy Ferguson

Thailand presides as Southeast Asia’s tourism juggernaut.  How could it not?  With its golden beaches and misted jungles, gilded temples and racy cuisine, it offers visiting farangs (foreigners) everything they could possibly want from a first foray into a different world.

And more.

Some experiences in Thailand and neighboring Laos will always haunt me.

There is vast pleasure in ruins and some of it is perverse: The toppled palaces and temples of centuries past prove more compelling than what’s survived the onslaught of time intact.  I’ve always had trouble putting words to a passion for ruins without sounding like the sort of romantic archeologists love to hate.  (Which, I suppose, I am.)

Cambodia’s ancient temples at Angkor are globally renowned, but who knows about Thai archeology?   Its crown jewel is Sukotai.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it presided as Thailand’s first capital from the 13th to 15th centuries.

With its lean, stately Buddhas and temple spires, it’s a ruin of exceptional elegance.  It speaks for Thailand’s golden age, when Buddhism was enshrined, art and architecture defined themselves, free trade flourished and slavery was forbidden.

The ruin’s splendoured moment is at dawn, when the day’s first light bathes the panorama in a mantle of gold.  The camera sings.

And in the Thai north, there are the lumbering but graceful Asian elephants.  But Thailand’s pachyderms—the traditional toilers of the forest industry—are finding themselves unemployed as technology replaces them.  Part of the solution to saving the elephants is tourism.

So visitors are invited to bond: Hosing and scrubbing them down first thing in the morning, bathing them and yes, cuddling them.  Carol spends her time with a domineering, two-tonne, 27-year-old female named Noi.  At one point, she strips lychees of their outer husks and feeds them to the beast.  And later: “I didn’t nuzzle my elephant,” she says.  “She nuzzled me. It makes you realize how magnificent, how intelligent elephants are.”

The Mekong flows out of Tibet through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on its rush to the South China sea.  “The Mekong has always been our highway,” a riverboat captain tells me.  “The Lao of the river have no big houses, no cars, no TV.  They have clean air, fresh fish, the sky, the stars.  On the river, you see the homes of those who are truly rich.”

The jewel of the Lao Mekong is Luang Prabang, another historic capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We join other foreigners in the streets before dawn.  A distant tangerine stream speedily materializes into a single file of 400 shaven-headed, orange-robed monks weaving their way through town.  Devotees and tourists form a gauntlet.  We drop balls of rice into each passing bowl.  This rice will be the noon meal, the last of the day.

Later we see young monks yakking on cell phones, taking pictures with digital cameras and crowded into Internet cafes to catch up on their email.  It may seem the same as anywhere, but don’t let the tech fool you: This is still that other world that kick-starts a sense of wonder.

Thailand and Laos tour departs October 31, 2013.  Contact [email protected] or call 1.800.387.1483 or 416.633.5666.