Thailand has been described in words like, magical, paradise, bliss and other such ordinary descriptions for a place that is so much more. Perhaps it is because of a lack of appropriate words or one-liners in the English language. I think it’s more fundamentally, and plainly, because there is too much to it for just one word, or phrase.
Bangkok is a vibrant city, and from the moment you step off the plane, and walk through the wormlike-structure, which is Bangkok International Suvarnabhumi Airport, you will be enthralled by the potential. The super-modern construction is the gateway between the stresses of the world you left behind, and the holiday of a lifetime.
Once through customs, you have numerous forms of transportation. There are buses, trains and even Limousines, for the luxurious travellers. Cars are available for rent, but it takes a special type of nerve to drive in Bangkok centre. Traffic in the city centre can very easily be described as, a “mess” of cars. My preferred option is to take the taxi – or private taxi for the local term. These are very reasonably priced and much quicker to get to the centre of Bangkok. You should book your hotel in advance, but if you have not, the information desk in arrivals have a full list of available accommodation.
We stayed at the Centre Point (Petchburi), which is located in the heart of the city centre. It is close to the Phaya Thai BTS station – for the Skytrain – and a five minute walk from the Platinum Fashion Mall and the Pantip Plaza. The hotel is like an oasis from the hustle-bustle from below and has a lovely restaurant, decked swimming pool high above the road and a brilliant information centre. All of these “facilities” are located on the fourth floor, and it is interesting to note that four is an unlucky number in Thailand. Thus the facilities tend to be located on the fourth floor and you will see it indicated with an “F” button in between 3 and 5 on the elevator floor list.
Stepping outside the hotel, it is worth taking a moment to absorb the subtleties that you might miss if you were still in your day-to-day mindset. Firstly, you will smell a collection of spices, exotic fruit accompanied by a humid heat, clinging to yourself. All five senses will come alive with anticipation and excitement.
Secondly, have a look at the road and try to find a traffic light (robot). There are none. You cross the road by means of pedestrian bridges and it is worth taking a picture from this vantage point, because without it, you will find it very difficult to explain this spectacle to anybody back home.
The Platinum Fashion Mall is a spectacular collection of clothing manufacturers. It is what could be called, a wholesale market. You can spend a whole day there – and there are a lot of floors - and walk out with more bags than you can carry without spending as much as a meal at your favourite restaurant, back home. The quality of these items is also superb, and it is important to stop and think about it for a while: These aren’t knock-offs of the big fashion brands, but rather from the same workshops, thus knocked out cheaply and in bulk. Quite often ahead of the trend yet to hit the western world.
So you are not into fashion? You would prefer gadgets? Right next door to the Platinum Fashion Mall, you can visit the equivalent for cheap electronics. It is a multi-story mall of everything from Guitars to iPod Chargers (at a couple of Rands or Pennies), to mobile phones and electronic trinkets. You will not be able to walk out of there without at least one purchase, and believe me, I tried.
Bangkok is also home to the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest serving monarch in the world and champion of the people. He is known as Rama IX and resides in the Grand Palace. All across the country, you will see a yellow flag accompany the official flag. This is because, in Thai tradition, each day has a God that protects the day, and a colour, which represents the God’s colour. In Thailand, if you are born on a Friday, then your lucky colour will be blue. You celebrate this by wearing jewellery of this colour. Rama IX was born on a Monday, which is yellow. Thus the flag, and on a more interesting note, thus the extremely popular precious metal, gold. You will find a lot of stores selling gold and one day when the next king begins his reign; this is likely to turn to blue sapphires.
You can take a tour from the hotel to go and see various spots in Bangkok, one of which will be the Grand Palace and more interestingly, Wat Phra Kaew – or The Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Directly adjacent to the Grand Palace, you will be taken to, or find on your own mission, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This incarnation of the Buddha, sees it lying on its side and be warned, that you will be mesmerised by the detailed decoration and size. Not far from this you should also visit the Temple of Golden Buddha – or Wat Traimit. There are usually scores of people trying to take pictures of this solid gold Buddha, so leave some time for this. Where else could you see such a mass of gold in one place?
You can also take a “free” tour, which is usually offered by Taxi or Tuk-Tuk drivers. We booked ours at the airport information desk. Beware of what they offer to show you and do your research beforehand. Free tours work like this. They take you to a couple of temples, and will even take you to bus stations and train stations, and it is all free. What you will also be expected to do, would be to visit their “sponsors”, which are quite often wonderful shops. We were taken to a silk-shop near Jim Thompson’s – a name synonymous with silk imports in the western world. The value was great and overall it was a great way to see parts of the city you wouldn’t normally think to visit. And this is why it is free, because they get fuel stamps, which then has these shops refund their petrol for bringing customers to the shop. Not all bad, but you’d do well to remember the saying, “no such thing as a free lunch.” All your entries will also have to be paid for, but you usually get a tour guide in the sape of your driver.
There are other must-sees in Bangkok, like the Floating market. Be prepared to be fascinated by the local merchants transporting and selling their fruit and vegetables along canals and from their boats.
So Bangkok was good, but we had limited time there. Our plans were to move south, rather than North. This was purely because we only had 14 days in which to see what we thought to be our ideal locations. The North is another trip for the future, due to its vast area.
We decided that we wanted to go to Koh Samui, and intended to take the overnight train. The train is very popular, as we found out and by the time we got around to sourcing tickets, it was sold out. It is still upon advice of all I have encountered that it is worth doing once in your life. The trains depart from Hua Lamphong and tickets can be bought from there or online. The best thing to do is to book this before you leave, through your travel agent.
We took another route, purely by accident, but thoroughly enjoyed the outcome. Buses depart from outside the main train station (Hua Lamphong), to numerous destinations. It’s usually an overnight bus and stops at a location half way to Surat Thani, for refreshments and bathroom breaks. Make sure you have some coins available for this, because you will be charged for the privilege, bit don’t worry, as you get three leafs of loo-roll included in the price! One thing we found particularly useful throughout the journey was our liquid hand-sterilizer.
By early the next morning you are dropped off at a station in Surat Thani and then wait a few hours for a bus to the port. You then take a ferry to Koh Samui, which takes about one and a half to two hours.
If you have watched, “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you will know Koh Samui as the setting for the famous film. Although the story is set there, in actual fact it was shot off the coast of Krabi. Somewhere we went next, so don’t let it detract from the beauty of this amazing island.
We stayed in the Samui Yacht Club, located on the eastern side of the island, in between Hat Lamai and Hat Chawen Central. Both of these are popular with tourists, and as a result close to amenities. If you are a party-go-lucky traveller this is the ideal location.
We rented scooters and travelled counter-clockwise around the island. This is a fantastic way to see the island, because the roads are very well maintained and it gives you the freedom to explore the more remote areas. At the top of the island there is a majestic statue of the Big Buddha, which has a small craft market, local shops and the best view on island. In fact all along the route, you will be on the “view-side” of the road, which makes it easy to pull over and take pictures.There is a subtlety that I feel inclined to mention here. The south of Thailand is predominantly Islamic, but Koh Samui is primarily Buddhist, thus this huge statue. We were given a free map of the island, by the hotel, and to be honest with you, it is very easy to navigate. It is pretty much a coastal road that goes around the island and all signs point to it.
There are a number of waterfalls on the island, which I highly recommend seeing. This is the closest you’ll come to the “real” Thailand, as this is where locals enjoy their weekends off. You can buy fresh fruit, like mangos, green guavas, pineapples, lychees as well as sodas. You will also be tempted by the cool allure of the water, so pack the swimming trunks. The island is well prepared for tourism, and thus you get a lot of internet cafes, shops, book shops and I even found myself at a driving range, hitting golf balls into a tropical jungle.
Upon departure, you will need to take a taxi to the port or airport. And it is with a little sadness that you will take the step of booking your taxi at your hotel’s reception. You can either go by ferry to Surat Thani, or you can catch a flight to your next destination. It rather depends on where you intend to go.
For us, the next step was Krabi. We chose to take the bus, which after our first journey, we had quickly realised is a very efficient way of seeing the country, rather than whizzing by it by train, or over it by plane. This bus route, however we decided to be a little more adventurous, having begun to feel completely contempt in this welcoming culture. From Surat Thani, we caught a public air-conditioned bus, which stops in all the little towns along the way. It is worth pointing out, that we were not the only tourists on this bus. Surat Thani is the end of the line, which mean that you should get a seat easily. Public bus is more like a term used to describe the patrons, rather than the type of bus. It is in fact more like a tour bus.
Settled in, backpack stored, iPod on – thanks Jeff Buckley - and awaiting the west coast of Thailand, which we have heard much of, we departed. At the first stop the bus dropped off a few passengers and picked up loads more. This was why they call it a local bus. It was a thoroughly efficient ride and at a fraction of the cost. Again, we got to experience something local, rather than luxury that could be anywhere in the world.
Upon arriving at the Krabi local bus station, there was a nervous moment, where we thought that perhaps we had travelled to the wrong place. We were expecting an exotic paradise on the coast, and this was a dust-town with real tumbleweed blowing down the main road. There were eight tourists left at the last stop - the same number who boarded in Surat Thani - and one very colourful traditional Thai bus, which resembled an oversized tuk-tuk. From this point to get to the coastal Krabi, there was a 400B charge. Chump-change when faced with the alternative. The journey took twenty-five minutes, and within ten we knew we were back on track and on route to a paradise yet to be proven to exist. All of a sudden we were surrounded by luscious green jungles and then, as if out of the blue, the smell of the coast was rapidly registering.
And then the view of the beach... This was what I had been told about Krabi, and it was doubly nice after a shaky start.
All the hotels on the beach front tend to be good value for money, and nearly all of the locations we scoured before checking in, had their restaurants overlooking the beautiful coastline. This is a fantastically commercial town, without losing its charm. It has a lot of choice, yet all of it seems to be authentic. The Thai people don’t seem to be under any delusion of why you are there. The streets have quaint shops filled beautifully manufactured items, like dragons in different sizes, “Chinese” games and wooden puzzles. The sort of thing you would come to expect, having spent some time in Koh Samui. Krabi, however, captures much more of an island life-style in spite of being solidly attached to the mainland.
The resort we stayed in offered budget rooms, and these are as to be expected. There is no air-conditioning, instead you have a fan, and you are a bit further from the beach and restaurant. But the rooms are overall very clean and safe. You will also find most hotels have internet facilities and tourist offices in their reception area. This meant that instead of booking our next adventure from a street-vendor, the hotel offered us some level of guarantee.
The next part of our journey was to take a boat trip to that famous film set, starring Leo. “The Beach” was actually filmed on an island not far from the most famous of the cluster, Koh Phi Phi Don. One of the smaller Phi Phi islands were used as the setting and location for the James Bond film, “Man with the golden gun,” and if you have seen the film you will instantly recognise it.
We booked our day trip through the hotel and the next day, directly after breakfast we were picked up by a shuttle and driven the whole half kilometre to the pier. The pier is situated on a natural estuary and as you approach it you walk through a pine-tree forest. A beautiful smell of pine and salty water fills the air. And there she lay, waiting our embarkation. The lucky number 5, white oversized speedboat, with red racing stripes. Awesome!
All of the boat trips seem fairly similar, some offering more islands than others. Some are half-day trips and others are whole-day trips. You can tailor it to fit with your plans and needs. What is nice about the day trips are that you should get lunch, which for us was on Koh Phi Phi Don. This came in the form of a beautifully prepared Thai red curry, with calamari and fish. If you are not a fish eater, there are always alternatives and all very authentically Thai. Drinks are also usually included, although it is worth checking this before you set out, as to prevent not having enough cash.
You will no-doubt be taken to Bamboo island, which is exactly as it says on the tin – if I may indulge in a cliché. You can literally see from one side of the island to the other and swim around it within a few minutes. The boats will almost always supply snorkelling gear and this is an ideal place for the act. Many trips only take you to Bamboo Island for half a day, because it is the ultimate location if you were after a beach holiday.
The other thing that the boat trips will let you experience is swimming in the darker ocean with or without a snorkel. This is an experience in itself, because depending on the tide, you might feel a slight sting from time to time, like a little prick across the skin. This is the plankton drifting around you. It is not particularly disruptive to your relaxation, but serves as a reminder that you are in fact in the wild. What is really fantastic about this sort of excursion is that you can do what you want. You can chill on the boat, beaches or swim amongst the colourful fishes. There is no, “now you will do this.” The final island we stopped at was Maya Beach, which is where “The Beach” was shot. Apart from recognition, you will also notice something overcome your being. You are in paradise! Did I just use that ghastly one-liner? Well it applies.
You will also find that throughout the journey of hopping between islands, there are plenty of restrooms and places to buy refreshments. It is paradise, yet subtly commercial, the perfect mix.
From Krabi, with very heavy hearts, we took a shuttle bus to Phuket. Had we had enough time, we would have stayed here a few nights. But as all good things come to an end, we decided to end it on a high, by flying home via Singapore. This vibrant city is a stark contrast to Bangkok and extremely high-tech, friendly and clean. Another type of holiday and one we’ll leave for next time.
At the end of such a trip, comes a time to reflect on all that we had seen and from the first time we stepped outside our hotel room, to the moment we boarded our flight, it had been perfect. Thailand had accepted us with open arms and through our adventure there was never a moment when we felt as if we would rather be anywhere else.
If you’ll allow me to steal a line from “The King and I.”
“For a long time, we’ve said this hour must come. Now it is no longer talk. It is upon us. What do we do?”
We shall return and we shall do it all again.