After the big LaHamerica US road trip, my plan was to always travel abroad somewhere. My first thought was backpack through Europe, but that’s so hard to do alone and it’s extremely expensive. I thought about South America but again, really hard to do alone and difficult to get around. So when I got word that two of my friends in New York were planning a trip to Thailand, I had to jump on board. It was perfect; I would be with two great girls (Meg and Knox), Thailand is dirt cheap, they had planned a good chunk of it already, and I had always wanted to see Southeast Asia! So off to Thailand I went, for two whole weeks!
We arrived in Bangkok late Saturday evening after 30+ hours of travel. Charlotte to JFK, JFK to Shanghai, Shanghai to Bangkok. Our first night, we stayed with some of Meg’s friends who she used to work with and who had also just had a little baby. The wife, a native Thai designer, had brought her husband, a NY-born-and-raised writer, back to Thailand to raise their new-born. They taught us the lay of the land in Bangkok and told us what it was like living there. It was a nice transition into an unknown culture; one spoke of growing up there with tales of traditions and memories, while the other spoke of new experiences and interesting nuances (like being the tallest, whitest guy on the train). The next couple nights, we stayed in the Khaosan Road area, a hot-spot for quaint restaurants, bustling night-life, and road-side shops.
On our first full day, we took a taxi to JJ Market on the northern side of town. It’s one of those places you see in a magazine (in fact, it’s on the list of 1001 Places To See Before You Die), with rows and rows of shops, food stands, spices, souvenirs, art, and even animals. It’s so large, they have a map so you don’t get lost in the maze of stores and people. Needless to say, we got turned around a couple times, but made up for it in the goods we purchased and the sights we saw.
The next day, we ventured to all the famous Wats in Bangkok. What? No, Wat, which means ‘temple’ in Thai. The Grand Palace was our first stop, which holds the largest and one of the most-sacred of all the Wats in Thailand, Wat Phrakaew, because it contains the glorified Emerald Buddha. The grounds of the Grand Palace were a spectacular display, filled with insanely intricate architecture and detail, vibrant colors, and scattered with ornaments – a far cry from the dull, subdued Christian monuments. It was really interesting to learn about the history and background of the area and see the passion behind each stone and tile. We also visited Wat Pho (pronounced What Poe) which houses the Reclining Buddha, a 100ft-long gold buddha statue lying on his side. It was insane and no photo could capture its grandeur. After that, we walked to the river and took a ferry to Wat Arrun, one of the oldest Wats in Bangkok. We were able to climb (carefully) up the narrow, steep steps to the top and take in a view of the vast city landscape. We followed that up with a colorful long-tail boat ride through the inner-city canals of the city, zipping past contradictory scenes of vast wealth and extreme poverty. It was surreal to think just how large and diverse the city was, like nothing I ever expected. That evening, we had some dinner with Meg’s friends then (quickly) ventured down a narrow, neon-lit street, through one of the famous red-light districts (when in Rome, right!?). It was a stark contrast to the quiet, sacred scenes of that morning’s holy monuments.
The next morning, we woke up early to take an hour-long ride out to the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market. Upon arrival, we hopped in a smaller long-tail boat and wove through more canals of riverside homes and coconut farms to get to the market area. Once there, we carefully maneuvered past hundreds of other boats and shops along the water’s edge, each selling a variety of colorful merchandise as well as loads of vibrant fruits, vegetables and flowers. It was incredible to see. After a relaxing massage back in Bangkok, we packed up our gear and headed towards Suvarnabhumi Airport and hopped a plane to Chiang Mai in the northern, more mountainous part of Thailand.
After arriving late Tuesday night and getting a good night’s rest, we decided to take a van to Pai, a little village located in the mountains, about 3 hours outside of Chiang Mai. It was a quaint little town, with cute restaurants, markets, and amazing riverside huts and hotels. In hindsight, we probably should have rented scooters or bikes so we could explore the surrounding area more but we had to catch our van back to Chiang Mai and ran out of time. That night, back in the city, we visited the famous night market and saw a spectacle of jade jewelry and figurines.
The next day we visit Baan Chang, an awesome elephant park outside of the city (Baan means ‘house’ or ‘home’ in Thai and Chang means ‘elephant’). There, we were able to feed, pet, ride, and even bathe the elephants. It was incredible to learn about the elephants and spend a whole day getting to know them and their personalities. We even learned about the unique park and how they rescue and restore broken or hurt elephants from all across Thailand. They are one of the few elephant parks to never use harmful metal bullhooks or harnesses and pride themselves in rescuing elephants that have been poorly treated, no matter how badly distressed they are. The elephant that I was matched up with was named Kam Krua (which roughly translates to ‘ever-changing’). The handler said she was the “naughtiest” one of the 50-some elephants at the park, but was also the favorite. She had a unique personality where she went off on her own, sometimes disregarding commands and in a constant search for something to munch on. I think I fell in love with her.
We also met some pretty amazing people in our group, all from different places across the globe; London, Amsterdam, Melbourne. Each of the couples were on vacation or honeymooning and each had interesting lives and stories. The thing that resonated with me most was the amount of vacation they had – some had four weeks a year, some had up to eight – and they all talked about the places they had been and how amazing it was to travel. I thought to myself about all the places I wanted to see but how hard it was to find the time to get there and then actually enjoy it. With America’s culture, where two-weeks vacation is the norm, it’s hard to get away and actually have the time to not only see and explore but also absorb the culture without feeling exhausted by the end. It made me want to make a change with my personal life and not let work interfere or scare me into not taking the time off and travel.
That evening, we visited the Tiger Kingdom, a place where you can visit and play with tigers of all shapes and sizes. We got to play with teenage, infant, and even new-born baby tigers. It was incredible how soft and precious they were, not much different than a playful kitten (only much much larger). We were able to get right up close to them and play. Afterward, we wandered the streets in the historic Old Walled City in Chiang Mai, walking past ancient Wats and colorful shrines.
On Thursday, we took a van up through the mountains to The Flight of the Gibbons, a special zip-lining adventure through the jungle forest. It was an extremely unique experience and an awesome way to discover the jungle. Our guides were extremely fun and adventurous, leading us through numerous lines, ranging from fifty to eight-hundred meters! It was both thrilling and breathtaking. That afternoon, we ventured up the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai and climbed the three-hundred-plus steps to visit Wat Suthep, one the holiest Wats in Thailand. Famous for holding the ashes of Buddha, it was crowded with people in prayer, monks, and tourists. It was humbling to see the peaceful, spiritual scene and people deep in prayer and made me want to learn and understand the Buddhist culture more. Afterward, we went back to the city and explored the Nimmanhaemin area of Chiang Mai which is known for being the artsy, younger part of town – kind of like Greenwich Village or SoHo for New York City. It was cool to see the unique shops and fare of the area, each with their own story and merchandise to sell. The food was also amazing and it was hard knowing that we would be leaving the next day.
Koh Phangan and Krabi
Friday morning, we travelled back to the airport and flew south, to the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. After arriving at the Samui airport, we took a ferry to Koh Phangan, followed by an open-air taxi ride to our resort on the north side of the island. The views were simply breathtaking, rolling up and down hills past huts, resorts, and bright, blue beaches. The resort was even more spectacular, nested in the side of a mountain, overlooking a secluded ocean bay with a private infinity pool and patio. It was the perfect place to relax after a couple days of busy travel. Koh Phangan is also the location of the famous Full Moon Party and we went to the biggest of the big because it’s the last full moon of the year. The beach-side party is packed with kids of all ages, all with their bodies painted in bright neon and rum buckets in-hand. It was an incredible, exciting, and also disturbing sight all at the same time, but totally worth seeing. The next couple days were filled with relaxing by the pool, exploring the beach, and eating some spectacular Thai food.
After Koh Phangan, we hopped on a quick flight to another beach-side town called Krabi, which is located on the opposite side of the Andaman Sea from Phuket. Known for the famous islands that jut right out from the ocean and its crystal clear blue waters, it was a spectacular sight. One the first full day, we took a speed boat to Phi Phi Island and spent the day beach hopping, snorkeling, and eating Thai food on the beach. The water was so clear, it almost glowed a fluorescent blue along the shores and the beaches were so white and soft, it was like walking on clouds. The next day, we took a long-tail boat to Railay beach and explored the surrounding area, walking through jungle paths and deep caves. We also got to see the other four major islands; Tub, Chicken, Koh Poda and Phranang Cave Beach. The snorkeling was fantastic with schools of fish swimming inches from your body and vibrant clams the size of bed pillows. Hiking on the small islands was surreal and we even got to meet a couple friends along the way; wild monkeys lined the pathway, sneaking off with fruit and food that people would give them. For lack of a better word, it was magical.
And it made it that much harder knowing that these were our last few days in Thailand. We had experienced so much, seen beautiful sites, and met so many amazing people. It was such an incredible adventure and I left Thailand with a completely different perspective of the country and culture than when I had arrived. What I thought was going to be a jarring place that was hard to navigate and understand, turned out to be a super-easy, laid-back place with some of the nicest people, best service, and most beautiful scenery one could imagine. And the thing that surprised me the most was how open and accepting Thai people were to outsiders and newcomers; always willing to listen and learn as well as teach and comfort, despite the language barrier – a big difference from many Americans I’ve encountered.
It was so refreshing to see how easy it was and made me realize that traveling this far wasn’t so different than traveling to California (expect with maybe more Asians and a different currency). After road-tripping across the US and now through Thailand, I felt even more confident to take my travels to more places – China, Australia, Western Europe, South America, even Africa – and I felt that much more excited to begin this new chapter of my life where I would be more free to do so. No more PTO, no more bosses or politics, no more fear of missing out on work because everything could maybe fall apart. All I had to do was work really hard when I needed to and then make the time to play hard too. And after this trip, I felt even more determined to make things happen and be happy again.
I’m so glad I was able to have this adventure over the past few months. I’m so grateful for the people that made it happen; for my parents who sacrificed a car so I could take it across the country, for my family and friends that openly offered their comfy couches and spare beds for a weary traveller, for the people who welcomed me into their lives and happily toured me around their cities, for old friends that I was able to reconnect with and for the new friends I met and made along the way. It’s been a spectacular ride and while my bank account is a lot smaller than when I started, I don’t regret a single moment of it. I’m so thankful for all that I’ve been able to experience and learn – not only about the places I’ve been to but also about myself – and after it all, I finally feel refreshed and re-inspired. I can’t wait to get back out there and take on this exciting new chapter of my life, whatever it may be.
Next stop: Back to New York to begin a new adventure as a freelance designer.