Wanderings Through Thailand - Islands, Diving, Elephants and City Scape
Thailand was our fourth country on our five-month adventure. I truly loved everywhere we went, but when people ask me what my least favourite country was it is Thailand. No doubt it is a beautiful place with so much to see, do, eat and experience, but it is also probably the most developed country in mainland South East Asia.
Tourists flock to Thailand and the country knows how to get every bit of money from travellers that it can; $18 ATM fees, tourist fees, various conservation and preservation fees and the like. I am all for paying extra to keep places safe, protected and clean, but from our discussions with locals most of that money is going into someone else’s pocket instead. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but sometimes it felt like you couldn’t sneeze without having to pay. Nothing is free in Thailand. In the end, it is still a fairly poor country making the most of its situation and I can’t blame them. It’s a beautiful country with lots to offer, and we were happy to fork over our funds to partake in a little piece of it.
Coming from Bali we decided to start in the islands and flew to Phuket. Our time in Phuket was short lived, as it was a jumping off point to visit some of the smaller islands. We were fortunate to be there just in time for a huge street market right across the road from our hotel. I was still on the tail end of my battle with Bali belly, so the market experience was perhaps a little lost on me. I was so empty and hungry and afraid of being too adventurous on an empty stomach. We had our first tastes of Thailand street food, which we were so excited for; dumplings, sea food, meat on sticks, spring rolls, fresh juice and street sushi.
We worked with our hotel to book a ferry to Koh Phi Phi the following day and were on our way.
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi might be the most well known and popular of the Thai islands. It’s also definitely a backpacker party stop as well.
If you are looking for the lost in paradise feel, Koh Phi Phi probably isn’t the island to visit. Every other store is a bar, dive shop or tattoo parlour and the island attracts a lot of partiers who want to drink, fight, get a tattoo and fry in the sun. Of course this is a generalization, but it definitely attracts a particular type of person.
Unless you can afford to stay away from the chaos, you are going to be immersed in it to some extent. Clubs are pumping in the evening, so be aware of where you are staying. We stayed at PP Casita and were really happy with our choice; no nighttime noise, close to everything and free breakfast.
That all being said, if you can get over the massive commercialization of this small part of the island, Koh Phi Phi is beautiful – you just need to break away from the bars and the crowds to explore it in your own way.
It’s got the craggily cliffs, surrounding jungle, turquoise waters, distant islands and amazing marine life.
There is always someone trying to sell you on one of the various booze cruises, but I wouldn’t recommend them. Pay the extra or share the cost of hiring a long boat for a couple hours and go visit some of the beaches and snorkel spots on your own. You’ll see more fish, it’s a more private experience and you won’t be irritated all day by those obnoxious booze cruisers. Of course, if you are looking to get drunk and sunburned in Thailand, maybe the booze cruise is for you!
We spent about five days on the island and found we always had something to do. Diving is another major attraction to the area and it was some of the most beautiful and successful dives we had on our whole trip; we saw walls of coral, sea turtles, octopus, giant moray eels, eagle spotted rays, tons of black tip reef sharks and a leopard shark.
We signed up to do a hike of the island that took us through the jungle to some more remote beaches and small towns on the island. I particularly liked this activity because if you hadn’t left the hub around Ao Tonsai Pier you might not see how beautiful, lush and quiet the island really is.
We hired a long boat for a couple hours to explore some neighboring beaches with nice snorkeling spots. We rented a kayak to wander over to Monkey Beach, which not so shockingly has monkeys that aren’t particularly friendly. We finished each day with fresh mango smoothies and beer by the pool. So good.
The ferry back to Phuket is much more quiet then on the way there. Everyone is tired, hungover and burned to a crisp.
Again we took advantage of the local street food and filled up on fish balls, meat on a stick, spring rolls, potato balls, fish cakes and mini pancakes. I love the street food style of eating where you get to try lots of different things, and it’s so cheap!
We braced ourselves for what we anticipated to be chaos in taking a local bus to Khao Sok and it turned out to be an incredibly easy and stress free experience! The bus took just over 3 hours and our hotel picked us up from the bus stop too.
We had seen some pictures of the beautiful Khao Sok National Park and decided it was a place we wanted to visit while in the south. It is a huge park though, so it can be deceiving when trying to sort out what parts to visit.
We opted to sign up for a day tour to visit Cheow Son Lake Dam which was quite the day of traveling – 1.5 hour bus, 1 hour boat ride then another 1 hour boat ride. Of course, it was beautiful, but quite the process! The lake was a beautiful turquoise blue surrounded by rock formations and craggily cliffs, and we enjoyed time on the water, ate in a floating restaurant and got to explore a local cave. It was an expensive activity, but would have been quite challenging for us to sort out on our own otherwise.
The following day we explored the national park on our own. We paid our park fees, grabbed a map and began hiking. We took the waterfall trail and racked up 18 km of hiking in the jungle. It was a quiet few hours with few people, only having the sounds of gibbons serenading us in the distance. It was a thick, muggy and sweaty day. We swam in the river and refreshed ourselves.
We took a little relax time as well, got our first Thai massages and planned our next days of travel.
Khao Lak and the Similan Islands
After three days in Khao Sok we hopped on another bus to Khao Lak on the southwest coast to begin our live aboard exploring the Similan Islands. We didn’t have too much time in Khao Lak as it was our base before and after our diving trip, but it did offer some opportunities to check out some markets and have a little down time between activities.
The Similan Islands were a diving destination we had heard much about. Perhaps it was the hype around it or our recent great diving experience that gave heightened expectations, but we were a bit disappointed by our experience in the Similan Islands. We didn’t see any particularly memorable marine life and the dive guide we had was a bit of a grump. He had explained that the days of seeing large marine life in the area (like manta rays) were long gone. With heightened popularity visiting the area the large marine life have for the most part left. This was also the first diving experience where we saw the devastation of corals we have heard so much about; it was definitely hard to see, having just seen some really pristine beautiful places.
This was our last diving experience of the trip. It was our least exciting, least enjoyable diving experience on our travels, but we also recognize we may have been really luck with our other dives. It was a great run and I am so proud of myself of having done so much diving, even when it was a huge mental challenge for me!
Our final days in Khao Lak were spent soaking in the last of the beach vibes we would get on the trip – sand, sun and beers by the pool.
Elephant Nature Park
When we first started thinking about our big trip the only thing I really cared about doing in Thailand was going to an elephant sanctuary – this was my MUST DO activity and it could not be missed. I had done my research and learned about Elephant Nature Park as being one of the largest and longest running elephant sanctuaries in the country. It is a popular destination and books well in advance, which made it a little difficult to book ahead with how we were traveling. It was probably about 1 month before going that I booked us in for the last 2 spots available for the whole time we would be in Thailand. Our time at the elephant sanctuary pretty much dictated how the whole month of travel in Thailand would play out.
Elephant Nature Park is about 1.5 hours north of Chiang Mai in Kuet Chang. We did the 2 day 1 night option staying on sanctuary grounds and getting to see and interact with the animals closely. It is a rescue centre and sanctuary for elephants, water buffalo, horses, dogs, cats and even pigs. We fed and bathed the elephants, we walked some of the dogs and gave just about every bit of love we could to every creature that would allow it. We stayed in these lovely jungle huts with porches overlooking the night quarters for some of the elephants. Some of the dogs and cats roamed freely on the grounds and would visit you on your deck for a little company. It was a really special and memorable few days that I will never forget.
I knew that the 79 elephants on site had been rescued from various circumstances, but I was still surprised by the number of them that were permanently mutilated. Broken backs, broken legs, damaged feet and psychological issues from being ridden, being in circus acts, working in the fields and lumbar industry or stepping on landmines. I was appalled by the fact that all of these things still happen today. In 2018 there are still people who pay to take elephant rides – this was something we saw a numerous times throughout Thailand and Cambodia. It made my blood boil.
It was an experience that really made me reflect on myself, my choices and how I can make positive changes in the world going forward.
My biggest recommendation for travel, but particularly in places like Thailand, is to do your research and know what your money is going to.
The rest of our time in Chiang Mai was spent wandering the old town, visiting temples and enjoying the night markets. There are so many beautiful temples to visit and so much good food to eat too; noodles, pad thia, seafood pancakes, spring rolls, hot and sour soup and the like.
We enjoyed a day excursion out to Doi Inthanom National Park to the highest point in Thailand (with no lookout), visited the King and Queen Pagoada monument and visited some of the local waterfalls. It was a bit of an expensive day that was okay, but I wouldn’t do it again for the cost.
Finally, we took a Thai cooking class, which ended up being one of my favourite activities on this part of the trip. We went to a local market to learn about some of the key ingredients, we then visited a local community farm to learn more about the plants and their varieties, then we headed to the kitchen to learn how to prepare 7 Thai dishes. It was a busy day with lots to do, but we cooked and ate and were absolutely stuffed. I made hot and sour soup, pad Thai with rice noodles, green curry, fried bananas with syrup, spring rolls, cashew chicken and papaya salad – many of these were favourite foods and dishes we had encountered. As someone who enjoys cooking and trying out new things in the kitchen I will definitely take more cooking classes on my travels. I am a bit of a foodie, so it is a nice way to learn about and experience the food and culture in a more intimate way.
We finished our time in Thailand with three nights in the capital, Bangkok. Some people love Bangkok, some people hate it – I was fairly indifferent to it, though perhaps harbouring on the front of pleasantly surprised. We did a ton of walking in Bangkok and mostly walked and took the river ferries to get to different parts of the city.
I would perhaps call it more of a city with places to see as opposed to things to do. We went to many of the highlights including the Grand Palace and the famous temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun. We wandered Khao Son road, the flower market and the various markets scattered around the city. It was just enjoyable to walk, look around and decide what food we were feeling adventurous enough to eat. We saw scorpions and snakes on sticks, but we weren’t entirely sure this was actually a popular thing to eat or if it was more for tourist shock value.
Overall, Bangkok wasn’t so bad! I had wanted to make it to the floating markets, but they weren’t running the days we were in town.
And just like that, a month in Thailand came and went. Thailand really is a beautiful country with so much to see and do. It does have some amazing and beautiful parks, wildlife, diving and the food is top notch – if you go, be a little adventurous and eat things other than pad Thai! But of course, try the pad Thai, it’s a little bit different everywhere. The markets and street food was probably my favourite thing about Thailand – it is just a fun way to eat, tasting and trying different things everywhere!
We chose to start in the south first because it was what made sense on our travel route, but I would definitely recommend finishing in the south and ending with the beautiful islands and beach time last, if possible. I just always think it is nice to finish with sun, sand and relaxation.
Visiting Thailand was also a place that made me very conscious of my impact as a traveller. It made me a little more environmentally, ecologically and socially conscious and aware. There were many times throughout the month that I was left with a bad taste in my mouth over stories of corruption, witnessing illegal fishing in protected waters, animal cruelty and environmental destruction. These aren’t things unique to Thailand, but it was some of the first times it was obvious and in my face.
It was also one of those reminders that being able to travel is such a privilege. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that a huge majority of the world’s population can’t afford to travel at all. With that privilege comes power. Truly, take the time to know where your money is going and know who and what you are supporting.
We had about a week left before needing to come home and get back to work (cries!), and our 30 day visas in Thailand were up. With an awkward amount of time left we decided to jump over to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat, since it was a short 1 hour flight away. And off we went!
Stay tuned for the final leg of the journey, our brief time in Cambodia!