You know the song, “One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble, or the world’s your oyster”… anyway, my experience in Bangkok has to be defined in terms of “within the Mandarin Oriental Hotel walls and everywhere else. Kyoko, my long time friend in Tokyo suggested we spend some time over the winter break with them at the Bangkok Oriental Hotel. They have been going there for years and it is one of their absolute favorite spots in Asia. I made plans in June when we knew we were definitely coming to Japan. The vacation began at 7am on Christmas Day when we left for Narita Airport. We had told the kids that the flight was 7.5 hours and that we were sitting in economy. When we boarded the plan, our row (28) just happened to be in Economy First which is the same seat and space as business but not business class service. I have no idea how that happened, neither does Tom, so we just chalked it up to a Christmas miracle. Everyone was in a terrific mood and we all arrived in Bangkok well rested after watching many movies. The hotel van was ready for us on arrival and we were given drinks and cold towels in the van for the 1 hour ride into the city. At the hotel, we were greeted by name and given beautiful flowers and taken immediately upstairs to our rooms. We were invited to a hotel Christmas party that was a lovely cocktail party with delicious food and Thai carolers which sang all the traditional songs with a very thick Thai accent. Later, we met up with the Waitzes (Kyoko, Michael and Kayla) for a Thai dinner outside on the river at the hotel. The Oriental owns property on both sides of the river and they have wooden junk boats that take you back and forth between the two different locations. It seems like it would be a pain, but its really beautiful. The ride across only takes 5 minutes and the boats run all the time. The life on the river is a big part of Bangkok so you get to see it first hand. We ordered what seemed like a dozen dishes and one was spicier and more delicious then the next. I absolutely love Thai food so I was in heaven. The girls tried everything but for the most part it was all too spicy for them. They did eat satay and pad thai and lots of jasmine rice. At dinner, Michael explained that in order for us to get 6 beds at the pool the next day, we would have to get down there at 6:30. Yes, that was 6:30 am. He said there were about 60 beds and several hundred guests. Since it was our only day to lie at the pool, we decided we had to make the effort. Tom and I met Michael down at the pool at 6:30, in the DARK but we were able to get the beds. When we woke the kids up several hours later for breakfast they were very happy that we did. The day actually turned out great and we were happy we made the commitment. That night, we went on a dinner cruise that was run by the hotel in a beautiful wooden junk boat. Each family had their own table and there were only 30 people on the boat. We went up and down the river, and saw many of the temples and palaces lit up at night that we were going to actually visit the next day. We returned to the hotel around 10 and I wanted to go to the famous night market in Patpong. It was not for children and Sophie and Annie decided to stay behind with Thomas but Hayden wanted to go with us. The concierge told us where to take the taxi to and told us to make sure the meter was on. We arrived with no problem and as soon as we were out of the door, we were besieged with offers to take us to various kinds of sex shows (they even had little pamphlets to show us what we would see). Brushing them off, we started to look at what was for sale. Basically, everything. There were Ed Hardy T-Shirts and Tiffany jewelry (with the blue boxes and ribbons too) and Prada this and Gucci that and every movie that is out in the states right now. It was a complete overload to the senses. And while we were walking by the vendors, behind us were bar after bar with girls scantily dressed urging us to come inside. Hayden’s eyes were out of his head and his mouth hung open. He didn’t know where to look first. After the initial shock wore off (well, subsided) he got down to shopping and he came away with two pairs of real boxing gloves that he can’t wait to use. I hate to bargain and the Baht to Dollar conversion was so difficult I never really knew how much things were anyway. When we decided to leave, we tried to find a taxi who would put the meter on – to no avail. No one would take us. Finally, we had to negotiate a price home but when we arrived, we realized the price was only $3! The city is so crowded and there is so much traffic and very few traffic signals. They even use motorcycles as taxis. You can see women riding side saddle on the back of a motor bike and the driver has a special vest on designating him as a taxi. We arrived back at the hotel and Hayden just kept shaking his head. He said it was the best part of any vacation he ever took. Saturday morning, we were picked up at the hotel by Song, our tour guide with our own river boat. We got on board and the first stop was Wat Arun – Temple of the Dawn. The temple was built for worshipers to pray on the outside and no one is allowed to enter the temple. I never even saw a way to get in. We learned that 95% of Thai people practice Buddhism and it is the second largest Buddhist country (by percentage of population) second to Sri Lanka. We then took an amazing journey down a canal off the river and were able to peek inside the lives of Thais that live on the river. Floating merchants came along side our boat offering fruit, dolls, soup, noodles, all kinds of crazy things… we fed the catfish and they went crazy, and we visited the King’s Barge Museum where they keep his royal boats. We then got out of the boat and went on land to visit the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha and the Lying Down Buddha. Before anarchy broke out in the family, we stopped for lunch and I promised no more site seeing. We stopped at a street market where the kids bargained for new DVDs, t-shirts, beach coverups, etc… there was a guy selling fake ids too. We didn’t stop at his booth. We got back to the hotel earlier than expected and camped out on the Waitze’s pool beds. Then both families got in 3 cabs and went on an adventure to a restaurant in Bangkok that I had read about. It felt like you were eating in someone’s home. The food was good but not any better than we had at the hotel. The next day, we checked out and took an 11am flight to Phuket. The flight was 1 hour and the hotel was only 15 minutes from the airport. We arrived, were greeted with flower leis and a welcome drink and then when everyone was very happy they made us talk to the timeshare desk where they gave us “gifts” and “invited” us to cocktail parties and offered us “free” rounds of golf. Thats when things got a little ugly. I basically told them that they had some nerve trying to sell us a timeshare when we had just arrived at their hotel to spend 5 days in one of their villas that we were paying a lot of money for. Lets just say the kids were VERY embarrassed and couldn’t believe how mean I could be. They were sure there was going to be a big black X next to our name everywhere at the hotel. When the dust had settled, they took us to our “villa” which really was just a 2 bedroom apartment with a living room and a kitchen but it worked out perfectly for our family. Everyone had a place to hang out. The JW Marriot in Phuket is huge and takes awhile to figure out where everything is but once you do it is really a fabulous place for families to vacation. They have 3 pools, an amazing kids club that the girls were at all week, a circus camp, beach massages for $12/hour, thai boxing classes, bike rentals, tennis, a 24 hour gym, 8 restaurants, etc…. and its right on the most beautiful EMPTY beach. The hotel is on the opposite side of where all the action is so no one goes there unless they are staying at the hotel. Our first full day, we hired a speed boat with a tour guide and we traveled around the islands of Phuket. This is where the Tsunami hit at Christmas in 2004 but you would never know it. Everything has been rebuilt and is new and fabulous but the thought of that big wave is always with you. I found myself thinking about it a lot that day. At one point we were swimming in the water at Phi Phi Don, one of the islands where many people died and its just frightening to think of what happened. No matter where I was that week in Phuket, I thought about that wave. I did swim in the ocean at the hotel once with Hayden and Tom Sr. but for most of the week, there was a red flag and no swimming was allowed. As opposed to other flagged beaches I’ve been to where people disregard the flags, everyone heeded the warning. The next day we went elephant trekking in the jungle with Siam Safari. We drove 45 minutes on the highway to the base camp and then we got into 4 wheel safari vehicles for the ride up the mountain and into the jungle. Within moments of our arrival at camp, elephants with their Mahouts (the elephant trainers) came walking out of the jungle to greet us. Our guide Ko briefly introduced us to the animals and explained that the Mahouts came from Myanmar with their elephants and they have been together for the life of the elephant. They are a team. The Mahouts live in hut dwellings at the camp which were very rustic. We climbed onto the elephants in twos (the boys, the girls and Tom and I) and walked through the jungle for 1/2 hour. There was a magnificent view of the harbor at one point and the big Buddha on top of the mountain. When we got back to camp, we fed the elephants large baskets of watermelon, pineapple, bananas and corn. The day continued with a baby elephant show, a demonstration of trained monkeys who climb trees to retrieve coconuts, riding a water buffalo, removing rubber from a rubber (or lubber) tree, making curry (tom jr had to show off and ate an entire Thai chili and then had flames shooting out of his mouth). He also felt the need to climb the coconut tree after the monkey did it. There is a video of this on my photo site. We came out of the jungle back to base camp and were driven down to the harbor where we boarded a wooden boat and had another dinner cruise. Only this time, it was a lot less posh. It was a curry buffet with two drink tickets. Tom Jr and Hayden enjoyed getting beer with their tickets. The drinking age in Thailand is 18 and Thomas and Hayden towered over everyone on the island so I am sure they thought they were at least 18. As I watched them drink, I realized they were a little too comfortable with a beer in their hands…. hmmm think they have done that before. A man with one leg got down on his artificial knee and proposed to his girlfriend. That was interesting. We went on a bit of a joy ride on the way home (not our joy) and arrived back pretty late. The next day was New Years Eve and we spent it at the pool. That night Tom and I and the boys went to “The Mystique of Thailand” a dinner on the beach with fireworks and strange entertainment and the girls went to the kids disco party. Both were over at the same time (12:30) so we met up at the end, watched some fireworks and went to bed. The last day (New Years Day) we spent by the pool recovering from the late night before. And Thomas Sophie and Annie all had a beach massage which Thomas and Annie thought was weird and Sophie loved. At 6pm, we left for the airport, took the 1 hour flight back to Bangkok and then a 5 1/2 hour over night flight to Tokyo. No Christmas magic this time, we were definitely in Economy. Right before we boarded I realized I forgot my Ambien and I had a mini freak out. Tom left the lounge and returned 5 minutes later with prescription sleeping pills. How did he do it, I asked???? Hey, it’s Thailand, you can get whatever you want. So, it was lights out for me, and I woke up 30 minutes before we landed at Narita. I loved Thailand and would be thrilled to have the opportunity to return. Any takers???