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.

Scuba diving: a lesson on facing your fears

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If you’ve been following my blog from the beginning, you might know that last year, I received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety triggered by OCD. I basically couldn’t control the negative intrusive thoughts coming into my head and it escalated to the point that each day I convinced myself I would be burgled, pushed in front of a train, stabbed in the street etc, purely because the image in my head was so real and relentless.It was such a horrible phase and I’m so glad therapy made it a relatively short one. I never used to be the sort of person who was scared to take risks. I have always been fairly happy-go-lucky and carefree. I had moments last year where I was too scared and anxious to leave the house for fear of something terrible happening, and I never, ever want to feel like that again. I desperately want my experience, and the fact CBT worked so well for me, to help other people going through a similar thing.

Anxiety disorders are so common and absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It can 100% be controlled with time and patience. It will always be a quiet battle at the back of my mind, but learning to scuba dive was the final push for me to face my fears.

I have always dreamed of travelling. I had planned to travel by a certain age, and that age was fast approaching. How was I suppose to head off around the world and face the unknown when I felt scared every time the doorbell went? Enough was enough. I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of a dream I had held close for so long, so I set about facing my fears one step at a time. It started with learning to ignore my own thoughts, which is pretty difficult when you feel like your negative thoughts are the only thing keeping you safe, and it finished with deliberately doing things I am terrified of. The biggest so far? Scuba diving. I decided to do my open-water course in Koh Lanta a week into my travels.

For those of you who have never been scuba diving, there’s a fair bit of theory behind it you have to learn for your own safety, with an exam at the end of the 4-day course. I was basically given a massive book that told me in every other paragraph how I’d get decompression sickness, drown or sink if I did something wrong. Or that my lungs would explode if I accidentally ascended too quickly. Throw in the fear of being eaten by a shark or stung by poisonous fish and there’s quite a lot to think about whilst your submerged 18m under water. There’s also the fear of looking ridiculous in your wetsuit, or forgetting how to prepare the equipment. Throughout the course however, my biggest fear became my greatest ally; the fear of embarrassing myself. I was diving with strangers, and the idea of them knowing how I felt inside was even more terrifying than all the above, which actually worked in my favour because I had no choice but to just get on with it.

On my first proper ‘fun dive’ a giant sea turtle swam gracefully past me, amongst hundreds of exotic fish, and I had a quiet moment of celebration to myself. It had all been worth it. Because, the truth is, you just aren’t living if you don’t take risks, and you will never see the truly beautiful if you don’t make sacrifices somewhere along the way. It won’t be easy, but that’s what makes it worth it. I hope anyone reading this can have the courage to believe in themselves just a fraction more, because if I can learn to scuba dive, you can face your fears too.

Dive & Relax, Koh Lanta

Learning to dive wasn’t a spontaneous decision. It was something I’d been desperate to learn as a teenager, and something that was edging further and further away from me the more I thought about the risks. I would have been so annoyed with myself if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to do it whilst in Koh Lanta, which has a great reputation for dive centres.

‘Dive & Relax’, based on Long Beach, was perfect for me. They promise small groups and a personal service. You are effectively trusting your instructor with your life in some ways so it’s important to learn somewhere quiet if you’re a bit nervous. The 4-day course cost around £300, which included a day of theory, a shore dive, 4 boat dives, an exam, lunch and drinks.

If you would like any more information on CBT or scuba diving (or anything else I’ve covered) please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Falling for Koh Lanta

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A couple of days ago, my best friend asked over the phone, “So, how do you know where to go?” Which was actually a very good question. It is quite hard planning a 3-week trip to Thailand. So many people have been for so many different reasons: partying in Koh Phi Phi, slowing down the pace in Pai, trying to beat the crowds to Koh Lipe etc etc. What happens if you want a bit of everything? Or if someone tells you the place you had in mind is rubbish? Trying to figure out which islands and areas might suit you best via your own research is problematic when every other person you speak to claims to be an expert. How much of the hype do you believe? The reason I’m saying this is because some websites and people warned us away from Koh Lanta, and it was somewhere we’d always wanted to visit. We read it had become crowded and touristy, and we almost didn’t go. Fortunately, we trusted our instincts and gave it a chance because a lot of what we read online was wrong. The island is beautiful. With maybe 10 people to share the beach with. At high season. Here are a few reasons we loved Lanta so much.

THE BEACH BARS

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We arrived at night, and every other path from the road (Lanta South Island is basically one really long road) was lined with lanterns and candles leading down to the beach. We followed one on Khlong Dao and came out to a row of relaxed, beautifully lit beach-side bars and restaurants, each with its own personality and each very chilled. It was actual heaven after our 12-hour stint from Bangkok. Drinking a cold beer with hundreds of stars above, the sand under your feet and candles everywhere does a lot for the soul.

THE FOOD

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I was so surprised to discover the price of the food is pretty similar to Bangkok – averaging at about 120 baht (£2.40) for all the Thai classics. The food is so good. I don’t think I will ever get bored of rotating papaya salad, massaman curry and tom yam soup. Beer and cocktails are slightly more expensive but still not a scratch on London – about 60 baht (£1.20) for a beer and 160 baht for a cocktail (£3.20). Quick tip: the more traditonal places up on the road usually serve better food than the expensive-looking places on the beach, plus they’re cheaper and quieter.

THE SUNSETS

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The sun starts to set at 6pm in Lanta and was pretty impressive every night. The best viewing place we found was the Diamond Cliff Restaurant at the very south of the island, which has its own beach and huge horizon. We shared the experience with about 15 others, which cast a bit of a shadow on my once-loved crowded spot at Ibiza’s Cafe Mambo. But maybe that’s just me getting old.

THE SCUBA DIVING

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I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but in Lanta I decided to do my open-water scuba-diving course at a dive centre called Dive & Relax. Paying just a little bit extra meant only having one other person in my group, doing my theory in a luxury resort and generally having the best service. I was pretty nervous so this was really important to me and now I can see why Dive & Relax come so highly recommended on Trip Advisor.

THE CAVES

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On our last day we trekked to one of Lanta’s caves, avoiding the cave you can trek to riding an elephant. Read ‘Beginning in Bangkok‘ if you want to know why elephant trekking is cruel. Anyway, we trekked by foot to a cave and went inside with a guide. Let’s just say I was glad I wore my hiking boots, and have never felt happier to be a small person. I would not have wanted to squeeze through those gaps if I was Joe! We also got to see hundreds of bats all fast asleep. A great 3-hour trip if you’re quite outdoorsy.

THE NATIONAL PARK

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This was an embarrassingly big moment for me because I’d never seen monkeys just wandering around. I was so excited. Shame they went around in mobs, terrorising everyone. The national park is beautiful and not at all busy. It’s at the very bottom of the island and we drove there on a moped in about an hour from Klong Dao. You can rent a moped for about 250 baht (£5) for 24 hours.

THE TRAVEL LINKS

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Koh Lanta is a very practical island to visit. You can get their easily from Phi Phi and Krabi by boat, and then to smaller islands like Koh Jum and Koh Mook if that takes your fancy.

We originally planned to stay in Lanta for 4 nights and stayed a whopping 9! Partly because I did a 4-day course and partly because it just had a bit of everything. You can party at Pangea or Mushroom bar, learn to cook Thai food, practice yoga or simply soak up the sun. Let’s just hope it stays exactly as it is.