Friends, I feel it’s only fair to warn you in advance: this (extra-long) post will probably make you want to immediately shell out your hard-earned money for a one-way ticket to Southeast Asia. And I wouldn’t be able to blame you one bit if you did! I spent the last two weeks in Thailand getting intimately reacquainted with the person I was in my early to mid-20s: a world fucking traveler. And it was SPECTACULAR.
Back in the spring, my friend JP and I had tentatively been discussing a trip to Patagonia (still on the list) with some friends that we traveled with to Iceland last year. I started saving up my vacation time anticipating a long(ish) reprieve from work this fall, but that plan swiftly fell through once he and his lovely girlfriend got engaged and shortly thereafter got married (great decision on his part if you ask me, and I don’t say that about many married couples (bahaha)). So I found myself in the rare possession of a bunch (relatively speaking) of vacation time with no specific plan on how to use it. Now don’t get me wrong, I can ALWAYS find ways to use my vacation time. I am not one of those absurd, workaholic Americans that never uses their time off. I’m one of those absurd, decidedly NON-workaholic Americans who drains their vacation allowance down to the last tenth of an hour. But, as I was saying, I found myself in the rare position of not quite having decided what to do with my time off. Then, in the same fashion as I’ve made many of the great decisions of my life, I had one (or several) too many drinks at Wine Fest (as you do) and decided right then that I needed to join my friend Carolyn on her Thailand adventure. Luckily, she was willing to have me along.
Thailand has been on my list for close to a decade now. A highly influential (to me) ex-boyfriend had spent a couple of months bopping around Southeast Asia back in the day, right before I met him actually, so I heard quite a bit about his adventures by motorbike back then and was immediately intrigued. I almost went to meet another beau there a couple years later when we were still smitten with each other but living on different continents, but we couldn’t afford the plane tickets to get there, sadly. Then, when I was unhappy with my job and feeling stuck a few years ago, I was seriously looking into dropping my DC life to teach English in Thailand. I’m almost certain I would have done it had I not herniated a disc in my back and spent the next couple of years in chronic, horrible pain. But, no matter, I’m healthy now and my resume is all the better for it (though perhaps not my life experience) and this fall, I finally got my (mini) Thailand adventure.
I love the tropics. I mean, I LOVE the tropics! I studied abroad to Madagascar and the Bahamas in college, then worked in Australia for a bit a couple years after college, and I fell so hard in love with the climate and the tropical trees and flowers and the coral reefs and the smells of the forests and the sounds of the birds and the fresh fruit and the fact that you can get up for a run or a swim at 5:00 am and be perfectly comfortable outside without a jacket. And, in case you didn’t know, Thailand is IN the tropics (oooh baby!).
After a good 24 hours of flying (and several bad movies of course), Carolyn and I met up in the Bangkok airport, bleary-eyed but definitely excited. After the world’s easiest jaunt through customs, we entered the country that would be our home for the next two weeks. My first impression of Bangkok was that it wasn’t nearly as loud and polluted as I had heard. Compared to some other cities I’ve traveled to, it was quite pleasant actually. I would even say I quite liked it if I hadn’t liked the rest of the country so much more. We stayed at a backpacker’s hostel, the Lub d, in Bangkok for the next three days, exploring the city and adjusting to the time difference. Our initial thought in staying there was that perhaps we’d make some friends at the beginning of our trip, but we were so exhausted from jetlag that we couldn’t muster the social strength to do so. Instead, we spent our time exploring markets, temples, neighborhoods and a city park then going to bed super early and waking up in the middle of the night. And getting a Thai massage of course, which is surprisingly a painful experience! Those ladies could be assassins, I swear. My favorite part? The city park (duh). (Okay, and the tuk tuk ride, can’t leave that out). Upon exiting our taxi outside the park, the very first thing was saw was an ENORMOUS fish/ crocodile/ lizard creature swimming down a waterway. It was FASCINATING! Upon further investigation (and a closer look), it was an Asian water monitor, the world’s second-heaviest lizard and a family-member of the Komodo dragon. Turns out, they were all over the park, along with birds, turtles and stray cats (which I will get to later). We even anxiously watched a standoff between a lizard and a cat, though it ended when the cat unconcernedly walked away. According to the very reliable source of Wikipedia, the Thai people use the word for these lizards to describe something (or someone) that’s evil or bad luck. But we saw a whole bunch of them right at the beginning of our trip and I struggle to see how it could have gone much better.
From Bangkok, we moved on to Chiang Mai, the largest city in mountainous northern Thailand. We stayed at the Smile Guesthouse 1 (purely because it had a pool) in the old city, which is the historic inner part of the city that’s surrounded by a moat (really!). What a cool town! We spent our time exploring the city streets, eating WAY more than is normal (couldn’t help it), shopping for comfy pants (it’s a thing you do there – believe me) and going on adventures. We took a tour to Doi Inthanon National Park, a lush rainforest up in the mountains (though to be honest, the tour was a bit of a dud due to us being overtired and shackled to some selfie-crazed Austrians. Luckily, the forest was beautiful enough to make the day worthwhile), spent a half day at an elephant sanctuary (where we fed rescued elephants bananas and watermelon then immediately went swimming with them. Odd but phenomenal. Fun fact: elephants aren’t great to pet though. They’re too bristly!), and rented bikes and ventured a few miles out of town to see some excavated temples.
The bike ride was by far my favorite part. We had to navigate through some crazy traffic to get outta town, and I am NOT a comfortable rider in traffic. Yet it was somehow thrilling rather than terrifying. My strategy was to follow behind the motorbikes because we were generally going about the same speed. I’m not fully convinced bicycles are allowed on the highway that we rode on, but we made it safely regardless. 😉 Once we got off the highway, we had a lovely day cycling through what I imagine are the “burbs” of Chiang Mai. Narrow streets lined with lush, green trees, roosters crowing, dog gangs everywhere…. (Really). The excavated temples weren’t anything special, but the adventure of the experience sure was. I felt like we got to escape the crowds of tourists and really see Thailand for what it was. We later found out from a college friend of mine that lives in Chiang Mai that there are so many friendly stray cats and dogs about because Thai people are incredibly kind. They take care of the homeless animals, just as they take care of homeless people. They’re well-fed and treated with respect. One of my favorite things about the country is that wherever you go, dogs and cats are just lounging around, hanging out. They’ll wander into a store just to get petted, they’ll take themselves for a walk or even go for a dip in the ocean, and no one bats an eye or thinks twice, just treats them as they have every right to live that way, because they do. It’s a beautiful thing. I will say though, before finding out that the stray dogs actually love people, the stray dog gangs were a bit intimidating!
We didn’t plan much in advance for our trip, beyond knowing we wanted to see Chiang Mai and end up at the Full Moon Party. So once we were in-country, I whipped out my Lonely Planet to take a look at what might be on our way between those two places. At first, we were hoping to spend a couple of days on the islands of the Andaman Coast, which contain marine sanctuaries. Come to find out, though, you can’t really get there until mid-November. But I did notice on the map a national park that wouldn’t be too far out of our way, and I was really hoping to see some nature and wildlife while I was there. So we basically blindly decided to spend a day and a half in the park on our way to the island for the party. This park, Khao Sok, ended up being our absolute favorite part of the trip. A day and a half wasn’t nearly long enough, but we squeezed in as much as we could and didn’t waste a minute!
Khao Sok is an absolutely incredible place. It’s a rainforest in southern Thailand that’s actually older and more diverse than the Amazon. It contains a whopping five percent of the world’s (terrestrial) biodiversity, including forest elephants, tigers, monkeys, gibbons and vipers, just to name a few. The first day we arrived, we only had a few hours of daylight left, but took ourselves on a bamboo-lined forest hike anyway. We were told we had to be out of the forest by 6:00 pm because tourists aren’t allowed in after dark without guides due to the “dangerous animals” present, but truth be told, we were a bit late. We were rushing to get out as the forest came alive with sound around us, and these ridiculously LOUD natural sirens went off around us. Not knowing what they were, we were relieved to finally make it safely back to the entrance and then our bungalow!
The next day, we made a pact to enjoy every ounce of the park that we could in the short time we were there. We went on a morning hike in the forest and stopped to paddle around in a couple of beautiful, clear blue-green swimming holes in the river, went off the beaten track a bit and followed the river through the jungle. For all you bird lovers out there, we saw some white-crowned hornbills in the tree tops, which we were told we were lucky to catch a glimpse of! After lunch, we went on a tubing trip down the river, just the two of us and our guide, seeing monkeys and (domesticated) elephants along the way, then went back after to snorkel down the same patch of river. Then after a hearty dinner, went on a guided night hike. Those natural sirens? Cicadas. We have cicadas in DC, but the ones in Khao Sok must be on steroids for how loud they are! Our guide pointed out monkeys, vipers sleeping in the trees, spiders whose eyes glowed, scorpions hanging out in holes…. He could even smell when snakes were nearby! To make matters even more exciting, I got attacked by a leech, which I am luckily quite experienced in due to my semester in Madagascar during college. I never saw it, but felt it on my toe and the next thing I knew, blood was gushing out of my sandal (I’m not exaggerating – those suckers know how to make you bleed). Honestly, I wish I could have stayed for months. I loved everything about that forest and I would have loved to explore it much further. A Thai man later asked why we would go there, as if it was a crazy thing to do. I think it would have been crazy not to.
Moving onward, we journeyed to Kho Phangan, otherwise known as the island where the world-famous Full Moon Party is held each month. The adventure continued as soon as we got off the ferry, as it turned out the taxi we had agreed to was actually two motorbikes, which we rode carrying all of our luggage. I was starting to fear my arm would fall off as I held my duffle bag up on the back of the bike for the 20 minute ride to our hotel. Carolyn’s friend from college, Lotta, and his girlfriend, Jess, who we had met up with in Chiang Mai, were staying at hotel right down the beach from ours, so we settled in and met up with them the next day to go out on a snorkeling boat to Sail Rock, which is essentially just a huge rock surrounded by coral reef between the islands of Kho Phangan and Ko Tao. We posted up there and were able to come in and out of the water at will for about three hours. It wasn’t the best snorkeling I’ve done by any means, as the visibility wasn’t great and it’s really a better site for diving (which I am certified to do but to be honest really need a refresher in first), but it was an awesome experience nonetheless. First of all, I LOVE the water. I must have been a mermaid in another life. Second, I saw two extremely spectacular creatures. A whale shark, which I have been dying to see since 2009 when I jumped off a diving boat on the Great Barrier Reef and narrowly missed seeing one, and a lion’s mane jellyfish, which I had never heard of but is incredibly beautiful and soothing to watch (and huge – it could totally fuck you up). The crew and other divers and snorkelers were super nice and friendly, I got to see a ton of fish, anemones, urchins and corals, and I also got to work on my tan and enjoy the ocean breeze and scenery on the way there. I’d call that a successful trip!
The rest of the time on the island, I took a beach yoga class, laid out in the sun, went for walks on the beach, swam in the ridiculously long hotel pool, got stung by several (small) jellyfish, ate some amazing food (Thai pancakes… YUM!), and really just enjoyed beach life for a couple days. We went to the Full Moon Party, of course, which is a huge beach party full of tourists from all over the world that are hopped up on way too much caffeine, booze and who knows what else (Brokedown Palace, anyone? No thanks). To prepare, you pretty much just need to cover yourself in neon clothes and paint, which came pretty naturally to me. 😉 Basically, it’s just a wild beach party with 20,000 of your best friends walking around drinking buckets of booze, occasionally making out with a stranger and perhaps doing pull-ups on a bar that’s literally on fire. Was it the best party I’ve ever been to? Nah. Would I go again? Maybe, but it wasn’t even close to being a highlight of the trip. I had fun though, and my cab home was the back of a pickup truck under a (mostly) full moon, so I really can’t complain.
From there, our trip wound down. We had to venture back to Bangkok (hungover) to eat more mangoes (you can never have too many fresh mangoes) and catch our flights out to (a slightly depressed and angry) America. I’ll be honest, I was super sad to leave. Thailand is an incredibly country – beautiful, vibrant and easy to navigate. The people are kind, the food is delicious, and the nature is breathtaking. And Carolyn was an amazing travel buddy! I can assure you, I will be back someday. Hopefully for longer!
As always, to follow along on my adventures, follow me on Instagram!