Thailand. The name of this tribe-amalgamation of a country rolls off your tongue like sweet pad thai and a cold Singha beer on a hot [every season]’s day. It’s almost like an onomatopoeia, with a sound that imitates the beauty, diversity, and carefree nature of the country. I’ve fantasized about visiting Thailand for as long as I can remember, and I don’t think I even knew why up until I started doing my research.
Thailand sits west of Laos, east of Burma, and north of Malaysia, amidst the clearest turquoise waters I have ever laid eyes on. I departed Incheon International Airport with Ollie, headed for Bangkok, and embarked upon a jam-packed 14 days of travel in one of the world’s most visited travel destinations. We hit up Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the southern islands, sampling a small dose of the many beauties Thailand has to offer.
We checked into Lub d Silom hostel, the archetype of what a hostel should be. Clean and modern design, friendly and knowledgeable staff, well-stocked bar and breakfast menu, and of course lots of other backpackers. The next morning we toured the city, and really only had one day to do so. We took a private boat ride down Bangkok’s main river for 300 baht (about $9) for a few hours, stopping off at various temples, shrines, and a few tourist traps. A cool way to see the city and some residential areas, we also befriended our boat driver who used to work in the American Embassy in Bangkok. He had a special affinity for America and was all smiles. Of course I can’t remember his name.
We hopped off the boat to go explore more of the city on our own. My favorite spot that we visited was Wat Arun, one of the older temples we saw, which has some of the most intricately detailed architecture I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot of intricately detailed architecture.
We had lunch right on the water at a relaxing, delicious restaurant, and then ventured out into the rest of the city.
Ready to check out the famous Khao San Road, we hopped on a tuk-tuk (a 3-wheeled small motor vehicle that weaves through traffic like a snake on speed) and our driver offered to take us to 3 other places in addition for a 300-baht deal. This was the first of many moments that highlighted the way tourism works in this country: it’s a way of life, and everyone is in on it. It feels like every local you interact with is working to make as much money off of every foreigner they see as possible, and help out all their friends along the way. He ended our little “tour” of northern Bangkok with a stop at a suit-making shop because he said he could get free gas there. Well of course we ended up wandering into the shop and buying 2 custom suits for $200 each. We’re pretty sure the suit store pays for his gas.
We also had a long layover at the end of our trip, so we taxi’d into the city for dinner in Chinatown; pretty similar to every other Chinatown I’ve ever been to: crowded and energizing with amazing food. We had a massive fish dish with fermented plums, Tom Yom soup, and chicken fried rice. We wandered the streets for a while, soaking up our final moments in Thailand before we had to depart, and eventually wandered into a fancy hotel in hopes of finding a rooftop for a view of the city.
Our second stop was Chiang Mai, a northern city with lots of character. It’s the second biggest city in Thailand and attracts lots of western tourists, but maintains a relaxed, small-town vibe because of the types of travelers it attracts. Everyone here is looking to take advantage of northern Thailand’s enticing jungles, wildlife, and countryside. If you’re backpacking on a budget like us, I highly recommend staying at Julie Guest House, the epitome of chill. (Although there were TONS of other options and all seemed really similar.) Not only is the atmosphere of this place so relaxing and so Thai, they will help you sign up for any type of activity, and will even assist you in purchasing visas to neighboring SE Asian countries. On our first day, we rented a motorbike for 200 baht (about $6) for 24 hours, which was an awesome introduction to the city.
We biked to the Tiger Kingdom, a strange place indeed. You can lay on, touch, and even play with the tigers who all seem extremely tired and well-fed. Signs throughout the park insist that “tiger no need drug” because they’ve been raised amongst humans and are thus domesticated. It seemed pretty obvious that they were sedated, though, and was kind of sad. Although we did get to take some sweet pics…?
We signed up for a 2-day (overnight) jungle trek, which was probably the best decision of the whole trip. Our hilarious tour guide, Good, picked us up at the hostel, along with 2 other groups: a Dutch family of 4 and 2 Spanish couples from Madrid and Pamplona. Meeting the other travelers was a highlight. We hiked through the gorgeous jungle in the rain for a few hours, working off all the pad thai and spring roles we’d been gorging on, and made our way to an elephant park. We rode elephants, took our photos, ate lunch, and finished hiking to the top of a mountain.
We then headed to our beautiful, simple accommodations for the night.
The next morning, we hiked down the mountain to a waterfall, and then to a white water rafting site. The natural beauty of Chiang Mai is outstanding; if you go to Thailand, you must head north.
We also took a cooking class! Collectively we made Pad Thai, 2 curries, Papaya Salad, Spring Rolls, Deep Fried Bananas, and Coconut-Mango Sticky Rice. The chef took us to the market to explain the foods to us, and Thai food is actually really simple to make. It can be however sweet, spicy, salty, or sour you want it to be — it’s not any less “Thai” if you take out the spiciness. We cooked with folks from the Netherlands, Ireland, and New Jersey. It was delightful to cook with everyone, and then eat dinner together once we finished.
Ko Phi Phi, Railay
Southern Thailand is home to some of the world’s “top beaches,” most crystal-clear, turquoise waters, and the softest sand to ever come between my toes. We flew directly from Chiang Mai to Phuket, the biggest island and definitely the most touristy/resorty of all the southern Thai islands. We spent the night in Phuket, but didn’t stay for long and immediately hopped on a ferry (with our friend from college, Maxine, who had been leading a teen summer program in Thailand!) to Ko Phi Phi, a beautiful spot on the western coast.
Phi Phi is drop dead gorgeous and unfortunately saturated with tourists, and finding a balance was important. Dance clubs electrify the beach at night, and the beaches are simply amazing. We went on a long-tail boat ride around the islands and surrounding areas to snorkel and ogle at the rock formations and turquoise water. We swam (and then climbed up a crazy rope-ladder-contraption in the middle of two massive rocks that was so much harder than it looked) to Maya Bay, a pristine inlet where the 1995 movie “The Beach” was filmed. Imagine scouting for a movie called “The Beach.” With Leo DiCaprio.
After 3 days, we had enough, and decided to check out another island spot. We headed to lesser known Railay, a tough-to-reach spot that isn’t technically an island but can only be reached by longboat because of the rock formations surrounding it. Raily has no motor vehicles and is much smaller than Ko Phi Phi, with a much less touristy feel.
A mecca for rock climbers world-over, we decided to partake in the local past time. Ollie had done this before and knew what we were in for. It was challenging but awesome. Railay was the perfect ending to our time in Thailand.
Thailand lived up to the hype, however touristy it may have felt. I can’t wait to go back in September during my 7-week backpacking trip!