Travel

Travels in The Land of Smiles

Sitting on board a Boeing 777 with a 11.5 hour flight ahead of us it was the longest flight I’ve been on in a while, second only to the 25 hour two leg flight I was on years ago to Australia. We arrived in Bangkok and got a taxi to our hotel, Ma Du Zi. The taxi driver was really cool, very relaxed and kind. I wouldn’t fancy driving around Bangkok though! Already the heat had been getting to me so it was a relief to get in to an air conditioned taxi.

We arrived at the hotel and it was really nice. Karis had booked it as a surprise for my 30th birthday. We got to our room and it was basically the size of a studio apartment with a very cool feature, an infinity jacuzzi bath that filled up from the ceiling! I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We had the largest bed I’ve seen too, 240CM wide. My first experience of Thailand was turning out to be pretty cool so far.

After a while in the jacuzzi bath we went to Terminal 21, a shopping centre with a food court. We had dinner and called it a night. We were both pretty tired by now.

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The next day was my birthday. My 30th orbit round the sun. I woke up and opened some cards I’d taken with me. Karis, JB and her mum clubbed together and got me an awesome watch, a Wenger Commando SRC. I love it!

We went to the Golden Mount Temple that day too. To reach the top you have to climb 318 steps. On the way up there are various Buddhas and there’s a recording of what I assume is a monk speaking, playing all the way up. Up the first few steps and we came across a giant millipede (I say giant—that’s what it appeared to be to me but it’s probably just a regular millipede in Thailand). On the way up there’s a bit where there are lots of bells in a row with a big gong at the end which anyone can ring. At the very top it was windy which was pretty welcome given the temperature/humidity. The view was pretty impressive from the top and there were various monks around.

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After this we went to the Grand Palace (home of the Emerald Buddha). It took us a while to walk there and we were constantly told by tuk-tuk and taxi drivers that it was closed and we wouldn’t get in but we were flying to Chiang Mai the following day so it was now or never. Of course they all had an ulterior motive anyway which was to get us in their tuk-tuk or taxi and drive us round the city for several hundred baht. We got to the Grand Palace and it was open and was accepting entries for another hour. You can’t really blame the tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, they’re just trying to make a living at the end of the day and most of them don’t push you too far. If they realise you aren’t going to give in they are usually pretty helpful and will give you directions. Accepting their initial price for anything isn’t a good idea either usually. You can barter them down a bit as long as you make sure the price is clear before you set off. After we’d changed in to trousers (no exposed flesh below the waist, shoulders covered etc.) we wandered round the palace. A lot of the structures are decorated with tiny pieces, either small tiles or carved pieces that make up figures or decoration. It is really quite impressive, the attention to detail is amazing and there’s a sense of being drenched in gold, it’s everywhere and it’s all gleaming. Construction started in 1782, I don’t know how long it took to complete all the buildings but it must have been painstaking. IMG_3396

I spent a lot of the time in Thailand dripping with sweat. The temperature never got above low 30s but the humidity can get close to 100% and there’s no way you can cool down if there isn’t a breeze. It was really uncomfortable to start with but after a few days it didn’t bother me too much. Most of the taxis and buildings are air conditioned which was always welcome though. Even just the breeze riding on a tuk-tuk was enough to take the edge off.

That night Karis had a surprise for me which required trousers (rather than shorts) and a shirt. We arrived at the docks and initially I thought we were going to have dinner in a restaurant overlooking the river. We were having dinner on the river though! While we waited for our boat to arrive another boat arrived to pick up people for a dinner cruise. This boat was different though. At full volume the Star Wars theme tune was playing! Just completely random but funny as hell! Our boat was a bit more classy though and there wasn’t many other people aboard. The food was excellent, beautifully presented and delicious. The cocktails went down pretty well too. We saw various temples and the Rama VIII bridge, highly recommended!

The following day we caught a flight to Chiang Mai with Bangkok airways. I think it cost us £24 or something like that. Unbelievably cheap. And they served lunch on our 1 hour flight. Karis has been to Thailand twice before and used the sleeper trains in the past but discovered that a flight is cheaper and considerably quicker. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi is really easy to access from the city. Just get on the “Sky Train”. It’s about 50 baht to get to the airport from the city which works out at about 92p. A taxi would probably cost 6 or 7 quid. We met an American guy at the airport, from Kentucky. He was telling us how lucky we were with our British passports because we can basically access anywhere in the world with them. He said he struggled to get in to some countries with his US passport. He blamed that on the fact that the US military have interfered with so many countries. I hadn’t even considered it before then but if what he says is true then I suppose we are pretty lucky.

We arrived in Chiang Mai and stayed at Green Tiger Vegetarian Guest House just within the old city walls. I think this was my second favourite for accommodation (first being Ma Du Zi). The staff were really friendly, the food was really good and it was excellent value. It had a bit of a backpacker feel to it but that’s cool. They have 8 bed dorm rooms for 350 baht a night which is about £6.50. Thailand is a massively popular backpacking destination, largely because it’s so cheap I suppose. When we checked in they gave us some chilled young coconuts. That’s the first time I’ve had coconut water straight out of a coconut, it’s really nice! 3 nights cost about £100 for a double room which included breakfast. We had some time to kill so we walked round the corner to a temple, Wat Monthian, and had a look around. The temple didn’t seem to be in a particularly significant location and although it was small it was built to the same impressive standard as the Grand Palace in Bangkok. We then went to another temple, Wat Lok Moli. This was different because it was a lot older but had some cool stone carvings. It was really calm and peaceful there too.IMG_3413 IMG_3420IMG_3426The next day we were up quite early, about 7:30AM and were being picked up at 8:30AM for a guided tour with Something Different Tours on little motorbikes! Another surprise from Karis for my 30th! (…and an excuse to do cool stuff herself no doubt!). The bikes were Honda Wave 125s or something along those lines. Basic 4 speed with an automatic clutch and various displacements, 100, 110 or 125CC. We all had a ride round on them so they could assess if we would be able to ride them OK. I was OK but Karis and another guy who joined us from Chicago didn’t feel confident enough to ride them all day. Karis was fine riding pillion with our guide Gun, though. Gun was a legend. I think I’ll miss him the most out of everyone I met in Thailand. He was always positive, smiling, chilled out and funny. Full of interesting stories too. He grew up in a small village. His father was a farmer so he lived a very basic life when he was young. He father taught him how to hunt for food and he told us about the time he caught a Cobra when he was a boy and his mum went mental because it was poisonous! He randomly started singing “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky” and told us he loved the song, especially after a smoke. He made me laugh all day long.

We made our way up a nearby mountain in the Doi Suthep National Park, which stands at 1,676M. The winding roads along the way just made me think how cool it would be to ride a full size bike on them but I’m glad we were on the little 125s in the end as I’ll explain later. We stopped at a viewpoint looking over Chiang Mai. Once we reached the top and went in to a temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Here we walked up the steps which have dragons down each side. At the top there’s more gold and incredible detail. Gun took us in to part the temple where a monk was giving blessings and tying string round everybody’s wrist for good luck. This was a really cool experience. I’m in no way religious but if I had to get on with one religion it would be Buddhism, I felt really good after the visit to the monk. Buddhism can be summed up by 3 basic things—to lead a moral life, to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and to develop wisdom and understanding. To me that’s a pretty ideal way to live. Most of the Thai population follow Buddhism (94.6% according to Wikipedia), maybe that’s the reason Thailand is referred to as The Land of Smiles.

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After the temple we continued back down the other side of the mountain and started descending off road. We stopped at another viewpoint where we could see a small village. The tribe in the village used to grow opium until the King put a stop to it. Women were basically slaves and the place was in a bit of a mess. The King funded the village so they could build better homes and instead of produce opium they would make souvenirs for tourists. Further down we would stop to have coffee in another small village nearby. Fresh coffee made from beans grown by the Hmong tribe that live in the village. I hadn’t had much fresh coffee up until this point, it was pretty much the best coffee I’ve ever had. The village was tiny and we only came across a couple of people. We saw one kid in his house (more of a hut really) smacking his head and shouting over and over, clearly there was something up with the poor kid. To top this off an old guy dressed up in some kind of traditional outfit with some kind of wind instrument with a pot attached to the end to collect coins. He was blowing the same note over and over right next to us and occasionally stopping and grinning which would expose a couple of teeth that he had left. He’d just grin at us and say “huuurrrrrr”. It was a bit strange to say the least. I’m sure he was harmless really but clearly he had something wrong with him.

We continued down the mountain off road until we reached some waterfalls where we could swim. It was beautiful here and we saw the first big spider, a Golden Orb Weaver. These can grow up to 20CM and are one of the biggest spiders in the world and although poisonous, they aren’t deadly. The water at the waterfall was a mid-brown colour, not particularly inviting but I think it’s just churned up because of all the rain this time of year. Either way, it was refreshing to sit under the waterfall as the water was nice and cool.

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After this it was time for lunch. Gun took us to a lake where they prepared lunch for us. Soup, fish, rice. The food was really, really good. I think I only had one not so good experience of food in Thailand. Most of the time it was full of flavour. I was eating the soup and came across a chilli. I gave it a go and it wasn’t too bad. A few mouthfuls later and I came across another one, I put this one in a chewed it. Then, like a light switch, heat smacked me in the face. I was practically reduced to tears! It was pretty funny at the time though and the food was really good. Thai food is right up there now for me. The problem is recreating it authentically. I don’t think I’ve eaten anything that quite hits the mark in the UK possibly with the exception of my brother’s Thai green curry. I need to get some ingredients and practice making it for Karis and I.

From here we went up another peak north of Doi Suthep. Up here was another village. This time with truly stunning views though. There are rows of flowers so we got to see some crazy insects including bees with blue stripes and big butterflies. The weather was sunny but kind of dramatic too at the time but the visibility was good. You could see all around, the farm land, the village and the massive sheet of rain coming over the hills. It was strange because we never came in to contact with it, it was a concentrated column of really heavy rain and looked just like a cloud that had extended to the ground so dense that you couldn’t see through it.

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Onwards back to Chiang Mai. The off-roading was actually pretty tough, it was a pretty long way down and technical in places. I actually though the track would have made some awesome mountain bike trails. I was behind Gun and Karis and was struggling to keep traction in the mud as we were braking down the hill. The bike got away from me a couple of times, it was pretty fun though. We go back to tarmac and before too long we were filtering through traffic which was an interesting experience. Footpaths, closed off road—it didn’t matter, we just tried to get by all the traffic.

Back at HQ after a long but amazing day we had some photos taken with the guys. What a memorable day.

The following day we would be picked up again at 8:30AM. This time though we were going to “Pamper a Pachyderm”. The minibus takes you about 1 hour 30 mins away from Chiang Mai to the Elephant Nature Park. Here they rescue elephants and rehabilitate them. Most people, myself included, don’t realise the torture that elephants go through to make them compliant. They showed a video on the way in the minibus explaining what they refer to as “The crush”. This can mean days on end of the elephant locked in a wooden cage and subject to beating until they do as they’re told. Elephants that give rides to tourists have to go through this, they are unhealthy and unhappy. Pamper a Pachyderm is different. You are given a sack of bananas and you wander round the jungle with the elephants. They are pretty much free to wander around at their own pace and you just walk along with them, feeding them bananas. It felt surreal, like I was on a film set or something. The views were amazing, the elephants are incredible creatures. So massive but at the same time they are gentle and intelligent.IMG_3502 IMG_3512

After a while walking we stopped for lunch, again another amazing lunch was prepared for us in a hut overlooking the elephant park. The food was top notch and also vegetarian which I was pretty pleased about. I did eat meat in Thailand, lots of chicken. I’d made a bit of an exception to my usual free range, organic rules that I try to stick by. I think you’d have a hard time being vegetarian there but eating vegetarian this day made me feel good. The food didn’t need chicken either. With us were two couples, one from Texas and one from Belgium. They were nice people. I thought the guy from Belgium was a bit off to start with but he loosened up as the day went on. Doing these group things seems like a really good way of meeting random travellers. The elephants are left to their own devices and come back down when they are ready. We would walk back to the park with them slowly and came across a tarantula in the bank on the side of the trail. We had to cross a river which we had rafted over at the start of the day. It was now relatively low though so the raft couldn’t be used. Although the river was lower it still came half way up my thigh and the current was pretty strong. I had all my camera gear with me so I was careful with each step. We managed to get across OK and I got a couple of photos. Here we washed the elephants. While we were waiting to take photos a couple of the rescue dogs had a bit of a scrap and started barking/growling. This spooked the elephant and it started running directly towards the dogs, behind the dogs was me. The guides quickly calmed the elephant down and everything was OK. I didn’t feel in any particular danger at any stage but the guide, Tony, explained to me what you should do if an elephant ever runs towards you. On level ground, always run in a zig zag. An elephant will easily outrun a person but they have a hard time changing direction. If you’re on a hill or uneven ground, run diagonally. Elephants can’t negotiate uneven ground as quickly. Straight up or straight down you’d be trampled but diagonally you at least stand a chance. After this we were taken rafting down the river which was unexpected but also cool! The guides kept smacking the surface of the water shouting SNAKE! We finished the day up by buying a hand carved elephant modelled after one of the elephants, made by one of the guides. I reckon this tops any other experience I’ve ever had. It was truly amazing. If you want to see elephants in Thailand (or anywhere else!), don’t ride them, go for a walk with them instead. It’s awesomely rewarding and you aren’t funding animal abuse.

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Last evening in Chiang Mai and part of me was sorry to leave but I was excited for the next leg of our journey. Down to Koh Phi Phi for a week on the island.

We caught another flight and stayed in Ao Nang. A town just near Krabi not far from the port. We stayed at Ban Sainai resort for one night which was very nice but down south some of the staff were noticeably less happy. I guess the south has more tourists visiting for the islands etc. I think the people in Chiang Mai were the kindest, happiest people I’ve ever met so the contrast down south was immediately apparent. The view was pretty impressive at this resort. Basically a 300 metre high rock face, straight up. It was quite a sight being able to eat dinner right in front of it.

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The next day we caught a ferry to Koh Phi Phi. This was an hour and a half. I think about half of that was spent travelling through muddy looking ocean where several rivers combine to form an estuary. The water started to become clear though and we eventually arrived at Phi Phi. The town is bustling with small shops all packed in tightly. We spent a little while here then got a long tail boat to our first resort. The long tail boats are a pretty simple design but aren’t all the same. Basically a turbo diesel engine is mounted on to the rear of the boat so it can pivot with a long prop shaft and prop on the end. I’d say the shaft is probably 2/3 meters, long enough for the prop to actually be at an angle that will propel the boat. The engines are all pretty much the same, knackered old things that leak oil. No silencer on the exhaust. Initially it looked like they were cooled by pumping sea water round them but I’ve since learned that fresh water is used and the pipes going under the boat connect to a heat exchanger under the surface of the water. Simple yet clever design. There doesn’t appear to be any bearings for the prop shaft. The throttle is basically a piece of string attached to a pole that’s used for low speed steering by moving the engine around on its pivot or twisting the pole to wind the string on attached to the throttle to open it. Once you get going they tie the pole up so the prop is straight and the throttle is open and they switch to the rudder. I did see a couple of variations, one with a gearbox. This meant he had a reverse gear although the poor old thing was just forced in to gear without a clutch. Some were driven directly off the centre of the flywheel, others were driven with some gearing which gave the prop a bit more speed.

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We set off. Just as I said to Karis that they ring the neck out of these engines there was a pretty sharp clunk followed by loss of drive. The prop had pinged off the shaft in the waves! Another long tail had to tow us to Relax Resort. Relax resort is fairly basic accommodation but they do have a cocktail bar on the beach so we had 3 each when we arrived. Electricity is only on between 6PM and 6AM (you can hear the generator kick in at 6PM). They also had problems with fresh water supply so we had to shower with salt water for 3 nights. The rooms are basically wooden huts, no air conditioning, just a mosquito net and a pedestal fan. Relax is cheap and cheerful really. The staff are friendly and the food is OK. The tide was getting really high while we were there, the highest they’ve seen it for a while. It was basically filling the restaurant some of the time. One of the main things we were here for though was the snorkelling. We went in the sea and started looking around but to Karis’ shock most of the coral was dead. She’d been to this resort 3 years ago, all the coral was alive and well and teeming with life. We did see a few things and the visibility was good but it was a real shame. The increase in tourism must be to blame with all the extra boats and people not respecting the coral.

The following day I was woken up by extremely heavy rain, I went outside and took a photo. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Later we walked about two miles through the jungle up to one of the view points on Phi Phi. Covered in thick roots and vines it was quite hard work in the humidity. There was a fair share of lizards, birds and spiders too. We saw another Golden Orb Weaver but could get up close for a decent photo this time. The view point looks over Tonsai bay where the ferry from Krabi ports. We stayed up there for a while and saw a sign saying what time the sun sets so we decided to come back the following evening with some torches. I’d packed my super bright head torch I use for running.

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We set off the following day at about 5PM to catch the sunset which was between 6 and 6:45. There was quite a few people up there already, we’d come across quite a few English backpackers in Thailand. It seems to be a pretty popular destination for the Brits. The sunset was really cool, we stayed and took plenty of photos and video footage and started making our way back through the jungle. By this point it was dark and I don’t think Karis was too keen on the idea of things lurking around. Just before you go in the thicker jungle on the single track there’s a small village. A small dog caught us by surprise and started growling and barking at us, it scared the shit out of us! I thought it was going to chase us in to the jungle, not necessarily a problem—it was only a small dog. It could have been rabid though for all we know. Karis was steaming ahead now, she wanted to get out. I told her to slow down because I thought she was going to trip and hurt herself! I saw little green things glowing in my head torch, there was at least one every few metres. I didn’t tell Karis at the time but after we were back at relax I informed her that they were all spiders. Quite amazing that you can see the eyes of these things long before you can see the body. I wouldn’t want to remain stationary for long in that jungle. I felt like it was quite exciting though in a weird way.

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For the remainder of the time at the Relax resort on Phi Phi we just swam in the sea and lived up to the resort’s name. On the way back to our hut a couple of times we were greeted by monkeys. They are cool but this time they were blocking the path between us and our hut. Initially they were baring their teeth and screaming at us, they all lurched forward as a group. Karis and I legged it back a few metres up the steps of another hut! We thought we were going to get bitten, possibly by more rabid animals! It sounds cliché but it’s you or them, you have to show them who’s boss or you’ll never get by them. I grabbed a broom hanging up and ran towards them waving it about like a mad man. They moved off and we could get in to our hut. God knows what the resort staff must have thought if they saw the whole ordeal. “Stupid tourists”, probably.

We were off to the next resort on Phi Phi for 3 nights now. Relax had been good but all my clothes were damp and I was getting a bit tired of smelling like a washing basket. The next resort was Outrigger. A 4.5 star, part of a hotel chain. We arrived and it was like paradise, turquoise ocean and palm trees. Back to an air conditioned room with a chance of getting our clothes clean and dry. The problem with places like this for me is that it’s all a bit false. The restaurants are stuffy not to mention expensive. Fortunately there’s Phi Phi village behind the resort which is really awesome. The food and drink was really good and I felt much better handing my money over to the people in the village rather than a big hotel chain. The atmosphere in the village was right up my street too, I’d happily have spent the whole week there and got to know the villagers a bit more. They were in a good mood because they’d just traded with some fisherman and got a good deal on a load of fresh fish. I had some one night, it was up there with one of the best meals I’ve had. We did kind of make friends with a family there. It was cool by day and by night, far more culture and good vibes than there would have been at any of the resort restaurants. I’d fully recommend anyone staying at Outrigger to eat and drink in the village. You can hear what it sounds like at night just the other side of the village, here. We were just near some standing water and the frogs were making some pretty weird noises.

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Around the village there are signs pointing to the nearest tsunami evacuation point. A chilling reminder of the past. Much of the island is still being rebuilt ten years after the tsunami hit. We walked up to another view point which looks over a bay the other side of the resort. This time it was much less used and more difficult to climb, much of it was rocky. We got to the top and I saw a trail of ants walking round a boulder, I followed it and it went on for ages. Pretty much felt like David Attenborough for a moment. At this point the heavens opened. It can happen like that in Thailand. One moment the sun is blazing, the next you’re soaked. We walked back down and followed a path to the bay on the other side. It was awful here, completely covered in rubbish from end to end. It’s used as a dumping ground unfortunately. I don’t know if it’s locals or other people dumping stuff by boat. It’s pretty shocking either way and has ruined what would be another paradise beach.

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We walked back to the resort. On the way an Australian guy caught up with us. He’d been walking round the island for 3 hours, no water, no food—and he was lost. He was a funny character. Told us he had a date at 6:30 with an English girl. We took him back to our resort so he could get a long tail boat back to his hotel. He’d have just enough time to get a shower before his date, we wished him luck and he was off. Funny guy.

Unfortunately all the coral was pretty much dead around this resort too so we went to the village and hired a log tail boat and driver. 1300 baht for 3 hours snorkelling and a visit to two islands, about £24. Pretty good considering it was just the two of us. We got to the first island and the coral wasn’t a great deal better but there was quite a bit more marine life. Karis even saw a black tip reef shark and a cuttlefish. I missed the bloody things though. I also broke my mask in frustration because it was cheap and never sealed properly. The boat driver lent me another one, I only went and lost it! We gave what snorkelling gear we had left to him when we returned to replace the one I’d lost. We both need to invest in some better gear anyway I reckon. I did dive quite a lot but there are quite a lot of urchins around in Thailand so I had to be pretty careful not to get stabbed.

We returned to Krabi and stayed one more night at Ban Sainai. We’d flown Bangkok Airways and Air Asia. The flights were about £24 each. Bangkok Airways played this safety announcement. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, terrible. We left pretty early in the morning which meant we could sort of catch the sun rise. The sea was like a mirror and blended in the sky seamlessly. We had been to a Spa for a massage before in Ao Nang so we went back for another. I had a classic full-body Thai massage the first time. 400 baht gets you an hour which is about £7.50 and they go to town on you, cracking all you hands, toes and back. It’s intense but feels pretty good afterwards. This time I went for a foot massage. I want to start running again soon so I thought a foot massage might prepare me a bit. Bloody. Hell. The woman basically got a wooden stick out and pressed it in to every square inch of my feet. In between my toes, the lot. I got a bit of a sweat on during that and I’ve had my fair share of sports massage. I could hear them giggling at me. She did my back, shoulders and head too though which helped me feel calm afterwards. The next day Karis caught a few more rays next to the pool while we waited for our transfer back to the airport.

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Our last night in Thailand was in Bangkok at a 5 star hotel called Vie. It’s certainly nice to stay in a good quality hotel in Bangkok. It’s pretty grimey on the streets so having a nice clean hotel makes a good contrast. We had our last meal in a nice place after walking around for some time looking for a restaurant. We went in to a shopping centre which was 99% technology. A geek’s dream come true (and air conditioned of course, I was much better but still struggling with the heat). There are cats all over the place in Thailand too. Some of them are pretty nice, others are really manky. We came across some kittens that can’t have been more than a day or two old, sleeping on a magazine stand randomly.

That was it, off to the airport the next day to board another 777 and endure a 12.5 hour flight. In some ways I felt like I’d been in Thailand forever, we’d packed so much in to our two week holiday. In other ways it was over in a flash. It’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with Thailand. The people are really cool, so friendly and happy in most cases. It’s worlds apart from anywhere else I’ve visited in terms of culture and to be there for my 30th birthday was a dream come true pretty much. There are lot of things I’ve not mentioned here, I think nearly 6000 words probably gives you a fairly good idea of our trip! Of all the places I’ve been, Thailand has to be among the top 3 for places I’d recommend seeing. If I ever go back, I’d like to visit the north a bit more. I really liked the people and the landscape in and around Chiang Mai. The north seems a bit more untouched by tourists too. I’d like to cross the border and go in to Cambodia and Vietnam given the chance.

Hats off to the Thai people, you can learn a thing or two from them and they definitely make you smile.

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