Landing in Thailand after India, Sri Lanka and Nepal felt like a breath of fresh air (don’t get me wrong – we loved the exploring but the previous 2 weeks in Nepal had been tough: it had been cold up in the mountains so we had been sick, the food variety was pretty limited (there’s so much Dhal Bhat you can eat although I’m sure Rhys would argue with me on this) and a sit up toilet inside a building with paper provided just was not a thing) and looked somewhat European – since getting off the plane, we walked through a sparkly airport with a duty free shop on every corner, followed clear directions (trust me, that is also a rarity here in Asia) to a taxi parlour from where we were driven in a spacious white Honda to our hotel room with white sheets and a mini bar. The roads were wide and there was no rubbish on the sides, the cars were driving in their own lanes and using indicators… What is this world?!
We woke up in the capital of Thailand – the city so young that it has only been around for merely 250 years and maybe that is why it looked like it was stepping ahead to the future faster than many others I have seen before (Rhys made a remark about Bangkok looking like a city from a computer game based on the world of 2077).
Having stayed right by the airport, we took Air Link train and then BTS (Bangkok Transit System) to where we were staying for the next 4 days. Air-conditioned carriages with clear route system, English announcements and an easy ticketing process (you choose a destination on a touch-screen ticket machine and pay by coin, cash or card to receive your token or card which is later consumed by the barrier and reused by other commuters) would put most of the European capitals’ metro systems to shame (the only issue is the coverage of the city however new lines are being added and current ones are being extended over the next couple of years).
Close to Siam station and commercial hub, and a 15-minute walk away from Lumpini Park, Rhys’ family friends kindly took us up for a long weekend at their lovely flat where we were treated to a view of the Bangkok skyline and the Royal Bangkok Sports Club every evening with a beer in hand.
Had been travelling on our own for 2 months prior to reaching Thailand, it was a welcome change to spend time with people from home and get guidance / recommendations from someone who already knew the city. Furthermore, having had the opportunity to stay in the area where a lot of wealthy Thais and expats reside, we were exposed to a different side of Bangkok than the average backpacker staying on Khao San road.
Still tired after a full day of travelling the day before, we took it easy on the first day and explored the neighbouring areas of Ratchadamri, Siam and Chit Lom, and spent time with our hosts. You could compare these districts to central London – among the many never-ending shopping centres and department stores (strangely, they join with each other and if you take a wrong turn or escalator, you have suddenly entered a new place), the streets here are lined up with grand embassy buildings, sky-scraping luxury hotels and beautiful apartment blocks most fashioning a pool and a sky bar with a view.
I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of Christmas decorations on the streets and in the shops / cafes – it was the first few days of December but it felt that Christmas events and celebrations were already in full swing.
We finished our day with a night view of Bangkok taking in all the lights and excited to see what more the city has got to offer over the following days.
Ready for the heat and the crowds, we decided to explore the Royal Palace and some of the temples of Bangkok. As mentioned before, the BTS and Metro lines in Bangkok cover a good chunk of the city however another popular form of transport is river taxis – they take you much closer to some of the tourist destinations, including the Royal Palace, Wat Arun, Flower Market and Khao San road. They operate on a colour flag system and routes are displayed in most of the piers, however if you want a more comfortable ride (local river taxis are usually quite busy) and an English explanation, you can opt out for a tourist boat (look for Chao Phraya Tourist Boat), which stops at all the main sites mentioned above and also offers a day hop-on hop-off tickets.
My initial ideas about the Royal Palace was that it would be super busy and contain yet another beautiful building and another beautiful temple. Now whilst this is partially true (it was very busy and there were beautiful buildings), it is the most visited tourist attraction for a reason – the beauty and size of the temple complex took us by great surprise.
The palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. Nowadays several royal ceremonies and state functions are held within the walls of the palace every year however the Royals no longer live on the grounds. The Grand Palace is made up of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards. Its asymmetry and eclectic styles are due to its organic development, with additions and rebuilding being made by successive reigning kings over 250 years of history.
However you pretty much spend most of your visit (about 2 hours) walking around the temple complex (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and the last 10 minutes looking at the actual palace (most of it is closed to public and remains a working office) – we happened to be there where a chunk of the palace gardens was also closed for visitors.
Feeling optimistic, we decided to continue our temple tour and next headed to Wat Phra which is famous for its huge reclining Buddha statue.
What we didn’t realise is that this was not just a temple but another temple complex – we were getting lost in between hundreds of Buddha statues and pointed pagodas…
Until hunger took over. Having had enough of the scorching heat (all the temples require wearing clothes that cover knees and shoulders) and the crowds, we wondered around the Tha Tian Market area to be pleasantly surprised by the variety of arty shops and cafes to choose from. This is where I tried my first papaya salad (only to find out it wasn’t actually papaya as you know it – expecting the orange fruit, I was surprised to taste the green crunchy cabbage-like vegetable which is the unripe version of the fruit!) & Rhys had first of his authentic Pad Thais!
The evening saw us exploring the different side of Thai culture – we headed to the Patpong district famous for its night market and bars offering dance shows and much more… The variety of goods available to buy at the night stalls is incredible: from Gucci bags to ninja throwing stars to sex toys to baby clothes – anything one could wish for!
Each bar in the area hosts a large number of Thai girls (or not) all dressed up and ready to welcome any thirsty tourist for a drink. It is part of the fun to sit down for a beer and spend some time people watching.
Unlike in Central Asia where the main and cheapest type of public transport are tuk tuks, in Bangkok they are merely a tourist attraction way more expensive than a standard air-conditioned metered taxis. Here, they are however much more pimped out – colourful disco lights and dance music invite you for an exciting ride and it sure is.
After doing our bit of research and reading some travel blogs, we set off to explore Bangkok’s Chinatown and Flower market which are regarded as top things to do in the city. I have to say we found ourselves a bit underwhelmed with what we saw – whilst the main street of Chinatown is an interesting sight busy with Chinese posters and gold shops, the side streets are just filled with fairly standard shops and stalls (with a couple of exceptions selling strange Chinese medicine and chicken skins). Thus after spending half an hour exploring, we felt we had pretty much seen most of it.
We would however recommend visiting the area in the evening hours – the few streets close to the train station (including a Soi Nana, a very different one from the famous red light district destination in a different part of town) offer a more youthful hipster vibe. This is where you can find some art galleries and cool bars, including the first ever Thailand’s gin bar!
The Bangkok’s Flower Market is a short 15-minute walk away from Chinatown and is famous for its size, business and the fact that it is open 24/7. Very intrigued to see the variety of flowers such a tropical country must be able to offer, we were quite disappointed to find most of the large building is taken up by stalls selling the regular food and clothing, and only one part of it is dedicated to flowers. Further yet, it is not the flowers you would expect – most vendors were selling (only!) bags of marigold heads that we have seen so much being used in Hindu and Buddhist temples for offerings and decoration.
A Khao San road visit is synonymous to backpacking in Bangkok and even though we were not staying there, we spent our Saturday night wandering through the narrow streets of the area, enjoying some beer towers and checking out some of the interesting snack options being offered.
You could spend a week or even a month in Bangkok and its surrounding areas filling your days with attractions and finding new things to do however when you travel longer-term, you have to pace yourself and take some days off and spend your Sunday like you would at home. It is exactly what we did starting the day with a brunch of an English fry up, thanks to our hosts!
The rest of the day we lazily wandered around the neighbouring areas trying out Thai street food and enjoying an occasional fresh fruit smoothie or juice, and stocking up the snacks for our first overnight bus ride in a few hours.
In the midst of the busy commercial districts and shopping centres, Lumpini Park offers a beautiful refuge from the busy streets. Not at all crowded (we were quite surprised by how quiet it was on a Sunday afternoon), the park has a couple of joint ponds where you can hire a boat or paddle but is not too big meaning you can walk around in under an hour.
As the time came, it was quite sad to say goodbye to our hosts and the beautiful city of Bangkok which we weren’t planning on visiting again on our travels this time. Spoiler alert – we did end up coming back to stay here for one more night in January due to the transport routes we were following and yet again enjoyed the company of our friends and their hospitality!
On this occasion however, I was dreading our 12-hour ride to Chiang Mai and for no reason at all I would come to realise – buses in Bangkok turned out to be the best we have seen in Asia so far (air con, blankets, water, snacks, toilet, reading light, acceptable speed) and I didn’t know what was yet to come in the coming weeks…
Our positive Thai experience continued as we arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning. First, we were introduced to a new type of tuk tuk for us – a pick-up truck that has benches and a roof over its back for passengers (still cannot figure out why it’s called a tuk tuk?). A very similar type of transport is a Thai songthaew – a similar vehicle (however tends to be in particular colours for local people to differentiate) which acts as a public transport rather than a private drive: they cover main routes around towns and cities and you can hop on and off as and where needed. If you figure out which ones work for you, they tend to be a much cheaper way of getting around.
Our luck continued as we were taken to our guesthouse and got upgraded to a lovely double room with a balcony overlooking the streets of the Chiang Mai Old City.
Our initial plan was to spend 4 days in Chiang Mai however our bus to Laos got delayed and we ended up staying there almost a full week. Even though this meant less time in Laos, we really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai and because it was the first city we spent so much time in, we could really settle down and actually live here, rather than just visit.
On the corner of the Old City, we came across the Nong Buak Hard Public Park on our second day which became our daily destination for work outs, yoga or just reading. It is still my favourite park I’ve come across throughout all of the trip – always full of people, it had a wide range of exercise machines that were always occupied by local pensioners, daily yoga, acro yoga and Zumba classes were held every day and the cleanliness and beauty of the place made you want to stay there the whole day! (Until I forgot to use anti-mosquito spray before going there at dusk and ended up counting 40 odd fresh bites upon my return to the guesthouse…)
We spent the days wandering around the beautiful Old City of Chiang Mai stopping to have a coffee or a smoothie time to time, and carrying on to find yet another temple around the corner. Only later we found out that Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples in its Old City alone!
Our evenings would either entail sitting on the balcony with a book (or a beer), or trying out different Thai foods in a local market just around the corner from us. I love how these markets are set up everywhere across the country – a number of food stalls usually line the sides of a market area / square, and they all put some small plastic tables and chairs in the middle. They are pretty much shared by all the eateries as you may end up getting food from a couple of places or different stalls if you’re not on your own. The chatter and amazing smells surround you as you tuck into amazing Pad Thai, morning glory or Khao Soi (the famous-for-the-region noodle soup), followed by the Thai signature desert of mango and sticky rice.
Chiang Mai also has a more popular Night Market which we visited on one of the evenings. About a 20 minute-walk east from the Old City, a few blocks of streets line up with vendors selling the Chang tops, Thai silk and other souvenirs, however at the heart of it you find the food market. Unlike the local one I discussed, this reminded me of London establishments such as Dinerama or Pop Brixton – the small square was framed by cool international food outlets offering everything from gyozas to American burgers, a number of beer and cocktail huts were dotted around, and there was a small stage in the middle with live music on every night and a few hay stacks as chairs right in front to sit down and relax with a drink.
There’s lots to see around Chiang Mai and we hired a moped for a couple of days to explore the surrounding areas (and for Rhys to simply zoom around on the bike!). One of the main and more easily reached attractions is the Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep, located up a hill half an hour drive away from the city.
A scenic route up the hill is half of the experience, however the temple is worth a visit not only for the beauty of its intricate design, but also the view of Chiang Mai it offers from the grounds.
The region of Chiang Mai used to be a home to a number of mountain tribes a few centuries back however you can still visit some of the old villages to see how they used to live. We went to Doi Pui village located just another 5 km uphill from the mentioned temple – whilst worth a quick stop along the way, don’t expect an authentic tribe experience (it is the 21st century and we are in one of the most famous tourist destinations of the world). The people have moved on with the world, and it is kind of funny to see local women dressed in traditional clothing and sitting down for an iced latte during their break scrolling through Facebook. However it is funnier to see tourists flooding in queuing up for a photo with them right after!
The interesting fact about these hill communities is that say 50 years ago they all used to live and depend on opium trade – part of the British rule, Thailand and the whole of South East Asia were the main producers of the drug being used throughout the empire. More recently, however, it meant that these villages have had to find new ways to finance themselves – and the markets now offer delicious organic honey, almonds, various dried fruit and local alcohol for very affordable prices.
On our way back to Chiang Mai, we made a small detour to visit Huay Keaw waterfall. Whilst not the most impressive (are we becoming numb to things now?), it also has a few nature treks in the surrounding forest that are a lovely break from the city.
Lastly, over the last few years Chiang Mai has become a major destination in Thailand and the whole of South East Asia for its growing elephant sanctuary offering. Following the global trends in sustainability, waste reduction and of course the fair and ethical treatment of animals, many a tourist nowadays are not anymore attracted by activities such as elephant riding and training. Instead, such sanctuaries provide a home for and look after an elephant family or small band, and visitors can take part in some of the daily routines of feeding, trekking, mud bathing and swimming with the animals.
I would recommend doing your research before going as a lot of the so-called sanctuaries have not necessarily changed their old ways and stage their activities for tourists. After taking some time to look into it, we chose the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary which has gained a lot of credit over the years for its activities with the animals.
So much on Thailand for now – we come back in January to explore the islands and the South!