KOH PHI PHI
My favorite stop in Thailand also happened to be our last. The grand finale was an island paradise full of staggeringly wild hills of palm trees overlooking two back to back crescents of fine sand and glowing azure waters. Koh Phi Phi was the island where the movie “The Beach” was filmed, and it attracted visitors for its pristine natural backdrop, spectacular diving, picturesque climbing, and vibrant nightlife.
We stayed at what can definitively be described as a party hostel, a (surprisingly clean) place called Stone Bar filled with twenty-somethings and located right on the beach, where eardrum-blasting electronic music played nonstop from early evening until 2AM on the dot. Brett Ashley finished her diving certificate while Katrina and I did a lot of lounging on the beach. We joined her for an afternoon fun dive one day and had one of the best days of the trip.
We set off just after noon and did an hour-long dive at a rock formation south of Phi Phi called Koh Bida Nok, where we glimpsed Yellow Boxfish, Masked Porcupinefish, Seal Faced Puffers, Bicolor Parrotfish, elongated Trumpetfish, and bizarre spiny looking Lionfish. During our break we ate pineapple and sweet and sour chicken for lunch harbored in gorgeous Maya Bay, then jumped off the top of the two story boat to do some snorkeling above the shallow reef. We immediately spotted a small Black Tip Reef Shark, maybe two feet in length, swim about 10 feet in front of us. Shortly thereafter we saw two more, each a little larger in size. Next we saw one that looked to be about six feet long, then we saw them all swim by in a school of about nine or ten. It was the closest any of us had been to a shark, and we were thrilled by the encounter.
Our second dive was at a site called Malong where we saw Pharoah Cuttlefish, a Moray Eel, Clarke’s Anenomefish, lots of Crown of Thorns Starfish, and a few intimidating Barracuda. We also saw a Hawksbill Turtle - a shining highlight for me. Its shell was about the size of my torso with a tiny head poking out of the front. It lazily drifted along beside us on the reef for a minute or so before floating off into the open ocean and disappearing magically into a beam of sunlight. Right before we finished the dive our guide excitedly pointed at something on the ocean floor. I stared in the direction she was gesturing but couldn’t see anything for a few moments. Then I noticed a tiny yellow seahorse, about five inches tall, hovering above a rock. It didn’t seem to be moving much at all besides swaying back and forth with the current. It’s tail curled into a tight spiral underneath it and its surface appeared sold and spongey. Later at the scuba office when we recorded all the wildlife we had seen on the dive I was amazed at the quantity and diversity of everything we’d been privileged to witness during two short dives on the island.
Earlier in our trip we had been told that if we wanted to celebrate Halloween to the degree that we were used to in America we had to spend it in either Bangkok or Koh Phi Phi. We just so happened to be on the island for the holiday, and we were not disappointed. We got our faces painted at our hostel bar in neon colors that glowed in the ubiquitous blacklights, then settled into the sandy cushions to watch an epic fire show put on by Stone. Men as old as 30 and as young as 7 tossed flaming batons into the air and twirled chains of fire around their heads. Later they brought out a 15-foot jump rope soaked in kerosene, lit it on fire and invited audience members into the stage to jump. Brett and Katrina, slightly braver than myself, each took a turn in the fire ring of death and emerged unscathed.
Later we played beer pong with some other traveling Americans in an awesome rooftop bar called Banana. We met a diving instructor from Texas, a climber from Bend, and a pair of girls from Minnesota dressed up like Eagles. Late at night we made our way back to the beach and danced our way from party to party, finally calling it a successful Halloween night and ending up back at our hostel.
The next morning (albeit not very early morning) Katrina and I hiked up to a viewpoint while Brett finished her scuba paperwork. Although the day began slightly overcast, the view was breathtaking. Our vantage point sat equally between both beaches of Koh Phi Phi, and we could see a map-like presentation of the geography of the island from above. We sat in silence for awhile and soaked up our own personal view of paradise, then descended the hundreds of stairs back to sea level.
TONSAI AND RAILAY BEACH
Katrina and Brett Ashley wanted to do some rock climbing while we were in the south of Thailand, so the night after the Full Moon Party we left Koh Pha Ngan to make our way to the opposite coast and a region called Krabi. Our journey consisted of a taxi ride to an overnight ferry to a mini bus to a coach bus to another mini bus to a longtail boat until we finally arrived (somewhat exhausted) on the remote beach of Tonsai.
The community at this roadless jungle beach was of hippie climbers from all over the world, many of whom sported nipple piercings and long shaggy hair. The generators only ran from 6PM to 6AM, meaning that during the day there was no power or wifi or even fans to cool off from the steaming heat. We only had one night here, so Katrina and Brett Ashley booked a climb with one of the local companies while I went on a hike with two girls I’d just met from Canada and Germany.
After scrambling up a steep dusty jungle path we emerged on Railay Beach, which was a much more mainstream resort area. It featured a wide smooth beach speckled with tiny spiral seashells. Slightly overweight European vacationers sat on sarongs and beach towels. We bought some papaya guava smoothies from a street vendor and sat watching the waves hit the giant rock formations that enclosed the bay.
Around the Railay Beach / Tonsai area the sapphire sea was broken by enormous vertical limestone cliffs topped with green foliage. The view was spectacular. Apparently the climbing was even better - Katrina and Brett came back raving about the route they did. I watched the sun set with my new friends from a rickety platform installed atop ladders up the side of the cliff about 50 yards above the beach. The tide was far out, revealing dark coral and tide pools in which the reflection of the wild looking clouds turned orange then pink then violet as twilight fell.
That night we went out with the other girls to a few crazy looking pirate bars built like intricate tree houses upon the sand, complete with hammocks and swings and fire twirlers. After to talking to a few more climbers from the states and Australia, we learned that a big hotel chain had just purchased half the beachfront land in the cove and was planning to start building soon. Which means that Tonsai was a partially untouched rugged spot that was about to turn into another resort destination and lose some of its magic. We were so glad we got to see it before the transformation, when it still felt wild.
THE FULL MOON PARTY
The biggest party in all of Asia happens one night per month on a pristine white sand beach in Southern Thailand. When we realized we would be on the very same island a few days before the party we knew we couldn’t skip this event. Although we were more than slightly apprehensive about an enormous all-night party that attracts visitors from around the world, we made plans to get to Haad Rin Beach on Koh Pha Ngan for the night of the October full moon.
Two of our close new friends from the yoga retreat (Laura and Ellie) met up with us outside our hostel around 9PM where I painted designs on all the girls’ arms and cheeks with neon paint. The music was already deafening in the streets leading down to the beach. We bought a bucket of mojito with colorful straws sticking out of it (the drink of choice at the Full Moon Party was a plastic bucket of liquor mixed with juice or soda, making us all look like kids on our way to build a giant sandcastle) and made our way down to the beach.
The scene was quite a spectacle. Neon signs advertised the bars along the sand, flaming limbo sticks and jump ropes radiated heat and entertained western tourists, and raised stages were packed with dancers bathed in blacklight. A different DJ played electronic remixes of western hits every 100 meters along the beach. There were maybe 10,000 people on Haad Rin that night, with colorful body paint making them glow like alien skeletons.
Our group of girls danced our way through the different parties until 4AM, when we took a break and waded a few meters into the shockingly warm sea. All of a sudden an eerily cold gust of wind hit us from out over the water, and then orange lightning lit up the sky. An electric storm began bombarding the beach, and all the dancers took cover from the pelting rain in the covered bars. The storm lasted until just before 6AM but did little to dampen the party. As the sky cleared of clouds it began to lighten to a pale pink, and we sat in a row on the wet beach and watched the sun come up.
After the night was over and we were asked our opinion of the Full Moon Party, we told everyone that we had much more fun than we expected, but it was probably an event that we would only need to (or want to) attend once in our lives.
SCUBA DIVING ON KOH TAO
One of the activities I was most excited for when we planned our trip was scuba diving. I’d been to the two largest barrier reefs in the world (off Australia and Belize) but only to snorkel. Being underwater and immersed in such a vastly different and beautiful wildlife world was something that appealed to me more than any other sport. Between the end of the yoga retreat and the Full Moon Party, we had exactly four free days, which is precisely how long you need to get a scuba diving certification.
We took our PADI open water course through a fantastic organization called Scuba Junction. They had offices right on the water in Sairee Beach on Koh Tao, and our fee included accommodation at a nearby guest house. Our instructor was a laid back middle aged British man who asked us to call him G. He had been living on the island for eight years and was on his 4000th dive, so he had ample experience in teaching and guiding divers in Thailand. The class consisted of the three of us plus a 24-year-old Dutch guy named Thijn who we got along very well with and ended up sharing most of our meals with, plus occasionally G’s 5-year-old daughter Sarenia who liked to twirl around us in her tutu while we learned from our workbook.
Before we could get in the water we had to watch five interminable tutorial videos, read five chapters in the PADI lesson book, do five homework sheets, and take five short quizzes. The next day we were able to finally enter the water for our contained dive at three meters deep. Usually when you take these classes in North America or Europe you do your training in a pool. But since the water in southern Thailand is so clear and warm and accessible from the dive classrooms, we did our contained dive in the ocean amidst coral and tiny curious blue fish. We knelt on the white sandy floor and practiced various skills like clearing our mask of water, inflating and deflating our BCD, and sharing air from our regulator with our dive buddy. We learned all the hand signals for communicating underwater, and how to react in different emergency scenarios.
When she surfaced after the first dive, Brett Ashley was immediately struck by a wave of dizziness and nausea, which might have had to do with congested sinuses and difficulty equalizing air pressure on the way back up. She didn’t feel much better the next day, so she had to drop out of the course. Fortunately, she felt clear and healthy the next week on Koh Phi Phi and was able to finish her certification there (such a relief to us all!)
On day 3 we went down to 12 meters deep and practiced a few more skills. Our focus on this dive was especially to practice regulating our buoyancy through adding or releasing air from our BCD vests and also through breath control. When you hold in a big breath of air, your body begins to float. Then when you exhale, your body slightly sinks towards the ocean floor. We needed to be able to keep a consistent buoyancy so that we hovered parallel to the surface without bouncing around all over the place. This skill was difficult for all four of us at first, but by our final dive G told us we were better at buoyancy control than most advanced divers he knew.
When we sank down towards the ocean floor on our first deep water dive, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of peace. Although sound is magnified by four times underwater, the absence of human voices and environmental noises made everything feel heavily muted. Besides the occasional boat overhead, the only sounds were those of my breath on its way into my lungs from the tank and the bubbles escaping toward the surface after I exhaled. I was also thrilled with the strange new sensation of weightlessness. I decided this was the closest I would ever feel to flying. The salt water took on the weight of the heavy equipment, which was hard to even lift on land. Though I had bulky metal gear strapped to all sides of me, I felt as if I were floating. I was immediately addicted.
The coral reef was a bustling, vibrant community of life forms minuscule and large, filled with more colors and textures than I could ever put into words. Because red is the first color on the spectrum to disappear as you descend underwater, the majority of the coral formations appeared purple and blue. Some were intricate brain patterns, some fan-like vertical spikes. Some just covered the ocean floor like a living fuzzy rug. Each nook and crack in the coral seemed to be home to some species of fish, clam, or seaweed. Neon green anemones hid tiny orange and white clownfish, which seemed much too timid to peek more than their faces out from their swaying homes.
We swam through undulating schools of yellow and silver fish, hundreds of which seemed to be operating under a single mind as they turned and sped up at the exact same instant. They parted effortlessly for us to move through, then continued their lazy mass movement toward whatever feeding ground they had chosen for their destination. We saw countless electric purple parrotfish with turquoise mouths like beaks, and elegant yellow angelfish moving in pairs. Under a rock ledge we glimpsed a round stingray that looked like it belonged in a children’s coloring book: gold with royal blue polka dots.
After our last dive, watching a magnificent pink and orange sunset from the beach with a cold bottle of Chang beer, I felt so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to experience this elusive underwater world up close. Without an underwater camera, I’d have to keep mental images of the beauty of the reef. Diving was one of the most spectacular things I’d ever done.
BLOOMING LOTUS YOGA RETREAT
When we finished our week-long yoga retreat at Blooming Lotus on Koh Phangan, the three of us all agreed on a few things. The retreat was not what we expected it to be; the people we met were beautiful and brilliant; and we learned a lot about meditation and about ourselves.
The retreat took place at Haad Yuan beach on Koh Phangan island off the east coast of southern Thailand. The beach, which you could only access by boat, was a mostly empty steamy jungle oasis with colorful longtail taxi boats hovering just offshore. The water was crystal clear and glowing turquoise, and in the early morning the sun bounced off the waves to light up giant boulders on either end of the powdery sand. The tall palm trees threw shadows on the shallow water as the occasional jellyfish flatbed by. This place could only be described as a tropical paradise.
Our typical schedule began at 7:45AM, when we quietly sifted into the studio, a raised wooden platform overlooking the buzzing jungle through mesh walls. Someone would have set up a votive and flower blossom mandala in the center of the floor, and the 14 of us retreat participants would sit on triangular cushions in a circle around it. We would do a check in, a 30-minute guided meditation, then a 90-minute cosmic yoga class, then a quick break followed by a 90-minute workshop on that day’s topic.
Each day allowed for a lunch break from noon until 4:30PM, during which we swam in the sea, read under the palm trees, and took Thai oil massages. In the afternoon we did another 30-minute meditation, then another 90-minute yoga class, then we had dinner as a group and usually went to bed exhausted by 9:30PM.
On Wednesday we had a bit different schedule, and it ended up being the highlight of the entire week for me. We met in silence at 5:15AM and individually walked the jungle labyrinth, stopping for a reflection with a crystal in the center. We then hiked up to a viewpoint atop a hill straddling two bays on the east side of the island, and reached the rocky overlook just as the sun came up. We spent some time in silence witnessing the sunrise and reflecting on our journey so far. After we made our way down to the beach around 7, we took an early morning swim before yoga class. Starting the day in contemplative but connected silence and absorbing the vitality of nature was a very powerful experience that stayed with me for the rest of the week.
Our tight knit group was made up of men and women from university students to people taking a career break in their mid thirties, and ranged in yoga experience from beginner to advanced. They were struggling with issues like complex relationships, failed jobs, family expectations, and a lack of confidence. Some found the retreat empowering, others used it as a cathartic release for pent up grief. Most importantly, we all bonded very closely as partners in a physically challenging and mentally exhausting experience.
To celebrate the completion of our retreat on Friday night, we all ate dinner together and headed out to the next beach over for a dance party. Our entire group of 14 - all in the midst of different transitions in life - danced and hugged and laughed together from 9PM until dawn. We all sat in a line on the beach and watched the sunrise, then grabbed our swimsuits and took a morning swim out to the floating dock. It was the perfect way to end an emotionally and physically rewarding week.
After checking into our hostel in the moat-encircled old city, we strolled around enjoying the artsy, bohemian vibe of Chiang Mai. We passed cafes and porches exploding with vines and leafy palms, bright narrow alleyways advertising posh guest houses, and long strips of art galleries. We walked through the grounds of the city’s oldest temple, drinking huge watermelon and mango slushies to ward off the sticky humidity.
As the sun went down we arrived at the Chiang Mai Saturday night bazaar, a long street lined with jewelry and souvenir vendors. The market also featured an open food court with live music where we shared a very spicy seafood papaya salad and a minced basil beef stir fry while listening to singer / songwriters covering American pop hits. We met two fellow backpackers from Colombia and Italy who showed us a sort of bar complex, where 5 or 6 dance clubs and bar vans shared a large open space for drinking and dancing. We traded off teaching each other drinking games from our respected countries and finally realized it was 1AM. Because there is no bad time to eat soup, we stopped on our Tuk Tuk ride home at a late night food cart and each ordered a hot, spicy bowl of Thai noodle soup.
The next morning was inevitably difficult for the three of us, but we rallied and took a taxi up the hill adjacent to the city in order to visit the famous Doi Suthep temple. To our dismay, the entrance to the site began with about 150 steps. But we prevailed over the vertical challenge and made it to the epic hilltop temple, which seemed to be completely coated in a golden layer. Many visitors were praying and leaving devotions of flowers and coins in front of the large Buddha statues, and because Buddhist respect required bare feet, a pile of dozens of shoes accumulated outside the building. We laughed as we watched a worker use a huge push broom to sweep them off to the side.
A platform to the east of the temple overlooked the airport and the city far below, hazy through the misty heat of midday. Once we had had our fill of the breathtaking view we headed back down towards our hostel.
For that evening’s activity we had arranged for a Thai cooking class with a company called BaanThai Cookery School. The class lasted from 4:30PM to 8:30PM, and began with a trip to the market. Our teacher (a young Thai man who worked part time for a nonprofit that places Burmese refugees in American cities) showed us an array of strange ingredients we didn’t recognize, including Balanka (a spicy root similar to ginger) and three types of Thai eggplant (none of which appeared in typical eggplant size or shape). We then assumed our cooking stations armed with giant silver woks and began with learning the famous Pad Thai dish. We were shocked that it only took us about 10 minutes to make, and that the number of ingredients was so limited.
The next dish was soup; I chose to learn seafood green coconut milk soup while Katrina and Brett Ashley learned Tom Yum. Theirs was savory and chicken broth based, while mine was very sweet and used coconut cream mixed 50/50 with water, then mixed with oyster sauce, fish sauce, and lime. For the appetizer Brett Ashley made spring rolls, fried to perfection, while Katrina and I made Papaya Salad. This is one of my new favorite dishes since arriving in Thailand: short strings of shredded unripe green papaya and carrot mixed in with palm sugar, fish sauce, and crushed chillies and peanuts. It’s healthy, sour, and spicy.
We were already stuffed, but we had one final dish to make: the elusive and unique Thai curry. We each chose to make a different type, so we could share notes later. Brett Ashley made green, Katrina made red, and I made a specifically northern Thai noodle curry called Khao Soi. We learned first how to make the curry paste, which takes a lot of chopping and grinding in the mortar and pestle. Then we squeezed coconut milk out of shredded coconut flesh, which was tons of fun. Finally we combined these with veggies and meat in a saucepan, cooked briefly, and ended up with delicious curry from scratch. After trying all three, I decided the super spicy green curry is my favorite.
Overly full from eating about three full meals each, we took our leftovers and went back to our hostel for a relaxing night in. We watched “The King and I” on Katrina’s iPad, pointing out the palace we’d seen in Bangkok last week and singing along to our favorite songs. The next morning was an early wakeup call for a 6AM flight - next stop Southern Thailand!
RABEANG PASAK JUNGLE TREEHOUSE
After working hard and roughing it for three days on our hill tribes trek, we headed out for a much needed recovery at the Rabeang Pasak Treehouse resort about 80 kilometers outside of Chiang Mai. Upon arrival (still covered in dirt and sweat from our trek) we were ushered into our very own treehouse beside a stream in an overgrown patch of jungle. Made entirely of dark wood and equipped with a riverside swing, a private bathroom and a cozy loft bed atop a spiral staircase, our new quarters felt like a luxurious splurge. We took turns washing off the grime in a ceilingless shower, open to the stars and the night sounds of the jungle.
We began the next day at a leisurely pace, starting with breakfast on a porch overlooking the river and surrounding flora, and later indulging in laundry and a Thai massage. As the afternoon grew steamy, we hopped on a trio of rusty beach cruisers and rode through jungle paths to see a stalactite cave and a red sand dune formation.
In keeping with our “treat yourself” theme, we enjoyed happy hour and cribbage on the deck, followed by a delicious dinner of fried fish and spicy basil chicken with greens.
After check-out the next morning, we toured the famous “Sticky Waterfall,” a counterintuitive feat of nature in which the rock surface underneath a 70-foot cascade of flowing water did not become slippery, allowing us to climb up the steep incline without falling. The day was sunny and humid, and the mostly deserted site of the waterfall felt like an oasis of calm before we returned to the hectic and buzzing streets of Chiang Mai.
One last stop on our trip back to the city took us to a local market completely devoid of tourists. We saw fried crickets, spotted crab, and many unrecognizable vegetables. We sampled a few snacks from the vendors, including spring rolls in a spicy cilantro sauce, wide rice noodles, and some little fried dough cups we think were filled with a sweet coconut custard (these were the highlight of the tasting).
MAE HONG SON TREK
Our group for a three-day Eco Trek in the northwest region of Thailand was a small but enthusiastic bunch. It consisted of 3 American girls (us), a young Dutch couple on med school break, a kindergarten teacher from the UK, and a British consulate worker on a visa hop from China. We were fearlessly led by our wiry guide Tee, his soft spoken assistant Jackie, three porters, and our trusty trek dog Dang. Our route led us through the Mae Hong Son region, about 60 km from the border of Burma, among villages of Karen people, a hill tribe with a distinct language, alphabet, and culture from the rest of Thailand.
Day 1 was overcast and misty, and began with a steep and very muddy descent towards a latte-colored river (with more than one fall onto my butt, I’m afraid). As we crouched by the river, our guides took out huge machetes and started hacking into big stalks of bamboo. In no time, they had fashioned professional looking cups, knives, and spoons for each of us to use over the course of the next three days.
When we arrived at our camp in the late afternoon (a raised structure built with beams of bamboo) we took a quick dip to rinse off in a waterfall, then watched our guides prepare a colorful feast of vegetables and chicken in a sweet and sour sauce. They cooked rice by puting water and rice kernels into a long bamboo stalk and setting it in the embers of a fire, which I though was particularly ingenious. Tee cajoled us into trying roasted maggots, which - with enough chili sauce - wasn’t entirely as repulsive as I had anticipated… But still not something I’ll be rushing to try again. All in all, I was astounded at the way a nutritious and tasty dinner was cooked and served using the resources of the jungle.
On Day 2 we were treated to a long, gently sloping hike over hills and through marshy rice paddies, with stunning vistas along the way. It seemed that around every bend in the path opened up to reveal a fairytale view of stair step paddies in lush shades of green. During one stretch of the hike we walked along the path of a stream, crossing the rushing water every 5 minutes or so, then pulling tiny leeches off our ankles when we emerged on the other side. About 150 meters of the river passed through a tall, narrow, pitch black cave filled with what looked like hundreds of agitated bats. Our headlamps only lit the area directly in front of us, so the guides each carried a flaming bamboo torch to show us the stalactites as we waded through the river toward the opposite mouth of the cave.
As we passed through a cabbage field, Tee stopped to point out a hole covered with webbing and tiny eggs, and told us a tarantula lived inside. To our growing alarm, he started poking it with a stick, then hacking the ground with a machete. After a few minutes an angry looking spider emerged, the size of my fist. He grabbed it around its abdomen, cut off its teeth, then tossed it into his bag. Later that night, he stuck it onto a skewer and roasted it over the fire like a regular hot dog. He explained that the Karen people ate tarantulas like it was any other type of meat; you just had to make sure you didn’t eat it too often because the human body could only cope with the poison in small doses. After all the fur burned off the body (and the spider let out a creepy hissing noise), we each took a small slice of poisonous spider and popped it into our mouths. The meat itself was tender and almost fishy, nothing too disgusting, but the crunchy insect outer layer was tough to force down. We chased it with shots of home-brew whisky, as our guides laughed at the expressions on our faces.
Staying with a Karen family in one of the villages was an incredible experience. They spoke no English or Thai, and in the local tongue we only knew “taa-blu,” which means hello, goodbye, and thank-you, but there are things that can be done without the hassle of spoken language. Our group of westerners played peekaboo with their one-year-old baby girl, drank whisky around the cooking fire, and passed dishes to one another as we shared a warm meal. We were so grateful for their hospitality, even though they had few resources to share. Women and men both rose with the 4am rooster call and worked in their fields the whole day long, but smiled and invited us into their kitchen / bedroom combination that evening in spite of their exhaustion.
Day 3 dawned sunny and accompanied by a chorus of jungle birds and insects. Our hike out was mostly steep incline, but the scenery was enough to distract from the very sweaty workout. We were rewarded with Pad Thai and fresh passion fruit when we arrived at our destination, and I’ve never enjoyed a fruit so much. The members of our little group chatted about our favorite parts of the trip, and a consensus arose that meeting the local Karen people was an unforgettable experience, one that we felt lucky to be a part of.
After an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai and a 3-hour bus ride up through the northern hills, we arrived in the sleepy backpacker town of Pai. We hadn’t originally included this stop in our itinerary, but had heard such positive reviews from other travelers that we decided that we should squeeze in one night to see what all the hype was about.
We checked into a hostel called the Purple Monkey, which featured open-air dorm-style rooms and a rooftop gazebo hangout space with pillows and hammocks. The vibe was very very laid-back, and the staff was comprised of late-20s Australians and UKers who had come to Pai intending to spend three days and ended up staying for months at a time. The town was very small, with colorful lanterns strung across the roads and lots of lazy, bored-looking stray dogs.
We immediately headed into town to commence the inevitable backpacker activity in Pai: renting motorbikes. For the equivalent of $3.50USD, we each received our very own scooter for 24 hours. Though we looked ridiculous in our neon helmets zooming down the winding highways of northern Thailand, we couldn’t keep the smiles from our faces. We passed tiny villages, children playing in trees, and endless rice paddies that glowed an impossibly vivid green even in the waning daylight.
We stopped at a waterfall called Pam Bok, where young people of many different nationalities were swimming and jumping off the tall rocks. A dip, along with a few leaps into the deep water, proved refreshing after our ride.
The next morning, a misty sky and persistent drizzle could not put a wrench in our plans. We buzzed north on the mostly deserted highway towards a nearby national park, where we knew there was a hot springs called Sai Ngam. We found a turnoff and rode over comically steep and twisting roads, and came across an idyllic, steaming springs surrounded by thick jungle. A low waterfall poured over one side, creating an infinity pool effect. We soaked in the hot-tub-temperature freshwater as raindrops fell around us. It was so beautiful and relaxing, it felt like nature’s version of a day spa. We couldn’t believe how perfect little Pai turned out to be!
Let the adventure begin! After a 12-hour flight from SeaTac to Taipei, a 3-hour layover, and a 4-hour flight to Bangkok, we have started our 7-week backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. I have been planning this for almost a year along with my two best friends from high school; Brett Ashley and Katrina. We are all afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust, and we knew this region was a place we wanted to explore in depth. We’ve been excitedly waiting for October and to begin the trip of a lifetime.
Katrina and I took BTS, Bangkok’s rapid transit system, from the airport into the city. We had booked a hostel on Tani Road in the Banglumpoo neighborhood along the river. Khao San Road is the famous street for foreign backpackers to party in Bangkok. We chose not to stay right on Khao San because it’s notoriously loud and wild, with an outrageous nightlife that goes strong until 4 or 5 in the morning. Instead, we picked a hip and laid back hostel a few streets over. Our dorm of 20 beds was full of Australians, Canadians, and UKers in their early 20s, mostly solo travelers. The best thing about staying in hostels (besides the fact that you only pay around $5 per night) is meeting people from all over the world, getting travel advice and hearing different perspectives.
The neighborhood is made up of twisty, winding roads just wide enough to fit a 3-wheeled Tuk Tuk and snack vendors pulling their food carts behind them. In the Asian heat and humidity, green things flourish and vines seem to overtake all static structures with a fierce determination. As much as we disliked the frat-boy party scene of Khao San Road, the quiet narrow roads to the north of it were charming and vibrant and just our speed. We found an open air bar called Madam Musur on Buttri Street where the sign advertised “Happy Time” prices, and we settled into bamboo chairs out front with large Chang beers and watched the evening arrive.
For dinner we felt compelled to try the famous Som Tam (papaya salad) and some green curry soup and loved both dishes. They were so spicy, however, that I had tears leaking from my eyes even as I said how delicious it was. I’ll have to improve my spiciness tolerance if I want to survive the next few months.
On our first full day in Bangkok, Katrina and I decided to do some temple tours. The largest and most famous attraction is the Grand Palace, or Wat Phra Kaew, built in 1782 by King Rama I for government and religious ceremonies. The grounds are huge, and after 2 hours it felt like we hadn’t even seen a majority of the buildings. The most visited is the room that houses the emerald Buddha. The most intricate detailed decoration covered every surface of every building, mostly gold and red and sapphire, which creates a beautiful glittering glow when the sun hits the palace.
Next we toured the slightly smaller Wat Pho, home to the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. The temple was made of an array of pagodas, statues, and fountains, with skinny stray cats wandering the grounds. We walked the length of the golden Buddha, which must have been at least 60 meters long. The Buddha is depicted on his side like this in the last stage before entering Nirvana. Wat Pho is also the birthplace of Thai massage, so we felt compelled to experience one ourselves. We bought hour-long full-body massages at the Medicine School inside the temple for the equivalent of less than $10 USD. I had never gotten a massage before, but it is now one of my favorite things in the world. After the hour was up, we felt so totally loose and relaxed, we probably resembled the reclining Buddha himself.
For lunch we found a tiny, dingy street food stall where the woman cooked soup in an enormous metal pot full of crushed red chilies, bright green herbs and veggies, and pork bits. She swiftly ladled us each a bowl, added a handful of rice noodles, and topped them off with a spoonful of chopped peanuts. This simple-looking, $0.75 bowl of soup turned out to be the best soup I’d ever eaten. Something about the uber-flavorful salty broth contrasted with the spicy blend of herbs created an addicting, unforgettable flavor profile. I wish I could explain exactly what made this soup so good, but it’s just impossible to adequately describe. I included a photo to help you visualize the mystery heavenly soup.
We had arranged to meet up that night with Blake, a golfer living in Bangkok who had gone to high school with us. We had dinner in Thonglor, which is a more expensive, urban neighborhood where wealthy Thai and expats live about an hour Tuk Tuk ride from our hostel. His Thai girlfriend Mam ordered a mix of dishes for us to share, including a tasty coconut milk curry and a prawn soup. We had drinks at the Iron Fairies bar, with a live band from Alabama. Next they took us out clubbing at a place called Route 66, in a huge disco complex called RCA. The club itself had 3 different dance rooms: a DJ room, an EDM room, and a live band room. We met all of Mam's Thai friends, who are in law school, and danced with them until 2AM.
The next day, after delicious watermelon and mango smoothies for a breakfast pick-me-up, we bought a day pass for the passenger ferries that navigate up and down the river. We could hop on and off at our leisure and see the sights. We saw Wat Arun, it Temple of the Dawn, with a central tower standing 76 meters tall. It was under construction, so it appeared less majestic than it usually looks, but was covered in really interesting mosaics made of seashells and bits of painted China that depict protective demons and monkeys.
Another fascinating stop was the Pak Klong Talad, a market full of fresh produce, spices, and huge baskets of flowers. Mostly they were bright yellow Marigolds, which Buddhists use as offerings placed at the base of temples and statues, but there were also rich purple hibiscus, orchids and baby roses. It was a feast for the eyes and nostrils.
We also walked through Chinatown (Yaowaraj) which was more bustling and more densely packed than other areas of the city. We tried an assortment of fried snacks from street vendors as we walked through; the least favorite was a corn fritter, the favorite was a thin, doughy pancake filled with egg and banana.
After we disembarked the ferry for the day, we had another “Happy Time” with beers at the patio bar, then followed it up with drinks and card games with some local bar owners down the street. Late night food highlights include a simple BBQ chicken kebab in spicy sauce, and super-sweet coconut mango sticky rice, my Thai dessert of choice.
Our final day in Bangkok passed at a very relaxed pace, strolling through the neighborhood trying new snacks and doing some shopping. Brett Ashley landed in the afternoon, and in the evening we boarded an overnight train to the north. Next stop: Chiang Mai!