Thailand is a country of colourful Buddhist temples, exotic food, stunning islands, natural beauty and friendly people. It’s a place you can dance on the beach ‘til dawn, swim in warm clear seas and purchase alcohol by the bucket. This is the Thailand most travellers will describe. I spent two and a half months in the land of the Thai, and one of my biggest disappointments was how much of a tourist trap so many parts of the country have become. My time there was spent desperately trying to get away from the crowds, and often failing miserably.
I started my travels in Bangkok, and totally loved this melting pot of Asian culture. I went back to Bangkok a further three times whilst in the region and felt completely at ease there. The best decision I made was to stay in the financial district of Silom rather than the disgusting touristville of Khao San Road. It’s worth a visit just to see the amount of tat for sale, but the ‘real’ Bangkok is a much more interesting place to be. See my post Bananas Bangkok to read more about my time in the city.
Next on the agenda was Chiang Mai. This is Thailand’s second-biggest city, but it’s a world away from the bustle of the capital. Chiang Mai, surrounded by sumptuous mountains, is all about temples and religion. The centre is extremely compact and easy to navigate, full of backpacker hostels and cute boutique hotels. My favourite thing about Chiang Mai was the weekend markets which are held every Saturday and Sunday. For sale are beautifully crafted lanterns, jewellery, garments and an interesting array of street snacks.
I spent a day in Chiang Mai temple-hopping. Walking around in the blistering heat I visited a number of intricately decorated Buddhist sanctuaries, enjoying my solitude and the quiet of the town compared with the madness of Bangkok. One of the most popular temples, Wat Phra Singh, has a peaceful garden with Buddhist sayings on bits of card nailed to the trees. My favourites: “It is easy to know man’s face, but it is difficult to know his thought”, and the more popular “As you sow so you reap”. I have to admit I didn’t really get the hype about Chiang Mai. People rave about the place and say it’s their favourite part of Thailand. While it is historic, pretty and has a certain charm, I didn’t feel that drawn to the city and actually found there was little to do there. Maybe I was comparing it too much with my beloved Bangkok, but it isn’t up there on my best places in Asia at all.
The following week was spent volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park a few hours north of Chiang Mai. Whilst there I was recommended to visit a town called Pai. This little gem is right up almost on the border with Burma, and getting there involves a three hour slalom up and down mountains, where at least one passenger in the minibus is usually car sick. Pai is the ultimate hippy town. The pungent scent of weed can be detected throughout the place, and every second person has dreadlocks. None of them have realised you don’t need manky hair to be a true hippy (just sayin’).
The vibe is chilled, the food is top notch – although, weirdly, a lot of Israeli cuisine on offer here – and the accommodation is dirt cheap. I stayed at an awesome hostel called TTK. I had my own room, plus a guest room, separate bathroom, and picnic table outside for comparatively steep 200 baht a night (£4 or about $6). So, apart from maxin’ relaxin’, what is there to do in Pai? There are a few beautiful waterfalls to visit, a temple on a hill with great views over the town and surrounding mountains, numerous gorgeous tea shops and a local pool to swim in. The nightlife here is pretty eclectic too; a lot of laid back bars with live music (pretty much all reggae), a decent array of cocktails available, and a few late-night techno joints where you can lay on mats on the floor if you aren’t in the party mood. I spent a day on the back of my friend Ethan’s moped (sorry mum) visiting waterfalls and the temple, had a few quiet drinks in the evenings and chatted to a lot of interesting nomads who have got ‘stuck’ in Pai (stuck in the travelling sense means when you like a place so much you can’t bring yourself to leave). All in all a great spot, well worth a visit for anyone heading to northern Thailand.
After spending a couple of weeks in the north, it was time to head south and hit the coast. I was longing for a beach after the sweat of the jungle and the limited bathing facilities on offer in most places. I’d decided to try a town called Hua Hin. Only three hours south of Bangkok on the gulf coast, this place is well-known for being the holiday destination of the Thai royal family. If it’s good enough for them… So I grabbed a minibus (the only foreigner on board, which happened to me a surprising amount in Thailand), and arrived around lunchtime.
I found an overpriced guesthouse and started exploring. I soon realised my mistake in coming to Hua Hin. The beach was lovely and the town nice, but it is not a good destination for a solo traveller at all. There simply weren’t many other travellers around. Hua Hin is an upmarket spot and was full of wealthy Thai tourists and a worrying amount of old western men with tiny Asian wives. The inland trekking spots I had wanted to visit were out of the question as ‘there weren’t enough people wanting to go’. I was annoyed and frustrated. I did visit the southern part of the beach which has a lovely temple and macaque monkeys running about. The highlight of Hua Hin was dining at the king’s favourite street seafood restaurant, where I befriended some Asian men on a golfing holiday and joined them in sampling half of the menu (they insisted on paying for everything).
I needed to get out of Hua Hin, so went to a travel agency and at random picked the island of Koh Tao for my next destination on the basis that it was the nearest place. Little did I know, this was to be the start of a love affair which will probably haunt me for the rest of my life. But that’s a story for another post.