the land of smiles

Coming back to Thailand has been a lot of fun; confident in knowing the lay of the land, experiencing it through different eyes – more open since my first visit – and also with Lucas who had also already been to Thailand before, a few years ago.

We both had places we wanted to revisit and to show each other around from fond memory so we had plenty planned in for a 30 day visa.

We started our Thailand travels in Chiang Mai where Lucas had already been for a week, while I was being a miserable bastard in Sydney. It was good to be back (and in a private room with no bunkbeds, or 7 other people!) and we spent the first night earning ourselves a decidedly savage Changover for the next day – a brilliant word I can’t claim as my own.

We had booked to go up to Pai straight away, one of my favourite places from before, so I couldn’t wait. My mum wasn’t surprised at my wanting to return, asking, ‘is this party Pai?’ and whether I would end up getting a tattoo again…

Piled into a shared mini van, we sped off for 3 hours up the country and into the mountains, around hairpin bends and climbing 45degree inclines, all the while trying to find an unmoving horizon to control the waves of nausea from the previous night’s beer binge.

I hadn’t fully appreciated the effect of the change in season, it being 6 months later. Gone was all the green (I had a memory of lush verdant views) replaced instead with almost autumnal colours of reds and browns on stick-like, on-the-verge-of-dying trees, and gone was the humidity. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were hit with a wall of dry air, so dry it felt as if someone were blowing a hairdryer behind my face. (This would later lead to spontaneous nosebleeds at rather inopportune moments…)

pai canyon

buddha

But despite the sweltering heat and haze, I was adamant we would enjoy Pai. We climbed 353 steps up to a massive white Buddha on the mountain, we scooted to a waterfall (ok it was more like a stagnant pond), and we went to the dystopian-like canyon for sunset with its surreal landscape of tree skeletons, charred earth, and burning embers. Striking nonetheless.

I managed to resist getting another tattoo and we hadn’t really had the opportunity to indulge in ‘party Pai.’ Until….

One night after a particularly lethargic day struggling with the 40-degree heat, we shuffled into town for a ‘quiet night’ aka just a couple of beers. (Isn’t that how it always starts?)

Next thing we know we’re bundled into the back of a taxi-jeep with 8 other farang on our way to a ‘jungle rave’ called Therapy, playing ‘deep house and dark progressive psytrance’ – whatever that was. The barman should have got a commission on our tickets; he was very convincing, and he promised to meet up with us later to give us some glitter. We’d drank more than ‘just a couple’ beers so it didn’t take much to push us over the edge, and we nodded at each other and said ‘fuck it, sounds fun.’

Slight false advertisement in the ‘jungle’ part (there was sparse living vegetation remember) so it was more of a dusty field, but even so, the ‘rave’ vibe was unmistakably there with hypnotic lasers, strobes, neon lights, and glowing bonfires. It felt like a small festival and I was in my element.

We’d made some new friends from Minnesota on the journey, so Lucas was happy to have fellow countrymen to chew the fat with – I’m sure he was desperate for a break from my British colloquialisms – while I was dancing with my eyes closed like all the other loons around me, thrilled with how this spontaneous night was turning out.

To censor the story short (you never know who’s reading) we were still awake as people were eating breakfast the next morning, head to toe in dust, and rather worse for wear. It had been an epic night/morning and an experience that definitely lived up to ‘party Pai’s’ infamy.

pai hike

Redeeming ourselves (once we’d slept for 14hours) we decided we ought to sweat out the bad stuff and do the Mae Yen Waterfall Trek. Already a 30minute walk from our guesthouse, we set out with a backpack and two waters, our trainers on, and swimsuits packed for the refreshing waterfall at the end. I was praying there actually would be water as the ‘river’ we were supposed to be following along the way resembled more of a dribble.

Lucas had read that it would take around 2.5 hours there and the same back again, which was confirmed by someone else, scoffing in our faces at our stupidity setting off into the hottest part of the day. But hey, we love a challenge – gluttons for punishment, right?

We were already drenched in sweat by the time we actually started the trail into the barren jungle of dead trees and smoldering bark. (We had had to log our names in case there was a forest fire so the locals would know how many people to go back in for….)

I’d taken 2 bananas from the breakfast buffet for our ‘elevensies’ which were warm and liquid-like within minutes and that was all our food for the potential 6 hours we’d be out in nature’s oven. Not anticipating how tough the heat would be either, we greedily gulped down our water, forgetting to consider whether we’d have enough for the way back. Which, surprise surprise, we didn’t.

After an arduous, but somewhat meditative, trek for the whole 2.5 hours we made it to the waterfall and thank god there was water – and it was wonderful. There were only a few other hikers there, as crazy as we were, and we sat silently in the fresh pools sifting gold glinting sand through our fingers and soothing our burning skin, savouring the moment while trying to find some energy reserves before having to turn back around and do it all over again.

Thankfully going back felt shorter, probably because my slow and steady pace had turned into more of a quick and determined march, desperate to quench my insatiable thirst, made no more bearable due to the river which taunted us cruelly all the way.

We didn’t die of dehydration, obviously, and we left to go down to Bangkok for Songkran (Thai New Year) the following day.

Songkran fell over three days on 13th April so, as the biggest annual celebration in Thailand, everyone was in the party spirit. The festivities nowadays involve water fights in the street; everyone armed with a water pistol at all times and buckets (that are usually filled with alcohol) filled with water, thrown at passers-by. Lucas had been there for it two years ago so it was his turn to share the experience.

While we relaxed during the day (we managed to sneak into a posh hotel’s rooftop pool for free) by night we were out firing our XXL water gun, dodging squirts and hoses, and getting in the Songkran spirit – even finding the local mini Khao San Road slash red light district down a place called Cowboy Street, of all names.

cowboy st

rooftop

To balance out the damp debauchery, we also went unashamedly upmarket to enjoy some uber fancy rooftop bars, escaping the chaos 39 floors below, sipping wine and whisky, overlooking the hazy urban skyline. We didn’t blend in very well though, still dressed like backpackers in our crumpled t-shirts and shorts.

Our next stop after the capital was the Thai islands, which I had never been to. On our way down we stayed at the beautiful Railay, on the Krabi coast, where we would set off south from there. Spending just a day in Railay with Lucas, we befriended the Rasta barmen of the aptly named Why Not bar, a motto they also upheld openly in their recreational habits, and lazed about on the beach admiring the iconic scenery of limestone cliffs and greens seas, bookended by wooden longboats.

railay

I’d booked to go on a mini yoga retreat for the following few days, on a small island nearby called Koh Yao Noi – which in a nutshell was amazing. Not having practiced for 6 months, however, I was stiff as an old dog and nearly fell asleep in savasana at the end of my first class, which technically you’re not supposed to do.

Diligently, I followed a schedule of morning meditations, countless hours of  sweaty yoga, sunrise tai chi (just the once), and I even fit in some island hopping with a local fisherman called Pong – ‘like ping pong,’ he said – one of the smiliest and friendliest Thais I have ever met. He was also learning English and proudly showed me the phonetic scribbles in his notebook as we spoke about the correct usage of ‘decoration,’ of all words.

pong

After an intense but invigorating 4 days I left feeling re-balanced and re-energised, pumped full of endorphins as if on a high, and went to Phi Phi Island to meet back up with Lucas.

Ironically, you could say it was a fitting onward destination to undo the hard work and detox of my previous few days, as Phi Phi is much akin to Gili T: a tanked up tropical island, a hive of boozy tourists.

We stayed in a ‘boathouse,’ opposite a tattoo shop, right on the shore, down from the clubs and bars that were open from 9pm-3am every night. Adamant we’d go ‘out out’ on our first evening, we set into the garish lights and ear-throbbing music, surrendering to our environment, aided by buckets of vodka lemonade. When in Rome, as they say…

I’d laughed at a comment Lucas had made earlier, saying, ‘if it’s too loud, it means you’re too old.’ And despite the buckets, it rang true, or at least we felt it did, so we retreated from the neon painted people at the beach and found a karaoke-style bar instead where we were happy feeling more our age, belting out classics from Bon Jovi to Britney Spears.

When we finally straggled home we watched a woman drinking beer get a tattoo on her hip at 4am in the tattoo shop opposite our place. I would have loved to know what she got, or if she had any recollection of getting it done when she sobered up.

We enjoyed a few more days on Phi Phi, relaxing by the pool, renting a two-man kayak to explore the bay, and watching amazing sunsets outside our ‘boathouse,’ before heading to our final island in the Andaman Sea, Koh Lanta. I’d been excited to go for ages, hearing people rave about it, saying that it wasn’t like the other islands, so I had high hopes.

FullSizeRender

Staying at Klong Nin Beach – one of many beaches on the island – Koh Lanta couldn’t be more different to Phi Phi; we had a kilometre of sand to ourselves (or that’s what it felt like) and there wasn’t a flame thrower or loud-speaker in sight come nightfall.

The general vibe in Koh Lanta was super chill, for instance, our local was a laid-back Rasta Reggae Bar and Mong Bar*, down the road, had its own resident duck. By day you could lose yourself in the endless views of the ocean stretching out as far as the eye could see, save for a few hazy islands and passings ships on the horizon, and it felt much more isolated and secluded than it actually was. I understood why everyone loved it so much.

*Actually, Mong Bar deserves another anecdote. If you were brave enough to close your eyes, put your palm flat on the bar with your fingers spread wide, and let the barman stab a meat cleaver hurriedly between your digits without touching them (or cutting your finger off), you’d get a free drink. We saw one man offer up a shaky hand just to get a Chang ‘on the house.’ Thankfully the barman didn’t cock up.

island hopping

A highlight of Koh Lanta was an Island Hopping trip we did with a speedboat full of ‘white’ people, all in various shades of burn to brown, reflecting their efficacy (or lack of) at sun cream application. We spent the day exploring the neighbouring islands, snorkelling, indulging in a lazy 2 hour picnic on the beach under the shade of palm trees, and lastly swimming through the Emerald Cave.

Without really understanding what this Emerald Cave would entail – other than dodging the jellyfish drifting carelessly close to our boat (Lucas missed it by an inch) – we were asked nonchalantly whether we’d want lifejackets or not. We said no.

Then to our amusement, boatloads of Chinese tourists emptied into the water, seemingly by the hundreds. I curse myself for not having taken a photo of what we saw next.

A sinewy stronger-than-he-looked Thai held onto a solid life float, pulling a never-ending buoyant line of luminosity (over 30 Chinese tourists, strapped desperately into bright yellow lifejackets) through the water and into the depths of the cave, where more buoyant lines of luminosity had gone through just moments before. All you could hear, once you lost sight of them, was the splashing of water and thrilled (or terrified, we didn’t yet know) screeches.

In hindsight, a lifejacket might have been a good idea – even if we looked as foolish as the Chinese tourists did. In our case, lifejacketless, it was every man/woman for themselves. We had to swim 80m into a darkned cave, through swelling waves which pulled you back and forth as they crashed into the rocks around you, while your legs and arms fought for water among the other hundred submerged limbs. Gotta love Asian health and safety.

There was the threat of potential hysteria, without a doubt, and instinctively I wanted to get out of the cave and through to the other side as quickly as possible. (I think I actually forget to enjoy the ’emerald’ part of it, the sunlight shining through into the green water).

But emerging breathlessly into a pocket of bright green jungle with a tiny sunlit beach, it was at least worth the mild panic. And it was definitely worth seeing the swimming lines of luminous lifejackets to get there – that image won’t leave me for a very long time.

Alas, our time in Koh Lanta was too short, and our weeks in Thailand had flown by. But as with most things, it’s good to leave on a high. Plus Lucas’ 30 days of free visa were up so we had to be out of the country.

Excited for a new destination, and a fresh stamp in the passport, we set off for its neighbour, Myanmar, and with no real plan other than having Google Mapped a rough itinerary on our 6-hour layover to Yangon, we’re making it up as we go along.

More about Myanmar next time.

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