Audra and I just spent 5 months travelling through parts of Europe. We ate, drank, and learned a TON along the way. We even wrote about what we learned. But Thailand… a whole different magical beast. In our month so far, we’ve experienced a completely new culture, foods to die for, amazing animals, indescribably beautiful beaches and scenery, memories with friends old and new, and had learning experiences the whole way!
Bangkok–My return/Audra’s first time in Asia
In college, I took my first trip out of the country with two friends (shoutout to Charles and Rob) to Bangkok to see Charles’ dad. I’ve always been wanting to return, knowing what I know now. Back then, we relied on Charles to do all the coordination, haggling, and overall decision making. Now, I wanted to see if I could handle it.
We learned a lesson right when we set foot downtown: don’t trust taxi (or Tuk Tuk) drivers. The guy stopped us as we got off the light rail from the airport and offered us a ride to our airport for 500 baht ($15). Seemed reasonable, but I remembered from my first trip that I should always haggle. I got him down to 300 baht ($9). Later I found out that I should have gotten it for 150-200 baht.
On another occasion, Audra and I got in a taxi (this time with a meter) to take us to the floating market downtown. Just after leaving the hostel, the driver told us that the floating market we wanted to go to wasn’t that great and that he knew of another one that was much better. His was only 10 minutes more away. Turns out, his was about 1.5 hours away and ours was only 15 minutes away (facts we couldn’t easily check without wifi). We made it halfway to his market before realizing we shouldn’t have trusted him and told him to turn around. We turned a potentially 1200 baht ($36) mistake into only a 600 baht ($18) mistake.
These were just two of the 4 or 5 hard lessons we learned. One scam ran so deep and caused much financial anxiety that I don’t think Audra wants me to write about it here (Note: no harm done, but could have been a really bad situation). My advice to anyone going to Bangkok: have a plan and stick to it. Don’t let taxi drivers, seemingly nice locals, or pseudo government workers talk you into anything.
But it wasn’t all just about avoiding scams. Bangkok is a GREAT city to explore. Research the price of a tuk tuk, haggle a bit, and get one to drive you around the bustling streets. The driver will happily stop off at one of the extravagant Wats (Buddhist temples), let you explore, drive you to another one, and then to one of the many markets or malls.
Speaking of shopping, Bangkok gave us our first taste of authentic Thai street food. Day 1 we sampled Pad Thai (rice noodles, shrimp, veg, and peanut sauce), and Tom Kha Gai soup (coconut broth, chili, chicken, lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, etc.). Street food vendors were everywhere selling fried bananas, dried sweet meats and rice, dumplings, spring rolls, fried chicken, and Thai desserts. We also sampled tons of different curries (Panang, Massaman, Green) and started to get accustomed to the spiciness of Thai cuisine. We took a vegetarian cooking class and learned how to make the classics: peanut sauce, red chili sauce, papaya salad, spring rolls, tom yam soup, pad thai, curry, and mango sticky rice.
Chiang Mai – Meeting Friends and Elephants!
I highly recommend the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. For a grand total of $35 a person, you get a 13 hour train ride through a beautiful country complete with your own bed, a window, and a privacy curtain. The beds were spacious and the rocking of the train gave us one of the best night’s sleep we’d had in a while. Well, at least for me. Audra had the top bunk which swayed a bit more than mine on bottom. Luckily the beds were large enough that we were able to share the bottom bunk for the remainder of the trip.
Before we arrived, we expected a beautiful quiet mountain town in northern Thailand. Really, it’s a pretty big bustling town with mountains in the distance. But what makes it special is that it’s much more relaxed, much more affordable, and it gives you a great jumping off point to experience the northern part of this amazing country. There’s a reason TONS of expats (people living outside their country of citizenship) call this place home now.
For affordability, how does a $25 private room ensuite with A/C in the heart of the happening area sound? Let’s talk about the street food vendors selling meals for less than $1.50. Even the fanciest restaurants don’t charge over $6 for an amazingly delicious, filling, and spicy meal! Want to try and get fit while staying here for a while? Audra and I found a gym for $2 a day to prepare our bodies for the beaches.
We also encountered our favorite dish of Thailand in this city: Khao Soi, a spicy yellow curry soup with chicken, pork, or seafood and egg noodles topped with raw red onions, lime, chili, and more crispy fried egg noodles. We went to 3 or 4 restaurants trying their variations of this dish. Over the course of 8 days, I think we had this dish 7 times. And we finally got accustomed to “Thai Spicy” (although we generally paid for it the morning after).
Before you travel to Southeast Asia, your doctor might recommend that you get the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine. This is a rare disease (virus?) spread by mosquito that is preventable by the vaccine, but has no cure (and terrible repercussions) if infected by it. The problem: it’s around $800 for a two stage injection in the States. So we did a little research. In Chiang Mai, (and Bangkok) there is a clinic offering the full vaccine in one injection for less than $30. So we did that.
We caught up on work for a few days here and then something crazy happened. You might recall that we had dinner, drinks, and great convo with a Canadian family of 5 in the AirBnB overlooking the Adriatic in Croatia. One afternoon, while walking the streets of Chiang Mai, we randomly ran into them again. What are the chances?! (Somewhere below 7,000,000,000:1 and above 1,000,000:1 by my estimate.) They were in town for the next two days and we had two GREAT nights catching up with them until the wee hours of the morning. Follow them on their blog: fivebackpacks.wordpress.com
A day or two after they left, our friends from Panama (Jon and Judy, currently living in Japan), showed up in Chiang Mai. Judy works as a teacher at a Naval base in Japan and had a winter break. They decided to head to Thailand for their vacation. When we found out we’d be there at the same time, we altered our plans to hang out with them. In Chiang Mai, some AWESOME memories were made! Night one had us eating amazing food, drinking Thai rum (after all, we used to drink rum together all the time in Panama), and exploring the infamous night market. At the market, we saw some edible insects and new we had to try them. We sat at a table with another American couple to sample them and we found that they had plans to go to the top Ladyboy Cabaret shows in town. Well lubricated, we decided to join. Because we entered the show just before starting, there was only one table left: right at the front! The show turned out to be so much fun to watch (and participate in due to our location)! We barely remembered the late night Tuk Tuk ride home…
The next day we experienced one of the top reasons to go to Chiang Mai: the elephants. The Canadian family we ran into earlier did their research and went to see the elephants of Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, so we did the same. We rode in the back of a pickup into the mountains to a little river village. Upon arrival, we were greeted by 7 or 8 hungry, friendly, and beautiful Asian elephants! For half of the day, we got to feed them, give them a mud bath, and play with them in the river. These creatures are so smart and playful and deserve our respect. This was definitely a highlight of Thailand for us!
Southern Thailand – Back to the Beaches
Because many of our Panama memories with Judy and Jon involved the beaches, we knew we had to get back to the beach together. They chose Railay beach: a secluded peninsula only reachable by the famous long tailed boats surrounded by tall jungle covered pinnacles (often jutting straight out of the water). This is truly a world class beach with a super laid back vibe.
For 6 days we just explored the beaches of Railay, usually stopping for a few hours to lay in the sand, get a fresh coconut and fill it with rum, and cool down in the gentle blue ocean. Life was good! One day we took the kayaks out to explore the couple hundred foot high limestone cliffs around the area. For our unforgettable Christmas we took a boat tour to several nearby islands complete with snorkeling, dinner, and even a chance to jump in the water at night and experience the bioluminescence (something we first encountered in Vieques, Puerto Rico). We also took a boat to the nearby town, Ao Nang, to see their local food market and do some shopping.
Sadly, they had to fly back to Japan, and we had to head to the town of Khao Lak to prepare for our next adventure. Generally, this would be a place to skip over, but it is a nice sleepy town with a walkable beach looking towards the sunset. What makes Khao Lak special is that it’s the jumping off point for the world class Scuba diving of Thailand. Audra and I are both advanced Scuba divers and we couldn’t miss the opportunity to go on our first liveaboard. A liveaboard is a boat that takes you out into the sea for several days and nights with one main purpose: to scuba dive as much as humanly possible! Since Audra’s been diving for longer than I have (she actually made me get certified specifically so we could dive on our honeymoon), she really wants to write about that experience. So look forward to our next blog where she’ll be talking about the best diving we’ve ever done, amazing people we met, and a New Year’s celebration for the ages!
Almost immediately after getting back ashore, we had one night (which we chose to party with our new diving friends) before heading to the other coast and on to the island of Koh Phangan. This place is famous for one thing: Full Moon Party. Apparently, it’s the largest beach party in the world, and it takes place every full moon. However, coupled with two nights of minimal sleep (due to unforgettable parties of our own) and the weird feeling of the world moving beneath your feet because we’d been on a rocky boat for 4 days, we chose not to attend. Big deal. What makes the party is the people anyways, in my opinion, and we didn’t know any of the people going to the party. That brings us to now. We’re in a chill beach bungalow getting some long neglected work done.
As always, thanks for reading! It really means a lot to us!
Next up: Kuala Lumpur, and Cambodia.
Audra and Kevin Arendt: Digital Nomads, World Travelers, and Midwestern Americans. To learn more, see About.