Thailand: Elephants, Islands & Pad Thai
Thailand is a place many have been, either to the islands, or on a yoga retreat or even to teach English and pet an elephant. But there was always a sense of wonder and exoticism that accompanied the country in my mind that existed past all the utopian and reminiscent chatter. Although touristy in the popular parts, during our trip we explored some lesser known areas that gave us a glimpse into true Thai life and the culture that I always knew was behind the tourist curtain.
We arrived in Bangkok from Bali and we honestly weren't super thrilled about spending a few nights there. We had heard mixed reviews from our acquaintances in Bali and a couple friends back home who had visited, but we knew we couldn't miss the temples and Buddhas. We also wanted to explore and find out what Bangkok was really about for ourselves. There was one thing we were all super excited about... We were staying at the Four Seasons! We booked a super reasonable rate through a family friend and it was a much welcomed change to our budget hotels and hostels. We checked in, reveled in the comfort and cleanliness for a hot second, showered (with great water pressure) and scrubbed the last three days of our bodies. Then we decided to hit the Patpong Night Market. When we arrived my senses were on full alert, overloaded with the lights, haggling, knock off designer products and the impressive amount of inventory the stalls packed in. We found a fun little bar across the street from the main part of the market called the Happy Beer Garden, we ate and drank a few beers while watching locals and tourists walk in and out of the market. We went back to our glorious hotel for the night to relax and recharge. The next day we were up early to take a boat down the Khao Phraya to see the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha and the Wat Pho which houses the massive, gold Reclining Buddha. The Grand Palace was massive and insanely decorated with so much color mixed with Gold. Sharp turrets that looked like they were covered with bubble gum and sugar treats shot up into the murky sky.
We decided Bangkok was pretty awesome after all!
After a couple days in the city we were ready to get back to island living. We headed down south for our Gulf of Thailand adventure. The first stop was Koh Samui. A larger island with beautiful beaches whose shorelines are dotted with resorts and hotels. We ate corn on the cob in the sand, drank local beer, snorkeled and had massages right on the water. We cut our stay on Koh Samui a bit short due to the "resorty" vibe and we were ready for some more active adventures. We had heard great things about Koh Tao earlier in our trip and it was on our list of islands not to miss, so we hopped on a boat that brought us across the turquoise water to our next location.
When we got to Koh Tao we immediately fell in love. The town was fun, filled with a great mix of locals, expats and travelers alike. We stayed at a little hotel right off the main beach near Big Blue Diving Resort. We did a few dives with Big Blue Diving which is run by a fun, young team of Brits who have a passion for travel and of course, underwater fun. We also took a quick boat trip over to Koh Nang Yuan which is actually two small islands connected by a strip of beach. We snorkeled, hung out on the beach and hiked to the lookout. Every night in Koh Tao we had dinner at Su Chili which was a laid back, higher end restaurant with awesome Thai dishes! Every day for breakfast, to mix things up from the rice and eggs we had in Bali on the daily, we spent our mornings at Cafe Heaven eating muesli and yogurt before hitting the beach. Also, Pad Thai is street food in Thailand, (don't be afraid of street food!), you'll find stalls along the streets serving up hot plates of noodles. It was definitely my favorite repeat lunch meal!
Pro Tip: If you don't have your diving license don't worry. You can do a quick intro course through Big Blue Diving, after which they practice with you in a pool and off the shore. Then they take you out for two shallow dives! If you're staying long enough I recommend just getting your license there!
Next stop was the famous Koh Phi Phi island. To be frank and honest, (because that's what this blog is all about) I wasn't impressed. The island is extremely touristy and mainly just a huge party for foreigners. I don't judge others' travel agendas so if that's the vibe you're looking for, you've hit the jackpot! We watched the sunset on the main beach and played beer pong at Relax Bar before heading to our terribly crowded hostel. Though the island wasn't my favorite, our day trip to surrounding islands, beaches, and snorkel destinations was mind blowing. The main stop was Maya Bay where they filmed "The Beach" with dreamy, young Leo. We swam with tons of fishes, jumped off cliffs and drank beers while bronzing on beaches surrounded by jungle ridden cliffs.
After spending about a week in the Gulf of Thailand we headed west to the country's peninsula. We traveled straight to Krabi and stayed at the coolest spot, Pak Up Hostel. It's huge, clean, very colorful, and they have the option to stay in private rooms. There was ample storage area under each bunk bed, clean and spacious showers, and a really fun, outdoor bar called Playground. Out first full day in Krabi we rented a long tail boat that took us to the famous Railay Beach which is surrounded by limestone cliffs. We also went deep water soloing off the side of huge rocks sticking out of the ocean!
Pro Tip: Make sure to bring water friendly shoes for soloing if you're planning on soloing. That way you can climb higher and the rocks won't hurt your feet!
Before we flew out to embark on the next part of our adventure in Cambodia, we spent a day in Phuket. We rented scooters and romped around the picturesque city. You can still see remnants from the Tsunami, abandoned buildings are scattered around, which were once probably beautiful resorts, hotels or apartments, most had been taken over by the surrounding jungle. We stopped by the Big Buddha which is perched up on a big hill. We sat in front of it and reveled in all it's marble glory. The views around the Buddha are not to be missed and you'll see monks going about their daily routine and prayers.
Chiang Mai & Pai
At the tail end of our trip before heading to Hong Kong, we circled back to Thailand, and this time explore the north! Along our travels we had met other backpackers who all raved about a tiny town in the mountains called Pai. We decided we couldn't miss out on this magical sounding hippie town. We ended up being sooo glad we decided to go! We stayed at Spicy Pai Hostel (which ended up being $3USD per night) and it had no doors, was made completely out of wood, sticks and leaves and had amazing views of the rice paddies surrounding us. It felt like we were at a Tarzan camp. It was a bit of a trek into town so we rented vespas in order to explore for the next couple days. We hiked in Pai canyon and played in the Mo Paeng waterfalls. We had breakfast at All About Coffee, ate lunch at the Witching Well and drank beers at the Ting Tong bar in town. We met fellow travelers, some passing through, some staying for a while and some who seemed to have become stuck in this quirky little mountain town.
After Pai, we made our way to Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand's largest city. Historically, Chiang Mai was the cultural and religious center of Thailand which explains why it's known for it's hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples. Our first day in the city, we spent the day at Patara Elephant Camp. When you travel to Thailand make sure you do your research, there are many elephant camps that harm, force breed, and treat the elephants terribly. We chose Patara because I had a friend who was living in Thailand for a few years and had visited many elephants camps, so she was educated on which ones treated the animals fairly and simulated living in the wild. If you're going to give any of these elephant camps money MAKE SURE they treat the elephants with respect, let them roam free, and don't force breed them. We learned so much about these amazing, gentle giants during our time at Patara. We fed, cleaned, rode, and swam with the elephants in their jungle habitat, we even looked through their poo to make sure they were all healthy!
Pro Tip: There is no vaccine for Dengue Fever. Make sure to wear intense bug repellant at all times and even big repellant clothing. Dengue Fever can be extremely serious, but there are less sever strains. If you do get a fever and a strange rash make sure to go to the hospital straight away just in case the fever gets worse. Trust me, I know from experience!!
Our time in Chiang Mai was lovely, mainly due to Julie's Hostel. An adorable spot, that felt more like a local hotel than a hostel run by locals. We had our own clean, modern room, with air conditioning. They hotel had biked that we rode around the city to explore the many temples. One night we went to Nemo Bar to spend a night watching thai boxing matches! It was something that I never thought I would do while in Chiang Mai but it was a spur of the moment decision we made one night and it ended up being a blast. We enjoyed beer, watched the matches and met some of the boxers after. I'd highly recommend if you're looking for an off the grid unique activity.
Our experience in Thailand was one I would never forget. We saw beautiful parts of the country, from jungles to beaches, we explore big cities, islands and small towns. We spent time with elephants, many locals, spent time scuba diving and snorkeling and appreciating our natural surroundings. We experiences a few tourist traps, we hit all the main attractions, but we also got off the grid, met friendly local people and got to experience the culture in various unique ways throughout our trip. I left Thailand comforted in the fact that I saw most of it all, I was content in my experience and blissful in the fact that I left admiring the country more than I had hoped.