thailand: the north (chiang mai, chiang rai, pai)

While the north of Thailand has a distinct tourist feel, as well as a well-worn path that most people stick to, I liked the vibe much more than on the islands. There’s less of the family vacation, pre-packaged feel. There’s also a definitive ex-pat community. It gives places Iike Chiang Mai a really cool, relaxed feel. Had I gone off of the easy route, I might have had a more “authentic” Thai feel to my trip, but I didn’t. The path of least resistance is not always the best, just one of the many lessons of traveling I’ve learned in the past 5 months. In any case, I really enjoyed my time in the north. I spent most of my time in Chiang Mai, where I tried out several different yoga studios, night markets, and green curries (my favorites were Yoga Tree for asanas and Yoga Kukaan for meditation; Ploen Ruedee, near Anusarn Market; and the place right next to Coincidence Hostel for the best green curry I had in all of Thailand). I also went “cliff” jumping (I was too scared to jump off the really high ones!) at Grand Canyon, and to the hilltop temple, Wat Phra That Doi Kham, for awesome views of the city.

I took a day trip to Chiang Rai to see the white temples (beautiful, but soooo touristy!), and the golden triangle to see the intersection of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, where Opium was once traded. Also so so touristy, but hey, now I can say I’ve been to Laos 🙂

Pai was gorgeous. I stayed only one night and missed some apparently beautiful waterfalls. But after 3 weeks in Thailand (and like so many other unfortunate backpackers all over Thailand, a very minor motorbike accident) I was so ready to leave. And so excited for my next stop – Myanmar…and spoiler, Myanmar is (so far anyway), everything it’s cracked up to be and more. More on that soon 🙂

chiang mai 

chiang rai & golden triangle 

pai 

thailand: the islands

After a few days in Bangkok, I was ready to get back to the beach. My first stop was Koh Tao, the island known for scuba diving. From Bangkok to Koh Tao I took an “overnight train” (by overnight train I of course mean, I was on a train from 5pm until 2am, waited at the train station until about 5am, rode a bus from the train station to the ferry dock, and then finally, at around 11am, arrived on Koh Tao). The long and pretty much sleepless overnight journey could not stifle my excitement for diving, though. I stayed at Sairee Beach, which offers lots of nightlife and really the only backpacker scene, but unfortunately not much else. After breakfast at the beach, I spotted Roctopus dive shop (which I had already read good things about online). A few days later I had 5 dives under my belt and my open water certification! After the initially very weird sensation of breathing cold, dry air under the warm, tropical water, I was hooked.

Aside from diving, I participated in the infamous Koh Tao Pub Crawl, watched new friends dominate the fire limbo at Lotus Bar (noooo thank you for me!), and snorkeled at both Ao Leuk (highly recommend)*, and Shark Point (where I saw hardly anything, except mean black fish who chase you away from their dead coral and occasionally bite you 😦 ). Koh Tao also has amazing street food – everything from pad thai, omelet sandwiches, crepes, and fruit shakes, all for well under 100 baht, or about $3 US.

After several days on Koh Tao, I went west to Koh Phi Phi, which many argue is the most beautiful/picturesque of the islands. This might be true, but for me it was mostly rainy (monsoon season), and definitely overcrowded. I did 3 more dives (basically going underwater to escape the hordes of people above), including one night dive. I’ve done night snorkeling, and at the age of 13 decided that bioluminescent plankton is one of the coolest species on earth. In addition to the plankton (which seriously if you haven’t experienced, you must)**, I also was deep enough to see fish in various sleep-like states, including little nemos (clown fish), hovering lazily in their anemones 🙂 The unexpected highlight? A squid eating a small silver fish! Weirdly really beautiful…ah the circle of life.

Also on Phi Phi, I enjoyed intense and impressive fire shows at the beach (nightly!). Unfortunately due to bad weather, we weren’t able to see Maya Bay (“the beach” from the Leo movie), but a boat cruise around the islands was still a fun, if pricey day adventure.

After almost 2 weeks on the islands, it was time to go. This picture probably sums up how the islands (and actually all of Thailand), felt to me better than any…(just hoardes and hoardes of tourists!)

DCIM100GOPRO

*sadly my GoPro was dead for Ao Leuk, because the coral was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, and there were more species of beautiful, colorful fish than I could keep track of

**swimming with bioluminescent plankton at night is what I imagine being a fairy is like – with each movement twinkly pixie dust explodes gently around you ❤

i <3 bangkok

Being in Bangkok confirmed something that I’ve known about myself for quite a while now – I love a good city. I love the crowds, the noise, the lights, the colors. I love the fast pace. I love the diversity – of people, food, experiences. I love the buildings, the skyline. I love the accessibility. The ability, by foot or train, to easily reach world class healthcare (or world class shopping). I’ve spent most of the last 4 months in rural Asia, in places so vastly different from this (and from where I came from). It’s been eye opening and deeply meaningful. The chance to really experience (and live in), worlds so different from my own. To meet people whose lives are so foreign to me (and mine to them). It’s given me perspective I just didn’t have before. But being in Bangkok reminded me of my life back home. The modern city, freckled with old temples and glittering shopping malls, is truly special. And I spent a refreshing few days soaking in all of the luxuries of the city.

So what did I actually do in Bangkok? I stayed near Khao San Road (very touristy, “bro” area). A foot massage costs less than $5, so naturally I had one every day. I shopped at MBK and Siam Center, and enjoyed pad thai, smoothies, and fresh coconuts from street carts. I rode the sky train as much as possible, and loved it for its cleanliness, speed, and clear maps and directions. I visited a few wats (Buddhist temples) – Wat Pho (home of the giant, golden reclining Buddha), Wat Arun (temple of the dawn, unfortunately under lots of construction), and my favorite, Wat Saket (temple of the golden mount, a hike up lots of steps with amazing views of the city). I rode a 3 Bhat (about 9 cents) water taxi across the Chao Phraya River, again with pretty awesome views. I danced in a huge crowd of strangers on Khao San Road, which offers a nightly, all night party that fills the bars and floods the street with carefree travelers. A lot of people skip Bangkok (or just spend a night pre or post flight), but I loved my time there, and would happily have stayed much much longer.