The Kingdom of Thailand boasts a rich and diverse geographical landscape comprised of mountainous highlands, flat river valleys, and 1,430 islands. We spent about a month doing a bit of island hopping with a final stop in the bustling city of Bangkok. Since there’s a lot to see, I turned to guidebooks for help. However, I was extremely disappointed by the flippant, misguided, and frankly, insulting advice offered to travelers by the Lonely Planet Guidebook for Thailand. Instead, recommend using TravelFish or checking out Migrantology for a comprehensive guide on Bangkok, especially for food lovers.
Oddly enough, according to the Thai government’s National Economic and Social Development Plan, Thailand uses chemicals in agriculture more than any other country in the world. Despite that fact, one of most salient feature of Thailand is its world-renowned cuisine; its complex and masterful blend blend of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and bitter. They use ingredients we know in the West (lime, mango, sea salt, chili peppers, coconut, tamarind) and those more exotic such as galangal, mung beans, morning glory, mangosteen, bitter melon. Butterfly pea (clitoria ternatea) is crushed to release a bright blue juice that is used to color steamed rice. Crushed pandanus leaves release a shockingly green liquid that colors and flavors everything from main dishes to desserts. Apart from the obvious pad thai and fresh fruit, here’s a quick list of must-try dishes that we enjoyed.
Must Try Thai Dishes and Desserts
- Khao Tum Mud: banana leaf sticky rice with coconut milk, sugar, sticky rice
- Khao Neow Ma Muang: mango sticky rice + pakim kai tow (sweet salty mix of coconut milk and sticky rice water)
- Sang Kaya Fug Tong: steamed pumpkin and custard
- Bua Loy Nam King: black sesame dumplings in ginger-lotus flower water
- Larb Moo: minced pork, lime juice, toasted rice, onions, herbs
- Tom Kha Gai: soup made of lemongrass, mushrooms, tomatoes, galangal, chilies, kaffir lime leaves, onions, chicken, coconut milk, cilantro
- Massaman Khai Curry: muslim, south Thai curry dish
- Khao Neow Moo Ping: grilled pork with sticky rice
- Som Tam Boo: green papaya salad with fermented crab
- Pad Gra Prow: flank steak, Thai basil, shallots, soy sauce, sugar, chili, and garlic
- Pad Pak Bung Fai Daeng: (Morning glory) water spinach in oyster sauce
Thailand is also known for its delicious street food, whose owners might be considered the original entrepreneurs. In fact, the startup scene in Thailand has changed drastically in the last five years; the number of funded startups has jumped from 3 in 2012 to more than 72 in 2016. This year, the government plans to financially support 2,500 existing startups and to raise the current number of startups to 10,000 by 2019, through a $570 million USD venture fund. Aside from several currently existing co-working spaces for entrepreneurs, a new $3.5 billion, 40-acre development slated to open in 2025 hopes to accommodate 60,000 employees and residents in the heart of Bangkok’s sprawling downtown.
We arrived to Thailand during a period of great change; the longest reigning monarch in Thai history, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, passed away in October. Statements extolling his virtues and greatly lamenting his death can be found everywhere: in the airport, in magazines, on billboards, outside primary schools, in the malls, on public transport, on construction sites, etc. As a contrast to the very public mourning, there seems to have been some controversy surrounding his rule. Thailand is said to have “world’s harshest lèse majesté law”, a law which makes insults against the king punishable by law with 3 to 15 years of imprisonment per count. In 2011, Forbes estimated the King’s personal wealth to be around $30 billion, making him “the world’s richest monarch” and presenting a stark contrast to typical Thai citizen’s average GDP of $5,000.
The polemic surrounding the monarchy hasn’t ceased with the late king’s passing; although he is a highly trained military pilot, the thrice-divorced new King seems to lead a controversial life. He named his pet poodle, Foo Foo, the air chief marshal of the Thai military and held a four-day long funeral after the dog passed away. Last year, he was photographed wearing a crop top and temporary tattoos in a Munich mall. As a result, the Thai wife of the German reporter who broke the news, was detained and questioned while visiting family in Bangkok. The article in question remained blocked in Thailand on the grounds of “the sensitive content … and the resulting potential risk”, leading some to question the rights of free speech in Thailand. In 2010, a leaked US diplomatic cable revealed that even the Thai privy council had concerns about Vajiralongkorn’s ability to rule and his “embarrassing financial transactions”. The cable also revealed that some hoped the late king would appoint the more respected Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, despite the fact that women are banned from taking the throne in Thailand.
Our first destination was the largest island in Thailand: Phuket.
It might as well be considered Thailand’s “Little Russia”; last year, the number of arriving passenger flights from Russia to Phuket was up by 51 percent year-on-year. Interestingly enough, almost 80 percent of Russian travel is booked through brick-and-mortar travel agencies.
We spent two nights with Pepe, a South American scuba instructor who moves from country to country, chasing the warm weather for work. He was an extremely accommodating Couchsurfing host who took us out to dinner with a friend and he even lent us his motorbike while he was leaving for a scuba trip.
- Phuket Must Sees
- Rawai Seafood Market: Don’t go here if you want the most exquisite meal of your life. Go if you want the experience of haggling with the fisherwomen then carrying your catch across the street to your restaurant of choice to have it cooked fresh to your liking.
- Supercheap Grocery Store: It’s more of a warehouse maze whose categories always change spots. I highly recommend coming here just to check out the variety of products. As an added bonus, they sell really cheap prepared food at the front of the store!
- Water Activities: Due to Phuket’s serious pollution problem, the snorkeling isn’t great unless you go to a private beach. We got the chance to go sea kayaking to a nearby hard-to-reach beach and I ever got to see a sea turtle who high-fived my belly!
- Patong: Honestly, I’d avoid this place unless you want to see a great concentration of tourists and people handing you flyers for “ping pong shows”.
Koh Phi Phi
After about 10 days in Phuket, we hopped on a ferry boat that took us over to Koh Phi Phi, an archipelago made up of 6 islands in the Krabi Province.
We had to pay a 20 baht per person fee on the pier upon arrival for “keeping Ko Phi Phi clean”. Normally I’m fine with paying such a fee but the area has had an issue with releasing 83% of their untreated wastewater directly in the ocean. Koh Phi Phi has the reputation of being a party island and it definitely lives up to its name. Between the nightly fire shows on the beach, the booze buckets for purchase, and the incredibly polluted water, it’s easy to see this is a very touristy place. However, we knew all of this upfront which is why we chose an off the beaten path hotel (Kitty Guesthouse) and decided to stay only one night.
- Day Tour: The owner of the place was really nice and suggested we do a day tour to get to visit the surrounding islands. Normally, we don’t spring for guided tours but this one included lunch and snorkeling gear. We went on a longboat tour of Monkey Beach and Maya Bay. Monkey Beach was beautiful but full of tourists feeding, touching, and teasing the monkeys; not something I want to be around. Maya Bay, where The Island was filmed, is actually a national park so unless you pay admission, you can’t get off the boat to enjoy it. Our couchsurfing host in Phuket, Pepe, had told us that a much better way to go is to find a local fisherman with a longboat and ask if, for an agreed upon price, they would be willing to take you out to Maya Bay early in the morning, before the tourists arrive.
- Hiking: If you’re interested in doing some hiking in the area, check out this excellent photo guide Robin made!
- Sepak takraw: On our hike around the island, we saw a few guys playing a sport we’d never seen before. Later, I looked it up and learned it was “sepak takraw”. A combination of the Malay word for “kick” and Thai for “woven ball”, this a sport that’s native to SE asia which often features no opposing team, whose point is just to keep the ball in play in graceful and creative ways.
From Koh Phi Phi, it was a short 2 hour ferry ride over to Koh Lanta, a district made up of four islands groups that’s known for its laid-back feel.
- Sonya’s Guesthouse (Click on the link to get $20 off your next stay through Booking.com!) Even though we had booked two beds in a dorm, we got upgraded to the private room upon arrival. It was right next to the dorms but offered us privacy and shelf space so we were happy. It had a very useful mosquito net. The only downside is that the Muslim call to prayer was only a few buildings down and it woke us up several times. We finally treated ourself to a big breakfast at Sonya’s and we were NOT disappointed. There was a delicious shrimp soup, creamy pumpkin soup with toast, freshly squeezed orange juice, seasonal fruit, and the best cup of coffee I had in Asia.
- Lanta Animal Welfare – An excellent organization to support! A European woman started this place a couple of years back to help out the abused or abandoned animals on the island. You can go in to get a free tour and if you’re keen, you can even go walk a dog along the beach, and even adopt a pup (and have it shipped home with you)!
- Cheap eats. The most affordable meals we had were at a little restaurant that served generous portions of pad thai for 40 baht ($1.17 USD). In the same area, there was a place serving delicious fresh fruit smoothies for 40 baht too. (If you want to find it, it shows up at “Sawasdee Restro” on Google Maps.) The best burger we had was at the Klong Khong Restaurant. I know, how shameful that we ate western food while in such a beautiful place. Sometimes you just miss the tastes of home, you know?
- Old town. One day we decided to rent a motorbike and for around 200 baht ($5.80 USD) a day we got to explore old town. It was decidedly more touristy with plenty of shops and restaurants. We stopped at Sunee’s Place to eat which had a great deal: a main dish and a fruit shake for 100 baht ($2.95 USD). I was so excited to finally try papaya salad but the owner told me she was out. She saw my crestfallen face and said “Don’t worry. Wait here. I’ll see if my neighbor has some in her garden!”. Great food and friendly service!
- While we scooted around we stopped by a mom and her little boy selling some goodies wrapped in banana leaves for 10 baht each on the table. Little did we know they were delicious Khao Tom Mud!
- Elephants. On our drive up the coast to the southern beaches, we saw a very sad looking elephant being walked on the road. We later saw that he was being kept at an “Elephant Trekking” place. The animals are often chained up here and not treated ethically; feel free to do your own research if you have doubts. The only way I would recommend interacting with animals like this is at a sanctuary.
- Trash Hero: This great organization hosts weekly beach cleanups at different locations. They’ve also partnered with local businesses that will refill your reusable water bottle for free!
- Beaches: The beaches here were remarkably clean and we had some great snorkeling. You’re bound to see some fields of bleached coral but that’s just the nature of our oceans today, sadly. Lots of great options to choose from: Ao Mai Pai Beach, Bamboo Beach, Bakantiang Beach, Nui Beach, Diamond Cliff Beach, etc.
A bus and a plane ride later, we arrived in the country’s capital city. As I ambled through the narrow alleyways, trying to avoid the speeding motorbikes, past the smoke and smells rising from hawker stalls and hanging in the humid air, thick with spices, I understood the allure of living in a city like Bangkok. I think the best part of my stay was just getting lost in the streets, only stopping to refuel with street food, or to escape the heat in a museum. Despite those steam-room temperatures, Thai people are among the most well-dressed I’ve seen. Interestingly enough, In Bangkok, the royal anthem is played twice a day: at 8 am and 6 pm. Although I never really experienced the first, I happened to be walking in Lumpini Park at 6 pm and saw all runners and dancers freeze immediately. It was a surreal experience and made me feel like I had stopped time.
I knew Bangkok was known for it’s burgeoning sex tourism industry, that often exploited the sex workers, to serve predominantly white men but I didn’t really know what to expect. Unfortunately, our hostel ended up being right next to the “sexpat” district of Bangkok. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disgusted in such a short amount of time; wading through the hordes of lecherous, old, white men leading around young Thai girls that barely seemed 15, let alone 18 was disheartening to say the least. If you’d like to read more on the subject, I recommend “Ladyboys: The Secret World of Thailand’s Third Gender” by Pornchai Sereemongkonpol and Susan Aldous, a book gifted to me by our housesit in Malaysia, that includes first-hand accounts by sex workers in Thailand. I’ll be talking about this in more detail in an upcoming post about the expression of a third gender around world and through history.
- Hom Hostel
- This was hands down the most comfortable, private, and luxurious hostel I have ever stayed in. It was impeccable and the service was great. Every day there’s a different free cooking class, either by the staff or fellow guests. Every morning, there was a delicious breakfast of steamed white rice, a mix of veggies and rice, coffee, condensed milk, and sometimes fruit or bread. The dorms had shampoo dispensers, blowdryers, bed lights, cubby holes, and the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept on. There were sliding doors that led from the open format kitchen and dining area to the rooftop patio that boasted a garden, views of the city, and a space to do yoga or meditation. There was also an enclosed hangout room that had board games, a tv, a guitar, comfy mats and pillows, and two computers. The management was also so receptive to our comments. Robin mentioned that he would’ve appreciated a suggestion box and within the hour, we saw that they had added one in the main lobby. I think if I came back to visit, I’d spring for the private room which was super spacious and had a couch and a huge bed with a view of the terrace. This sounds like a #ad, but this place really just took everything I love about Couchsurfing, Airbnb, and hotels and made into the best stay ever.
- Hom Hostel
- Getting Around
- Boat: I highly recommend using the Chao Phraya River Express boats to get around. It’s very affordable and offers transport to places in the city that aren’t served by the skytrain. I had read about it on TravelFish and decided it would be a good way to get from A to B while observing locals going about their daily lives. We got utterly lost in the maze of floating houses and bridges on our way to the pier but a lovely older man with coins in his ears did his best to point us in the right direction through hand symbols. Once on the dock, we saw the very full boat arrive and we realized it was the morning rush hour. We fell in and as the ticket taker did an impromptu ballet on the edge of the moving boat to get to us, several locals were quick to help us understand how to pay. I hadn’t understood the purpose of the plastic tarp connected to ropes next to me until a boat going the opposite direction sped past and all passengers, as if on cue, pulled simultaneously to protect us all from the splashback of murky river water.
- Bus: It’s actually quite easy to use the bus system if you use the Transit Bangkok website and enter where you’re leaving from and going to. There’s different classes of buses and the cushier they get, the more expensive the ticket is; a bus with AC is pricier than one without.
- BTS or Skytrain: Tickets start at 15 baht so this is obviously the priciest option. It’s also the most comfortable and the fastest.
- Tuk tuk: This is definitely an option but we never took advantage of it because we didn’t feel like dealing with haggling and making sure we didn’t get screwed over.
- Museum Siam: I highly recommend stopping by, especially if you can see the current free exhibit called “Tom Yum Kung Studies: Lessons (Un) Learned” which is slated to last until July 2nd. The exhibit explores the economic crisis of 1997 and a Thai monk helped replenish the dwindling Thai reserves. This was one of the most masterfully curated exhibits I’ve ever seen. It made great use of interactive stations and art to explain a topic which often alienates (or simply, bores) people: economics. For more images, visit this comprehensive post by the Insider’s Guide to Bangkok.
- Bangkok Art and Culture Center: The BACC is located right next to the MBK Shopping Centre and has free entry. Since we happened to visit during HeForShe Arts week, there was a poignant photography exhibit on stay-at-home dads in Sweden by Johan Bavman, in support of paternity leave. Next to it, there was a Thai version of the photo project with photos and short blurbs submitted by local dads. It was very touching to see such an (unfortunately) controversial topic being displayed in such a conservative country.
- Wat Pho Temple – Features the temple of the reclining Buddha.. We weren’t really that impressed. It was packed full of tourists with selfie sticks and you couldn’t really appreciate the history or architecture of the place.
- Chatuchak Market: One of the world’s largest weekend markets which covers 27 acres with 8,000 stalls. So, not for the faint of heart. If you’d like to go but aren’t into crowds, I recommend stopping by around 9 or 10 am.
I loved Thailand and would definitely come back for a visit. Next time, however, I’d avoid any sexpat district like crazy and I’d spend time in more national parks and in Chiang Mai. There always seems to be housesits in the area so maybe I’ll be back sooner than you think…