Oh Hey Thailand!
Well well well. Thailand eh!? If someone had told me I was going to be setting foot in this country during my year in Australia I’m notsure I would have believed them.
The 19 day path of experience has been full of colour and wonder and delight. And best of all, exactly the type of overall taster I was hoping for.
The adventure starts in bustling Bangkok where everything is pretty mental, although actually less so than I had previously envisaged. Stepping into Don Muang International airport however is certainly an experience in itself and one that requires perseverance and total concentration.
Through a number of sources it was practically made out to me that I was likely to get robbed or scammed the minute I stepped foot off the plane, so you can imagine how I was in a perpetual state of anxiety whilst I struggled to seek out customs through the throngs of bodies congesting up the corridors.
I was doing things wrong already; my passport wasn’t within reaching distance, I didn’t have my money spaced out in more than three places in my bag and where even was my phone?
I was lucky enough to have made a friend on the flight over from Kuala Lumpur so she and I stuck together as we traversed the airport, finally got our stamps and met up with Vinny before being let out into the abyss that was Bangkok.
The stifling heat is the first oppression, especially as we were visiting at the hottest time of the year. It was nearing 38 degrees when we arrived. I sang out a silent thank you that I had thought to only pack light. We got ourselves a metered cab and sat tight through rush hour in the big city.
We were staying in one of the main neighbourhoods of Silom and best of all, my wonderful friend Naomi was going to be in the same area that night. We met up with her for my first authentic Asian street food meal and climbed to floor 57 on top of a skyscraper to see an almighty Bangkok night skyline with a few drinks. What a welcome to the country!
Day two was a chance to get to know Bangkok a little better. We took a stroll through lively china town and visited a few temples along the way. This day actually has to be a favourite of mine from the whole trip – just meandering at a glacial pace through the markets and street vendors, savouring the exotic smells and sights, delighting in sampling new food and immersing myself in these people’s way of life. For the most part we were left alone to our own devices. No one haggled or pursued us for a sale and the streets were marginally quiet for the onslaught I had been anticipating.
That evening we hopped on an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. The tracks are well paved by backpackers and we had no trouble booking a top and bottom bunk for the night, although it is advised to book early as the route is highly popular. Research online will tell you that your possessions are at risk whilst you are sleeping. Whilst in some instances I’m sure this has been qualified, I had no qualms leaving my backpack in the cages provided and didn’t feel the need to sleep with my passport under my pillow.
We woke to the somewhat chilled out (in comparison) vibes of Chiang Mai and also to a hoard of tuk tuk drivers waiting to take us into town. Their ‘best price’ is normally 3x the amount it should be so unless you want the experience of riding in one as soon as you get off the train, it’s best to stick to taxis. Chiang Mai is quite beautiful and has a moat running around the city. The traffic around the moat is intense but doesn’t have to be panic inducing. You soon learn to just start walking if you need to cross the road, the traffic will swerve past you.
Whilst in Chiang Mai we had many cool experiences including:
Getting a Thai massage by a blind person – we were given these beautiful green fisherman pants and told to lie down. Traditional Thai massage is based upon pressures and energies and there is constant body contact between the giver and receiver. Elbows are used to trigger pressure points and digits are popped – you feel very pulled and stretched by the end of it. I personally just found the whole thing extremely ticklish and laughed throughout. The lady who was massaging me could feel me tensing up and laughed along with me. She had even more of a giggle once she found out just how inflexible I was… We paid 250 baht each (£5) for an hour and having it done by someone who was blind somehow made it seem more viable, plus the fact that we felt better about helping the community.
Sampling authentic Thai food in someone’s living room – so we walk into this place recommended by our guest house owner and the first thing that comes to your attention is that you are in someone’s home. The tv is on, there’s a cot in the middle, paintings hanging up everywhere, rugs on the floor, books toppled up. There’s a few plastic chairs and tables dotted around so you just take a seat and watch the proceedings. No one spoke a word of English and they had to show us the price on their calculator but the food was absolutely scrumptious and we paid 80 baht (£1.60) for two meals. Amazing!
Temple spotting – The temples are ssssstunning. I have many a good memory flitting around gazing at all the intricate details and vivid colours. There is a sense of peace and serenity that overrides any other emotion you may be feeling at the time. A lot of temples provide ladies with shawls or gowns in case they don’t come appropriately dressed. Even if I was in the appropriate attire I found I would still nab a gown and discard my shoes so that I could be a ethereal being wandering the space with the pure intent of deriving pleasure and seeking beauty.
Chatting to a monk – We happened upon a couple sat down talking to a monk, clad in his beautiful orange robes and joined to listen to what he had to say. The conversation jumped from his daily routine to what he believed in to what he makes of a particular motion or behaviour. He spoke without hesitation and like he had all the answers to everything you could ever possibly want to know in the world. A while after we had been sat down, a young monk aged 10 jumps up on the bench and sits down next to him. From his robe he pulls out a bag of candy and some comic books from the grocery store and starts tucking in. We all start to laugh as it is a beautiful contradiction. The older monk explains that this is the boy’s first day of being a monk. He is undecided about whether he will continue down this path to being a monk but he has felt changed today.
Visiting an elephant sanctuary – We put some research into finding a place that seemed to have the Ele’s well-beings at the forefront rather than just making money off tourism. The companies make it incredibly easy for you – most of the time you can just book the day through the guesthouse you’re staying at and a door to door service is provided as complimentary (although we did have a very bumpy road ahead of us!) I think we picked a good one as I have never seen such happy looking Eles! The whole day from start to finish was practically magical. We began by feeding Ting and Tang bananas which they firmly grabbed from us immediately. It was wonderful to be up close to such majestic animals with gentle hearts. The sanctuary had the delivery of the day down to a fine art but also managed to make the whole process feel authentic as we followed the Elephants and their handlers down paths and steep hills to mud baths and watering holes. We were allowed to interact very closely with Ting and Tang, slapping armfuls of mud on their thick skin and splashing them profusely with buckets of creek water. The Elephants seemed to revel in the experience as we did; it became one of the ultimate highlights of the trip for me.
Scootering around – You can’t go to Thailand and not hire a scooter, can you? It’s arguably the best way to get around. I was lucky enough to be with a highly competent rider who I felt utterly safe with but there are plenty of first timers let loose upon the road (as well as Thais who take precarious risks and tend not to wear helmets) so you have to keep your wits about you. Some of my favourite moments of my time in the country were just being on the back of that scooter, breathing in all the changing sights and smells and reveling in being alive and present.
Having drinks in a reggae bar – This cannot be overlooked as reggae bars seem to find me whenever I go to an exotic destination and I always have a great night. The band were fantastic, the company thrilling and and the atmosphere great. It was one of those nights where everything clicks into place.
Wandering around street markets – A lot of our time, especially in the evenings was spent having a gentle wander around popular markets, sampling delicious Thai food and gazing at all the rows and rows of jam packed clothing rails. A lot of the products the vendors sell are sold all across the country, therefore because they are not unique, you can barter them down for all sorts of bargains. They can spot you a mile off though and will always set their highest price first – Maybe on the pretense that you may just be a naive western tourist who has no idea what country you’re in and will therefore pay anything for a Chang beer wife beater, I don’t know. It’s still a pleasure strolling along at your own pace, moving through the crowds as you watch everyone going about their normal routine. I feel so happy to have been able to immerse myself in another’s culture this way.
Sampling some of Thailand’s cheapest and most delicious culinary delights – Eating seems to be at the top of everyone’s lists in Thailand. There is food wherever you look – every second shop is a food outlet of some sort. Sure you can get western food if you go searching, and occasionally it can be a welcome relief from the unfamiliar flavours of the Thai dishes but for the most part it is far better to consume freshly made Thai cuisine which is almost always delectable. Pad Thai and Mango Sticky Rice soon became two of my favourite dishes but also picking a fairly random selection from a menu always turned up good results. Plus I found it quite thrilling to not actually know exactly what I was eating. If the locals were ordering it, that was good enough for me. The food is packed full of flavour and different textures which makes eating it a real pleasure. A lot of the time I think it is meant to be shared tapas style with a few dishes at a time. We found one dish each to be substantial mostly, especially as it was so hot and you didn’t feel like eating a massive meal. Our favourite meals we noticed, interestingly, were the ones that were the cheapest – we would always marvel at the low prices of the dishes which would come in at anything from 80p to £5 each. My favourite of all was finding a gem of a Pad Thai place located on a side street off the main streets of Chiang Mai. The food was sublime and for two servings I think it cost all of about £2.00. Drinks wise, Chang beer is so massive over there and is very easily accessible (you can buy alcohol in the 711s) and we’d often pick up some to go or some to have with our meal.
Pai was next on the list for us after dabbling in the delights of Chiang Mai city. The road that paves the way to the small town is made out to be practically fraught with similarities to that of Lombard Street in San Francisco That is to say, very windy. I therefore took some travel sickness pills for the journey as I didn’t want to be heaving my guts up on the bus for the poor other passengers, however they had an exhaustive effect on me and I basically passed out for the entire ride. The road in fact was not as bad as it was made to seem as I discovered upon my return, when I didn’t pop any pills. Pai is a beautiful little spot and we were staying in the most gorgeous, serene lakeside cabin, a short stroll from everything. The town is a true backpackers delight and attracts many young, white faces.
We spent most of our time in Pai trying to keep cool as the heat seemed even more oppressive up here. I remember taking lots of breaks in the form of iced smoothies or massages in air-conditioned rooms, of which there are plenty of options for both. We visited Pai Canyon which is an epic sunset spot and traipsed up a billion stairs to gaze at the lady in white at the top of the hill – The White Buddha. Celebrations were already starting for Songkran – the Thai New Year water festival in which water is thrown at each other in recklessness abandonment around the country in order to symbolise the washing away of one’s sins and bad luck. It is mostly celebrated by young people and in Chiang Mai, major streets are closed for traffic and used as an arena for water fights.
After three days in Pai, we hopped aboard the bus back so that we’d be in Chiang Mai for the first day of Songkran (the best place to be! Probably because of the city’s moat which is purged extensively over the celebratory days). The madness that ensued was nothing like I had experienced before – strangers dumping buckets of ice cold water down your neck as you walk by, water pistols shooting left right and centre and gallons of water loaded onto the back of utes whilst children and adults alike reek havoc around the city. In essence, you must be prepared to get soaking wet! It’s all a welcome relief of course because the temperature is sky high, it’s nothing like being drenched in the English sunshine where you’d be shivering right down to the bone.
Hopping on an overnight train to Bangkok brought us back in daylight for another session of Songkran. We spent a bit of time in Silom before heading over to Koh San road where all the major action was ensuing. Koh San is manic at the best of times and we could barely move for bodies swarming the street. There was a stark contrast between that of Chiang Mai and this location. Here, backpackers were getting pissed up, loud music was playing from every bar and the general intention was to get drunk whereas in Chiang Mai, it was much more family orientated and it seemed people were drunk solely on the enjoyment of it, rather than from any form of alcohol.
Our next move was to head to the Islands down South. This required boarding yet another overnight sleeper train and getting roughly 1 minute of sleep before being awoken at the truly ghastly hour of 4am in the morning. As a zombie, I managed to sit through a bus and ferry journey before eventually passing out on the impressively comfortable shoulder of my marvellous travel buddy. We arrived to an enormous hoard of people trying to sell us taxi rides. As a backpacker you constantly make decisions based upon your finances and your well being at the time. This was one of those times where well being won as we jumped into a ute to pay a rather large sum to travel a few hundred metres down the island with our bags to our diving school. That’s right, we were on the island of Koh Tao and we were going to learn how to dive. Even better, we were going to become certified padi open water divers. This was thrilling!
The course entails watching videos, answering multiple question answer exams, practising skills underwater in the pool and on your second and third day, diving in the open water. Koh Tao is one of the cheapest places to learn how to dive. We paid a little more for a padi course and for a more experienced dive school – roughly £200 but we could have got it even cheaper if we had wanted to search around for the best deal. Diving for me has always been something I said I would learn to do but have always resisted until now. It’s a scary concept when you let your mind wander – breathing, taking your mask off, clearing it, sharing regulators. ALL UNDERWATER. It’s scary.
Something about this trip made me fearless though. Maybe it was the great price, maybe the great instructor, maybe it was the fact that I had already made the venturesome, liberating leap of coming to Thailand to attempt a relationship with someone I hardly knew, that I could be bold enough to leap again into the unknown, this time into the ocean.
Or maybe Vinny was just very convincing, who knows.
Whatever it was led me to feel perfectly comfortable in the water. And not only that but be completely thrilled by it. Immersing yourself beneath 15 metres of water with only your bubbles talking to you, you realise what a different, tranquil world the underwater one is. I’ve always been fascinated by marine life and here I was gazing at barracuda, huge bait balls of silver fish, moray eels and Angel fish. It was glorious.
From what I saw of the Island of Koh Tao, I got a great impression of it. Obviously swarming with tourists and westerners wanting to dive but actually it has a nice, chilled out atmosphere with a good collection of restaurants, coffee shops and stalls to take your fancy every day. The locals are very friendly and the views from Sairee Beach (where we were staying) are just spectacular.
All too soon our time came to an end on Koh Tao and we branched off to the neighbouring island of Koh Samui for a couple of days before I flew back to Bangkok for my flight home. Koh Samui was starkly different from Koh Tao in that it was much larger, was less beautiful (in my opinion) and was more full of locals living and working there. Our time was spent scootering around, having coffee at a cat café (arguable the highlight of the entire trip haha), climbing to the top of a waterfall, visiting a Buddha and catching the sunsets. Oh and trying not to die of heat exhaustion.
THAILAND WHAT A BEAUT YOU ARE, I SHALL BE RETURNING!