I had this image in my head of what Thailand would be like. Ocean vistas with archipelago stretching out as far as the eye can see. Deserted beaches canopied by curved palm trees, heavy with green coconuts. Blue lagoons surrounded by jungle foliage and rocky cliffs. A young Leonardo DiCaprio (circa his appearance in The Beach) might have even made it into my envisioned montage of life in Thailand. Throughout our travels we’ve met a number of people who validated our expectation of a pristine, tropical paradise. “Oh, it’s so beautiful…one of my favorite places in the world…you’ll love it.” We heard it over and over again.
Then we met a French world traveler who had a very different opinion. “Thailand? Oh no. You do not vant to go zare. Eet eez done. Feenished. Zay have ru-eened zat beautiful cone-tree. Go to Burma. Go to Laos. Thailand? Forgeet eet.” Um, come again? Someone bashing the blissful delight that is Thailand? How could this be? I chalked up the negative outlook to classic French cynicism and kept that fantasy vision of Thailand locked into my brain.
Having now experienced this country firsthand, I find myself surprised to admit I can see her point. While I can’t say I think Thailand is “ru-eened”, it’s definitely not the tropical Asiatic oasis I had conjured up. In reality the former Kingdom of Siam is a very touristy and modernized country. Those classic images of lush jungle touching the ocean and tiny islands dotting jade blue waters certainly exist, but they take a little time, effort and money to find.
Luckily, we did manage to find them. After a couple weeks on Koh Samui, we took a boat trip out to the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Marine Park, featuring an archipelago of 42 islands. Even with overcast skies, we did finally feast our eyes on the legendary natural beauty of Thailand.
We started our day early at the Nathon Pier and boarded a boat with the High Seas tour company. When the crew walked around offering Dramamine pills my “Just Say No” programming from the 80s led me to initially refuse. We were in Thailand after all. Those pills could be anything, right? Then I heard them talking about 1-2 meter high waves for the one hour ride out to the islands. Suddenly I found myself dissolving pills in juice and encouraging my own children to chug it down. I’m so glad I did, because it was a doozy of a ride. Our new German friend spent the majority of it yakking into a trash bag, while our family enjoyed the view and read books during the voyage.
When we reached the archipelago, our group disembarked the open sea vessel and boarded a classic Thai long boat for the short ride to our first island. There we had an experience meeting all those tropical island paradise expectations. We did a slippery and muddy hike up to beautiful views and then cooled and cleaned off down on the gorgeous beach, complete with rocky cliffs and palm trees.
After a morning on this beautiful island, we rode the long boat back out to our vessel where the crew served us a delicious Thai lunch. Then we took a short ride over to another island for some kayaking. Unfortunately, just as we were getting back into the long boat for the ride to the beach, the skies opened up on us. Rain poured down and thunder boomed in the distance. Despite this dramatic change in the weather, our enthusiastic guides had us speeding over ocean waves and scrambling into kayaks in the midst of a major downpour. For Em, Liv and Ali the situation either built character or traumatized them for life. We won’t know which for another 5-10 years. While the rain might have camouflaged the tears coming down our girls’ cheeks, nothing could hide the pathetic looks on their little faces.
However, after fifteen minutes of wet drama, the rain stopped and our kayak trip around the island turned out much better than it started. The storm quickly passed, and the skies began to clear. We hiked to a beautiful lagoon, swam in pristine ocean water and enjoyed an idyllic afternoon in a classic Thai paradise.
We did eventually find the tropical paradise we’d heard so much about. Our family’s version of world travel just meant it was a little more short-lived and a bit harder to find than we’d imagined it would be. Having small children in tow and our need to keep Brian digitally connected for his work means we aren’t having that classic backpacker experience of Thailand. We’re not on the most remote islands or living among locals in primitive beach huts. Our Thai adventure has been a more domesticated, commercialized and family-friendly version of this country. Perhaps, as our French friend suggested, that fantasized vision of Thailand is a thing of the past. However, we can promise it’s still beautiful, unique and worth the trip.