Our First Stop in Southeast Asia
Outside of Scott going to Okinawa when he was 19 and also spending a week in Shanghai a few years back for work, neither he nor I had ever traveled in Southeast Asia, so I was a bit nervous about this leg of our travels. Mosquito-borne illnesses, the potential for food poisoning and other food-induced various travelers’ woes, and little meaningful knowledge of the culture, language, and transportation were all in my head leading up to our arrival. But I put my big girl panties on and took the plunge. We were there from November 6-26 and visited Bangkok, Krabi Province, and Chiang Mai.
I want to thank my sister-in-law Anna and especially my dear friend Andrea Brückl, who gave me a list of beaches and places to visit and tips on Thailand in general; this was a huge help, and we took many of their suggestions and loved every one.
Our first stop was Thailand, a country I’ve wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. We landed in Bangkok, which was the cheapest flight destination from Europe. We were immediately hit with the muggy, hot air of this overly crowded, loud, dirty city. Not a great first impression. I felt at least a little prepared, though, thanks to my brother’s wife Anna, who had warned me about the city and had made lots of recommendations about Bangkok in particular.
We arrived on November 6 and opted to take public transportation to our hotel. It took about two hours, including getting a bit lost on both the train system and on foot using Google maps. But that’s fine — we get lost occasionally while traveling. It’s just part of the experience. We discovered, along the way from the subway station to the hotel, that we had to walk through one of, if not the most famous red-light districts called “Soi Cowboy.” Apparently, some American guy who wore a cowboy hat opened the first adult establishment on this street, hence the name, Cowboy Street.
When we got into our room, we immediately feel asleep (we’d taken an overnight flight and hadn’t slept a wink). Sleeping turned out to be a bad idea; we had jetlag like a bad hangover for four days afterward. Nevertheless, after our nap, we got up and traipsed around until we found an awesome restaurant called “Long Table” on the 25th floor of a fancy hotel. The food was delicious and the view of Bangkok at night was beautiful!
The next day, Scott worked, so I ventured off on my own — riding my first ever tuk-tuk — and took the tourist boat along the central river (this was against Anna’s recommendation, but at least I was with other travelers). We rode along the muddy river from the south end of the city to the north, where I got out to see a temple. There, naively, I got roped into going to a travel agency by an overly friendly guy who claimed to be security and wanted to help me; this proved to be a scam, of course, and after rejecting the expensive travel plan the agency outlined, I got back on track and walked down the backpacker “party street,” which didn’t look much different from any other street in the city.
After this experience, I rode the boat back to the south end of the city and took another free boat to “Asiatique: The Riverfront,” a large, new, very clean shopping market. They had some great stuff.* After that, I went back to the hotel where I picked up Scott and went to dinner at a delicious communal seating place called Suda Restaurant. Yummy!
*OKAY, FULL DISCLOSURE: This been a problem for me. All the time, I see all these beautiful, handmade things I want to buy, but I can’t because of my limited backpack space. Next time I travel the world (ha!), I’ll bring an empty suitcase just for shopping.
The next day was pretty much a wash. I was exhausted and felt terrible because of the jet-lag, and Scott had to work, so I just hung out at the hotel. That night, we went to see some Muay Thai fights. It was a pain to get to and from the stadium, but Scott loves the sport, so off we went. We saw about five fights out of the nine cards that night, including the main event. (My sister also does Muay Thai, so I took lots of videos for her.) I did not enjoy it because I hate any kind of fighting, but Scott was in heaven. It was interesting, though, to watch the people betting on each round, the live traditional music that accompanied the fights, and seeing the various ages and skill-levels of the fighters.
On Friday, we went to see the Royal Palace and saw its grounds and temple, which were beautiful. It’s such a stark contrast between the wealthy royals and the poor that make up most of the country. After, we went to see the famous Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, which was really special. That thing is ginormous!
In the evening, we finally got up the courage to try some street food, and oh boy! are we glad we did. We had the most delicious soup from a little stall across from our hotel, sitting on tiny plastic furniture right on the sidewalk.
After dinner, we had a beer at a pub and promptly left after a drunk American made a fool of himself (and it wasn’t even Scott!). We then hit up Soi Cowboy to see what the red-light district to have a few drinks and do some people-watching — one of our favorite pastimes. The table next to us included two older white guys with their very young Thai girlfriends (whom they had clearly hired for the evening). One of the ladies ignored her date the whole time and flirted with a young, cute guy most of the night. Sadly, she eventually had to leave with the older guy… and she looked none too pleased about it.
The next day, we slept in and went to the Chatuchak Sunday Market for some shopping. I bought a beach hat and some sarongs. Scott was miserable. We found the Flea Market and stopped for a beer before calling it a day.
All in all, I really didn’t much like Bangkok. The transportation was frustrating and took a long time, the city itself is smelly, dirty, and loud, and it seemed that most of the people there only want to rip you off. I was very happy to leave and will never go back without good reason.
On November 11, we arrived in paradise: Aonang Beach, in the Krabi Province. This was the start of our two weeks visiting Thailand’s most gorgeous beaches, the kind you see on postcards. That night, we ate at a lovely restaurant called Kobam Kitchen, which served Pad Thai with a sort of netting of egg covering the mound of noodles. We’d never seen that before and haven’t seen it since; it was delicious.
The next day, Scott worked while I hit up Aonang Beach and spent the day under the shade of one of the two trees that lined the beach. Met a nice French lady there. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite cover myself perfectly and got a few sunburned spots. The life of a ginger!
On Tuesday, Scott and I took our first Thai longboat to Railay Beach, about 15 minutes away. I managed to swim a bit and see the Princess Cave before it started to storm. The cave was a fertility site, so it, um… had a lot of penises in it. Like hundreds of them. I don’t have any pictures, sadly, so just imagine a small cave carved into a mountain that’s literally filled to the brim with penises of all shapes, sizes, and colors, made from various types of material — wood (teeheehee), plastic, rubber, stone, metals, etc. I laughed out loud looking at them. And then prayed for my friends’ fertility.
We ended the day with Thai massages and dinner at the Aonang Night Market.
On Wednesday, I took another longboat to Poda Beach and on the way met two very nice sisters, both from Georgia. We became fast friends and hung out the whole day, then met up again for dinner and drinks that night (I had one too many [or maybe three…—Scott], but nevertheless, I really enjoyed meeting them).
I spent all day Thursday in bed. 😊
Friday, we took a ferry to the magical island of Ko Phi Phi, made famous by the Leonardo Dicaprio vehicle The Beach. Sadly, a bunch of jerkface tourists and tour boat operators have killed all the coral reefs around this part of the island, so it’s now closed permanently. There are conservation efforts under way to stimulate new growth, thankfully. Right after we arrived back at our hotel, a magical thunderstorm rolled in; we ate lunch as we watched it in wonderment.
On Saturday we went snorkeling. Scott wasn’t too excited about this, as he’s not a big fan of boats, but I was thrilled – I love snorkeling! And Scott admitted afterward that he had really enjoyed it. We saw lots of Nemo-looking fish, plus lots of other fish of all sorts, a sea turtle, a big purple and white octopus, and three sharks — two small baby ones, maybe about 12 to 16 inches long, and a bigger 3- or 4-footer. It. Was. Awesome.
The following day, we took another boat to Ko Lanta, a much less crowded island. We stayed in one of the nicest, coziest, cleanest, prettiest little boutique resorts there that we’ve had the pleasure to visit, with super-nice hosts. They also had a really great breakfast! We loved it and pretty much didn’t leave the resort for the next several days.
For the most part, while we were there, I listened to some audiobooks while lying in a hammock by the pool and Scott worked part of the time; apart from one or two meals where we walked to nearby restaurants, we ate at the hotel and generally lounged about. I did make it to the beach one day. 😊
One special day, however, we celebrated my birthday. I turned 38! The day started with Scott giving me some beautiful citrine earrings that he had bought secretly a few days prior, which I love, and then proceeded with a motorbike trip around the island. We saw lots of monkeys along the road and beautiful views of the various bays that surround the island. We also stopped at the remote entrance to “Tiger Cave” and made our way inland on foot; after hiking uphill for about 30 minutes along a wide stream with very slippery, wet rocks (and each of us falling), we decided to turn back. We just weren’t adequately prepared in our light sandals. So, we got back on the bike and found a restaurant overlooking the sea and ate some nice Thai food there.
By the end of it, I was exhausted — I had been holding onto Scott for dear life the whole time we were on the motorbike — so we went back to the resort and had a few beers by the pool. A perfect way to spend my birthday!
Oh! Another day, we went to the Lanta Animal Welfare center and played with some rescued kitties! This is a non-profit organization started by a Scandinavian woman who had visited the island on holiday and loved it, but who also noticed the problem of many stray cats and dogs. She moved there and started a restaurant called Time for Lime (another recommendation from Andrea) and used the profits to fund the rescue, spay/neutering, and rehab center. The islands’ cat population is now 80% spayed and neutered, and the dog population is 70% fixed. They are really making a big difference. We met the founder while eating at the restaurant, and she really inspired us.
That night we were also surprised by Loy Krathong, a traditional Thai festival. During Loy Krathong, you light a candle and some incense on a little floating container called a krathong, made of banana tree and flowers, and often including your finger nail clippings and/or strands of hair. You then send this float out into the rivers, an act that symbolizes your willingness to let go of hatred and anger, parting with your past mistakes and negative thoughts. The restaurant had all the materials to make krathongs, so I did, and then at high tide, I sent it off into the sea.
Such a cool tradition! I might have to do this every year. (BTW, the food at Time for Lime was incredible! You must go there if you’re ever in Ko Lanta!)
We flew to Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand) on Friday and immediately hit the streets. We had lunch at Sompet Chiang Market and walked around Old Town, seeing lots of wats (temples) before the Yi Peng Lantern Festival started.
If you haven’t heard of it, Yi Peng is another old Thai new year festival celebrated on November 23. It’s the one where people send rice-paper lanterns lighted with candles (called khom loi) into the sky to symbolize launching ones’ mistakes and bad luck into the sky. If your lantern floats up out of sight, you will have a good year; if it crashes, then you’re going to have bad luck in the coming year.
Not wanting to invite bad luck, we didn’t launch one 😊. But we watched them for a long while. The lanterns lit up the night sky as we watched from our spot beside the river. Truly an amazing thing to see.
The next day, we lounged by the pool. That night, we had northern Thai food for dinner; this cuisine is totally different than the Thai food you typically get in western restaurants, and it is fabulous! I don’t know why it’s not more popular in the States. If you ever have the chance, definitely try it!
The last full day in Chiang Mai, I went to the Elephant Rescue Park. Scott and I had discussed this at length beforehand, as neither of us believes in or wants to support any organization that uses animals just for the entertainment of tourists. Because of this, I wasn’t sure if I should undertake any kind of interaction with elephants.
However, I found a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to rescue abused elephants, and it looked legit. I’m so glad that I went through with it! The people there really care about the elephants. They have rescued these poor, beautiful, intelligent creatures from circuses, work camps, and various other bad situations, and now they live happy lives with their caretakers, called mahouts. They actually live with their elephant(s), taking care of them 24/7. I got to feed the elephants bananas, take a walk with them, and bathe them. It was incredible, something that I really loved. I will forever be happy that I met those sweet, gentle animals.
Overall, my favorite things in Thailand were the beaches, the food, the kitties, and the elephants. I highly recommend going to Thailand at least once in your life. Thankfully, Bangkok is not representative of the rest of the country. It’s a beautiful land, very affordable (once you get there), and the people are absolutely lovely (again, outside of Bangkok).
The next post will recount our trip to Laos. The preview? We really loved it!
—Connie and Scott