Truth and Pad Thai in Thailand
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
We spent over a month in Thailand visiting five different parts of the country and making a big loop between Bangkok, Koh Tao on the east coast, Krabi on the west coast, Koh Sok Lake, and Chiang Mai.
Before we got there, we had visions of Thailand as a cultural hot spot with pristine white beaches and amazingly clear water, tantalizing food, and jaw dropping landscapes. Unfortunately, we were about 20 years too late. The secret's been out for a while now, and Thailand is more of a tourist hotbed than a cultural one. Back in 1998, there were less than 8 million visitors, and in 2017, there were close to 35 million!
It seems that a lot of the country, or at least the most popular regions of it, has converted itself to a please-the-masses watered-down version of itself, and we had a hard time finding the Thai-ness of Thailand. Bangkok's temples were beautiful but crowded to the extreme. We saw some of the most beautiful natural landscapes, yet there's also a lot of trash that dots it these days. Like, A LOT of trash. It was actually astounding how little people who might rely on tourism for their livelihood actually care for that resource. And the food was mostly meh. I refused to give up on searching for the best pad thai of my life and ordered it over and over. Each time I tasted a new one, I'd look at Josh and say “the one you make is better.” It made him feel good, but was really disappointing.
I know this isn't what a lot of people want to hear, that a destination isn't all you want and believe it to be, but not everywhere we visit is all sunshine and unicorns. That being said, we had a fantastic time during our too-long stay there! (And too long in more ways than one. We accidentally wound up booking flights into and out of the country 35 days apart when our visas were only good for 30 days. To avoid a crazy-expensive fine, we wound up doing a visa run to Myanmar (which wasn't cheap either!) on our 29th day there. 🤦♀️)
So now that all the grumbling is through, here are the highlights of our time in Thailand.
1. Diving school in Koh Tao
Koh Tao is one of the most affordable places in the world to get scuba certified, so we knew we would go there from the get-go of our trip. After extensive research, we settled on Sairee Cottage Dive School, which isn't the cheapest but had amazing reviews and offers very small classes, and we both knew I was going to need some extra help.
We absolutely loved our dive school and instructors, and the accommodations were nice as well. The school lasted three days, during which Josh was smiling non-stop, and I was in constant panic mode. I only cried two (maybe three) times, and thought about quiting at least five times each of those days, but I made it through and am so glad I did.
Existing under water is such an other-worldly experience, and we've gotten to see tons of super colorful fish, turtles, sharks, manta rays, eels, and coral that we might not have been able to see otherwise.
We also really enjoyed the island of Koh Tao itself and wound up spending almost two weeks there. It's touristy, but not as much as other spots like nearby Koh Phangan which hosts the infamous Full Moon Party, and there's some great beaches and little pockets of quiet beauty.
2. Hiking and kayaking around Railay
The Krabi area, situated across the country from Koh Tao, on the west coast, encompasses Railay and Tonsai, and is exactly what you picture when someone mentions a trip to Thailand. The water is perfectly turquoise, the longtail boats bob on their anchors along beaches that go on forever, and there's craggy limestone cliffs covered in foliage rising unexpectedly out of the sea. It's beautiful! But only if you don't look too close.
Sadly, littering is common practice throughout Thailand, and the beaches and ocean are no exception. In fact, research shows that 72% of the coral reefs in Thailand has been damaged from plastic waste in the ocean and the dumping of polluted water by seaside hotels. But the natural offerings are aplenty, and we spent a lot of time hiking through the area and sea kayaking around the cliffs, which was incredibly relaxing and at the same time exhilarating in the sense of freedom it brings.
3. Khao Sok Lake and National Park
This is another one of those Pinterest-famous destinations. The lake is actually called Cheow Lan Lake, but it's part of Khao Sok National Park, and everyone calls it Khao Sok Lake, so I think the Thai people have just given in and refer to it that way as well. I had been stalking photos of the lake for years, but didn't know there was a whole park attached to it!
We spent several days in the area, including one morning on a boat tour of the lake which included visiting one of the (pretty rundown) floating bungalows. The main destination of the ride was a particular set of oft-photographed limestone cliffs that look stunning in pictures, but somehow seemed tiny in person. We had been told by so many people that we absolutely couldn't miss visiting this lake, and as a result, maybe we had just set our expectations too high. It was certainly pretty, but not at all the highpoint of our trip to the area.
Even more than the visit to the lake, we really enjoyed a guided 11km hike through the park. Our guide was hilarious and took us to see the Rafflesia flower, a giant blossom that looks like it belongs on a Saturday morning cartoon. The Rafflesia are only found in Southeast Asia, can grow up to about 40 inches in diameter, and only bloom for a few days before they die. We also had a close encounter with a very large monkey that wasn't so happy about us trekking through his territory. He and our guide had a bit of a standoff with a lot of chin jutting and ended when the monkey decided to charge our guide and we hightailed it in the other direction. There were also waterfalls and leeches involved, making it one of the more eventful hikes we've taken!
There's also tons of monkeys in the area that are way more fond of people than the guy we encountered on the hike. We stayed in a great basic bungalow off the main street in the town and several afternoons, a whole troop of curious monkeys would climb down from the trees and investigate what treasures they might be able to steal off the porches. The first time it happened, we had the window open, and one tried to stick his hand in and grab a bottle of water.
4. Elephant For A Day
The other thing we knew we would do in Thailand was visit an elephant sanctuary. Before we get to the experience, I want to acknowledge that elephant tourism is a very convoluted and contested situation. There's a ton of valid arguments both for and against it. We fall squarely in the camp of not riding (and vetoed other area attractions such as the tiger sanctuary and the Karen longneck tribe for similar ethical reasons). We actually wound up switching our booking from one sanctuary to another and then again to another, finally going with Chiangmai Mountain Sanctuary, which was recommended by the owners of our guesthouse whom we trusted.
Some of the “sanctuaries” cater to tourists who want to ride elephants and see them put on a show – sadly they're unaware that the animals are treated terribly and “broken” to allow that kind of training. Other sanctuaries exist in order to provide a place for the ones rescued from bad situations like logging or performing and resolutely advertise “no riding and no hooks”. But the elephants are still “working” by providing a tourist activity. The argument that supports that states that if the latter type of sanctuaries didn't exist, caretakers couldn't afford to feed and take care of the elephants who wouldn't survive in the wild on their own. Additionally, the mahouts, or elephant caretakers, still have work so they don't procure another elephant to train in order to provide for their families. It’s complicated and tricky and hard to know what's truly okay.
Overall, we really enjoyed our experience with the elephants. There were about 25 in total at the sanctuary, and we spent the morning introducing ourselves to them and shoveling bananas and sugar cane in their mouths and trunks because, as the guides informed us, “no food, no friend.” In the afternoon, we were paired up with an individual elephant. Ours was Kamnoi, a middle-aged female that Josh liked the best. Our group of about 20 people plus ten elephants and the same number of mahouts started on a trek to the mud bath area. Halfway there, a truck came by and spooked one of the lead elephants, spurring him to turn around and run back in the direction we had come from, which in turn, made all the elephants behind him, including Kamnoi, do the same. Luckily, we all jumped off the path as we watched the elephants stampede past us, the mahouts chasing them back to camp. It was a bit scary, but no one was hurt.
The mahouts got them under control, and we resumed our hike. By the time we got to the mud pits, the elephants seemed to have gotten over the experience, happily throwing mud on their backs and munching on grasses. After that, we led them a short bit farther to the river where we were given buckets and brushes and got right in there with them to wash them off, which they seemed to also enjoy. Then it was back to camp for them and back to the guesthouse for us.
5. New Year's Eve in Chiang Mai
We finished out our time in Thailand in Chiang Mai, which was our favorite spot in the country. It's an incredibly chill city with amazing food (the only place in Thailand we can really say we ate well) and lots on offer. We were there over New Year's Eve, which meant we got to participate in the lantern release! We joined tons of other people at the Thae Phae gate of the old city to release paper lanterns into the sky and send off well-wishes for the new year. It was definitely different from what we're used to on New Year's Eve!
During the rest of our time in Chiang Mai, we hiked to a jungle temple as well as one of the most popular and beautiful temples in the area, Doi Suthep; took a cooking class in the countryside; visited several street markets with amazing food and handmade products, better than most of the markets we had been to elsewhere in Asia; got massages from both current prison inmates and ex-inmates (it's totally a thing in Chiang Mai, and it's amazing!); and visited the White Temple, the most bizarre/unique holy place we've been, with pop culture icons like Michael Jackson and Freddy Kreuger painted throughout the space.