Arik Vamosh, a D-10 paraplegic, is volunteer travel consultant for the Umbrella Organization of Associations for the Disabled in Israel.
The convoy of elephants made its way ponderously through the thick undergrowth. From the broad back of the lead elephant, Mosheís voice boomed excitedly, "What a fantastic experience! Itís a lifelong memory! This alone is worth the whole trip!"
These and similar exclamations of joy, which repeated themselves while canoeing in the Phang-Nga Bay, (known since it became the backdrop for the cinematic adventures of Ian Flemmingís hero as "James Bond Island") and other equally thrilling sites, were not just coming from just one more Israeli tourist fulfilling a dream of travel to a far-away destination. Because Moshe is a paraplegic, and like ten of his twenty travel companions to Thailand this past January) his normal form of locomotion (when not riding an elephant) is the wheelchair to which he is confined.
Since my last visit to Thailand in April of 1996, I looked forward to the next opportunity to visit that beautiful country. The chance came up several months ago when a group of friends "bestowed" upon me the task of organizing a tour. I gladly answered the challenge and in January of this year the trip because a reality. The group included two quadriplegics, five paraplegics, one hemiplegic, and two amputees, as well as their spouses and companions.
Before the trip, we reminded potential tour members that this is a difficult journey to a country not used to hosting handicapped travelers. On that note, while we were preparing the tour route, we found at one point that the local Thai agents were unwilling to even consider some of our planned activities (including the elephant jaunt and a boat ride through the floating market). The proposed canoe trip at Phang Nga really sent them over the edge; all these requests at first received the same firm reply: "This type of people cannot do this".
I, on the other hand, insisted on including all the adventure activities that would make our trip unique, because I had done that very thing they thought impossible on my own previous trip. And if I could do it, so could my friends. Moreover, we made clear, if we couldnít have these adventures, there would be no group. And in the end, we successfully demonstrated exactly what "this type of people" can do!
Our journey started in the capital, Bangkok where we met our Thai travel agent and his team of aides who would accompany us for the entire trip. The aides stayed with us in the hotel and were at the service of our handicapped members day and night. (For most tour members, nights were time to scour the markets and check out the night clubs to the wee hours of the morning.) We toured Bangkok in a lift-equipped bus. We took in the Marble Shrine at Wat Benjambophit, and circled the giant reclining Buddha in the best pilgrimís tradition. Of course we didnít miss climbing the stairs to see the dazzling Golden Buddha. The next day we toured the Grand Palace, where the kingís former residence and shrines are located. This is the site of the famed Emerald Buddha, as well as the magnificent wall painting the detailed images of which relate the Ramayana, the tale of the abduction of the wife of King Rama by the demon-king and her subsequent rescue. Our trip over the next few days took us to Ayudhaya where we wandered among the ruined spires of Thailandís ancient former capital, destroyed about 270 years ago by the invading Burmese. At the kingís summer palace, Bang Pa-in we were particularly impressed with the magnificent Chinese-style edifice.
Real adventure started later with our boat ride through the world-famous floating market of Damnoen Saduak. The low, long-tailed boats in which we rode were the perfect perch from which to glimpse traditional village life on the water, where people live in shacks built on stilts.
Following that experience we flew to Chiang Rai where we set out to visit the Golden Triangle, once known as a center for opium growing. Transportation here was provided by mini-vans that our aides helped us in and out of, after we saw the one-door local tour busses were impossible to access. At Chiang Rai, the borders of three nations, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos converge on the banks of the famous Mekong River. With the help of our aides, we climbed the hills to see the "long necked" women of the Karin tribe, whose name derives from the practice of placing permanent metal rings around their necks at a young age.
Our next stop was Chiang Mai where we visited an elephant work-camp. This was once a logging camp, but since logging was forbidden in the 1980ís by royal decree, it has become a showplace for tourists, enabling the elephants to continue "earning their keep". This was undoubtedly one of the most difficult ascents of the trip, but the exhilaration of being so close to these great, intelligent beasts, was well worth the effort.
Phuket in the south was next on the itinerary. On this recreational island we had the opportunity to rest after the exertions of the previous days, enjoy the beach and some unstructured time. Here we undertook the elephant ride that roused the aforementioned shouts of joy from the usually reticent Moshe. This is not the only place where elephant riding is possible in Thailand, but it is more level route than the steep course in Chiang Mai. The company we used for the ride was called the Siam Safari).
One day-trip brought us by boat to the marvelous islands of Phang Nga Bay where we transferred to canoes to see one of the regionís prime attraction, the "hongs", or inland lagoons with which nature has endowed some of these islands. The lagoons were formed when the sea penetrated the islands, and are connected to the open sea by cave-tunnels that are exposed at low tide and disappear when the tide returns. During our passage by canoes through one cave we had to lean back in our vessels so that our heads did not connect with the low ceiling. In another we shared space for a short time with a large local congregation of bats. The company that provided the trip (which included a fresh seafood lunch cooked on board the boat) was the SeaCanoe Company.
Finally, we returned to Bangkok, where the last stop on our itinerary was a boat trip on Bangkokís river, the Chau Praya. The rest of the time was devoted to completing the purchases of custom-made clothes and all kinds of items of which we never seemed to have enough at the low prices we found here.
I still havenít told anything about the night-markets, the clubs and other wonders that youíll discover for yourselves when you visit this land of mystery and marvels.
Thai Air service was excellent. Furthermore, on the flight to Chiang Rai they had twelve seats vacant in their business class and they upgraded all the handicapped travelers and our comfort was much increased. Kudos to Thai Air!
I have personally checked some of the following hotels in Thailand for wheelchair access.
(Toilet height is standard in Thai hotels: 37 cm)
The Amari Water Gate I was informed that they have some accessible rooms, but did not actually see them myself.
The Sol Twin Tower. Large rooms, bathroom doors about 75 cm wide. Threshold has a step down to the bathroom 3 cm high. Tub height: 37 cm. There are no showers or hand showers here, we connected a hand held hose to the shower head. This is the hotel we used with the group and reactions were quite favorable, although the toilet is not good for toilet wheelchairs due to its shape..
Bangkok Lotus Novotel. I was told they had accessible rooms but I did not actually see them.
Wangcome Hotel This is the hotel we used with the group because of its location close to the night market and its affordability. There is a steep ramp next to the four steps at the entrance. Bathroom doors are net 65 cm, the frame is 68 cm. (Bathroom door needs to be taken off hinges to allow wheelchair access. Under the sink is 68 cm high, tub to sink is 78 cm, door to toilet is 134 cm.)
Dusit Island Resort This is best for wheelchair users. Room entrance, 87 cm. Bathroom has a 79 cm-wide sliding door. Under the sink height is 59 cm. Shower is 79 cm wide and 9 cm step on the threshold. The tub has a hand-held shower. There is a drainage hole in the floor of the bathroom.
The Wang Thong Hotel has a ramp, not too steep, leading to the entrance. Bathroom door frame 67 cm, door must be taken off hinges for wheelchair access. Toilet to door, 108 cm; tub to sink, 112 cm, toilet height, 36 cm, threshold step, 3 cm, under sink height: 52.5 cm.
Holiday Inn Green Hills and Novotel : These two facilities are said to have accessible rooms, but I did not personally see them.
The Holiday Inn in Patong City has two accessible rooms but I didnít see them personally. Wheelchair users can use the standard rooms in this facility. Bathroom doors are 72 cm with a 3 cm threshold step. Wheelchair-users can fit under the sink. This hotel also has an accessible public toilet.
Additional locations in Thailand that reportedly have accessible rooms:
Kanchanaburi: the Sheraton River Kwai Resort.
Pattaya, the Novotel.
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