Thai for beginners
As the kids go back to school and the nights draw in, what's the best thing to do? Book a holiday, of course! Fancy something a bit further afield this time?
If you’re anything like me, the first thing you do when you get off the plane in the rain in the UK is start dreaming about far flung shores and next year’s summer hols. I’m usually on the wifi booking next year’s trip before I can remember which airport lot I parked the car in. So how about ditching the sun lounger for a backpack next year – this August we hit the white sands, ancient rainforests and fried-cockroach-selling Bangkok streets of the Far East, and we abso-blooming loved it!
After procrastinating until the littlest Mudlet was of sufficient age and maturity for a trip that involved lots of travelling, even more walking and no kids’ clubs (and quickly realising that she would never make this monumental milestone) we put aside all-inclusive, 12-water-slides, free cocktails at dawn Turkish metropolises and went backpacking in Thailand. OK, so technically I’m not a Thai virgin – Mr Muddy and I did a similar route 17 years ago but that was pre-kids with a scabby backpack, no mobile phone, Full Moon parties on Ko Pha-Ngan, long nights of Go-Go bars in Pat Pong, banana pancakes on the Khao San Road watching The Beach on repeat, getting arrested and spending a night in a Thai prison waiting for Mr Darcy to bail me out (that last bit isn’t strictly true but you get the gist.) This time we have an 11 year old, 9 year old and high-maintenance 6 year old, 4 roller bags, 6 flights, one air-con bus, one overnight train, 3 internal flights and too many crusty old ferries with dubious safety records to think about. It was hot, humid, sweaty, rainy, insect-infested and I ate too much egg fried rice but honestly, Thailand is the place to go.
Our jaunt began in Bangkok, city of temples and tarantulas (fried, if you please), where the familiar and the exotic collide. Same same, but different, it says on a T-shirt in the Night Market, which pretty much sums up the capital. While it can be some people’s idea of hell, Bangkok for me is utter perfection. Here, air-conditioned megamalls tower over ancient village houses, golden temples merge into modern strips of sex shops and Chinese restaurants, and tuk-tuks race past flashy taxis in the steaming, stinking traffic. And our hotel, the somewhat corporate Chatrium Riverside towers over it all (but it’s got a cool pool, so that’s sorted).
We spent the days at Jim Thompson House, the home of an American entrepreneur who uprooted six traditional Thai-styled houses in the 1950s and created a stunning oasis in the heart of the city (he then got eaten by a tiger in Malaysia, but that’s another story), and cruising the canals of Thonburi, our minds blown by the combination of stunning waterside houses alongside shacks rapidly crumbling into the mire, with locals dumping buckets of s**t straight into the water. We got lost in the tiny lanes of Chinatown and stumbled upon a live Chinese opera performance (kids couldn’t have cared less, Mr M even less impressed). Evenings took us in a tuk-tuk to the Khao San Road and the less seedy, more child-friendly Rambuttri Alley. We had foot massages, indulged in pedicures (even Mr Muddy embraced his inner ladyboy and went for turquoise glitter) and watched the Mudlets perfect the art of steely-faced haggling.
Best of all – the food. Until you’ve eaten on a Bangkok street, your fried rice mingling with sizzling noodles, unrecognisable meat and a cloud of exhaust fumes, you haven’t tried Thai food. I’m not particularly adventurous when it comes to food but this was truly a taste explosion. Soi Rambuttri, as long as you avoid the pancake-and-pizza joints, is oozing with real, fresh, delicious street food, Thai rotis and juice carts. Yum!
It’s easy to say that the best thing about Thailand is the food, or the white-sand beaches, or the jungles, or the ancient ruins or the Buddhist temples or the trekking, the elephants, the monkeys. But a hot, steaming night whizzing around a tuk-tuk in Bangkok, breathing in the history, the culture, the heat…it just can’t be beaten. Bangkok is everything you’ve heard it is, plus a whole hell of a lot more.
Next stop, a bustling bus ride (OK, air-conditioned taxi) heading west to the provincial town of Kanchanaburi. On the way we stopped at Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, a tourist trap of souvenirs, tat, surprisingly good but oh-my-god-where’s-all-my-cash-gone expensive food. A million (I’m not exaggerating) long-tail boats hit the skinny canals in this 100-year-old floating market but it does give a fascinating insight into Thai culture as the vast majority of tourists here are Thai, and boy do they know how to spend their hard-earned.
Three second mortgages and two hours later we’re in Kanchanaburi, the WWII memorials and museums a reminder of darker times when Japanese forces used Allied POWs to build a railway to Burma, and the bridge over the river Khwae (and it ain’t pronounced Kwai either!). We didn’t use the town as a base to explore Thailand’s wild west (well, we had a 6 year old in tow. Next time we’ll hit the white-water rafting and hard-core trekking) but we whistle-stopped around the Death Railway Bridge, Kanchanaburi War Cemetary, Jeath War Museum and the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre.
It’s eye-opening, and a very sober place (pretty much lost on the littlest Mudlet but I think the elder two understood). Kanachanburi is a chance to see part of the ‘real’ Thailand, too. We stayed at the fairly basic Kasem Island Hotel but, hey, who doesn’t like a lumpy bed and spiders in the loo? It is set on an island and the views on the boat to dinner are…well, they are just stunning. To eat, we headed to famous On’s Thai-Issan, a vegan gaff where the food is so good that the place is packed with carnivores. They run a cookery school from here too.
A short flight north (and light years away) to Thailand’s northern capital, a captivating concoction of glimmering temples, night markets, cookery schools and a major stop-off point for some serious trekking. Again, with Mudlet number 3 a reluctant foot-dragger, a three-night trek into deepest darkest jungle was not on our itinerary but it is still worth the trip north just to explore this wonderful city. Oh, and we came to see the pandas. We stayed in an oasis within the Old City, where monasteries dominate the skyline, orange-robed monks weave in and out of the tourists and the atmosphere is more country town than modern metropolis. The Tamarind Village is bang slap in the middle of the action, but it has a small pool and colonial-style rooms with cute balconies, perfect to escape back to. And not uber pricey either.
First stop, pandas. The zoo is a depressing place (one elephant in a pen the size of my bedroom) but we weren’t here to campaign against animal cruelty, we were here to ogle those bamboo-chewing beasts. We spent one hour, I kid you not, one whole hour staring at them and boy, are they magnificent. Mummy and Daddy panda (sadly baby had to go back to China as all young pandas born outside of the country do) living life to the full – well, the fullest possible in captivity – in the most impressive enclosures. My daughter has always been obsessed with pandas – she sponsors them and has uncountable numbers of the soft variety in her bedroom – and it was honestly worth the trip just to meet them. I would personally pass on the rest of the zoo but there is a good aquarium here and, believe it or not, a snow dome where locals come for their first taste of the cold.
As for the rest of our 3-day stay – night markets, day markets, street food, foot massages, more night markets, Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and utterly, utterly delicious food. We found the best restaurant in the whole of Thailand and went back there every day – we’re not talking Nobu here, it was someone’s front room and it looked like it but my God, those noodles! For the more adventurous/those without grumbling appendages this is the place from which to head off to go eco-trekking, on adventure tours, white water rafting, rock climbing, visit local villages and elephant camps. More on our elephant adventure next, but BE CAREFUL when choosing which elephant camp to visit. They are not all created equal. Some are wonderful and look after their animals, their main purpose being to educate and conserve. Others are worse than a circus side show. Big Boy Travel is a great site to help you understand more about ethical elephant camps, and which to choose – I recommend Patara Elephant Farm or Elephant Nature Park.
A flight, an overnight train (you must do this – it’s an experience not to be repeated, sorry, forgotten) and a long bus journey to nowhere takes us to the highly recommended Elephant Hills. If you go to Thailand, when you go to Thailand, you must come here. I don’t care if you’re in Bangkok for 24 hours buying shoes, you are coming out here. Above Mae Nam Sok, at the foot of stunning limestone mountains draped in misty jungle in untouched, million-year-old rainforest is Khao Sok’s only top-end camp of rootsy, damp, tented luxury. Think outdoor bathrooms, swinging hammocks, hooting monkeys, torch-lit pathways and elephants, big and real or tiny and wooden, absolutely everywhere. Elephant Hills combines the camp idea of African national parks with the Thai tropical forest environment, offering 2-4 day nature adventure tours (perfect for 6 year-old Mudlets) in and around the stunningly beautiful Khao Sok area. The Elephant Camp has 35 luxurious, tailor-made tents while its sister, a floating Rainforest Camp, is one of the world’s only luxury floating tented camps and is situated on the emerald green waters of Cheow Larn Lake.
Day one is spent with the gorgeous beasts themselves. These 12 lovely ladies have been rescued from other camps where they were forced to carry tourists around – here, you can’t ride them but you get to feed, bathe and spend quality time with them. It’s a truly magical experience, and one none of us will forget.
We came here to see the elephants but Elephant Hills is much more than that. After an evening dip in the pool, local dancing and too much food, Day Two took us to their floating camp on Cheow Larn Lake. Now this is pretty cool. A long boat ride through gorgeous waters to get to the camp, another feed there, swimming, kayaking…just heaven.
Final day, kayaking down river spotting seriously nasty-looking snakes, spiders and what looked suspiciously like a croc but our guide assured me couldn’t possibly be, followed by trekking up hill and down dale and across knee-high swamps spotting beasties on our way. The kids were beside themselves, feral little explorers in their element, and when it came to cooking Thai curries in the middle of the jungle, there was no stopping them.
The wildlife here is incredible – historians believe the forest dates back as far as 160 million years, making it the oldest rainforest in the world, and the biodiversity is higher than in the Amazon. You’ll have a serious chance of spotting some little-known endangered species and if not, you can rest assured that this gaff is doing its bit for the world, having just snaffled a Pacific Asia Travel Association Gold Award for ecotourism for its elephant conservation project and wildlife monitoring. Sorry to go on but, y’know, this place is pretty cool.
Now for some chillax-ing. Railay Beach is a climber’s paradise, where limestone crags tower over pink sands, turquoise bays and thick jungle. Accessible only by boat (a somewhat scary ferry with a serious lack of life jackets but they sold pot-noodles at the bar, so the kids were happy), this slice of paradise is just down-coast from busier Ao Nang but could be a world away. Forget the 15* hotels of Phuket, come here for some laid back chillin’.
There are a few caves, a shrine to local fishermen and a hidden lagoon, but you won’t be surprised to hear that we spent two days lying down, swimming and having our nails done by lovely Thai women on the beach. (Tip: sand and nail polish don’t mix.) Top climbing spots include Muay Thai Wall and One, Two, Three Wall – there are climbs for all levels and plenty of top quality climbing schools to teach you. Diving, snorkelling and kayaking are also massivo here.
The vibe is very relaxed, you won’t need your shoes here and bamboo-hut banana pancake stalls snuggle alongside slightly more expensive restaurants. We stayed at the Railei Beach Club, a collection of individually designed Thai-style homes hidden in the jungle behind the beach. I’d highly recommend this place and it makes a change having your own house for a few days rather than hotel rooms and overpriced mini bars…just watch out for the monkeys!
Koh Phi Phi Don
A final stop…The Beach. Literally. About 40km southwest of Krabi, the stunning islands of Ko Phi Phi Don and Ko Phi Phi Leh are a true Thai paradise (they filmed the movie on Maya Beach on Leh, Leonardo, sharks n’ all), boasting pale blonde beaches, thick jungle and the party capital of Western Thailand. Sadly, the unbelievable amount of tourism here (boatloads of holiday makers in rain slickers which they wear in rain, bright sunshine and in the sea too) is slowly dragging these gorgeous islands into ecological disaster but as long as you tread carefully it is still worth a visit…Give the crazy capital of Ton Sai a miss and head to the more isolated eastern coast – a boat journey away, here you’ll find sensational bays and some seriously spenny hotels. We stayed at Phi Phi Island Village – a luxurious sprawl of traditional Thai bungalows on stilts with a couple of lovely pools thrown in if you don’t fancy the sea.
Diving is big here, obvs, and the eldest mudster spent his week under the surface bagging his PADI Open Water, while the rest of us topped up our tans and managed to shift our arses off our sunbeds once or twice to hire a boat and explore the stunning caves and coves of Koh Phi Phi Leh. Jagged cliffs soar out of crystal-clear waters, there’s some fab snorkeling and dive sites and of course the infamous Maya Beach (sadly no Leonardo here today).
We booked our trip through Trailfinders, although we did a fair amount of research ourselves. Local train, bus and air travel is easy to book independently and will save you a fortune. Flights were from £600 per person from Thai Airways. Thailand is the perfect place to stretch those travelling bones – an easy back-packer’s paradise, perfectly safe for kids, fab weather and a hell of a lot of fun. And now, as I unpack the night market tat, I am starting to think ahead to next year. Anyone for Borneo, baby?