Our flight to Bangkok went like a dream and we landed in the early hours of the morning sleepy but excited to see a new country and experience a different culture!
Coming out of the airport was like a shock to the system. So accustomed to India, jumping into a modern, plush metered cab was strange to us. It was about 5am and as the city slept we gazed out the window of our taxi as we noted the smoothness of the roads, contemporary buildings and bright lights. We headed to the famous Khao San Road (famous for its backpacker hotels and loud bars) in search of a place to call home for a few days. As we made our way down this famous road, rucksacks on our backs, sleepy eyed and tired, there were a handful of bars still open and a few hardcore party goers still larging it and dancing in the street!
I immediately realised why this place was so well known amongst fellow travellers; the whole street is geared up for the backpacking, beer drinking, party going backpacking people, with numerous bars, hotels, currency exchange kiosks, and street stalls selling knock off designer gear and beer branded t-shirts! That said, at 5am, the only thing we wanted was to get our heads down for some sleep!
Over the course of a few days, I started to discover what Bangkok is all about. J having been here many times before, set about showing me around, taking me to the key places and introducing me to my very first whisky bucket. That was my Bangkok baptism of fire day!
We befriended some local Thai's who ran a small street bar, this led to them doubling the strength of our whiskey buckets of which there were many and later a group of us piling into a tuk tuk heading in the direction of Patpong! The latter half of the night was a bit of a blur but I do recall the tuk tuk ride home as a bit of a white knuckle ride with the driver doing wheelies along the road as the flashing lights in the interior of his tuk tuk mesmerized me through my whisky bucket haze! A great night out, a hangover from hell and a lesson learned about the hidden strength of those whisky buckets!
Being in Bangkok was a sensory overload! Bangkok was filled to the brim with super modern shopping malls in Siam, the streets everywhere bustling with people, street food vendors whipping up Pad Thai, colourful tuk tuks and day glow coloured taxis. Bangkok had a great buzz to it and I loved it!
We did the obligatory tour of the Grand Palace which was so beautiful with all its grandeur and opulence. It was such a difference from the sort of architecture we had seen in India; everything glittering and shimmering in the sunshine.
Next, we checked out Wat Po, a famous temple with its giant gold reclining Buddha.
Wat Po, aside from its temple status is also famous for it being the mecca of traditional Thai massage; we decided that this was a good place for me to have my first Thai massage. I thought I knew what to expect and was really looking forward to it.
At first it all seemed to be going swimmingly; lots of pulling, stretching and kneading, but when the lady came around my back as if to perform the Heimlich maneuver I did wonder what was to come next. A few seconds later, as she hooks her arms under my arm pits, swings my whole torso swiftly to the right the sound of my entire backbone clicking fills the room! I let out a scream from the shock; nobody told me that was going to happen! Before I knew it, she then swung me to the left and pop, pop, pop there goes my spine again! Wow! Double shock.
My reaction to which was to start laughing nervously (I do that with pain...dont ask me why!) I have a pet hate of the sound of people even cracking their knuckles (it goes right threw me!) and so this to me was like that but in super technicolour! What had started off as a nice relaxing massage had somehow turned into a white knuckle ride and before the ride was over however, she managed to get hold of my head and give that a good old swing too; yes left AND right and the sound of my neck cracking filled my ears as I was suddenly desperate for this experience to end.
Thankfully it did end shortly after and trying not to seem ungrateful I thanked her, paid her and got out of there pronto! I make it sound like hell, it really wasn’t but to me cracking bones has the same effect on me as someone scratching their nails on a school blackboard; it makes me feel funny! So if you like a good bone crack, then Thai massage is the one for you!
Before we left J took me to see Chatuchak weekend market (apparently the biggest market in Thailand and I'd believe that too!). A bus journey away, we arrived to see masses of people swarming in and out. The market had everything you could imagine. Hundreds of stalls selling all sorts like clothes, shoes, shades, belts, lamps, jewelry, furniture, traditional crafts, original pieces of art…you name it! Lots of stalls had stuff that was handmade and if we had room in our backpacks I would have had a field day in there! Well worth a look in if you are ever heading home via Bangkok!
While we were in Bangkok, we fell upon a major demonstration by Independence monument. At first we couldn’t work out what it was all about, but as we waded through the sea of people wearing red shirts the penny started to drop. For as far as the eye could see there were people filling every square inch; there must have been tens of thousands of people there. Everyone there was wearing red, some with banners, and some with slogans on their red t-shirts. We stopped at one place where they had set up a stand. It was here that we saw photographs of a previous demonstration with people who had been injured and killed, lying bleeding on the floor, some already dead. The stand was appealing for the justice of those who had died there in the violence (90 people…last year) and for the release of a group of anti-government protesters.
I wasnt sure at the time if it was appropriate to photograph there so for the purposes of this, I have found a photo on-line to illustrate.
We realised that this was probably not the best place for us to be, particularly as there had been trouble at these demonstrations before and with the sheer volume of people and the fact that many were drinking heavily, we felt that it would have made for a dangerous place if this turned violent. Keen to get out of there quickly, we realised that there was no quick way out and we had no choice but to wade slowly through the crowds until we found a way through. It took us about 20 minutes to reach a clearing and though the demonstration was peaceful and in actually in most parts we saw people smiling and singing, we knew that it was good to get away. As our luck would have it, this was not the only time we found ourselves wading through a red shirt demonstration; having come back through Bangkok again later in our Thailand trip, it happened again!
So after our first stop in Bangkok we headed north and spent a few days in Chaing Mai where we did a Thai cooking course which showed us how to make Pad Thai, Red curry, Penang curry amongst other Thai dishes. A fun day learning to cook some seriously good food! First we took a trip to the local food markets to check out all the fresh foods, followed by some serious chopping and cooking!
I found Chaing Mai to be a chilled place with a far more relaxed place compared to Bangkok. It is also where many travellers then head out on various treks in the surrounding regions but we didn’t fancy that as J had done this a few years before and mentioned that his trek to the ‘authentic’ tribal villages had been a bit of a non-event when he got there to find that the traditional wear the kids in the tribe wore consisted of a Manchester United football shirt. We did however find out about a great place for traditional wood carvings, about 20-30km from Chaing Mai where we bought and sent home two beautiful wall carvings for our flat back in London.
We were going to head to Sukhothai to check out the ancient temple ruins but opted instead to check out Kamphaeng Phet as this was the lesser known of the two sites so a little less foreigners milling about. Beautiful crumbling Buddha’s in peaceful surroundings, it made for a lovely relaxing day.
The town of Kamphaeng Phet had little to see or do and there was a simple town with a smattering of local restaurants’. With little going on we grabbed dinner and started to walk back to our guest house. On the way back however we saw a little place with blacked out windows with music coming from within. Curious to know if there was any fun to be had in this quiet town we ventured inside. Call it naivety if you will, but it took a few minutes to work out that we had just stepped into a karaoke bar where every male guest gets his very own female host. Aside from the fact that as a couple we stuck out like a sore thumb compared to the typical male only clientele, we had a fun night chatting away to our host and applauded her efforts at karaoke!
From there we knew we wanted to head towards the islands, but east coast or west coast first? Decisions decisions! We heard that Ko Tao was one of the cheapest places in the world to get the PADI diving qualification so we decided that if we did that sooner rather than later, it might open up some diving opportunities later on, so that made up our mind and we headed to the east coast and over to Ko Tao.
Ko Tao was four days of diving and that was about all. We felt that the place was a little overrun by really young backpackers (man, that makes me sound really old, doesn’t it!) and being surrounded by loud bars with pumping music into the early hours wasn’t the vibe we were looking for, so we got down to the business of getting qualified.
Ours was a small group of four; me and J and a lovely couple Dylan and Liv who were also taking some time out to do some travelling around Asia. Our first lesson, in a swimming pool taught us the basics of breathing using the gear and the signs to use underwater. So far so good! Though after three hours in a tepid swimming pool on an overcast day had us all shivering like nobody’s business and we were glad to get back into dry clothes!
Day two, some class work in the morning swatting up on the theory stuff and then in the afternoon we went out on the boat and did our first real dive!
With mild nerves and a whole bag of excitement, we each plunged into the water with our masks on, air supply strapped to our back and our fins on our feet, looking like the real deal!
At first, the feeling of breathing through the regulator (the contraption you pop in your mouth) was just plain odd and at first found myself breathing quickly and a bit panicky. As we descended down the anchor rope popping my ears to try and regulate the pressure, the peacefulness of the water and the little fish near the surface helped to calm my breathing and before I knew it, it didn’t feel so strange at all.
As we descended deeper, all I could hear was the sound of my regulator taking in air (sounded a bit like darth vador in star wars!) and the bubbles leaving it as I breathed out; it felt almost surreal but so calming seeing the fish swim around my goggles…it was incredible! J looked in his element too, exploring the coral and marine life around him. That said, the waters were heavily populated with little jellyfish and no matter how hard we tried to avoid them, their long tentacles stung every bit of exposed skin including our faces! Thankfully as we descended deeper the jelly fish thinned out, but by the next day I was covered in red itchy welts where I had been stung (strangely J didn’t have that reaction).
Coming back up, that first dive site was in choppy waters and where we came up was a fair old swim back to the boat. Tired from the dive and me not being a very strong swimmer, I found the swim back difficult and as I grew weaker I started to panic when I saw that I was on my own as nearly everyone was back at the boat. Thankfully Dylan and Liv realised I was struggling and came back to help me. It was a bit embarrassing getting a tow back to the boat (especially as I also managed to get cramp in my foot just as I was trying to get out of the water) but I was just glad to make it back. Despite that set back, I got right back in there for the remaining dives and by the end of the four day course and four dives under our belt, we both were hooked and knew that we’d be diving again soon. A great experience and one that we celabrated with a cheeky drink with our diving pals!
Next stop, Koh Phangan. Known for its full moon parties, we decided to see what the island was like when it wasn’t full moon. The boat trip over was a soggy affair as dark clouds came in, the heavens opened up and the rain came down. We docked at the main area (Haad Rin) but decided not to stay there to avoid the main tourist beach. So we took a tuk tuk to the north west part of the island to a beach called Had Mae Had. Being a gloomy day, the beach was a wash out which was a shame as the beach itself was lovely with a little sand bar leading to a small island just off the main beach. The beach was chilled with only maybe three resorts of beach bungalows. We stayed in the one at the far north of the beach nearest the sand bar where we had a beautiful view.
Now it was just a case of waiting to see if the weather improved. We had one glorious day, and the beach was stunning on that day. It lifted our spirits no end but we soon came to realise that the few people staying on this beach were middle aged families with kids; no backpackers in sight. Despite it being a beautiful beach, it just had no vibe and with the rains returning in full force the following day, we decided that we would move on in search of better weather!
So with that in mind, we skipped overland to get to the west coast! We picked Ko Lanta as neither of us had been there before and it sounded good in the guide book. As our journey progressed the weather started to really improve and we were in great form!
We found a lovely little bay just south of long beach called Relaxed Bay. It was very pretty and we decided that this would be a good place to plot up for a while. We managed to find a very basic but clean wooden beach bungalow for 500 baht a night and was happy enough with that and to top it off there was a cool beach bar with young backpackers’ right where we were staying. We thought we’d found the right vibe in the right location. Perfect…or maybe not.
The bar was laid back with good tunes and even the token fire dancing guy! The only problem was the guys running it had a sound system that could have been big enough for the O2 arena! The bass line was booming every night until 5am and our lovely beach hut was only yards away. Sleep? No sir, that was not an option. We were gutted...especially as the place just next to us (a chilled out restauraunt and basic beach hut place called Strandbaren) had the most AMAZING Thai chef! So after 4 sleepless nights, the bags on our eyes were bigger than the weekly shop at Sainsburys! So with no possibility of escaping the endless noise we had to leave.
We thought that we had found a good alternative, about 10 minutes away in a place that had these beautiful but pricier huts further up the beach. With thatched roofs, they looked like mini hay barns and these were set back from the beach so we were encouraged by the temptation of a good night sleep ahead of us!
Very picturesque but what I didn’t foresee was the necessity to be at one with nature if staying in one of them. I was ok about the fact that the gaps in the floor boards were big enough for any large insect to crawl through. I was even ok with the fact that the windows in our little barn had no glass so were just open spaces…and would let in the mozzies at night (we had a large mozzie net after all so we’d manage). But I couldn’t have foreseen that with a thatched roof, comes little things that make their home in the hay which I started to get a bit squirmy over and in my state of extreme tiredness my imagination ran wild and J woke up in the middle of the night to find me on the verge of tears mumbling something about bugs falling from the thatched roof onto the bed. He didn’t look too impressed about his sleep being disturbed yet again and basically told me to pull myself together and go to sleep. It’s funny when I look back now, but at that moment it didn’t seem funny at all!
The next stop on our Thai tour took us to the region of Trang Islands. This is a group of islands on the far south west coast of Thailand and were seriously stunning! The most beautiful group of islands we had seen yet. Even on the boat approaching Ko Muk, we were blown away by the amazing limestone islands jutting out of the crystal clear blue/green tropical waters.
It was picture perfect! Ko Muk itself was a tiny little island with the main bay with only two bungalow resorts on the main beach and a couple of other cheaper options further up the hill in the jungle. A bit pricier than Ko Lanta, Ko Muk was much quieter and more relaxing. The island seemed to cater for a mix of people, some of which were families taking a two week break, as well as the odd backpacker. The vibe was chilled and besides the fishing village on the other side there wasn’t much else going on.
The bungalow we chose was basic but a great location and great view. Ours was one of only two that were concrete built so we thought that this would keep the bugs out. An ambitious notion and one that was unfounded. The first morning, as I made my way to the bathroom, still sleepy and hazy I plonked myself on the loo. In a flash, I saw a big (and FAST) spider run around the lip of the toilet bowl, only out of sight as it passed under my legs! As I screamed and leapt up mid flow (sorry but its true), the spider managed to jump from the loo to the side of the sink. Not only was he quick but he could jump too! Too much for me to comprehend so early in the morning, it was left to J who had been woken by the sound of my surprised squeal to deal with the matter (which he did thankfully!). Aside from that, there were no further bug related incidents there! (Phew!)
The food here was simple but good and besides the nightly beach BBQ, we found ourselves hooked on the local Thai rice soup. It was at one of the local restaurants that we discovered this cheeky little monkey (the restaurant’s pet) who seemed to take a real liking to me!
We had read that round the side of the island of Ko Muk, there was a hidden sea cave that opens out to a beautiful little lagoon with its own beach which legend says was used by pirates to hide their stolen treasures, so we knew we had to check it out. Accessible only by sea, there were various day trips we could join that would take us there but we had heard that it spoils the experience as they pile 50+ people into this small lagoon. So we decided that we would hire a kayak and time it so that we got there after the day trippers had been and gone.
We paddled our way around to the entrance of the cave, which took about 40 minutes, tied up the kayak and started to swim through into the darkness. As we swam deeper into the entrance we saw that there were two small tunnels, both pitch black. If we had a waterproof torch we could have taken our chances but in the absence of any source of light we were worried that we’d end up lost and chickened out on going any further. So now we just had to wait by the entrance of the cave and hope that someone else also had the idea of coming later in the day.
Our luck was in as five minutes later we saw a group of four come along on a small boat, once of which was a local with a head torch! They were happy enough for us to tag along as they navigated through the darkness of the tunnel, which as it turned out was about 50 metres long. Together we swam with the little torch guiding our way, in hopeful expectation. As we made our way round the corner we were taken aback by the stunning beauty that unfolded before us. Wading through from the darkness of the cave, we observed the beautiful green vegetation growing up the jagged walls of the cave, all the trees and vines brightly lit by the sunlight that shone through from the opening at the top, some 50 metres above us and the light dancing on the lapping water as it hit the little sandy beach before us. It was stunning!
I had to pinch this from google as we didnt have a waterproof bag or camera with us!
Back on Ko Muk, we discovered a great little diving company called ‘Chilled out divers’. Aside from the cool name, the guys that worked there were really friendly and had a wealth of knowledge of the local dive sites and before we knew it were booked ourselves onto a day trip to go diving to a place called Ko Rock. Over a few beers we got introduced to the rest of our group that would be coming out with us the following day. A great mix of personalities and genuinely nice chatty people, we were really looking forward to it.
The following morning we set out on their traditional Thai long tail boat, with all the diving gear ready to go. The journey to Ko Rock would take us an hour or two, so we spent the time chatting to our group and getting to know them. Margaret and Louis and their friends from Portugal, and Claire and Rob from the UK were all very well travelled and the time flew as we talked about various places in world.
Once at the dive site, we all strapped on our gear and got ready to start our dive. So much more relaxed than when we had done our course, no skills training to do or new things to remember, it was a simple case of getting in there and just enjoying it. As soon as we descended into the water we knew we were in for a treat. The water was amazing with great visibility and schools of brightly coloured fish all around us as we swam down. Coral reefs that were full of life and colour, we could get up close to see so many things; graceful hawsbill turtles, moray eels, lion fish, cornet fish, sea stars, and clown fish to name a few! It was a technicolour of sea life and it was nothing short of amazing!
To rest for lunch, we brought the boat round to the beach on Ko Rok where we sat and enjoyed some food and snorkeled round the shallow bay. In a clearing just behind the beach we saw three big monitor lizards that seemed to be enjoying each other’s company and obviously not bothered by us spectators. Amazing creatures!
We had heard from Margaret and Louis (who were on our diving trip) that the island directly opposite Ko Muk, called Ko Kradan had a beautiful beach and was well worth checking out. We weren’t due to get back on the road for a few days, so we decided to jump on a long tail boat and go check it out too.
We got a bungalow set back from the beach set in a lovely garden. We shared our bungalow with a mysterious gecko (who we never saw but he always left evidence of his visits by leaving his little gecko poo trails behind) and a cute but shy little frog who would come into our bathroom at night.
In addition to their accommodation, this place was also famed for their American style cheese burgers! (The divers in Ko Muk would often come over just to eat dinner there!) And after five months in Asia eating traditional Asian food; the odd occasion where you can get western food done properly was always worth a try and we were not disappointed!
We stayed there two nights but had to move for our last night as they had booked out our room to another guest (we weren’t best pleased about that one as they sprung it on us at the very last moment!), so we went down to stay in the beach bungalows that Margaret and Louis were staying in. At 1500 baht a night (about 30 pounds), this was the most we had paid for a beach bungalow and though not big bungalows, these were what I would call more upmarket than the average bungalow, with comfy and clean beds, almost hotel style bathroom and French doors to a balcony to a sea view. A nice treat for one night and as it was valentine’s day too so we decided that it was worth it. Ko Kradan was worth the hype. It had the most beautiful beach of all the islands we had stayed in and it wasn’t overdeveloped, though this was not so much a backpackers' island in my opinion (perhaps more of a ‘flashpackers’ place?). Though you could find some cheaper places to stay, many were fairly upmarket and some of the beachside bungalows were verging on opulent with a couple of the restaurants attached to them were serving very expensive food and wine.
While we were on Ko Kraden, we learned that it was also famous for its Valentine ’s Day diver’s weddings. Apparently each year, a bunch of people don their diving gear and say their wedding vows under water. We hoped that we could observe this crazy concept from the side of the beach but we missed them. What a shame…I was curious to see if the bride was dressed in white! Talking of Valentine’s Day, Margaret left a little present on our balcony, some lovely perfume and creams. It was such a lovely gesture and I was over the moon to have some perfume (as mine had run out a long time before that!)
The next day, we said goodbye to Margaret and Louis and headed back to the main land to the town of Trang. A little bustling Thai town a few kilometres from the coast, this little place had very little in the way of tourist sights but had a nice feel to it. The people of Trang were really very friendly, the kind of Thai friendliness that both J and I remembered from our previous visits to Thailand some 8-10 years ago. In Trang, we felt that we were given a very warm and genuine welcome. People wore that famous Thai smile and were keen to help us find our way. It really put a spring in our step!
We decided to venture afield and got talking to a helpful lady who told us about Le Khao Kop Cave that were about 40km away. In this cave we could see stalactites and stalagmites and would pass through small tunnels in a little boat. It sounded interesting so we hired a scooter and decided to check it out. The ride along the highway was so windy, we were holding on to our helmets! Coupled with the fact that this place was not easy to find, we were glad when we finally found the place! Our hard work was rewarded though, as we got on board the little fiberglass boat, we were taken into the beautiful cave where we saw the various shapes that the stalactites and stalagmite’s had created. As we got to the final part of the tour the tour guide told us to lay flat on the floor of our little boat as we ventured into this small tunnel deep within the cave. It seemed to go on and on, getting tighter and tighter as we went. At one point we had to turn our faces to the side and breathe in just to get past some of the tight spots! It’s funny now but there were a couple of times when the boat got stuck and I did wonder if we were going to make it out of there at all!
That night we too the overnight train to Bangkok, having booked the AC sleeper. Wow, what a nice way to travel! We had plenty of experience doing sleeper trains in India but this was so much nicer compared. The cabins were clean, the bunk beds really clean and comfortable and best of all, there was a dining carriage that served hot food and cold beer. The dining carriage was ace! The waiters and waitresses were dancing to the music which was kicking out of big speakers, serving people with beers, whisky and various Thai dishes. What a stark contrast to the Indian trains! You couldn’t help but smile and join in on the fun!
Our time in Thailand had come to a close, six weeks had passed quickly and we had undoubtedly seen some of the most beautiful beaches and incredible natural beauty, but a part of us compared our time with the previous trips to Thailand and longed to go back to the time when you could easily find your own slice of untouched paradise. A time when backpacking was cheap and it was easy to find like-minded travelers. Thailand will always be beautiful and special, but we could see how many places have over time had changed through mass tourism and we felt a tinge of sadness as we said our goodbyes.