The Land of Smiles!

THAILAND

Overview

By now I have been to Thailand twice. The second trip was for work and I did not stay in this wonderful country much longer, but went to Bali instead (see Bali post). I will talk about the first visit- incredible vacation that I had with one of my best friends from Lithuania- Vilma. I already lived in Boston, Vilma- in a gloomy and often dreary UK. As we both despise winter, we decided to take a trip to tropical Thailand and escape cold reality for a few weeks. At this point in our lives, neither of us had been traveling much or have ever been to Asia. It was the longest travel time alone for us both, yet we decided on the dates, booked our flights and could not wait to meet up on the other side of the globe!

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Reunited at last! In Thai culture it’s believed to be a good luck to wear yellow on  a Monday

Before the trip we we did our research and prepared, hoping all would go according to plan. However, the start was a bit nerve wracking to say the least. First- Vilma’s flight was delayed due to fog and she had to take a boat, then a bus to make it to London for her long haul flight. As for me- I came to American Airlines counter in Boston, all excited about my trip. Here I was told, that because I have a layover in Beijing, China, holding Lithuanian passport, I need a transit visa! I worked in the travel industry at the time and checked and re-checked all of the requirements. There was no visa needed, unless I was leaving the airport. I only had a couple of hours to make the connecting flight, so I had no desire to venture into China.

American airlines representative was clearly misinformed and put quite a damper on the first few hours of my vacation. She refused to check my luggage all the way through to Bangkok and only checked it to New York City. Her words were: “You may go to NYC and then you will have to come back at your own expense. They will not let you continue on without a visa through China”.

I decided to take my chances. It was Saturday, China Embassy is not open (it’s in NYC anyway, if I really had to get the visa I would wait there till Monday). I was praying and hoping on my flight to New York that the rep made a mistake and it’s not my oversight. Luck was on my side. I got to the Air China counter, told them the story and they laughed. No visa is needed for a layover! I am going to Thailand!!!

BANGKOK

It was a long long flight. Especially long when you are 5’10 (1.78m) tall and sitting in the Economy class. But you know what?  It did not matter! After the scare that my dream trip could have been cancelled due to the visa, I was grateful to be on the plane and didn’t care that my knees pretty much hit the front seat the whole way.

Upon landing, I had to get a Thai visa, which was issued right at the airport. Bring 2 passport pictures (I had those ready from home), fill out the form, show that you have enough funds (at the time it was 300 USD) and the visa is in your passport.

As I mentioned earlier, I worked in the travel industry- emergency travel assistance company to be exact. So I had an advantage- one of the local Air Ambulance nurses came to greet me at the airport, exchanged the money from USD to Thai Baht and lent me a local cell phone for the trip! Mind you, this was well past midnight Bangkok time.

That was my first encounter with Thai culture generosity and kindness. Nort, who I became friends with, the owner of the air ambulance company, met me and Vilma the next day, arranged us a guide for Bangkok, took us out to dinner and even went dancing with us at the Beds Superclub (now closed)!

While we continued on our own to Chiang Mai and Krabi, he checked in with us regularly, gave us advice on what meals to order and made sure we are feeling safe and happy in Thailand. It was the first time we’ve met. He did not need to go out of his way like that, there was nothing to get in return. But that’s how Thai people are.  It is incredible and unforgettable.

Bangkok- around 9 million people metropolis and the capital of the Kingdom of Thailand. You could spend a year there and still see just a fraction of it. Well, we had three days and a lovely jet lag! But sleep was not on our list of things to do for now. We have to see this huge vibrant city. So off we went. But not before we took a good look at our amazing Lebua at State Tower hotel grounds and had a huge  breakfast buffet! It literally had everything you would want and more- fruit, freshly made eggs, pancakes, waffles and even sushi in case anyone is craving it in the morning!

To be quite honest – having a guide was the best idea. I highly recommend hiring one for the first day. The city is hot, busy, hectic. It is fun to explore on your own, which we did for the following two days. But having someone knowledgeable to come pick you up in the air conditioned car, taking you the fastest way to avoid traffic and showing you the main tourist sights was extremely convenient and helpful.

The Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), The Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun), Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) – I would say those are the most important and MUST visit while in Bangkok. By the way- the mismatching scarves that we are wearing- we had to cover up the shoulders (and legs if you are wearing shorts/short skirt) before going to the temples. If you don’t have one (we obviously did not)- you can buy or borrow them for a small donation right near the temples. Next time we would have our own and coordinate the colors better 🙂 .

These temples are pretty close to each other and it is manageable to visit them all in the same day. Especially if you have a driver/guide. The Reclining Buddha and The Temple of Dawn were my favorites.

If you have some time and want to relax after walking- take a river boat ride on the Chao Phraya River- the major river in Thailand.

A slow boat ride will  also allow you to see Bangkok from a different angle.

Once you feel somewhat accustomed to the craziness of this city, make sure to take a ride in a tuk-tuk. It’s a bit scary when the driver guns the little cart-like vehicle full speed and goes in and out of traffic, but trust the pro and enjoy the experience.

We survived 🙂 .

Depending on the day of the week that you are visiting Bangkok, you should venture into the markets. Chatuchak Weekend Market is a fun spot to get souvenirs, try local food or just people watch. It’s an organized chaos, just like this city itself.

For the beautiful exotic flowers, that literally cost pennies- check out the Pak Khlong (Flower market).

For around $5 USD you can buy 50 fresh roses! Some blooms were less than a penny.

A cool spot for shopping and restaurants- Asiatique the RiverfrontIMG_0105 It’s a large open-air mall where you can stock up on the souvenirs if you can’t make it to the weekend market. Also- take a ride in the Ferris Wheel overlooking the river.

Khao San Road is another fun area to hang out, try street food or a foot massage. The parlors are everywhere!

I know a lot of people are scared to eat street food. We were hesitant at first as well. But Then we gave it a try and loved it! Papaya salad (green shredded papaya) was one of my favorites. As it sort of looks like cabbage, I was first wondering where is the papaya?! It’s not the usual orange color sweet papaya that we are used to. It’s spicy and savory dish. Knowing you are a foreigner, they usually tone down the level of spiciness, but even with one chilly, you will probably be sweating 🙂 . SO good!

I mentioned foot rubs, but that’s the minimum you should do for self pampering while in this wonderful country. We had massages, facials, whole body scrubs- you name it- pretty much at least one spa procedure every day.

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Traditional Thai massage is done with clothes on

It is extremely good and so cheap!! You can get an hour massage for about $5 USD. I was shocked at first. Starbucks coffee costs more than that in Boston!

My favorite spa in Bangkok (they have a few locations) is Health Land Spa. Our new friend Nort took us there and I am forever grateful for the experience. Two hour full body oil massage- there is no better way to help sore muscles after a long flight. Health Land is a bit more upscale and pricier than a lot of massage places, but it’s extremely clean, professional and has a very relaxing atmosphere. It’s a MUST  do while in Bangkok.

I will not talk about the restaurants, as there are so many. We did not have bad food while in Thailand at all. There are also many clubs, bars and lounges- probably some of them have changed since my last visit (such as Beds Superclub, which is being transformed into another nightclub). But there is one place that I am sure is still open and you should go have a drink there- the Sky Bar! Sometimes called Hangover bar (not because you will have hangovers from their amazing cocktails, but because Hangover II movie scene was filmed there).

It’s one of the highest open bars in Asia, if not in the world.

CHIANG MAI

Chiang Mai is a city in northern Thailand- beautiful mountainous area and totally different pace than crazy busy Bangkok. I highly recommend spending at least a couple of days there, especially after visiting the Big Mango (aka Bangkok 🙂 ). There is a direct flight from BKK on Thai airlines and that’s what we took to get to Chiang Mai.

We chose Sirilana Hotel based on it’s Thai appearance and great reviews. It was as described- beautiful and welcoming, with extremely friendly staff.

If we thought Thais were friendly in Bangkok – Chiang Mai is a next level! Everyone was so sweet, warm and friendly. And everyone was smiling. Not a fake smile, but the one that you can see radiating from the eyes.

There is no official state religion in Thai constitution, which allows religious freedom for all Thai citizens, but the king is required by law to be Theravada Buddhist. The main religion practiced in Thailand is Buddhism and you will find Buddhist temples everywhere you go. Chiang Mai is no exception.

Wat Phra Singh temple is one of the many must see. IMG_1237DSC00432DSC00424DSC00419Build in 1345, renovated in the 19th century, temple is a beautiful work of art. Near some of the temples, locals sell little birds in the cages and say that if you release the birds, luck will come your way or your wishes will come true…So yes, I bought a cage and let the little birds fly. More luck for them, than for me 🙂 But it felt good to let at least a few of them free.

Another magnificent temple that is a must see is located 15km from Chiang Mai. High in the mountains Wat Phra That Doi Suthep or simply Doi Suthep is shining with it’s golden roofs. From the parking lot visitors can either walk up 309 steps or take a tram.IMG_1124

 

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We took the steps and admired the surroundings along the way.

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It’s absolutely worth taking a bit of a wild bus ride up the winding mountain roads for views like this.

When I think of Chiang Mai, I also associate it with nature. There are so many Eco tours you can chose from. Any hotel/tourism info center will have fliers of the companies organizing nature tours. I cannot recall the name of the one we took, but it was almost a whole day trip that involved an elephant ride, orchid farm,  Karen Long Neck tribe village, white water rafting and bamboo rafting! So many new experiences in one day! The driver picked us up at the hotel and we rode in this sort of a pick up truck with the other travelers. Not the most comfortable ride, but hey, it’s an adventure!

I was the most excited about the elephant ride. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s not something I would do…But also- we did not see any abuse.

Elephants were being fed bamboo sticks, we went over the river, nobody was pulling or rushing them. It did not feel like anyone was hurting these majestic animals at all. I really hope they were loved and well taken care of when tourists were not around as well.

The elephant adventure was only one part of the amazing Eco tour day. We also went to an orchid farm that was pretty incredible.

The blooms were in full swing and we got to enjoy variety of  kinds and colors.

Another stop- Karen Long Neck tribe village. It was very exotic experience, the women and the kids were friendly and did not mind us taking photos.

Karen Long Neck women wear heavy brass rings around their necks, forearms, and shins. They do it to hold on to their heritage, to keep the tradition and some for the money.  They don’t put as many rings as it used to be, but still, pretty impressive.

From Chiang Mai, exhibition village of Baan Tong Luang Village is the easiest place to visit.

The exhibition village isn’t as authentic as the more rural villages,  but it’s a great chance to see a pretty close version of the original village life, as well as some of the rice fields around. We had an amazing time!

And this day was not over yet! I don’t have many photos from the second part of it, because it involved a lot of water activities- hike to the waterfall, white water rafting and bamboo rafting!

We did not want to get the cameras wet, so I have no documented evidence of the rafting experience, but all I can say, it was so much fun!

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Our traveling companions after a long day of the exciting Eco Tour 🙂

For more Chiang Mai experience, definitely venture out to the Night Bazaar. Located in the center of the town the bazaar has tons of vendors selling jewelry, souvenirs, local arts and crafts as well as the street food.

Make sure to bargain, the prices are a bit jacked up, but friendly people are happy to negotiate them down.

For a nice lunch in Chiang Mai we favored Dada Kafe.IMG_0241 It had variety of fresh salads, sandwiches and refreshing drinks. For dinner, you should try The Riverside bar and Restaurant.

 

The place has great ambiance and delicious food.

Chiang Mai is a magical place. If you make a trip all the way to Thailand, find some time to visit this area. And tell me if I was right 🙂 .

KRABI

Krabi is a province on the southern west coast of Thailand, most famous for it’s beaches, more than a hundred offshore islands and limestone cliffs. To get to Ao Nang, Krabi from Chiang Mai, we took Thai airways to Bangkok and then another short flight to Krabi.

We had airport transfer set up for Aonang Phu Pi Maan Resort and Spa and reached the beautiful hotel in no time. As in other places in Thailand, four-five star hotels are very reasonably priced.

Typically I don’t stay at luxury resorts, but hey, if the price is right, then why not to spoil yourself 🙂 .

Ao Nang is a small touristy town in Krabi province with a lot of shops, restaurants and a nice beach with great sunsets.

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One of the beautiful sunsets we saw in Ao Nang, Krabi

We enjoyed both, as well as the massages on the beach (they even had lunch specials, when already low price was cut in half!). We took a walk down the Ao Nang Beach and came across the monkeys playing right on the sand!

You have to watch your belongings if you don’t want a monkey to take off with your hat or sunglasses, but it was so much fun to see them from up close in their natural habitat. Don’t turn around, but continue down the Ao Nang Beach till you reach the Monkey Trail. It connects Ao Nang Beach with Pai Plong Beach, otherwise accessible only by boat.

Pai Plong was pretty much deserted when we reached it late afternoon. It was incredible to see such a beautiful beach clear of tourists. I guess a little walk through the nature trail scared the crowds away 🙂 .

Ao Nang beach is also a very convenient place to take boat tours to the nearby islands. And as you are in Krabi, that is a MUST! We took a whole day Phi Phi Islands boat trip and sadly the pictures don’t do it justice.

We got to see the Phi Phi Leh Island  Maya beach where the scene for the movie “The Beach” was filmed, passed by the Chicken Island and stopped at The PhraNang Cave Beach, Koh Poda Island and Tup Island for a swim. Yes, prepare for some crowds. Especially at the Maya Beach. But regardless, I consider the boat tour a success. These were some of the most beautiful clear blue water/white sand beaches I have ever seen.

Out and about in one of the bars at Ao Nang we met a couple cool Australian guys and got convinced that we should try the Railay Beach rock climbing. There are quite a few companies that do courses from the beginner to well advanced. You can even jump off the rocks into the water if you are that brave. It was a first ever rock climb both for Vilma and I, so we chose beginners half day course.

Well, beginners or not- it was NOT EASY! Climbing the real rock is very much different from a rock-climbing gym wall. We were tired, bruised, scratched, but felt so accomplished by the end of the day 🙂 ! It was scary and there were times when the arm muscles refused to hold on for any longer. But the guides that belayed us were amazing. They would say- “Are you sure you’re done? Are you really sure you giving up now? There is amazing view from the top! Give it another try!” And so we did. We did not carry a camera on us for the obvious reasons,  so the view of the water and the surrounding cliffs from the top, remains only in the memory. It was so worth the effort. The feeling of overcoming the fear of heights, trusting your life with the seemingly such a tiny person on the ground and a skinny rope that holds you up is unforgettable.  Sometimes, in my daily life, when I am about to give up on something, I remember this climb. And how good it felt to reach the top. I ask myself- am I really giving up or do I have another push in me? Usually I manage to take another step.

So yes, climb those rocks in Thailand and give it all you’ve got. You might have a lot more in you than you think you do!

As if we did not do enough physical activities already, being at Railay Beach, we decided to add one more to the agenda- a hike to the Lagoon. Someone may have mentioned that it was Blue Lagoon. So we took off expecting something beautiful and blue as the Thai waters have been so far at all the beaches. Well, I must tell you- there was a lot of slippery sliding and climbing, there was a lot of mud and tree roots and even ropes to go down. And there was NOTHING blue about it once we reached the actual Lagoon 🙂 !!! I am sorry- the sky was still blue looking up ahead 🙂 .That’s about it.

Don’t get me wrong- it was a very fun hike. Not your typical hike at all. Definitely prepare to get dirty and bring water as it gets pretty sweaty. I would probably do it again just for a fun activity with friends and a lot less expectations for the views at the end 🙂 .

Before the end of the trip we wanted to try one more new thing- fish spa 🙂 !

It was a very strange feeling and sort of ticklish at first. Almost creepy knowing that fish are biting off the skin, but we got through it. I would not replace my regular pedi with this, but it was a fun new thing to try 🙂 .

CONCLUSION

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Where do I even begin! This was incredible trip in the amazing, beautiful country. There is so much to experience and explore. Two weeks flew by and we managed to see and do so much! There were so many firsts on this trip- first ever traveling so far away and on my own (till we met up with Vilma), first rock climbing experience, first elephant ride, white water rafting and first time on a bamboo raft! And let’s not forget the Thai massages and all  new dishes that we tried!

But apart from all of the touristy activities, what stayed with us most was the happiness, kindness and smiles of the Thai people.

Mai pen rai (pronounced My Pin Rye)– a Thai phrase with many meanings, summarizes Thai philosophy of life. It’s a phrase that can mean ‘it’s ok’, ‘it’s nothing’, ‘it does not matter’, ‘don’t worry about the small stuff’. It’s a culture where harmony and peace is valued over confrontation, where people tend to look at the bigger picture before getting worked up about it. It certainly connects to Buddhism, which teaches not to worry about things you cannot change. We got Mai pen rai tattoos while in Thailand  to remind us of this every day. That no matter what comes your way, this too shall pass. Keep on smiling!

 

 

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