BACKPACKERS GUIDE THAILAND
Thailand was the last stop of a two-months backpacking trip around Southeast Asia. I heard many mixed reviews, opinions and recommendations. In the end, you have to go out and create your own picture. I guess it was one of the first countries to open up and market themselves as an attractive travel destination in Asia. I think this is particularly true when you head to the islands or to Chiang Mai, where you really feel that those places are essentially only made for tourists, and to take their money. Throughout my time in Thailand I was missing the charm of the unknown, remote, unexplored, local place that definitely other spots throughout my Southeast Asian adventure had to offer. The later, at least to a certain extent, was still existing when you walk through the buzzing streets of Bangkok, feeling the heat, the daily hustle, noisy roads, screaming people, after all it meant experiencing life in an Asian super city.
ARRIVAL IN THAILAND
COACH FROM SIEM REAP TO BANGKOK
My buddy Jack and I took the night bus from Siem Reap (Cambodia) into Bangkok (Thailand). I cannot give an exact estimate of how long your ride will take, as it really depends on multiple conditions that do not lie in our hands. I think it took us around ten hours, including the crossing of the Cambodian-Thai boarder to reach Bangkok. In any case, the bus ride was an adventure in itself, in fact all kind of bus journeys you will undertake in Asia are a real treat. Yes, you do often ask yourself, if you are going to arrive all well and save, which certainly is the case, at least I have not heard of any harmful incidents yet, but sometimes things get a bit scary.
We travelled in one of those supposedly super luxurious sleeping buses. An Asian sleeping bus is essentially a converted regular bus. They take out all the seats and replace them with bunk beds. If you are lucky, they will provide an entertainment program, which ranges from Finding Nemo to a Southeast Asian karaoke show. Whatever it may be it functions as a distraction for around ten minutes of your trip. Due to my height, I always opt for the lower bed, so I can stretch out to the side of the 1.50-meter long beds. I made myself comfortable in my seat or bed, depending on what you want to call it, until some extremely loud noise woke me up. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and to my surprise saw the tarmac of the street rushing past to my lower left-hand side. I could not believe what I was seeing. So, I rubbed my eyes once more, but nothing changed. I noted white road lines passing by, oily dampers absorbing all sort of potholes, spinning wheels, and a small Cambodian man artistically holding himself up between all the later, whilst trying to repair something. Of course, this all happened in the time the vehicle was speeding down the road with around 100 km/h. Whatever he did, it worked, so he came back inside and closed the hole in the floor again, loudly applauded by the audience in the ‘moving circus on four wheels’. After all this excitement and this incredible show, there were no further issues with passing the boarder into Thailand, so that eventually we reached downtown Bangkok.
TIME IN THAILAND
The coach dropped us off right at the bottom of the infamous Khao San Road, or in short KSR. We walked up this magical road that many of us have heard so much about. The sun was drizzling on to our faces, our eyes barley open, and our brains still asleep from the past journey. To the left and to our right, you see all sorts of run down bars and pubs, tourist shops to buy your very own Chang beer wife-beater tank top, and of course numerous hangover, sunburned, water-drinking young travellers taking its toll for the night before that most likely they do not even remember.
We began our search for a bed and a roof for the night. Not far from KSR, we ended up at Baan Sabai Guest House. After the usual hustle and price negotiation, we eventually moved into our double room. In terms of accommodation, you have plenty of options around Bangkok that come at all price ranges. Our general approach was to always find the cheapest space around. Throughout our time in Southeast Asia, we never pre-booked anything. We literally listened around, speak to fellow backpackers and once we arrived at a given destination, we would just rock up at any hostel or hotel and negotiate the price. If we were happy we would take a room, if not, just continue to find another place. The same applies to any kind of activities or things we wanted to do. Out of experience, I suggest having a rough idea of what you want to do or see, where you want to be at certain points in time, and the amount of money you are willing to spend for a room, food or whatever it may be. If you do not do that, you will most likely drift away and do not maximize the time you have out there, plus get hustled hard and pay far too much.
Anyways back to Bangkok. The city is re-known for its amazing street food, and I can confirm that this is true. Even if you do not stay at Baan Sabai, outside of this guesthouse you find the most incredible, freshly prepared Pad Thai. The owner of this particular little stand is a super loving and caring woman. If you speak Thai that is great, if not that is fine, too, but have a conversation with her and it will put a smile not only on your face, but her face, too, just like any other conversation you will have with a stranger along your way.
Bangkok is humungous. The city has one of the biggest metropolitan areas of the world, with almost 15 millions inhabitants, yet if you stay near KSR you are well located. Two of the most important sights, i.e. temples of the city, Wat Phra Kaeo and Wat Pho you can reach by foot from KSR. There are other attractions that people recommend to visit, however in my eyes those two spots are the most noteworthy to see. The best way to get around the city is by Tuk-Tuk, however such can quickly turn into a bit of dilemma, as many of those guys try to take advantage of you, charge you ridiculous prices or take you to some dodgy place, where you should buy a suit. If that is the case for you, leave as soon as you can, give the driver some coins, and get out of this slightly awkward situation. Taxis work fine, however traffic at rush hours can be horrendous, alternatively the metro network is fantastic and clean. Also, I have been told that the water taxis work really well, unfortunately we did not utilize one of those. If none of the above appeal to you, I suggest to walk, which is also my personal favourite and allows you to see and feel more of the city.
We actually only spent very little time in Bangkok itself, so my list of spaces to check out is fairly brief. Though, I said Khoa San Road is a pretty horrendous place to be, it is a must-do, and I have to admit that it can turn into a lot of fun during the night. You will be drinking alcohol, which instantly gets you drunk, eating scorpions and feel the road shake, as one speaker next to other is blasting out loud music. The street is buzzing and rammed with sweaty people squeezing past one another. Inhale laughing gas, get yourself a customised friendship bracelet or a tattoo to remember your trip to KSR forever. Heading up to the famous Sky Bar at Lebua Hotel to enjoy some breath-taking views across the city is a must, as much as paying a visit to a ping-pong shows. However, the later I do not particularly recommend, as it is pretty disgusting, but especially humiliating for the girls that shot those little white balls, darts or other things through the air. In terms of food, I already said that the street food is fantastic, yet again, similar to the accommodation scenario, you will find awesome restaurants that fit all budgets and tastes scattered around the city.
Lastly, for the ones that do not know yet, I am a little sneaker fanatic, so I set out on a hunt to find some limited released goodies. The main shopping area is in the Pathum Wan District, which is around 20 minutes in taxi from KSR. It is super modern and clean neighbourhood, where you find all the known high-street brands and an uber luxurious shopping center that goes by the name Siam Paragon. Not for nothing do the locals also name it ‘The Pride of Bangkok’, as it is not only one of the biggest shopping malls in Asia, but also one of the most luxurious. If you have space for a Rolls Royce, B&O television or a complicated watch in your backpack, this is your go-to-place.
Anyways, back to soles. We enter the MBK Center searching for two shops, one called Dilok and the other Genesis. We got confused by how the Thais name their floors, where the first floor equals our ground floor. Due to our lack of knowledge we falsely took the escalator up, as we thought Intersport is located on the first floor, going by the European logic. Luckily, I noted a young man wearing a fresh pair of Jordan in front of us, so I figured that he may know and asked him for directions. His name was Sirikorn and it turned out that he runs the biggest Facebook sneaker blog in Thailand, named B-Kickz. What a coincidence! It proved me once again that certain things are meant to be in life, and that it is only a matter of keeping your eyes wide open and being receptive towards such happenings. We got hooked up in a conversation about the sneaker cult in Thailand and he guided us around all the relevant stores. The majority of them are located around Siam Square Soi 1 and 2. VII Athletic Club and Carnival were the two stores stocking the most of the known Western brands from Jordan, Nike, Adidas over to HUF, Stüssy and SSUR. Outcast is focused on reselling Supreme goods and I must say that they had a serious assembly of never-seen and sold out products stacked up on their shelves. Preduce is an awesome skate shop that also produces their own clothing and gear. Not to forget, Tong Tong, which is not in Pathum Wan, but directly located in the Chatuchak Park MRT station. This is an awesome family run business and the biggest skate shop in Bangkok. They offer all major international skate brands from Baker to Vans. Tong Tong derives its name from the owner himself. He is an awesome dude that also happily gives you guidance around town and answers any questions you may have. Once you are there, take this opportunity to visit Chatuchak Market, which is one the biggest markets in the world! Unfortunately, we missed out, as they are only open for business on Saturdays and Sundays, but from what I heard it is mind-blowing.
TRAIN FROM BANGKOK TO CHIANG MAI
We took the overnight train from Bangkok up north towards Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is popular for its trekking and elephant riding, as well as the various animal shows you can visit, including the Tiger Kingdom. The train journey was pretty smooth and took us through breath-taking scenery. Riding trains in Southeast Asia is as much of an adventure as riding a coach, just a tick more comfortable and beautiful. The carriages feel like jumping up and down, and disconnecting from the rails, whilst the windows, and doors, are always open, the fresh air is touching your skin and you are looking across stunning scenery. It is truly magnificent.
We resided in Supreme House for the time we were there, mainly cause we are two big Supreme fans, and definitely saw, or imagined, a correlation between James Jebbia’s street wear empire and this little guesthouse in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is of manageable size, the old town, surrounded by the old city wall, is the main area to hang out, eat and a grab a drink at night. We did not really go out, but discovered that around Zoe in Yellow seems to be the place-to-be, in order to meet and connect with fellow backpackers.
Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to embrace the beautiful nature that surrounds Chiang Mai. I have only seen photos and received feedback from friends that tell fantastic stories about this area. Moreover, the landscapes around Pai and Chiang Rai are also meant to be very impressive. Again, due to time limits, Jack and I could not make it to either of those other destinations. Instead, we went to an elephant camp, which along with the hiking is one of the main reasons to travel up north. There is a big debate about finding the right camp, as many of them are being accused of animal cruelty! Some are cheap and some are more expensive. Please do not be stingy and try to save your dollar bills here, as it is for the welfare of the animals. We decided to go with Panda Tours, as a backpacking friend of ours that we met in Siem Reap was helping out on this particular farm. Out of my amateur perspective, the overall condition of the animals was fine. The elephant keeper was treating them with respect and the elephants seemed to be kept under animal-friendly conditions. Aside for its elephant riding, Chiang Mai is famous for its Tiger Kingdom. However, in all honesty, what you see there may be cute on first sight, but quite quickly you realize that the opposite for this ever so proud animal is true. The animals seem to be induced with some form of medicine that calms them down, not to say make them appear half dead. The animal road show continues, when you put scorpions on your body, see men putting cobras in their mouth or vice versa putting their own head into a crocodile’s jaw. After a day in the ‘zoo’, we headed back into Chiang Mai. That evening we visited the night market, which offers some cool arts and crafts, paintings, clothing and other little souvenirs you may want to bring back for family and friends.
The next day we were meant to have a massage at one of rehabilitation centers that only employs newly released inmates. Those centres help former female inmates to get accepted back into society and take their first step towards a normal life. However, since time was short, we had to call off the appointment and leave northern Thailand. We hopped onto the night train back to Bangkok and set out on an epic ride all the way south to the Thai islands. Little did we know that this would turn into an almost 48 hour-long adventure.
TRAIN FROM CHIANG MAI TO BANGKOK
The bags safely stored away, a final look back at the sign that said ‘Chiang Mai’ and the train slowly started to move. Personally, I really enjoy those long hours on the train. Yes, you can fly from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani, but those journeys on the rails have something magical to it. You have hour-long conversations with fellow backpackers or locals, whose language you do not even speak. You listen to music, seize inspiration from the surroundings as the train flies buy, rest and sleep, or just think, dream and let you mind float away. Often, I would sit in the doorframe, as the doors were not closed, place my feet on the foot step, whilst holding on tight and stare into infinity.
PITSTOP IN BANGKOK
When arrived in Bangkok the next day, we picked up our big backpacks that we stored at our hostel, ate a final Pad Thai, got back to the train station and took the train down to Chumpon. We were supposed to arrive to Chumpon in the afternoon, in time to catch the overnight ferry across to Ko Tao. That was the plan, yet of course, things turned out differently.
TRAIN BANGKOK TO CHUMPON
We arrive at the station in time, collect our tickets and make our way to the platform to board our final train for the day. The train takes off. Vividly I can remember the moment, towards the end of this ride, about three hours away from Chumpon, when we were flying through the rice fields. I am watching the sun setting slowly at the horizon, and the sky changing its colours from crystal blue to fire red. It was a stunning view. I forget about the fact that our train was about four hours delayed, thus we were not going to make our connecting ferry across to Ko Tao, instead soaking up this unique scenery.
We get to Chumpon and find ourselves stranded in a place we never even heard about. It is dark and the train station is anything but an area, where you may consider spending the night. A taxi brings us into town, where we find a place to have a bite to eat. Our liquidity at this point was pretty much equal to zero and no ATM in sight, the heart-warming lady at the restaurant offered us the food for free. After filling up our energy reserves, we strolled around this super dodgy little town searching for a place to stay. It did not make it easier, considering that we did not have any money. Long story short, we headed into a hotel, leveraged the power of Google Translate to explain our situation to the receptionist and ended up sleeping on the floor in the entrance hall of this place. It meant that at least we had a roof, would not need to sleep on a bench at the train station or getting stung by millions mosquitos near the port. However, the bottom line is, when you try to get to the islands and chose the train option, make sure to have your timings right, so you do not end up staying in this weird place, named Chumpon.
ISLANDS OF THAILAND
We really did not have much time left to fully explore and discover the islands. Many people say different things, however my overall impression of any of the ones below that we visited was not super outstanding to be honest. As mentioned in my introduction, I felt they were overrun and ruined by tourists. I guess there must still be a couple of hidden spots on each of them that are kept secrete and in good shape, yet the places you will most likely come across whilst backpacking will be far from the crystal clear water, white sand, beach huts and remote calmness that you may expect. Saying that, if you visit with a different budget and occasion in mind, I am sure that the proper resorts around there are breath taking. On the other hand, if you are searching for some insane and wild beach parties, you will have found your holy grail.
FERRY TO KO TAO
After a short night’s sleep on the floor, a ferry sailed us across to Ko Tao. You just buy your tickets either at a stand before jumping on the vessel or on-board. This was the same procedure for all the ferry rides we had undertook. The ferry ride was pretty smooth. Eventually we entered the island, almost like Robinson Crusoe.
Not far from the pier, we quickly found a space to spend the night and set out to explore the island. Passing numerous dive shops, kebabs and pizza places, 30 minutes later, I was lying in the sand. The palm trees were throwing a shadow on my head and I dove into the sea. Yes, this certainly was nice and I do not want to make it all sound too bad, but indeed this was not this remote, lonely, little island that many described it as, yet I suppose this little bay counted to one of the more hidden ones. I can only suggest that when you come to any of the islands, distance yourself as far as you can from the backpacking area, in order to discover those remote places everyone dreams about.
Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact name of our hotel. Essentially, there are two hospitality areas on Ko Tao, where you find restaurants, bars, supermarkets, shops and so on. One that is in close proximity to the pier and the second one is a little walk towards the northern end of the island. We stayed in the one close to the pier, however all the action for the night is happening in the other one. We had seen people throughout SEA wearing black tank tops promoting the famous Ko Tao Pub Crawl. However, we came to discover that this event only takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, just in case you are down for a little crawl across a Thai island. We headed towards the beach, where music was pumping. I saw people flying through fire rings or skipping over fire ropes, until one had to run into the sea, after he or she had burned themselves at either of them. It was pretty wild and as I got to find out later, the same procedure for all of the islands we visited.
FERRY TO KO PHA NGAN
The next day, the next ferry ride awaited us. It was pouring with rain, the wind whipped across the sea, making the vessel jump up and down through the waves. It was not the most comfortable ride but after an hour or so, we reached Ko Pha Ngan.
KO PHA NGAN
As always, when you arrive at an airport, train station or port, you initially receive a warm welcoming by a number of hotel salesmen that try to very proactively convince and invite you to their hotel. We stayed at Coral Bungalows, which apparently is known for its one-of-a-kind pool party. Maybe it was to do with the weather, but this pool party never happened. Apart from the pool party, Ko Pha Ngan is especially world famous for its Full Moon Party. We knew that we would miss the Full Moon Party, but little did we know that they also celebrate two Half Moon and a Black Moon Party, so it turned out we came just in time for one of the Half Moon Festival. We put on our newly acquired neon coloured tanks, draw some neon coloured lines on our body and off we went. The Half Moon Party takes places in a forest glade somewhere on the island. Spotlights lighting up trees, lasers are ripping lines into the darkness, heavy techno beats are blasting out of the speakers, whilst people around the age of 20 are holding miniature buckets filled with alcoholic beverages and a big mob of neon painted millennials are shinning, as bright as the Vesper. It is like carnival in the middle of the ocean on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand. Honestly, I did not like it at all. It was okay for a moment, good to have seen it, but definitely not a highlight of the trip. After some time, we went back to the hotel, packed our bags, because we had to get up early to travel across to Ko Phi Phi. Unfortunately, I cannot really share any further insides on any beaches, places to see or visit. However, from what I have seen, the beach outside of Coral was not particularly nice, but dirty.
FERRY, BUS, FERRY TO KO PHI PHI
You buy a ticket that gets you from one side of the ocean, across the mainland to the other side of the ocean and takes roughly calculated around half a day. So, we jumped on a boat in Ko Pha Ngan that brought us to Surat Thani. In Surat Thani we hopped into a bus that brought us to Krabi, before entering the final leg of our journey, the ferry ride across to Ko Phi Phi. The entire traverse went pretty well and was well organised by a company, called Lomprayah. As far as I remember, we used those guys for all the ferry rides.
KO PHI PHI
Eventually, we reached our final island destination and checked-in into The Rock Backpackers. We went for the usual wander to familiarize ourselves with the island, discovered a beer pong bar, a boxing ring and a burger challenge restaurant. Though, Ko Phi Phi comes as the most recommended of the islands, you will not escape the tourist traps. The next day we booked ourselves on a half-day trip. We jumped onto one of those long-tail boats that are native to Southeast Asia. First stop was the ‘Monkey Beach.’ I guess the name is self-explanatory. It is literally a remote beach, where some mad little monkeys reside and jump around. You can feed them bananas and if you are lucky they will give you a hand. It was fun, but they highlight was still to come visiting the real beach, ‘Maya Bay,’ which was the movie set for “The Beach.” However, before we got there, we undertook a thrilling 10-meter cliff jump and went snorkelling. Once those two activities were ticked off, we finally sailed towards Maya Bay.
In another little bay the boat abruptly stopped, no white sand in sight, but the captain threw the anchor. We were asked to jump off board and swim towards the cliff. Great, I was thinking, as I had taken my MacBook Air and DSLR camera with me in my backpack, because I did not trust the hostel’s safety. My camera and laptop nicely stored away, in my supposedly The North Face waterproof backpack, I dove into the sea. With the backpack strapped tightly on my back, I swam towards the shore. I enjoyed the swim, but in my head I was thinking, hoping and praying that this waterproof bag is actually waterproof. We climbed up a rope, walked through the woods before we reach “The Beach.” Before I was able to absorb the beauty of this place, I opened my backpack. Everything was dry as a bone. The backpack itself was already serving me fantastically throughout the trip, but after this final test, I cannot recommend this piece of equipment highly enough for anyone that hits the road: The North Face Waterproof Dayback! Then, I look up again. Maya Beach is indeed a pretty wonderful spot. The bay seems like it is carved into a massive rock formations. A gap amongst the rocks permits a view in the distance, whilst the waves are crashing onto the white sand. I do feel a little like Leonardo DiCaprio. On our return to mainland Ko Phi Phi, we took another stop in a little bay and waited until it was pitch black. We jumped into the water to witness glowing plankton. I cannot give a biological, chemical or physical explanation for why this is happening, but all you note is when you are splashing water around that those microscopic living creatures are lightening up around. It is pretty cool, indeed.
After a full-on day of adventure, we arrived back at the pier of Ko Phi Phi. We headed back to the hostel and changed for the final night of the SEApreme Tour 2014. We duck into a final Pad Thai, though it was nothing compared to the ones from the streets of Bangkok, before we rounded it off in true Thailand backpackers style with buckets and fire ropes at Slinky Beach Bar. None of us actually dared to climb to the top of that wooden pole. If you know, you know and to the people that will head out, you will quickly find out what I am talking about once you are there.
DEPATURE FROM THAILAND
FERRY KO PHI PHI TO PHUKET
The final day and a final time repacking the backpack. Shortly after, we find ourselves on a ferry, Ko Phi Phi is slowing dissolving on the horizon as we sail towards Phuket.
The weather was pretty miserable that day. It was probably to do with the fact that our tour was over, but we were lacking energy and were super exhausted. We decided not to explore Phuket, nor to search for a hotel, instead chose to take a taxi from the pier to the central bus station. From there, we hopped on the next bus straight to the airport, as we decided to just stay in the airport overnight and await our flight to Singapore the day after. We indulged into a freshly prepared foot long Subway Chicken Teriyaki with a coke on the side, before we nestled onto some benches inside Phuket International Airport.
AIRPLANE FROM PHUKET TO SINGAPORE
I had to pay for on additional bag that I had check-in. Nonetheless, this allows me to introduce a second piece of equipment I highly recommend. As I was foreseeing the fact that I needed an additional bag, I brought along The North Face Flyweight Duffle Bag. When it is not in use, you can neatly pack it away, barely taking any space. Once it is needed, simply unfold and utilize it as a fully functional and water resistant duffle bag. In advance, I can approve that this lightweight bag survived the wear and tear of four flights and four airports, and kept all the content in shape, except from a Burmese beer glass that I only wrapped in t-shirt. We flew with Air Asia from Phuket to Singapore. Air Asia is the Asian equivalent of EasyJet, offering modern planes and a good service at a low price. More importantly, it means that you do not have to book your tickets way in advance, but like us, can decide spontaneously, depending on where you are and if you need a flight to somewhere, without paying a huge premium.
AIRPLANE FROM SINGAPORE TO FRANKFURT
We landed in Singapore, collected our bags and checked in at our respective counters, as I flew back to Italy via Frankfurt and Jack to Scotland via London. We had a couple of hours to spare, hence just hanging out in the lounge and awaiting the departures of our respective flights. We recapped on this incredible trip and the memories we had collected, not only in Thailand, but in all the countries we had visited in this short period of time, from Singapore, Myanmar to Laos, across to Vietnam, up to Cambodia, onwards to Thailand and now back to Singapore. Sàwàddee.