The sun is shining, lost tourists are breezing around on bicycles and seagulls are chirping as we finally pull into the Quarterdeck Motel in Wildwood, New Jersey for the almost-seventh year in a row (one year skipped). However, even after the fitting relief that comes from arriving from your destination after a three-hour drive, something is definitively different.
For all of these years, Sandra and I have been coming to Wildwood for two or three nights in the summertime. It began as a couples’ trip with our then-boyfriends – two breakups later, we now do the same itinerary, minus two people, despite both of our new ‘taken’ statuses.
There’s something incredibly comforting about this trip. Usually, I spend the before-days of my other vacations reading guidebooks, planning restaurant outings and checking out reviews online. But when we go to Wildwood, our itinerary remains pretty much the same, with a few safe detours.
After a pretty pleasant six-hour bus ride from Vienna, we have arrived in Prague, which is bittersweet since this will mark the last destination of our Eastern European journey. However, it’s hard to still not be excited when driving into a city marked by centuries-old cobblestone streets, sky-scraping cathedrals and rolling hills.
This morning, we finally get a chance to really see Vienna in all of its glory, as the sun is shining and we hop on the bus bright and early to check out Schonbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Hapsburg emperors. Since we get here early with our tour group, we avoid the daily influx of 12,000 tourists and we have a place to ourselves for a bit, seeing the insane opulence of the palace and its even more impressive and expansive grounds with winding trails, secret gardens and over-the-top fountains and statues.
When I studied abroad in Florence, Italy in college, one of my last trips was to Budapest, Hungary, where I spent a long weekend with my college roommate, Alex, and her family after she came to visit me from the States.
However, after a few months of traveling to six other countries and 15 Italian cities, I was feeling tired and a bit homesick. So, when Alex and I trekked to Budapest, we spent more time than we probably should have hanging out in our beautiful hotel room at the Marriott (I was used to questionable hostels and bunk beds), eating American food as we celebrated Thanksgiving and taking dopey pictures that only best friends take.
The next morning, we get to wake up late since the bus doesn’t depart from Pattaya until 10 a.m., but after a long week of early mornings, there is no amount of enough sleep and even waking up at 9 a.m. feels too early. After a big breakfast, we board the bus and head back to Bangkok, where everyone is excited for a big night out on Khao San Road again before our free and final day in the city.
After we arrive in Bangkok that afternoon, our group of eight gets together and we split up in cabs and head to Khao San Road. Since it’s early when we get there, only around 8 p.m. or so, the bars aren’t in full swing yet so we spend our time cruising the food stands, buying cheap tourist souvenirs, eating bugs of every variety as well as scorpion on a stick.
The next day, we wake up bright and early to load onto a rickety speed boat from our hotel, Long Beach Garden Hotel and Spa, to Coral Island, a small island that takes about 20 minutes to get to by boat. Mike and I sit on the ledge on the back on the boat to catch some wind and we get drenched by the waves long before we ever hit Coral Island.
Ken, our other tour guide, tells us in his broken English and an elephant camp t-shirt that the island gets very busy with tourists around 10 or 11 a.m., which was why we he had us wake up early to get on the boat by 7:30 a.m. After a few hours sitting on the seemingly abandoned, quiet beach, we see that he is right – more and more boats are being docked nearby and the once-silent beach is filling up. Still, we’re glad we got the morning alone before lunchtime, when Ken calls all of us over for a meal of whole fish, prawns, mussels and fried shellfish.
Finally, we are almost in Pattaya, the beach destination of the trip. Everyone is exhausted and sick of temples and ready to sit on a beach and explore the city, which is known for its debauchery, drinking and commercial sex trade that overtakes the entire place.
Before we check into the hotel, though, we stop at Gems Gallery Pattaya, the world’s biggest jewelry store, which everyone is not only disinterested in but wholly against visiting. After lunch, where we chug some Changs, this riot only grows with many of the guys planning on taking a cab to the nearby hotel as soon as we get to the gem factory.
Somehow though, this plan disintegrates and everyone is convinced to at least walk into the gem factory once we find out we only have to stay for 45 minutes. Once inside, we relish in the air conditioning and our lunchtime buzzes and we walk through to see Thai people in booths creating jewelry, which is pretty cool, and very quickly make our way to the buying section. We don’t stay in there too long once we see the prices – most pieces are well over $500 and even we are not drunk enough to casually buy a piece of jewelry for he nothing. After drinking another Chang, we get back on the bus well before the 45-minute mark and wait for everyone else to hop on.
Although our very jungle-esque hotel Felix River Kwai Resort is beautiful on the outside, I’m happy to leave the next morning and escape from the ants and mosquitoes that fill the room after a long sleep following our day on the backs of elephants and bamboo rafts. Centara Grand, our five-star resort that we stayed at in Bangkok equipped with beautiful meals, a poll and waterfall shower, seems very far away.
After embarking for Ayutthaya the next day after waking up at 5 a.m., we head to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, a colorful market of produce, small meals, tourist junk and more sold by vendors on small boats docked alongside canals.
After we wander alongside the docks, taking pictures with cobras and slow-moving lorises and picking up some Thai tourist garb and seasonings, we pick up some things to eat, including noodles recommended by Andrew Zimmern from Bizarre Foods himself.
I’m feeling pretty tired still today – now equipped with a hangover too thanks to our stint on Khao San Road last night – but Mike and I have booked the Landmarks of Bangkok and boat ride tour along the River of the King and I’m feeling a bit more at home in this city of complete pandemonium.
We head to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew first, which is full of head-to-toe gold buildings and temples, adorned with diamonds, intricate murals and Buddhas. Most entering Thai visitors – our guide, P.A., included – are wearing black even in the sweltering heat as they are mourning the king, who died a few months ago.