The land of smiles.

There’s usually no reason to sell someone on a trip to Thailand- it is the land of smiles and has a reputation as the gateway to Southeast Asia. It’s positive reputation is rightfully earned; Thailand has a beautiful, welcoming culture, with every one of it’s locals having a story to tell.

My two-week love affair with Asia was good, like really good. And I wasn’t alone in this declaration- Thailand is a country that many of us Kiwis, Aussies and Americans go for a holiday and good on us, I say! It’s cheap and it’s easy (but buy it a drink first eh?)

Depending on our age or life stage, the South-East Asian holiday will vary tremendously. But they’re all significant, whether they’re building resilience, or inspiring us creatively, or just giving us some unrivalled memories. After all, accidentally paying $120 for your washing when you thought it was free makes you a less gullible traveller (in theory). Giving the tuk tuk driver 1000 Baht instead of 100 Baht for a ride down the road means you’ll always check your money twice. And getting lured into an infamous ping pong show on Bangala Road and watching a ‘lady’ shoot a rat out of her you-know-what  means…. well I don’t really know what that means but you get the idea.*

But before we get to the elegant-strolling-through-vineyards bit, there are a few Thailand tourist 101 rites of passage that need to be ticked off…

*These may or may not be based on personal experience. You’ll never know and I’ll never admit it.

Phi Phi Island day cruise – 

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Mr B and his boat crew sure know how to throw a party. This was definitely a highlight of Phuket and really lets you sink your teeth into the beauty of Thailand beaches that you only see on postcards. There are a million and one tour companies that offer this adventure, but Mr B and his team provide the cherry and the ganache to go with the cake.

The Big Buddha, Phuket –

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She’s big, really big. As the landmark of Phuket, every inch of the 45m marble statue was handmade and really outdoes the Taihape gumboot. There are views for Asia and it is worth the questionable and almost vertical climb in a tuk tuk.

Wat Arun, Bangkok – 

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This was my favourite temple in Thailand. It reminded me of a million and one china plates in your Grandma’s forbidden kitchen cabinet all perfectly moulded into a glorious spectacle. I got lost, not gonna lie.

Wat Saket (The Golden Mountain), Bangkok –

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One of the best mountains I’ve climbed in a while. Wat Saket served as the capital’s crematorium and the dumping ground for some 60,000 plague victims. So that’s slightly sombering. Climbing some 300 coiling steps to reach the top was well worth the welcome by a wall of bells and panoramic views of the historic Bangkok.

The Elephant Nature Park, Chiang Mai – 

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I found my spirit animal that day and I swore I wasn’t coming home. These some 73 elephants have been rescued and rehabilitated all throughout Thailand from slave trades, tourist and forestry companies. The stories these elephants could tell are truly horrific and it warms your heart at just how far they’ve come since being rescued. My favourite elephant was Jan Peng which means “Full Moon”.

Jan Peng was born around 1943. Her owner retired her in January 2009 after a long life of logging and trekking work. She survived many attacks and falls during her working life with only some stiff joints and a bitten off tail to show for it. She always has a flower in her ear and her mahout (elephant keeper), Patee gives her a flower every day to put in the hole to cover a scar from a hook her previous owner used on her, to make something gorgeous out of a terrible origin.

Supporting a company doing admirable things for these gentle giants was worth every cent and definitely worth promoting if you are unsure of what places in Thailand have the animal’s best interests at heart and not just in the back pocket.

A Monk experience, Chiang Mai – 

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Phra Kay Kay- you da bomb. This man came from Bangladesh after losing both of his parents, and has been a Monk for 15 years. We asked too many questions and the take home message was “life’s too short to not enjoy a meaningful life.”

Are you allowed cellphones? Yes
Do you have social media? Yes
Do you own shoes? No (what kind of meaningful life is that?!)
Is orange your only colour? No it’s a 500 piece rainbows of browns, yellows and oranges.
Can you leave being a monk behind whenever you want? Yes
Do you want to get married one day? Yes it would be nice… (but supplementary to that question was, do you have any impure thoughts?) Yes but you acknowledge them and then you let them go and regain mental peace and purity.

The lives of all Buddhist monastics are governed by a set of rules called the prātimokṣa. Their lifestyles are shaped to support their spiritual practice: to live a simple and meditative life and attain nirvana (the goal of the Buddhist path).

Thai cooking class, Chiang Mai – 

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I fell in love with Thai food again and again and again. And now I can cook it forever and ever!

Except for mango sticky rice- I accidentally burnt the rice that takes over 24 hours to prepare and Chef May was not impressed! We learnt a lot about the origins of food and fresher is definitely better! Fresh curry paste, fresh coconut cream, fresh chillis.. mmmmm.

Six dishes later, coupled with a bit of good old fashioned blood, sweat and tears, our pukus were packed.

The markets (all 347 of them) –

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Markets are great for buying the things you really don’t need. But hey, it was for the experience and bartering every item you were interested in made it just that (except maybe for the boob travel pillow). Everything was cheap and when it wasn’t you knew you could go lower. Here are my bartering top tips:

  • They’ll always start too high- and fair play to them, you’re a dumb tourist who knows nothing.
  • If they won’t accept your price, you walk. If they call back to you, you know they can go lower.
  • If it gets to under 100 baht then just give it to them. Don’t be a cheap skate for crying out loud! This IS their livelihood after all.

The best markets we found were in Chiang Mai. But depending on what you’re wanting out of a market, the on-street shopping is never far from your doorstep.

The Thai food –

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Bulk noodles, spices and pineapple-shaped stirfrys had me crumbling at the knees. I ate my way through Thailand in search for the perfect phad thai and my oh my did I find it. But then the game changed when we arrived in Chiang Mai and savoured the sweet sweet northern dish that was khao soi.  It was all far too delicious and carb laden for me to handle- I thought I was going to spontaneously combust if I said one more “MMMM”.

Don’t be put off by the horror stories of street food and hide behind the golden arches because it’s safer. Get out there and put your 50 baht towards the good stuff that is made right in front of your eyes with love, spice and secret sauce.

Now I know we all try not to be negative people- after all it’s not what Phra Kay Kay would want- but there were a couple of escapades we shared that left us feeling a bit “meh” in a not angry just disappointed kind of way…

The LifeCo Retreat, Phuket – 

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This was what we thought we were coming to Thailand for. A detox retreat with 10 like-minded girls who wanted to learn about health, wealth and all that jazz. What we got was a three day juice cleanse that allowed me to stare out into space for long periods of time and ponder all the times I took food for granted. One more wheat grass shot or probiotic and I was ready to tell our waiter Imbraham where to stick it (sorry Ibraham you were lovely- it’s not you, it’s me).

The company is Turkish-run so everything is in Euros and ridiculously over-priced without the smile. But hey there’s always a silver lining to a story, so here it is…

We met an awesome group of people, learnt a lot about food (when we actually got to consume it), relished in the morning yoga and sauna sessions and had a very clean rear end thanks to the daily colonic cleanings.

Bangkok, well just Bangkok –

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If you ever want to go to a place where you sit in a taxi for 3 hours just to get 12km down the road then Bangkok is the place for you. If not, then I suggest you stay at the airport. It’s muggy, it’s crowded and it’s dirty. Sorry Bangkok, this time it’s you not me.

The Cabaret Show, Bangkok – 

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I think these are overrated. Or maybe I was still traumatised by the ping pong show in Phuket. The entire show was like some weird primary school production cover that didn’t really have a storyline. When a lady came out dressed like Lady Gaga singing a cover of the Sound of Music, we knew that was our cue. Still, quite the experience and forgive me ladies if I was just staring at your crotches the entire time.

Thailand, you’ve made me as robust as noodle lard, which, funnily enough, is probably your major food group, along with street crepes and pots of singha beer. Our souvenirs even extended beyond ashtrays and shot glasses. We walked, we caught trains, tuk tuks and taxis everywhere; we actively and happily met new people, and the idea of accommodation became nothing more than a place to store our suitcases, and occasionally, our heads. I was there for adventure, for excitement, and for experiences: good, bad, uncomfortable, ecstatic: all of it. I embraced it, and that’s what it’s all about.

And of course the ‘we’ in this holiday would not have been made possible without the numero uno travelling companionship of my friend Candace. Get yourself a Candace- they make the highlights some of the best in your life and the lowlights simply a cry, then a laugh, then a ‘move on’.

We saved for this trip so we  chewed the bone and sucked the marrow: no landmark was left unphotographed, no three hour wait in traffic unjoined, no signature aperitif undrunk. We gave every day 120% and our sore feet, depleted bank account and sky-high calorie count was proof. We were there to see and appreciate other cultures, collect memories, and amass a nuclear social media feed. GOOD! GREAT! CHECK MATE!

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