Thailand is no secret for travel enthusiasts, yet somehow it remains extremely budget friendly while offering some of the most beautiful sites and kindest people around. This country is at the top spot of my favorite places, and of course I have written and spelled out what we did and experienced on our trip. I loved the contrast of Thailand. We started in one of the fastest growing mega-cities in the world, moved to a lodge in the green mountains where elephants roamed around our room, and ended the trip riding around beautiful islands in a longboat we rented. Where other countries in the world, other than SE Asia, can you experience so much within an hour or 2 flight for next to nothing?! I broke the trip down into each place I just mentioned in case you’re planning a trip and only need one or 2 places. Which you should plan a trip, and not skip any of these places :)…
Bangkok is one of the most overwhelming places I’ve ever been.
At an estimated 15 million people in 2013, it’s easy to understand why it takes 30 minutes to go 5 miles and there are high-rise buildings as far as the eye can see (581 supposedly).
We stayed in Sukhumvit and are happy with our decision. It’s a nice clean and seemingly safe area, close to the BTS transit, and had a local vibe to it rather than the chaos of Koh San Road. We did however visit Koh San Road for a night out and experienced the backpacker sensory overload. People walking around selling fried scorpions on a stick, drunk 20 year olds, many massage chairs lined up on the streets, and of course the ping-pong show solicitors. If you don’t know what a ping pong show is… just know don’t go. That’s all I am going to say about that. The smells and sounds are intense. It’s a big ol tourist trap, and all the English-speaking fools inside were discussing what they paid for the entry fee before we watched for a little bit and left. But, back to Koh San, from the pad thai cooking on the sidewalks to the bars competing to have the loudest music, the sewage smell to the loud talking, It’s an experience. One that I would recommend having a cocktail or 2 before if you plan on a night on Koh San Road. We did however go back for an early dinner the next day and enjoyed a nice relaxing sunset on a patio people watching.
Oh Tony Montana…. our Ping pong show recruiter and intoxicated driver.
The main temples and popular tourist attractions in Bangkok include the Grand Palace, Wat Pho. Wat Arun, and Wat Phra Kaew. On the day we planned on being big ol tourist we made it to a whopping 1 and I’ve never been so mentally drained from a travel experience.
This might be slightly dramatic, but the Grand Palace was a grand pain in the you know what. We chose the 4 month anniversary of the Kings death to go to the palace, and while the Thai people mourn his death for a year, I guess each month anniversary is extra mourning. I’m hoping that explains the number of people who were at the palace that day. I think they did a decent job of herding cattle with the quantity of visitors who were at the palace, but I personally am not a fan of being squished into a line of people that are so close we were literally waddling to get through entry gates. Did I mention it was 95 degrees? And it happened multiple times before we even purchased our tickets. Additionally, Asians tend to be a little aggressive, disregarding of personal space, and impatient by nature. I.e. A grown woman tried to take Kate’s popsicle out of her hand when we’re purchasing them because she thought she was there first. She walked up after I already had mine and Kate had paid. Back off that Coconut popsicle lady, it’s 95 degrees and we were just marched through a palace and had 18291 5 foot Asians run circles around us for hours. That popsicle was a lifeline to sanity at that point.
After that we found a dive bar on the river, had a large Singha beer, and decided we didn’t need to see the other sites. Which is extremely out of character for me. Instead we attempted to go to a rooftop bar, and were turned away because we didn’t meet the dress code. Next up was Cowboy street.
Cowboy street is Vegas minus the casinos meets Red light district in Amsterdam. In other words, disgusting but highly entertaining. I had read that you should go see this street, but honestly had no idea that it was more of less strip clubs and I really don’t want to know what else.
We sat on a table right on the street and judged all the old men being led by the hand into the dark bars by women. Or maybe they weren’t women. This area is known for the famous Thai “lady boys”, which I doubt needs to be explained. The most fun that we had on this street was trying to pick out which working girls were not actually girls. We decided you can’t rely on the obvious adams apple and lack of curves anymore. Skirts and dresses mean suspicious activity could be underneath, and hands and feet are a distinguishing factor. Even tho my friends and myself all wear size 10 shoes. After a couple of drinks we thought we had it figured out. Whatever, lady boys… we found some, and that was the highlight of the exhausting day for me. (Jkjk, inside the grand palace was really very beautiful).
(I.e. Lady Boy. Jason continued to be lucky enough to be chosen by multiple questionable women for massages. Much to our delight hahaha.
Chiang Mai was the first real experience I’ve had with Buddhism. We arrived in town and immediately went to tour a few of the over 200 Wats (temples). The old town of Chiang Mai is a small square area that is surrounded by a medieval fort, it was founded in 1296. So, we did a self walk tour courtesy of lonely planet’s guide. I found the experience to be very peaceful and the temples beautiful. There were nowhere near the crowds we met in Bangkok, and we were able to take some great pictures and walked to 4-5 temples. The main ones in Chiang Mai are Wat Phra Singh, Wat Chedi Luang, and Wat Phan Tao. There are dozens of smaller ones scattered all throughout the city. It made for lovely scenery on our run one morning and a great cultural experience!
(According to a pamphlet I picked up in one of the Wats) Buddhism was founded 2,600 years ago when Prince Siddhartha became ordained to find enlightenment at 29 years old. He was predicted by holy men to become Buddha from an early age. After suffering and a few signs from the universe he committed to sit under a Bhodi tree until he could find a way to stop sufferings and obtain Nirvana. Nirvana is considered true happiness where you no longer are born and die (over and over again), and it’s the end goal of Buddhism. He was awakened or enlightened at 35 years old. Buddha was not a god, rather a man who taught the path to enlightenment. Those who practice this religion do not actually worship the statues of Buddha, rather use it as a reminder to strive to develop peace and love within ourselves. Bowing to the statues is an expression of gratitude for the teaching. The Buddha’s final words on his deathbed at 80 years old were, “It’s normal, everything that is born has to gradually disappear, it’s all of your duty to make yourself useful and to help other people without disparage.” Buddhism is practiced by over 530 million people as of 2010. I enjoyed learning more about this religion, the 4 noble truths, 8-fold path and 5 precepts. Karma, compassion, and wisdom have never truly been defined, or rather I have never sought a definition, until I stumbled upon them as they are perfectly spelled out by Buddhism. Certainly lessons that anyone from any religion can apply. That’s it on religion, but I urge you to do a brief search to learn more if you are as clueless as I was!
Chiang Mai was absolutely freaking charming. I loved it, and could have spent soo much more time exploring outside the city and hiking through the mountains. We were only there for 3 nights total. One evening we decided to find a rooftop for dinner. We asked around and were led on a wild goose chase that was seemingly a dead-end. That is, until we reached a place that looked like a cross between a garage, possibly a hostel, with a small chance that it was a restaurant. Turns out it was literally a garage but also the rooftop restaurant, and no one was there. We were hungry and thirsty and tired of searching, so we climbed the stairs of the home or possibly hostel and propped up at a table and ordered drinks. They were delicious, the food was another story. I love me some spicy food, and my travel friends all feel the same way. But, the soup I ordered and the curry Lisa got were out of this world. I mean, heart rate increased, face bright red, sweat pouring kind of spicy. You hear about Thai food being hot, well… at this little dive restaurant/hostel/garage we found out the locals don’t play. It makes me crave water all over again just writing about it.
Speaking of food, I don’t think I’ve ever had Thai food before the trip. But, we signed up for a cooking class in Chiang Mai that I was really excited for. The Baan Thai Cookery school is where we chose to go after a recommendation by a traveler friend, and we were quite impressed by the entire thing. We went to the local market and were educated on the ingredients, and the cooking process was very well planned and executed. I cooked pai thai, spring rolls, a coconut seafood soup, and red curry. I was also so stuffed by the end of the 3rd dish I was borderline miserable. But, my love for Thai food was discovered in Bangkok and bloomed in Chiang Mai. It was a great $28 spent, and I have my recipe book now and fully intend on making some Pai Thai soon! We also spent time at a night market, and went out to a club, Zoe in Yellow, one night. That was quite the evening as I initially under estimated the charming town to be such a party spot.
Our other 2 days in Northern Thailand were in an area an hour outside of Chiang Mai called Mae Wang. It’s in the mountain area, close to Don Inthanon which at 8,000′ is the highest peak in Thailand. We chose to go to this area because of the Chai Lai Orchid lodge. You can read more about their mission to save elephants from the neighboring elephant camp and their daughters rising program on my post here. I very much enjoyed our time in the mountains. The cool crisp air was perfect after the humid 90 degree temps in Bangkok. We were able to take part in feeding, bathing, and riding an elephant (bareback) as well as hiking to a neighboring hilltribe village and taking a bamboo raft down the river back to the lodge. The hiking was pretty, but I will admit the hilltribe village was a bit of a let down.
There are tribes of people who live in the mountains and are actually not considered residents of Thailand. We visited one of the Karen tribes. This particular group (and our guide who is part of the Karen tribe a hill over) surprisingly practice Catholicism and live in small communities. I think my disappointment came when we saw beautiful log cabins built along the street with the expected shacks and pick up trucks driving around people who had just been to town. Our guide explained the log cabin people did well for themselves and had more money so they had nicer homes. While we were drinking a cold beer from a store with a fridge I realized my expectations were high based on the pictures I saw of a raw authentic tribe of people living off of the land and women with necks full of colorful necklaces. What I saw was a poverty filled town with basic life comforts (I use comforts very loosely).
The bamboo raft was a treat. We sat on a raft of bamboo tied together with ripped up tire pieces and a guide used a bamboo pole to push us along the stream and avoid shallow areas, trees, and whatever else a raft should avoid. We saw plenty of them floating by our lodge while were hanging out the prior day. No one looked wet or had fallen in, so we weren’t concerned when the guide asked if we wanted to ‘drive’. I navigated some shallow areas, we may or may not have gotten stuck, but all in all it was fine and a workout similar to paddleboarding. Kate took the pole next. Despite having a great stance and a smooth row, she eventually drove my area of the raft straight into a tree trunk. I was expecting to bounce off of it and keep moving since it was a deep area, but we got stuck. Soooo the raft stopped dead in its tracks, but Kate being at the front of it kept going. Straight over the front and into the water. I just happened to be using my waterproof phone to video and conveniently captured her being tossed overboard. It has been replayed many many times. Karma and that raft got me soon after though. I was attempting to climb onto a rope swing that was high above the raft and while the guide was helping to push me up (I know, so kind), I flipped the little wooden swing and fell flat on my back on the raft…. and my little Thai guide. Kate got her revenge laugh in.
- leaving it to the Pro
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Everything about the 2 nights in the mountains was great, the food from the restaurant at the lodge (which was basically our only choice) was wonderful, we made friends with others who were staying, and got to unwind in nature for a solid couple of days. Even the hour ride in the back of the red pickup truck to and from Chiang Mai was peaceful. To sum it up, I highly recommend going to Chiang Mai as well as the Chai Lai Orchid ($56/n total for a large room for 4!) if you go to Thailand. It’s one of the few places I have traveled where I thought, I would love to come back and live or spend an extended amount of time here.
The welcome dish at Chai Lai
Koh Phi Phi
I mean, I am tempted to just do a picture book for this part of the trip. It’s easily the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. I think it’s difficult to lump mountains and beaches into the same category and choose one’s beauty over the other, but the green cliff side secluded white sand beaches and blue water is probably the most beautiful place I have ever been. It’s so hard to pick favorites and say that.
Koh Phi Phi was wiped out in the tsunami of 2004, and really has been building a tourism following since (also having Leonardo DeCaprio’s ‘The Beach’ filmed here didn’t hurt). It’s an island known for its beach parties and wild nights, which is why we almost chose to stay on Koh Lanta instead. After looking into both, the picturesque landscape of Phi Phi won out over the peaceful seclusion of Koh Lanta. We stayed at a place called the Beacha Club, directly on the beach for $56/n for 2 people. It’s posted pretty much all over the site and reviews that you can hear music from the beach parties until 2am when they shut down. They weren’t lying, and the receptionist (an open aired desk on the sand) actually give ear plugs to you when you check in. I didn’t have any problems sleeping because of it, but I know others in my group did. However, the location well made up for it. Free breakfast at the restaurant on the beach, and all the basic amenities we could want.
Except the provided kayaks. The hotel has 2 kayaks they offer their guests for free. There is a kayak rental place next door, and kayaks were placed in front of the hotel while we were there so we assumed it was one of those. No, they were clear kayaks. We thought that was really cool, until we nearly lost one in the ocean and drown in the process. Kate and I mayyyyy or may not have had 2 mojitos laying on the beach waiting for Lisa before we started our adventure. Ok, we did, and they are advertised as ‘strong’ mojitos. Whatever, we can kayak. And we could have, if our kayak wasn’t broken. We started out paddling and just kept going in circles. I’m sure the people laying on the beach found us to be highly amusing, but after 2 mojitos we were laughing pretty hard at ourselves not understanding that it wasn’t our fault. The cheap rudder at the back was halfway hanging off and steering us all kinds of not making sense crooked. We powered through and made it a good distance from shore, but only about halfway to our destination of monkey beach when we realized we were going nowhere fast. And taking on water. Lisa was the smart (and sober) one and decided we should head back. So, I started trying to scoop water while Kate paddled us in circles. Eventually we went down. We saved the stupid kayak and were just treading water trying to figure out how the heck 2 girls were supposed to flip it back over when our foreign angel appeared. A 17-year-old named Ben had been swimming out to the end of the swim area and saw our struggles (actually he probably heard us laughing/yelling first). He was a very strong swimmer and came and flipped our helpless and half sunk kayak over for us. Then we couldn’t figure out how to swim the dang thing in until Lisa and Ben tied it up to them and paddled us in. Kate and I were hanging onto the side of the kayak getting towed in. Bens friends whooped and hollered and I’m pretty sure he had a shit eating grin on his face at the front of that kayak saving 3 girls from doom annnnnd all his friends/family seeing. Everyone else was laughing at us. But we lived to drink another strong mojito (and informed the front desk that their FREE kayak is broken and dangerous…. which I think they already knew). The near death experience didn’t ruin the day, we went on to eat dinner and then watch the fire show before we old folks went to bed early.
The next morning was the super bowl, which Jason woke up at 6am to watch at a bar filled with Americans, some who had slept the night before and a few who obviously had not. Kate and I went for a run, and stumbled upon signs for a viewpoint. We thought it would be a quick little trip to the viewpoint, which was wrong. It took some climbing and much longer than we thought, but was well worth it.
The rest of the trip is a blur between boats, beaches, and buckets. We actually booked a boat tour to 6 different places but after being herded into a group of probably 75 people who were to be distributed and packed onto the longtail boats, we bailed. We told them one of our friends was sick (oops) and we would like a refund. We actually got it, and then rented one of the longtail boats that was sitting on the beach for an amazing $100 for 6 hours.
- Maya Bay
We bought snacks and a couple of buckets (drinks are served in buckets and insanely cheap), and set out for our own private tour. We did Maya Bay first, which is beautiful but PACKED with tourists. We saw a small beach to the side that only had 2 people on it and decided that was our spot. Well it only had 2 people for a reason, you have to swim over shallow coral to reach it. We all ended up with a cut or 2 in different places, and a lesson learned. Our boat captain was great and seemed to understand the places we would like were more secluded. He took us to a lagoon that larger boats couldn’t enter at that point in the day because of the tide, and we got to swim around and enjoy the beauty of the place.
Monkey island happened next, and while it wasn’t to ourselves it also wasn’t overran with people. Just really mean monkeys who know how to take cell phones and we saw turning up coke cans. They are definitely not afraid of humans at this point. It was still a unique and cool experience! Bamboo island was also full of tourist boats, but gorgeous and a good place to post up on the beach for an hour.
We enjoyed our boat day so much that we asked our captain if he would take us back out again the next day for 4 hours. Which he did, and we enjoyed just as much again. I mean, see below. How can you not enjoy this?!
- the secluded-for-a-reason beach off of Maya Bay
I am proud to say that we sucked it up one night and went out. I’m the youngest out of the 4 of us at 30, so we were older than majority of the people who go to Phi Phi and stay out past midnight. Actually, I think Lisa and Jason may have juuuuuust made it past midnight. The fire show and party mood hit myself and Kate and after watching some Thai boxing (where if you enter you get a free bucket) we danced and lived it up til 2 and the bars closed. I wont go into detail, but we had a blast.
Leaving, we took the 2 hour ferry boat to Krabi where we immediately dropped our stuff and hopped into another longtail headed to Railay beach. We wanted to see this beach that you can only reach by boat, and to hike to the viewpoint which we had read about. Well, if you decide to hike to the Railay Beach viewpoint understand it’s not a hike…. it’s rock climbing. I’m not sure why no one mentioned that online, but you’re seriously shimmying up ropes and tree roots. If it has rained recently I’d say forget about it. It’s a workout, but it doesn’t take too long and the little viewpoint at the top is still worth it. I will admit it’s not the best viewpoint I’ve seen, as it’s on a cliff but just a small opening in the trees. Maybe after everything we had seen to this point it fell a little flat. But, if you want a good workout go for it!
Street food in Krabi followed by bed and an early morning flight back to Bangkok rounded up out Southern Thailand experience. We enjoyed roaming around Bangkok the next day, and found Cheap Charlie’s expat bar and a largely expat community that I wish we had discovered earlier in our Bangkok stay as it had a lot of cool spots. By the end of the night it was Kate and I left, and while we dreaded the hours of flying home… neither of us were ready to leave.
Thailand is a special place. I think I probably say this after 75% of vacations I go on, but It’s my favorite place thus far. It’s really hard to choose between which part was my favorite because I think the contrast between the 3 different places is what makes Thailand unique. I know I mentioned it before, but the fact that you can explore mountains and nature, live it up in a massive city, and relax on beautiful islands all within the same country and a couple of hours (extremely inexpensive) flying is something I highly value. Living like a dang boss didn’t hurt, I am not used to buying whatever I want without thinking about budget. The Thai people were happy as expected and not once did I ever feel unsafe or worry about crime.
I really don’t know if I can say enough good things about my favorite trip to date, but if this isn’t enough I will just highly encourage everyone and anyone to go visit Thailand. I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed!
Categories: adventure, Bangkok, Chai Lai Orchid, chiang mai, elephant, Elephant riding, girls who travel, Koh Phi Phi, non profit, Thailand, Travel, Travel blogger, Uncategorized, wanderlust