Thailand… formerly known as Siam, AKA The Land of Smiles, tucked into the middle of Asia, is the land of tropical paradise beaches, ancient ruins steeped in history, fascinating cultures, delicious food, extravagant temples and so so much more. Thailand has drawn in tourists and backpackers alike for decades with a promise of unforgettable memories and an escapism from our daily routine, called life.
I spent thirty, never to be forgotten days in Thailand and I’d go back tomorrow without a second thought. I’ve promised myself that I will return one day and explore each corner, known and unknown place. Yes, I have no doubt that Thailand has greatly changed from the untouched and unexplored country it once was many a decade ago, before the modern day man left his heavy stamp on the now well trodden country. However it still holds a special charm, something I hope it will never lose.
I landed in Thailand on a high from Sri Lanka where I’d had an incredible full on three weeks. I arrived in Bangkok with one plan; to catch my flight north to Chiang Rai. From there I had no itinerary and no plan. In the end my thirty days in Thailand took me from Chiang Rai, to Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Ayutthaya down to the Gulf Islands, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui before I flew to Singapore.
The legendary stories…
To those who are in the dark, or had only heard the rumours about Thailand’s infamous side through the blockbuster movies “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” and “The Hangover Pat II”; I can confirm the legendary tales are true. I walked a fairly sheltered line on my travels but I wasn’t blind to what was around me. Bangkok and other parts are awash with “Thai boys”, from working in the hotels to working the street corners you can’t help but notice them. You’ll find yourself in an amusing conversation over dinner with other tourists agreeing or disagreeing as to which one is a she or which one was actually a he, or still is! There is absolutely no malice behind it, just absolute fascination! I can confirm the ping pong ball establishments are also very much alive and thriving, although I decided not to venture to one of these joints and instead listened to the amusing story of an Aussie who had visited such a venue in Bangkok.
The notorious Khao San Road is a hive of activity from lunchtime onwards and really anyone eighteen plus should take a visit. I spoke to a South African couple who were well into their sixties whom thoroughly enjoyed their early evening visit with cheap street massages and left just before the street got raucous. I took up residence at a single table and chair at the edge of the bar nearest the street so I could people watch, whilst taking advantage of the 2 for 1 cheap but double strength cocktails of practically any concoction you could possibly want. I lost count of how many times I was approached by male street sellers selling laughing gas for as little as a few pounds or tiny old ladies selling embroided bracelets with extremely crude sayings on which I really must not repeat on here! (If you’ve been to Thailand you’ll know exactly what I mean!!!) Each bar spills out into the street with happy party people dancing and cheering on breakdancing face offs that have just broken out in the crowds.
It’s a frequent sight to see older, western, white guys arm in arm with young Thai women. After my time in Thailand I came to the conclusion that the whole situation is probably a win win on both sides and I soon passed them in the street without a second thought.
Thailand is well known for the Full Moon party which occurs every month on the night of the full moon on the beautiful island of Koh Phangan. I’d decided before hand that I wouldn’t attend, at 31 I was surely far too old for such things, but as it turned out I was on Koh Phangan for five nights just at the right time! Now I couldn’t not go could I?!
These tales of the country don’t ‘ruin’ Thailand or tarnish it, it makes Thailand something else no where else is.
Chiang Rai & Chiang Mai…
The north is awash with hostels and backpackers. In Chiang Rai I lucked out at Mercy Hotel which cost as little as a fiver night and as far as hostels go it was super comfy and even boasted a cool little swimming pool (OK; it was more like a paddling pool). Chiang Rai is often just used as a stop off for those travelling through to Laos or Vietnam. I only spent 2 nights and a full day to explore the city and its many temples including the modern artistic Wat Long Khun AKA the White Temple.
My Journey from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai was nice and straight forward. I arranged my ticket for the bus from my hostel and then all I had to do was turn up at the station at the correct time and aim to catch the correct bus. Thanks to an assortment of other backpackers this was an easy task. Three hours later I reached Chiang Mai, but to my surprise the main bus station is a little way out of town meaning you need to haggle and take a Songthaew (a Thai open back tack that can take eight passengers), especially if you’re staying in the old town.
The Old Town of Chiang Mai is actually quite charming tucked behind the old city brick walls it has plenty of hostels and hotels to meet any budget, an assortment of restaurants, more massage parlours than you know what to do with and more temples than you can count. It’s a buzz with activity all day long and it’s far bigger inside those walls than I imagined. Chiang Mai deserves a good few days to get acquainted to it and once you are, you’ll probably want to stay a little longer. One of my biggest loves in Chiang Mai was the night markets which are full with cheap delicious food (bar the fried scorpions and grubs), various knick-knacks and bargain price massages; what’s not to love?!
During my time in Chiang Mai I knew I wanted to visit an elephant sanctuary. Being fairly ethical about the whole concept I was slightly wary about which to choose, however my hostel guided me towards “Into The Wild” and what a great choice that was. The tiny ex Thai fighter who owns the sanctuary is hugely passionate about the elephants and rescuing them from the realms of the tourist riding trade and logging industry. His business is small time compared to some of the larger sanctuary’s in the region but this allows you a great one on one experience. He owns his own land on a hillside jungle and the elephants are completely free to roam with access to a river to cool down in. It’s clear how much the elephants (both adults and infant) adore him, just as a dog is with its owner.
Life on the Islands…
Thailand has a lot to offer but since I set foot on Thai soil I felt a draw down south to the islands. Islands are plentiful in Thailand; I only went east to the Gulf Islands; the dramatic coast lines of the Andaman Islands will have to wait for another adventure.
Before reaching Koh Tao I had my reservations about the little island often dubbed as “death island” after the numerous suspicious deaths of backpackers that have been going on for many years. The island shot to the forefront of the press in 2014 after the horrific murders of the young British travellers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller where two Burmese migrant workers were charged but it appears they may have been scapegoats. Nothing excuses such terrible acts of murder but having spent ten days on the island I saw the pretty appalling ways young backpackers behave whilst under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol and who knows what else. It wouldn’t take much for some disrespectful drunken jibes to the Thai’s on this mafia owned island for someone to go missing, or when you see a Brit staggering drunk on the edge of tall rock attempting to dance just how easy it would be to fall off and break your neck but look for someone else to blame in the cold sober light of day. Koh Tao is awash with foreigners taking over the island, setting up home on the paradise island which provides epic diving. By day Koh Tao is a sleepy island but once the sun sets it’s a hive of party activity.
Despite the murder stories, and despite the hundreds of tourists that descend on Koh Tao weekly, this stunning little island stole a little piece of my heart from the minute I set foot on Sairee Beach and witnessed the most stunning of sunsets. I’d spent a very long tiring day travelling from Bangkok, by plane, bus and then ferry to Koh Tao, but when I reached Sairee Beach with the sand between my toes and stood amongst the other tourists dotted along the beach all mesmerised by the setting sun everything just seemed flawless. I’d lucked out again with a perfect little beach hut and I knew this spot was going to be a home away from home. I met many wonderful multi cultural people in Koh Tao, all of whom were on a different walk of life but all drawn to the little island to dive.
I joined the Mojo Diving family for my SSI Open Water and Advanced course; and after my first day’s nerves I loved diving more than I could have ever hoped for. It would have been so easy to stay here for months and continue with my diving to Dive Master and Instructor just like everyone around me seemed to be doing. The community here was like something else and wrapped up in the Koh Tao bubble of gorgeous hot sunny days, bath temperature water, ultimate diving experiences, cheap cocktails, tasty food, an array of personalities and no responsibilities the outside world could easily be forgotten. By night my favourite pastime, cocktail in hand was sitting on the beach watching the hypnotising lightning show that danced over the ocean across the horizon.
Leaving Koh Tao with a heavy heart I arrived on the much bigger island of Koh Phangan. Although I have fond memories of Phangan it felt a little hard to find my feet here after the comfort of Koh Tao. I was staying away from the main town areas and the season was quiet despite the imminent arrival of the Full Moon. This allowed me peaceful solo days on vast stretches of deserted beaches where I was free to roam and day dream. If visiting Koh Phangan again I would definitely brave hiring a scooter as opposed to having the daily chore of haggling with Songthaew’s.
Within a few days it was time for the Full Moon Party and in true style my friend from Alabama and I bought suitable party attire and face paint so as to really embrace the party spirit. We were joined by an English girl and a French girl both of whom I met earlier that day over brunch and some other fellow Brits they’d met a few days ago. The night was full on fun with cheap booze and plenty of dancing. Each bar spilled out onto the beach turning the whole coastal stretch into party land. For those who were interested drugs they were easy to come by but despite the endless possibilities for pure chaos I saw only travellers of all ages having the time of their lives, any worries and responsibilities set aside for a night of dancing and an experience of a life time. Our new found little group lasted the night through til morning to see the sunrise before we left for our beds, bleary eyed and slightly worse for wear ready to sleep the day away or at least the morning.
An Asian gem…
Whatever you seek on your travels in Thailand I’m sure this Asian gem will fulfil your wanderlust. If you are in search of history and culture then the many ancient sites such as Ayutthaya (which I explored in awe for a day) and Sukhothai will fulfil your desire. A trip to Kanchanaburi to see the Bridge over the river Kwai will satisfy your wartime stories and the stunningly beautiful temples will impress you beyond doubt. If you are only looking for paradise beaches to recharge your batteries or an exclusive retreat to find your inner self The Land of Smiles will serve you well regardless of your age and desire.