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Muay Thai in Bangkok

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Muay Thai, Thailand’s famous martial art style, is known for trademark elbow, knee and shin strikes, in addition to a variety of punches and kicks.  This style is thought to date from at least the 1400’s, if not earlier, and became internationally widespread through the 20th century, partially thanks to the interest of King Chulalongkorn, also known as King Rama V.  There is a legend of a famous Siamese (Thai) fighter – Nai Khanom Tom – who was captured by the Burmese army in 1774 when Ayutthaya was attacked, and the Burmese king wished to determine whether the Thai or Burmese martial arts style was best so he organized a competition.  Nai Khanom Tom was chosen to fight for the Thai style and defeated ten of Burma’s finest Parma fighters.  The king was so impressed that Nai Khanom Tom was allowed to return home, granting great renown to his Muay Thai fighting style.   Nowadays, both men and women compete in different circuits, both nationally and internationally.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Nicole and I decided to enjoy a night out on the town and experience it for ourselves.  Our car and driver picked us up from the hotel just as the sun was setting, and drove us through town to Rajadamnern Stadium.  We were greeted as we exited the car and taken to pick up our will-call tickets and were led out our VIP seats.  The excitement in the air was electric.  Already, the light-weight fighters were in the ring, cheered on by the crowd under the domed roof.  A live band with traditional instruments played background music to add to the suspense.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Before each fight, the contestants would participate in a sacred ritual dance called wai kru ram muay (or wai kru for short) to pay respect to their teachers, families, and to ask for victory.  Each fighter performed a dance unique to their training school. In addition to flamboyant shorts, each boxer also wore a tasseled headband called a mongkol and decorative armbands called prajioud which had been blessed by Buddhist monks to help bring protection and victory.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

To our surprise and entertainment, we found that the food options included fare such as beer, coco cola, popcorn and hotdogs, for very cheap prices, and arms loaded with snacks, we settled in to enjoy the experience.  Once each fight would begin, the locals would crowd an area roped off for people to stand at each corner of the ring.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

The fans would cheer, grown, scream and yell advice at the combatants.  In the case of one or two of the contestants, a fan club of girls with signs also descended to cheer from the sidelines.  Although gambling is illegal in Thailand, the security guards didn’t seem to mind too much as long as no one was filming the many excitable bookies placing bets.  (We strongly advise all of our guests not to participate in gambling or other illegal activities while traveling.)  The crowd went particularly wild during a knockout in one of the rounds.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Once the title fight had occurred, Nicole and I were taken to meet one of the top fighters and pose for a photo with him before we were escorted back to waiting car and driver who took us back to the hotel.    All in all, it was a wonderfully fun and exciting experience.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Kanchanburi: Riding the Death Railway

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

I grew up hearing about WWII from my grandparents, and I studied abroad in France where I had the chance to observe the rusting relics around the beaches of Normandy firsthand.  When the chance came to visit another infamous WWII site, the Death Railway, I felt that I couldn’t pass up the chance – both to pay my respects, and to enjoy another adventure in beautiful Thailand.

Photo by Well

I was joined by the Thailand office team – Nicole, Chris and Joy, along with one of our top guides in Bangkok – Well, and together we met at the hotel for an early-morning start to head out to Kanchanaburi in the Thai countryside.  To my great surprise, our driver for the day had brought his personally outfitted van which would not have been out of place at a bachelorette party, and came with light up etched glass displays with koi fish, bejeweled seats, an impressive sound system and a drop-down TV.  There we were on our way to visit memorials dedicated to a particularly harsh piece of history, riding along in great luxury, compete with coffees from a drive-through Starbucks at Joy’s insistence, and I could not help but see the irony and be grateful for what I have in life (and laugh about the van).

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

For those who are not already aware, the ‘Death Railway’ was constructed during WWII by Allied POWs and forcibly drafted Southeast Asians known as Romusha,  to bring supplies to the front in Burma (now Myanmar).  The difficult terrain, jungle diseases, malnourishment, beatings and around-the-clock work schedule led to the deaths of 12,621 Allied POWs, and thousands of Ramusha (the exact numbers are unknown, and the estimates vary), giving the railroad its name.  Now, the railway serves as a tourist attraction and mode of transportation to some of the small towns in this area.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

As we drove out into the green countryside, our first stop was to visit the main Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in downtown Kanchanburi, where 6,982 fallen POWs from Australia, the UK and the Netherlands are interred.  The cemetery also displays a plaque to commemorate 11 fallen Indian POWS who fought for the British during the war.  (The bodies of fallen American POWs were repatriated after the war.)  Across the street, we visited the small but well-done The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre which houses 8 main galleries which detail the construction of the railway through first-hand accounts, photographs and artifacts.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

After this somber start, we next drove to the train station, at the edge of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.  I could not help but notice the vendors who had set up a temporary market selling souvenirs such as soaps carved in the shape of flowers, t-shirts and coconut drinks.   The weather was lovely with beautiful bright sunshine, blue skies and beautiful green vistas along the riverbanks.  Even knowing where we stood, I found it difficult to feel anything but cheerful, and we strolled across the bridge with the other tourists while we waited for the train.

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The train itself was a joy – an antique passenger train from another era with uniformed ticket checkers and waiters bringing beverages – and I couldn’t help but picture my grandparents coming along for the ride with me.  I know they would love it as much as I did.  We enjoyed the breeze blowing through our hair and took in the beautiful and peaceful countryside rolling past.

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Once we reached the small town of Krasae where we disembarked to visit a large Buddha statue built into a cave in the cliff, and to enjoy lunch at the Krasae Cave Restaurant, looking out over the river.  I also took note of a WWII era bomb which had failed to detonate sitting on a plinth in the middle of town, and it served as a reminder that this lovely place was once a war-zone, and that the allied forces had destroyed as much of the railway as they could to prevent its use in bringing supplies to the front in Burma. After we’d visited the impressive Buddha, had our fortunes revealed through the fortune sticks, stuffed ourselves on a big Thai lunch of salad, noodles, rice, shrimp, chicken and curry, and did some souvenir shopping, we reunited with our driver and bedazzled van.

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We drove past green winding green hillsides and small towns until we reached our next stop – the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, which the Australian government built and maintains through a partnership with the Thai government.  After exploring the museum, we strolled down the path through the bamboo forest until we reached the old railway bed.  The railway here had long since been removed, with only a short section left as a memorial to all those who died here.  The jungle scenery was beautiful but there was a quiet and sad eeriness to the place.  Small Australian flags and mementos had been left behind by comrades, loved ones and relatives, hinting at what this cut in the railway grade used to look like.  Feeling a strange sense of standing in both the 1940’s and in 2016 at the same time, we walked back up the hill to our waiting driver and began the journey back to Bangkok, stopping to purchase pumpkins from a roadside stand and feed fish along the way.  It is a memory that will stay with me – both as a wonderful day with friends, and as a reminder of those who served.

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If Kanchanaburi interests you, check out our new two-day Kanchanaburi tour which includes spending time at an elephant sanctuary.

Dar Le Visits the US!

By Courtney Ridgel

Dar Le, our Myanmar Country Director, is currently traveling on her first tour of the United States with one of the busiest itineraries we’ve ever seen. That said, she left enough time in her schedule to come visit the US office on Monday, and the US office team took her out to see Lake Tahoe and enjoy an American BBQ lunch. Our Spring weather this year is very temperamental, so we missed the typical stunning Tahoe-blue colors and warm sunshine, but Dar Le did get to experience our famous frigid winds and snow! She even made a snowball to celebrate the occasion! On this trip Dar Le has visited Niagara Falls, flown in a helicopter over the Grand Canyon, attended a baseball game, rode the gondola up to the top of Squaw Valley, visited national historical national monuments on the East Coast and enjoyed shopping at Scheels, among many other highlights.  We are so glad that she had the chance to visit and say ‘hi’ in person!

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Sunset Cruise on the Mekong

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Laos is the most overlooked destination that we work with and while it may not make the news and travel magazines as often as neighboring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam do, our guests routinely tell us that Laos is the highlight of their trips.  I was there myself last November and I can certainly see why.  Laos certainly has an alluring peaceful atmosphere all its own.

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

One of the best examples of this spirit may be found in the beautiful and sleepy town of Luang Prabang, nestled on the banks of the Mighty Mekong River, carving its way through the steep hillsides covered in dense green jungle.  Our Laos Country Director, Onkeo or ‘Keo’ for short, offered me a spur of the moment invitation to join him, and his young sons, Anan and James, on a sunset boat ride with his friend Pet (who also goes by ‘Johnny’).  I am always up for an adventure and I love boats, so I was naturally thrilled.

Keo and his sons, Anan and James – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Pet, the Ferryman – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

I don’t speak Laotian, but I could tell that as we made our way down one of the many steep staircases to the water’s edge, Keo did his best to discourage his energetic boys from sprinting full tilt down the steep stairs at the river’s edge.  Here on the other side of the world, it was a strangely familiar scene that reminded me of my own childhood (the boys had also apparently rebelled earlier that afternoon, refusing to wear shoes, and were merrily skipping along barefoot).  As sunset approaches, and the water began to glow with the golden light of evening, and I could see other travelers gathering at the water’s edge to snap photos.

Travelers gathering along the riverbanks to photograph the sunset – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Anan and James watching the Mekong flow past – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

We were fortunate enough to have Pet cruise smoothly up to the dock and welcome us aboard, and his wife offered us cold beers and chips.  (James and Anan quickly attacked the bowl of chips.)  As we set off upriver, taking in the stunning views of the setting sun, Pet recounted me with the story of his life.  He is from a remote village far upriver and became severely ill as a child.  His parents, fearing for his life, brought him to Luang Prabang to receive medical care.  He pulled through his illness and his parents enrolled him in one of the many monasteries in Luang Prabang, to both give thanks for his life and to ensure that he would get an education as they feared that he may not have the constitution for the hard labor that accompanies farm life in rural Laos.  He learned English during his time as a monk and later went on to work at some of the high end hotel properties around Luang Prabang.  He saved up enough money to purchase the boat we were sitting on and went into business for himself, ferrying travelers and locals on the river, and living on his boat with his wife.

Keo pointing out the sights to his sons – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

As we cruised along, Keo and Pet regaled me with tales about life on the river, local legends and interesting facts about nearby villages and temples.  This was James’s first river cruise and both boys were quite excited, pointing out interesting sights as we cruised along, in between munching handfuls of chips.  As the sun went down, Pet steered us to where the local boatmen spend the night, tied to the bank, and his wife hopped on to the next boat over to say hello to a friend. The boats are tied side by side, creating a strange temporary floating neighborhood each evening.

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

As twilight set in, we bid farewell to Pet, and headed up the riverbank to a local BBQ place.  Laotian BBQ, much like Khmer BBQ, involves sizzling a variety of ingredients selected from a buffet in hot oil in a strange pot & grill combination set into the center of the table over hot coals.  I was amused to notice that although Anan and James selected lots of shrimp and mushrooms which they kindly spooned onto my plate, they also favored something that looked suspiciously like French fries and mini hot dogs.  As we all grew sleepy and full (after a minor mishap where James stepped on an anthill with his bare feet and was soothed with desert), we bid each other goodnight and headed home for the evening.  All in all, it was a stunningly beautiful evening spent with new friends and delicious food, and I would highly recommend this experience to any traveler heading to Laos, especially those looking for personal connections that are meaningful, memorable and unique.

Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Luang Prabang from the river – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel
Onkeo turning over the meat and vegetables on the BBQ – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Andrea in the Land of Disney

By Andrea Ross

I’m scared of Disney World. There, I said it.

When my dad announced THIS was where he wanted to celebrate his 70th birthday this year I was nervous… I asked if he wouldn’t rather head to Costa Rica or Alaska or possibly anywhere else. Nope. Disney World!

Because of my nerves and because I know the value of a good travel expert, I immediately contacted Susan Kelly of Travel Magic. Susan is on the Wendy Perrin WOW List and I’ve been lucky enough to know her for years. Her company, Travel Magic, knows all things Disney. It was wonderful to chat with her, hear the options, feel like I was in good hands and start to really get excited about going to the happiest place on earth!

Disney World is complicated. There are multiple lands, hundreds of hotel rooms and don’t get me started on dining and fast passes… The truth is, it was overwhelming and I didn’t know where to start.Lightbulb! This is how my guests feel when thinking about Southeast Asia. I mean how many times has a guest told me, “There are just so many options; I don’t know how to best use my time. I want to keep everyone in the group happy.”This was exactly how I felt, looking at the myriad of options within Disney World.
I think over the last 15 years my comfort level with Southeast Asia has become fairly high, to say the least… I get it, I know the local customs, I speak the languages well enough to understand them, I have seen the weather in each given month, and I win at Southeast Asia Jeopardy!

However, this isn’t how my guests feel. For them, Southeast Asia is my Disney World… big, confusing, complicated and in a whole other language.

When the information packet arrived I dove right in. It’s what I tell my guests to do – read what I send you and it will all become clear. It helped – I know I have a schedule to follow, and I appreciate that Susan and her team have literally answered every question I sent and have booked the best experiences and really made sure that what we have planned is going to keep everyone happy – but, I’m still nervous.

So when I reviewed an itinerary I was sending out recently, I added additional explanation on one of the days. When a guest called with some last minute questions, I answered and gave as much insight as I could because I get it. These trips are scary and while I know I’m in good hands, just like my guests are, travel to a new place – whether it’s the happiest place on earth or where I’m happiest on earth – is still scary! So, I’ll leave you with a quote from Walt Disney himself…

“All of our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.”