🇹🇭 Backpacking in Thailand
After a delayed, long and uncomfortable economy flight, we arrived in Bangkok in the early evening. We passed immigration control, picked up our bags and bought SIM cards for the month ahead. Unlimited data for £23 probably wasn’t the best deal ever but it was quick and easy.
We ordered a Grab (Thailand’s Uber) and had a relatively smooth ride to our hotel. As the driver approached the destination, I couldn’t help but worry that we had booked something dodgy – the neighbourhood seemed rough and loud, a concrete overpass looming over the dimly lit streets – but a left turn followed by a right and a lush jungle revealed itself amidst the grey buildings. The hotel “courtyard” was like a hidden greenhouse, with fairy lights sprinkled amongst the trees, light reflecting off of the meandering koi pond.
Day 1 Naivety
On our first day, wherever we are, we like to just go walking around. No set itinerary, just wander for a bit, then maybe decide to visit a landmark whilst enjoying a cold drink somewhere.
10 minutes into our walk, a stranger strikes a conversation with us. He looked a bit rough, but was friendly and had a warm smile, so we chatted for a bit. The usual, where we’re from, how long we have in Thailand. He then proceeded to tell us how lucky we are that today is the only day that the “big buddah” is open and that the government are running a promotion: they’ll cover the cost of petrol for tuk-tuks so tourists can enjoy a cheaper trip. This is all delivered to us in somewhat broken English, but we just nodded and thanked him. We didn’t want a tuk-tuk just yet, we just wanted to walk. He left us after a while.
Another 5-10 minutes down the road, we’re met with another elderly man with a warm smile, who starts giving us the same spiel. This time it even came with a free tourist map! For just ฿50 we can get a tuk-tuk to a number of tourist destinations. Our alarm bells weren’t really going off – this was clearly a scam – but we were being naive. After all, how exactly would this scam even work? We’re just giving them ฿50 to drive us around. I don’t know how we didn’t realise it, perhaps it did feel a little too good to be true, but we hopped into a tuk tuk with the friendliest and most polite driver we’ve ever met…
It was still morning and we hadn’t had breakfast so we asked if he can first take us somewhere to eat. He showed a smidge of concern but quickly obliged. He took us to some random dingy Thai place that served really unappetising food that we didn’t consider breakfast food. Next to it was a tiny coffee stand. We ordered a couple of coffees and just before paying the barista said:
“Can I ask you a question?”
Her face said it all.
“How did you find that tuk-tuk driver?”
At this point it clicked.
“Yeah…” she said slowly, “… that’s a scam. The whole story is made up. They will charge you extra for ‘tickets’ and pressure you into buying souvenirs.”
We thanked her and slowly walked across the street to a place that seemed to serve more palatable food. Our driver patiently waiting in his tuk-tuk, smiling at us. We perched on the side of the café, slurping our coffees, wondering what to do.
We decided to just tell the driver to take us to Khao San road. His smile started to fade away. After some back and forth (he even showed us a fake gasoline top-up voucher), we just said we don’t believe this and we don’t want to go. Any remnants of his polite manerisms completely gone now. Disgruntled, we all got in the tuk-tuk and he drove us a short distance to Khao San road. We paid him ฿100 and he begrudgingly drove away. We shouldn’t have done that – why bother giving someone like that your money – at the time it seemed like the best way to diffuse the situation.
Khao San Road
During the day, this street is much like any other. Perhaps it’s a little wider.
As the sun sets, a transformation begins to take place rendering the street unrecognisable. Lights. Music. Food and alcohol. All in excess quantities. It’s a sensory overload, each bar competing for your attention by cranking up their sound systems to 11.
We walked up and down a few times, taking in the action from different sides each time. Tonnes of people vlogging and streaming their experiences. People enjoying beers on street chairs. Ladies and ladyboys alike trying to convince customers to attend their bar.
We settled for a quieter bar on an alleyway just behind all the action. It was a fun experience.
Before all this we had spent the day at Wat Pho, here are some pictures.
The Giant Reclining Buddah of Wat Pho
Up above and down below
The tallest skyscraper in Thailand, the Mahanakhon, revelead the sheer scale of the city. The views speak for themselves.
We managed to grab a table at the sky bar which we shared with another couple. We got chatting to them over some drinks and had dinner with them at a lovely up-market Italian restaurant where we ordered way too much food. Being from Hong Kong, they were frequent visitors of Bangkok and knew all the nice spots! They told us about the market at Jodd Fairs, which is where we met up with them again the following night.
Jodd Fairs market was great, but what impressed us more was the Chatuchak Weekend market: a labyrinthine jungle of over 15,000 (yes, fifteen thousand!) stalls.
Having only heard of the infamous temples of Ayutthaya, we decided to book a day trip to witness them in person. It was a pretty packed tour: we ended up visting a total of 5 temples as well as the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace. The main temple, Wat Ratchaburana was fascinating, though having already seen a bunch of similar stuppas and chedis the same day I have to admit we felt a little templed out by the end of it. I was dissapointed that the guide didn’t give us more historical information about the temples and instead just let us roam around by ourselves (this was a constant theme through the various tours we did in Thailand).
Beach-bound and eager to escape the fumes of Bangkok, we flew to Phuket. Younger people flock to the Patong area, but we were feeling something quieter so we decided to head south, to Kata. This ended up being a mistake because it was too quiet. The pandemic has ravaged the tourist economy in many places and Kata was no exception. We found it a bit depressing.
It appears that Kata is a popular holiday destination for Russians: the place was full of Russian restaurants and every menu had a Russian translation. Nothing wrong with that – you can replace “Russian” with any nationality – it’s just that at times it felt like we weren’t in Thailand.
What added to (or maybe created) our dejection was that we got scammed upon arrival. The hotel we had booked via Airbnb was permanently closed! Airbnb refunded us, but the host left a bad review for us; something that Airbnb refused to remove. The whole experience left a bad taste in our mouths.
To summarise, Kata appears like it’s probably a nice family destination in normal times: the beach is nice, though not spectacular, and there is a small but sufficient number of restaurants. We only stayed 2 nights.
Koh Phi Phi
As the boat approached the island our smiles grew. This was the type of scenery we were after. Green-topped rock formations jutting out of the deep blue water, like giants taking a dip in a spring. Amidst the scattered boats, the pier reveals itself atop what is now clear teal waters and golden sands.
Nui beach, a 30 minute kayak away, completely empty
Phi Phi is essentially two giant rocks connected by a thin strip of sand, forming picturesque bays on either side. The isthmus is a maze of shops and restaurants, though you quickly learn your way through it. We stayed for 4-5 days, enjoying the narrow beach and shallow waters, kayaking to Nui beach, and doing a couple of fun dives around Bida Nok and Bida Nai.
A local resident getting a tattoo at one of the many parlours here
Whilst in Phi Phi a restaurant owner told us about the approaching Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. Once a month, this party consumes the entire town of Haad Rin. We figured we should give it a go, despite personally not being much of a party-goer.
Surprsingly you can organise transport from Phi Phi all the way to Koh Phangan, despite it being an island on the other side of the mainland! That speaks volumes for the development of Thailand’s tourism industry. We paid ฿1200 (£27) each for a boat-bus-boat service to Thongsala, a small town away from the party scene. We stayed here for a couple of nights in what was probably the best value for money resort throughout the entire trip: Dakonda Resort. For just ~£15 a night per room, we basically ended up with a private beach, which we enjoyed swimming in during the night, against a backdrop of distant thunderstorms.
When we travel, we mostly plan things day by day. It was time to book a night or two at Haad Rin and we quickly found out that prices sky rocket just for the party. Be it hostel or hotel, everything was expensive. We found something for around £25 per night: literally a 3m by 3m (if that) room, with a barely functioning fan, dirty bed and a rusty padlock that would have fallen off if you sneezed on it. At this point we didn’t feel safe leaving our stuff in such a room, so we “upgraded” to a room with a slightly more sneeze-proof lock and AC.
I was apprehensive about this party but I did appreciate going to it. It was crazy to see so many people jammed on the shore, music blasting, fire spectacles lighting up what isn’t already lit by the thousands of party lights. And in reality it really wasn’t as savage as I assumed it would be.
There is a beach in this photo (Source)
The tickets for boats headed to Koh Tao were dwindling fast but we managed to nab some just before closing time. The ferry was mostly full of people returning to Bangkok and Koh Tao was purely a transfer point for them. We wanted to come here because we had read that the island is infamous for some great dive spots.
We didn’t have any hotel booked. Instead we first had a late breakfast, after which we rented motorbikes with the intention of checking out different hotels. The first one on the list was a dive resort that had a modest bungalow for about ฿500 a night; we were about to book it when they told us that if we book diving here we’ll get a discount on the room. After some deliberation, we decided to splurge on getting our Advanced PADI certification (about ฿9000 each), which meant we could get a nicer room (with AC) for ฿700.
The advanced course consisted of 5 dives and unlike the Open Water course that preceeds it, it was basically a walk in the park. The course is designed for you to pass, with only a very small amount of theory and multiple choice questions. We had to complete 2 mandatory dives: 30m Deep Dive and Underwater Navigation, and we then had a choice of 3 other dives. We opted for Peak Performance Buyoancy, Wreck Diving and Night Diving.
We were lucky to have incredible visibility on almost all dives, at least 18m for sure. The wreck dive is where things got pretty murky; near the anchor line of the HTMS Sattakut it was like swimming through pea soup. After ascending a few meters things cleared up and we could see almost the entire wreck quite well.
As someone who doesn’t know much about the ocean wildlife here (or anywhere), I was suprised at the lack of bigger fish, primarily sharks. I just assumed there would be loads of them. I knew that it wasn’t whale shark season so the odds of seeing some were zero. We did have a “fun” encounter with a trigger fish – on a night dive, mind you – where it had decided that it didn’t like us and promptly stuck out its trigger at us. We promptly made a sharp U-turn.
We also saw a Moray eel swimming, which is quite unusual as they tend to always hide in corals and holes. It had various fish paparazzi-ing around it, so they must’ve found it unusual too.
Having the freedom to explore the island on our motorbikes, we went to do some snorkeling at Tanote Bay. We enjoyed it so much that we came here twice.
The water here was incredible. This was the first coral reef that I have seen in such vivid, true to life colours, thanks to the shallow water. There was an entire rainbow of fish swimming around you at all times, probably used to the human shape, unafraid to get close. My partner even saw a large black tip reef shark on our second visit.
Best dinner on the whole island?
Panning around Google Maps in search for things to do, we came across Sun Moon Thai Restaurant and decided to check it out. It’s literally one lady’s home set in the hills of the island, overlooking the eastern shoreline. It was beautiful.
And we had the whole place to ourselves
There is no menu. The owner, Thay, will cook whatever you want. There’s something wonderful it that simplicity. The food she cooked for us was delicious and bountiful – she said she won’t stop cooking until we say so – but we got plenty full on the first couple of dishes she made for us.
She also showed us her mushroom farm. It was fascinating; her yield was apparently a few kilos a day! She had lots of stories, of how she learned to cook when she just a young girl, going into restaurants and asking to just watch.
We had heard that Khao Sok National Park is a must see and were surprised that we could organise transport from Koh Tao to it. That involved getting on a sleeper ferry. At first it was hilarious: 50 odd tourists packed shoulder to shoulder like sardines wrapped in tiger blankets. But once the lights went out and people started nodding off… to the Spanish dude that slept next to me and didn’t stop snoring, you owe me a night’s sleep 😒
I am dubbing the bungalow we stayed in here as Cockroach Casa. I must’ve dealt with half a dozen cockroaches, some of them of formidable size. Pretty gross, but other than that it was actually not too bad of a place.
A local gas station bearing some post-apocalyptic vibes
The national park was honestly nothing exceptional. The boat takes you through the (artificial) lake, slowing down past some interesting looking rock formations. Every picture you’ve ever seen from this park was probably taken in this one little cove. We didn’t have exceptionally sunny weather which certainly undermined the blues of the water and the greens of the cliffs. Nonetheless, the boat journey is rather boring, taking about 1 hr 30 mins, all of it enjoyed with the grating sound of the boat engine throughout.
Things did pick up once we arrived at the lake house. We got there earlier than other groups, allowing us to take one of a limited number of kayaks and paddle around for a bit. We also enjoyed swimming in the lake and jumping off the pier until the food was ready. As we were eating, other groups started arriving; completely drenched as it had been raining heavily over the lake.
After lunch we hopped on the boat for another 20 minute journey to the start of the hike. It was wet, muddy and a lot of fun! Everyone attempted to avoid the mud but after a while we just gave up and slid directly through it. It was also the first encounter we’ve had with leeches! They really do suck hard and their squidgy bodies make it hard to remove them.
Eventually we arrived at a cave entrance: this cave is almost a kilometer long, but after the incident with the Thai boys that got stuck in some other cave, we were only allowed to travel a short distance into it. This only applied during the wet season. The cave was full of water, so we had to wade and swim through it. It was freezing and dark, our headlamps illuminating the bare minimum. Sharp rocks jutted out the water. Frogs croaked quietly in their crevices. We arrived at a clearing: the home of a whip spider. Our guide picked it up and casually placed it on his body, letting it crawl around, losing it in the process.
If it wasn’t for the hike and the cave I would’ve felt let down by this tour, but I’m glad we did it.
Situated in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai was the last and probably one of our favourite cities we visited before leaving for Cambodia. It really was a charming old town, less busy and frantic than Bangkok, and a lot less party orientated than the islands. The old city is guarded by a not-so-ancient ancient wall, the streets inside it hosting a collection of hip cafes and kaleidoscopic temples. Just outside the gates, we found weekend markets; a Saturday and a Sunday one, the latter being much larger, but both worth a visit. Straying a little further northwest, we stumbled into the fancy neighbourhood of Nimmanhaemin which offers more expensive restaurants and bars, a lot of which appeared to be Japanese.
On our first day here we rented a motorbike and rode to a local hiking route, the Monk’s Trail. It was a really pleasant walk with a gentle elevation which takes you to a small temple and meditation spot, with a quiet waterfall running through the middle of it all. We didn’t expect to see so much from such a small trail.
On our second day we still had our trusty 110cc Honda Scoopy – in hotrod red – we rode 45 mins to another hiking trail, Mon Jing, in the mountain of Nang Mo. Despite only taking you to an elevation of 850m, this trail was hard. Not the hardest thing I’ve done my any means, but the gravelly terrain paired with the scorching temperature made it intensive. Oh and did I mention the thousands of gigantic spiders? And snakes? Ok, we only saw one snake and it quickly slithered away into hiding but still… The orb weavers were actually everywhere, including in the middle of the path, so whilst you were constantly watching where you were stepping due to the horrible terrain you also had to look up every now and then to ensure that you don’t walk face first into one of those monsters.
One of the last things we did in Thailand was visit Doi Inthanon, the highest point in Thailand, which hosts two relatively recent chedis and a beautiful flower garden. It gets somewhat chilly at the top, about 16°C when we were there, which amusingly the locals find really cold! Interestingly, it’s also the only place in the country which gets cold enough for some morning frost to form on the vegetation – the closest thing to snow here – most Thais have never seen snow.
On the way to the chedis we stopped by Wachirathan waterfall: one of the more impressive waterfalls we’ve seen here. After wandering around the temple the tour proceeded to a small market where we bought some dried fruit and wasabi nuts to snack on. We also tasted some lychee wine and banana whiskey: not bad! We had a delicious lunch as part of the tour, and finally proceeded to a short hike through the forest, which eventually lead to some beatiful rice paddies. The hike ended in a local village known for its coffee production. We got to taste lots of different coffees and teas; the villagers kindly explained to us their history in coffee making and how they are eager to share their methods with anyone who wants to learn. We bought a scarf from them as a small token of appreciation and support.
And that was Thailand! What followed was a short flight back to Bangkok, one more night of market exploration, after which we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
We loved Thailand. The pandemic had clearly left its mark, but we still enjoyed ourselves. Some parts more than others, but that’s how it goes. Before setting foot here I feared it may be too touristy, too polished, which may be the case under normal circumstances, but at this time it made our trip better. Yes, there were times and places where I wished for more of an athmosphere but overall I enjoyed myself. I sincerely hope that business picks up for the country and its residents.
There’s still so much we didn’t get to explore. We will definitely need to revisit!