Our vacation to Thailand included days in Bangkok, Koh Lok, and Chiang Mai. Although spending two or three days in each place does not qualify us as experts, we did pick up a few pieces of information that may help you when you visit Thailand!
First, think about what kind of person you are and who you are traveling with. Do you like oppressive heat that sucks away all your energy and motivation to move? Are you with a large group of party people? Are you single and looking for a short term companion (nicest way I could word that)? Then Bangkok’s the city for you!
Bangkok was not the city for us. I really wanted to like it. There are dozens of Wats (Buddist temples) whose roofs suddenly appear, mixed in with the hustle of city life. There were innumerable places to eat and drink. And this city has the longest city name in the world (really), facts like that make me want to really like a city. I did not.
It was unbearably hot. The kind of hot, humid nastiness that makes you sweat profusely, and you cannot remember what it is like to be comfortable. Everyone we saw was miserable, even the Thais were covered in sweat. The heat made us very uninterested in being outside, and being outside is a huge part of traveling.
We did visit the famous Wat Phra Kaeo and the Grand Palace, which was just a few blocks from our hotel. We learned an important lesson at the front gates: “do not trust wily strangers.” There was a sign with those actual words, and it made me realize that I have not been using the word “wily” often enough. The wily strangers will tell you that the Wat is closed, too busy, or that you can come back at a different time. They try to keep you from entering the Wat so that you will go tour something else, maybe even a different wat. After you say that you will go to a different tourist site, the wily stranger will lead you to their close friend the tuk-tuk driver, who will charge you a large amount to drive you to your new destination. Wily stranger will receive a cut of this amount. The strangers are so friendly! They speak decent English, and some are even dressed the same as the Wat guards (those are super-wily strangers). They will also tell you that you cannot wear shorts and tank tops into the Wat (true), and that you must buy the shirts or pants they are selling to enter (not true). You can rent clothes to cover yourself just inside the gate. You leave a small amount of baht, and your deposit is returned to you when you turn in the clothes.
The Wat is stunning once you are inside the gates; every surface is covered with tiny mirrors, gems, or gold paint. It’s really impressive. However, it’s really hot in Bangkok. Really. Really. We didn’t even take that many pictures at the Wat because we were so miserable (and you should know that it must be pretty bad if the two of us aren’t taking pictures).
A lot of people or tour books make a big deal out of Khao San Road, a street full of bars and tourist traps. It wasn’t really dazzling, or anything new. However, it might be more exciting if you aren’t an old married couple like us; if you fit the aforementioned criteria of a large group of friends or if you are looking for that short term partner, it might be the perfect fit. Otherwise, it’s overpriced drinks and nagging vendors.
One of the best things about Bangkok was the ability to take a day trip to Ayutthaya, a city about an hour away that is packed with cultural sites. The best way to get there is to go to Victory Monument and pay for a seat on a minivan that drives back and forth between the cities. It’s really not as sketchy as it sounds. It took us awhile to find where the vans were, but there were plenty of people who helped point us in the right direction. The van was clean, air conditioned, and had other tourists in it as well. We zipped up the highways and spent the day touring historic wats and monuments. At Wat Mahathat you can see a Buddha head that has been mysteriously left in the roots of a tree, and at Wat Lokaya Sutharam you can see a 67 foot reclining Buddha.
All in all, I suppose you need to visit Bangkok just to check the block. However, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a day or two in the city.
Other than lady-boys, people often picture beautiful beaches when they think of Thailand. We had a very difficult time deciding on which beach to visit. The ones that appealed to us the most were on the Gulf of Thailand. However, that area is supposed to experience intense storms during the time that we would be there. We didn’t want to risk it, so we ended up staying on the Andaman Sea. We wanted a quiet beach scene, not a party place, so we specifically avoided Phuket, and stayed a little north of Koh Lak. Our hotel was perfect. It was quiet, far away from people, and we pretty much had the beach to ourselves. I’ve never walked on finer, fluffier sand. It was like walking in powdered sugar (but it wasn’t white). We relaxed at the beach more than we usually do, and spent an entire day either sitting in the sand or swimming in the ocean. Since the sand is so fine, the water wasn’t very clear, but it was very warm. There were a few small restaurants that we were able to hop between; each had good Thai food and ocean views.
We spent one day on a snorkel tour of the Similan Islands. The tour was arranged through our hotel. We were picked up early one morning and deposited at a pier with a couple hundred other tourists. Yuck. We are such hypocrites. We love to travel, but hate when other people travel and take away from our “unique” experience. We were put in a group with about 30 others and set out on a speed boat for the islands, about an hour and a half away. We were the only Americans on our boat, and some of the few that we saw throughout the day. There were a lot of Europeans, especially Germans. They were everywhere; there were even a lot of signs written in German, which suggests that it is a popular place for that nationality. Our boat took us to two different sites (where there were a dozen other boats loaded with tourists too). The coral was mostly brown, but still fun to see. There were several brightly colored fish that spiced up the scene and a brief swim with a sea turtle. A few months ago, Jared had the opportunity to snorkel in Okinawa, so he scoffed at the lackluster colors we saw. I can’t help but wonder if the hordes of tourists and boats is the reason for the brown coral. Regardless of the scenery, I was happy to just float along with the fish for awhile. Our tour group took us to an island for lunch and to play on the beach. Jared and I amused ourselves by watching the European tourists take sexy pictures of themselves. It was like there were a dozen modeling shoots all around us; every pose was over the top and rather uncomfortable looking.
I’ve already dedicated a post to the magic of Chiang Mai, but I couldn’t resist sharing a little more. While there, we went to a cooking school, hiked around waterfalls, and spent the day with elephants. We booked all of these things on our own. There are dozens upon dozens of travel agents around the city that claim you need to book through them. Not true. We simply emailed the places we wanted to go and arranged everything with them. Our cooking school (Basil Cookery School) and the Elephant Nature Park transported us to and from their locations, and it was included in our overall fees. We were very, very, very close to booking an “adventure” tour with a travel group. It included hiking, biking, and elephants. Once we were in Chiang Mai, we realized that the travel group only handled the arrangements, which we were quite capable of doing ourselves (okay, Jared did it all).
There is so much to do in Chiang Mai that I suggest you plan out ahead of time what is most important to you. There are dozens of cooking schools (so fun and yummy), hiking, rafting, ziplining, and, of course, the elephants. If you want to see elephants, I really encourage you to research the company. There are many who are just using these animals to make a profit. The elephants may be tied up most of the day or are brutally trained using bullhooks. Please think about if your picture on an elephant is really worth the abuse they go through.
I also suggest that you visit Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong. There are no words or pictures that can really evoke the feeling of being there in person. It’s one of those top travel experiences. Go.
ATMs are plentiful, but have very high conversion rates. They also dispense 1,000 baht bills (approximately $30.00); however, many shops and tuk tuk drivers will not accept a 1,000 baht because they either can’t or won’t make change for it. We would buy a bottle of water at the 7Eleven just to get change.
We love Thai food, but we had a difficult time getting the spiciness level that we wanted. If you tell the servers “a little bit spicy,” it will come out not a bit spicy. However, Thai spicy is not something we can handle.
You should barter in the markets, and with tuk tuk drivers (but it’s more difficult with the drivers). Tipping is not the same as in the US, but is more common than it is in Korea. From what we understood, you should leave any coins as a tip. We did tip our Elephant Nature Park guide, our snorkel guides, and cooking school teacher about 100 baht (which seemed to be the going rate among other tourists).
Many of the wats request appropriate clothing- covered knees and shoulders. Some places merely have sign denoting this request, while other places will turn you away if you are not properly covered. As they are religious sites, I suggest it’s best to be respectful and honor the request even if it is not enforced.
We really enjoyed our time in Thailand; however, Chiang Mai is 90% of the reason we loved this country. Without it, we wouldn’t consider returning. Because of Chiang Mai, I can now end on our stock phrase: “we’ll definitely return.”