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Thailand + Vietnam: Trip Recap #1 – Where I went, What I did/ate, What I loved

thailandrecap1

And I’m back! After two months backpacking through Thailand and Vietnam, I’m now back and getting settled in NYC. It was a trip of a lifetime, and while I am still taking some time to let it all settle and integrate, I wanted to write about the details of the trip for anyone interested. I’ve gotten a ton of questions about the trip, so hopefully this post helps if you’re planning your own trip!

So here goes…. sit back, grab some coffee and relax, this one will be long…(this is post one of two of my trip recap).

BANGKOK, THAILAND

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I started off by booking a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I have always wanted to book a one-way ticket, there was something so adventurous and freeing about doing it, so I did. I had 3 nights booked in Bangkok, but otherwise my trip was entirely open-ended. I had a rough plan to stay for 6 weeks – until Mid-March – but I was also pretty open in case I wanted to change that.

On Monday February 1st, I flew Emirates Airlines , connected through Dubai, and arrived in Bangkok absolutely exhausted on February 2nd. I stayed at the W Hotel, because I wanted a comfortable accommodation to help me get adjusted.

Thankfully, my jet lag wasn’t too bad, and I was able to start exploring Bangkok pretty quickly.

At this point of my trip, I was terrified of the food. I had heard so many horror stories of people getting really sick, so I remember constantly feeling so hungry these first few days because every time I was hungry, it would take me an hour to research restaurants, read reviews, and MAKE SURE I wasn’t going to die if I ate at a particular restaurant 🙂 Over in Asia, Trip Advisor is the way to go. I remember pulling out my phone to check “Yelp”, almost by habit, and well, there is no Yelp there. The Trip Advisor app became my best friend.

I used the concierge at my hotel to send me to various areas to explore. I personally just wanted to explore on my own two feet at first, to get my bearings. I used the Sky Train public transit system in Bangkok really easily and felt so accomplished that I could figure them out and ride with the locals. It’s a super easy and fun system to use so I would definitely recommend giving it a go.

I explored the gorgeous malls in Siam (a good transition — they are very nice, clean and upscale), walked through the bustling and crazy streets of Sukhumvit (a fun party area at night), and just aimlessly walked and took in the crazy-to-me-at-the-time sights. You cannot be bored in Bangkok.

I would suggest doing ONE activity a day in Bangkok — it’s a very stimulating city, and can exhaust you quickly, so I found that setting out to see one new thing a day was a good balance.

After a few days at the W Hotel, I was ready for something a little more adventurous. I scoured reviews for hostels, and found the BEST hostel, run by an American. I got a cab to take me to Kama Bangkok where I stayed for the next few nights (if you stay here, tell Chris, the owner, I say hi!).

I had my own room, but stayed in an upscale hostel environment. There was a dorm room there, but I wasn’t quite ready for that! I ended up having the best time at Kama — I made friends with the owners and so many other people there, and literally felt at home there. I was so sad to leave when it came time. This place will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the first time I really felt at home and had the feeling of “OMG, what if I never want to leave?”

Things I did in Bangkok:

  • Explored shopping at Siam Square and Terminal 21 (<– really cool shops)
  • Spent just a few hours at the Grand Palace and Reclining Buddha — definitely do this because it’s probably the #1 touristy thing to do, but LIMIT the amount of time there. It’s so crowded and can be very overwhelming. Be ready for lots of people to try to sell you things in the surrounding areas.

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  • Took a River Taxi to see the riverside. Definitely do this at some point – also a super cheap way to get around.
  • Walked around the streets of Sukhumvit – great nightlife and fun to walk through during the day. You’ll see lots of street vendors and “raw” Bangkok life.
  • Got my first massages!
  • Hung out in my local neighborhood at lot around Kama. If you want to see a more local neighborhood, head here.
  • Went to Asiatique – outdoor restaurants / shops by the water

Things I didn’t have time for but will do when I go back:

  • Chathuchuk Weekend Market
  • Koh San Road – this is the main backpacking road — never made it here, but you should go and check it out. I have heard it’s quite the scene! Go at night.
  • Floating River Markets

Bars / Restaurants I liked:

  • For a retreat from the crazy city, go to their rooftop bars. These are really popular in Bangkok. I went to Sky Bar. It was SO expensive, but really cool. Also ate at one of their restaurants up there called Breeze which was also expensive, but delicious. If you want an upscale meal, I’d really recommend it. The Wasabi Prawns and “10 Perfect Vegetables” were some of the best things I had all trip.

  • I ate a lot of breakfasts at the W Hotel while I was staying there – delish. They also have a giant buffet which I didn’t do, but would be a good way to sample lots of Asian food.
  • Roast or Rocket Coffeebar for some nice, safe, Western Food if you are wary and need that 🙂
  • This was my first authentic Thai meal– I ordered like 10 things, it was awesome.
  • Find street food ice cream – this was my first street food, it was phenomenal. I never stopped searching for it throughout the rest of my entire trip!

  • Went to this cute little bar (great super friendly bartender who can give you recs) with some friends I met. In the Sukhumvit area, so would be fun to walk around that area afterward.

Getting around and other notes:

  • Use the BTS Sky Train to get around – it’s pretty easy and weaves around the city
  • Use cabs but make sure you ONLY use cabs with meters (not fixed price). That way you won’t get ripped off. Always have the address of where you’re going and a map up on your phone of where it is. Bangkok is HUGE and the cabbies don’t always know where your location is, so you’ll have to show them.
  • Use Tuk-tuks!
  • Ride the river taxi since Bangkok is on a huge river. It’s a cheap, easy, and pretty way to get around.
  • Keep your purse and valuables close. I never had any issues with this, but I definitely had my guard up.

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND

After about a week in Bangkok, I hopped on a 1 hour flight north on Air Asia to Chiang Mai. I had heard so many amazing things about Chiang Mai, and was excited to see what this “smaller Bangkok” was all about.

I stayed in two places throughout my week in Chiang Mai: Good Morning Chiang Mai and Namanema. As you can see, I was still not quite ready to be in the full on hostel scene, so I got my own room at these “bed and breakfast” type places. If you’re definitely looking to meet people, I would say don’t stay at either of these places. It just makes it harder to meet people when you’re in a more private, secluded setting. Either stay in dorm rooms in hostels or get your own room in a hostel.

If you aren’t looking to meet people, these are both decent places to stay, but I wound’t rave about either. Free breakfast at both (although when I was there, Namanema had JUST opened that weekend, and they were serving us a “thai breakfast” which didn’t go over so well with Westerners. I explained this to them, and they said they were still working out the kinks, so maybe it’s different by now), and they’re nice and clean, but I would think you can find better places to stay in Chiang Mai — there are SO many accommodations there.

While everyone else raved about Chiang Mai, I didn’t have the best time there. I was still adjusting to solo travel, I hadn’t met anyone my first few days there, and I was having decision paralysis about how to spend my time.

Here’s the thing about Chiang Mai — there is the Old City, which is basically a large square with tons of shops, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, bars, and temples to see within it (this is where you’ll want to stay). You can walk the entire thing, so that was nice. However, I think the main highlights of Chiang Mai are actually OUTSIDE the main city, and because I refused to ride a motor bike, I wasn’t able to experience a lot.

If I were to do Chiang Mai again, I would probably spend a couple of days exploring the actual Old City, but then I would book more tours and excursions to see the outside areas. Chiang Mai is set in the mountains, so I would have wanted to spend more time seeing the actual surrounding areas instead off spending so much time wandering the town. If you’re brave enough to rent a motor bike, this is the place to do it.

Even still, I have a lot of fun memories from Chiang Mai, I just wouldn’t say it was my best week. Here are some highlights:

Things I did in Chiang Mai:

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  • Walk and walk and walk around the Old City
  • I went to all of the markets — ask around, but there is a night market, and several day and weekend markets. Get your “foodie”on and just eat your way through these things!
  • I visited several temples. I used my Lonely Planet guide and did the “self guided walking tour” in there to casually see the temples. It might be nice to hire a guide to get to know more about these.
  • The Folklife Museum — for a break from the heat and to learn about some history, I really enjoyed this museum.
  • Explored Nimman — this is the cool, hipster, up-and-coming area to the north east of the Old City. It’s nice to get out of the Old City and it only takes about 20 minutes to walk there. There’s cool coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and apparently the nightlife is great there too, although I didn’t get to see it.

Things I didn’t have time for but will do when I go back:

  • Explore more temples and sights outside of the Old City
  • Monk Chat

Bars / Restaurants I liked & Foodie Notes:

  • Chiang Mai has SO.MUCH.GOOD.FOOD. Have so much fun eating your way through the city.
  • Dada Kafe – I went here like every day 🙂 Really healthy.

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  • Zoe’s in Yellow– so, this is where everyone goes out. It’s kinda crazy and awesome, go at least once! There are also a bunch of bars directly surrounding Zoe’s and it’s like this little outdoor square that everyone hangs out in (closes at 12 so go early!).

  • Rustic and Blue in Nimman – really cute, western place. They have an Acai Bowl if you’re in need of something healthy!
  • Chiang Mai is known for noodle soup called Kow Soi — you’ll see it everywhere. I didn’t love it, but maybe I just didn’t have a good one.
  • Had a great Thai meal at Ugo — their chicken with cashew nuts is one of the best I had my entire trip (and I ate that dish a lot).

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  • North Gate Jazz Club – a random tuk-tuk driver dropped me off here because he thought I would like it (when the original place I was going had closed). I got here too early but I heard this place is supposed to be great and the crowd overflows out onto the street.
  • Eat at all the markets!
  • You must try “Roti” – their version of banana pancakes or crepes. I got mine with banana + nutella + peanut butter. There are countless stands on the streets serving this to all the tourists (NOT a Thai food haha).
  • If you order iced coffee and don’t want sugar, be sure to tell them.
  • There are SO many cute cafes — if you’re a coffee or tea lover, you’re in luck!
  • Try Ginger Tea!

Getting around and other notes:

  • There are all these red pick up trucks with benches in the back — you’ll “carpool” with others and use these. They’re a super cheap way to get around and you’ll see them everywhere.
  • You can also ride Tuk-Tuks around for super cheap. Always bargain.
  • You can rent a motorbike if you’re brave and not scared like me. Most people do this, but I did not.
  • To book tours, you’ll see travel agents on every block. Go into one of these, or just do your own research and call places yourself. The benefit to doing it through a travel agent is that they can communicate better in Thai. Sometimes it’s hard to book your own things because of language barriers.
  • You can pretty much book anything a couple of days in advance. I didn’t have anything booked before getting to Chiang Mai and I was fine, but if you only have a few days here, I would book some things in advance.

PAI, THAILAND

Oh Pai, how I love you. Just writing your name puts a smile on my face 🙂

I went to Pai for a few days and stayed for 12. I fell in love with this tiny hippy town, a 3 hour drive north from Chiang Mai.

I woke up bright and early one morning in Chiang Mai and headed straight to the bus station. Once there, I booked a van to Chiang Mai and departed 15 minutes later.

Note: you will hear that the 3 hour drive from Chiang Mai to Pai is hell, and I was honestly so nervous about it. There are apparently something like 600 hairpin turns on the route from CM to Pai, and people can get really car sick. My car was fine, but I did see what people meant. I didn’t eat beforehand, I left really early in the morning (6:30am bus) and booked a seat ONLY in the front row of the 10-12 person van. This all really helped. If you get carsick, be sure to book a seat in the front row or the passenger seat next to the driver. It’s a GORGEOUS ride though, so be sure to try to enjoy it! **You can also fly to Pai.

Pai is a sweet, little town in the mountains. It is drastically smaller than Bangkok and way smaller than Chiang Mai. A lot of tourists are going there now, but less than the other major cities. It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. It’s so so chill and laid back. There’s not a lot to do, and I loved that about it.

At this point of my trip, I loved going to a place where there wasn’t a lot of pressure to see and do a lot. I didn’t have to make a lot of decisions, and I could just completely relax. It is exactly what I needed.

I stayed in two places: at first, I wanted to stay in a full-on, crazy hostel. I booked one of the biggest party hotels in SE Asia, just because, why not? I was ready to meet people, let loose, and just have fun. I stayed at Spicy Pai and man… it was definitely a party environment, but it was so fun. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful hostels — it’s all open air huts in the middle of a rice paddy.

After a couple of nights there, I moved to what ended up being my absolute favorite accommodation of the whole trip: Ing Doi Inn. I stayed in my own bungalow among 25 other bungalows, and we had our own little family up there at the Inn. Everyone had their own space, but there were all these communal areas, including an incredible restaurant run by the owner, Ming that we would hang out in all day sometimes. I just loved this place and would recommend it to anyone — couples, solo travelers, anyone. This is another place that I ended up feeling at home. I truly felt like the other people became like family to me and I was so sad to leave.

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In Pai, I did a lot of nothing. I would go to cafes and read for hours, get lots of massages, eat amazing food, stroll around at not-a-New-York pace, chat with people for hours and hours and hours, listen to music in bars, explore nearby areas, and just hang out with whoever was around. It. was. incredible.

Here are some highlights…

Things I did in Pai:

  • I hopped on someone’s motorbike for the first time and explored some view points and surrounding areas
  • Every night, there is a night market on the main road. This is waaaaay more relaxed and calm than the other markets I had been to in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I went here almost every night for food or to check out some of the cool vendors.

  • One day I went to Fluid Pool to go swimming and escape the heat. You can just pay for a day pass and hangout and order some food / drinks.

Things I didn’t have time for but will do when I go back:

  • There is a lot to do on motorbikes in the surrounding area: Pai Canyon, hiking trails, sunset views.
  • I wanted to go to the Open Mind Center to take a workshop, but didn’t make it there.

Bars / restaurants / cafes I liked:

  • I ate a lot of meals at the restaurant at my bungalow inn — I would definitely recommend going and meeting the owner, Ming, and trying some of her food!
  • I ate many breakfasts at Boomelicious Cafe
  • Om Cafe is great for everything, and for hanging out for hours.
  • Edible Jazz is a super cool place to hang out for an evening — you can eat, drink and listen to live music there.
  • I ate a lot of meals at Good Life Restaurant — it’s super healthy and a nice place to hang out
  • Witching Well is a good place to watch the town go by. Grab some coffee or food and sit back, relax, and just watch the scene.

  • I went out to Yellow Sun bar a few times — pretty fun, good music, gets packed, is right next to a strip of other bars
  • You can’t really go wrong in Pai — just go wherever you walk by and strikes your fancy.

Getting around and other notes:

  • To go to/from here you’ll want to take a van from and back to Chiang Mai (3 hours). You can book these a day or two in advance or risk it and book day of if you want! You definitely can, you just may not get the time or the seat you want.
  • There isn’t a lot of public transportation within Pai because it’s so small. You either walk or use a motorbike that you can rent.

KOH SAMUI, THAILAND

After 12 days in Pai, I peeled myself away to head down to the issslllllaaannnds. Woohoo! I was psyched to see what the island experience was like.

At this point, I was really feeling used to travel – I was eating ALL the street food (except for weird looking meat), and was super comfortable going with the flow and traveling like a local.

Because of this, I thought it would be cool to do a classic backpacker experience: take a 12 hour sleeper train.

When I first heard about these sleeper trains during the first week of my trip, I remember thinking there is just no way I would ever do that. UGH!

Well, things changed I guess 🙂 I really really wanted to experience this, and felt like I could handle it.

Rather than booking an easy, cheap, quick flight down to the islands like a normal person, I decided to go the more challenging route and take 30 hours to get down there via a 3 hour van back to Chiang Mai, a flight back to Bangkok, a 12 hour sleeper train from Bangkok to Surat Thani, a 2 hour bus to the dock, a 1.5 hour ferry to Koh Samui and a cab to my hostel. You know, just for the fun of it 🙂

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Looking back, I am so so so glad that I made this intuitive decision. There have been so many times since that day when something difficult has come up in my life and without even thinking, a voice has come into my head that says “if you can make it through that sleeper train, you can make it through this”. The sleeper train, and that entire 30 hours of travel, was sooo out of my comfort zone, and I just had no choice but to relax into the entire day, have tons of patience, and just roll with the punches, every single step of the way. I am really proud of myself for going through that experience, and I know it impacted me as a person.

Once I got to Koh Samui, I only spent a quick 3 days there. I didn’t love it – there weren’t a ton of people my age, it was mostly older couples, and I just felt like the scene was a little lame.

I did meet a good friend there so we explored it together, and he took me out to see the “go-go bar” scene because I wanted to understand it, seeing as it is a big part of the culture in Thailand. We hung out with ladyboys, female “dancers” and he explained to me all the other interesting things happening there. This was a very eye opening part of my experience and honestly it just made me sad. I won’t get too into it here, but it just hurt me to see the women in Thailand doing things that they’d rather not do just to make money or connections. I talked to this one woman who was a “dancer” and entertaining people till 3 or 4 am some nights, and she just kept telling me how much she hated it and how exhausted she was. She was a mother and kept this whole part of her life a secret from her daughter because she was so ashamed.

When visiting Thailand, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to this whole part of the culture, but I would recommend trying to understand it at least a bit while you’re over there — it definitely gives you perspective and a sense of reality about what really goes on in other areas of the world.

I stayed at Chill Inn Hostel which was a great little hostel (I did a dorm here) on Lamai Beach, the second largest beach area there. It was a bit far from town, so I would maybe stay closer to town next time, unless you have a motorbike.

Things I did in Koh Samui:

  • Stayed near Lamai Beach and walked around, hung out on the beach for hours. Got a massage right on the beach.
  • Explored the “go-go bar” scene which is very prevalent there
  • Went out to the main beach area one night, Chaweng Beach — I would definitely recommend going there one night. People recommended not staying there because it’s a bit crazy, but I would still make sure you at least go spend a night going out over there. I never saw the actual beach, but just the town.

Bars / Restaurants I liked:

nothing too memorable, I would just walk around and pop into various places!

Getting around:

  • to get from Lamai to Chaweng, hail down one of the pickup trucks with benches in the back — they run all the time to Chaweng. Bargain for the price!
  • You can just walk around Lamai beach area or take a motorbike

KOH TAO, THAILAND

After a few just okay days in Koh Samui, my friend and I decided to go to Koh Tao together. I had another friend there who I had met in Pai and he was raving about Koh Tao, so we decided on that. I will say that deciding which of the Thai islands to go to is actually a bit overwhelming – there are SO many and everyone will tell you to go to a different one, so I agonized over this decision for a long time. Ultimately though, I am SUPER happy with my decision to go to Koh Tao.

We got a ferry over to Koh Tao which took about two hours. The ferry stops in Koh Phangang (another great island I debated going to — this is where the famous full moon party is), and then continues on to Tao.

FYI, you can book the ferry the night before.

My friend in Koh Tao said to stay anywhere near Sairee Beach, and he was right. Sairee Beach may be the most beautiful, picturesque beach I have ever been to. I just couldn’t stop taking pictures. It’s what you see on instagram and in all the thailand beach pics — it’s just so pretty. Not only is it pretty, but the water is warm, shallow, and there are no waves, so everything is calm. You can hang out in the water forever.

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I stayed at an AWESOME accommodation here: Sun Smile Lodge. I would highly recommend. I had my own room. Because I had friends I was already with all the time here, I didn’t feel the need to stay in a hostel in Koh Tao. I quite enjoyed having my own space 🙂

Things I did In Koh Tao:

  • I hung out on the beach for so so so many hours
  • I paddle boarded for the first time!

  • I ate at tons of great restaurants
  • I went out a lot to the bars on the beach: Koh Tao is known for their fire shows on the beach, so we would sit around drinking and watching these shows for hours. They are so captivating.
  • Hiked to Mango Bay Viewpoint — worth it! And challenging!
  • More massages
  • Walked through the town of Sairee Beach — lots of shops, restaurants and cafes.
  • A few of us to a day trip to Nang Yuan Island — you pay a guy a couple dollars to take you 15 minutes on a fisherman boat over to this island to the NE of Koh Tao — it’s super close. It’s STUNNING. I would highly, highly recommend going over there for the day. We snorkeled, hiked to a view point, and just hung out on another beautiful beach!

  • The last couple days I stayed here because Sun Smile Lodge was booked — it was closer to the Pier where I came in on the ferry. I also really liked exploring this area near the Pier and would recommend spending a night over here for a change of pace. It’s much less touristy and westernized which I liked.

Cafes / Bars / Restaurants I liked:

  • Coconut Monkey is near the Pier where I stayed for the last couple of days. I had green juice here! Good for breakfast.
  • Had a great meal at Pranee’s Kitchen. 
  • TWO MUSTS: By this point, all I wanted was authentic, hole in the wall, side of the street kind of Thai Food. This place, Sawadee, was near the Pier and I went here 3 times (also so cheap). It’s just two people cooking and serving. Then, this next one was my all time favorite. I want to go back here again and again and again….. it is not even listed on Google Maps, but this is as close I can get for you. If you go to Gallery Bar and keep walking up that road (so you pass Gallery bar on your right), you’ll see a little stand / shack on the right hand side of street with 4 tables. I think they call themselves “Piyawan Original Thai Food” and it’s a mom, dad and daughter that run it. Amazing, please go here! They don’t speak any English, so just point to whatever you’d like on the menu, sit back, and enjoy the most authentic Thai food you’ll ever have.
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  • Loved hanging at this coffee shop — super modern. Had dinner here one night too (this is the only non-thai meal I had eaten in weeks) and it was pretty good and a nice change.
  • I don’t remember the name of most places I ate at here — but they were all along the “boardwalk” beachside restaurants on Sairee Beach. You’ll see what I mean if you go, it’s just restaurant after restaurant.
  • For fire shows / drinks at night, we really liked one particular place, but I never caught the name. This may be it, though I am not 100% sure. Just walk along the beach and pop in and out of the various fire shows.

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  • Note: Koh Tao has a really westernized, “bro-y”, “fratty” nightlife scene. Depending on whether or not this is your thing, you’ll either love it or hate it 🙂

Getting around and other notes:

  • You’ll get in and out of Koh Tao by Ferry. There is one pier that the ferries go in and out of. Book these day before or day of, but I would recommend the day before if you want a specific time.
  • To get around, there are “motorbike taxis”, pick up trucks with benches in the back, but you’ll mainly just walk around.
  • You can hire various fisherman boats or bigger boats to take you around the island or to various beaches and areas to snorkel.
  • Apparently there is some other cool stuff to see around the island, so may be nice to rent a motorbike for a couple days in order to see other things, but I didn’t do that.
  • DIVING: Koh Tao is known for scuba diving. I didn’t do this, but scuba diving schools are everywhere. If you even have the slightest interest in getting your scuba certification, head to Koh Tao.

And then after 5.5 weeks in Thailand…. I decided at the last minute that I wasn’t quite ready for my adventure to be over yet. I decided to hop on a flight to Vietnam! To be continued in my next post…

Have you been to Thailand? What did you love? I’d love for you to share your experience in the comments below! xx. 

Jamie

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Comments

  1. Hayley Blake says

    Seriously loved reading all of this…and bookmarking it for future reference! I am dying to do a trip like this some day!! Thanks for putting this all together. Pai looks right up my alley too 🙂

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Jamie-Mendell-Sq

This place is for you: To explore what your soul needs to hear today.

I mainly write about Inner CriticSelf-CareFollowing Your IntuitionLife + Evolving, and the occasional Recipe. Enjoy!