Sun. Sand. Beach. Motorcycles. Sliced fruit. Chang beer. Chang t-shirts. 7 Elevens. Buddhas. Marigolds. Joss sticks. Spirit houses. Money. Protests. Corruption. Fish. Fish sauce. Counterfeit shades. Mango sticky rice. Green curry. Red curry. Lots of sunscreen. T-shirts. Sarongs. Monkeys. Ferries. Fast boast. Slow boats. Papaya. Mango. Pineapple. Cashew apples. Green mango with chili salt. Papaya salad. Thai massage. Muai-Thai. Pad Thai. Pad Seeyu. Chili. Coffee. St. Miguel. More chiles, chiles everywhere. Left-side driving. Heat. Happy dogs. Fat cats. Beautiful smiles. Crooks. Ex-pats. 24 consonants and 44 vowels. 20 coups d’etat. Buddhism. Commerce. Full moon parties. Oh Thailand! How can we begin to explain you to the world?
We started our month in Thailand with Chiang Rai, having crossed over from the Laotian border, and we were in a hurry, as to get as the sea was beckoning us. So we spent one night and two half days in Chiang Rai and we were lucky enough to get there just in time to check out their fantastic evening market where we sampled about two dozen dishes, from juicy skewered meat of all kinds to freshly steamed morning glory, pyramids of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf, slivers of papaya and pineapple in shrink-wrap and freshly squeezed strawberry and passion fruit juices. The latter, to our surprise, was salted. This pantagruelic feast was in stark contrast with our simple meals in Laos and we got excited about Thai food immediately.
We proceeded to Chang Mai the very next day, thinking of it as a short stopover before the beautiful beaches on the Andaman Sea, our sun and sea bulls’ eye. Little did we know that we would fall madly in love with Chang Mai and stay an entire week… Let me explain: Chang Mai is a lovely northern Thai city with a square moat that separates the inner old city from the new neighborhoods. The inner city is a maze of quiet leafy streets that intersect with loud, happening ones, and all can be explored on foot or on bicycle.
Temples are abundant and they ascribe to a flamboyant brand of Buddhism where gold leaf, showers of marigolds and colored light effects combine to give these houses of worship an almost Bollywodian atmosphere. Obviously, the Buddha has no need for all these special effects but he tolerates them with a placid smile on his ever-round face and we, wide-eyed ‘farangs’ simply love them, so they continue.
Every single store and house and hotel has a spirit house, large or small, adorned with beads and flowers, where ancestors and other spirits are honored. Chang Mai is also a paradise of quirky shops, excellent restaurants, phenomenal cafes and THE place to try a Thai massage if you’ve never experienced one before – it’s the kind of massage that leaves you wondering “what was all the other crap i was getting before?”
The city also has not one but three! night markets: the regular everyday one, a Saturday night one and the most glorious of all, the Sunday night market, where you can find everything under the stars, from fried squid balls to leather bracelets and hand-made head scratchers. The night markets of Chang Mai are a shopper’s paradise, with something for every taste and budget, wether you’re looking for a Chang beer teeshirt to replace your old one that you lost during pub crawl (…) or an antique carved wood coffee table. You can literally find anything, provided that you have nerves of steel and oodles of patience to navigate the packed alleys.
While in Chang Mai, we checked off some items from our ‘bucket list:’
- Took a Thai cooking class at a farm in a nearby village
- Visited some traditional Thai villages
- Hitched a ride on an elephant’s back
- River-rafted on a bamboo raft
- Got a fish pedi
It didn’t hurt that we happened upon our buddies Frank and Marie, a couple from our Laos jungle adventure, with whom we caught up over food and drinks. Eventually, however, even Chang Mai’s land-based charms were unable to counter the strong siren call of the South. So, after a week of bohemian wondering and occasional self-improvement, we packed our backpacks again and headed to Koh Lanta, on Thailand’s East Coast.
Koh Lanta – or Stockolmlanta?
Imagine a seemingly endless stretch of white beach, perfect for running, and a calm, warm bay with clear blue waters, perfect for swimming. Add to that a beautiful green karst conveniently jutting out just on the other side of the street from the beach, and enough German and Swedish bakeries and cafes to feed a little army. This is Koh Lanta, ladies and gentlemen.
We rebaptized it as Stockhomlanta because it was full of Swedish expats who not only wined and dined at the local swedish-owned restaurants, but also schooled their children in the several Swedish schools available on the island. With a wealth of good food, very decent prices and ease of getting around (the roads are mostly flat and easy to navigate on motorbike) it’s easy to see why Koh Lanta is such a beloved destination for Europeans. There’s even a legit Irish bar with cider on tap and a petanque court for the occasionally nostalgic Frenchmen and it’s much more subdued that nearby Koh Phi-Phi, which, since “the Beach” has become a backpacker’s discotheque of choice.
Koh Lanta also happens to be the hub for boats that explore the nearby islands, and we took advantage of that one sunny day in January.
The seven days we spent in Koh Lanta prepared us for our next tropical destination, Koh Tao, on the Western coast, but nothing could have EVER prepared us for the three days’ nightmare that was my visa run. To keep a sad story short: Thailand only gives a 15 day visa to Romanian nationals, so Ed and I decided to book a ‘visa run’ to the nearest Malaysian border through a local travel agency, but the stars weren’t aligned and our driver decided to shave off some time and drive instead to the nearest foot crossing – that’s where we discovered that only high-traffic checkpoints were able to issue a visa for me. So, we did a 180 and got dropped off in a small town in the middle of nowhere, where we got talked into paying a driver to drive us to the larger checkpoint. Exactly an hour later we found ourselves nowhere nearer to the border but instead in Hat Yai, the largest Southern Thai city, a place not frequented by tourists for reasons that became quickly obvious. We spent the rest of the day trying to find a clean hotel and struggling to find a decent dinner place; while we succeeded in the first endeavor, we failed miserably in the latter and ended up having dinner in a jazz bar cum brothel. As we were not there for their main offerings, service was terrible and the food late and cold.
We spent most of the next day driving to the Malaysian border, criss-crossing between borders multiple times, to satisfy Thai customs officials that Malaysia would, indeed, accept me into their country, and then back to Hat Yai. We eventually caught a late afternoon train to Surat Thani on the Western coast and, nine hours later, took refuge for the night in a small town 10 km away from Surat, in the dingiest room we found on our entire trip, mounting our own mosquito net from the ceiling to protect us from a colony of beasts that was breeding in the squat bathroom. I guess you could say we were lucky there were no bats.
Finally, day three of our ordeal: we boarded a local bus to the bus station terminal in Surat Thani (and had 7 Eleven corn flakes and yoghurt for breakfast), a bus to the ferry terminal, a ferry to Koh Lanta and, after some internal debate, we shelled out the extra $20 for a ferry to Koh Tao the same day. We were two nearly broken people by the time we set foot in paradise. But: we made it. More about Koh Tao later, as it deserves its own post; but for now i leave you with this sweet anigif of Ed frying bananas: