Last but not least – Thailand!

After 15 months it has come to the point where I am writing about the last country of our amazing trip – Thailand. As you may know this is my third visit here, I previously came here in 2005 and 2006, but it’s Lisa’s first time. Entering the country overland from Laos, and having visited several other countries in South East Asia recently it is quite a different experience to my previous visits. I remember on my first visit, which was also my first visit to Asia, everything was strange and different, but this time it all feels quite familiar and normal. This may be because I recognise many things and am now used to the ‘way-things-work’ out here, but I also suspect that it may also be due to us being ready to come home.

Compared to Cambodia and Laos the mass tourism of Thailand isn’t too appealing, but nevertheless we have enjoyed our two weeks in ‘the Land of Smiles’. We’ve been trying to take things easy and not rush around sight-seeing for the sake of it. Therefore our first week was very slow paced enjoying the culture of Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, which is in the far north of the country.

It’s a bustling city, but not so hectic that it’s too much, that is a mix of new and old. The old part of the city is a perfect square that is surrounded by a moat and medieval wall built 700 years ago to protect the city from Burmese invaders. The primary attraction of the city are its temples, and with over 200 of them they are not hard to find! Of course many are similar with plenty of gold paint and smiling Buddha statues taking centre stage, but our favourite was the ‘Wat Chedi Luang’ that dates from 1441 and features a massive brick ‘Chedi’ as its centrepiece.

Here they also offer ‘Monk Chat’, which is an opportunity to talk to the monks to learn about their culture and lifestyle. We had a really interesting chat with a friendly 20 year old monk, and we found out that many of the monks study Buddhism at a temple for a few years before returning to a normal life – kind of like us going to Uni! It was quite a humbling experience, he showed a level of maturity way above the 20 year old back home, and as much as we were interested in finding out about him he was equally interested to hear all about us too.

Perhaps even nicer than the temples is the food on offer in Chiang Mai, which has Burmese and Chinese influences. The curries are mild(ish!) and stew-like with herbs and vegetables taken from the surrounding jungle. My absolute favourite Thai meal is Khao Soi, a mild coconut based curry soup with pork or chicken and yellow noodles – since I first tried it here in 2005 I have been making it at home but it doesn’t match the real thing!

Like me northern Thai’s love pork and their favourite snack is Kaap Muu – deep fried pork crackling, which is a bit like pork scratchings but without the saltiness! They also prefer sticky rice with their meals, which Lisa really liked, particularly the dessert version of sweet sticky rice with coconut and fresh mango.

All that good food made us feel like we should do something to burn it off, and as Chiang Mai is a good place to embark on a trek to visit some of the hill-tribes that inhabit the surrounding areas we thought we should give it a go. We arranged a 2-day trek with one of the tour agencies in town that included an overnight stay in one of the villages, an Elephant ride, and white water rafting. After meeting up with our group, a friendly bunch of 10 tourists (including us) from Korea, Italy, Canada, and Brazil, our first day started early as we drove out of the city into the surrounding jungle covered hills. On the way we stopped at an Orchid farm and then at a ‘Long Neck Tribe’ village, which turned out to be more of a tourist souvenir market/trap. Although the women were friendly – allowing us to take photos of them with their staggeringly long-necks.

I’m not sure exactly why they want to extend their necks like this but I think it is because they believe it makes them more attractive. The rings are really heavy and must be uncomfortable, the lady in the photo above could hardly talk – I guess she is now reliant on the rings to support her neck.

The rest of the day was all about trekking and we walked for several hours, with our friendly guide through some villages and up into the misty mountains and through some dense jungle. Along the way we visited a cave that was home to lots of bats that didn’t seem too happy about us waking them up. Once at the top of the mountains we were greeted with some nice views over rice fields down into the valleys below.

We slept overnight on mats on the floor in a basic ‘tourist’ bamboo hut at the edge of a small village. The villagers were, unsurprisingly, used to tourists and barely acknowledged us, which didn’t make us feel too welcome. To be honest it was a meaningless experience apart from a place to stay for the night. That said we had a fun night with our fellow trekkers as we sat around a fire and drank a few ‘Changs’ – Thai beer.

Next morning after breakfast we trekked about an hour down the mountain to an elephant centre on the banks of a river. We weren’t too bothered about riding elephants ‘tourist style’ after the fantastic experience we had only a few days earlier in Laos (see previous post), especially when we noticed that the mahouts here used sticks with a metal spike on the end to control the elephants. Firstly we helped bath the elephants in the shallow river, which the baby Elephant was so appreciative of that he gave Lisa a kiss!

Later, despite our reservations, it was relaxing to sit in the seat on the elephants back as we meandered along the river – amusingly we stopped regularly whilst the elephant pulled up any bush in reach to chew on as she plodded along.

After the elephant ride we then boarded bamboo rafts and drifted peacefully a few KM’s along the river, a very tranquil experience.

Then the fun began as we swapped to a white water raft to undertake the rapids, which wasn’t so peaceful but a lot more exhilarating – thankfully the water wasn’t too cold (we got soaked) and we managed to stay in the boat all the way!

After the rafting it was an hour drive back to Chiang Mai, it had been a fun two days, mainly thanks to our fun group, albeit a very touristy experience. The next day was very lazy as we didn’t do much besides sitting in a cafe with a frothy coffee. However we did check out the night market which is setup every evening in along the ‘Th Chang Klan’ street. Here you can buy handicrafts, souvenirs, and plenty of fake designer goods from the traders who are eager to sell you anything you happen to look at!

We couldn’t leave Chiang Mai without learning how to cook some of the delicious food so we enrolled onto a cooking class with the ‘Asia Scenic’ cooking school. After meeting up with our tutor, ‘Maen’, the lesson started at a local market where we learnt about some of the important ingredients of Thai cooking and bought groceries to cook with later.

Then we (a group of 6 wannabie chef’s) drove out to a scenic farm on the outskirts of the city where we would do the cooking. The school try to grow as many of their own ingredients as possible at the farm so we had a little walk around and collected more ingredients for us to cook with – interesting to see how some of the plants look like. We liked this school because we could each choose, from a menu, what we wanted to cook. Lisa and I chose different things but I opted for spring rolls, a Pad Thai (Thai noodles), Tom Yum soup (a sour soup), red curry, and for a desert sticky rice with mango. We started with the Pad Thai as by this time it’s was lunch time and we were hungry!

Maen first demonstrated how it should be done and then we all had a go under her expert supervision. Pad Thai is a very easy dish to cook – heat oil in Wok at medium temperature, put in garlic, diced chicken, and add fish sauce, oyster sauce, and a bit of sugar as to your taste, then add an egg and mix it all together, add bean sprouts and thinly sliced carrots, before adding the noodles (pre-softened in cold water) – do all this whilst constantly stirring. It only took a few minutes to do all of this and, even if I do say so myself, the result was delicious!

The spring rolls are made as above but without the noodles, the cooked mixture is then wrapped in the pre-made spring roll pastry – bought from Tesco, which we were surprised to find has quite a few stores in Thailand! The tricky bit is getting your spring rolls to look nice and even, it’s a bit like wrapping presents and I’m no good at that either!

After a bit of fiddling I finally got something resembling a spring roll, which was then fried in oil in a wok at high temperature, surprisingly easy and I was pleased with how they turned out – here they are next to Lisa’s papaya salad.

The tricky part of the curry is making the paste, which is a collection of herbs and spices including lots of the same colour of chillies as the curry you want to make (NB. Green curry is spicier as Green chillies are fresher!), pounded into a paste with a mortar and pestle. You then fry the resulting paste with chicken, add whatever veggies you like, and pour in coconut milk – jobs a good un!

I won’t bore you with how to make the soup and the sticky rice, but both were good and the mango we had was the best I have ever tasted – I’m not usually a big fan of it but this was sweet and juicy. It was an interesting and enjoyable day during which we had a lot of fun, and I look forward to trying out the recipes at home. I would definitely recommend doing a cooking class in Chiang Mai if you want to learn about Thai cuisine, and the ‘Asia Scenic’ cooking school is high recommended.

The next day, after one last Khao Soi, we left Chiang Mai in the afternoon on a train headed south overnight to the Thai capital, Bangkok. The Thai sleeper train had probably the most comfortable beds we have found on any train on the trip, but the air con was for some reason set to arctic temperatures! Wrapped up we slept well and arrived in Bangkok early the next morning, however we didn’t linger as we took a bus 3 hours south to the Ban Phe ferry terminal to take us to the island of Koh Samet. We chose this island as we wanted to spend a few days on a beach and it was the most accessible (and cheapest to get to) option. Besides as it’s not as popular as some of the islands further south it is much less touristy ?

It was a 20 minute cruise on the rickety old ferry from the mainland to reach the island, which is only a few KM’s long. Once we reached the island we took a pickup truck taxi and went to the east side of the island, along some very muddy roads, where we stayed in a bungalow at the ‘Samed Villa Resort’ at Ao Phai beach. This resort was a step up from our normal budget but we thought why not treat ourselves to a bit of luxury in our last few days! The food from the restaurant, particualry the BBQ seafood, was delicious and was served on the beach – it felt like being on a holiday from a holiday!

Whilst the beach may not be the nicest in Thailand its fine white sand and turquoise water make it appealing enough. As it is the rainy season we were a little concerned about the weather, but thankfully apart from a few showers it was mostly sunny during our stay. Therefore we were able to sit back and relax with a book – no sight-seeing necessary, lovely!

We really didn’t do much for four days, although it’s surprising how quickly time passes when you’re busy doing nothing! So we soon found ourselves taking the ferry back to the mainland and the bus back to Bangkok. Traffic in Bangkok, especially in the evening, is a real pain and it took us over an hour in a taxi to get across town to our hotel, which was near the infamous ‘Khao San Road’. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are fresh out of school/uni on a gap year and looking to go crazy! It’s packed out with young backpackers who cram into the pumping bars and it’s not our sort of place, but accommodation is cheap here and it is near the sights plus it’s a good place for buying some cheap stuff at the market that runs along it.

The easiest way to get around Bangkok is on the river ferries which plough along the busy Mae Nam River, and you get the added bonus of some sightseeing along the way. Numerous temples line the river bank, including ‘Wat Arun’ – one of Thailand’s most famous landmarks.

We disembarked the ferry at the ‘central pier’, which conveniently connects with the Bangkok Skytrain system – no underground here, the city train runs on an elevated track over the city. We took the Skytrain to the north of the city where we visited the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market. Pretty much everything is sold here including handicrafts, clothes, live animals, and plenty of souvenirs all at bargain prices. You have to battle through hordes of people in the tiny alleys between stalls, which is an exhausting but nevertheless fun experience!

The market spans a large area with thousands of stalls, which make it feel like you’re lost in a giant maze. A couple of hours at the market was plenty for us and we retreated back to the city where we met up with Lisa’s uncle, aunt, and cousin – Didi, Tik, and Marissa – who were in Bangkok visiting Tik’s family who live in the eastern suburbs. We were kindly invited to the family’s house for a delicious dinner, which was a lovely experience and an interesting insight into Thai culture outside the tourist domain. They even drove us across town back to our hotel, thanks guys it was much appreciated. 🙂

Today was our last day of the trip and we spent the morning looking at some of the sights of Bangkok’s old town. Firstly we had a walk past the Grand Palace, which is used by the popular Thai king for ceremonial purposes. It’s a lavish palace with grand golden buildings and stupas plus an imposing fort wall surrounding it. Nearby is the Wat Pho temple, which is the oldest temple in Bangkok and houses Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha – a 46m by 15m giant! Very impressive and a fitting ‘last temple of the trip’!

We had a ‘Pad Thai’ for lunch overlooking the river and then walked a loop around the old town and through Chinatown, which was full of gold traders. It’s was a very hot day and walking around Bangkok is quite tiring so we decided to spend the last few hours of the afternoon in our hotels roof-top pool – any excuse for Lisa to sunbath 😉

Tonight after some final souvenir shopping we have had one last penang curry, now a firm favourite, washed down with a bottle of Chang whilst reminiscing about our trip – where has the time gone! To be honest we won’t miss Bangkok too much, a couple of days in this throbbing monster is enough!

Nevertheless Thailand is a lovely country with some of the friendliest people in SE Asia, good food, exotic beaches, and a range of activities on offer – if you have never been to Asia then this is a great starting point. We have struggled a little with the mass tourism, especially after Laos, but then again we have enjoyed the hospitality that makes Thailand so appealing.

There’s a load of photos from our time in Thailand here.

So that’s it, after 15 months (456 days) away, tomorrow we will board a flight to take us home. Sadly Lisa and I are taking separate flights to our respective countries, and after so long together it will be strange to be apart again – albeit not for too long! We’re sad that our big adventure has come to an end, but are very excited about seeing friends and family again, having a ‘home’, and even going back to work! I can’t wait for a decent cup of tea, a bacon sarnie, and a roast dinner – Mum are you listening?! No doubt on the plane back I will reflect a bit on our amazing journey, through 17 countries, the experiences we have had, and the lovely people we have met – but I’ll leave the reflecting for another post in a few weeks.

All journeys end somewhere…and now it’s time to come home.

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