This is Part 1 of a 2-part tour recap. In two weeks, I traveled from Bangkok down to Phuket, Thailand. Read on to learn about what we experienced in Bangkok and Khao Sok!
Thailand is a place that I’ve been hearing about more and more throughout the past couple of years; and each time the name came up, I became more intrigued. That intrigue turned into a semi-impulsive decision in March 2018, when I decided to put a deposit down on a tour to Thailand with an Australian company called Intro Travel, departing in early December. I chose to do their 13-day Thai Experience tour, but added a few days at the end to travel to Chiang Mai on my own.
At the time, I didn’t quite know what my life would be like later in the year (since I had just started working for myself), but I was absolutely certain of 3 things:
1. I wanted to travel to a new continent that year, and had decided on Asia
2. I would make sure all of my commitments were taken care of before I left
3. In the end, everything would work out both logistically and monetarily (right?!)
With these 3 beliefs in mind, I threw down that $200 deposit (virtually) and whispered to myself, “I’m going to Thailand…I’M GOING TO THAILAND!” To say that I was excited would be a vast understatement.
For the purpose of this blog post, fast-forward now to December 3rd: the day that I departed for Bangkok from Cincinnati, Ohio. Although the tour didn’t officially start until the 5th, I had a pretty long period of travel ahead of me. On the evening of the 3rd, I took a short 1-hour flight to Atlanta; waited 4 hours for a 15 hour flight that would take me to Incheon, South Korea; and then waited about 3.5 hours at that airport for a 5 hour flight to Bangkok. If you’ve been doing the math with me, that’s right: It took over 24 hours to get to my final destination. And it was a pretty similar flight path/time on the way back, so needless to say: 4-hour flights to the west coast don’t faze me anymore.
Now that you know just how much of a journey it was for me to get to Thailand (can you believe I made it?!), let’s dive into the highlights of this tour. Our route took us from Bangkok -> Khao Sok -> Koh Pha Ngan -> Koh Phi Phi -> Phuket, so each section is organized by city and our corresponding accommodations. Because so much happened on this tour, there will be a Part 2 to this topic that covers Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Phi Phi, and Phuket – so check back here tomorrow for that post.
Table of Contents
Bangkok – Baan Chart Hotel
Ah, Bangkok. For many of us who are familiar with the Hangover movies, the name may conjure up images of salacious peepshows, impromptu tattoos, crazy street food, and more.
This isn’t necessarily wrong, especially when you’re on Khao San Road (and especially at night). But first, I want to focus on the more wholesome activities that Bangkok has to offer as well.
Temples, River Cruise, and Tuk tuks
On our first – and last – full day in Bangkok, we woke up early in order to spend the day touring the city via foot, boat, and even Tuk tuk! After a quick breakfast at our hotel, we were greeted by our guide for the day, who went by the name “James Bond”, because the number 7 is a big factor in his life. James Bond was a fantastic guide, and you could tell that he was not only knowledgeable of Thai traditions; but truly passionate about his country’s history and customs.
The first stop of the walking tour was Wat Chana Songkram (fun fact: “Wat” means “temple” in Thai) to do a traditional temple offering and receive a blessing for our journey from a Buddhist monk. The ceremony was lovely, and we each took turns offering incense, candles, and lotus flowers to the shrine at the front of the temple. The temple itself – like most Thai temples – was gorgeous, with tons of gold accents…which made for great photos, of course.
After Wat Chana Songkram, we made our way through a few side streets to experience a quieter side of Bangkok before boarding a boat to explore the Chao Phraya River, also known as “The River of Kings”. This river runs through the heart of Bangkok (and connects to smaller rivers throughout northern Thailand), and we were able to glimpse quite a few more temples that were situated close to the shore.
Following the boat ride, we stopped at a small marketplace to try some street food. Our guide brought us quite a selection, from chicken skewers to fresh fruit to coconut ice cream (served in a coconut, of course), and more. In addition to sampling these snacks, I also got a skewer of what I can only describe as “seafood balls”. Yup, it seemed to be a ball of dough/breading that had different types of seafood rolled in. I know that doesn’t sound very appetizing, but trust me: it was good.
Our last stop of the day was Wat Pho, the temple of the very first Reclining Buddha. That’s right – they have a giant statue of the Reclining Buddha. Seeing this up-close was pretty surreal, because it is a huge statue. The origin of the statue’s pose is intriguing as well: apparently, when he felt that death was near, Buddha requested to lie down in a bed of bushes to prepare himself for “parinirvana” (nirvana after death). So, the statue doesn’t carry a sad connotation, but rather one of hope for enlightenment.
After exploring Wat Pho, we divided into groups of 3 and took Tuk tuks back to our hotel. Tuk tuks are crazy, 3-wheeled vehicles that weave pretty quickly and haphazardly through traffic – so it’s not for the faint of heart! However, it was a thrilling and fun way to end our day of sightseeing, even if I may have feared for my life once or twice. That night, we headed out to Khao San Road for more thrills…
Khao San Road
As I mentioned earlier, Khao San Road at night is truly a unique experience. Besides the countless bars that are lined up and down the road, there are tons of vendors walking around selling bracelets with obscene phrases (which we all bought for one another – and no, I am NOT revealing what mine said!!), fried scorpions and spiders (yuck, no thanks), promises of “ping-pong” (shows where ladies shoot ping-pong balls out of their you-know-what), and even balloons full of laughing gas (oddly addicting experience, but use with caution).
If you can make it past all of those tempting offers and decide which bar to stop at, you’ll find that many of them offer alcoholic “buckets” for just a few hundred baht (around $10 USD). Quick heads up: those buckets can be pretty damn strong, so know your limits. Our group ended up trying out a few different bars, with the first one having the aforementioned buckets and – shudder – plates of fried bugs that our group leader so kindly ordered for the table. Did I inwardly gag watching everyone else try the bugs? Yes. Did I try one myself? Irrelevant. Regardless, it was a fun night and the perfect way to say goodbye to Bangkok before we departed the next day.
Oh, one more note on Khao San Road: if you can avoid it – especially if you’re a woman – DON’T go to the public bathrooms on Khao San Road. Just don’t. You’ll be paying 5-10 baht for pee stains, insidious odors, no soap, and sadness.
Before actually leaving Bangkok that Friday evening, we took an authentic Thai cooking class at May Kaidee, where we made 3 popular (vegetarian) dishes: Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai, and Massaman Curry. All three of these dishes were simple but delicious, so you could make them at home if you have the proper utensils and ingredients. For the Massaman curry, we actually had a contest to see which small group would have the best dish without any instructions or help from our teacher.
Shockingly, our group won! Since I’m certainly no master chef, I’ll definitely give credit to my two teammates, as I’m sure they’re the reason that we were victorious. As a reward for everyone’s hard work, the cooking school gave us fresh mango sticky rice. This was my first time trying the dish, and ended being the best mango sticky rice that I had throughout my entire time in Thailand (and I tried a lot of mango sticky rice). Perhaps it was the use of wild rice versus white rice, the freshness of the mangoes, or maybe just the mango-rice-coconut milk ratio. Whatever it was, it was a tearful goodbye once I had finished my plate.
As a reward for everyone’s hard work, the cooking school gave us fresh mango sticky rice. This was my first time trying the dish, and ended being the best mango sticky rice that I had throughout my entire time in Thailand (and I tried a lot of mango sticky rice). Perhaps it was the use of wild rice versus white rice, the freshness of the mangoes, or maybe just the mango-rice-coconut milk ratio. Whatever it was, it was a tearful goodbye once I had finished my plate.
There are tons of Thai cooking schools to be found in Thailand’s major cities, so be sure to shop around and see which one speaks to you!
Khao Sok – Phupa Waree Bungalows and Art’s Riverview Lodge
The next stop on our tour was Khao Sok National Park, where we would be staying in two different accommodations, in two different areas of the park. The first, Phupa Waree, is a series of floating bungalows situated right on Cheow Lan Lake. In order to get to them, we had to take a hour-long boat ride deep into the heart of Khao Sok – which was a relaxing and gorgeous journey in and of itself! All around us, we saw the huge limestone karsts that have become synonymous with Thailand; and a great expanse of blue in every direction.
Once we arrived at Phupa Waree, I was ecstatic to realize that they had kayaks and tubes for rental. I couldn’t wait to change into my swimsuit and begin exploring the natural beauty that surrounded these bungalows. Better still, each room had its own porch, with a ladder that led right into the lake! As soon as we were all settled in and had proper lunch, I immediately rented a kayak and set out to explore the nearby surroundings.
The one downside to this part of the trip was that I had a hiccup with my GoPro: although I had packed two batteries, it appears that one of them simply won’t charge. I didn’t realize this, however, and when it came time to pack our overnight bags for the bungalows (as our luggage would have weighed down the boat) I only brought the battery which I thought was fully charged. Surprise! It wasn’t. I was pretty bummed out about this, but hey: it can’t all be smooth sailing. All I could do at that point was laugh at how badly my luck had turned out, and try to just enjoy the experience with my woefully outdated iPhone 6S.
As I was kayaking, I paddled near some mangroves that were a bit farther from the bungalows, and then simply floated for a bit to take in the sounds – or, lack thereof. Besides the buzzing of what may have been cicadas in the nearby trees, it was very quiet, and very peaceful. After paddling away from the mangroves, I saw a few others from my group trying to climb a short but steep, muddy incline that led to a rope swing.
Oddly enough, I had never swung on a rope swing (that led into water) before, so I definitely had to give it a try. Well, many tries, because I kept sliding down back into the mud. Good thing I wore a white swimsuit, right? I finally made it up the incline by sheer determination (and some coaching from the guys), and made my triumphant swing into the water…before letting go too late and butt-flopping into the lake. Hey, at least I did it!
After all of this action, I decided to end my time kayaking by simply laying back in the boat and floating wherever the water pulled me. The sun was out that day, so it was perfect for a spot of sunbathing. At one point, I even tried to tie up my kayak to a stump sticking out of the water. As I was doing so, however, I noticed a small, fuzzy, and – dare I say – cute spider staring at me intently. Now here’s something you should know about me: I normally DETEST spiders. I appreciate that they’re an important part of our ecosystem, they eat bugs, blah blah blah – but I just don’t want to be around them! So it was weird enough that I thought this little one was kind of cute, with its huge eyes that seemed to take up most of its body.
As I kept trying to tie up my kayak, however, I realized that I was nearing a web at the top of the stump; the spider was following my hands ever so carefully; and there were some bright red and yellow marks on its back. Now, I may not remember everything from my Zoobooks phase in grade-school, but I do know that most small animals with such vivid colors have a good chance of being venomous. Since I was in no mood to test out my theory, I quickly undid my rope and paddled away from the stump. Spider: 1, Me: 0.
Besides that encounter, it was a completely relaxing and restorative day. I do want to note that the bungalows themselves were pretty basic, so the real value of the experience came from the location itself. I highly recommend doing some kind of floating-bungalow-experience if you make it to Khao Sok, but there are plenty to choose from if you decide that Phupa Waree isn’t for you!
After the floating bungalows – and as we were on our way to the treehouses – we got to experience a brief homestay in the jungle, learning about the various crops that the farmer had growing there (for example: lemongrass, citronella, pineapple, 8 types of Thai basil, etc.) and enjoying a fresh, home-cooked meal. Side-note: his daughter was very social and absolutely adorable, and we all enjoyed our time with the family and seeing their way of life.
After filling up on Thai food and good vibes, we finally arrived at Art’s Riverview Lodge, home of the treehouses we’d be staying in that night. Now, this was a place to truly “unplug”, since the WiFi only worked at the resort’s restaurant. The paths were also very dimly lit at night, with some areas having no light at all – so if your phone died and you had no flashlight, good luck! Despite this, it was a great experience to be deep in the forest, right next to the river, and up close with Mother Nature in general.
Shortly after settling into our respective treehouse accommodations, it was time to go for a kayaking tour down the very same river that ran alongside the resort. Since we had been on the road (and water) so much over the last few days, it was a nice change of pace to be able to simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the views…while an expert did all the work of paddling!
Our night at the treehouses was really laid-back: the entire group went to dinner together (it was about a 15 minute walk to get to the main “town” center), and then a few of us decided to check out a chill place called Jumanji Bar for a drink on the way back. This stop for a drink turned into an impromptu jam session between the bar owner’s brother and one of our group members, since the bar had an extra guitar handy. Belting out feel-good songs in the middle of nowhere…I couldn’t have asked for a better end to that night. That is, until I happened to look up at the sky on our walk back, and saw more stars that I have ever seen in my life!!
Seriously, the sky was so full of stars that I teared up from happiness at witnessing the sheer beauty above me. Talk about feeling “small” in this world and universe. Honestly, I think we would all benefit from seeing a sky full of stars much more often.
That wraps up Part 1 of the Thailand tour recap, simply because there’s way too much information to fit into one blog post. Click here to read Part 2 of the recap, which covers Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Phi Phi, and Phuket!
In the meantime: what’s the number one city that you’d love to visit?