From the chilly temps and reserved civility of Japan, to the sweltering, bustling madness that is Bangkok! I kicked off my three months in Southeast Asia in Thailand’s capital city: a hot, steamy, sweaty tangle of humanity. Did I mention it was hot? My first day out, I set off on foot to wander the streets and see what I could see. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to the layout of the city, but I managed to avoid getting too terribly lost (and to avoid being killed at any of the ridiculous street crossings).
I strolled around the town, dodging predatory tuk-tuk drivers trying to pitch their tour guide services. I got more thanone really strange look when I tried to convey that I was walking — on purpose — with no destination in mind. Within two hours, or so, though, this started to make a lot more sense as the full crushing force of the midday heat came very close to knocking me unconscious. I found a moderately shady spot to sit and rest for a minute and managed to make it back to my guesthouse without passing out. I retreated into my blissfully air-conditioned room to wait out the worst of the day’s heat.
After dark, I made friends with a group of fellow guesthouse-dwellers and we ventured out into the utter insanity that is Kho San Road. It’s a deceptively normal-looking street by day, but at night it turns into a crazy bacchanal, a riot of street vendors, bars, peep shows, and just about any other thing you can think of. The food stalls are definitely my favorite part and I ate quite a few hearty $2 pad thai street meals during my short time in Bangkok. I only stayed out for about an hour, if there ever was a time in my life that this sort of craziness was my scene, I fear that such time is long behind me. But I’m pretty OK with that.
The next day, I had more of a plan and ventured forth again for a day of temple-hopping. After a few wrong turns, I managed to find the river taxi port and for 10 baht (about $.30) I got a ticket downriver. Certainly, the most striking feature of Bangkok is the distinctive temple architecture. Naturally, I’d seen photos and things, but they are still breathtaking to see close up and in person. I disembarked the river taxi at Wat Pho, home of the famous Reclining Buddha. The sheer scale of it is incredible, one of his feet was about the size of my entire apartment back in New York. From there, I went to the Grand Palace, a sprawling compound with numerous temples, buddhas, gardens and statuary. One of the rules for visiting Buddhist temples is that you must be “appropriately dressed.” This means no bare legs or bare shoulders. I knew of this and so wore a long dress and brought a scarf to cover my shoulders. This wasn’t apparently covered enough, and I was forced to rent a button-down shirt to put over my dress. I understand their wish for visitors to be dressed modestly, but layering up in the Bangkok heat is pretty miserable and so I moved through the palaces and grounds perhaps a bit quicker than I might have otherwise. Maybe that’s the point?
In the evening, the other girls in my room at the guesthouse told me about a place called the Ghost Tower. It is a 50-story construction project, originally intended to be luxury condos, but it has been abandoned since the mid-90s when the local economy crashed. The 3/4 completed building has been sitting derelict for nearly 20 years and has now become something of a tourist attraction for those looking for something a little more off the beaten path. We decided it’d be a hoot to check it out and wrangled a taxi driver to take us over there for a fairly reasonable price. (All the guidebooks say that you should never negotiate a fare with a taxi driver in Bangkok, but rather insist that they use the meter. That’s all well and good, I suppose, unless you want to actually take a taxi anywhere. The drivers flat-out refuse to use the meter and not one of them will budge on that. Better to brush up on your haggling skills).
We had hoped to make it to the tower in time to climb to the top for the sunset, but traffic snarled us up pretty bad on the way. Once we arrived, we slipped through a partially-open gate and into what was probably supposed to be the parking garage. There was a man sitting there in a plastic chair who told us that we needed to pay him 200 baht each in order to climb the tower. We argued for a bit, but got nowhere with it and so decided to just pay the money. (I later discovered that I actually paid him 600, rather than 200 baht. The 100 bill and the 500 bill are a similar color and in the dim light of the garage, I simply didn’t notice. A costly lesson, but one I learned well and never repeated the mistake.)
Bribes paid, we headed in to begin our 50-flight ascent! The stairwells were all pretty well roughed in and someone (perhaps some associates of the man who took our money?) had hung lights at every other landing, so as the daylight started to fade, we weren’t in total darkness. Mel and Emma were determined to make it for the sunset and charged up the stairs. Alyssa and I were more concerned with avoiding a heart-attack, and so we took a break every 4-6 floors and did a little exploring. The units on some of the lower floors appear to have been close to completion, with bathroom fixtures installed. The higher you get, the more decrepit and unfinished the space becomes. On about the 43rd floor, we decided to venture down to the far end of the hallway and check out the “penthouse” apartments. On approach, we could see lights reflecting off a pool of water that had collected in the balcony space. It was a little bit terrifying at first, but we braved it anyway. At long last, we finally reached the top just as the last of the sun was fading away. The top floor was never completed and is wide open to the elements. There are no railings or other safety measures, and you have to be careful where you put your feet, due to the random holes in the floor. Horrifically unsafe, but completely thrilling! The views of the city are incredible, and made even more so by the lack of any barriers. It’s easy to see why people are willing to pay the bribe and hike all those stairs; the experience is totally worth it.
It was far too hot to stick around Bangkok for long, and after the punishing schedule we’d kept in Japan, I was ready to go to ground for a bit and enjoy some R&R. For no particular reason, other than I’d heard of it, I decided to head way down south to Phuket, to the town of Patong. I took the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok, another new experience. It was fairly comfortable, but the train stopped at stations about every 45 minutes throughout the night, so it was not particularly restful. I arrived in Surat Thani a little after sunrise where I changed to a bus that would take me to Phuket Town. After 4 hours on the bus, I changed again to a minivan that would take me the the rest of the way to Patong. It was still plenty hot there, but availability of a pool and the beach made the situation a lot more bearable. I planned to stay 4 nights and do nothing more than a lot of high-quality lounging. Which is exactly what I did! I read, napped, swam, and ate amazing food from tiny little roadside “restaurants.” When my reservation was about up, I learned that my planned departure day coincided with the beginning of Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration. This meant that there was no way I was going to be able to get out of town, so I moved to another hotel closer in to the town center and got in on the action. Songkran is also known as the water festival and for two days, nearly all industry grinds to a halt and everyone in town (and, I’m told, the country) engages in a giant water fight. There is no avoiding it, if you venture outside, you’re going to get soaked and so the best thing to do is seal up your electronics in plastic and join in the fun! I joined forces with some great Aussies I met on the street and we had a fantastic day feeling like kids again and waging water war against rival “tribes.” It was a crazy good time and I recommend it to anyone that may be passing through Thailand in mid-April.
From Patong, I moved on to Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand that is famous for it’s scuba diving (and dive-training industry). Getting my SCUBA certification is something I’ve always wanted to do but had never gotten around to actually doing, and I was determined to put it off no longer! After extensive internet research, I booked in at Simple Life Divers for their PADI Open Water certification course. I started my class a day later than planned so that I could join another group that was starting and I am definitely glad I waited for them! From the start, we all got along really well and had a fantastic time together. Our instructor, Baden, was a dashing lad from west Australia, and assisting him was Thomas, an awesome Irish gent who’d just completed his instructor course. Thomas’ dive mask was marked “P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney, NSW,” which was the first (but certainly not the last) “Finding Nemo” reference that came up throughout my time on Koh Tao. It’s relevant to so many situations!) Between the two of them, we were in very good hands and we smashed through all the course requirements in no time at all and got to get down to the business of diving!
What can I say about diving, other than it is the best thing ever? It’s an indescribable feeling to be down there under the water, breathing as easily as if you were on dry land. It is literally a different world down there, peaceful and quiet, but full of life. We saw countless kinds of fish (including Nemo and his dad, hanging around an anemone), eels, sting-rays, sea cucumbers, and one day we even got to follow a sea turtle around for a while. There’s a zen calm that you get underwater that is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. Beyond the diving, Koh Tao is a beautiful little island and has the most incredible sunsets.
Our whole dive class was equally enamored of the experience and we all decided to stay on and complete our Advanced certification as well. We had to split up the team a bit, as Tracy and Kelsey (two American girls who have been living and teaching in Thailand) had a wedding to attend on nearby Koh Samui. The rest of us (me, my best gal, Josie, an Aussie lass from Darwin who’s training to be a Dive Master, and Anthony from England) started our Advanced work the very next day after finishing the Open Water course. We were joined by Paddy, another Englishman training for his Dive Master and working toward a career with the British Royal Navy. For the Advanced course, we did some work on controlling our buoyancy on an underwater obstacle course called Buoyancy World!, and also tried to develop our underwater navigation skills. I was definitely the worst of the group on the nav tests (though I fiercely maintain that I was issued a faulty compass). With that stuff out of the way, we got to move on to doing our Deep Dive (all the way down to 30 m!) as well as a Wreck Dive, exploring an old Navy tanker sitting on the sea floor. We got the band back together for our final Advanced dive, the Night Dive! Tracy and Kelsey were back in time for this and would continue their Advanced course afterward. The Night Dive was really something else, especially given that three of our flashlights crapped out within minutes of being in the water, so all the backups needed to be used and our fearless leader, Baden, had to guide us on a 45 minute dive in the black with no flashlight of his own. Superstar that he is, we had no trouble eventually making our way back to the boat (though I think poor Thomas got a talking-to about making sure to put fresh batteries in the flashlights).
And just like that, I am officially an Advanced Open Water Diver! For my first fun dives, I decided to stay with the group and Josie and I joined Tracy and Kelsey for their certification dives the next day. After they got the buoyancy and nav testing out of the way, Baden took us on an adventure to some caves along the shore. This was definitely the scariest dive I did, as maneuvering through tight spaces with a tank on your back can get a little tricky. I also managed to cut myself up a bit on the rocks going through some of the tunnels. Did you know that, underwater, blood looks green? True story. Anyway, a little bit of panic can really eat through your air supply and my tank was close to bottoming out by the time we surfaced. Baden, of course, simply assured me that I’d done a “proper dive, mate!” and told me not to worry about it. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a bit shaken up. That experience, plus a lingering problem with water stuck in my ear, led me to decide I was going to take a break from diving for a little while. It was a good decision for other reasons too, as by this time I’d ended up spending 10 days on Koh Tao and it was really time to move on if I was going to manage to see anything else in SE Asia! I could easily have stayed there indefinitely and I made a lot of good friends that I am going to miss. Simple Life is a great place to learn to dive and I made the right choice going there instead of one of the bigger dive shops.
Vowing to try and squeeze in one more swing through Koh Tao at the tail end of my trip, I took my leave and set out on my long journey to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. All in all, between a ferry, a bus, a train and a whole lot of waiting around, 30-odd hours later, I made it! Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand, but has none of the frantic intensity of Bangkok. The old city in the center is bounded by an actual moat and there are temples tucked around every corner. The accommodations are inexpensive and I both places I stayed had pools, which were a godsend for cooling down after a long day exploring the city. I had a great time making new friends, wandering the Night Bazaar, and sampling all the amazing street food. I took a full day cooking class at Thai Kitchen, where I got the chance to make all of my favorite Thai foods: Tom Ka Gai (coconut milk soup with chicken), panang curry (including pounding all the ingredients to make the curry paste from scratch), cashew chicken stir-fry, veggie spring rolls and sticky black rice pudding for dessert.
Everyone at the cooking school was really lovely and I’m excited to try and recreate some of these dishes when I come back to the states.
Another full day was spent at the Elephant Nature Park, an animal sanctuary devoted to rescuing elephants that were used for labor in logging camps and other terrible situations. The park also operates a dog rescue and there are tons of adorable pups scampering around. The elephants are so sweet and beautiful, and it is heartbreaking to hear stories of some of the awful treatment they were subjected to. Several have mangled feet from where they stepped on landmines and many more are blind from injuries inflicted on them by cruel masters. Here in the park, though, they are safe and happy and never have to labor for the rest of their lives. We spent the day just interacting with them, participating in feeding and bathing and watching them play together. There are a couple of baby elephants that have been born in the park and the herd dynamics are so fun to observe. The babies are full of mischief and the older elephants are doting and protective. I could have stayed there for days and was genuinely sad when it was time to leave.
My last day, I managed to get a spot at Nova ArtLab, a jewelry class that Malia recommended, having done the class when she was in Chiang Mai several years ago. The class is taught by Nugoon, an adorable old man who has been in the jewelry-making business for more than 20 years. I decided to make a pendant out of sterling silver. It is quite a lot of work, as the silver needs to be cut by hand with a tiny hacksaw, and the edges then filed and sanded for ages until they are smooth and even. In homage to the turtle I saw diving in Koh Tao, I crafted an oval pendant with a round cut-out and twisted up a tiny piece of silver wire to make a little turtle to go inside. It took the whole day to make, but I think it came out great and it’s a beautiful and meaningful souvenir of my time in Thailand.
And with that, I somehow burned through an entire month and had to get out of Thailand before my visa expired. Again, as always, I felt like I simply didn’t have enough time and I barely scratched the surface of Thailand and I hope to come back again soon. The people are wonderful and I can’t get enough of the food. For now though, I have to move on. I decided to head east into Laos to continue my journey and booked a ride on the slowboat down the Mekong River. But that is a story for our next installment, hope to see you there!
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination and follow me on Instagram @itskimonawhim for the most up to date info on where I am at any given moment)