After 20 hours of travel, with a stomach full of anticipation for an adventure, what felt like years in the making, I step off the plane in Bangkok. It was finally here, the world at my feet. Little did I know this city was soon to give me the cultural awakening to South East Asia as softly as a tone of bricks to the head. After getting massively ripped off by a tut tut, I reached Koh San Road, luckily booking our accommodation well in advance through our travel agent had brought us to Tanee Road, Rambittri, the road behind Koh San, quieter with less bustle. After a sleep and freshen up we walked out into the bright neon lights of a Bangkok night. The Koh San strip is a blur of booming music (different from each bar), street stalls selling t-shirts with Chang beer logos, sizzling woks frying noodles and endless promoters offering you (and only you!) the best price in town. The heart of the backpacker scene and thriving off the western party goer, it goes off every night here.
For me the Grand temple and the temple of the Emerald Buddha is a must see when in the city. The palace itself is impressive but takes a backseat to the temple. As you walk into the walled area your eyes are dazzled bu the vast display of gold. Huge statues, detailed mosaic and spectacular architecture stun you at every turn. A spectacular example of the importance of religion in this country. The reclining Buddha is another site worth seeing. 45m of gold worship, it overwhelms its housing. Mother of pearl carved feet dwarfs on lookers gazing in wonder. Bangkok became somewhere I was glad to leave after only two days. Having been ripped off, almost scammed and pestered at every step out of the hotel door. A harsh and gritty city, with plenty of pulse, not for me but an experience to be remembered.
A flat city surrounded by mountains, Chiang Mai was bigger than I had expected, without a doubt more relaxed than Bangkok, but where isn’t? A laid back but still busy city with a lot to explore in and around. An evening cooking course at Baan Thai gives you a taster of Thai cuisine with a fast paced lesson in spring rolls, seafood in coconut milk and Chiang Mai noodles with chicken. All very tasty and fulfilling to have made it yourself (particularly for me who can’t cook, won’t cook!), the staff are friendly with a relaxed and jokey approach, and are happy to answer your questions. A free cookery book with a range of Thai recipes is a nice touch to the course.
Without a doubt the best night in Chiang Mai and possibly my entire trip was Yi Peng in the nearby town of Mao Jo with a lantern festival to blow your mind! Other highlights of Chiang Mia include the Sunday market, with stalls lining the streets selling local crafts and souvenirs spreading out through the town further than I was willing to walk. Supachet Bhumakarn’s gallery was a favourite of mine for presents. A local artist producing paintings, sculptures and printed gifts (t-shirts, coasters, note pads) mostly of elephant designs with the odd rabbit thrown in. Very tasteful and unique. For breakfast, Nice kitchen hits the spot with a range of western and Asia choices, good coffee and lovely staff.
Pai life and the living is easy. An amazing little place with a chilled out and welcoming atmosphere. This small town nested high in the mountains boasts a square grid of shops and restaurants which comes alive at night when the street stalls are set up, selling some nice alternative souvenirs from the larger town markets. My first Thai massage was experienced in Pai and it definitely lived up to expectation, an hour of pure muscular relaxation and unwind for 200b was just what was needed after a few weeks carrying your life in your backpack! A day out on a motorbike is the best way to see the spectacular countryside surrounding this little town, with mountains rolling across the landscape, waterfalls to swim in and even the Pai cannon! Pai was actually what I wanted from northern Thailand, a peaceful and gentle town, an escape from anything you needed to escape from. My first choice in Thailand!
After a night in Phucket in which we arrived late and left early we were making tracks for Phang-Nga. A town with not much going on, certainly nothing aimed at tourists anyway! Our time spent there was on Mr Kean’s day tour of the bay. From the small jetty hidden in the Mangroves river we boarded a long tail boat to explore the nature wonders of Aho Phang Nga.
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi, possibly the most famed of all Thailand’s islands and a must see on any backpackers list. Partly thanks to Danny Boyle’s 2000 The Beach (from Alex Garlands 1996 novel),partly from its sheer beauty and not forgetting its notorious party scene. This island had a lot of expectations to live up to and from the list above it fulfilled its potential. Of course it’s not everybody’s idea of paradise, maybe because when you dream of paradise the rest of the world hasn’t just landed on your desert island with you!
From the jetty you are overwhelmed by accommodation and day tour huts, all promising the best prices. A 15 minute walk winding through the narrow walkways full of bars, shops and restaurants takes you right to the other side of the island and a strip of golden sand, the water warm and shallow with long tail boats gently drifting from their anchor. The Phi Phi look out point is worth the 20 minute steep up hill hike at 5.30 am to see the sunrise! Sweating and puffing (this trip definitely isn’t making me fitter) I was faced with a breath-taking view of the island and the narrow strip of sand which connects the two ends and is home to most of the tourism. The devastation of the 2004 tsunami has impacted the islands structures majorly. An obvious point to make because everything had to be rebuilt, but the rebuilding was quick and not thought through for the future of the island, and how can you blame the people here wanting to get their livelihoods up and running as soon as possible after such a disaster? Environmental agency’s however, are concerned and are now trying to set standards in place to protect the island.
A long tail boat around the island is a good way to see the different beaches and the size of the island. My trip took me to monkey beach, where the monkeys come over searching for food but instead got a lot of cameras in their faces. The next stop was Bamboo island with pure white sands and a strong shore break to float in, and to leave the best till last, Maya bay or ‘the beach’ which blew me away.
In a nutshell Phi Phi is stunning, overrun with tourism and a year round party. From sunning yourself by day to drunkenly taking on firing limbo sticks or skipping ropes at night, having a good time is a high priority here and if you’re not having a good time someone will happily sell it to you. If you take this place with a pinch of salt and expect the crowds you can definitely make it a great trip.
Stuck in transit (staring down the toilet bowl)
From Phi Phi we caught the boat back to Krabi just in time for a bad dose of food poisoning to kick in (don’t trust the egg fried rice offered to you on the day trips!), to make matters worse my friend had also caught it and 3 days in our hotel room feeling awful and taking turns with our head down the toilet was all we saw of this coastal town.
Koh Tao was the chosen location for my PADI open water dive course, with tuition from Davy Jones Locker Dive Centre, 4 days were spent on the island (mostly off the island, submerged) getting qualified and realising that life really is much better, when you are wetter, under the sea! Davy Jones also threw in 4 nights free accommodation at silver sands bungalow resort, with cute little wooden huts with straw roofing and a friendly cat who ended up sleeping in my bed, just a stones throw from the beach. The island has a nice vibe and some good places to eat. A great place to learn to dive with a variety of different dive sites including a wreck of a war ship and submerged pinnacles with coral and fish a plenty. I was lucky enough to have great visibility for my dives which really enhanced the enjoyment. I would recommend Koh Tao and Davy Jones Locker to anyone looking to full in love with the underwater world.
Thailand to Malaysia – a border crossing, a one eyed man and sugar gliders
Leaving it to the last day of our visa to get out of Thailand, it was inevitable that we would miss our minibus to the border. Luckily the last public bus was just leaving as we arrived and we managed to catch it and reach the border. On Thailand’s side there are shops, food outlets and a hotel so our plan was to walk over the border, find a similar scene on Malaysia’s side and stay there until morning when we would pick up our prepaid transfer to Penang. This plan became rather unstuck when Malaysia’s side was completely deserted, no hotel, not even taxis running as we had arrived after 8pm. The immigration officer suggested we caught a ride with a local man who was about to drive back to the nearest town where he lived. This local happened to be a one eyed man dressed from top to toe in demin. As two young female travellers was it wise to get into this strangers car? No, but at this point we had been travelling for 14 hours and were scared to cross back over to Thailand incase they suspected us of visa running, having heard they are trying to crack down on this, and not wanting to get interrogated, the next thing I knew we were in his old car heading for, I didn’t know where. A short ride brought us to the nearest town and although we insisted we wanted a hotel for the night, our driver took us round in circles until pulling up at his house, down a dirt track away from the lights of the town, saying we should stay with him, keeping a game face on we politely insisted he took us back into town to the nearest hotel, which to my exhausted relief he did. Never have I ever been happier to shut the door to an over priced, undersized and dodgy smelling room in all my life. The next day we caught our mini bus from the border and made it to Penang! A couple sitting next to us had smuggled tiny sugar gliders from Bangkok across the border and were excited to show us their achievement.