Thailand is by now a well-established destination for winter sun seekers. Not close enough for a short break but rather well connected to Europe in terms of flights so you do not need to take several connections and loose time in airports, which maximises your time on the ground.
I was not particularly attracted to the idea of Thailand. To me, it conjures images of tourist hoards and temples queues. I could not imagine that there are still places where you could fell some connection to the country, its natural beauty and traditions and get to know the people. But then the opportunity of a reasonably priced direct flight from Paris CDG presented itself. My partner (Mr. CTT) had limited vacation days left as we were in end Oct – November 2016, close to year end. So I decided to ask some friends to join me and do a first post-pregnancy holiday sans-family. After this trip, I decided to do one ladies every year! Surely, Mr. CTT benefits of the same prerogative (except for taking ladies along…:).
Therefore, after a medium to long-haul flight – depending on your travel habits – of 12h we were in Bangkok. The temperature was a warm and humid 26 -28 degrees. This being end of October, the rainy season was still lingering in the central and South Thailand. For the next 10-days we continued to have 2-3 h rain each afternoon. Contrary to European rain, the tropical rain was not so easy to negotiate when we were out and about. In other words, if it starts raining, you better take cover and wait. There is not rain jacket or umbrella that can resist the downpour for more than 1-2 min. One particular afternoon in Bangkok, the rain was so heavy and came about in a matter of minutes that we had no other choice than to hail a cab and ask for a ride to the hotel.
The accommodation in Bangkok was great treat (Ariyasomvilla), combining the local architecture with the traditional Thai hospitality. As we arrived from the airport, we were offered access to shower, fresh towels and pool to cool off as it was still morning and the room was not yet ready. Fuelled by the adrenaline of this exotic place, we took a shower and had a coffee and then dove right into the local sightseeing trail. The location of the hotel is a bit remote from the main/central area but there is access to a light rail system that is very convenient. The neighbourhood is modern looking, with a mix of shopping malls, hip bars and food stalls lining both sides of Sukhumvit road (Thailand’s longest road). While the main road itself doesn’t offer a lot in terms of entertainment, in the adjoining ‘sois’ (alleys) you will find plenty of restaurants markets and bars. The hotel itself is at the end of Soi 1 – the first alley on the left hand side off the main road.
A capital with in excess of 8 Mio people, Bangkok can be pretty intimidating at times. A good map is key to finding your way, especially in Chinatown or other back alley areas. Sidewalks are a luxury. Not always present and mostly crowded with stalls and different means of transport. You will end up walking on the street at times.
What added some element of chaos to our experience of the capital was also the death of the former Thai King that was ensued by a period of national mourning. Locals were pouring into the streets and queuing at the Grand Palace to pay their respects. The Grand Palace was closed for tourists at this time.
How we spent our 3 days in Bangkok? Combining sightseeing, river trips and walks in different neighbourhoods. Ah, and sampling great Thai food:
- Day 1: Tour Jim Thompson’s House – Do use a guided tour, included in the price. The grounds are beautiful and you could spend 30 min just looking around in the garden and the exterior. There is a nice terrace for a short coffee break. Take a food tour or a Thai massage in the afternoon. Dinner at the hotel was really nice. They specialise in vegetarian options and also have very tasty cocktails. As this is was our first day after the flight, we tuned in early.
- Day 2: Wake up bright and early and head to Wat Pho, home of the reclining Buddha and the famous Golden Buddha. The Wat Pho complex is big and encompasses more than just the area where the statue is housed. We spent more than an hour wandering the temple grounds and staring at the statues and mosaics. If open, go for the Grand Palace next or if you want something a bit more manageable in terms of crowds, the Wat Arun. For Wat Arun, you will have to cross the river. There are plenty of options – you can ride the water taxi up and down the river for around 20 baht and take a tourist hop-on-hop-off that will stop at all the main sites. Have dinner at Supanniga, Sukhumvit Soi 55 if you are based in Shukumvit.
- Go to one of the floating markets. Khlong Lat Mayom is a bit less touristy but expect some ‘traffic’ jams at peak times. For lunch, head to Chinatown and walk the smaller alleys. You can get great food for next to nothing in one of the many joints lining the street. We went at the Prachak Roasted Duck Restaurant and it was the best Chinese food so far. Finally, go for some a Mall experience. More than retail therapy, malls are like mini vertical villages where you can spend hours window shopping, eating and chatting while enjoying the AirCo. It is not only retail therapy; it is a way of life.
After three full days of Bangkok traffic and noise over-stimulation, it was time to escape to the beach. We took an internal flight with Air Bangkok and in 1h30 min we were in Phuket. I dreaded the island itself and its promise of an all-inclusive holiday mecca and headed up the coast to Khao Lak. It is an hour’s drive from the airport so rented a car and driver.
Khao Lak itself is nothing to write home about: a small medium-size sprawling village now living from tourism. It is quite popular for its (still) laid-back ambiance, uncrowded beaches and as a departure point for liveaboard trips to the Similan Islands. However, this might soon change as there were significant rebuilding efforts after the tsunami and additional accommodation options have sprung up. It is difficult to imagine that this was one of the worst hit areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami as everything seems to be up and running like it had been there for ages. There is now an early-warning system has been installed along the coast to avert the population in case of earthquake. That, combined with a handful of signs for tsunami evacuation routes, are practically the only clues to what went before.
We were based in La Flora Resort, a mid-range hotel that offered direct beach access, different morning activities and a spa with good value massages. It is walking distance to the many restaurants and bars that line the main street into the village. You will find a number of travel agencies in the village to help you organise all types of activities, much more varied that the hotel options. We crammed 3 activities in our 4 full days on the coast and we really enjoyed each of them:
A full day trip to the Similian islands – the trip out and back will take more than one hour each way. They are further afield compared with Surin island but both the landscape and the beach are uncrowded and almost unspoilt. The archipelago is part of the national park Mu Ko Similan so development is kept to a minimum. As part of the trip, you will meet a local nomadic tribe and have lunch on the island. I was really looking forward to snorkel there but I was less than impressed about the coral. Still, it is a great day out if you want to enjoy the beach and clear blue water and muuuch les crowded that the Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta.
A full day canoe trip to Phang Nga Bay – You know that James Bond island that everybody has on their Fb feed once they come back from Thailand? Well, it turns out that this is one stone formation in a bay of stone formations and, despite its international repute, there are better sights to be enjoyed in the same location. We took a small tour (about 12 people) that involved a boat trip sightseeing in the bay and a canoe trip to enjoy the internal lagoons at low tide. As soon as we were out in the canoe, the tropical rain started. It is difficult to describe the feeling of being completely surrounded by water plus more water pouring from above… The lagoons were great to explore by boat even if this involved some manoeuvring of the pressure inside the inflatable canoe to allow the boat to slide in and out the narrow passage ways. It was a great, if very wet, experience in an area of great natural beauty that rivals the Ha Long Bay in Vietnam.
Half a day Thai cooking class – We found a Trip Advisor recommendation of a great cook in Khao Lak. Here is her page: https://annkhaolak.wordpress.com/. Ann met us at the hotel and then we drove to the market to choose the ingredients. We then drove to her studio to cook and eat our creations. It was a great experience that helped us connect with some of the locals in the market and also though understanding some of the fruits and vegetables that were a mystery to us but staples of their kitchen. I really recommend you give it a try. She will send you the recipes by e-mail so you can always try to re-create the nice food at home. Do not forget to grab a jar of curry paste at the market and pack it in your suitcase before you leave though.