Thailand, Interrupted

After a dazzling five weeks on the road, driving across the jaw-dropping natural landscapes of New Zealand’s South Island and soaking in the style and café culture of the Land Down Under, we first arrived in Thailand in early February, Bangkok being our entry to Southeast Asia. It would be more than two months later before we would fully journey through the “Land of Smiles,” but we used this short stopover to get reacquainted with Thailand’s capital city, which we had both separately visited.

Landing near midnight, the taxi ride from Don Mueang Airport, the oldest of Bangkok’s two airports, and in fact, one of the oldest operating in Asia today, to our small hotel near Democracy Monument was free of the city's infamous congestion and slow-going traffic. We would next fly to Yangon, Myanmar (read about our journey), but we used the day in Bangkok to prepare for our months-long journey through the wild and emerging region and take in a few sights.

Before it got too steamy, we started the next morning with a stroll by Democracy Monument, the Royal Pavilion and Grand Palace, and Wat Pho, home to Thailand's largest collection of Buddha images and the great Reclining Buddha. Still very much a country in mourning, something we’d continue to witness as we returned to Thailand later in the spring, the city presented beautiful tributes to their fallen King, the world’s longest serving monarch and much respected leader, with black and white bunting draped on anything not moving and women and men shrouded in black, especially around government or religious buildings.

Already feeling the oppressive heat after some morning touring, we stopped by stylish Gallery Drip Coffee to cool off and fuel up with a delicious cold brew from the Chiang Mai highlands, followed by lunch at hip Seven Spoons with an old friend who is now working for the UN in Bangkok. The afternoon was spent preparing for the next leg of our trip with haircuts at trendy Tew’s Barber near Siam Square and stops at the city’s immense (but air conditioned!) malls. As evening fell, we knew we couldn’t leave Bangkok without getting one of Thailand’s legendary massages and foot rubs… now, we were truly ready to face the next chapter of our journey!

After spending the next two months traveling through Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, we arrived back in Thailand in early April via slow boat up the Mekong River. Starting in the North, we took a few days to relax in the resort town of Chiang Rai, which was already brutally hot with 100+°F days. While we mostly stayed submerged in the hotel’s pool to beat the heat, we did visit the quirky and impressive Black House, which beautifully showcases the artwork of Thailand national artist Thawan Duchanee across 40 unique buildings, and the famed White Temple, which is actually more quirky art exhibit than religious site, designed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. From Chiang Rai, we moved on to equally burning Chiang Mai, taking refuge in the cosmopolitan city’s cafes, sipping our fair share of iced coffee to stay cool.

As Songkran, the Thai New Year and Water Festival, approached, many of Chiang Mai’s shops and restaurants began to close up for the three-day celebration, and given the extreme heat, we decided to head south to the country’s idyllic beaches and islands. Our first stop was Krabi on the Andaman Coast, where we spent the day swimming and lounging amidst the towering limestone karsts of Railay Beach, which is only accessible by long-tail boat. The next day, we took a ferry to tranquil Koh Lanta, which along with the entire country was celebrating the first day of Songkran. As we drove from the port to our hotel, we hid in the safety of our tuk-tuk’s plastic window coverings as we aimed to escape a soaking by young and old alike who were playfully throwing buckets of water on passing traffic and squirting one another with neon-colored water guns.  

We made it (mostly) dry to our hotel on Koh Lanta’s Klong Nin Beach, with its wide, long shore and turquoise water, which becomes even more striking by dark, jagged rock formations that appear during low tide. After being on the move for so many weeks, we reveled in the stillness and space we found here, and while the island was certainly busy during the Thai New Year and Easter holidays, we had plenty of room, and more than often, the beach and sea to ourselves. When we got antsy, we rented scooters and explored the jungle-like national park at the southern tip of the island, where we were entertained by the curious and brave macaques and took in panoramic views from atop forest-covered hills. We enjoyed our time on Koh Lanta so much, that we added a few extra days (the benefit of a yearlong trip) and continued to try many variations of Pad Thai and beach massages while we soaked up the sun. 

Our tour through Thailand came to an end on tiny Koh Lipe, part of Tarutao National Park, where we stayed just metres from the blue-green shallow waters and white sand of Sunrise Beach. When we weren’t floating in the clam sea or lazing about at beach clubs that dot the shoreline, we indulged on grilled seafood found in the many restaurants along "Walking Street" and sipped coffees and fresh juices in modern cafes, such as Elephant and Café de Lipe. With full bellies and nourished souls, we were ready for the short boat ride to our next country on the itinerary, Malaysia, our home for the next three weeks.