As the cool days of fall are now upon us, I naturally escape to thoughts of a warmer place and ponder where I'll go for my next vacation. Last year's travels were pretty epic; they took me to a place that I've yearned to go since I first caught the travel bug - Thailand. An exotic destination filled with culture, history and authentic adventure. It's what I dub as the utopia of awesome and would suggest that you run (don't walk) to book a flight. I went for a month, which was perhaps one week too long, as I believe the country displayed signs in order to accelerate my departure... well, sort of...
Here are my top tips, tales and places to go from one of the best countries that I've been to on this planet: (Author's note - the flight is 20+ hours... come with your best playlists, mine was on shuffle as you'll probably discover)
1. One night in Bangkok... more like 3 or 4.
Many people will tell you that you only need two days in Bangkok. These people lie like a cheap Persian rug. It takes a least a few days to absorb the fast-paced streets lined with crazy drivers in tuk tuks (essentially a rickshaw with an engine), not to mention seeing the hundreds of Buddha statues, street vendors and markets. Here are my top things to see and do:
Gold on the ceiling: The Grand Palace - a top tourist attraction, but something you have to see to believe. The ornate detailing on the buildings and the peacefulness amidst tourist chaos is incredible. Dress covered for the occasion and no... lululemon pants are not acceptable... I found this out the hard way - insert long, polyester skirt here.
Midnight rider to Chinatown's street food - talk about a food experience. Go at night and find an open-air restaurant serving right on the street. Order a Singha beer and you'll be in temporary food heaven - surely to be followed by a blissful food coma.
Ticket to ride - The Floating Market - just as it sounds; take a ride on a boat through a market adorned with knick-knacks, food shacks and bargains until you bleed.
Day tripper to Ko Kret - take a day trip to an island called Ko Kret - a lesser-known excursion with a never-ending market of chaos, full of great bargains and cheap, delicious Thai soup!
2. Fly me to Chiang Mai
This is the largest city in Northern Thailand and is just a short one-hour flight from Bangkok - worth the $100 dent it'll put in your pocket. The city is remarkably laid back and oozes with cultural significance and creativity. Chiang Mai has much to offer the traveller who would like to explore beyond the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Top tips and things to do here:
Night Safari - welcome to the jungle - riding on trolleys, animals like giraffes and boars literally come up beside the cart where you can feed them right out of your hands. Even lions, hyenas and bears are in close proximity. I had the opportunity to hold a baby white tiger - unforgettable. I don't think they have the same safety regulations in Thailand as they do in Canada - which is why this place is awesome!
One fine day - the epic excursion - find a day trip that offers elephant riding, a waterfall hike, white water and bamboo rafting. I feel like I did everything I wanted to do in Thailand in one day. Although, I could have done without the bamboo rafting - it sounded cool, but when your caboose is a 250-pound man, it's more like riding an uncomfortable wet carpet that just sinks to the bottom of the river.
Thai massage - relax don't do it... well do it, but be careful - they practically give these away in Thailand. You can find great places all over - except the sketchy street fronts in Chiang Mai. I had a massage that could have been the most painful 45 minutes of my life. When in doubt - go with the hot oil massage.
3. The islands... aka nirvana - you'll know I'm right.
Thailand boasts some of the world's most beautiful islands. They are picturesque at every turn. The sand is soft, the water is turquoise and the rocky coves frame a sight for sore eyes. I headed to the southwestern islands - no this is not where the full moon parties are. The temptation to get high with 18 year-old tourists without a place to sleep did not appeal to me. Here are my top island tips and tales:
Phuket - over and out - stay here for a couple of days and then dash. It's a definite tourist attraction and a fun party town. If you want to party the place to be is Patong. The streets are littered with fun bars, restaurants and countless Ping Pong shows (you can look that one up on your own). I would suggest staying in Hat Karon - a 20-minute cab ride where it's a bit quieter and the beaches are beautiful. Do a day trip to James Bond Island that includes sea kayaking through the caves - you're welcome.
Ko Phi Phi - yea you know me! Best. Place. Ever. Take a two-hour ferry ride from Phuket to what is by far my favourite place in the entire world. Velvet blonde beaches extend for miles. There are no roads, no cars, just the young and the beautiful. By day, laze in lawn chairs looking into a warm turquoise bath of opulence. By night, take a leisurely stroll, dine on the beach with your toes in the sand and enjoy piles of fresh seafood and curry; then dance the night away at some of the most outrageous beach parties on the planet. Note - for an unforgettable view, stay at the hotel on the tsunami lookout... which might also just be the most treacherous end-of-the-night trek I've ever endured. I'm out of breath just thinking about it.
Railay - aka 'hey, hey, bye, bye' - as in, where Thailand started to reject me. Railay is located off the coast of Krabi. It's a lesser-known island that is accessible by small boat; and even then, you walk your luggage through rocky waters to shore. I cut my toe open upon my arrival - the first sign of trouble. Railay is a major destination for rock climbers (another red flag for me). Its precipitous coves add a unique character that sets it apart from other islands. Venture to Tham Phra Nang, here you'll find a beautiful cove with darker turquoise waters. This is where I faced a personal debate of logic over impulse. One after another, I watched adventurous travellers cliff jump off of a 15-foot rock. I was thirsty to attempt this feat myself and to my dismay, I chose impulse. It failed miserably. I attempted the climb, took a few unsteady steps, slipped on a rock and scraped my back. The result of this epic fail was a large, open, gaping wound on my leg. I found myself being treated for the injury by a nine-month pregnant pharmacist, the only healthcare provider on the island. The next day upon my departure, I pinched a nerve in my neck, which made it nearly impossible to get to the boat with my bags. My boyfriend at the time graciously carried myself and my bags to the boat, so we could leave the island as fast as humanly possible. From there I knew it was time to leave this beautiful country. Luckily, we only had one week left and I spent my days watching others frolic through the beautiful waters of Ko Samet (another must-see island south of Bangkok), while I prayed for my leg to heal and not get infected with some obscure Thai disease. Thankfully, I was fine.
Wind up: Final words of wisdom
Bring a passport with at least six months validity (I did not and I almost wasn't able to fly within the country... thankfully I found a loophole through booking on my iPhone). Read up on the scams - especially those that tell you tourist attractions are only open to locals at certain times. Know that at restaurants the food will be incredible and the service will be the worst. You practically have to beg for menus, pray they get your order right and throw your money at them to settle up.
The closing: Thailand is everything that I thought it would be and more. I can't wait for my next Asian adventure. Perhaps I'll go to Vietnam, where I learned the hard way that you need a Visa and it's impossible to get one before boarding a flight at 3pm on a Friday.