It’s quite random that today of all days I am posting this blog as it is officially one year to the day since I flew out to Thailand to begin my travel adventure around Asia. It’s quite strange thinking back a year ago today… So much has changed in the past 12 months, the experiences I’ve had and where I am today… But I digress! Back to the blog in question…
Thailand – Is it all partying for Brits abroad?
With beer in Thailand cheaper than bottled water in the UK and the now infamous full moon parties, it is easy to see why a drinking and partying culture in Thailand is assumed. However, if you look a little closer this kind of culture is seemingly imported in, by and for tourists in order to cater to Europeans, Americans and Australians in search of paradise and good times. Thailand is a deeply religious country with Thais typically being either Muslim or Buddhist – neither of which permits the devout to drink alcohol (whether or not people stick to this is another question entirely).
However, Thailand is receiving increasingly negative publicity in the press relating to tourists, with incidents ranging from severe fatalities and murders, to documentaries highlighting drink and drug related incidents. Although it is hard to ignore such negative, and sometimes high profile press, Thailand is fast becoming the destinations of choice for the 18 – 35 year old market, so why is Thailand so popular? What is it about Thailand that appeals to so many people?
The word ‘Thai’ actually means ‘free’, so ‘Thailand’ literally translated means ‘Land of the Free’ which may be where the appeal begins! It is a land of temples, historic ruins, beautiful beaches, breathtaking scenery, amazing food, great night life and a traditional culture, which ensures it has something for everyone. Before venturing on this adventure, I knew for some time that I want to explore new places and travel the world, but the prospect of travelling alone has always intimidated me! So I opted to go on a group tour. (FYI: this is not a promotional blog, nor am I affiliated with any travel company).
Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and a central hub. It is the starting place for many travellers and it’s where my tour began. It was a total sensory overload! Any tourist who has been on Khao San Road will know exactly what I’m talking about! By the evening, the bars are all set up advertising cheap cocktails, men walking around selling tickets to a variety of explicit shows, food carts go past selling everything from delicious pancakes, fresh fruit, meat skewers, to bugs on sticks and everything in between!
There’s a lot to do in Bangkok – enough so that you won’t get bored quickly, but not a place I would personally stay long term. We started by exploring the local streets and bars around our hostel before taking a city tour including a river cruise so that we could see the famous floating markets and visit the key sites including; the Grand Palace (previously home to the Thai Royal Family), Wat Po – The Temple of the (giant) Reclining Buddha, Wat Arun – The Temple of Dawn and my first experience in a Tuk Tuk. (It’s basically as terrifying as people say).
From Bangkok we traveled North to Kanchanaburi, however, our travel plans were altered slightly due to the protests that were happening in Bangkok at the time. I found Kanchanaburi to be a small town with a lively atmosphere. The room I was in overlooked a jungle-esque scene that made me feel as if I could be anywhere tropical in the world. It really wasn’t what I had expected from Thailand but I loved it. For a small town, there’s lots to do, we visited the Erawan Waterfalls located in the Erawan National Park. It’s really worth trekking up all seven tiers, so I recommend taking reliable footwear that you can wear in the waterfall pools. Being the land of Temples… We visited two temples in quick succession before visiting another one for slightly longer, where a monk taught us how to meditate.
The next day we learnt how to cook three traditional Thai dishes (learning to cook Thai in Thailand is a must!) which included Pad Thai, Cashew Chicken and a fragrant soup. Later on that day, we headed to the bridge over the River Kwai, where we saw the Jeath museum (The ‘D’ in death is replaced because it’s seen as too traumatic) and we took boats to the Commonwealth Cemetery. For anyone who is interested in history, and even anyone who isn’t, it’s really interesting to go there and learn about what happened, even though it’s really sad to think about it.
As I already mentioned, Kanchanaburi has a lot to offer! So on our free day, a small group of us took a taxi about an hour away to go to the somewhat infamous Tiger Temple. I won’t say too much about that because I know it’s a contentious issue, but, the majority of our group went to a zoo that was near by, and they said the animals looked really sad and not particularly well looked after, so I was glad I made the decision that I did.
From Kanchanaburi, we headed further north to Sangkhlaburi, stopping at the Hell Fire Pass on the way. This was the railway that was supposed to link Burma and Thailand to the rest of Asia, under the instruction of the Japanese. Countless people died trying to build this huge infrastructure, including allied Prisoners Of War that were held captive and immigrants that were enticed to work after being promised good wages.
Sangkhlaburi turned out to be one of the most interesting places I visited, and one of my favorite. Beautiful, yes, just like the rest of Thailand but notably different in that it is really close to the Burmese border, so it has kind of become a grey area for refugees as neither government is willing to take responsibility for the people who end up here. This means that people can’t really leave, they have no passport, no identification. Think The Terminal with Tom Hanks but for real, and not in an airport.
Sangkhlaburi has large Buddha statues on the main road just on the way in/out of town – you can’t miss them! Although it’s a small town, there’s a lot to do! Every Sunday evening, there’s a night market where you can buy local food, from sweet pancakes, to savoury spring rolls and meat skewers, there’s a lake near by which actually looks like something from a classic American high school movie. You can rent Kayaks or just chill. It is also worth mentioning the wooden bridge that goes across the lake, this takes you to the Mon Tribe and is a famous bridge, in part because it collapsed in the middle, but more because of how the people reacted to it’s collapse. They all came together, all chipped in and all helped to build a temporary one, which kind of signifies the unity of the people of Sangkhlaburi.
There’s a dog rescue centre nearby which is run by a British woman called Gemma. It’s worth going over, we went and walked some of the dogs. While in Sangkhlaburi, we also had the opportunity to volunteer on a local project. I opted to help out with a building project which aims to build a new dream house for orphans. Since working on this project I have a new found respect for anyone that mixes concrete by hand! Overall, this was a great experience, I’d love to go back and help out some more and re-visit the project once it’s completed.
Not too far from Sangkhlaburi there’s an adventure park where you can spend a day. There’s loads of activities like quad biking, zorbing, zip lining, kayaking and so much more! I opted to zip line which included an 827km long line! That was great fun! The lake is so lovely, it’s great just to sit out there and relax. The next day we visited the Burmese border where we saw the Three Pagodas Pass and then went tubing in a stream that is quite near by. Due to the location of Sangkhlaburi, it is the perfect place to go for a two day, 16K jungle trek! Which is precisely what we did. Afterwards we stayed at a local home stay which I can only describe as like being on an old ranch in America (or how I imagine it to be). It was beautiful, and the design of the house was great, we could see for miles! On the trek we stopped in some amazing caves, at a waterfall and crossed the river quite a few times, there wasn’t as much wildlife as I had anticipated, but there were some really random spiders which actually looked like the ones on the Harry Potter films. They were huge!
As I mentioned earlier, while we were in Bangkok, there were protests, well, while we were in Sangkhlaburi, a 60 day state of emergency was declared which was kind of surreal for us at the time. We really didn’t know how bad it was going to be or what to expect when we got back to Bangkok. I think a lot of what was portrayed in the media was specifically in favour of the government and against the protesters so that they could remain in power. I actually think the protests were pretty peaceful, but that’s just one opinion looking in from the outside.
From Sangkhlaburi, we headed south… Way south to the Islands. In fact 24 hours travelling on a combination of coaches and a ferry. We got the ferry across to Koh Phangan just in time to watch the sun rise! We had our first beach party at Haad Rin which was a lot of fun, with some mild peril thrown in for good measure. Okay, I feel like if you were sober, you wouldn’t try and skip through a skipping rope that’s on fire, so… Perhaps don’t when you’re drunk? Personally, I didn’t even try anything fire related, especially after hearing about a few incidents of people getting burnt really badly. At this point, I also want to point out that rather disappointingly, I missed all of the moon parties during my time on the islands, but, after reading the reviews, I’m not sure if this is a bad thing.. I gather they’re really expensive (over priced), they’re full FULL of people, there’s often thefts and incidents, and lots of drugs – whether taken purposely or accidentally. So, I feel like, even though I bet it’s an interesting experience, on reflection I don’t mind that I missed it this time around.
The next day we went on an elephant trek which I was somewhat sceptical about after reading some upsetting articles about the treatment of elephants, particularly in Chang Mai. However, our elephants seemed to be well looked after and the trek was pretty short – which I was so relieved about. I was petrified from start to finish. Later that evening, all of the bars were closed due to the elections that were taking part in Thailand. The next day we visited the town and experienced some of the Chinese New Year celebrations – including a terrifying experience when one shopkeeper failed to mention to my friend and I that he was about to set off a firecracker by our feet! Of course he asked us to move out of the way so that he could bring his dog inside before he set it off, and then just left us standing there feeling utterly terrified!
There are a lot of options while visiting the islands, endless options in fact. There are diving trips, water sports / activities galore, beaches a plenty and generally loads to do. We opted to get a ferry to Koh Samui and spend a day and a night there. We watched a lady boy show which was amazing – they look more feminine than women.. It’s actually kind of unnerving! There are quite a lot of good clubs in Koh Samui as well. So after very little (no) sleep, we headed back to Koh Phangan and had a Muay Thai boxing lesson. For anyone interested in martial arts or boxing generally, the Muay Thai boxers are amazing! They’re tiny, so fast and agile! Definitely worth a watch and a class to see what it’s all about. The islands are great because they can be as busy or as relaxed as you want them to be. For me, it was the perfect balance. From Koh Phangan, we headed back to Bangkok where we visited Siam, and spent a day at the aquarium.
My overall impression of Thailand was good! For me it was the perfect mix of action packed adventure where I was constantly busy and enjoying the new experiences and culture, but then, it was super relaxed in gorgeous weather too. The sights, sounds and sensory overload are all part of the experience. I think that Thailand is popular because of what is has to offer; great weather, cheap prices (generally speaking), adventurous activities, a variety of food, a drinking culture and night life if you want it, as much culture and as many temples as you want, and generally friendly people. So in my opinion, the truth of the matter is, and the truth about Thailand is that it is a rich, diverse and versatile destination that can be whatever you want it to be.
After this I headed back to Bangkok where I caught my connection to Surin to take part in an elephant conservation project…