Endless markets bustling with people competing for space. An army of food carts offering an incredible variety of the strangest and most wonderful foods. All manner of freshly butchered animals out on display. The rancid smell of fish guts mixed with the fragrant smell of infused lemongrass creating a rare pong. Hiding in their air conditioned cars from the blaring sun, the taxi drivers joining the chaos of traffic before them, horns blaring from all sides. The polluted air making breathing seem more a laboured task than a god-given right. This is Bangkok.
We arrived in Bangkok a little over 3 weeks ago and spent 3 nights in the city. Upon arrival we went through the usual process of immigration, grabbed our bags from the carousel and took a taxi to ‘Hide Bangkok’ hostel in the Sukhumvit district. We spent the next few days wandering from temple to temple, staring in awe at the sheer size of the shopping centres in Siam square, visiting the famous Khao San road and pushing our way through the crowded Chinese and Thai markets. All in all we weren’t overly impressed. Walking around the city, inhaling the stale city air, we grew tired of wandering aimlessly. The noise of the city was deafening. Posters and TV advertisements of the newest facial botox therapies, selfie expert smartphones and whitening creams were everywhere. Some of the evening markets were interesting for sure and the Buddhist temples were much more impressive than what we had seen in Indonesia, but overall… it was just complete mayhem. Just like many of the other big cities mind you. I guess I am just completely over the idea of visiting large metropolises such as Bangkok. There are clearly too many people and not enough space to allow one to think clearly. I know I am coming off as sounding like a sour old git, but one thing I have learned from the past few years is that I would not wish to live in a city anywhere near this size when it eventually comes to the time for me to settle down somewhere. After spending 3 nights in the city that never slows down, we booked second-class seats for a northbound sleeper train to Chang Mai, excited at the prospect of getting out of the city and into the lush mountainous regions of sprawling jungle.
Rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, we disembarked the modern vessel after 13 hours of travel time and a few hours sleep. The city we stepped into bore no resemblance to the city we had just escaped. Chiang Mai is an ancient city bursting with artefacts of a by-gone era. The city itself is supposedly the second largest in Thailand. The old-town, located west of the main city is where we stayed. Surrounded by a moat and what remains of the old city wall, the old town forms almost a perfect square, spanning a few square kilometres. The sounds of angry drivers, streets infested with pedestrians, oxygen starved air and hideous smells were now a distant memory. Chiang Mai is a tranquil place of beauty. Monks wander the streets clad in their traditional orange robes. Motorised transport and pedestrians alike navigate their way through pristinely kept streets in a civilised fashion. The smell of roasting coffee beans and freshly prepared Thai food drift through the clean air. The city, being several hundred kilometres further from the equator, has a much more tolerable climate than the capital. We loaded our bags into the open-air taxis, idiosyncratic to many parts of Thailand and looked for a place to stay.
After booking into Dee Marc hostel, we hired a scooter for a few days and began exploring the city. Wandering around some of the beautifully adorned temples prepared us for the usual pig-out on the glorious Thai ‘fud’. Feeling like royalty we indulged in foot massages. A few hours of downtime later we headed over to the night bazaar where Chiang Mai came to life when darkness fell. I managed to pick up a pair of Bluetooth Sony replica headphones for next to nothing.
We got up late the next day and went to a nearby cafe that served great breakfast. We sat down beside a Kiwi guy who we quickly engaged in deep conversation. He told us of how he has been training in Muay Thai in the nearby town of Pai for the past few weeks and how he was heading onto Indonesia next. He gave us all of the necessary insight we needed into where we might want to venture to next and we did the same for him in regards to Indonesia. In light of recently making the decision that I would be returning to New Zealand in the new year with the hope of obtaining a work visa, he was helpful in providing both Robyn and I with sound advice and the prospect of introducing us to some of his contacts. Later that evening we enrolled in a cooking course which was one of the most fun experiences I had in Thailand. We learned how to whip up many of the famous Thai dishes from scratch such as the various curries, pad Thai, papaya salad, mango sticky rice and tom yum soup. We arrived with empty bellies as instructed and left on the brink of bursting.
We started the following day with another touristy yet worthwhile experience. A taxi came to pick us up bright and early which took us to an elephant sanctuary around 30km outside of Chiang Mai. Fully aware of the cruelty that animals are subjected to in this day and age, we opted for the most animal friendly program that we could find which was inherently against the idea of the unethical elephant riding. This group in fact claimed to have been a sanctuary for previously broken elephants that had been trained to do tricks and be ridden by humans, similar to the practices of many travelling circuses. It was amazing to get the opportunity to be so close to the elephants. Feeding them bananas and sugar cane and bathing them in the mud. At the end of the day we were on a high from our time spent with the happy animals which are worshipped by Thai people. We were, however, not entirely convinced that even this crowd were entirely ethical in their dealings.
We spent the first of our last two days in Chiang Mai hiking up to the breathtaking golden Doi Suthep temple at the top of a mountain just outside the city. The hike was long and difficult due to the humidity of the forest, and also the fact that we had only half a litre of water between us. We also made a trip out to the Mai caves north of the city the next day. The cave was enormous, eclipsing anything else I had ever seen and was surprisingly not packed with tourists.
Ready to explore other parts of the north, we headed ever closer to the Burmese border to Pai. Pai is surrounded on all sides by thick jungle. It is a small town with a low-key chilled out vibe. There were a lot of British and European backpackers as well as expats in the town but, surprisingly, not a whole lot of Thai people. Pai is renowned for the hippie crowd that it attracts, possibly due to the fact that it is so close to the border where opium amongst other things are regularly smuggled. We couldn’t help but laugh at so many of the wannabe hippies who arrived into town, decking themselves out in the complete hippie attire before committing themselves to a head full of dreadlocks or a large hippie stick, which we saw one man so proudly carry. The surrounding area was packed with things to do. There were amazing jungle treks, such as the 6 hour return trip “Val Halla” waterfall hike that we did. The lot caves which were a 2 hour drive were, incredibly, even more enormous than the Mai caves near Chiang Mai . They were so huge that it was necessary to be transported by bamboo raft to see the full extent of them. With the help of a guide and her massive gas lantern, we explored the fascinating caves. Among other things to do were sitting in the nearby hot springs or watching the sunset from the Pai canyon or at the massive white Buddha statue overlooking the city. We met a Turkish and Dutch couple that we had a great time hanging out with, drinking far too many Changs. In all honestly, best part of Pai was the food. It was just so good yet so cheap. The long market on walking street spoiled everyone for choice and catered for all tastes. Including my favourite dessert, mango sticky rice. Thai food has so much variety. Considering that most dishes are distinguished from each other only by one or two ingredients, they can taste surprisingly different. Out of the four main Thai curries – red, green, massaman & penang – the main difference is colour, due to the different chillies being used as well as the addition or subtraction of a spice or two. Kao Soi, which is the local food to the region, could be found everywhere. It is a soup made with a curry paste topped with meat, herbs, crispy noodles and vegetables. Some of my other favourites were pad ka prow (a spicy dish consisting of minced pork with holy basil), tom yum (a hot and spicy broth made with lemongrass, kefir lime leaves and galangal and usually served with prawns) and spicy papaya salad. I realise travelling is turning me into one of those obsessed food bloggers. Not quite, but perhaps I should start trying to make money from it so that I can fund my road to obesity. I know I’m definitely too lazy for that, but I’m not too lazy to keep eating that good fud!
After spending a week in Pai we made the super long twenty something hour journey to Koh Chang. Here we would be spending the remainder of our time in Thailand. This time we did it by bus…..which was surprisingly comfortable given that we got first class seats which even came in at almost half the price of the train tickets AND arrived in better time. Koh Chang, located in close proximity to the Cambodian border, is one of Thailands largest islands. From what I have gathered it is a lot less touristy than some of the more southern Thai islands such as Phuket, Koh Phi Pho and Koh Pah Nang (famous for the full moon parties). We stayed at the southern end of the island in a homestay built off the side of a long pier. The once thriving fishing village, known as Bang Bao. We spent our days lounging on the beach, reading our books, or stationed at one of the fine local ‘Changeries’. Apart from one day, when we got up early for an epic adventure! We decided to drive around to the other side of the island and explore the lesser worn roads, so to speak. The figure of speech did not hold true in our case unfortunately. Most of Koh Chang is covered in thick rainforest therefore the road tends to follow the coast, detouring briefly inland to cater for large resorts and the like. The road starts at the southern end of the eastern side of the island, looping around the top to make its way down the west coast where it ends abruptly. A couple of kilometres past Bang Bao, just short of where it started. This meant that we would need to drive all the way around to make it to the eastern side, and Koh Chang is a big island. We took our time driving, stopping intermittently. One of the waterfalls that we stopped at was home to an absolute monster of a spider with a pretty impressive web. We made our way to the mangrove forest where we rented out a kayak and slowly explored the little network of inlets. We also happened to stumble upon a floating platform decked out with bamboo tables and chairs. After some lunch we decided to track down the Klong Nung waterfall. After searching in vain for almost an hour, coming across no obvious signs pointing us in the right direction, we turned down a gravel road that looked like it might lead somewhere interesting. That it did. We lumbered along the windy road for several kilometers, stopping often for Robyn to disembark while I did my best to motion the scooter up the steep corners that looked like they had been subject to years of seismic activity. Unsure of where the road was leading us, we were surprised to bump into another guy who had had the same bright idea as us. He told us that he had gone a couple of kilometres ahead but the road had become increasingly more deteriorated so he decided to turn around. I couldn’t imagine how it could be worse than what we had already gone through so we kept going full steam ahead. A few more kilometres of steep torn up roads led us to a dead end. I glanced down at the fuel tank and had a sudden panicky feeling that we might run out of petrol in this back arse of nowhere just an hour short of sunset. With this in mind we mutually agreed that I would be best to head back and not continue further into the jungle, down the small side roads that we had passed by on the way down. Minutes later I felt a sudden loss of power in the vehicle as I tried to urge it up one of the steep roads we had come down earlier. Of course I knew immediately that my fears had come to light. We both got off, laughing at our stupidity, and began pushing the damned scooter up the hills. The fact that we were in flip flops which were fighting for grip on the unsealed road didn’t help. After a valiant effort from both of us, we made it to the top where the ground began to level off. We thanked our lucky stars when the bike kicked back into life which we freewheeled most of the way down, eventually coming to the main road. A small shop selling petrol appeared in the nick of time and hallelujah, we were back in business. There was still the matter of finding the waterfall though. With the daylight rapidly fading, we took a chance and turned onto a small road running parallel to a river and followed it to where it terminated close to the water. We decided to follow the stream up into the jungle in the hope that it would lead us to where we waned to go. Wading through streams, climbing over huge boulders and almost breaking my neck when I slipped backwards on a slimy rock. 30 minutes later we heard the sounds of gushing water and knew that we had stumbled upon what we had been searching for. A fitting end to a great day.
We left Koh Chang after having mostly good experiences. That is, apart from a dodgy fish that Robyn had been served on our last night in a restaurant by a dishonest and rude owner who almost caused an all out street brawl. The police were even called after we argued that we wouldn’t pay for bad food that hadn’t been eaten. We headed for Bangkok where we would both be going in our separate directions for the time being.
Robyn is going back to New Zealand where she will continue her two year working visa and hopefully find a job in her field of Volcanology. I will join her in just over 3 weeks. For now I am going to the other side of the world. I have been planning it for months. I am going to surprise my parents by arriving unannounced at the front door of my house back in Galway, just a few days before Christmas. Writing this on the plane from Helsinki to Dublin airport, just hours away from arriving home, I am beyond excited at the thought of surprising my family by my sudden return after having been away from home for over a year. Seeing my brother and sisters, relations and friends who I have been so distant from for long will bring me so much happiness. I will be spending the holidays back home before eventually returning to New Zealand in mid January with the hope of getting a work visa so that I can spend some more time in that amazing country.