Heads up this post covers a month of travels and is extra long 🤗
On January 6th my 2020 travels began! I left home on a one way flight to Bangkok via Shanghai. I planned to meet up with Dec at the airport in Bangkok just a few hours after I arrived, and I was relieved that this portion of travel would be pretty much the only solo part! While I’m still willing and happy to travel solo, I’ve found that having someone to travel with really adds to the experience for me, especially someone who has the same travel goals and is on the same page as I am, etc. I’m lucky to have found some people I feel this way about 🙂
The flights were mostly uneventful, but it was a full 24 hour journey and I was exhausted. In China I had to go through immigration, get my bag, change terminals, check back in, and go through immigration again before I was at my gate for the flight to Bangkok. I only had about 45 minutes to spare of a 4.5 hour layover so it was a lot of activity once all said and done. Luckily I slept that entire flight and had an easy time getting to my hostel near the airport for that night (thankfully this was before all of the corona virus chaos began). Soon enough I was back at the airport in the morning to meet DK as he arrived! Was so excited to see him coming down the terminal after about 8 weeks apart. Don’t think we stopped smiling for a full week after that haha.
All of our exhaustion from travel didn’t feel as bad anymore as we checked in to our flight to Phuket, had lunch and got to the gate. We were so happy to finally have made it to the place we’d been planning and looking foreword to for so long!
Our first stop was Phuket for 2 nights. Neither of us had super high expectations for the area based on what we’d read, but it was a good starting point for us to regroup and set off towards the southern islands. We had an Airbnb in the old town area and spent most of the 2 days there getting money sorted, planning ferry trips, catching up on sleep and eating 7-11 cheese toasties (new addiction). Some highlights in Phuket were a rooftop bar for sunset on our first night, the start of our week-long Thai curry marathon, and a cooking class that we took with a small group and local Thai guide! I actually surprised Dec with the class as a Christmas gift and so I was keeping my fingers crossed it worked out well. We had some trouble initially locating the group at the meeting point (it’s been a learning curve here in Thailand with directions, language barrier, lack of phone service…) and after Dec helped me survive a brief mental breakdown we finally found our group.
Our guide, Tony, was fabulous. He first took the 6 of us to a local community market to get the supplies for our 3 course meal. I really think we were the only tourists there, so it was really cool to have such a true local experience. Tony showed us a lot of different foods and explained the various uses, we tried a few different snacks and had a watermelon smoothie (at this point we were still questioning the whole deal with whether we could eat the ice or not) and we saw some of the craziest displays of seafood and meat that I’ve ever seen. We walked around for probably an hour which was a really fun time. Back at Tony’s kitchen, he set us up to prepare 3 courses: Tom yum soup, curry and pad Thai. Dec and I stuck to veggie and I chose a red curry and he picked green, our usual go-tos.
Tony did an amazing job at explaining how to prep the food, the reason and uses for various seasonings, and made it easy for us to all cook our own meal together. After going through all 3 dishes we sat down for the whole meal. The food was next level!! We were so stuffed afterwards but it was definitely one of my favorite red curries I’ve had, and it was my first time trying Tom yum so I was happy to know I also like that soup! We had a really fun night and I was so happy we were able to learn more about the food that Dec and I would probably say is our favorite.
From Phuket we moved on to the Phi Phi islands. This is where we were really excited to go, as it is one of the most popular and beautiful places in Thailand. We took a 2 hour ferry from the pier in Phuket and enjoyed the time up top in the sun. As we approached the islands we started to see some awesome views of the surrounding area, tons of rocky cliffs and beaches. Our ferry actually stopped in the famous Maya Beach for everyone to see which was cool (apparently a Leo movie was filmed there? I’ve never seen it). As we pulled into the arrival pier we were sooo excited.
We had booked a hotel called Viking Nature Reserve, a fancier place that we found a good deal for online. Unsure of how we would get there from the pier, we were really excited to see a guy waiting for us with a sign and our name on his list! Soon after, we were boarding a rickety long tail boat towards the property. This was one of our most giddy moments of the week, everything was coming together so much nicer than we ever anticipated and we were basically jumping up and down as we pulled into a private beach, were greeted with a drink and led through the jungly resort to our private bungalow. This was by far our nicest accommodation of the week and so we savored every moment. That afternoon we went for a swim in our own little beach front and took time to really just enjoy where we were. That night we explored more of the surrounding area and got to see more of the “backpacker” area that is famous for being a major party spot. I was really thankful to be on the “other” side of the island haha.
The following day was our one full day on Phi Phi and it was awesome. We swam, walked the beach front, had Thai massages (~$10 USD for 60 minutes beach front! Got a wicked back crack out of it too), ate spring rolls, snorkeled and had sunset beers at a little wooden hut overlooking the water. I loved that there were cats and kittens roaming everywhere, we even had our own kitty who followed us around at our bungalow and we were always happy when she showed up. The bad bug bites began here and we saw/heard a lot of jungle critters in the accommodation area but that’s pretty much what we signed up for! On our last morning we went for an early morning swim and made our way back to the pier to catch another ferry to Koh Lanta. By then we had also began to note the crazy amount of people who spend waaayy too much time taking selfies and pictures of each other at the beaches and it was something I noticed the entire time in Thailand. I enjoyed the chances we took to disconnect from our phones and everything else.
The ferry to Koh Lanta was a bit shabbier than the first and we were happy when we arrived to the pier an hour or two later. We worked our way through the crazy taxi lines, Dec is a bit better at this than me, and got in the back of a truck bed, normal in Thailand, to head towards our Airbnb. Koh Lanta is much larger than Phi Phi and so on arrival to our place it felt like we were tucked into a very small corner of a much bigger island. This was another test for me and Dec, as our “beach bungalow” here turned out to be a literal wooden shack with a bed, mozzy net and an outdoor bathroom hahaha. We soon found two very large spider friends who also lived in the hut, a really nice touch. I was holding back some panic here, and I’m so glad that I had Dec to help me put perspective on it all. If we were different people it could’ve played out very different (guaranteed I know many people who would’ve actually walked out of this place haha) but we worked together and talked it out to embrace the craziness!
We redeemed ourselves that afternoon with one of my favorite memories: our first go on a moped! The woman at our reception desk actually made our stay much better, she was a huge help for us learning the scooter, helping book activities, etc. Didn’t hurt that the workers also told Dec that he looks like a famous Thai celebrity hahaha, as if he needed an ego boost. Anyways, we spent a few hours that afternoon on the moped around the southern part of the island. I was so proud of us! We learned how to fill it with gas, navigate the roads, turns and hills and we felt pretty comfortable by the end, though we were relieved to hand the keys back over. Only two minor issues that we laugh about now: when backing out of a alley where we had parked I basically drove into a wall (lol) and at one point I had to get off the back for Dec to get up a hill and when he reached the top he literally just toppled over sideways. I was laughing so hard. But on a serious note, we could tell right away how dangerous an accident could really be. Dec was scratched up a bit just from a zero speed fall, and so I couldn’t even imagine the injuries at any rate of speed on the road. I’m proud that we really took it seriously and were as safe as we could be while still having the experience. Some highlights of the drive was seeing a monkey cross the road (Dec’s first wild monkey sighting!) swimming in a bay just before sunset and watching sunset from an abandoned building overlooking the ocean.
For the next day we had booked a full day snorkel/island excursion in the surrounding area. We had pretty low expectations for the trip since it was booked last minute with barely any research but turned into a big highlight for us! We were on a long tail boat with about 15 other people and spent the day on the water exploring 4 different islands. The first two stops were for snorkeling, which we mostly just enjoyed swimming around the water. The other two stops were major favorites though, and included a place called the Emerald cave and the beach at Koh Ngai. The Emerald Cave was insane. We jumped into the water and swam through an 80 meter long cave behind our guide, where the light caused the water to look totally emerald and then became pitch black. To our surprise, the end of the cave opened up to a complete jungle oasis! It was legit a scene from Avatar or Jurassic Park. It’s actually hard to describe, we were on a small beach and felt like we were in a little “snow globe” but with jungle surroundings. It was stunning. We learned that back in the day, pirates used to smuggle treasure and goods through the cave and stash things in this area which we thought was really crazy. I didn’t have my phone to take any pictures but it’s worth looking up a photo online to see what it looks like here (google: Emerald Cave Koh Mook). The final stop was on an island called Koh Ngai where we had lunch and a beer and enjoyed the beach. This was the most beautiful beach I saw over my entire time in Thailand. It was the complete classic white sand, clear blue water beach where you really felt like you were in the Thai islands you see on Instagram haha. We had such a nice time that afternoon and it’s one of my favorite parts of the trip.
That night was our last in Koh Lanta and we continued our nightly routine of watching the sunset on the beach with some music and a Leo. It maybe seems like we drank a ton while on this trip, but we mostly just treated ourselves to a beer for sunset and drank a ton of water otherwise (Dec was helpful to me for this as I am really bad at staying hydrated and I’ve never met another human who drinks so much water). Plus we were usually exhausted by 9 PM and calling it a night by then haha. Anyways, this was one of our favorite sunsets. I don’t really know why, but I think we both just remember still being all sweaty and salty but enjoying the view, laughing a ton and just being really present in the moment.
We caught an early ride to Krabi the next morning, our final stop together. It was about a 4-5 hour drive all together to get us to our last bungalow in the Ao Nang beach area. This accommodation was a perfect one to end on; the young guy who ran the property was a huge help to us during our stay and the bungalow was air conditioned and clean and the best place for us to regroup after Koh Lanta, so we were pretty excited about it. For that afternoon we rented another moped and drove about 45 minutes to the Tiger Temple where there’s a huge Buddha and temple on top of a mountain, 1,260 steps high. Driving to this temple was a huge feat, and I couldn’t believe how well Dec did with it- I didn’t want anywhere near the steering wheel haha. We drove on a major freeway and had to figure out how to get there with limited phone service. Was really proud of us! The hike was hard but the view was worth it, and we enjoyed that afternoon doing something a bit different. That night we enjoyed sunset and dinner at the beach nearby called Hat Noppharat Thara. We laughed when a couple eating next to us interrupted to ask if we were from England, the US, Australia or New Zealand. We’re kinda complicated.
Tuesday was sadly our last full day together but we made the most of it! We were off to a great start with a delicious breakfast, good weather, an early start… and as we approached Ao Nang beach to park and catch a taxi boat, we had a minor set back with the moped. I had hopped off the back and Dec was pulling 2 u-turns to park amongst the other bikes on a busy street when there was a moment that he accidentally accelerated instead of braked anddddd about 5 other bikes got knocked over. Little bit of of panic!! After making sure he was ok first we quickly fixed everything back up and got out of there as fast as possible haha. We were both shaken up but can laugh about it now. For a moment we were worried that the cops might get called but then we remembered there’s pretty much no rules in Thailand. Our biggest worry was then potentially getting charged for damaging our bike but again accepted that it’s just money and we were thankful that it wasn’t any worse. Luckily it was never mentioned and we got away with it! Dec’s romance with the bike pretty much ended there hahha.
Anyways, we resumed our plans for the day and headed out on a 15 minute ride on the water to Railay Beach- something we were really looking forward to! The rest of the day was awesome, we swam on the beautiful beach, walked through the hippy town and explored the caves and alleyways, went on an unexpected crazy hike/rock climb to see a look out point and finished on the other side of the peninsula called Phra Nang Beach which had incredible limestone cliffs. That night we had our last beach sunset and curry dinner. It had been an amazing week.
On Wednesday we spent the morning casually in the area and caught a flight back to Bangkok in the early evening. Dec helped me get a SIM card (better late than never) and we said goodbye at the airport. He was catching a flight back to Sydney and I was heading into the city to continue traveling! We were sad to end the trip we’d planned for a while, but at the same time felt more excited than ever about the time we’d have once back together in Australia. It’ll hopefully be our last long time apart! Big fan of yours my guy ❤️
I took a cab from the airport into the city to meet my farm friend Sarah- we had plans to continue traveling together for about 6 weeks and she had just arrived that night from London. She had a free night in a fancy Hilton so we enjoyed getting regrouped there! Our time in Bangkok was quick and nothing too special. We spent a day getting our travel plans together and explored the famous Khaosan Road by day and night. It was loud and busy and hectic and I’ll be happy to never go back again haha. We actually had a fun night out but paid for it the next day with a horrible hangover. We counted that as our one night out for the entire trip haha.
On the 18th we had an early morning flight from Bangkok to Surat Thani, which was our way of getting back down to another section of islands in the south. That same day we caught a ferry to Koh Samui where we had booked 2 nights. Getting into Koh Samui reminded me a lot of Koh Lanta, but was even more developed. We stayed at a cute family run hostel right on the beach front near an area called Lamai. We had a quiet afternoon getting ourselves situated and after a storm passed through we took a walk into town to watch a free Muay Thai fight. This normally wouldn’t be my thing but when in Thailand… it was actually pretty cool! We sat at a little bar near the ring and saw that that the fighters went around asking for donations for “luck” from each bar they were associated with. We were happy to give a few baht to the young (14??) year old girl who came up to us. We stayed for about 4 matches, and noticed that the girl fights actually went on longer than the men. It was naturally violent, but not hard to watch as the fighters seemed to respect each other.
The next day was our full day on Koh Samui and we spent it touring on a moped! This was a great day, and was Sarah’s first go on the scooter. She picked it up quick and we took turns driving throughout the day. We took a scenic road through the jungle and looped around the island enjoying the rural sights along the way. Some highlights were little hut restaurants, palm trees, mountains, a coffee shop in a tree house, and cocktails at a hidden beach bar to end the day. We ended that night at the Sunday night markets in Lamai which turned out to be the best market I’d seen in Thailand- tons of food (only enjoyed the sights, didn’t try any for fear of stomach problems/its way more enjoyable to eat dinner sitting down) and nice quality clothing, art, etc for sale too.
The next day we were off to Koh Tao, our final island stop for 4 nights! This was a big bucket list item for me because I had signed up for a 3 day open water scuba certification course! This was something I’ve had interest in doing since last year in Australia, and Koh Tao is one of the most famous and cheapest places to get certified in the world, so was a major must do for me. We started to love Koh Tao right away, it was cozy and super tropical, with plenty of cute bars and restaurants along the water. We had some great dinners here too. Most of my days were busy with the scuba course, so Sarah and I were apart for much of the time here. I had mornings of classroom study with 1 other guy and our instructor and we spent the afternoons diving; I completed 6 dives in 3 days and went the full depth of my certification- 18 meters (59 feet)! Unfortunately I experienced some sinus issues during the course (rule #1 is to avoid diving with a cold and I’d basically been sniffly since arriving to Thailand, oops) and had to push through that pain but otherwise everything went smoothly and my instructor was really happy with how naturally I picked it up, I was super pumped! I saw some crazy fish I like barracudas, puffer fish, a family of nemos and a million others, swam through underwater tunnels and through coral walls, and even hit the 50 minute mark on my last dive. I can officially fun dive anywhere in the world up to 18 meters with a buddy. Excited to try and get a dive in when I’m back in Australia!
After finished on Koh Tao, we navigated back to Koh Samui where we then caught a direct flight north to Chiang Mai. This was the last week of our time in Thailand! We spent a few days in Chiang Mai at a hostel on the edge of the main old city area. It was interesting to see that the old city was a huge square surrounded by a an old wall, moat and gates that was tied to the history of the location. That afternoon we explored some of the popular temples in the old city and went through a culture museum; mostly just walked around getting to know the area. The same went for the next day, and we found that since we weren’t signing up for any of the waterfall day trips or elephant sanctuaries, there wasn’t a ton of things to do.
After our 2 nights in Chiang Mai we booked a ride up further to a small popular town called Pai. We immediately felt a little more “at home” in this cute little hippy area and enjoyed our next two nights there! We rented a moped (I’ve found most of my favorite days are when we have the freedom to drive ourselves around to explore) and drove around the surrounding area seeing a waterfall, multiple small villages and lastly ended at Pai canyon for sunset, a popular place for tourists to end the day. I decided I prefer the beach sunset vibe but this was still super cool to see! The next morning we drove around a different part of the village outskirts and enjoyed breakfast with a view of the mountains. We learned that what we thought was just foggy haze over the landscape was actually smoke from the locals burning their land in preparation for the next farming season, which is actually really terrible for the land and environment/air pollution. Made us sad to see that so much beauty is being disrupted intentionally like that. We drove around a different side of the town outskirts and also saw a few elephants chained up outside of their “sanctuaries”. Our first glimpse of Asian elephants that way, it didn’t really feel great and again reminded us about how so much of the life here is driven around making money.
That afternoon was a really positive one though, as we joined a small group of others attending a hands on informational session with an organization called Conserve Natural Forests. We stumbled on them on a backpacker blog, and it primarily promoted environmental awareness, reforestation and education about the elephants. They care for 1 rescued elephant and we would have the chance to observe her in her wild habitat, which was enough for us! We had a great few hours learning about the northern Thailand environment and the efforts that this organization is doing to help save their jungle. They are hoping to plant 1 million trees this year! We contributed by planting 20 seedlings each, felt good to get our hands dirty and help offset the “cost” of our flight out here. The highlight was definitely seeing Kamee, a beautiful Asian elephant who lived her entire life in captivity with the logging industry before being rescued. She is well cared for now, and they hope to transition her back to the wild once she is competent to live and survive on her own again. We got to feed her her daily snacks of corn, banana and passion fruit and it was clear that she had come to see us on her own terms. We weren’t able to hug or touch her, and they explained how the common elephant bath interaction can actually be really stressful for the elephants because it’s not natural- which makes total sense. It was so cool to watch her up close and a great way to have the “elephant experience” we were hoping for in Thailand. After Pai we headed back to Chiang Mai for one night before catching our flight to Hanoi, Vietnam!
Final thoughts/reflections/observations for Thailand: the 3.5 weeks I spent here was enough while “traveling”. It was a lot more expensive than anticipated- the travel costs added up quickly, though this may have been due to my own learning curve and choices (like we definitely got ripped off a few times for ferry rides/taxis and I will choose a flight 100% of the time over a 15 hour train). I’d consider going back to Thailand for vacation and would want to have the holiday organized and planned out with smoother transitions and more “comfortable” accommodation. It felt like such a project to get anywhere! The beautiful beaches definitely made up for it though and was my biggest highlight, especially the sunset on the beach culture. I was a bit put off by how commercial/westernized and touristy everything was, especially in the north. We were constantly approached and asked if we wanted to do elephant baths and see local tribes, which we learned that no elephant “sanctuary” is truly ethical if it involves human interaction and these tours to local villages are just exploitation of the people who live there. Even a lot of the food and activities seemed overly catered to western tourists, but I guess that’s where the money is made. Example: we took to asking the hostel reception where could get good authentic Thai food and in one place the guy could only recommend western restaurants. How?? It was harder to make friends in the backpacker scene than we expected and a lot of other travelers were younger and a lot more party focused than we were. The food was incredible, and Thai curry is definitely a top favorite of mine. Most of our interactions with local Thai people were positive, and despite the language barrier they were usually always looking to help the lost looking tourists haha. I had to get used to other cultural things too: taking off shoes to enter most places, not putting toilet paper in the toilet but rather in a bin (this grossed me out major), not drinking tap water/most ice, bartering with almost every purchase, using cash 99% of the time/conversion rates, everything transportation related being “organized chaos”, the language barrier in general i.e no indication of whether the person understood your question or not, just a nod and “yes” haha.. and I’m sure there were even more things that I adjusted to over 3.5 weeks without even realizing. Anyways, Thailand was a great starting point for south east Asia, we had good weather, mostly good luck with how our plans played out and I was happy to see and experience one of the countries I’ve always dreamed of traveling!