You may recall that we had met up with Calvin, Clair’s brother in Bangkok, and after a few days flew to Cambodia with him. With our adventure through SE Asia coming to an end we headed back to where it all started; Thailand!
Day 1 – Bangkok: Back In The Saddle Again
Calvin was in Koh Tao, an island in the south of Thailand, and we thought that it sounded like a pretty decent place to have a last hurrah before he headed home. We grabbed an overnight train from the Bangkok and away we went. Like many travelers, we ended up purchasing our tickets online through 12go.asia and they arranged our overnight train ticket and ferry as a combo. A couple of hints for the train:
1.) Book sooner rather than later if you have inflexible dates OR you are dead set on a first class ticket. We were in 2nd class berths it was fine;
2.) Yes – the toilet drops directly onto the tracks;
3) Trains can be booked directly at the station, and it’ll save your around $10 per ticket. Don’t forget your passports;
4.) Eat before or bring food. The meals they offer are overpriced and not that great;
5.) Bring warm clothes! The trains can be FREEZING at night in the berths with AC;
6.) If you are two people book the upper and lower berth. The upper berths are cheaper, but it’s worth the $4-5 to have that section to yourself.
Day 2-9 – Koh Tao: Under The Sea
At around 4AM the next morning, we found ourselves at the Chumphon train station. We waited for two and half hours and then boarded a two-hour ferry to Koh Tao. We took the Lomprayah ferry and found it safe and comfortable.
Calvin had booked us a room at AC Resort where he was staying. First thing we noticed was how expensive everything was; 2-3 x the usual cost. The room itself was $55 CAD/night and although it was a decent place with a nice pool, it was nothing special. The front desk staff were so mean it was ALMOST funny! Either way, we were so happy to see Cal that it didn’t matter where we were staying. We spent two days and nights trying to keep up with him and heading to all of his favorite food vendors that he had found on his adventures. Our goodbye came too soon but we were happy to send Cal off in style.
We also had a new adventure on our horizon. We popped into Roctopus Dive Centre as an exploratory mission for Kik who wanted to get his Open Water Scuba Certification. By the time we left, we were both signed up for the course the next day! Koh Tao is one of the cheapest places in the world to do your Open Water Certification and there are dives centres EVERYWHERE. We really enjoyed our experience and would highly recommend Roctopus. They were professional, safe, and fun!
The next four days were spent with our amazing instructor Emily, introducing two prairie kids to a whole new world. We clearly love expensive sports that we cannot do at home.
We would definitely recommend Koh Tao. It’s more expensive and you can find a party any night of the week, but our diving experience set this island apart for us and is probably what made it so special. It sort of went something like this.
Day 9 – Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
Open Water Certification in hand, we decided it was time to head north! Although we were slightly disappointed (Kik: I wasn’t at all) to not try the flaming skipping rope at a full-moon party on Ko Pha Ngan, we knew it was time to move on.
Every once in while we have to punish ourselves with a terrible travel day. This one was no exception. We were up at 5AM to catch a ferry and begin the 30 minute walk to the pier because Kik refused to pay the taxi drivers the $25 they wanted for the 5 minute drive. Sweaty and tired we hopped on the four-hour ferry. Then we got on a bus. Then we got in a tuk tuk. Then we got on a plane. Then we got back in a tuk tuk, and finally we arrived in Chiang Mai!
Day 9- 11 – Chiang Mai:
Chiang Mai was not quite what we expected. Maybe we were expecting more greenery and cooler weather but it seemed like a cleaner version of Bangkok. We stayed at the CM Apartments which was a nice hotel in a pretty central area. If you head up to the main street there is a ton of street food vendors and Clair’s favorite soup man was there. We must’ve eaten there once a day just ensure we were getting the proper levels of MSG in our diet.
The two things we would recommend you check out while in town are the Night Bazaar and the Sunday Market. The Night Bazaar is really cool and is definitely a more upscale place that caters to tourists, but they have live bands and great food.
The Sunday Market was one of the biggest markets we’ve seen. It’s so busy it’s almost hard to deal with. The streets are shut down to vehicles and filled with floods of people instead. It also seems like there are more artisanal and better quality items at this market, so if you’re looking for some gifts to bring home this is a great place to look. There is no alcohol sold within the market, but we did find two ladies just outside the market who sell different types of fruity wines that we had to sit and try (Clair: They were terrible).
Day 11-15 – Pai: Damn your curves got me going like…
From Chiang Mai we wanted to head to Pai, which is about a three to four-hour drive. The ride to Pai is notorious for its 700+ curves. This made Kik want to take a scooter to avoid severe motion sickness, while this made Clair (and her mother) want to take the nausea-inducing but (slightly?) safer minibus. After what felt like days of deliberation we settled on the mini-bus.
Honestly, this might be the worst bus ride we have ever taken. Maybe because we’d talked about it so much, but Clair was literally green by the time the two-hour pit stop came around. This was made worse by the guy beside her who wouldn’t stop eating and chewing incredibly loudly for the whole trip. He barfed his guts out at the end, so serves him right.
In the end, it was worth it (even knowing we had to take the mini bus back). Pai gets a lot of flack from travelers for not being ‘authentic’ or whatever that means. But if you want a place to chill and drink kombucha, this is the place for you. It is a cute little town with a super hippy vibe and we loved it. There’s more western food (including the street vendors) but there also seems to be a lot more expats who have settled in this town. If you are really determined to be off the beaten path, then this may not be the town for you. But, we believe that as travelers we are all tourist, and authenticity comes from your appreciation and attempt at understanding the history, culture, and diversity of a country. Not whether you can get a wheat grass shot from a vegan restaurant.
Pai, or Pailand, has a much slower pace than Chiang Mai or Bangkok, and this was the only place where we rented a scooter in SE Asia. We had a great day checking out a few of Pai’s most famous sites. Don’t get too excited, they’re pretty low-key but definitely worth a visit. You can do these three in one day by scooter:
First, stop in at the land split. This used to be a farmer’s field, but due to earthquakes in 2008 and 2011 there’s a large crevasse in his land. He can no longer farm it so he opened it to tourists. You can do a short walk around the split and then stop in for some homemade hibiscus juice, wine, and fruit. It’s all free but they do ask for a donation, which we were happy to make.
Next we stopped at the waterfall, which barely had any water in it because it has been super dry.
Lastly, we went to the canyon. This was actually really impressive and in keeping with Thailand’s safety standards, there were no guard rails or warnings about the very steep and narrow paths. Bring water, real shoes, and an adventurous spirit because some of these paths are really scary.
Our accommodations were located just outside of town at Baan Kati Sod. Don’t expect much in terms of services but for $15 CAD/night for a clean and quiet bungalow with beautiful views of the sunset over the mountains, there’s not much to complain about.
There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and going for a scooter ride into town for breakfast to kick off the day. The food in Pai is really good and reasonably priced, especially if you’re jonesing for vegan or vegetarian fare. Here’s some of our favorite places:
- Om Garden Cafe (Breakfast/lunch)
- Big’s Little Cafe (Breakfast)
- Earth Tone Cafe (Healthy snack)
- Maya Burger Queen (Supper)
- Rai Cafe (Smoothies + Tom Yum soup)
- Edible Garden (Non-alcoholic drinks + live music)
- Mojo Cafe (Alcoholic drinks + live music)
- Love Coffee (Coffee)
- Cake Go O (Get the chocolate banana cake – I dare you)
Day 15-17 – Chiang Mai: Spoiled rotten
Having seriously relaxed in Pai we knew we had to start making our way back. This time we were slightly smarter when booking the minibus. We went a couple of days ahead and picked the seats in the front. This apparently helps with motion sickness. It didn’t really help that much but neither of us actually hurled, so we count that as a win.
Our return to Chiang Mai was pretty quiet as we got hit by a very slight bout of street food sickness. Having not relaxed enough in Pai, we also did something we’ve never done and went to a real Spa. IT WAS GLORIOUS. We got a 3-hour package and they had a current promotion on that was 2 for 1, so for around $150 CAD for both of us we got a foot soak/massage, a body scrub, a hot stone massage, and ended with a facial. We timed it so well that they had a car waiting to deliver us to our overnight train to Bangkok!
Day 17-19 – Bangkok: 24 hours in Bangkok
The train ride to Bangkok was uneventful and we arrived bright and early in Bangkok, found a Starbucks, and waited until we could check into our hostel. We decided to stay near the Metro and BTS line, so we didn’t have to deal with taxis and could easily get to the airport the next morning. Can we just say that the Metro/BTS system in Bangkok is really good! The only issue is that the Metro and BTS are two difference systems, so you need different tickets but it’s pretty straight forward and the connections are decent. We also checked out the MBK Mall and the Siam Centre. The MBK Mall is kind of like a crazy indoor market while the Siam Centre is like a designers dream.
We spent our last night at OneDay Hostel which we totally recommend. It has a nice restaurant and taproom but prices are definitely on par with back home.
South East Asia was a blast. We definitely thought we would have felt more overwhelmed but we felt very safe and comfortable throughout every country. There are three things we didn’t do that most people take advantage of while in the area. Visit the tigers temples or an elephant sanctuary and scooter (OK, we did do that but very carefully and in Pai). Here’s why:
There is so much controversy about tigers and elephant sanctuaries in SE Asia. From our research, many of the companies that promise an ethical experience aren’t reliable. We have attempted to travel as sustainably as possible and these experiences didn’t jive with what we believe were ethical. OF COURSE we want to hold a baby tiger but not if what we are doing is hurting these animals. We try to follow the rule of “would I do this back home?” and if it doesn’t fall into the yes category we nix it. That brings us to scooters. Everywhere you look, (seriously everywhere) there are travelers with scooter injuries. First off, most insurance plans don’t cover you in the event you’re injured, but also the scooter is generally not insured. For us, we don’t ride scooters back home, and we don’t drive like they do in SE Asia. We may have missed out on some amazing experiences because of this but we also know we may have missed out on serious injury. It’s up to you and your confidence level, but we didn’t want to see our trip end with a broken leg or worse.
On that super happy note, tomorrow we make our way to India to reconnect with our good friend Dylan! We can’t wait!!