By Rebecca Lee
Myself and Ruth get up close and personal with some elephants
Thailand is a country that has always been on my ‘to do’ list when it comes to travel. It was of those exciting exotic destinations which I had planned to visit in my early twenties but continuously put off due to a rather hectic work schedule and part-time study. Every year I swore to myself that I would get round to embarking on the trip of a lifetime to the 50th largest country in the world. My desire to visit was so strong that it eventually got to the stage where following a night out, I booked plane tickets through Etihad Airways before I could say snap, crackle and pop. As a result of my somewhat whimsical decision, the next thing I knew my sister Ruth and I were off to the bustling city of Bangkok, backpacks in tow for three and a half weeks. Like most people, our busy work schedules meant this was all the time out we could take. Would this really be enough time to experience what Thailand has to offer? And as two girls travelling on our own would we be safe when hitting the North, South, East and West of a supposed paradise?
Thailand is at the centre of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. Located 15 degrees north of the equator, it’s incredibly famous for its sandy beaches and tropical climates which can reach a sizzling 38 degrees. Having heard about the various different seasons from hot to cool to rainy, we decided to travel in November as it is considered to have more comfortable temperatures weather wise. To ensure my mother had piece of mind and to get the most out of what little time we had, we decided to book a sixteen day group tour with G Adventures through Irish company Adventure Holidays. Aptly titled ‘Thailand on a Shoestring’ we also decided to book three days of free time to ourselves both before and after our experience with a gang of other travellers so we would have time to relax and unwind. Although busy, the itinerary was suitably appealing with a trip to the ‘oh so’ cosmopolitan city of Chiang Mai, a hill tribe trek and stays on some of the country’s most idyllic islands.
We kicked off our adventure with a three night stay at the five star Lebua State Tower Hotel in Bangkok (which you can read about below). Known as the city that never sleeps, Ruth and I made the most of our few days groupless and spent our time experiencing the nightlife and tuk tuks on famous backpackers strip the Khao San Road and testing out authentic thai dishes on many of the city’s street food stalls. We also visited the original home of the Thai King ‘The Grand Palace’ which was littered with towering temples and glittering golden Buddha statues. One of the main attractions in the royal grounds which are simply bursting with tourists had to be the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which was the personal chapel of the Royal family. Another attraction in Bangkok which is a must see is the 70 metre high ‘Wat Arun’ otherwise known as ‘The Temple of Dawn’. We took a private long tail boat to what’s known as one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand at sunset where we were ensured some stunning views of the sun slowly sinking below Bangkok’s skyline. ‘Wat Arun’ is a world famous symbol of the Kingdom of Thailand and that alone makes it a must see.
When it comes to Bangkok another area worth mentioning is shopping. Bangkok is simply ridden with street stalls and gigantic shopping centres. It’s most famous mall, the eight floored MBK offers something for everyone and with over two thousand shops it’s safe to say you can certainly get bang for your Baht. It truly is shopping heaven.
MBK- A shopper’s paradise
The final day of our stay in Bangkok saw us join our GAdventures group of 16 people and embark on an overnight train to Chiang Mai in the North. The laidback city, dubbed the cultural centre of Thailand provides something for all types of travellers from ancient ruins and temples to top restaurants, pubs and clubs. Although we only had two days in the city, one of the highlights was a visit to the perfectly picturesque, ancient Buddhist Temple ‘Wat Chedi Luang’ which oozes history and gives tourists an opportunity to learn about Buddhism. I was also delighted to discover the monk university on the grounds provided curious travellers (including Ruth and I) with an opportunity to sit down and have a chat with monks about anything and everything. All we were short of was a cup of tea!
Seeing as our group itinerary was designed for the more adventurous traveller, Ruth and I were delighted to see it included a three day hill tribe trek which would enable us to see the ‘real’ Thailand as it were. Our three days of hiking up a sweat saw us visit three remote villages and stay in the homes of the Karen tribe members, each of who had their own language, religion and culture. Although extremely interesting, we were required to rough it out. If embarking on a hill tribe trek in Thailand you can forget electricity, showers and beds for (as we soon discovered) hand torches, buckets and mattresses on floors are all the rage! Enjoyably authentic, one of the best parts of our hill tribe trek had to be when the locals brought some elephants to visit us in one of the villages. There we were able to feed, bathe and pet the gentle giants up close. Another highlight of ‘slumming it’ as it were was the freshness of the food. We had porters who helped us clamber up and down many a steep, muddy hill and cook us delicious dinners which we satisfactorily washed down with plenty of Chang beer night after night.
Following what was an unforgettable experience in Chang Mai, we took another overnight train to the ever so beautiful, unspoilt Khao Sok National Park for an overnight stay. Being the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, it’s situated in the South of Thailand and is part of the Surat Thani province. The 22nd National Park in Thailand provides breath taking views of lakes, waterfalls and endless opportunities to have face to face encounters with all kinds of wildlife. We thoroughly enjoyed our short stop here as it provided us with many picture perfect moments, particularly when we were greeted with fireflies who added some sparkle to our night. It’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of authentic Thai bars and restaurants in the vicinity of the park, Ruth and I found Pawn’s restaurant on the main street to be particularly dreamy in the curry department!
The final leg of our tour as part of a group saw us embark on a bus and ferry ride to the Islands of Ko Samui and Ko Tao. Perhaps one of the more touristy Islands, Ko Samui was the ultimate beach tanner’s paradise with stretching white sands, crystal clear waters, heaps of greenery and hidden temples. Ko Samui is also quite large in comparison to its neighbours with its ring road estimated to be around 100 kilometres in length. If visiting I would recommend a trip to Chaweng, the Island’s largest, most popular resort. Here you will find Ko Samui’s longest beach, along with a host of shopping centres, pubs and clubs. The area of Lamai where we stayed (which was equally enjoyable) was smaller and quieter and within a short taxi ride away. Following on from our two day stay in Ko Samui we caught a ferry to Ko Tao, an Island renowned for its diving and snorkelling facilities. Otherwise known as ‘Turtle Island’ due to it being shaped like a hard shelled creature, we found the compact paradise which is around 21 kilometres in size to have more scenic landscapes, a cool, more hip vibe and a crazy party atmosphere with raves and flame throwing parties continuing from dusk till dawn.
Wanting to spend our last few days as independent explorers, Ruth and I waved goodbye to our group a day early to venture West to the Island of Koh Phi Phi Don. A lengthy but bearable ten hour bus and ferry journey meant we arrived on the awe inspiring isle off the Andaman Coast in under a day. We found this was an efficient way of making our way from ‘A to B’ as flight and ferry times were extremely awkward and we were fairly limited time wise. I had heard so much about Koh Phi Phi Don being an Island hoppers paradise and I was pleased to find it was worth the trek. The stunning Island which is so small that it has no roads consists of many parts such as Laem Tong (a haven for those on honeymoon) Loh Ba Gao Bay, Loh Dalam and the lively part of Tonsai where we parked ourselves for two nights. It’s also worth noting that everything on the Island is within walking distance, they have hoards of themed restaurants, one in particular Anna’s provided some us with some tasty European food as it got to the stage where we were all noodled out. It also has tons of market stalls selling all sorts of nick naks and a party atmosphere that rivals the other Islands.
Last but not least no trip to Thailand would be complete without a visit to ‘Ao Maya’ in Ko Phi-Phi Leh otherwise known as the setting for The Beach movie which was based on the famous novel by Alex Garland. Following a tedious amount of research, Ruth and I decided to visit it on a ship called Maya Bay Sleep Aboard. This experience which was by far the most memorable part of our trip enabled us to stay on the actual beach overnight with a barbeque, snorkelling and an opportunity to swim with the plankton. It also allowed us to experience the beach tourist free so Ruth and I could experience true paradise for ourselves.
Enjoying Maya Bay
Would I go back to Thailand? In a heartbeat. Was three and a half week’s enough time to explore every nook and cranny this exotic hotspot has to offer? Not a chance but by going with a group it’s safe to say we made the most of our time there. Was it expensive? I lived like a queen for just 2,000 euro for over three weeks. Would I go back? Definitely, however next time I would like to see the Islands we missed such as Phuket, Koh Phangan and I hear Koh Lipe is also worth a visit. In conclusion, a trip to Thailand is a must for any traveller who seeks a break from the highs and lows of everyday life. As Leonardo Di Caprio said himself “Paradise is how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something, and if you find that moment… it lasts forever…” and our memories of Thailand certainly will.
Adventure Holidays offer adventure holidays, biking, hiking, water, multisport and family holidays worldwide. For more information see www.adventure-holidays.ie
Flights to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport with Etihad Airways cost from €644. For more information see http://www.etihad.com
‘Hanging over Bangkok at the Lebua’
As huge fans of the Hangover movie series and following numerous recommendations from friends who had previously travelled to Bangkok, Ruth and I decided to kick off our trip of a lifetime by living it up with a three night stay at the ever so plush Tower Club at the Lebua hotel. The famous five star skyscraper hotel which boasts 68 floors and stands an impressive 810 feet high is the third tallest building in Thailand.
Myself and Ruth recreate that famous scene from The Hangover
Some of its facilities include a fitness centre, outdoor swimming pool and a business centre. Situated just 40 minutes from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport and with most attractions a short train ride away, it offers a wide range of rooms from affordable luxury to serious pamper yourself paradise. To mark our arrival into Thailand Ruth and I opted to stay in a two bedroom river view executive suite. Indeed our wow factor room on the 57th floor was similar to that of a penthouse one would see on MTV Cribs. It had four generous sized balconies, a kitchen area, living room, dining room and two bedrooms each of which were surrounded by large glass windows which gave it that metropolitan feel both during the day and at night. Having played a key role in one of my favourite movies of all time The Hangover Part II, Ruth and I also paid a visit to the hotel’s three bedroom Hangover II Suite which hosted the cast and crew when they were filming there (you couldn’t get me off Bradley Cooper’s bed!) Hardcore film fans can also pay a visit to the Lebua’s most famous restaurant Sirocco which featured heavily in the movie and fed and watered Zack Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ed Helms and the man of my dreams Bradley Cooper himself! For a less pricey and equally enjoyable fine dining experience I would recommend a trip to Breeze on the 52nd floor. Being Bangkok’s highest open air Asian restaurant it provides equally impressive views for celebrations and special occasions at a fraction of the price. If you’re planning on staying in this hotel or even just visiting, a trip to the famous Skybar is a must. Based on the roof of the enormous tower, this so called island in the sky provides some serious panoramic views of the city with glass barriers allowing you to sophistically sip your drinks and suck up the atmosphere. Although alcoholic beverages can seem rather pricey (in Bangkok terms) access is free and breath taking views make the experience worth every boozy baht. The bar is also home to one of the most famous rooftop scenes in the movie which Ruth and I recreated in 36 degree heat. Fans must note however that taking pictures on the famous steps from the movie aren’t allowed when it’s busy due to health and safety reasons (which I can understand seeing as the actual staircase is so incredibly steep!)
Having read and heard so much about The Lebua, I had extremely high expectations and I am glad to say that for those looking for that added bit of luxury it surpassed each and every one of them. Would I change anything? I would probably have saved the best for last and stayed there at the end of my trip instead.
A one night stay at The Lebua in Bangkok starts from €103 a night. For more information see www.lebua.com
As featured in The Sunday World