Thailand is known as “the land of smiles” and absolutely lives up to its reputation. Though I was nervous about visiting Southeast Asia for the first time, my fears were unfounded. The food was amazing, vegetarian options ubiquitous, and we had Thai iced tea almost every day. The heat got to us at times – most days were around 95°F – but we ended our month on an island beach; the perfect place to enjoy the last drops of Thailand. Since we’ve already chronicled our stays in the cities, we’ll mostly share about our island “vacation” here.
Our first stop in Thailand was the bustling metropolis of Bangkok. We’ve already shared a bit about Bangkok; we stayed for three days before heading off to the quieter and cooler city of Chiang Mai in the north. While we thought three days would be enough, there was still more of the city we wanted to explore so we extended our stay a bit when we came back through to fly out to Cambodia. Bangkok, with it’s huge temples, awesome food, and great live music scene was a perfect introduction to this beautiful country.
We also already shared about our time in Chiang Mai, including a weekend in the country with Nate’s friend Carole’s in-laws. We had guessed that Chiang Mai would be a great place to chill out for awhile and it was. We scored a posh Airbnb apartment in a trendy neighborhood and spent equal days exploring and relaxing. When illness strikes, as it inevitably does, it seems we’re always in comfortable locations (thanks, God!), as was the case here. We spent a few days each in bed gaining back our strength so we could fully enjoy our next stop: the island of Koh Chang. We took an overnight bus – about 10 hours – from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and then a minibus another seven hours to Koh Chang, including a 45 min ferry ride. The overnight bus was nicer than some airplanes in terms of space and comfort. Regardless of the big seats, we were still attempting to sleep on a bus, so we didn’t get much rest. We tumbled back into Bangkok around 7:00am, caught a taxi to the metro and then switched lines to the airport and finally caught our minibus. It was a long, uncomfortable, multi-step process but was all worth it once we arrived on our island paradise.
We spent more time researching which Thai island to visit than any other part of our trip so far. There are so many choices! Each island has a distinct personality and each is at a different maturity level in terms of its development. Some have been hotspots for years and have huge resorts, while others are more recently being seen as a worthy destination. Koh Chang is just off the mainland coast, southeast of Bangkok. Most of the other islands are off to the west and much further south. It’s a big island in terms of it’s overall size but the majority of it is a protected national park, inaccessible except for a handful of trails, and despite its size it’s not a very popular destination. We read that it draws a wide variety of visitors in terms of age and family size. Though most tourists we saw were either Russian or German, did see variety in terms of other demographics and we were thankful we did our research and didn’t end up on an island of twentysomething partiers. Our hotel had a relationship with a nearby resort so most days we walked 15 min down the street to enjoy their beach and pool. I’m dreaming of coming back to this resort someday!
We arrived at our hotel in the evening and went to dinner at a nearby restaurant. At the end of the meal, they told us to take the beautiful flower centerpiece as a gift because that night was the celebration of Loi Krathong. They instructed us to take it to the temple down the street and follow the line of people down to the river where we should light the candles and incense, set it afloat, and make a wish. Looking up Loi Krathong, we later learned the celebration is a way to thank the goddess of water for how much we depend on it. Though since all the floats include metal staples in the banana leaves and some are made of styrofoam (most are made of banana tree trunks), I think littering already dirty water is a funny way of saying thank you, but I swallowed my judgement and we joined the throng of people at the temple.
The local temple was a party. Loud pop music blasting, huge crowds, and lots of people and kids dancing onstage. The actual temple itself was pretty quiet with a few people kneeling and praying, but the grounds surrounding it were wild. We walked through and eventually got to the quiet riverfront where we joined all the locals in setting off our floats.
We ended up being on beautiful Koh Chang for Thanksgiving. The day itself was uneventful; I stayed off Facebook so I wouldn’t be bombarded with everyone’s delectable spreads of food and sweet images of family. But we did get a Thanksgiving surprise: we sat down at dinner next to two older Canadian women and had a conversation that lasted through our meals and well beyond. They were awesome! So we kind of had Thanksgiving dinner with a couple of fellow travelers, it just involved curry, rice, and Leo beer.
Down the street from our hotel was an elephant camp; we had started learning about them in Chiang Mai. Though there are a few in Thailand that treat their animals well, most of these camps train the elephants by abusing them, force them to carry people (which isn’t healthy for their backs), and keep them chained up all day when tourists aren’t paying to play with them. These guys were chained up by the ankles right near the street, so we walked up a few times to say hello. They were huge and super friendly. When we walked up, they would flap their ears and then start swaying. Researching this later, I found this behavior is called “weaving” and is a manifestation of frustration or boredom. Sometimes they would take a pile of leaves in their trunk and just toss them over their head and backs. They were beautiful and silly and had big personalities. We didn’t take the tour because we didn’t want to promote mistreatment of these beautiful beasts, but we enjoyed saying good morning to them as we ran errands in town.
The island has one singular road that goes along the coast, dotted with local businesses selling souvenirs and small restaurants. One day we decided to rent a scooter for $6/day and explore the rest of the island, knowing that the west side (where we stayed) was much more built up than the east side. We were looking forward to finding some serene and quiet places off the beaten path. We weren’t looking forward to navigating the mountainous roads we had come in through on our minibus. Driving up and down these sharp turns on a tiny scooter among huge delivery trucks and on the left side of the road was on par fear-wise with our treacherous Torres del Paine trek. By the time we got through this northern pass and over to the eastern side, I asked Nate to stop so I could shed a little tear of terror/relief in peace. Then it was back onto the scooter to explore this quiet side of the island.
Koh Chang is known for its many waterfalls, so we visited one far from the resorts: Than Mayom. Nate got adventurous and took a cooling swim in the pool under the waterfall. Though I jumped in with my clothes on (woo!), I didn’t appreciate the fish biting my legs and feet, so I got out and enjoyed from the sidelines. They were a little vicious! But it was a refreshing activity in the heat nonetheless.
I had read about mangrove forests on the southeastern part of the island and once we got there, one wasn’t hard to find. Even though tourists hardly ever happen to come all the way to this remote area, a park with a wooden walkway had been built so that people could enjoy this unique ecological phenomenon. While the mangroves were cool, and we enjoyed a picnic lunch of fresh mango, our favorite part by far was watching needlefish attack and eat unsuspecting millipedes. That may sound strange, but when nature at its weirdest and most raw was unfolding right before us, we stopped in reverence to watch.
While eating dinner one night, we saw a flyer for Cambodian Kids Care, a nonprofit in our area of Koh Chang. We decided to contact their director and sole staff member, Uan, to see if we could be of any help and he invited us to come to the school for the day. Koh Chang’s residents are about 70% Cambodian; they emigrate here looking for a better life, cleaning in hotels or working construction. Often it takes awhile for parents to get their papers together formalizing their status in Thailand and while they do, their children cannot attend school. Even once they receive a work visa, the Thai school on Koh Chang has a limit of 200 children/year and Cambodians often don’t make the cut. In order to care for these kids and provide them an education they otherwise can’t get, Uan started Cambodian Kids Care to provide classes and lunch five days a week. The kids learn Thai, English, and math and vary in ages from about six to sixteen. Sadly, the Dutch organization that provided the initial grant to CKC recently was dissolved so the funds have run out. There is no money for teacher salaries, just Uan and about 50 kids. Uan is currently weighing how to close down the school responsibly and get all the children into classes. It was sad to see such an important operation in its end stage, but it’s clear that the work Uan has done over the past seven years may be setting up an entire generation of Cambodians here for success.
Our time in Thailand was incredible, but ended on an odd note. Our last full day in Bangkok, we came across a woman selling fresh jackfruit. Intrigued, we bought some and brought it back to our hotel to try. Unfortunately, I had one bite and my lips began itching and swelled up – not surprising due to my wide range of allergies but a bit disappointing. When they didn’t go down, I took some allergy medication and passed out for the remainder of the day. We’re so thankful the reaction wasn’t any worse, but a little sad I was in a Benadryl induced stupor for our last bit of time in Thailand! No more delicious jackfruit for me.