Thailand: Temples, Tribes & Tuk Tuks

So, I popped over to Thailand for a couple of weeks in March!

Having visited the country on a family holiday when I was a child, Thailand was firmly on my radar as somewhere to re-visit now I’m old enough to appreciate it properly (in the eyes of a 10 year old, a tour of the Grand Palace is more excruciating than exquisite!). So, when my good friend Rachel got herself a teaching job in Bangkok last year it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make my trip happen!

Not wanting to hog Rachel for too much time during her summer holidays (her parents were visiting her too!), I arranged to spend a couple of days with her at the beginning and end of my trip and booked myself onto a 10 day group tour around Northern Thailand with Free & Easy Traveler. I hadn’t actually heard of the company before I stumbled across them on Tour Radar, but I really liked the sound of their itinerary and they certainly didn’t disappoint! If I didn’t have to return to work (damn adulting), I 100% would have continued on to Indonesia with them like many in my group did at the end of the Thailand trip.

So, enough about why I went and more about the actual trip!

If you’ve been to Thailand before, you’ll know it has so much to offer, from chaotic cities and a crazy party scene, to tranquil beaches and lush jungle. With just two weeks to play with, I decided to focus on the North. This lead me on adventures in and around Chiang Mai , trekking through the jungle into small hilltop villages, chilling out at a floating lake house and meeting the majestic rescue elephants at Elephant Nature Park.

Booming Bangkok

Bangkok

If I were to sum up Bangkok in a few words, it would be vast, noisy, smelly and contrasting. Traffic clogs the streets, pollution fills the air, modern skyscrapers tower over historic temples and luxury shopping centres stand adjacent to traditional street markets. It’s a combination of all of these aspects that contributes to the individuality of the city and though I believe it’s somewhat of a ‘marmite’ city, I was won over by Bangkok’s charm, rich culture and vibrant atmosphere.

Arriving on a Sunday night, I got my trip started with a rather chaotic taxi ride from the airport to Rachel’s flat, which saw her shrieking directions at the driver in Thai, as he continued to drive in the wrong direction. I was very impressed by how much of the language she’d managed to pick up during her time there, however, it didn’t seem to be all that effective in the situation. We got there eventually after multiple U-turns and I’m sure that if I’d been in the taxi on my own I would have simply been left on the side of Khao San Road among all the reveling backpackers….Something that actually did happen to me the following day, as I left Rachel in a tuk tuk to track down the guest house I was meeting the FnEZ group at.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road

Firmly on the radar of any backpacker arriving in Bangkok, Khao San Road is the place to go for budget accommodation, cheap drinks and parties that go on into the night.

Upon meeting the FnEZ group, we got to know each other over a few drinks at the guest house, then headed straight out in the direction of Khao San Road on the hunt for a party. I was a little puzzled by our tour leader James’ choice of bar at first (a shop front converted into a bar with the addition of a table full of spirits and a ‘Bucket Bar’ sign draped across the door opening), but it soon picked up and before we knew if they’d set up some colossal speakers and were drowning out half the bars on the street…Cue lots of dancing and James vanishing into the crowd after a plate of street-food noodles.

Sky Bars

Bangkok sky bar

Looking for something a little more upmarket than Khao San’s infamous bucket bars (I don’t know what you’re talking about 😉)? Take to the skies and visit one of Bangkok’s ever-growing selection of rooftop venues.

Rachel introduced me to a smart little place called Vertigo & Moon Bar, which is perched atop a 57 story skyscraper. It certainly isn’t cheap (I’m talking £15 a cocktail), but for the price you can enjoy your drink or meal overlooking the magnificent views of the expansive Bangkok cityscape, which only becomes more impressive as the sun sets and the city comes alight.

Ok, enough babbling about the local watering holes and more about the culture. Yes, Bangkok does have that too!

Wat Arun Temple

Wat Arun Bangkok

Sitting majestically on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, Wat Arun (The Temple of Dawn) is arguably the most spectacular temple in Bangkok. Standing at 70 metres tall, the grand pagoda is intricately decorated with tiny pieces of coloured glass and Chinese porcelain. Surrounding the impressive structure are four smaller pagodas, sculptures of Chinese soldiers and animals, and stunning gardens filled with flowers and sculpted bushes. Two Thai celebrities were being swarmed by fans during our visit to the temple, though I wouldn’t be able to tell you who. Perhaps I should have got a selfie?

Fun fact: Buddhism is practiced by 90% of Thailand’s population in varying degrees and Wat Arun is just one of over 40,000 Buddhist temples in Bangkok alone (even more than there are 7 Elevens)!

Jim Thompson House

Jim thompson house

Another beautiful spot to visit in the city is the Jim Thompson house. The stunning garden-enclosed compound once belonged to American entrepreneur Jim Thompson, before he mysteriously vanished while trekking in the Malaysian jungle. He spent 30 years in Thailand reviving the silk industry and has left a fantastic legacy behind. The house has been beautifully preserved, with its tasteful South-East Asian art and eclectic interiors, and is now open for the public to explore.

Thai Massage

As a special surprise, FnEZ had organised us all a traditional massage to relax us before our night train journey to Chiang Mai. A lot of us were still getting over jet lag, so a massage sounded absolutely heavenly. Little did I know what was about to occur.

Unlike the soothing and relaxing massage I had in mind, the Thai massage was a far cry from anything I’d ever experienced back home. For an hour I had my body yanked, pulled, contorted and forced into limb tangling positions…all by a teeny tiny Thai lady with the STRENGTH OF AN OX. I think British pride (or social awkwardness) was the only thing preventing me from yelping aloud from the pain, so instead I just grit my teeth and allowed her to crack every joint in my body. It was the moment she began swinging my body violently from side to side to crack my spine that I suddenly had flashbacks of Karl Pilkington’s reaction to his Thai massage on Idiot Abroad.

Chilled Chiang Mai

Offering a totally different vibe to Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the ideal spot for the laid back traveler. Running at a much slower pace, it’s a great city to simply wander around at your leisure, checking out markets and shops along the way. There are loads of casual cafes and bars lining the streets, perfectly situated for a pit-stop.

Zip-lining

Zip lining in Chiang Mai

Fresh off the night train, there was no time for a nap because we had a day of swinging from the treetops ahead of us!

There are quite a few zip-lining parks around Chiang Mai and the one that we went to was called Jungle Flight, which boasts a whopping 19 zip-lines – the longest spanning 1000m! One of the most exciting runs was a roller coaster style zip-line, that twists and turns through the trees on a track.

I love this kind of thing, so I had an absolute ball zooming through the jungle like a flying fox.  They even gave us a tasty late lunch and souvenir t-shirt before we headed back into the city.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

At the top of a 309-step-strong mythical Naga Serpent staircase, lives the wondrous temple, Wat Phra That, situated near the top of Doi Suthep (Mount Suthep). Not only is the temple itself spectacular, but the complex boasts views across the whole of Chiang Mai and beyond. As one of the most sacred temples in Thailand, Wat Phra That is a must-see. The White Elephant Shrine, golden spire, intricate roofs, elaborate rows of bells, golden pillars and large gongs all contribute to its beauty.

Nightlife

chiang mai nightlife

One thing for sure, is Chiang Mai has a pretty banging nightlife. Whether you’re looking for something quite chilled or a big night out, there’s something for you. We explored a big outdoor food court with live music, a night market, the lively bars down ‘backpackers alley’, a Muay Thai fight and even a lady boy show!

Jungle Fun

Now it was time to get back to basics and be at one with nature, as we embarked on a three day trek through the jungle and up into the hills. Turns out an up hill climb in 35 degrees is pretty knackering!

Mok Fa Waterfall

waterfall Chiang Mai

Breaking up our journey to the starting point of our trek, we paid a visit to the stunning Mok Fa Waterfall in Doi Suthep Pui National Park, situated just a short distance outside of Chiang Mai. We all enjoyed a refreshing dip in the water to cool off and grasped the opportunity to soak up some sun on the small beach.

Hot springs

hot springs chiang mai

The second stop was some natural hillside hot springs. Though the pools were each man-made, the water was fresh from the hot springs and varied in temperature down the hill. Even the coolest of the pools was far to hot for me to go beyond my ankles, but a couple in the group were brave enough to submerge themselves in there and came out pink as a lobster!

Karen Hill-tribes

northern thailand

Two of the Karen hill-tribes welcomed us in for our two nights in the jungle, offering stilted wooden huts as our shared accommodation. Though the huts were very basic (and pitch-black ant covered toilets were pretty alarming, when popping out in the middle of the night for a wee), it was a breathe of fresh air to be away from all phone signal and WiFi for several days!

We ate some delicious ‘family style’ meals at both villages and one of them even has two very large elephant residents, which we helped bath and feed! I’m a bit skeptical about elephant parks in Thailand, after hearing horror stories about the mistreatment of the animals, however, I really believe that they love their elephants in this village and every night they release the two sisters into the jungle to roam free. Unfortunately this is the closest thing to living wild that most Thai elephants will ever experience. 😦

Bamboo rafting

bamboo rafting

What better way to leave the jungle than via the river? Once ready to return to Chiang Mai, we hopped aboard some bamboo rafts and made our way downstream. A bottle of homemade moonshine (aka. happy water), music and lots of sunshine made it a pretty damn enjoyable afternoon…or morning (I can’t quite remember, the moonshine blurred my senses)!

Mae Ngat Dam Floating Bungalows

floating bungalow

After a laid back downstream adventure, it was on to more chill time at the Mae Ngat Damn floating bungalows. Set on a huge fresh water lake, the floating wooden huts felt a little bit like glamping on water, with a series of different bungalows situated in various areas of the lake. Kayaks were provided, but we were pretty wiped out from all the jungle action, so we simply used this time to kick back in the sunshine with some (buckets of) cocktails. Among us we had a few intertubes to have a float on the lake in, while the rest fashioned a floating nappy-like device out of an upside down life jacket!

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant nature park

Ahead of my trip to Thailand, my visit to Elephant Nature Park was by far the part I was most excited about! My sister Christy had visited a few months before and told me it was simply the most amazing place on earth – she wasn’t wrong!

Elephant attractions in Thailand are something that should be approached with caution and although people are becoming more aware of the mistreatment of elephants at trekking camps and other parks, they will continue to exploit animals for as long as they can make money from it. Did you know that to domesticate an elephant it has to go through a process called ‘Phajaan’, which involves confining them in a small space and beating them into submission? Despite their size, it is also incredibly painful for an elephant to carry the weight of a person on their back, let alone anything more than that.

For this reason, it was incredibly important that I visited a genuine sanctuary, where the elephants are treated with kindness and respect. Unlike many other elephant ‘sanctuaries’, Elephant Nature Park is all about the elephants and NOT the tourist, meaning strictly no riding, bull hooks or any form of negative reinforcement. Some of the poor elephants had a tragic start in life, but now they can roam free in the lush surroundings of the park with truly kind people caring for them and their new elephant pals by their side. The sanctuary is now home to 77 elephants, as well as hundreds of dogs, cats, water buffalo and other species. Finally, they have all found peace in their new life, away from cruelty and free to wander the vast expanse of greenery, go for a swim in the river and roll in the mud to their hearts content!

I could go on, but I think I’ll save it for a separate blog!

Transport

transport

A far cry from what I’m used to in England, the transport in Thailand can feel a little bit crazy and chaotic when you first arrive, but grabbing a tuk tuk or a songthaew soon becomes second nature.

Tuk tuks

Tuk tuks are pretty iconic to Thailand and the three-wheeled open-sided vehicles are a fun way to travel short distances and watch the world go by. You may need to do a bit of haggling at the beginning of your journey, or it’s likely they’ll overcharge – especially if you’re practically wearing the word ‘tourist’ on your forehead!

Songthaew

Very common in Chiang Mai, Songthaews are basically converted trucks with two benches in the back for passengers. We did a lot of our travelling in songthaews on the FnEZ tour, as it’s a practical way to get around as a group. I quite enjoyed dangling my legs out the back and the feel of the breeze blowing through the open sides, however, driving along windy hillside roads in one can be quite nauseating!

Motorcycle taxis

Grabbing one of the notorious motorcycle taxis in Bangkok is one of the scariest and funnest experiences at the same time. You can spot them by their fluorescent orange bibs and all you need to do is hop on the back and they’ll get you to your destination in a flash (literally – by weaving in and out of traffic at the speed of light).

BTS Skytrain

The BTS Skytrain in Bangkok is an absolute godsend! Connecting some of the key parts of the city, the train network is really clean, modern and most importantly…air-conditioned, making it a really quick and easy way to get around. There’s a line that runs directly to the airport, so getting back for my return flight couldn’t have been simpler.

River Boats

You can’t visit Bangkok without going for a ride in one of their river taxis. Though used as a practical form of transport for many, I simply jumped in one for the experience of exploring the canals by water.

Night train

The night train is a real experience. I was kind of dreading it, because let’s face it, the prospect of a 13 hour journey is never particularly appealing. It really wasn’t that bad though. It kind of felt like being in a hostel with wheels, thanks to the bunk beds lining the carriage and if you manage to get some sleep, the journey is over before you know it.

Food

Thai food

The food in Thailand is a huge draw for many people visiting the country, as it is one of the most fragrant, flavoursome cuisines in the world. Pad Thai is a popular favourite and you can find it being served in pretty much every restaurant across the country. I ate A LOT of noodles while I was out there. Other dishes well worth a try are Khao Soi (traditional to the North of Thailand), a traditional green curry, Som Tum (spicy papaya salad) and Kai Med Ma Muang (chicken cashew curry). You definitely can’t go wrong with some spring rolls either!

Out of fear that I could keep on typing until I’ve practically written a novel, I’ll call it a day on this blog! Stay tuned for my next adventure.

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