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(Almost) 3 months in Southeast Asia as a traveling newbie

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Thailand (26.9.-22.10.2018)

We were travelling during the "off-season" on purpose for most of the time, the actual tourist season in SE Asia picks up around mid-December and lasts until March or April, after which the monsoon starts. I can only imagine how crazy it gets during the actual season. The monsoon starts to end during September/October, although rains may still come at some places even in late November or December. The timing for our trip was picked to coincide between the end of monsoon and beginning of the actual tourist-season, so most places were more quiet.

Statistics may be boring, but I think they do give you an outline of what to expect, like culture-wise (if you know at least something about the religions), how crowded it is (population density) and prices (if you look at the nominal and purchase parity power -income). Here's the basics for Thailand (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Population
• 2016 estimate: 68,863,514
• 2010 census: 64,785,909
• Density: 132.1/km2 (342.1/sq mi)

Area
• Total :513,120 km2 (198,120 sq mi)
• Water (%) :0.4 (2,230 km2)

Religion
94.50% Buddhism
4.29% Islam
1.17% Christianity
0.03% Hinduism
0.01% Unaffiliated

GDP (PPP)    2018 estimate
• Total: $1.323 trillion
• Per capita :$19,126
GDP (nominal)    2018 estimate
• Total: $490 billion
• Per capita: $7,084

Bangkok: Big city nights

If you like the great outdoors, nature, and piece and quiet, Bangkok doesn't have much of anything like that apart from a few parks, at least in the central metropolitan area. What it does have is huge shopping malls and markets, shops, bars and restaurants around every corner, lots of skyscrapers (581 over 90 meters in 2016) and high rises and more western feel than most places in our trip. It's also very noisy and crowded, and the traffic can be somewhat chaotic at times (but still nothing compared to Hanoi in Vietnam).

Sometimes during the evening, with some rain pouring down from the sky (it was nearing the end of the monsoon season, so it still rained in evening almost every day, but usually not much), heavy traffic, skytrains, neon signs, power cables hanging at the height of your head and some streetlights flickering, for a moment the street looked like a set from a cyberpunk story, like Bladerunner (the old one).

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Street in Sukhumvit, viewed from an overpass walkway near a Skytrain station

The sidewalks can be really narrow in some places, especially on the sidestreets ("Soi") it may not be much more than 50cm (about 2 feet) wide with street light poles in the middle of the sidewalk and power cables hanging at the height of your head running from pole to pole. Another weird thing is that especially in Sukhumvit there are signs about not littering and fines, yet finding a trash can in the street is sometimes near impossible, so we carried our trash in our pockets or on hand until we found either a lone trashcan in the street or a mall or such, which usually have lots of trash cans around and inside.

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"Typical" power line set up in Chatuchak market, it's like this pretty much in every country we visited. At least here the wires aren't hanging so low that you could hit your face in them ;) 

We had booked a hotel before leaving in the Sukhumvit-area for the first 4 nights. In Thailand in general, you can get a reasonable double room with AC and private bathroom for something like around 8-15€ per night, sometimes cheaper, sometimes a bit more. Sukhumvit is a more expensive commercial area in Bangkok, the hotel we stayed for the first nights was closer to 30€ per night. Our budget was more or less arbitrarily chosen as 1000€ per person per month, which translates to around 33.33€ per day per person, or 66.66€ in total. We did stay on budget even though we splurged on some more expensive activities (leaving out a couple of the most expensive ones alone, we'd have spent about 1000€ less in total), I'll show the actual numbers for different countries and some notes about them later on.

Getting around

The hotel was about a kilometer from the Terminal 21-mall along the BTS Skytrain ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BTS_Skytrain ) -line. The Skytrain is handy for moving around certain parts of the city, but there are only two lines. Also subway and trains are available, but we didn't use either of those. If you plan on staying in Bangkok for more than a day or two and using the Skytrain, get a Rabbit-card ( https://rabbit.co.th/en/about-rabbit-cards/ , sold at least in the Skytrain stations and malls), it's a prepaid card that you load cash into, and can use to pay for Skytrain and in the food courts of large malls (and probably elsewhere). It's a lot faster since you don't have to buy separate tickets for the Skytrain, just swipe the card and walk through the gates. The Skytrain is charged from the card at exit, based on how many stations you traveled, or if you somehow manage to spend more than something like 45 minutes within the actual transit system (the gated area), an extra fee is taken. If you're just going from place A to place B, it's unlikely you'd spend that long there, as there's a train coming every few minutes and even going from end of the line to the other, I doubt it's more than 30 minutes, if that.

During the day, there wasn't much of a crowd in the trains and stations, but if you hit the rush hours (early morning, probably something like around 7-8AM, and again in the evening, somewhere between 4-6PM), it can be a bit overwhelming at first. Of course if you already live in a big city, you're likely accustomed to that. The first time was weird, because we hit the station just as the rush hour was about to begin, one minute there's not that much people, and then suddenly the crowd surrounds you from all the directions... where the hell did they all come from?  :D  Also, a military police searched my backpack once in a station, probably just picked at random.

Didn't try tuk-tuks in Bangkok, we usually either walked or took a taxi when we couldn't get to where we were going with the Skytrain. What I said above about the taxis certainly holds here, and if you don't want to threaten about the tourist police or get into an awkward situation, you may need to try a few times before you find someone who either agrees to drive on the meter or doesn't offer an exorbitant fixed rate (haggle!). Since it's a big city, a lot of the drivers won't know exactly where you're going (even if you show them on the map), so keep your eyes open and use Google Maps or similar (see below about getting a prepaid data SIM-card, roaming charges can be insane) to keep track. It also helps if the driver speaks English (not all of them do at all, and many have very thick accent and/or limited vocabulary).

 

SIM-cards

There are three large operators in Thailand, AIS, DTac and True Move. We ended up getting 30-day AIS data-only cards (I think mine had 15GB limit and hers 5GB) from a mobile phone shop in Terminal 21. The price at the time was around 15€ / 17USD for the higher data limit, the other card was maybe 12€. There are shorter (like 8 or 15 days) plans if you're on a shorter trip. Bring your passport, otherwise they won't sell it to you. 

At least back then, AIS had the best coverage over the entire nation, and I had 4G everywhere around the cities, but during travelling between cities on a bus or train, it dropped to 3G. Navigating with Google Maps or similar makes things so much easier that I'd say getting a data card is a must. Most restaurants, malls and hotels have free Wi-fis, but you'll usually have to go around asking for a password (or it might be written on the menu for example), and of course can't use those while on the move, so it's better you get a SIM.

 

Places

MBK Center

Assuming you want to go shopping for something, MBK has 8 stories with around 2000 shops and restaurants. Like probably in most of the malls, there's a huge food court in the 6th floor, the food is cheap and it's amazing. In most food courts, you either get a card to which you load some cash from a cashier (don't worry, if anything's left unused, you get it back when you return the card) and then visit the different stalls to get what you want and pay with the card. If you have a Rabbit-card, no need to get a separate card from the cashier, just walk right up to the stalls, take a tray and start picking what you want, most of the food is then cooked on the spot for you.

There's an endless amount of shops selling clothes, jewelry and accessories, electronics etc. If you're a shopaholic, you can probably spend a week or two just going through the shopping centers. Other than MBK, there's at least Terminal 21, Siam Paragon, Siam Center, Old Siam Shopping Plaza, Siam Discovery and probably others, all of these are multistoried and simply huge, with Terminal 21 probably being the smallest (but it still has 9 stories of actual mall, 42 stories for the hotel). Other than MBK and Terminal 21, we just walked through many of the placed with Siam-names, actually the shortest route we found to get to MBK from the Skytrain went through Siam Center and one of the others (which it exactly was, I don't remember anymore).

 

Chatuchak (or "Jatujak") weekend market

If you're in the city over the weekend, and even if you don't want to buy anything, just seeing this place is pretty amazing. It's easy to get to, located near the end of the Skytrain line, a short walk from Mo Chit station. We didn't stay but for a few hours, but with 15000 stalls selling pretty much everything (including, or so I've heard, endangered species and ivory), just wandering around is an experience. Of course there's also lots of food. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatuchak_Weekend_Market 

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I ended up getting a hat, pair of shorts and a wristwatch. At this point I didn't really know how to haggle yet (and didn't get really good at it at any point really, it just feels weird having accustomed to everything being priced beforehand and prices fixed everywhere at home :P), so probably I overpaid, you should start bidding really (like insultingly) low, but in a friendly manner. If you don't come to terms on the price, just decline politely and walk away, no harm, no foul. In many occasions the seller might yell you back and agree to sell on your last offer (unless it was really low). You're still likely paying (much) more than the locals would anyway, but that's the way it goes ;)

 

Thai travel clinic

We did get our Hepatitis A+B -shots before leaving, but not for Japanese encephalitis or rabies. JE-vaccination especially is insanely expensive in Finland (we would have needed 2 or 3 shots each, at something like 130€ per piece with the vaccine + appointment fees), but luckily I had found out about this place before leaving. The Thai travel clinic ( https://www.thaitravelclinic.com/ ) is not some backalley operation, but a part of the Mahidol University hospital, faculty of tropical medicine and diseases. We ended up paying around 70€ in total for JE-vaccinations and first rabies-shots (needed second boosters later, we took those in a travel clinic in Chiang Mai), but according to the site the prices have gone up a bit (like doctors fee raised from 100baht to 200baht starting Jan 2019). If you compare that the shots would have cost something like ten times as much back home, it was a steal.

You can check the prices and book an appointment through the website (recommended, while they do take walk-ins, the waiting time might be very long). Do take a look at the "Location of our clinic" -part and save the instructions / map (with Thai texts) so you can show it to the taxi driver (you could also take the Skytrain, the hospital's near the Victory Monument station, but we had already moved to near Khao San Road when we had our appointment, and the Skytrain doesn't go really near there). Despite the map and the instructions, our taxi driver needed to call the place for further instructions and then still stop and ask people on the street a couple of blocks away. In the end, he drove us right to the frontdoor (probably meant only for ambulances, but can't complain of the service :D).

From what I know, the Japanese encephalitis -vaccination used in SE Asia (Imojev) is different from ours (Ixiaro), as it uses an attenuated live virus, and only requires a single shot, which gives protection for several years at least. It might sound scary that it's a live virus, but the vaccination's a part of national vaccination programs around the region and has been in use for a long time, so if there's any risk, it's really small. 

The disease itself is very rare but dangerous, spread by infected mosquitos, and comes with high mortality ("The case-fatality rate can be as high as 30% among those with disease symptoms") and possible permanent brain damage in the survivors ("Of those who survive, 20%–30% suffer permanent intellectual, behavioural or neurological problems such as paralysis, recurrent seizures or the inability to speak."). No treatment is available after getting infected, so only prevention is possible (vaccination, mosquito repellents etc). If you're just staying in big cities, the likelyhood of getting infected is really small, but goes up in the more rural areas.

 

The Grand Palace

We actually didn't stay but maybe 30 minutes in the Grand Palace, even though the entrance was something like 500 (or maybe even 1000?) baht per person. The place was so full of tourists (mainly large Chinese groups, who seem to get very pushy and arrogant everywhere, I know it's a stereotype, but in my experience after the trip, it's also true) that even moving was difficult at times when you get "surrounded" all the time. The place was pretty beautiful other than that, but couldn't really enjoy it, and my SO felt like she's going to have a panic attack, so we left early. If it's like this off-season, I'd hate to be there during the actual tourist peak season.

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Wat What?

"Wat" is a hinduist/buddhist temple and they're everywhere in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia (not so much in Vietnam, because there almost 3/4ths of the population follow folk religions or are irreligious). There are a huge number of Wats in Bangkok alone, over 400, but you might get funny looks (or even denied entry?) if you just try to stroll into some smaller random temple. If and when you visit one, you must wear pants that cover at least your knees and a shirt that covers at least the shoulders, if not elbows, women may not have shirts with open neck or anything revealing. Take your hat off if you go inside the temples, although they are usually allowed in the temple grounds. Shoes must be removed before entering a temple (socks are ok, or at least nobody said that they weren't), and in general you should be in your best behavior, after all, you are entering a sacred place, and many people take their religion seriously. If you're a christian, for example, you probably wouldn't like people strolling into a church talking loudly while wearing speedos and no shirt either ;)

If there are monks/novices present, give them space/way and be respectful, actually that goes for everywhere, not just temples. If you kneel/crouch in a temple, always point your feet away from monks and Buddha statues, showing the bottom of your feet to them would be an insult of the worst kind. Women are disallowed from touching a monk, even if they'd need to pass/take something to/from them, the object must first be given to a (non-monk) man who gives it to the monk/woman. 

Outside the big well known temples, most of them are free to enter (of course you should make sure you have the right attire and that outsiders are allowed in general). There are collection boxes in the temples for donations, and since a lot of the commerce still works around cash (don't worry, you don't need to carry a lot of cash, there are ATMs everywhere), it's also a good way to get "rid" of your small change.

Even though it's hot out there, I mostly wore long white pants and a light, long sleeved shirt whenever visiting the temples (although in some occasions, I only had a t-shirt and shorts which were still long enough to cover my knees). 

We did visit some temples in Bangkok around the Grand Palace, like Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), and a lot more in the other cities and countries, but I won't be going through most of them, except for the more "special" ones.

 

Other stuff

Going through all the restaurants, bars and such we hit would be a pretty pointless endeavor, the ones worth mentioning are the Aire bar in the 28th floor of Hyatt Place hotel (hardly the highest, the highest is something like 80th-something floor), which isn't exactly my thing, as I get vertigo and nausea in high places ;), Jim Thompson House Museum, National museum and The Penalty Spot Sports and Music Pub, which was right next to our hotel in Sukhumvit and had a real good house band. 

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Aire Bar... Yeah, my phone camera's crap, especially in darker conditions

 

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One of the royal chariots in the national museum

 

A funny and a bit embarrassing story, on an evening of one the very first days in Bangkok, I ended up getting a few pints in Penalty Spot, listening to the music and talking with people. My GF was tired, so she headed back to the hotel to sleep, but I decided to stay for a while longer. I started talking with a Japanese (I think) businessman, who then started offering me free beers and was adamant that he'll pay for everything. We talked for a while, and then he left my table, but kept ordering me more beer. As I got pretty drunk, I then somehow got very paranoid about the whole ordeal, like he's being overly friendly and suspiciously generous. I got it into my head that the guy was trying to get me really drunk and turn me into a some sort of drug mule or something :D I remember asking one of the waitresses (who wasn't wearing a matching "uniform" as the rest) at one point if she really works there or works for that man, as she kept carrying more beers to my table as fast as I could drink them... :rolleyes:  At least I kept my thoughts to myself :facepalm: If the waitress or the man buying me beers somehow ends up reading this, I sincerely apologize for just suddenly vanishing, I had to go back to the hotel room to puke my guts out :barf:

In general, you do meet pretty interesting people in places like this, like South African mercenaries who have prices on their heads... 

Oh right, I also got a haircut in Bangkok:

 

We stayed a couple of nights next to Khao San Road (not the actual Khao San Road, but about 100 meters north from there), and visited the road. There's really not that much to see, it may have been the backpacker central in the day (and in a way, it still is, with lots of small bars, hotels, hostels and guesthouses everywhere), but nowadays it seems to be just full of noisy and pushy tourists and street vendors, tailors and massage parlors. Or is that exactly "the thing" about it? ;)  It's pretty close to the Grand Palace -area, so we could walk there for visiting the palace and the temples.

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Khao San Road

The tailors have an uncanny way of recognizing where people are from just by taking a glance at them, more than on one occasion they kept shouting after me in Finnish, things like "hello", "shirt and suit", "how are you" etc, although of course with a very heavy accent :D  And I'm sure I wasn't wearing anything which could have given me away, like flag, any Finnish text or such, or spoke any Finnish before it happened.

After 6 nights in Bangkok, we took a taxi to the Bangkok Hua Lamphong train station, and bought 3rd class tickets to the next train to Ayutthaia. I first thought I heard the price wrong (30 baht, that's about 80 eurocents / $1, for two people), but it's only something like 80km trip (still takes about an hour and a half or couple of hours). The train was leaving in less than 5 minutes when we bought the tickets, but luckily we managed to find the right platform straight away and got in. 

3rd class train cars are very simple, there's hard wooden or plastic seats, lots of people, circling fans in the ceilings to give a bit of cooling and... pretty much nothing else. We thought we lucked out as we managed to find seats straightaway, but then I noticed a monk sitting a few benches away looking at us, saying something in Thai and pointing at the ceiling. The sign in the ceiling said in Thai and in English "Reserved for monks and novices only" or something along those lines. Whooops... :whistling::efeec46606:   After apologizing and getting our stuff, we still managed to find separate seats in another car, which could be considered lucky, as soon there were no seats left and a lot of people were standing. The trip was hardly comfortable, but not bad either, and then we arrived in...

 

Ayutthaia: Everything's in ruins

I didn't take that many pictures early on in the trip, and only uploaded some of them to imgur (lots were out of focus or otherwise just bad), later on in the trip I went overboard with the pictures, I think I have several hundred pictures just from the Angkor-area in Cambodia.

Bangkok and some pictures from Ayutthaia:  https://imgur.com/a/LXtWU07

Once we got out of the small train station, we were immediately surrounded by local tuk-tuk drivers asking where we were going. Our room was booked from Old Palace Resort beforehand. We tried to haggle on the price (I think it was 150 baht per person or so?), but the drivers were quick to point out that they have a fixed pricing that's printed on a big sign next to the train station, so we agreed to pay the asked price, as we were tired and just wanted to get there.

Old Palace Resort wasn't an actual "resort" as such, yet it was a really nice place (and quiet, for a change! :D). The room was clean and nice, with AC, bathroom and sliding glass doors to a balcony/hallway running in front of it. A litter of kittens was playing in the grass on the front yard.

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View from the outside of the room to the yard

Ayutthaia was the ancient capital of Thailand, before it was ransacked and burnt by Burmese invaders in the 18th century. The city (more like town) nowadays itself is pretty small, and very different in comparison to Bangkok, but in its past glory, it has housed a population of one million and was trading capital of Asia, if not the world. We were only staying for two night (so one full day), but it was enough to see most of it. Apart from the ruins of the Historical Park (there's a lot of those), there's at least a floating market, some museums and old settlements.

We rented bicycles from the resort on the same day we arrived, and rode around visiting the ruins for a couple of hours.

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Ruins of Ayutthaia

The next morning, we met a couple of Irish cousins, David and Martin, and the wife of Martin, Nok, while having a breakfast. They were traveling around Thailand for a vacation, although Martin actually has lived there for over a decade (not in Ayutthaia, first in Bangkok and now in some small town, which I've forgotten) and Nok is a native Thai. They invited us to take a tour with them, as they had Nok's adult son driving them around in a minivan. Excellent!

We visited more ruins in the Historical Park, the floating market for a while, traditional stilted Thai-house, and then took a boat ride around the canals. Nok took us to a non-tourist temple, where we were blessed by a monk, and she explained the customs and traditions in more detail. We got a big Thai-dinner with them, where you order a lot of different dishes and then you share everything... everyone started snickering a bit when I ordered a red curry ("It's been nice knowing you!" ;)), but I think Nok told the waiter to not make it really spicy, as it wasn't that hot in the end. Also, having a native Thai with you, prices seem suddenly lower and you don't get harassed by people selling tourist trinkets. :P

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Restaurant near the floating market

Rest of the Ayutthaia pictures: https://imgur.com/a/vGh0Pgo

We ended the day having a couple of beers with David and Martin. The next morning we met them again during breakfast, thanked for everything and said goodbyes, then headed to the bus station (the owner of Old Palace called the tuk-tuk for us, this time it was probably around half the price compared to getting there from the train station, although the bus station was further away ;)), catching a bus to...

 

Sukhothai: More ruins and not much else

This time the trip was a longer one, several hundred kilometers, that took about 4-5 hours, I think. Similar to Ayutthaia, the local "taxi mafia" :P waiting in the bus station had fixed prices (again 300 baht for both of us, if I remember correctly) for getting to our resort in the "old town about 10km away, and wouldn't haggle on the price. This time we were taken on a "songthaew" ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Songthaew ), which is basically a pickup truck with the bed covered and long benches on both sides, they seem to be more common in the north. 

We had booked a resort in the old town (Scent of Sukhothai) a day ahead this time, since we found a good last minute deal on one (About 19€ per night, normal price was something like 70€ per night), that included buffet breakfast.

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One of the resort houses in Sukhothai

Sukhothai is similar to Ayutthaia in the sense that there's also burnt down ruins of the temples from around the same time as Ayutthaia. There's a natural park or two and another historical park something like 40km away from old town (in different directions, I think), but there's ruins in the old town too, so we just ended up renting bicycles again and toured those on the only full day we had here (again only two nights). Other than that, there's a museum and a larger Wat in the Old town, a small market and a few shops and restaurants, but when we thought of going to the museum, it was just about to close.

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More ruins

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Wat Traphang Thong

If you really like the ruins, visiting both Ayutthaia and Sukhothai might be a good idea, otherwise I'd say just go to one or the other (if either, personally I'd probably pick Ayutthaia over Sukhothai). The ruins are actually pretty cool, but pale in comparison to Angkor-area in Cambodia, so if you're heading there, you're not really missing out on much if you never visit either. Other than the sights, there's really not that much to do in the old town. A bus drives between the old and new town, in case you want to go see the downtown life.

The off-season resort was pretty quiet, we met a French family on vacation with their young daughter on the pool, but not much anyone else. My sunglasses broke when they fell from my shirt collar to the floor in the resort, I then bought a cheap pair with mirror shades from the small old town market for 20 baht (about 55 eurocents), that were dropped a gazillion times throughout the trip, but never broke, only the mirror coating wore off somewhat over time. :P

We bought the bus tickets to Chiang Mai in the old town bus station on our full day for the next morning (210 baht per person = less than 6€), to make sure there are tickets still left. Since Chiang Mai is much larger than Ayutthaia or Sukhothai, so we'd likely be staying there longer and not in a "rush" anywhere, I booked a hotel room for one night right next to Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai, so after sitting 6 hours in the bus, we could just walk straight to the hotel without dealing with the tuk-tuk/taxi driver group surrounding us when we exit.

The old town bus station was pretty near the resort, so we just walked in full gear to the station and waited for the bus. Of course we had made the newbie mistake of packing way too much stuff, so we were the stereotypical "turtles" wandering around with big backpacks on our backs and small ones in the front:

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This picture was actually taken in our Sukhumvit hotel in Bangkok, leaving for the place near Khao San Road

You can buy so much of the stuff on location, that you really shouldn't try to bring everything with you, a tip that's given by many, many travel blogs and such. Of course we still had way too much stuff all the way from the start, and I had to dump some clothes, a pair of bad sandals bought from Bangkok and such along the way :rolleyes:  Even with good gear (Osprey Farpoint 70), moving with a nearly full 55-liter backpack in the back and a 15-liter one in the front in temperatures of 35-degree Celsius isn't fun if you have to do it for a longer while. :P "Next time" (if such ever comes), I'll be sure to travel much lighter.

Sukhothai is already over 400km north of Bangkok, but it's another 300+ to Chiang Mai. Most of the buses in SE Asia don't have a toilet, but they do (usually) make a 15-min stop about every one and a half to two hours or so on some gas station or similar, except in this case the bus was running late and apparently the driver decided to skip the latter stop. I didn't go the bathroom in the first stop, trusting that there's another later... There are stunning views along the way, as the flatter lands of south and central Thailand start to change into the mountainous landscape of the north.

Sukhothai pics:  https://imgur.com/a/VWQed5P

 

Chiang Mai: Bangkok bangs, Chiang Mai rules

We arrived in the Arcade station of Chiang Mai (in the "new town") around 5pm local time. As expected, a bunch of taxi/tuk-tuk/songthaew drivers were hawking around the people exiting from the bus. When asked where we were heading, I just pointed towards our hotel and said "about 200 meters that way" ;)  Checking in at the "Y smart hotel", the receptionist couldn't find my reservation. I checked the booking details from my email and... when going through different sites (hotels.com, trivago etc.) I had forgotten to set the dates correct on the site I booked, and as it defaults for the same day you're doing the booking, the room was booked for the previous night :facepalm:  Luckily, they weren't full, so we still got a room, but that was 15€ down the drain. Could have been worse. The room was small and the bathroom smelled of mold, but it would do for the night.

After a shower, we grabbed a quick lunch on the next door restaurant, took our dirty clothes to a nearby laundry (never go to the places that charge by item, unless you have something that requires dry cleaning, you'll pay something like 10baht per a pair of socks, if you look around a bit, you'll find laundries that cost around 30-40 baht per kg = around 1€ / $1) and walked a few kilometers for the first taste of the Old City.

We hit the Chiang Mai Hard Rock Cafe in Old City, a hideously expensive place compared to pretty much any other bar, and caught the last 5 minutes of a live band. On the way back, we stopped by a reggae bar (Rasta Cafe), just as a pair of musicians was starting their set, which included a lot more than just reggae.

A guitarist and a female vocalist performing Aerosmith's "Don't wanna miss a thing"

Going back to the hotel, I decided to try out Grab, the local version of Uber. After accidentally first ordering a driver to a wrong location (also it didn't help that he didn't really speak any English, there's buttons for some common phrases, but they didn't help and messaging the driver he clearly didn't understand what I was saying). On second try we got a car to the right place and the Cambodian driver (who again didn't really speak but a few words of English) took us back to our hotel for about 70 baht.

Chiang Mai is the northern province capital, I'd say it's a big city, of course nowhere near as big as Bangkok, but still big. Within the actual city municipality, there's "only" 131 thousand residents, but in the metropolitan area, there's almost one million (the same numbers for Bangkok are something like 9 and 15 million). 

Out of all the places we went to in Thailand, Chiang Mai is my personal favorite. It's "big enough" that there's more than enough of places to see and activities to do (like temples, museums, parks and gardens, a zoo, golf courses, cooking classes, elephant parks, zip-lining, 4WD driving, shooting ranges, kick boxing, horse races etc. etc), yet not so huge that getting everywhere would take a long time (well, we stayed on the western side of the Ping River, around the Old city most of the time) and despite high population numbers, it's not really that crowded but still very "lively" (could be different during the tourist season, though). If I ever visit Thailand again, I'll be coming back here. In total, we spent 11 nights here (not in a row though, we visited Pai in between), but I could imagine staying 2 or even 4 weeks here in one go.

 

Royal guesthouse

For the following nights, we booked a room from a hotel called Royal guesthouse (despite the name, it's not a guesthouse, but 7-story hotel with a pool ;)) that's right on the edge of the walled city, which is the center of Old City, just outside the moat surrounding it. We picked a songthaew from around the corner of the hotel, in Chiang Mai, most of them use a fixed price of 30 bahts per person to drive you to and within the Old City.

For around 8-9€ per night, we got a 2nd floor room with AC, private bathroom and a small balcony. The hotel's a bit rundown, the 6th & 7th floors were closed while we were there, and some of the rooms were undergoing renovation, but they only worked during the day, so the noise didn't bother us and our room was clean and in good (enough) condition. There's a basic breakfast included in the price (it's just instant coffee or tea and toast, self-service). I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a nice hotel with low price (although it's likely higher during the tourist season) and good location. In the end, we kept extending our stay one or two nights at a time, and in the end stayed for 7 nights in a row.

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Royal Guesthouse, taken from the parking lot

The ground floor has a large open reception area, taking about half of the entire floor, with tables and matresses for laying around and relaxing, a locked safe room for storing your valuables (get the key from the reception) with separate locker cabinets and a pool on the outside. The staff speak good English, and water, beer and softdrinks can be bought from the reception (which is open either 24/7 or at least very, very late and opens very early, probably the former). Many a late evening we spent sitting around in the reception having a few beers and met so many nice people that I've lost count. If I recall correctly, we didn't meet any US travelers, but a lot of Europeans, mostly British, Irish, Dutch, German and French, and some Australians. And boy, can the Irish drink! :D  We actually met some of the people later on in totally random places, like for example over a month later in Vietnam, suddenly a British girl we'd met here greeted us in the street. She'd flown from Chiang Mai to Krabi (far in the south Thailand) in-between, and had then decided to visit Cat Ba in Vietnam.

 

Places worth mentioning

Markets, street markets, food courts and more markets

There are markets everywhere around the Old City, from small ones to the large street markets near the Ping river, that actually merge into each other, so that there are just stalls, lights and live music shows along the bigger street for many blocks, covered areas and inside buildings. As usual, pretty much anything can be found from here, we ended up buying some clothes and new sandals. There are at least a couple of food courts and street food, which is excellent.

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One of the food courts near the street markets, there's no card-system outside Bangkok, you pay each booth separately with cash

 

Travel Clinic

We visited a travel clinic not that far from the Royal guesthouse to get our boosters for rabies. This time it wasn't a gleaming modern hospital, and there were hardly any English signs, but we still managed to find the right booth to check in. As we were walk-ins, we had to wait for maybe about an hour, but got our vitals checked and boosters, also the staff and the doctor was really nice. Don't remember how much it cost, probably around 20€ for both of us (I do have more detailed notes of our expenditure in my phone, but didn't bother to dig it up right now).

 

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the mountain temple

In the west side of the Old city, up the Doi Suthep-mountain, there's the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep -temple up in the mountains. Take a bus (there are stops along the outside of the walled city wall, I think they go every 30 mins or so) or songthaew to the zoo, and then a separate songthaew that takes you up to the mountain (might have to wait a while, the songthaews leave when there's enough people). If you're in a really good shape, you can also bicycle up there, but it's several kilometers of uphill climb. There's something like a 300-step climb to the actual temple from the road, but it's not that bad.

The temple itself is nice, but what was even better was the view overlooking the city.

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Overlooking Chiang Mai from the mountain temple

On top of the "usual" long-sleeved shirt and long pants, I also was wearing jungle combat boots, as we were supposed to take a hiking path to a nearby waterfall. That plan got scrapped, as my GF was feeling ill and out of breath, and it later turned out she had bronchitis. Since the reviews of the path say things like "the hardest 3 kilometers I've ever traveled", we decided it better not to push it. A doctors appointment in a private clinic a block away from our hotel + medicine cost about 15€, which was paid back by our travel insurance.

 

Elephant parks

There are multiple different elephant parks operatin around Chiang Mai, but we went with the one that's been operating longest (I think), Elephant Nature Park. Elephant parks are not about riding the elephants, the general idea is that the parks buy and save elephants from cruel conditions, for example most elephant riding operations treat the animals very poorly (like lashing and sometimes blinding one or both eyes), and they're used in (sometimes illegal) logging operations for dragging the tree trunks. Instead of riding, you feed and bathe the elephants. Elephant Nature Park wasn't the cheapest option (2000 baht per person = 4000 in total, about 110€), but it had good reviews. They picked us up from our hotel, drove us to the park outside the city in the mountains (I think maybe an hour one-way) and gave us a nice lunch afterwards, before bringing us back. We didn't realize to take our bathing suits, there was a small waterfall where you could have gone swimming. There's also an eco village in the park, but I don't know how it works.

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Our group bathing the elephants in a stream, the one submerged in the left is about a year-old "baby" next to its mother

 

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Eco village in the elephant park

 

Chiang Mai Cabaret

One of the more "exotic"  things in Chiang Mai is the cabaret. The lady-boy cabaret, to be exact. We convinced a couple of people we met at the hotel to accompany to us there, and we all agreed that the show was really entertaining and fun afterwards. We actually took seats in the front row (there's a risk you could get to be a part of the show there ;)), but luckily the performers picked a guy a few seats away from me. :P It's mostly lip-synced singing and dancing with a couple of other numbers in-between. The picture below gives makes no justice to what the performers look like on stage (except for the guy in the middle, yes, that's a guy, with silicone implants), for most of them, you could swear they are women  :D 

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Hello, ladies! Umm, wait..?

 

The Lost Bookshop

Sometimes you just want to chill out in the sun (or shade) and read a good book. There's an excellent 2nd hand book store inside the walled city with lots of English books and not bad prices, called The Lost Bookshop, although there are others. The lost bookshop is located a couple of streets south from the Tha Phae Gate (east side entrance to the walled city), on the same street as the Elephant Nature Park office. Just look it up on Google Maps, it's easy to find. Gekko Books and Shaman Books are also located near the Tha Phae Gate, outside the walled city, at least one of them carries English books too.

 

Other than those, we mostly just walked around the old city, visited restaurants, temples, markets, bars, cafes and ice cream shops, and swam around the pool, either just together or with some bunch of people we'd met in the hotel. Probably the big reasons why I liked Chiang Mai so much (on top of the ones mentioned before) were that we weren't in a rush to anywhere (compared to that day-on/day-off traveling we did from Bangkok to here through Ayutthaia and Sukhothai), I was getting used to the culture, and of course all the lovely people we met and hung out with. I'm terrible with names, but I probably could recognize at least most of them if they walked up on the street, of course since all them were from outside Finland, it's unlikely to happen. :P

After 8 nights, we decided to go see Pai. Many people told us we should definitely go there, so we booked a minivan. I don't know if there are buses going there, maybe, but the road there is about 100km northwest through mountains, near to the Myanmar border. There are shirts for sale that say something like "762 turns to Pai", don't know if that's the exact count, but it's one big serpentine up and down the mountains, kind of like a slow roller coaster. ;) We were stopped at a military check point in the mountains, apparently some people smuggle drugs from Myanmar to Thailand through the mountains. I don't recall them asking us for IDs, they just looked into the van with a flashlight and let us go. I don't remember how long the entire trip took, but they can't go really fast due to all the tight turns.

 

Some random pictures and temples, Doi Suthep, Elephant Park: https://imgur.com/a/PjT426a

Chiang Mai Cabaret pictures: https://imgur.com/a/WLYZNHU

 

Pai: Tourist hell

 

Walking Street (Pai Night Market)

 

Wat Phra That Mae Yen (The White Buddha temple)

 

Why we really didn't like Pai

 

 

Back to Chiang Mai: Flying through the mountains

 

Art in Paradise

Dragon Flight: Zip-lining through the mountain jungles

The Pentatonic Rock Bar

 

Chiang Rai: Downpour and reggae

Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple)

Wat Rong Seur Ten (Blue Temple)

Baan dam museum (Black House)

Reggae Home & Bar

 

Crossing to Laos via land

Edited by esaj
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Laos (22.10.2018-5.11.2018)

Huay Xai: Mellowing out in a small town 

 

Gibbon Experience: Treehouse of horrors

 

Slow boat to Pak Beng: Amazing views, creepiest town ever

 

Slow boat to Luang Prabang: Even more amazing views, time to chill

 

Vang Vieng: Party central is not bad

 

Vientiane: Dead calm in capital

 

Flying to Hanoi

Edited by esaj

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Vietnam (5.11.2018-27.11.2018)

Hanoi: Hanoi kind of suxx (but they do have cheap fresh beer)

 

Sa Pa: It's cold up in the mountains (plus I can't see shit, captain)

 

Ha Long (City, not Bay, technically): Not for tourists, really

 

Cat Ba island: First taste of paradise island

 

Night train to Ninh Binh / Tam Coc: A horrible way to travel, maybe

 

Hue: Citadel, cheapest real beer ever

 

Motorcycle trip across Central Vietnam (Khe Sanh, Quang Nam, Da Nang, Hoi An), or:

      EUCs will feel safe after this, also sunshine is nice

 

Hoi An: Not bad, but not all it's cracked up to be

 

Flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by esaj

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Cambodia (27.11.2018-10.12.2018)

Siem Reap: All the ruins you'll ever want to see... and then some

 

Angkor (& Angkor Wat)

 

Battambang: Raw meat and bats

 

Land crossing to Thailand via Poipet, or hell on earth

 

Edited by esaj

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Back in Thailand (10.12.2018-22.12.2018)

 

Koh Chang: Real paradise island, or almost could have been

 

Bangkok: flying home

 

 

Edited by esaj

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This topic's locked for now, I will release it once I get around to actually write more here  x)  Also, if the "sub-titles" (like "Real paradise island, or almost could have been") make it sound like I didn't enjoy the trip (I actually want to go back, like, now), they're just trying to be funny, but without context they most likely sound like complaining ;) 

Edited by esaj

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