Thailand is full of adventure and there are endless surprises hidden amongst the crowds of Bangkok, in the corners of Chiang Mai’s night bazaars and along the coast of the islands. You don’t have to try too hard to keep the excitement of exploration alive. Some of my most memorable surprises include (in no particular order), loving the delicious street soups, walking through one of the peaceful protests taking place during the 2014 February anti-government riots, and meeting the nice Thai woman who spoke perfect English that helped me find my hotel after getting “sort of” lost. Some more surprises surfaced by leaving some of the nights open with no hotels planned until we spoke with locals, took their recommendations and found a part of the city that felt most fitting to stay in. Spoiler Alert: This trip is not for those who can’t roll with the punches, stay sober enough to stay safe and those scared to try new things.
Once you get to Thailand it’s a very affordable place to travel with delicious meals available for under $10, tuk tuk rides for under $5 and massages for over 50% less than American prices. The most expensive part is the 18+ hour flight, not including layovers there! Hotel accommodations range anywhere from $80-$230 a night depending on how “comfortable” and what amenities you wish to have. Staying in a more affordable and unique B&B is also an option and available to be booked through AirBnB where prices start at $25 a night. A moderately priced hotel in Bangkok, where I stayed, is called the Legacy Suites Bangkok. Located right in the heart of the city off of the popular road called “Sukhumvit”. My favorite street food happened to be the stand across the street serving clear hot soup with pork and cold beer.
Prior to this trip, I was a complete rookie when it came to Thai food. I eased myself into the cuisine by eating at Spice in NYC once a week for a month before leaving. Now that I am a little bit more experienced, you must know that authentic Pad Thai cannot be replicated. The different variations of soup and Singha beer are what I turned to for most of my meals, but I did experiment when given the opportunity! Which was almost too frequently!
The first two nights in Bangkok were filled from sunrise to sunset with exploring. Lots of time was spent walking and touring the different temples and sites, trying new and exotic foods and on tuk tuks in traffic. Tuk tuks are the taxis in Thailand and these open air auto rickshaws get their name from the word “poor” which explains why a tuk tuk for a whole 5 hours cost me 5 bucks. (tuk tuk= poor poor).
The only thing worse than the tuk tuk traffic was the foot traffic. Bangkok provided me with a full 2 days of practice in “the art of not walking into others”, and boy is that useful in the even less populated, New York City. Dodging women, children and dogs is a skill only true explorers adapt along their journeys.
I took the MRT (Metropolitan Rapid Transit) from the city center to the Chao Phraya River for a long tail boat ride. The water is muddy, but they sell beer to enjoy along the ride. We even shared our beer with our boat driver who ended up getting way too handsy getting on and off the boat. The pretty temples and impressive architecture made up for that awkwardness. My attempt to immerse myself into Thai city life was a success! There I was, beer in hand, Thai breeze at my face and a local lovin’ me. I’d call that a success, of some sort. Next stop, Chiang Mai and it was only an hour and a half plane ride! That’s cake after a full day flight only 2 nights prior.
In Chiang Mai, I used AirBnB to book a night at the Chai Lai Orchird and Elephant camp. The bungalow was surrounded by nature and resided on a serene river where the elephants would bathe outside your doorstep. Here, I swam with the elephants, gave them a good cleaning and then took them for a ride along the river. I cleaned them so thoroughly that the handle for the brush I used broke off! I wasn’t sure if it was my hulk like strength or the fact that their hair is coarser than it looks! And yes, baby elephants have hair, and lots of it!
This camp provides training programs to help woman by providing educational and paid vocational opportunities to at-risk young girls and young mothers. The entire staff at Chai Lai comes from the local underprivileged hill tribe/refugee community and receives paid on-the-job hospitality training through social programs.
This was all news to me when I arrived, making my elephant riding experience and stay even more special.
Massages are a must!
My favorite part about Thailand was that the massages were so cheap! I had an hour massage on the balcony of the bungalow overlooking the river where I found complete Zen for less than $40. There were even cheaper ones on the beach at the islands and in the New City of Chiang Mai! By the time I boarded the plane home, I was rubbed down from head to toe 10 times over and 5 of them were under $20. After a long day of exploring, elephant riding and tuk tuk rides, the massage ritual was both necessary and completely affordable.
After a night in the mountains of Chiang Mai I took an hour and a half car ride to the New City. Here I stayed just outside the ancient walls of the Old City in a boutique hotel called MO rooms. Built in 1296, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand with a population of 200,000 compared to Bangkok with 9 Million. Think about all that extra moving room! There’s even left over space for rice patties! The Old City is surrounded by a moat that is still in use today and while a good portion of the original city walls have collapsed, a few parts including the four corner bastions are still intact.
MO rooms was a last minute booking based on a recommendation at Chai Lai Orchid, and has only 12 rooms. So I was more than lucky to get the chance to stay here. The individualistic rooms are designed around an artist’s interpretation of Chinese Zodiacs. The construction and exterior structure was a collaborative project which utilized designers, architects and astrologers piling different sizes of the box-shaped rooms on top of each other in accordance with Feng Shui astrology. The identity of the artist’s Birth Animal influenced everything from the entire building process to the unique style of furniture and interior design of each room. The rooms are designed to provide balance for guests and the property embodies a cool coffee shop feel. Which makes sense since the “lobby” is in fact a fully functioning café. Continental breakfast is included with your stay and is served in an extraordinary stylized lofted area. The details of this boutique hotel are what makes it so memorable. A definite must see!
I spent the first night in the Horse room and the second two nights in the Dragon Room. The Horse Room was my favorite of the two because of the elaborate wood work.
In Chiang Mai I continued my exploration, did tons of shopping at the bazaars, saw and contemplated buying the most amazing street artwork and had the craziest pedicure of my life! (Little baby Garra Fish biting at my feet and toes!) The calm residing in the temples and the energy on the streets of the Old City was contagious. Monk sightings come standard.
If you’re looking to end your trip in complete tranquility, take the 2 hour plane ride south to Hotel Saree Samui on the island of Koh Samui. This hotel is a private paradise with a beautiful secluded beach, exotic trees and stunning villas boasting outdoor showers and tubs. Saree Samui is environmentally-friendly and does a great job detoxing its guests coming from the hustle and bustle of the northern cities.
What to do on the islands:
- Book a snorkeling trip
- Island hop by boat, especially to Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao (best beaches and diving)
- Rent a moped and explore
- Talk to locals (a lot of them have relocated from other countries and have some amazing stories to share)
- Get more massages
- Eat lots of Tom Yum soup even though it’s as hot as the climate, it’s delicious!
That’s as brief of an overview of my ten days taking Thailand as I could possibly provide. There are so many more things to tell you but I’d like to tempt you just enough to take the trip yourself. Halpy traveling!