From bustling to breathtaking, Thailand enchants

The moment your toes hit the sand you think a place like this couldn’t possibly exist: emerald green water lapping against limestone cliffs, secluded white sand beaches tucked into the middle of adjoining islands. You feel like you’ve discovered a well-kept secret unfolding just for you. Thailand, with its breathtaking natural beauty and the welcoming embrace of its people, has so much to offer visitors willing to make the long trek to Southeast Asia. From beaches to sacred temples, you can envelop yourself in Thai culture at every turn.

Before you venture into paradise, pay your dues by immersing yourself in the frenzied, humidity-laden city of Bangkok. My husband and I hit the ground in the city of more than 8 million after a quick nap to rid the jet lag.

Walking through markets packed with street food, dodging cars while crossing streets and being in awe of the richly adorned Buddhist temples on almost every corner makes Bangkok a thrilling adventure. If you have time for only one temple, visit Wat Pho with its gigantic 46-meter-long, 15-meter-high reclining golden Buddha.

Myriad transportation options are available, including taxis, scooters and the famous flashy tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized rickshaws). But, beware of the tuk-tuk driver willing to “take you on a tour” of the city. He’ll take you around the city to different suit shops even when you refuse. Always negotiate a price before accepting a ride.

For a small fee, long-tail boat rides are offered through the city’s river canals, where families live in patched homes built on stilts. Older women will approach on long-tail boats filled with items for sale like cold beer, Thai snacks and trinkets. Take advantage of traveling through these communities, which offer a glimpse into the everyday life of the Thai people.

The next stop on our journey consisted of Phuket and its surrounding islands, beginning with an hourlong boat ride on the Andaman Sea to Ko Phi-Phi Don. Long-tail boats with colorful adornments tied and hung from the bows sat anchored, bobbing along the white sand beaches at the Phi Phi Island Village resort. Guests of the resort arrived by a smaller boat and were greeted by staff members presenting refreshing wet towels and traditional Thai beverages.

Guests were shown to their individual thatched roof huts scattered across the small property. Our hillside pool villa (a honeymoon splurge for us) offered stunning views of the lush vegetation around us and the boats passing to and from islands dotting the sea.

Our first island excursion quickly became one of our favorite travel memories. We chose to spend the day visiting one of the world’s most beautiful sights, the island of Ko Phi-Phi Leh, a tropical paradise made famous by Danny Boyle’s 2000 film “The Beach.”

We grabbed our snorkeling gear, boarded a long-tail boat captained by a friendly local man for around 800 baht (around $25) and headed out to sea. The majesty and mystery of the island has an effect on you when traveling by small boat. You instantly feel so small against the sea. The pristine lagoon of Ao Maya tucked in between towering cliffs awaits visitors around the corner of the entrance.

Visitors to Ao Maya arrive by boat to stroll along the beach, swim in the warm shallow water or just sit and stare at the beauty. My husband and I decided to venture through the island on a quick walk to the other side where our snorkeling opportunity awaited.

On the way back to our resort, we asked our boat captain to make a stop at the bay of Ao Ton Sai on Ko Phi-Phi Don. A popular drop-off point for big boat tours, the shore is lined with small souvenir shops selling beachwear like tropical sarongs and traditional Thai trinkets alongside hotels, restaurants and bars.

Ko Phi-Phi Don boasts numerous secluded beaches that beckon visitors along small dirt trails that intertwine with tiny villages comprised of handmade concrete structures, makeshift bars and restaurants and basic scenes of everyday life: clotheslines in backyards, dogs roaming and women sweeping their doorsteps.

Back on the main island of Phuket, you’re reminded of just how many tourists flock to this party destination. The hustle and bustle of the markets offer everything from street food to cheap knockoffs of American goods. Famous beaches like Patong Beach cater to your every desire. Think of it like Sixth Street for the international partier.

We decided to immerse ourselves in Thai food during our two weeks and reserved one afternoon for a Thai cooking class at Blue Elephant Cooking School in Phuket. This is a must-do for foodies who want a history lesson as well as to learn about the complexities that comprise Thai flavors.

My husband and I decided to end our two week trip by partaking in a sea canoe tour with Thailand’s John Gray Sea Canoe. The company prides itself on an environmentally friendly tour of the bay of Phang Nga in its pristine natural habitat.

We began our sea adventure by boat where our kayaks were launched near the sea caves. Our guide, an extremely knowledgeable middle-aged native of the area, told many stories of how the land has been used and the villagers it provides for.

Our kayak floated next to and underneath limestone cliff islands populated by wild monkeys as curious about us as we were about them. Each time we approached an entrance, our guide instructed us to lay as flat as possible so he could paddle us underneath the limestone cave. Once inside, the cave revealed the center of the island and a small ecosystem of vegetation, wildlife and fish. Our guide also paddled through pitch black caves where the sounds of millions of bats made it feel like we were back in Austin.

Toward sunset, our team of guides taught us how to make Loi Krathong — decorative floats made of local flowers, banana leaves and candles. As night fell, we paddled to an open cave and, with one touch of our hands in the water, bioluminescent plankton set off a million sparkles that resembled fireflies in the deep abyss. We lit our Loi Krathong, said a few prayers, launched the offering and truly felt one with the sea around us.

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