Traveling in Thailand with a disability

Walking the Kwai Bridge. All photos: submitted by author.
Walking the Kwai Bridge. All photos: submitted by author.

By Tam Gilbert

“Sun, sea, sand, and a few months to work out what I want from life” are typical reasons the average young Brit decides to visit Thailand. But I’m not that young anymore—I’m in my late 30s and disabled. As a sufferer of cerebral palsy with vision limitations, it’s hard enough to navigate England, my own country, without spontaneously “finding myself” in another. Day-to-day life can take meticulous planning, and holidaying abroad—particularly in Asia—when you have sight impairments and mobility issues, isn’t as easy as you’d think.

I’ve recently returned from a 12-day trip to Bangkok and Kanchanaburi, where I stayed with an old friend and his wife. They’ve been living in Bangkok for some years now, so I thought there would be no better way to satisfy my need for adventure, and at the same time, celebrate big birthdays and our 30-year friendship, than to pay them a visit.

My friend is a teacher, so we needed to plan the trip around school holidays, and this was particularly important as I am unable to get around new places on my own. The six-hour time difference between our two countries makes it hard to have regular planning conversations, so although we had a Skype chat about my needs and I sent a few emails about things I’d like to see, I pretty much left it to him to organize the itinerary. All I had to do was to buy some summer clothes and turn up.

Arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, I was instantly impressed by the service I received. My Thai escort was friendly, professional, and respectful. She gave me clear instructions as to where we were going, always telling me to “be careful” when we reached the end of the moving walkway. I had taken a photograph of my luggage to make things easier, and she took a photo on her own phone so she could go and find it for me—insisting on calling my ride to find out where they were waiting. The service on the way back was just as good—in fact, the customer service I received in Bangkok was far better than at London airports, where staff are often rude and insensitive.

The author, enjoying a ride in a songtao.

I know that my friend was concerned about navigating me around the streets of Bangkok since the pavement is often uneven and can be packed with vendors. I told him not to worry, but on my first walk through Phra Khanong, I knew what he meant! Trying to find a taxi was difficult since we had to walk in the road, very close to cars and motorbikes. The curbs are quite high, and traffic is fast-moving, which made it scary when moving quickly. We all decided that navigating me across the footbridge over the road would be challenging, so instead, we used the Grab Taxi App, which meant we could order a taxi to take us from door-to-door.

I really enjoyed the train journey to Kanchanaburi—sitting with the windows wide open, with the wind in my face was wonderful. We were all very pleased that I was able to get on and off the trains even though there were steep steps. Arriving at Kanchanaburi station, I couldn’t believe that the only way we could cross to the other platform was by getting back on our train and walking through another train! The guards were very patient and helpful, as were all the staff, drivers, and members of the public generally.

In Kanchanaburi, we tended to use the same songtao drivers, who got to know me and were happy to wait a few minutes while I got on and off. They seemed very pleased that I was able to speak a tiny bit of Thai—even if it was only “Hello” and “Thank you.”

There is so much history in and around Kanchanaburi. We hired for a driver, Wissut, for two days, allowing us to take things slowly and not have to stick to a schedule like a regular tour. This also gave us opportunities to stop for lunch or visit places we hadn’t planned. Highlights were walking along the replica bridge at Kanchanaburi, visiting the War Cemetery, and navigating Hellfire Pass.

My friends had visited Hellfire Pass previously, and there had been an accessible wooden walkway to get to the bottom. Unfortunately on this occasion it was closed and we did not know this until we arrived. I like a challenge, so I was happy to try the regular route, which had a lot of very steep uneven steps meant to be navigated while listening to a guided tour on head-sets. This was perhaps slightly unfair on my poor friend, who had to guide me up and down in the extreme heat—at one point, I was convinced my heart would stop. However, everyone we passed was having just the same trouble and people would stop to give me wet cloths, encouraging words,  and smelling salts. We had to laugh when Ewen suddenly noticed I was moving very quickly indeed; someone had begun to push me up the steps from behind. I hate this happening in England as I get un-balanced, but here it was extremely useful.

Our driver was great. He soon picked up on my needs, and when we asked about places we’d like to visit, he would say, “Easy for Tam” or “Not easy for Tam.” Two such “easy” suggestions  were Dragon Cave Temple, also known as Wat Ban Tham, and Tiger Cave Temple, or Wat Tham Sua. Both are located in Tha Muang District, about a 40-minute drive from Kanchanaburi. My friend and I were excited at the prospect of visiting underground caves, but of course this is Thailand, and when we arrived, these beautiful caves were actually open-air temples.

Tiger Cave, situated at the top of a hill, is accessible by cable-car, an option Wissut thought would be infinitely easier than climbing 157 steps for me. The cable-car turned out to be  just as tricky, as it is at an angle, and keeps moving while you jump on and off, unless the operator happens to see you and stop. It was well-worth the struggle though, the ride was fun, and the views at the top were amazing.

The steps at Dragon Cave were the easiest of all my Thai steps, although I didn’t go right to the top since the Dragon’s mouth looked quite dark. I was touched to be given a gift of flowers by a monk, who seemed very impressed I had made the journey up and down.

My favorite experience was our day at Elephant Haven, where the staff and animals were  welcoming and attentive. At this rehabilitation facility, I fed elephants that seemed completely in tune with my movement and it was a feeling like no other I have experienced, truly magical. My friend had already stated my needs on the online booking form and the guides and mahouts always made sure I could manage walking the route ahead—they spoke to my friend in Thai, when necessary. At one point, after I had already conquered a fairly steep slope in the morning, they offered a shorter route in the afternoon, taking us to a spot where the rest of the group would meet us. After walking a distance, we realized that we each had an elephant (accompanied by their mahouts) to observe. Never before has the accessible option been so well thought-out. In the UK, the accessible route for those with disabilities normally means you miss parts of the tour.

I went to Thailand with no idea what to expect, ready for anything, and hoping for adventure. I encountered physical challenges along the way, but met some incredibly kind people. While my stay was short, my memories will live on.

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