Thailand: 15 things I wish I’d known

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Flying from London to Bangkok is often the easiest, cheapest way to reach South-East Asia, so many travellers begin their journey in the ever-popular Thailand. We had just 3 weeks to get a taste of Thailand’s diverse culture and, although we had the best time, there are a few small things I wish I known before we arrived.

As someone very new to this whole travelling thing, I’ve been torn between a desire to be spontaneous and see where the week takes me and the need to plan each step with extensive research. I think a combination is important, with an open mind being the most useful possession you can have. We researched where to visit enough to know they had very different things to offer, but we didn’t plan how long we would stay at each place until we arrived. We spent 4 days in Bangkok, 9 days in Koh Lanta, 2  days in Koh Jum, 2 days in Koh Phi Phi and 3 days in Phuket. Here are a few things we learned along the way, as I’m sure anyone who visits Thailand will relate to…

1. What you see isn’t always what you get
And I’m not just talking about ladyboys. Whilst your instinct might tell you that the nicest-looking restaurants will serve better food, and cheap street food will upset your stomach, the street food wins every time. It is generally tastier and cheaper. As long as its cooked fresh in front of you, you can’t go wrong.
 
2. Cheese and Ham toasties from 7/11 are totally acceptable
A pre-made toastie in a packet from the corner shop should be so wrong, but it’s so, so right. I let my usual eating habits go completely out the window and ate whatever I felt like, at whatever time of day. It’s liberating to let go of old routines.

3. You don’t have to book accommodation in advance
It is perfectly fine to just rock up and ask for a room. 9 times out of 10 there will be a vacancy in the first place you try. Ask to see the room before you pay and don’t let anyone organise accommodation and taxis for you – chances are they are working on commission and you will end up paying more to cover it.

4. Leo is better than Chang
I love beer, but a few days drinking Chang left me feeling horrible – Leo is the one. Also, SangSom isn’t as bad as it should be. Cheap rum disguised as whiskey isn’t exactly my bag, but when it costs £5 a bottle and doesn’t give you a hangover then I’ll take it.

5. Elephant trekking and tiger temples are never OK
I already knew this before visiting Thailand, but the reality of the cruelty hits you harder when you actually see the poor animals and investigate for yourself.

6. Your laundry will come back half the size
I had no idea whether to take good-quality clothes or old stuff I can chuck if needed. Definitely take the old stuff and buy cheap essentials when you arrive. Clothes become far more disposable when you’re travelling

7. Phi Phi isn’t paradise (unless you’re willing to pay)
5 years ago I would probably have loved to party in Phi Phi, but it turns out I grew out of it before I had the chance. However, there are beautiful places on the other side of the island if you have a bigger budget. Also, you have to pay for Maya Bay (‘The Beach’) now, and it was very beautiful, but very busy.

8. Lanta actually is paradise
I never wanted to leave! Read my post on Lanta for the many reasons why.

9. There is another side to Phuket without the bad reputation
When most people think of Phuket, they have the image of party town Patong. We stayed in Phuket town with Joe’s sister, who lives in Thailand. It was great to go out with some locals to a Thai nightclub, and visit quieter beaches and traditional Muslim restaurants.

10. There are still some untouched islands
I’m so pleased we took the boat from Koh Lanta and went to Koh Jum (pictured above) for a couple of days. The island has only had electricity since 2014 and is so peaceful. We stayed in a bungalow nestled between the jungle and the beach and I literally spent my time reading, writing and swimming in the sea. Pure bliss. I think we saw about 10 other people the whole time we were there.

11. It’s the perfect opportunity to scuba dive
Thailand has a great reputation for learning to scuba dive. Courses are cheap and you’re guaranteed to see some exciting things. My first ever dive was mind blowing, and Lanta  is quiet with plenty of dive centres, so you get a great service. Read my post on learning to scuba dive for more info.

12. Every night you get drunk and manage not to get a tattoo is a miracle
There are tattoo parlours everywhere. Lots of my friends swear by bamboo tattooing, and it’s cheaper than the UK, too. Just be careful you don’t wake up with mysterious Thai writing on your white bits.

13. Beware beauty products with whitening agents
The last thing you need when you’re enjoying your new tan is a facial wash that bleaches your skin.

14. The cockroaches are massive, and terrifying
Insects don’t bother me, but cockroaches that leap out of your bag and into your face do. Also, make sure your insect repellent has deet in, as it’s the only thing that keeps the mozzies away.

15. Air-conditioning is overrated
I’m a big fan of the fan. Air-con gave me a cold after just one night, and fan rooms are cheaper!

There are so many other things I’ve learned in just 3 weeks in Thailand, but it’s funny how quickly the little things become the most useful. It’s a great place to find your feet before you move on to other countries, or simply have the holiday of a lifetime.

If you’re planning a trip to Thailand and would like any more information about how we went about ours, please don’t hestitate to get in touch.

Beginning in Bangkok

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When I told people I’d be celebrating New Year’s Eve in Bangkok, I was either met with an unenthusiastic ‘oh cool’ or an even more worrying ‘oh god’. Bangkok seems to have a terrible reputation, and in all honestly I was expecting the worst. Maybe this was why I was actually pleasantly surprised. Sure it’s crowed and dirty, but so is London. And I love London. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I love Bangkok, but it’s lively energy and weakness for taking the world’s most interesting characters under it’s wing are enchanting. It’s also ridiculously cheap, the street food is incredible and you can buy 50 baht (£1) beers from cool boxes on the street. We all go crazy over Notting Hill Carnival, so why do we give Bangkok such a hard time? Here are a few things worth staying a little longer to see.

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As much as I enjoyed my time in Bangkok, I’m not sure how I would have fared arriving on my own. I usually walk around with my head in the clouds, so I’m lucky Joe’s a bit more streetwise. Some people are simply out to take you for a ride.  The tuk-tuk drivers definitely seem to be running the show when it comes to scamming tourists. Always agree the price upfront if you really need to get one, but I would stick to taxis with a meter.

Contrary to our original plan, we were in Bangkok for 4 days. 2 nights were spent in a hotel (Nouvo City) with a rooftop pool, and 2 nights in a slightly dodgy guesthouse. I think the bed was made from concrete, and we couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights off, but we survived. On our last day in Bangkok, we arranged to visit a wildlife sanctuary a 2-hours drive south, by which point I was desperate to get out of the city and into an open space, with oxygen and trees.

Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT), is a not-for-profit organisation devoted to rescuing and rehabilitating animals previously used for entertainment. It was such an eye-opening day, and really explained the abuse that goes on behind the scenes of some of Thailand’s original tourist attractions, like elephants rides, tiger temples and dancing bears. The cost of the day trip (about £69) is currently going towards building a modern elephant hospital, and in return we were able to take one of the elephants for a walk around the park, feed her and give her a bath, which was pretty much a dream come true. We were also given a tour of the park, which is home to sun bears, gibbons, exotic birds and more. The day included lunch and transfers and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

The elephant trekking you see advertised in all Thai tourist offices should be avoided at all costs. Never ever ride an elephant. No matter how kind the mahouts seem to their elephants, the only reason you are able to ride them is because they are terrified and have been badly abused. They are trained with spikes and chains, babies separated from the mother far too young and forced to carry people until they are broken. YouTube it. In 5 years time we’ll be lucky if Thailand has elephants at all. I felt very lucky to be so close to these beautiful creatures in the right environment.

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I had the best time in Bangkok, and I was so sure I would hate it! Here are a few things you might want to squeeze in rather than getting shit-faced on Khaosan Road (which, admittedly, we did do):

  •  Amazing (and amazingly cheap) street food on Soi Rambuttri.
  • Thai and foot massages at Shewaspa – the same price as most places but definitely the best.
  • Wat Poh Temple – nowhere near as busy as The Grand Palace and shuts later.
  • The flower market – pretty surreal.
  • Chatuchak market (JJ market), where you’ll find everything from vintage Levis to good fake-designer shit to husky puppies. It is HUGE.
  • Ethos – incredible vegan restaurant down a backstreet and the best place for breakfast

It’s weird writing this now from Koh Lanta, which couldn’t be more different to Bangkok (and is fast becoming the best place I have ever been) but don’t knock Bangkok until you’ve tried it! It might just surprise you.

A lesson on keeping a clear head

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In October, when I proudly announced that I’d be going travelling at Christmas, my plan was to document the build-up. The build-up is just intermittent butterflies and last-minute packing for some, but for me it was the strange and stressful journey I guessed it would be. So strange, that I haven’t attempted to write about it until now. ‘Now’ being on board a plane to Bangkok. I don’t think it’s really felt real until today, and I went through of phase of wishing maybe it wasn’t. Fortunately, I ignored the voice that told me I wasn’t quite up to it, because I know it only gets a look in when I haven’t slept or rested enough. For that reason I wanted to do a post about overdoing it. And I don’t mean overdoing it in terms of too much Christmas pudding, I mean by simply doing too much.

Understandably, Christmas is often the hardest time to rest. You have this image of yourself curled up on the sofa with a blanket and a box of Quality Streets all week, when in reality you’re still shopping on Christmas Eve, you’re constantly keeping an eye out for elderly relatives needing the toilet, and trying to visit as many people as possible in the name of Christmas cheer. Throw in a few family tiffs and you end up either drunk as a dodo or have the hangover from hell. I for one, did not feel particularly rested over Christmas, although I did feel more content in some ways. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a moment with my friends and family, but one day of nothing to yourself is something you’re entitled to no matter the time of year. I guess I felt that I’d have all the time in the world to rest in Thailand, but then I thought that about Christmas, too. When is it supposed to end?

I was under no illusion that I’d be super busy between the day I handed my notice in at work until the day I flew to the Far East 10 weeks later, but looking back now, I can’t actually believe how much I packed in. I wanted to go away with no regrets, so I said yes to everything. Right now, I can’t help but wish I’d reserved a few days to gather my thoughts. I have a friend who schedules ‘rest days’ into her diary, which I have so much respect for. After a point, it becomes impossible to enjoy anything if you haven’t first had a moment to yourself to catch-up and compose yourself. I mean, you should see my bloody toenails right now. I didn’t even give myself 10 minutes to paint my toenails! Over the last 10 weeks, I have flitted from one thing to the next without pausing to think. Typically, it all kind of hit me when I was skiing down a mountain in Austria a couple of weeks ago.

My dad has always wanted to go skiing, so for his 50th birthday, we found a pre-season deal and flew out to Austria the day after I left my job. A skiing holiday can be pretty intense. I knew in my mind and body that all I really needed was rest, but I was determined to hold out for just a few more days. Moving out of our flat, commuting and working my notice period in amongst the standard stresses of Christmas turned out to be more emotionally and physically draining than I had hoped. Anyway, one minute I was skiing perfectly and the next I convinced myself I couldn’t do it. The danger of falling off the side of the mountain suddenly felt so real that I crouched down, dug myself into the snow and started to panic, which is exactly how I’ve felt about going away. It was that voice, the one that’s only there when I’m ridiculously tired. You know how sometimes a piece of bad news feels much worse just before bed than it does the following morning? It’s because tiredness affects our ability to cope much more than we care to admit. If I could give anyone who’s about to travel or make some big changes some advice, it would be to put a few days of rest at the top of your list, and tell everything else to wait.

I am so thankful that I’ve squeezed in seeing all the people I care about before I head off round the world, but there are times where I should have said I was ‘busy’ resting. Saying yes to opportunities that come your way is so important, but learning when it’s best to say no can be more beneficial for everyone in the long run.

I’m sure at the end of this 11-hour flight I’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about, but right now I’m just really happy to have an hour to myself to write something. I was going to write about how hard it was to say goodbye to everyone I love, and how moved I was by the cards and kind words. I don’t think I have ever felt so loved in all my life. But those words belong to the people I’ve already shared them with, and these words belong to you, whoever is reading this now: thank you so much for reading the first post from my little adventure, and a very happy New Year.