In Southeast Asia there is a phrase you can't escape. "Same, same, but different" is used by locals to describe something similar. For example, if you asked about the difference between two noodle bowls, the reply would be "same, same but different" to describe similar broth, price, but different meats. It's a really funny phrase that we still can't seem to shake out of our vocabulary even here in New Zealand.
After leaving Viet Nam, which we loved, we were really expecting Thailand to Wow! Everyone loves Thailand and we were expecting to feel similar. You know, same, same, but different.
I won't go as far as saying Thailand was a disappointment; it was just average. It has clearly become much more westernized and felt like a lot of the grit and charm has left.
We flew from Ho Chi Minh to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand and stayed near to the Old City at The Britannia. This hotel is owned by a Kiwi and his Thai wife, who we affectionately called Mom and Dad by the end of our five days there. The funniest thing about the hotel is it was built by the original owner as a "love" hotel, so in every bathroom is a picture of a naked Thai woman. I'm not talking a painting, I'm talking a full-on tile nude picture. We laughed later with Mom and Dad about this and told them they may want to give people a head's up. They just don't seem like the nudey photo type. We laughed every time we used the bathroom.
Alright, so on to what we did...
Chiang Mai- You can easily spend a ton of time around Chiang Mai area.
1. Monk Chats are a great way to learn about Buddhism and to also help a monk practice their English. Quite a few temples offer this opportunity, just be sure to check the times.
2. Elephant Nature Park is a popular attraction for tourists. ENP is run by a conservationist who has purchased nearly 250 elephants from abusive owners. It is pricey for a day-tour, but is a great way to learn about the horrific treatment of these animals and to see the happy life they now live. You also can hug them, bath them and feed them throughout the day.
3.Temple hopping leads to temple fatigue, but there are a few great ones to see in and around Chiang Mai, including the White Temple and Black House on a day trip up to Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle. White Temple is a spectacle and Black House is demonic and weird. Tip: Most temples close from 12-1 pm for lunch, including both of these attractions.
4. Chiang Rai is a city that plays host to the famous Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. Unfortunately, the Golden Triangle is about a two-hour drive away. We booked a (terrifying) driver for the day for $40 per person. It poured during our entire drive up there but the clouds parted as we arrived for a stunning view of the sun glistening off the green lands and Mekong River. Tip: Chiang Rai is also home to two Opium Museums. Go to the larger, government-funded one.
5. Sammy's Thai Cooking School was suggested by Mom and Dad. It was a great day spent learning six basic recipes of Thai cooking. Sammy himself is a bit of a nut job, but thankfully it's his wife who does the actual class. She is a kind and easy-going woman and we enjoyed nearly everything we learned to cook.
6. Pa's Smoothies located across the street from the Chiang Mai gate were the best smoothies we had in Thailand. This energetic lady whips up a mean $.71 smoothie. The hike to the gate was worth it every time.
7. Chiang Mai Food Tour wasn't as great as our Hanoi Food Tour, but it still offered a great sampling of local cuisine.
Some people shrug Bangkok off as just another big city, but let's be clear, Bangkok isn't a big city. It is a HUGE city. As far as the eye can see is a sea of buildings. It's simply overwhelming.
We spent time in a few different areas, including near the Khao San Road and the Grand Palace's more touristy area. The Grand Palace is massive and has strict modesty policies, including no tight pants, no shorts and no short sleeves. It was also boiling hot under the covers they give you for a deposit fee.
Worth a visit:
The famous SkyBar offers over-priced cocktails at nearly $15 per cocktail, but you're paying for the view. Go on a clear night to take in all of Bangkok. It's a spectacular view. Don't buy into the hype to head right first, go left and order a drink from here.
Muay Thai is intense and if you want to get a lesson, Bangkok is the place. Off of Kho San Road is a gym that offers classes at 8 am and 5 pm every day. Be prepared for a total butt-kicking in this two-hour long training session. I don't think I've sweated so much in my life and we had just come from Viet Nam! Totally worth it and be ready for sore everything the next day.
Phangan is known for its infamous Full Moon Parties, where white trash from around the world converges for an all-night rave once a month (or more as there are also half-moon and quarter-moon parties.)
We spent 12 days on Phangan, skipping all said parties and just enjoying hiking around the island, snorkeling, paddle boarding, swimming and eating. Thailand has beautiful beaches, but they are similar to Viet Nam's Ha Long Bay. We loved spending so long here, especially because we needed the time to get the ball rolling on our return to the good, ol' USA and plan for New Zealand and Australia. It wasn't a bad place to set up an office.
Thai food is delicious but spicy! If you want "normal" spicy, ask for it with only one pepper or "nick noy" meaning a little.
An absolute MUST visit in Chiang Mai is a tiny lunch spot called Khao Soi Khun Yai. Tucked between Wat Mo Kham Tuang and Wat Monthian, they are only open from 11 am until 2 pm every day. Get there early and order two bowls, one chicken and one pork, along with a refreshing tea. You will not be disappointed by this subtly spicy Burmese style curry served with red onions and crunchy noodles.
Definitely take a food tour for insight into more than just the standard pad thai, which we found to be fairly bland.
Overall, Thailand didn't blow us away like we had thought it would. We even had our trusty travel buddy, Elizabeth to confirm the sentiment. I really think we would have loved it more had we gone there first instead of Viet Nam. I also think we laid low and skipped a few of the bigger attractions like Kho Phi Phi due to not wanting to deal with the crowds. Thailand is not as inexpensive as people would lead you to believe and certainly caters more to tourists than ever before.