On January 1, Ed’s flight from New York and my flight from Sydney both landed at Phuket airport in Thailand. We didn’t speak a word of Thai and had only done basic research on the region. On March 31, we had our departure cards stamped at Friendship Bridge IV and entered Laos. Between those dates, we were given the opportunity to explore the country, try all kinds of foods and become fast friends with some really jae dee (kind/good hearted) people.
Dismantling our prejudice: Thailand is only as touristy as your choices
I’ve mentioned it before: I originally only had a passing interest in Thailand. Had it not been for the volunteering project I was so adamant about taking part in, we probably would have spent a couple weeks here at most. Thailand, as everyone knows, is full to the brim with tourists, particularly spoiled Europeen teenagers and creepy old men. If you’re not looking for sex, drugs or parties, Thailand’s not for you.
Ok, if you go to the main foreign touristy areas and/or partake in foreign touristy activities then yeah, it’s touristy and crowded. Khao San Road, Chiang Mai city centre and Pai’s guesthouse street made us wonder if perhaps we were in California or along Australia’s East Coast.
But even our first stop, Phuket town, was no more touristy than, say, Yonge Street in Toronto. (Aka, yes, there were foreigners and foreigner tourist infrastructure, but there was a satisfactory level of localness, enough to make you feel like you’re away from home.) Same went for Ayutthaya, Sukhotthai, Chiang Rai and Pak Chong – all places I expected to be swarming with obnoxious tourists and was pleasantly mistaken.
Then there was Mae Hong Son. Beautiful Mae Hong Son with its affordable guesthouses, delightful countryside and tour companies galore. It probably fills up more around Chinese New Year, but still, we weren’t really on low season and were still the only foreign travelers in sight.
Pretty much everywhere else we went- Ranong, Khon Kaen and Phitsanalok, we were the only non-expat foreigners. It was almost a shame because, as nice as it was to avoid tuk-tuk pressure and not be overwhelmed by rude/careless tourists, we missed out on a lot of local sights since there was no way to get around that was both simple and within a reasonable budget.
The lesson is, though, despite what people will tell you about Thailand, it is pretty easy to avoid superficial areas. Beaches and islands, not really, since I get the impression that the average Thai isn’t a huge fan of that sort of holiday (though there are some remote islands where you can do homestays in small villages). But many cities have awesome history, elaborate culture, unbelievably delicious restaurants with friendly songtheow drivers, star-struck children, eager-to-please hotel staff and cheerful market stall owners. Just hop on a bus or a train to somewhere you’ve never heard of (you can use Travelfish and TravelWiki to guide you) and enjoy. Maybe you’ll have to visit the city museum with Wikipedia/Google as your guide since you can’t read the signs, but you will get an experience that’s anything but “touristy”.
And even in cities with more developed tourism infrastructure, it’s possible to dodge the crowds by choosing hotels that have a Thai website, “authentic neighbourhood” in their description and reviews like “place was clean and comfortable but staff did not speak English”. (Really, who cares if you can’t have a heart-to-heart with the staff? Body language and context is enough for most of your needs and all problems can be solved with Google Translate. Unless you’re like 60 and don’t use the internet, you’ll get more information/better deals online than from the most fluent guesthouse staff anyway.) Eat at small, open air restaurants and browse markets that look like they sell a lot of food. Westerners are afraid of street food… and eating is Thailand’s national hobby. So you can easily tell who an intended audience for a market is by the amount of food stalls.
Speaking of food
Ed and I got along with all the locals we met. Beyond cultural and language barriers, we were brought to together by our indulgent and very human love of om-nom-noms…
When we first arrived in Ranong, not starving to death was indeed a preoccupation. How do you order when there are no English menus or photos to point at? After a few weeks, though, we’d walk through downtown and smirk at all the foreigners eating at the crappy, overpriced Western restaurants while we feasted on delicious, inexpensive Thai food prepared by experienced and passionate chefs.
I’d always been told to avoid street food, but we weren’t careful at all. We did get sick twice each. Once I got suddenly and violently sick within an hour of eating at a sit down restaurant. I threw up once every 2 hours for 8 hours, then was weak for a few days. Ed got upset stomach for a few days from an unknown source (could have been the heat for all I know). Then we both got upset stomach for about two days when we first arrived in Chiang Rai. Not sure if was Pai, living up to its reputation (Pai is known for its food poisoning), or the sit down restaurant we chose for our first Chiang Rai meal, but it was a most unpleasant experience. But given that we ate whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, (including from those stalls that handle money and your food with the same hands…) I’d say we did pretty well.
A lot of street food stalls prepare the food right in front of you, those are probably the safest of all. Bonus points if they avoid touching food after touching money. The pork on a skewer with sticky rice is Ed’s favorite meal and I was an almost universal fan of Thai fried chicken (trust me, I don’t even like fried chicken at home!).
As for restaurants, soup places are easy to order from. Just walk up to their display and point at the type of noodles you want. They might whip you up something on the spot or they might show you a bunch of things you can yes/no. As for cook to order places, just ask for pad grapaow moo (stir fried pork with basil) Just about every restaurant serves it but everyone one makes it differently so you could order it every meal and never eat the same thing twice. If they don’t offer you khao (rice), ask for a bowl of that too.
#1 Lesson: Get a data plan
I do my research in my hotel room. Once I’m outside, I like to explore and discover things on my own, even if it means getting lost. Ed, on the other hand, has the internet attached to a major artery. Cut him off and he dies. This can cause us tension.
His data plan has, however, on many occasions, saved us unnecessary expenses, prevented needless wandering (indirectly preventing heat exhaustion) and rescued us from pushy tuktuk drivers. After installing a Thai keyboard, it has also facilitated many conversations with curious or helpful locals. Even though most cafes have free wifi, it’s so much easier to just whip out your phone whenever you need to look something up. And you don’t have to keep buying drinks.
We went with AIS but there are other providers. We didn’t shop around, but at 430 Baht (15USD) for 4G/month, you get your money’s worth.
On Booking Ahead
A lot of travelers asked us about our booking habits. Europeans around our age, especially, are very nervous about not booking ahead.
The only place where we had to sorta book ahead was the sleeper train to Chiang Mai since there were no tickets left the day of. Greenleaf in Pak Chong sometimes fills up in high season so you might want to email them before you get there to make sure you have a bed/spot on a tour.
It’s totally possible to go door-to-door at guesthouses, but if you want the absolute best value (and we did!), it’s nice to book the night before through Hotels.com or Agoda since you can browse reviews and guarantee yourself a bed. I also liked saving our cash and using my credit card.
For busses, unless you really need to be on a specific bus at a specific time, you might as well just show up at the bus station. If you’re doing an unusual route, you might want to stop by the station beforehand to view the schedule (never trust any schedule you see online, they change way too frequently), but most of the time you can just show up when you’re ready to leave and jump on the next bus. I think the longest we ever had to wait was two hours. (This might be different during major holidays and Chinese New Year but it applies the rest of the time.)
Unless you’re faced with exceptional circumstances, never book a bus or minibus from anywhere but a bus station (other than, maybe, for the vans that depart the Democracy Monument in Bangkok). You won’t get a good deal. When in doubt about a bus, look around. If white foreigners are the majority, you’re probably getting ripped off. (There are exceptions, like if you’re doing a touristy thing like crossing a border or going between two close-together touristy places, but other than that, there were rarely more than 4-5 other white people on our busses.)
Non-sleeper trains are similar to busses, if you want a specific one or are going to an unusual stop, maybe book ahead (if they let you!), but otherwise you can just show up. Train stations also have handouts of their schedules, which you can even find online (click on the arrows until you find the one you want).
Favorite city: Sukhothai
Honorable mentions: Mae Hong Son, Khon Kaen
Favorite transportation: Sleeper train Ayutthaya-Chiang Mai
Honorable mentions: VIP bus front row top deck Khon Kaen-Phitsanulok, 3rd class train Ayutthaya-Pak Chong
Favorite food: Khao Soi
Honorable mentions: Pad grapaow moo (Fried pork with basil), Thai fried chicken
Conclusion: Evaluating Our Itinerary
You’d think a month on the go would be enough to see most of Thailand. It’s not. We were moving pretty quickly (as could be observed by my increasing frequency of tears and “I’m so tired!”s) and while we were definitely ready to see a new country after 3 months, we definitely didn’t see everything I wanted.
If I were given 4 extra weeks in the country, I’d make a bigger loop around Isaan/the North East, pushing around Ubon Ratchathani/Sakon Nakhon/Udon Thani/Loei. There’s a UNESCO heritage site east of Udon Than, Ban Chiang, that I was very upset to pass up (I found out about it too late or I would have gone there instead of Khon Kaen, as much as I loved Khon Kaen).
I guess it’s good to leave some loose ends, though, gives us even more motivation to come back, visit our “family” at the school and get a little better at our Thai speak.