Khao Sok National Park
The intention was originally to stay in Ao Nang for a few days to explore Railey beach and the nearby islands, but when we saw the teeming crowds and bloated souvenir shops and tourist traps, we wasted no time and high-tailed it out of there. As a result our trip to nearby national park Khao Sok was totally impromptu, and, as it so often happens, ended up being one of the highlights of our Thailand trip. The parks’ main attraction is the Cheow Lan Lake, which features more of the beautiful limestone karsts synonymous with Thailand. The lake itself is actually man-made, having been filled up slowly over three years to create the Ratchaprapha dam. The fact that it’s artificial gives the lake a surreal feel; the water is unbelievably still when gliding through on a long-tail, and the absence of erosion on the rocks from lack of time and waves gives the sense that the rocks are simply the tips of a jungly iceberg leading to some hidden underwater rainforest – which essentially they are!
We took one of the 2 day, one night Khao Sok tours that we booked at our hotel – Morning Mist. It began with a longtail trip through the karsts and tips of ancient rainforest that create islands on the surface of the deep, emerald water. Some of the limestone cliffs and their vertical jungles are so massive that they have their own weather patterns with low, misty clouds that cling to the top. Our first pit-stop was on one of these islands, where we took a short hike through scenic forest to meet our traditional bamboo raft for the trip to Coral cave. I’m not normally one for caves, preferring to be outside than in a dingy, insect-ridden rocky dungeon. But this was nothing like that. The stalactites and dripstones were incredible in their weird and beautiful detailing and the 10,000 year-old rock formations glittered brightly under the torchlights.
Our next stop was lunch at the floating restaurant. I’ve no idea how they do it in such a remote place miles away from anything, but the food was some of the best we had in Thailand. A whole fried fish and vegetable Thai green curry were two of about ten courses served. After lunch we took out a kayak and explored the nearby karsts and islands, some of which are so big they have their own native monkey populations. We swam about in the lake and after another amazing meal headed back with some beers to the balcony of our little floating bungalow. Spending the night under the stars on the lapping water and waking up to the view of the misty cliffs on the lake was indescribable.
Our journey from Khao Sok to Bangkok involved a rickshaw ride to a bus stop, a three-hour, hair-raising bus journey to Surat Thani with no seats, and then an overnight train into the capital. Being used to UK trains with inevitable delays, narrow seats, and non-existent storage, I was somewhat dreading the 12-hour journey, but it ended up being the best train I’ve ever been on. The carriages are immaculately clean and air-conditioned, and the comfy seats turn into bunk beds when it hits evening. The attendant comes by with clean sheets and pillows, adeptly throws the seats up and after about 30 seconds of dexterous jostling the seats promptly turn into beds. You even get a curtain for privacy. Me and J shared a bunk and listened to music and watched the moon until we fell asleep.
After breakfast and coffee on the train we pulled into the manic, deafening chaos that is Bangkok. We stayed at Kama bed and breakfast, a hipster hotel with beautiful rooms and a roof terrace with views of the Bangkok skyline. It doubles as a hostel and has some of the fanciest looking dorms I’ve ever seen. It’s not the most central hotel in the city, but it has the definitive competitive advantage of being right by ‘the food street’ (Soi Charoen Krung 85). This is exactly what the name suggests – a kilometre long, heavenly smelling street lined on each side with a dizzying variety of street food stalls – you’ll find anything from kaphrao mu (spicy minced pork fried with basil), and pladuk phat phet (catfish fried with red curry paste), and my favourite, Sai oua, a pork sausage flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices, including lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. We went to nearby Tuang Dim Sum which specialises, unsurprisingly, in dumplings. The owner and former chef, Mr Yip, previously worked for a series of five star hotels in Bangkok including the Shangri-La, and it shows in the deliciousness of the food in this unassuming little eatery.
After a couple of drinks on the roof terrace, me and J had a miscellaneous dinner of shameful amounts of different street foods, bought some Chang beers at the 7eleven and hailed a rickshaw to see the view of Bangkok from the Hangover bar before heading to Patpong. If you’re having a night out in Bangkok, the ladyboy bars are a must. The girls/guys/?? are so beautiful and convincing that they have to be seen to be believed. In fact they’re so convincing that the entire night I was sure I was being duped. It’s a weird, confusing and really fun night out.
From Bangkok we took the 9-hour train to Chiang Mai, where I woke up on the morning of my birthday to the sun rising over the paddy fields. We watched the view while the train chugged along and we were brought breakfast and coffee we’d ordered the night before. Since it was my birthday we broke the budget a bit and stayed at the beautiful Thannatee hotel, with it’s all-over dark wood panelling and ridiculously over-sized jacuzzi.
Aside from the obligatory temple-viewing, our main reason for stopping in Chiang Mai was to tick off one of the things at the very top of my bucket list – visiting an elephant sanctuary. We went with the Lanna Kingdom elephant sanctuary and it was amazing. After being picked up at our hotel, we were driven over to meet rescue elephants King Keaw, Ojai and the naughtiest of the group, baby Lanna. They’re incredibly beautiful, strange-looking creatures and upon meeting them you get an immediate sense of how smart they are. There’s also something weirdly calming about being in their giant presence. Well, maybe not so much around baby Lanna, who loved to run around and cause mischief.
We spent the day feeding the elephants (a lot), making their daily treat and vitamin ball (made of crushed tamarind, banana and sugar cane), and later bathing them. The highlight had to be the latter, if only because you could see how much they loved it. When I say bathe I don’t mean petting them with a damp brush at arms-length, I mean getting into the slimy mud pool up to your shoulders and getting sprayed with trunk-loads of murky water. Ya Ya was enjoying rolling around in the cool mud so much that she refused to leave the pool, and the camp Mahouts let her keep playing until she got bored and scampered back to us. After our vegetarian Pad Thai lunch it was time to hug and say goodbye to our new friends. Be warned that if you do go to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, leaving them at the end of the day will break your heart!
Our last pit-stop in Thailand before slow-boating into Laos was Chiang Rai. Here we explored the endless beautiful temples and rented bikes out to the countryside to visit the famous White Temple. One of my favourite moments was pulling our bikes up to a remote countryside grocery store and farm which doubled up as a mini restaurant. The owner didn’t speak a word of English but we somehow managed to order some fish noodles which we ate with a view of the endless green paddy fields. The family evidently spent their lives on this remote and peaceful farm, waiting for the occasional customer to stop by and chat. I still remember how quiet it was.
- Where to stay: Kama Bed and Breakfast.
Where to Eat:
- On the street – anywhere. The street food is all amazing. Our favourite Street was Soi Chareung as it just had so many options but it was delicious all over Bangkok.
- Tuang Dim Sum – Specialises in dumplings. The owner and former chef, Mr Yip, previously worked for a series of five star hotels in Bangkok including the Shangri-La, and it shows in the deliciousness of the food in this unassuming little eatery. We also went to Chinatown for Chinese food in Bangkok but we didn’t really rate it. It was overpriced and the Thai food was generally much better. Worth going to for sightseeing though.
What to do:
- Visit Wat Pho and the other temples.
- Ride the cheap and scenic river boats to explore the city from the water.
- Roam around and eat.
- Go to the Hangover bar for a view of the Bangkok skyline and share a drink as it’s ridiculously expensive. Having said that we were in backpacker mode and while it’s pricy for Bangkok the drinks are probably standard for Western prices.
- Go to Patpong and check out the ladyboy/ping pong bars.
- Visit Chinatown at night. It’s like a Bangkok version of Times Square.
- If you have time, go to the nearby floating markets.
Where to stay:
- Thannatee Boutique Hotel. Beautiful, all-over dark wood panelling and decorated and furnished in the ‘Lanna’ style. It sort of felt like being in a luxurious old ship cabin. The bathrooms have the most ridiculous sized jacuzzis you’ve ever seen.
Where to eat:
- Lert Ros. Lert Ros all the way. I’m not ashamed to say that we came here four times in the space of three days. Of our entire Asia trip this was probably our favourite restaurant – which is saying a lot! Their specialty is grilled Tilapia, which may not sound overly exciting but it was the best I’ve ever tasted. The freshly caught fish is stuffed with lemongrass and cooked traditionally over hot coals on a low heat; the owner stands proudly over them until he decides that they’re cooked perfectly and then serves it with a spicy, citrusy dipping sauce. The pork options are also amazing.
- The Service 1921 Restaurant: We came here for my birthday and so it was our ‘treat’ restaurant of the trip. The restaurant was originally opened in 1921 as the British Consulate of Chiang Mai, and they’ve kept the British secret service theme with the colonial decor and quirky touches – there’s a spy peep-hole at the entrance, the waiters wear 40’s-style outfits and the menus come in a Top Secret brown envelope. The main attraction here was the atmosphere – think dim lighting, dark wood, and a beautiful open air veranda. The food was very good too and had some quite unique options yet I wouldn’t say it was any better than your standard Thai restaurants or street food.
Things to do:
- Visit an elephant sanctuary – the elephants seemed very happy at Lanna Kingdom Elephant Sanctuary and of course there’s no riding.
- Explore the temples
- Go to the Night Bazaar to shop for anything you can think of. I you’re a good haggler (I hate it) you’ll get some amazing deals.
- Eat everything in sight
- Listen to jazz at the Boy Blues bar at the Kalare night bazaar. Boy is incredible and has the friendliest smile you’ve ever seen.
Where to stay:
- We stayed in a very functional, nondescript hotel – so much so that I can’t even find it on the internet.
Where to eat:
- ร้านนครปฐม (I can’t find an English name): A lot of locals came here – always a good sign – and it seemed especially popular with workers on their lunch break. You get a little form where you tick off the options you want and then your food is served on plastic, pastel-coloured plates. Fresh and totally delicious. The duck was served with a whole bowl of fresh spring onions on ice and it was amazing.
- Cat ‘n’ a Cup Cafe: Good Thai milk tea and very cute cats.
What to do:
- Again, visit the temples. You might be getting temple fatigue at this point so if you are go on Tripadvisor and pick out the ones you might prefer. My favourites were the wooden temples, namely Wat Phan Tao. Wat Srisuphan was also very beautiful but I was annoyed that women weren’t allowed in the main temple. I wasn’t so much for the faux-gold, plastic-gemstoned dragon temples.
- Hire bikes/scooters and take a trip out to the White Temple. By modern Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, this temple is new (in fact it’s not finished yet) and very unique. Be prepared for crowds.
- Visit the Singha Park on the way to the White Temple. This one’s more for the randomness factor. It was on the way to the White Temple so we thought we’d check it out. There were some very pretty parts such as the lavender fields and then out of nowhere there’d be a faux Western-style ‘town’ and a roaming giraffe. There were also a lot of strange rules. You can’t take your bike up this hill, and you can’t park it there, and you can’t take this route. All for seemingly no reason whatsoever as the park was totally empty.
- Go to the Cat ‘n’ a cup Cafe. This was my first cat cafe and the first time I tried Thai milk tea. The tea was delicious and the cats seemed happy.
- Go to the Night Bazaar