Our venture into Southeast Asia consisted of about three-and-a-half weeks in Thailand after spending two weeks in the U.S. catching up with friends and family while taking care of logistics and before heading to Dubai, United Arab Emerates (UAE), for a layover on our way to Athens, Greece. This was my first time in a Southeast Asian country and Aaron’s second time to the region and Thailand.
After spending about five months in Spanish-speaking countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica), just prior to our brief visit to the U.S., we were ready for an exciting, electric culture shock to encounter again. While we knew our time would be limited in this region, it was an experience we wanted: Something very different from where we had been so far and where we would be going in our long-term travel journey. We got what we were seeking!
We arrived in Bangkok mid-day and fought the jet lag to stay awake as long as we could into the evening, ideally when we would normally go to sleep (Aaron pushed me and I didn’t like it, but when it was all said and done, I could tell that it benefited our transition). The time difference between Bangkok and California is fourteen hours (yeah, basically, when we’re awake at home, we’re sleeping in Thailand, and visa versa). We spent our first few days adjusting to the time gradually and exploring our surroundings in Bangkok. It’s a developed, modern city for the most part with pretty good infrastructure, featuring high rise buildings, paved roads and tiled and cemented sidewalks that are only occasionally uneven (although crossing the street is at your own risk, as there are hardly any pedestrian crosswalk lights to assist you). A lot of the signage has English letters underneath the Thai words to help make out what the names of streets and places are (because otherwise, there would be no way to know if you don’t know how to read the Thai language). It was extremely hot and humid, the kind that hits you the moment you step outside of air conditioning and consumes you with a wet, clammy sweat, and can easily dehydrate you (I believe it did after spending several hours walking around outside on our first full day there, not drinking enough water). A few minutes of walking outside and I felt like I needed a shower already. It was something I struggled through to be able to see outdoor areas of the city as long as I could stand it during our initial time in Bangkok. After walking around for about half a day, I was ready to see what the mega malls were all about! We aren’t usually mall people and neither one of us really enjoys shopping, nor are we in a position to buy much as long-term travelers living out of our backpacks with limited remaining space, but they were appealing to us in Thailand initially as a way to escape the heat! I wanted to keep walking to stay active, but felt I needed to limit the amount of time I was outside to stay happy and healthy and avoid having a total travel meltdown (in this case, literally)!
Our first AirBnB apartment was within walking distance to many of the main “sites” to see in town, but there weren’t many restaurants nearby. As a result, we often ended up at the closest place we could find that was open at the time we were ready to eat (otherwise, we’d have to contend with crazy traffic in an Uber just to get to a restaurant; there is heavy traffic pretty much all the time in Bangkok, with the exception of late at night in some areas). Our first eatery was a clear local spot for the midday lunchers, a mix between street food and an actual establishment (we weren’t sure which, and we were so hot and hungry that we took the risk — we’d decided after our experiences in Mexico and Central America with the aftermath of eating street food in general that we’d avoid it moving forward whenever possible). There was no menu, but rather what was already prepared, cooked, and ready to be served: A brothy, noodle soup for the equivalent of about $1 USD each! There were pitchers of tea on the tables that we poured over glasses filled with ice. This was very likely our cheapest meal in all of our time in Thailand! Apparently, we didn’t take any photos of it to document and share, so our description of it will have to do!
We spent a lot of time at the MBK Center, one of many mega malls in Bangkok! This was our cool refuge from the relentless, humid heat outside. We gravitated toward their impressive food court with a diverse and wide selection of delicious, reasonably-priced (primarily) Asian cuisine! It had the authentic, local feel, serving much of what would be sold on the street, but in an air-conditioned, commercialized environment. Refreshingly, this is not the fast food junk that you find in the malls in the U.S., people! What was also nice about it was that Aaron and I could choose different places and types of food to eat but still have a communal place to dine together. There was an interesting system where you pre-loaded a monetary balance on a card and then paid with that card at each of the vendors. Rather than blindly putting money on it and trying to spend it all, we first walked throughout the food court to scope out our options and calculate how much the items we wanted to purchase for our meal would cost, then we put the total amount on the card. There were also a number of restaurants surrounding the food court center. When we weren’t dining here, we walked around, got massages and a manicure (only I got the manicure), and in our final days in Bangkok, shopped (minimally, for some select items). There is an Art & Culture Centre across from it that we checked out once, also.
We took a bus from Bangkok to Trat, which ended up being a seven-hour journey due to the rain (we had read it normally takes five to six hours, so that’s what we were initially expecting). On the route, we saw heavy flooding in the streets, like I’d only seen in-person while wading through it in Honduras (at least we weren’t actually inside it this time)! The seat backs were pretty stiff and my mid-back was killing me; I kept twisting and stretching in my seat trying to alleviate it, but it didn’t help much. This is the result of traveling overland recently for long hours over various, sometimes rough, terrain in different, sometimes also rough, transportation vehicles. Comparatively, Thailand overland travel is pretty smooth and comfortable though. Regardless, we were on our way to an adventure!
We volunteered for one week in Trat, helping teach English to both kids and adults (separately) through an opportunity we arranged through HelpX, a website that acts as an intermediary between those wanting to volunteer in exchange for room and/or board and those seeking volunteers for their projects. Other than exchanging messages through the website and emailing, and the brief posting about the opportunity, we really had no idea what we were going to encounter, such as who exactly we’d be teaching and what material we would be expected to cover, where we would be staying and what our accommodation would be like, or even what our host, Meaw, looked like! All we knew was the location, approximately how many hours we’d be working each day, that we’d be getting a private room and bathroom, and we’d be teaching English in some way for one week. When we arrived at the bus station, we took a taxi (which involved riding in the back of a truck, but at least there was a bench on either side to sit on) to our volunteer accommodation to meet Meaw and settle in.
“Have you ever been to English Camp?”, our host asked us shortly after meeting us. Of course, we hadn’t. What is English Camp? In this case, children from three local elementary schools came together on one of the school grounds for most of a Saturday and Sunday to play games, sing, dance, rotate through verbal conversation and written language breakout practice sessions in smaller groups, and have fun! There wasn’t as much English spoken as we may have thought at the onset, as much was explained and transpired in Thai, but the whole purpose was to have fun learning and practicing English. Mainly regular teachers from the schools led the activities (and songs/dances!) and we added value by participating, at times jumping in to take the lead of what was pre-planned throughout. Aaron and I each also helped out in separate small breakout groups; he engaged in verbal conversation with the students, and I reviewed and corrected written sentences the students completed after our host explained the concepts and instructions to them in Thai. On the last day, we taught the students the “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” song, including the movements that went along with it. Overall, it was a neat introduction to Thai culture through observing how students interact with their elders. They often bow in appreciation; for example, when I handed out paper worksheets in the breakout sessions, most of the students did this to me. They try to joke around with you and amongst one another, too, but overall they are visibly polite and respectful towards their teachers, which is something they are taught as a part of their culture. Based on our conversations with the other teachers, and from what we experienced personally, they do seem to test their foreigner teachers, trying things with them that they perhaps wouldn’t dare to with their Thai teachers. But they still have a certain interaction with teachers that is much different from how students in our Western society generally behave with and think about their own teachers, in a way that we think is both admirable and refreshing to see.
Teaching English & More
Aside from English Camp, we met with a group of adults who work for the government at City Hall for a couple of language practice sessions. We observed and assisted Meaw for the first class and then led the second class with our own lesson planning (Aaron lesson-planned while I came up with and set up future UV English Club Facebook page posts to promote Meaw’s business through social media). We worked on directions and played Guess Who, one of my favorite games as a kid!
We met with a few kids for individual conversation practice sessions at the UV English Club, which is an office in front of Meaw’s restaurant, home, and our volunteer accommodation. One session overlapped for two of the students, so Aaron worked with one and I the other (for most of the time). One of them was super hyper and all over the place, and the other was primarily quiet and reserved (that was, until they started feeding off of each other, sticking their fingers in glue and such)! We were grateful my sister, a pre-school teacher, had taught us an applicable song to sing in this moment, and it goes like this: “A dab of glue will do, a dab of glue will do… a glob of glue’s too much, a glob of glue’s too much…” Needless to say, we were exhausted after two hours with these girls! But, we had a good time.
One day, we didn’t end up having English language lessons take place. So instead, we helped Meaw clean up her property with sweeping, weeding, gardening, rearranging plants, etc., for a couple of hours. I was not particularly happy about this, as it wasn’t the type of work we’d pre-arranged and agreed to do, we had the weather to contend with, and I was not provided with the most efficient tool to do some heavy weeding in her driveway (it was hard work)! However, I went with it and figured it was our way of earning our keep for the day. I’d decided not to say anything unless it was something we were expected to do again. My takeaway is that this is a cultural thing, as Meaw had mentioned in prior conversation, when we’d asked, that those cooking for everyone at the English Camp were actually teachers and staff for the schools; that in Thailand, job duties are not strictly defined and adhered to, and that people often perform other tasks outside of their job description. This is opposite our observation and experience in the U.S., where people are usually protective about their own job duties, feeling like toes are stepped on if others try to take them on. In the human resources world, supervisors may actually get a talking to for directing their employees to complete other work outside of the scope of their role. In any case, this was an experience, and I think we did a good job!
When we arrived on a Friday evening, Meaw was busy cooking in her restaurant and serving her patrons. She asked us to sit down and wait for a bit, as she looked quite busy, and after about half an hour, she took us up to our accommodation upstairs. She mentioned she hadn’t had time to clean it and actually hadn’t been up there since the last volunteers stayed with her (who knows when that was). In any case, it was a pretty challenging accommodation situation for us for the week. The floors were dirty, the shower drain was clogged and flooded (until Aaron fixed it, thankfully, but it still wasn’t clean, so I wore my Teva sandals in there), the toilet barely flushed after holding down the lever for awhile, the sink was clogged (and actually overflowed once while we were away, spilling over onto the floor and moistening some of our belongings), and the sliding screen door to the entrance of the room didn’t close all the way, and there were cracks in the doors in front of it (so mosquitos were able to get in, and we didn’t have mosquito nets). Probably the most challenging for me was that my mattress felt like sleeping on a box spring; I could literally feel the coils pressing into my skin. Aaron’s mattress was hard, similar to sleeping on a slab of wood. Also, we each only had one blanket to put over our twin mattresses (so I slept with a piece of material I often use as a shawl to put over me like a sheet, which barely covered my whole body, and only when it was in a certain position). That, and there wasn’t air conditioning, and although we each had a floor fan to ourselves at night, it still felt warm for a good part of the night and I often woke up with clammy skin (although at some point in the early morning, having a fan directly on me felt too cold). Overall, we thought it would have been nice had our host prepared our accommodation for our stay. However, we tried to focus on the positive: We were getting to volunteer teaching English and meet and interact with locals, getting authentic exposure to their culture, food, and lifestyles. We have Meaw to thank for this, as she was very open in sharing with us about her life and Thai culture. She introduced us to locals and took us out to eat some really delicious and authentic food on multiple occasions. This is a uniquely interesting tradeoff that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to as typical tourists passing through town (which by the way, there aren’t many tourists in Trat, and we wouldn’t have known about it or went had it not been for this volunteer opportunity).
Trat Independence Day
We took a ferry from Trat to Ko Mak, where we stayed for four nights. We got picked up from our volunteer accommodation by a transit company, Boonsiri, who transported us with others in the back of a truck (I really did think I was done with this after wrapping up our travels in Central America, but as with our transit from the bus station in Trat to our volunteer accommodation, at least there were benches to sit on, and this time, Aaron got to ride inside)! It was an efficient operation from our accommodation to the meeting point to the Laem Sok Pier via a truck carrying a larger unit it hitched full of more people. It took us about an hour and a half to get from the dock where the high speed ferry picked us up to the island.
We stayed in an AirBnB accommodation, which is in this case, is also a resort. There are many places on the island that call themselves resorts, but they aren’t the huge, fancy, high-end types you might initially think of. The ones on this island are more like guesthouses, or small hotel properties. In our case, the owners have about ten private bungalows and a restaurant on their waterfront property, Ao Pong Resort. They also rent motorbikes, which was key to our ability to explore other parts of the island at our leisure and in a more comfortable way (since it was often hot and humid and takes time and exertion to walk anywhere, beyond the few restaurants nearby). At 250 Baht per day (over $7 USD), it was well worth it to have easy access to other parts of the island in a relatively short amount of time and as we pleased.
The bungalow itself was clean and modern-looking. The air conditioning in the room was a highlight for us, especially after not having access to air conditioning in our room for the week just prior in Trat. The bungalow has a nice porch space and the beach below it, where there are hammocks, lounging chairs, and tables facing the water, although we didn’t use them much. The beach is kept clean by the owners’ staff on a daily basis, and we found it to be much nicer looking than the beach line on another part of the island where a majority of the resorts appear to be clustered (there was a lot of trash that washed up and stayed there). However, the terrain near and inside the water is rocky, so we were glad we had our Tevas; it is not a white sandy beach where you want to go lay out on a beach towel or walk around barefoot on. We dined at the restaurant onsite on several occasions and enjoyed the traditional Thai cuisine, although we fancied other island restaurants more; there are pages of dishes to choose from. The location was very quiet and we could hear the waves of the ocean at night (as well as the storm that came through one night). While there were mosquitos out especially at night, we did not encounter the sand flies we had heard are on this island while on the property. We were tired to spraying toxic mosquito repellant directly on our skin so often, so we bought some citronella for a more natural (and better smelling) preventative measure.
After doing the reverse transit back to the Laem Sok Pier in Trat, we took a double-decker bus back to Bangkok and stayed one night near Khao San Road before flying the next day to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, where we spent eight nights. The highlights, for me, were a basic but clean accommodation at At Home Guest House (which we arranged through Booking.com), next to an ingredient-conscious restaurant, Ethos, where we ate for dinner the night we arrived and breakfast the next morning. Especially notable was my coconut milk and banana porridge to start my day, which sadly, I apparently didn’t take a photo of to share or reminisce visually about later.
Chiang Mai was a pleasantly welcome surprise for me! Not only was our AirBnB apartment modern, clean, and air-conditioned, but it had an onsite gym and pool! To boot, it was only about a five-minute walk to a large mall, MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Center, featuring amenities similar to those offered at the one we spent time in during our time in Bangkok (it is smaller, but it’s still six stories, and to add, it has a couple of fitness facilities — an upscale gym, and of course, a boxing gym — a movie theater, and a grocery store — which was pricey by Thai standards, but convenient). We dined at several of the plethora of restaurants to choose from there. On certain weeknights (Wednesdays-Fridays), there was a night market outside of the main entrances, as well as in an area across the street from it surrounding the businesses there. Continuing down Nimmanhaemin Road, there are plenty of restaurants, cafes, shops, massage businesses, and more, which leads into other nearby neighborhoods.
Though still technically humid, Chiang Mai was considerably less so than the other areas of Thailand we’d traveled to on this trip. It even cooled off at night. My only critique of Chiang Mai is the heavy traffic and lack of pedestrian-friendly crosswalks. Sure, there are crosswalks, but few lights to regulate traffic and pedestrian turns. It’s every man for himself out there! There is such as small window, especially at the large intersection we faced to continue down Nimmanhaemin Road past the mall, to cross. Further complicating this is that there are motorbikes everywhere that zoom through traffic and do what they want. Near the Old City area, we literally were unable to cross the street to get there on a walk one day; we tried for about 10-15 minutes and it was impossible.
There are a lot of temples to see in Chiang Mai, but since we weren’t checking the boxes on site-seeing, and since we’d already spent time going into many temples at Wat Pho in Bangkok, we didn’t feel compelled to make this a priority. However, Aaron did go on a couple of solo excursions by foot that took him to some, when we had our separate time to ourselves.
MAYA Lifestyle Shopping Center
If we were on a regular vacation, I would have bought a lot of reasonably-priced souvenirs and gifts from the night markets! There were so many cute trinkets! We enjoyed looking at all the unique crafts. I ended up with a passport holder, coin purse, and pair of earrings, which I’m quite happy with. We also picked out some small items and cards to send home to our family members.
This is the main tourist area of Chiang Mai. We only ended up here once together when we took an Uber to dinner at Cooking Love (the food wasn’t that good, and pretty much all other food we had in Thailand was; it was clearly a tourist spot) and then walked to the Saturday Night Market Walking Street afterwards. Aaron checked out this area once during the day when we embarked upon separate activities. Neither one of us were impressed with this area; we were glad we stayed where we did west of it.
One day, we spent several hours about an hour and a half from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand at an elephant sanctuary we were partnered with through Elephant Nature Park. We learned a lot about providing a humane environment for elephants (i.e. no riding, no performances, no bull hooks, no logging) and observed, interacted, and hung out with a family of three (a mama and two brothers) with a small group of other travelers (we all fit into one transit van). We fed them, went for a walk with them, watched them doust themselves in mud and play, and helped bathe them. It was so unique! I was a bit scared and hesitant at first but persisted in interacting to overcome my fear. They are gentle but they are HUGE and STRONG, so there are certain rules to follow when interacting with them to stay safe; we watched a video on the way to the site about not standing directly behind them, not petting them from behind, not teasing them with food, etc.
Thai Cooking School
Taking a Thai cooking class was at the top of both mine and Aaron’s wish lists for activities to participate in while in Thailand. After a quick online search near the vicinity of our apartment (you can’t spend hours on every travel decision when traveling long-term like we are, and there are so many cooking schools to choose from), we reserved our spots in a class with Basil Cookery School. We really enjoyed our experience! We each got to pick six dishes to make, and we received a cookbook with all of their recipes at the end of the day. The cooking vs. eating times were really well-paced and balanced, and the materials for each dish were set up by their cooking staff just before we learned how to make them. It was well-organized and our teachers were both knowledgeable and entertaining.
I was able to make it to a Zumba® class at Fitness Thailand while we were in Chiang Mai! I had scoped this gym out online before we arrived based on its accessibility from where we were staying (about 10-15 minutes by Uber, because of the traffic, but only about two kilometers in distance), pricing (200 THB, which is about $6 USD), and availability of classes of interest to me (other than Zumba®, they offer some Les Mills class formats that I enjoyed taking in college, which first introduced me to group fitness and I have fond memories of). I had intended to attend more than one class, but I mainly took advantage of our onsite gym for my workouts (its use was included in the price of our accommodation), and I caught the common cold mid-week, which slowed me down a bit. Regardless, I was determined to make it to a class in Thailand; it certainly took a lot out of me doing it with a cold, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at my dance movements or the smile on my face! Melinda, the instructor, had a big, encouraging smile on her face the whole time and was easy to follow, which is key to having a positive class experience. I got a great workout and enjoyed myself. Thank you, again, Melinda!
Aaron’s Hiking Excursion
And without further adieu, here is Aaron’s blogging contribution debut!
Chiang Mai is set in a beautiful mountainous area with vast jungles that beg to be explored. I had heard a lot from other travellers about some great hikes in the area so I was determined to get one in during our time there. Unfortunately, we were there at one the hottest times of the year and the heat and humidity were not exactly conducive to long forays into the wilderness. Nevertheless, I hatched a plan to get out and complete a hike before midday when the weather transitions from just uncomfortably hot to skin-melting insufferably hot. As such, I needed to find a hike that was close enough to the city where I could get on the trail early. After a bit of research I came across what’s known as the Monk’s Trail. It is located in the mountain range on the western outskirts of the city. The trailhead is easily reached with a short taxi ride. As an added bonus, the hike passes through an old Buddhist temple, Wat Pha Lat.
The trail begins with a gentle uphill grade and continues that way until reaching the temple. Along the way there are various trail signs describing the local flora and fauna. Occasionally, there are breaks in the otherwise dense foliage where I was treated to sweeping views of the valley below including the city of Chiang Mai. The trail is easy to follow as it is frequently marked with bits of bright orange cloth (evidently from discarded monk’s robes). In addition to easing navigation, the contrast of the bright orange markers in the dense green jungle creates a striking aesthetic.
After about 40 minutes of hiking I came upon a sign indicating that I was entering a “meditation zone” and instructing me to be quiet. Around the same point I came across the first signs of the temple, white stone buddha statues dotting the sides of the trail. Even though I was expecting to see these things, I still had the impression that I was somehow stumbling upon a lost temple city a la Indiana Jones. The fact that the trail was virtually empty (I think I passed only one other hiker on the way up) really added to the effect.
I proceeded to cross a narrow stone bridge and suddenly the whole of the temple grounds revealed itself to me. The complex is made up of dozens of old temples and statues which blend seamlessly into the vines and trees around them. I spent the next hour wandering around exploring the grounds, taking pictures, and just sitting and thinking. It’s easy to see why the monks come here to meditate. The place is eminently tranquil and has an otherworldly surreal feeling to it. Other than a few monks undertaking what appears to be a Herculean task of clearing vegetation to hold back the encroaching vines of the jungle, I was the only sole in the area. Evidently, the temple was once a busy waystation for worshippers making the trek up the mountain from Chiang Mai to the much larger Doi Suthep temple. Eventually a road was built to Doi Suthep and hence Wat Pha Lat was converted into a sleepy monk’s residence.
But why take the road to the top when you can hike a mountain instead? At least that was my thinking. So I set off to trace the steps of what are undoubtedly thousands of monks who previously made the journey up the mountain to Doi Suthep. I hiked for about another hour up a much steeper incline until I reached the summit and the giant staircase leading up to the very popular temple. The main attraction is a giant golden Chedi which glistens brightly and is practically blinding on a sunny day. It was definitely impressive but I have to say it was a bit of a let down because it was extremely crowded and totally overrun by tourists. I managed to brave the crowds for just a few minutes before I turned around and headed back down the trail. I retraced my steps all the way back stopping to enjoy my lunch (a hard boiled egg, some dried mango, and cashew nuts) at Wat Pha Lat. I appreciated the peacefulness even more after being elbowed by dozens of tourists vying for the best vantage point to snap shots of Doi Suthep.
We spent our final few nights in Bangkok. We didn’t do much, mostly because of the humid heat, but also because I was in the midst of experiencing the common cold. Nose-blowing, snot, and coughing everywhere – Yuck!
Our AirBnB accommodation was a cheap find (about $18 USD per night) near Lumphini Park, a neighborhood we liked during our initial time in Bangkok, but it was very basic and not the most comfortable or clean. At least there was an air conditioning unit and a couple of fans in the main room where we slept. We paid about the same price per night for our one-night stay near Khao San Road in Bangkok before flying to Chaing Mai, and while small, it was comfortable and clean. As with most places we’ve been on our travel journey, you never really know what you’re going to get until you arrive, and price doesn’t always indicate, as in comparing these two accommodations in Bangkok.
We walked through a night life area after dinner and the mall. There were bunches of young women dressed up and hanging out in groups in front of various establishments on one street, and promotors asking if we wanted to see a “ping pong” show. Aaron refused to tell me, and I never did look up what exactly that is, and I think it’s better for me if I never know, LOL. We walked through an outdoor night market in this area and then took an Uber back to our neighborhood. Aaron enjoyed a craft beer, which is a rare find in the areas we’ve traveled and is often a splurge beyond what it costs in the U.S.
Beyond the detail shared in this blog post already, there are some aspects of our experience that haven’t yet been captured, and I think, deserve a highlight of their own. That, or if they’ve already been mentioned, I think there is further explanation to be shared about them.
Ahhh, yes, toilet talk. One of my favorite things to write candidly about!
Toilet paper usually goes into a small trash can next to the toilet in Thailand (i.e. you aren’t supposed to flush it down the toilet). However, often times, there is a bidet in lieu of toilet paper. Basically, you spray your asshole with a strong current of water that comes out of this gadget. I still bought toilet paper or used tissue when it was not provided, as I could not bring myself to drip-dry. Personally, I don’t think the bidet gets everything that toilet paper does, but Aaron attests that there is an appeal to it because it eliminates chaffing. As a woman, I never did use it for #1, and if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted to drip-dry then, either.
All of our accommodations had Western toilets with a bidet. I did not try the bidet in any public restrooms (they were often not as clean-looking). Also, most public restrooms, with the exception of malls and the airport, did not stock toilet paper. I was grateful for the tissues I usually carried on-hand, but I was in a bind and had to use actual paper I had available once in an emergency!
Of course, there are also squat toilets, which we did not encounter as often as I had anticipated. The ones we did were rather clean appearance-wise. Basically, you squat, and afterwards, you pour scoops of water from a bucket next to it (with a smaller bowl) into the hole in the toilet. I think maybe the ridges on the sides are designed for you to put your feet on, but I just put my feet on either side on the floor.
One valuable piece of advice I can pass along to those who will encounter squat toilets in the future: If you aim at the small hole with the water in it (i.e. not at the porcelain), you won’t splatter. Also, if you’re ever in a Bootcamp of mine in the future, and we are working on Asian squats, you’ll now understand the practical, functional movement of the exercise and will thank me when you travel to Southeast Asia someday. You’re welcome! 🙂
Thankfully, we had minimal experiences with diarrhea and stomach discomfort in Thailand, but still, we had some during the first half of our time there (as usual, I more than Aaron). I attribute it, at least partially, to being careful with our exposure to street food. Rather than (or in addition to) exposure to new bacteria, which is not necessarily because of food sanitation issues and can happen anywhere, not just on the street, the cause could very well have been our bodily reactions to consistently super spicy food that we aren’t used to processing. Regardless, we were grateful neither one of us experienced something serious that inhibited us from doing anything. Rest and rehydrating by drinking water is about all we needed to recuperate.
There is a variety of tropical fruit in Thailand. Much of it was familiar to us, having been in other tropical climates previously where similar fruit grows (and Aaron had been to Thailand once before), but there were some new finds, too! Surprisingly, we didn’t seek out much exotic fruit, but we did eat plenty of fresh, sweet mango!
What we know as Thai Iced Tea in the U.S. is simply known as Milk Tea in Thailand. And often times, Green Milk Tea (similar to a Matcha Latte in the U.S.) was more common to see than the orange-colored one, to my surprise. For those who haven’t heard of or tried these before, they are teas sweetened with condensed or coconut milk.
Hot, Humid Heat
As you could probably guess considering I’ve mentioned this throughout this blog post, this was prevalent throughout Thailand and is something to contend with. Aaron deals with it much better than I do, but it’s still a challenge for him. We visited during one of the country’s hotter times of year (mid-March/April). If we go back someday (which we hope to in order to experience some of the beaches in the South together (it would be my first time), return to Chiang Mai, and check out some central parts of the country we haven’t been to), we would want to go when the weather is relatively not as hot and humid.
It is common courtesy to remove shoes before entering Thai homes, classrooms, and in many cases, places of business. We often saw pairs of shoes outside of shops while walking down the street. In many cases, as a result, that flooring seems to stay cleaner, but not always.
Massage & Spa Services
These are more affordable than I’d ever seen in my life! If you go to Thailand, these pricy luxuries back home are accessible multiple times per week, if you want, so soak them up while you can!
Thai massages for both of us, 45-minute to 1-hour sessions, cost only 560 THB – 770 THB (about $16 USD to $22 USD) total, including tip! We got neck and shoulder massages, foot massages, and full body massages. I, personally, think Thai massages are way too rough for me. The pressure is very hard (actually, my massages were all painful, something for me to get through rather than to lay there and relax throughout – I looked forward to it being over and after the first several minutes, and as I laid there, didn’t know if and how I could take a whole 45 minutes or hour of it). For the full body massage, the lady actually stood and walked on me! They also twist your body like a pretzel into a series of deep stretches, which I didn’t always feel I was flexible enough for. Any time I winced, the masseuse laughed, as if getting some kind of pleasure from it! I will say that afterwards, my body generally felt loose, which is the benefit, I suppose, of doing it. Mainly, for me, we were in Thailand, so I felt like I wanted to have the experience of getting Thai massages. I gave them a fair chance, having different types and people perform them, and I can conclude that they are not for me and I will go back to my hot stone, Sweedish, and deep tissue/sports massages (which can still be uncomfortable when the masseuse digs their fingers into muscle tissue, but nothing like the Thai massage pain) when we move back home and I’m treating myself to this rare luxury. Now, Aaron LOVES Thai massages! Any other type of massage just won’t do, unless it’s a true deep tissue massage. Needless to say, all of his Thai massage experiences were great, exactly what he was hoping for! He even went for one last session on our last full day in Bangkok before leaving Thailand. I opted for a manicure instead.
I got a pedicure, mani/pedi, and manicure during our time in Thailand. Also very cheap! My first pedicure, in Trat, cost 100 THB (about $3 USD)! My mani/pedi at the mall in Chiang Mai was 540 THB (about $16 USD) total, including tip! The main difference I noticed from mani/pedi services at home is that they don’t really massage your arms and hands, or legs and feet, with lotion (my guess is that because you can pay for a Thai massage if you want that type of service). Also, there is usually not a built-in tub of water below a padded massage chair; it’s a basic chair, perhaps with padding, and a tub of water they fill manually and bring to you for the service. I enjoyed feeling pampered, having my nails done, so regularly; at home, this is also a rare treat because it costs so much more!
People must like their mattresses hard in Thailand! Really, all of our mattresses, with the exception of the one in Chiang Mai, that I can recall, were firm. This was particularly uncomfortable for me at times, but I came to expect it and deal with it as best I could. It was a treat to have a comfortable, more plush mattress!
Tap water is not drinkable in Thailand. Unlike many of the accommodations we experienced in Mexico and Central America where bulk, filtered water was provided, we were on our own here. Luckily, the cost of bottled water is cheap. The key was making sure to replenish our supply before we ran out, or got too close to it!
People are generally patient and respectful, bowing as a greeting, departure, or in gratitude. We really liked it! Our host commented on how remarkable it really is, given the climate, that people are able to publicly control their emotions so well, because in that climate, one can easily see how challenging that can be and how it could go another way.
Covered shoulders and knees are common. I was asked to do this while teaching English in Trat, and I respected it. Not everyone on the street as a traveler observes this way of dress, but not doing so can generate certain looks of disapproval, or I suppose, interest. I think this depends on where you are (i.e. small town vs. larger city, out for night life vs. walking around during the day). With the weather being what it is, wearing tank tops and shorts, I think, is fine, but being conscious of what type is worth considering (i.e. not too short or revealing).
We learned a handful of words in Thai, but practically speaking, we were in Thailand for such a short time that we didn’t put much effort into learning the language. Pretty much everywhere we went, people spoke at least some English, which was better than our Thai. Locals didn’t expect that we would speak Thai, but usually appreciated the few things we did say. Contrasting this with our unique cultural exposure we often experienced when we spoke Spanish in Mexico and Central America, giving us interactions we couldn’t have had if we didn’t know (enough) Spanish, we’re sure there are similar opportunities we missed out on in Thailand by not knowing (enough) Thai, but perhaps those are in less touristed areas. In the least touristed area we visited, in Trat, we had interactions with Thai people who spoke fluent English, so we feel fulfilled by what we gained there, being able to ask questions and see life through their lenses for the week we were there. Overall, if you’re going to Thailand, you don’t need to learn Thai beyond a few basics, unless you want to!
Here are a few basic words we picked up:
Sa-wa-dee-kah (Hello, for a woman)
Sa-wa-dee-krap (Hello, for a man)
Kop-khun-kah (Thank you, for a woman)
Kop-khun-krap (Thank you, for a man)
Arroy-ma-kah (It’s delicious, for a woman)
Arroy-ma-krap (It’s delicious, for a man)
It’s polite for women to say, “Kah“, and for men to say, “Krap“, after what they each say.
The streets are usually quiet, a stark contrast from the random firecrackers and reggaeton music blasting out of electronic stores in Mexico and Central America that we had recently experienced and grown accustomed to. There isn’t really a type of dance style that is popular; according to our host in Trat, people “drunk dance”, but that’s about it. As far as music, she says a classic, love ballad is the go-to; in fact, a similar tune was present in most songs we heard. One we heard, she told us, was about a woman wanting to hug a man who isn’t her boyfriend. Well, well, well…
Closing Thoughts & Takeaways
It wasn’t always easy, and our experiences certainly didn’t involve laying on beautiful beaches with drinks in-hand, relaxing in a perfect climate. Thailand apparently has a picturesque vacation scene, including many of the typical places that come to mind for most people who have heard of it, but we didn’t seek these places out on this trip. Prioritizing cultural experiences and a look into what real life looks like for locals, especially with the amount of time we had available to ourselves between visiting the U.S. and flying into Athens just before Pascha, in this case, sometimes means foregoing more idyllic experiences as a short-term visitor. I had moments where I felt some doubt about whether going the route we took was the right choice, whether I would have enjoyed beach life more than what we ended up doing. I might have, I might not have. Popular beaches have a huge tourist scene – some more backpackers, others more resort crowds – but either way, this usually is something else to contend with that we aren’t fond of due to the lack of real, cultural exposure that often results. More touts, more restaurants with bland food, higher prices, etc. – An artificial takeaway of what life in Thailand is actually like, and certainly not for every day Thai people, beyond perhaps seeing how some of them vacation.
Was it a fulfilling trip? Yes. Were parts of it personally challenging? Yes. Was it different than any other place or culture we’ve experienced on this long-term travel journey? Absolutely. When it’s all said and done, we’re both glad we fit this trip into our travel itinerary. Instead, we could have spent more time in Central America, and/or we could have chosen to go to a country or two in South America. But stepping back to look at our travels as a whole, we think we’ll be glad we fit a piece of an entirely different part of the world into our destinations. It provides a unique perspective and worldview to add to the others.
Next, we fly to Dubai for a less-than-thirty-six-hour layover before flying to Istanbul, Turkey, to connect to our flight to Athens, Greece, which we’ve essentially planned our entire trip to this point around arriving just before Pascha, the most important holiday in Greece!
Until next time,
Elena & Aaron 🙂