The Thai-lands, a delicious slice of Pai and #KhaoSanProblems

It took me almost three days to get from Rio de Janeiro to Bangkok – I left my Copacobana Beachfront apartment at 10am on Saturday after a night of partying under the arches in Lapa, and VOILA after three flights (Rio>Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo>Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi>Bangkok) and an eight-hour layover after the first, I made it to my sweltering Bangkok hotel room at 2pm on Monday. Admittedly the huge time difference skews this a bit, but as I have no idea how long it actually took me, I’m going to stick with “almost three days”. I would have arrived in my room earlier had the taxi driver not tried to drop me off at four wrong hotels, and had my room key worked. But I was here! At last! Beautiful Bangkok!

Bangkok (Round 1)

Once I arrived in my room and saw a horizontal bed, there was no stopping me. I switched on the AC, and fell into a deep coma. I’m not exactly sure how long I was asleep to be honest – the time difference was confusing enough on its own, but when I woke up it was 3am and I was ready to start the day. So I just got some breakfast (read: seaweed crisps and Diet Coke) from the 7/11 and used the hotel’s free WiFi until proper breakfast started.

This was my third visit to Bangkok, and to be honest I feel like I’d already done most of the things to do in the city (the three main temples, day markets, night markets, weekend markets, floating markets, street food, elephant riding, Ladyboy shows, partying at Soi 11, partying on Khao San Road). What’s more, when my pals arrived in a week, they would no doubt want to see Bangkok before we headed to the Thai islands. As a result I was in for a week of nothing but writing, drinking solo, and some horrific Chang-overs.

I was staying on the scummy and touristy Khao San Road – admittedly an interesting choice. My reasoning was that I knew the area well from my previous visits, and as this was my first time travelling ALONE alone in the duration of my trip, I’d feel safer around other tourists. Khao San Road is a product of its backpacker legacy, and is nothing like the rest of Thailand, or even the rest of Bangkok, which while loud, and in some places seedy, has nothing on this road.

Let me describe a typical walk down Khao San Road for you. Say you’re going to get lunch.

You step out of your hotel. A man approaches you “tuk-tuk?” “No thank you”, you shake your head. Several other men approach you, with a chorus of “tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk”. “No thank you,” you say again. “But where you go? Where you go?” they ask. “Down there”, you say, pointing to your lunch destination, which is just a little bit further along the road. They are now pissed off you wasted their time by answering their question. “You crazy” they say, tapping their heads. You walk a little further, safe in the knowledge that you are not in fact crazy, and some bracelets catch your eye. Some of these wrist bands, designed to appeal to standard tourists, say “Thailand” or “I <3 Bangkok”; others, aiming for the Hangover II-inspired LADZ market, ‘hilariously’ say “I <3 small cock” or “I <3 ladyboy long time” or even “Wolf Pack”. Tragic as they are, they are nothing compared to those that are clearly designed for the sex offender demographic: among the least offensive of these being “I <3 rape” and “I rape you short time”. I can’t write the most offensive on here because if I did I would be put on some sort of government list. Anyway, you have made the mistake of making eye contact with the adorable-looking old lady who painstakingly sewed these horrific wristbands and now she is chasing you down the street, thinking you want to buy one. You quicken your pace, you’re pretty sure you can outrun her. And then OOPS! You bump into another old lady, this one bedecked in a festive-looking hat. She wants to sell you this wooden thing that makes frog noises when you scrape another wooden thing across it. “No thank you”, you say, shaking your head, “I don’t want to buy any frog noises”. Unpeturbed by your refusal, she continues to stare deep into your soul, smiling her toothless old lady grin and making the frog noises, like you didn’t understand what it did, and if you hear it again you might change your mind. Smiling back, you wonder if she knows about the internet – I’m sure you can get loads of frog noises on the internet. You’re conscious of the wristband lady gaining on you, so you sidestep the frog noise saleslady and speed walk away. You’re doing well until a man starts shouting at you “HELLO! HELLO! I NOT SELLING ANYTHING! LADY, LADY, HELLO!” You idiotically turn around for a nanosecond, and are surprised to see a man in a turban who wants to read tarot cards for you, and you say “no tarot thank you” and he follows you down the street saying “why no tarot? why?” Not feeling like explaining your atheism or the laws of science to him, you carry on, you’re nearly there now! “You want dress?” asks a man appearing in front of you as if from nowhere, “I make you sexy dress, or suit? I make suit for your husband. You married? Where your husband?”. Not wanting to explain feminism to him, or your lack of desire for “sexy dress”, you duck behind a bunch of chortling tourists, who are paying money to a lady with a tray of scorpion kebabs to pose with them and look like they’re eating them, but not to actually eat them. AND YOU’VE MADE IT TO YOUR SEAT! A sad looking 20-something hippie asks if he can join you, and then says: “Man, have you ever read The Beach? You know that bit where he says “what’s so fucking lonely about Khao San Road?”, because yeah man I like totally get it”. You sigh. You just wanted a plate of chips.

And that is five minutes on Khao San Road. Among all the “same same but different” and “Chang” t-shirts, there is one that says “No tuk-tuk, no taxi, no massage, no suit”. When I first saw it I thought it was rude but a week of Khao San intensity wore me down into the sort of person who was actually considering buying one. Importantly, I didn’t though.

Brichard save me from Bangkok

The reason I’d been waiting in Bangkok so long was that my good friends Beatrice, who I know from school and uni, and Richard, who was Beatrice’s housemate at uni (they are life partners but not in a romantic sense), were coming to Thailand, and our meeting point was Bangkok. I could not have been more pleased to see them: for the past week my conversations had all been with half-cut backpackers in bars who were quoting Into the Wild (“happiness IS only real when it’s shared, you know?”), being racist (“I HATE THE CHINESE”), and struggling to maintain long-distance relationships (“If I’m on holiday it doesn’t count, right? He’s being like totes unreasonable.”) But now, intelligent conversation (sort of) had arrived!

On the first day we went to the floating market, which was really intense and busy. It was a different to the one I’d been to previously, where you actually got to get in the boats, and instead you just walked up and down the banks and hoped no-one would push you in the canals. We bought glass lanterns and then spent a while working out how to get them back to the UK unscathed, and then at sunset went on a boat tour to spot fireflies, which were really pretty. At first I thought it was just a scam and someone had strung up some fairy lights in the trees but then I saw one fly across the boat so I guess it was legit. The floating market is definitely worth seeing if you’re in Bangkok – and it’s really nice to get out of the hectic city for a while.

On the way there we had visited a temple and queued up to pay our respects to Buddha. It took us a while to figure it out, but you’re meant to light the candle and the incense, and put them in the sand box, donate your money and hang the flower. Basically copy everyone else. Where we really got stuck was we had these little white pieces of paper that at first we just thought were rubbish. Eventually Richard worked out that they had gold leaf inside, and you’re meant to go up to the Buddha statue and stick the gold on him. It’s a really beautiful act, and one that was only slightly marred by Richard going full eccentric Englishman and trying to explain to Beatrice – who was further back in line – what to do with the white paper using only charades and lip reading.

On the second day I wanted to take Brichard (as I will from here on refer to them for ease) to Wat Pho to see the reclining Buddha: one of my favourite things in Bangkok. There is a different Buddha posture for every day of the week, and in temples there is often the opportunity to donate some change to the Buddha that represents the day you were born. For example, I was born on a Sunday, the day of the Seven Days Looking Buddha, or Pang Thawai Net. He stands with his arms crossed in front of the waist with the right hand covering the left. Buddha was enlightened under a Bodhi tree, and this image represents a time shortly after that when he stood and admired a Bodhi tree for one week without blinking an eye, in order to show his gratitude.

The reclining Buddha – as seen in Wat Pho, represents Tuesday. Buddha used this pose to lower the pride of arrogant evil Savatthi who was gigantic and did not pay respect to the Lord Buddha. Buddha made himself bigger than evil, while still in the reclining pose, and as a result Savatthi agreed to accept his teachings.

Sadly Brichard would not get to see this incredible temple as we were taken in by one of Bangkok’s most famous SCAMS.

We got a tuk-tuk to the temple only to be met by a smart Thai man outside with good English who asked us where we were from (I said Leeds, Brichard said Cambridge) and then reliably informed us that his brother had gone to university in Cambridge. He then told us that the temple was closed as it was a Buddhist holiday, but wait a minute though because WE WERE LUCKY! He was conveniently free and would take us to other – open – temples in his tuk-tuk.

We were in a rush to catch our flight to the islands, so we just walked away with him chasing us with a map and shouting, but I read afterwards that this is a massive scam, and he would have taken us to his friends’ shops and gem factories and pressured us to buy things. I met a Dutch girl on my final bus out of Bangkok and she said she had fallen victim to this exact scam and after realising what had happened she asked to get out of the tuk-tuk, and the driver said he would charge her double if she left now, but charge her half price if she stayed and went to all his friends’ shops with him.

To Ko Samui on a high-speed catamaran

We caught a plane painted like a lovely colourful bird (Google Image Nok airlines) to the mainland and then it was aboard a high-speed catamaran to Ko Samui where we were staying at a gorgeous, but unnervingly deserted, hotel. As it is low season at the moment, almost everywhere we went was super quiet, but it also meant we got some really nice hotels for some really cheap prices.

It was lovely to be near the sea, and on the first night we went to town for dinner. This is where I learnt that if you ask for a garlic bread tomato in Thailand you will get a pizza base covered in tomato puree and then an actual layer of garlic. However, I also learnt that scraping 90% of this garlic off makes the pizza quite edible. We also braved the Thai white wine, which was unsurprisingly, to be honest, not very nice.

The next day Bea and I got manicures, Richard got his feet scraped and a lecture on foot health by the foot scraping practitioner, and I got so epically sunburnt I couldn’t even make dinner, but by the next day I had turned a lovely shade of brown so you know, you win some, you lose some.

However, we didn’t LOVE Ko Samui as the beaches and sea were a bit terrible and it was extremely touristy, so after two nights we were back on the high-speed catamaran and on our way to…

Ko Tao: Finding ourselves

We all were absolutely desperately in love with Ko Tao. Famed for diving and snorkelling, it is known as one of the most beautiful Thai islands and it certainly deserves this reputation.

Upon arriving, sweating and exhausting with the effort of the backpacks, we made our way through the throng of people trying to grab us for “TAXI!” and decided to sit down for some Changs and lunch because we just couldn’t face that shit right now. A woman had followed us from the taxi crowd and sat on the street opposite the restaurant for the 2.5 hours it took us to get fed and mildly drunk and brainstorm half a business idea for Beatrice, and sure enough the minute we left the cafe she was grabbing our bags and taking us to her husband’s taxi. I say taxi: it was essentially just a truck that we had to sit on the back of as it motored over Ko Tao’s bumpy roads.

We arrived at our idyllic hotel, where we had a gorgeous villa on the beach, for just £15 each per night, and the time we spent here was some of my favourite since I left the UK three months ago.

Our ‘taxi’ dropped us off at the top of a huge hill, so we had to haul all our luggage down it to get to the hotel’s reception. Upon arrival we were so pale and sweating so much that only Richard could make it to reception, and when he did, they were extremely concerned about his welfare and forced him to sit down for a while. Temperatures averaged around 35 degrees C for the whole trip.

On the first day we went for a swim in the sea and I – fish phobic as I am – decided to just go for it but not look down. However, after bumping into a number of snorkelers I thought it was probably time to evacuate the sea forever. And I’m so glad I did: the next morning the shoreline was filled with thick black clouds, which upon inspection turned out to be thousands of tiny fish. Even Brichard wouldn’t go in the sea after that.

Instead we spent our time in Ko Tao eating and drinking and sitting in hammocks, swimming in the neighbouring hotel’s pool and wandering round the quaint town centre. From the restaurant bar there was an amazing view that hosted a spectacular sunset at dusk which caused us all to find ourselves numerous times. After so long in Bangkok the tranquility was amazing: you could even walk down the main street without (many) people shouting at you!

One day we went to hire scooters, and what I have learned from this experience is that I cannot ride scooters. I made it about two metres before I fell off and cut my leg and hand up. After trying to turn a corner and failing, I nearly crashed through a shop front and a Thai man chased Richard (who was having much more success even with Beatrice on the back of his) up the road shouting “she losing control of bike!” He nicely returned it for me, and Beatrice and I caught a ‘taxi’ back instead.

On his way home Richard crashed into a bush, and spent some time dragging part of it along until this posh backpacking type remarked “Do you KNOW there is a shrub attached to your bike?” I suggested getting bicycles but the roads were so bumpy and it was so hot that that may have killed us faster than the scooter. Indeed, when we saw an old, tanned man in an open hawaiian shirt and elephant pants dragging his bicycle up a hill, Richard noted: “well, he has definitely found himself”.

We met some Irish travellers (as in Irish people travelling) at the neighbouring hotel, and they invited us to a beach party on the other side of the island. It turned out to be Full Moon Light. We’d decided to avoid the Full Moon party on Ko Phangnan as we thought it would 1) Make us feel old, and 2) Be no fun. At uni-age we would no doubt have loved it, but the years since those halcyon days at Newcastle have made us grumpy and turned us off clubbing and onto pub roasts and nights in with wine and cheese. However, somehow we had found ourselves in the midst of a full moon rip off, with fire dancers, chart music and flower crown-bedecked 18-y-o Brits abroad regularly passing out on the beach.

I half really enjoyed myself, with cheap buckets of spirits and dancing on the sand, and was half quite creeped out by the men taking advantage of the (really) young girls, who were high on laughing gas and being encouraged to get naked in the pool for free drinks. A few people – all incredibly drunk – waded out by themselves into the sea for a solo dance (dancing alone in the sea is the ‘self-actualisation’ of the Finding Yourself triangle), and we were convinced they were going to drown. I’m sure everyone was fine in the end, but this worrying about health and safety, more than anything else, convinced me that I am way too old for this shit.

 

 

 

 

Ko Phangnan sunsets

After all the fun of Ko Tao, I was really sad to leave, but it was time for Ko Phangnan, naturally via high-speed catamaran. FYI when you are aboard the high-speed catamaran, the staff use the phrase ‘high-speed catamaran’ A LOT, both in person and over the speaker system. This is not just a catamaran guys, this is a HIGH-SPEED catamaran. Just so you know.

Our last night in Ko Tao had been spent at a less-than-luxury hotel, and as the end of the trip was nearing, we decided to take it up a notch and go for a 15-pound-per-night place in Ko Phangnan. I’d heard so much about the party reputation of this island, but with it being low season it seemed really very empty.

Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at the bottom of an ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE hill, and I had to summon the spirit of Inca Trail Caroline to get myself up it. When we arrived, you could tell it was a very high-quality resort we’d got a sweet deal on: the staff were incredibly polite and helpful, we had two bedrooms in our apartment with a fantastic view, and – most importantly – THERE WAS AN INFINITY POOL! I love infinity pools man.

The first few days were spent relaxing by the INFINITY POOL <3 <3 <3, practicing our synchronised swimming routines, making the most of the bar and watching the incredible sunsets every night. We were so happy there.

On the third day we decided to hire a car to go out and see more of the beaches and the rest of the island. However, this was a largely fruitless exercise. We probably did it wrong, but none of the beaches we saw were good for sunbathing or swimming: they were quite dirty and full of wildlife. After getting lost around the island we managed to find our way back to the resort using an actual map on paper (who knew they worked?) and, stressed and tired, resolved to stay there for the rest of the trip.

Bangkok (round 2)

And it was back to Bangkok (via high-speed catamaran) to ‘enjoy’ some vigorous massages. While Richard went for the whole shebang with a Thai Massage and Beatrice opted for a Swedish one, I decided to play it safe with a back and shoulder. Well I was walked on, my back was cracked numerous times and it very much hurt. Apparently there is no consistency with this type of massage though, as braving another one a couple of weeks later, I just got Tiger Balm rubbed into my back for 20 minutes before the lady decided to massage my ears, eyebrows and nose. I have to say I preferred the second. 

Then it was time to wave a sad goodbye to Brichard and wait for Jordan – an esteemed colleague of mine – to arrive. This time of my life was also known as the most annoying few days that have ever existed. They involved:

  • Realising I’d lost my camera charger
  • Going round every electronic store in Bangkok trying to replace it
  • Realising the charger is irreplaceable in Thailand
  • Being scammed out of significant baht trying out universal chargers that did not work
  • Emailing, ringing, tweeting Panasonic UK and realising the charger is irreplaceable in the UK
  • Rifling through lost property boxes in hotels I’ve stayed in to see if there is a match
  • Talking to every poor soul I met about how Panasonic are ruining my life
  • Talking to every poor soul who came online about how Panasonic are ruining my life

And then Jordan arrived in temple pants, fresh from India and Sri Lanka. This was an adjustment for both of us: Jordan had to deal with touristy Bangkok where no-one cares about you unless you’re buying something from them after rural Sri Lanka where he was treated like a king because he was a white male, and everyone is interested in your life story. And I had to adapt to his slightly more intense travel style after a couple of weeks with Beatrice and Richard, who are megz chill. After one night of introducing Jordan to Khao San style partying and using him to deflect all the suit men (“no I don’t want a dress, but I think this man wants a suit” *runs away*), we moved to a dorm in a different area of Bangkok, before getting a night bus up North.

Chiang Mai

I’d also been to Chiang Mai before. A leafy northern town that is a firm favourite on the backpacking itinerary, its old town is filled with temples, restaurants and bars, and it is the jumping off point for many jungle treks. Again, it was lovely after all the stress of Bangkok to be back in a quieter town: it’s much easier to gage Thai customs and culture when out of the loud, polluted capital, and to appreciate the quiet and respectful way of life that exists in most of the country.

We spent a lovely day wandering around the temples, which are much smaller than those in Bangkok, with plenty of hidden gems along the way. Rules of visiting temples include: Take your shoes off before entering, be quiet, never point your feet at a monk or a Buddha and in no way be disrespectful. Here is some #templeporn for you: 

I also bought a shit camera to replace my amazing Lumix one, so if my photos go horrendously downhill after this point, that is why. After a couple of drinks, the day finished with a stressful taxi ride back to the hotel where no-one really knew where we were going and Jordan and the driver ended up arguing and ‘losing face’, which is considered really very taboo in Thailand.

I’d done a 3-day jungle trek in Chiang Mai a few years ago, but as Jordan had not, he decided to take to the hills while I jumped aboard a four-hour bus up to hippie haven Pai.

A slice of Pai

Pai is a sleepy town best known for its hippie culture and opportunities for relaxation, and it was absolutely the perfect way to end my month in Thailand. I was initially only going to stay for two nights but I loved it so much I ended up extending my stay for another night (which sadly meant I got fined by the Royal Thai Police 500 baht – about a tenner – for overstaying my visa by a day).

After learning the hard way that I should not be in charge of a motorised vehicle, I opted for a bicycle to get around and it was just perfect – as was everything in Pai. I spent a few days writing on my hotel room’s veranda, and going out at night for dinner and drinks, before moving into a 20-bed room at a hostel filled with people trying to master the hula hoop and poi (because of course there is a circus school in Pai). However, I was so blissed out by Pai I didn’t care, even when the tie dye-clad people started hula hooping in the room and talking about “life, man”, which is something they actually say.

I was under the impression that I sort of vaguely liked hippies as a people, but tbh irl they’re just really annoying. I kind of just want to slap them and tell them to stop being so self-indulgent and that their foray into Buddhism is just a phase that they will get over sharpish when they get a job. And I really don’t want another story about how during their 2-week stint abroad they have stopped using toilet paper to “like, save the planet” when they’ve taken three internal flights in the past fortnight because the night buses are too grim. No, you know what IS grim? NOT USING TOILET PAPER! These people really exist.

Things to do in Pai include trekking, going to see a canyon and yoga retreats. I quickly considered and dismissed the latter using the reasoning that I don’t want to become too enlightened and end up with a dreamcatcher tattoo or anything.

One night I treated myself to an Italian and met a really nice girl from England, and we went onto this great bar called Edible Jazz together. I’d been wondering whether to travel Laos with some of the less-hippylike people at my hostel who were doing a vaguely similar route to me, but I’d really been enjoying travelling on my own since I left Jordan, and her story put me off even more. She was told me that she’d been travelling with a girl for a couple of weeks who she didn’t particularly get on with, and one morning this girl looked at her like she hated her before going up to the room and stealing 3,000 baht (about £60) from her bag. You can never trust anyone! 

Bangkok (Round 3)

And now I had to get a bus and then a night bus back to F*****G BANGKOK to pick up my passport, which was getting visa’d at the Vietnam embassy. I just wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible, so I stayed just one night, treated myself to a room with AC, and booked on a night bus all the way back up north and into Vientiane in Laos the next day. And of course I spent the evening in a bar chatting to a guy from Israel who was really into Into The Wild.

My time in Thailand had been a mixed bag, with the highlights undeniably being my ‘holiday from travelling’ with Beatrice and Richard, as well as Pai, but after a month I was extremely happy to be leaving it behind for new lands. On the plus side I feel like I have done Thailand to death now, but I also have no desire to return, in the next few years at least! I would probably have enjoyed Bangkok – and all of the country – more had I not spent so much time there in the past. Things that I once found novel quickly became grating – especially in the heat! – but I’m glad I went back and saw more of it. I’m just so ready to move on and see and do things I’ve never before – and I think Laos, which I have literally no clue what to expect from, is the perfect place to start.

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