“If you don’t trust me, you can’t trust anybody in the world,” said the Thai saleslady to me, as me and my friends were searching for the cheapest tour to Maya Bay and Ko Phi Phi in Phuket. Then and there I realized how I’ve been unjustly sceptical of the Thais, despite the many kindness these people have shown to us for 5 days now. I’ll be defensive though in saying you can’t blame us. I’d researched about the place and always encountered warnings of scams, overpricing, etc. Admittedly, we were not safe of them, but that’s a facet of traveling. You go outside your country, your home, your comfort zone and anywhere is unsafe. You have to take risks. In the end if it’s not scary, it’s not worth it.
When I lived in Taiwan for four months, some of the few people I got along with are Thais (you can read about my Taiwan experience here). They are very friendly that sometimes it borders to a little bit awkward. And the facial similarity with them and us is hilarious that one can’t tell which one is Thai and which one is a Filipino! It is from these friends that the idea of visiting Thailand budded in my mind. It took me three years though to materialize the idea.
In this post, I’ll be sharing our do-it-yourself Bangkok-Phuket-Ayutthaya itinerary, the costs we’ve incurred, the locals we met, the cuisines we delved, the Thai culture we’ve witnessed and of course, our overall experience.
Getting into the heart of the Metropolis
Our first concern when we landed in Suvarnabhumi International Airport was how to get to our hotel with an address we know nothing about. Thankfully, Thailand railway system is A-class it made our journey a lot easier. There is an MRT station right underneath the airport (called the airport link) that connects to other Bangkok MRT lines and to the superb Bangkok BTS Skytrain (transfer in Phaya Thai Station). Thailand, much like Taiwan’s, railway system to me are first class in terms of their convenience, efficiency and cleanliness that I hope someday Philippines will have a mass transport as awesome as this.
Fare from the airport to the Phaya Thai Station (to transfer to BTS) costs 15 baht while BTS Skytrain fare ranges from 30-50 baht, depending on your destination.
We found our way to McDonald’s in Tesco Mall near On Nut BTS Station where our AirBnb host is going to meet us. Our problem now is: Where is our host? We only contact her through Facebook Messenger and since arriving in Bangkok, we forgot to buy a tourist sim for Internet because our minds were still scrambling to understand everything. We were there for an hour making every possible way of procuring the needed sim (my friend even went to the extent of asking passers-by where we can buy the sim, but Thai people hardly understand our English). Frustrated, we let few minutes pass by as we sat down. There we noticed two people (a guy and a girl) who looked very much like Filipinos, but we were still hesitant in approaching them since Thais deceptively look like us. We were trying to listen to them but they were not near enough. And then the miracle happened: we saw the guy was wearing a shirt with a Vigan print. Vigan is a Philippine city! What we saw triggered us to approach them, and indeed they were Filipinos! It’s always heartwarming to find Filipinos out of the blue in a foreign land. Going back, we asked favour from them if they could call our host.
That’s how we met Bell.
Bell was just sitting behind us all along, and had been contacting us. We learned she waited 2 hours for us and we can’t help but feel guilty. “Never mind,” in thick Thai accent was her constant replies to our sorry. She fetched us with her car to her home which was very clean and comfortable as well. But what really amazed us is how she treated us like we were her friends and not just her guests. Bell made us feel the Thai brand of hospitality. Her home was “rakhome” she said, which means “love home”. In her home, we were “her family.” Bell was our first real encounter with Thai and we felt very welcomed. She said she owes this sense of hospitality and kindness from her experience in Japan, where she was adopted by a lady for a night while she was locating her lost wallet. She had none but when her wallet was returned to hers, not even a single cent was lost. “Paying it forward,” she would tell us, an attitude we hope to apply to tourists in our land. Most importantly, Bell is also a very pretty person.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
First point of our itinerary was the Chatuchak Market, also called as Jatujak Market or JJ Market, the largest market in Thailand. To get to Chatuchak, take the BTS Skytrain to Mo Chit BTS Station or alternatively, take the MRT to Chatuchak Park Station.
Chatuchak, with over thousands of stalls, offers everything of Thailand that you need: clothes, souvenirs, Thai foods, Thai massage. Getting your way along the market could be really tough though since the lanes are narrow and the crowd is unbelievable (mostly are Western and Chinese tourists).
Fare to Mo Chit BTS Station is 42 baht and 1,000 baht budget could give you a lot in the market. In our case, we spent 150 baht for massage, 270 baht for a plate of Pad Thai and a bowl of spicy Tom Yum soup, and a couple more baht for souvenirs.
Wat Arun, Wat Pho and the Grand Palace
Our second day was a wonderful tour around Bangkok City. Thankfully, we had a local to guide us – my Thai friend Tarn. Tarn is a close friend I met in Taiwan. She told me when I come to her country she would tour me and my friends around Bangkok and she did!
We went first to Wat Arun, one of two famous Buddhist temples in Bangkok (the other being Wat Pho). To get to Wat Arun, we crossed the massive Chao Phraya River from Saphan Taksin BTS Station. Ferry costs 14 baht. Just as always, I’m always in awe of the detailed architecture and ornate design of Buddhist temples. Entrance fee for foreigners in Wat Arun is 50 baht.
The next temple was Wat Pho, a boat ride away from Wat Arun (costs 3.50 baht). Wat Pho is the home of the famous giant reclining Buddha who at first sight I found domineering and intimidating. It is here in Wat Pho that we witnessed a speck of the religious culture of Thai people. Always remember to take off your shoes before entering the temple and be silent. Inside the praying room, we kneeled in front of the Buddhist altar and bowed three times – trying to get a vibe of Buddhism. It was the closest encounter to a non-Christian religion I had. Entrance fee for foreigners in Wat Pho is 100 baht.
Just around the corner from Wat Pho is the spectacular Grand Palace, previously home for the Thai monarchs. We weren’t able to go inside the Grand Palace because some VIPs came and the Palace has to be closed early. Nonetheless, the Grand Palace is still a spectacle of a view even from the outside. Entrance fee for foreigners is 500 baht.
While we were on our way to the Grand Palace, we notice a long queue of people in black just outside the gate of the palace. When I asked Tarn what they are queuing for, she said they are Thai people wanting to get a last glance of their King who passed away not more than a year ago. Thais love their King so much and everywhere, we saw memorials of him as proof of their gratitude.
Thailand as well is a haven for shopping enthusiasts and avid mall goers. If you’re coming from Grand Palace you can return to the Saphan Taksin Station and take a bus to Central World (which was the route we took; costs 20 baht) or you can take the BTS again and get off at Siam Station where series of malls connected by bridgeways will greet you with their day and night vibrance. First of these parade of malls is the enormous Bangkok Central World. I and my friends treated ourselves a refreshing Thai milk tea here after long day’s walk within the busy urban.
Next would be the Siam Discovery (the first of the three Siam Malls in Bangkok). If you could indulge a little more baht, buying few designer clothe would be fun. We were traveling on a tight budget so we settled for window shopping.
Right next to Siam Discovery is Siam Paragon which boasts a beautiful transparent façade. When we came here, Siam Paragon was having a fruit fest and we were able to buy longan (a type of lychee, I think) for just 40 baht/ kilo. If you want more feast of the stomach, Siam Paragon’s lower ground has the gourmet market offering myriad choices of Thai and other international foods.
Finally, beside Siam Paragon is Siam Center. Here we found an intimidating but amusing life-size wax figure of George Clooney in a Madam Tussaud museum. I didn’t expect to find a branch of the famous museum in Bangkok which is why it was really a plus to this city tour.
Bright City Lights in the Lively Khao San Road
It’s getting darker and Bangkok’s lights are turning on one by one. Perhaps, never in the city are the lights more colourful and the atmosphere inviting than the Khao San Road. The road very much resembles Taiwanese night markets: array of cheap but flavourful Thai streetfood stalls, souvenir shops, etc.
From Siam Paragon, we commissioned a tuk-tuk to drive us to Khao San Road for 140 baht. By the way, when you are in Thailand don’t miss out the chance to ride a tuk-tuk at least once because it’s so famous here it’s becoming a national symbol (remember the national costume of the Thai candidate for Miss Universe 2015?). It’s fun when the city wind blows your face as you speed by through the twists and turns of the metropolis. Just always remember to haggle down the price because tuk-tuk drivers tend to overprice rides for foreigners (ours was originally 150 baht).
Khao San Road is one of Bangkok’s oldest cities, and now a major backpacker hub. We saw several tourists (mostly Westerners and Chinese) traverse the short road, pausing every now and then to eat pad Thai, have their hairs in dreadlocks, drink beer and chill in a bar, or eat durian, absurdly huge cockroaches, scorpions and other exotics.
We got ourselves henna tattoos, ate mango sticky rice, drink a bottle of beer and to be more adventurous bought a stick of scorpion for 100 baht to eat! It wasn’t really a nice taste, though. Along the road, we met two drunken German guys who challenged themselves with the durian. With just one bite they threw off the fruit, which we found absurd because we love durian (the fruit being native to us)!
It was getting late, but the street lights were not getting any dimmer nor the noise fainter. Yet, we really have to go back to our hotel to pack up things. We have an early flight to the next major Thailand place we’re visiting – Phuket.
Don Muang International Airport
Our flight to Phuket is at 6:00 AM, but the Don Muang International Airport is 32 kilometres from us. We barely had slept from the Bangkok Tour, so we don’t have any choice but to hail a taxi. We’ve already sat down and driven for a couple of seconds before remembering to tell the driver we’d like to use the meter. He said no, “400 baht.” I and my friends looked at each other and seeing the exasperation on each other, we succumbed to a surrendered “Yes.” We even forgot to haggle.
Nonetheless, we just enjoyed the trip. Going 100 kph on Bangkok’s early morning, traffic-less highways, singing along with the English EDM songs playing on the radio. Before we knew it, we were already welcomed by a glittering ‘Don Muang International Airport’ in bright red lights.
Suvarnabhumi Airport is the main airport of Thailand, being in Bangkok but we thought Don Muang is better. We were amazed with the facility that it added more excitement to our Phuket trip.
We booked our Phuket flight two months before going to Thailand, when AirAsia was having a seat sale. The roundtrip fare costs 850 baht and duration is 1 hour.
We landed at Phuket International Airport without any plan in mind. “What now?” we asked ourselves several times. Remembering my research back home, I thought about Patong Beach. We’ll go to Patong!, I said in an instant, to which my friends agreed. After a quick research and asking questions of how to get there, we found ourselves riding a bus costing 150 baht. The fact that we were joined by Indians, Westerners and other tourists in our bus ride indicates the fame of this known shoreline and its controversial nightlife.
After an hour, we got down on some street somewhere already near Patong Beach. The streets in Patong are like I’ve never seen before; they were narrow, lined up with towering hotels and inns, street food stall along the corners, souvenir shops, Thai massage shops with “no sex” signs and masseur greeting you “Thai massah” in very rich Thai accent. Also, there were several shops selling tours to the different islands in the Andaman Sea. We decided to avail of one since it’s impossible to get to any of these islands except for group tours. We found one for 1500 baht, another for 1400 baht and on our last attempt, we found Toy. She’s the woman who said to me “If you don’t trust me, you can’t trust anybody in the world.” Apparently, I’d been asking her too many questions. We bought her tour to Maya Bay and Phi Phi Islands for 1300 baht.
We didn’t have any hotel yet so that’s what we looked for after. We found budget hotel Silver Resortel that costs only 800 baht for three persons and thought that was a good deal since most hotels here ranges from 1000 baht or more per night. We’re near the coast of Patong so the cost. Good thing the amenities were considerable too and the Thai receptionists had been very nice to us.
If you haven’t heard of Patong Beach or the Phuket Island as a whole (which I doubt because the island is very famous), then you must have heard of the devastating 9+ magnitude earthquake that wreaked havoc in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and the Boxing Day Tsunami in Thailand (see the movie The Impossible which gave Naomi Watts her second Oscar nomination). Right, Phuket was one of the many places that were horrified on the day that took 250,000 lives across 14 countries. In Patong Beach, the tsunami went as high as 6 meters (2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, wikipedia.com, 2017).
Thirteen years after, very minimal trace of the horror can be found and Patong Beach is once again the tourist mecca it once was. We enjoyed having lunch in front of the beach, felt the strong, cool breeze blow on our faces; and strolled under the sun, the sand glistening under our feet. The sun was burning but when we stepped on the shore, it didn’t hurt at all. It was glittering silicone, we learned.
At night the streets of Patong transformed into fantastic nightlife hubs. If Bangkok has the Khao San Road, then Patong has the Bangla Walking Street only more exotic and revealing. If you want proof of the controversial nightlife in Phuket, then here is the place to be.
We were amused by the display of different night life wonders along Bangla Street. Bars, beers, boom boxes, ladyboys and pole dancers pepper the street in such a lively fashion than we don’t have to enter any establishment: the street itself is the dance floor!
One time we were just walking and a Thai presented us a cardboard that looks like a menu of something. When we took a closer look at it, it said “Live F*cking Show” with pictures of naked men and women. We don’t know how to react and for a time we were terrified but after walking away, we can’t help but laugh at the experience. “That would’ve been wonderful,” I jocularly said to my female friend.
Far down the street we saw girls in fitted shorts dancing on table tops while Caucasian men sat below them, drinking. We saw one man putting few baht inside the bra of one girl and while another is squeezing the butt of another girl. They were all publicly displayed, and we felt virginized (if the word makes any sense). Ultimately I and my friends agreed that night culminated our Phuket trip, as if that was half of the entire Phuket experience.
Maya Bay and Leo DiCaprio Fame
At 7:00 AM, we were fetched by the tour we bought. In the minivan, we were joined by four Chinese, two Indians and an American couple as we’re headed to Marina Pier where many tourists had already arrived, all wanting to visit the acclaimed Phi Phi Islands. After a short introduction and reminders from our guide, we boarded a speedboat to our first destination – Maya Bay.
Our guide said that before, Maya Bay was a secret gem, uninhabited, less known. But when Leo DiCaprio and the set of the British-American film The Beach chose to film there, the Bay has never experienced less hustle since. Indeed, there were already hundreds of tourist who came before us. It was hard to move your way round lest take pictures without being photobombed by a lady in swimsuit. Thankfully, walking a few distance from our boat and we found a place with only few people. We took the chance to snap few shots and splashed for a while. The water is great, the sand is great, the sun is covered by the towering islands and the view of the lagoon is spectacular. I could stay here for a couple of days, alone.
Ko Phi Phi
Aside from Maya Bay, there’s also the Phi Phi Islands that was perfect for snorkelling during the summer. We came during the rainy season so the water was a bit unclear and there was not much to see.
In the main Phi Phi Island we had the opportunity to relax as we marvel at the expanse of the Andaman Sea. In the Philippines we also have spectacular beaches and as I always love the beach view, Ko Phi Phi was a marvellous experience for me.
Our last destination was the Khrai Beach northwest of the Ko Phi Phi Leh. We were on the southeast so we have to turn around the entire Ko Phi Phi Leh to get to Khrai. Even by speedboat, the ride took us 1 hour. What’s worse is that it’s raining and the waves are terrifying. But the driver didn’t slow down a bit. “Maybe he’s used to this,” my friend commented. On our side, we were enjoying the thrusts and downs of the ride having said that we were from a country of various beaches. It’s like a roller coaster ride for us, juggling our insides with good feelings. Apparently, others are not.
The American lady who was with us in the minivan was experiencing severe seasickness that she has to endure every second of the ride. It’s pain to watch her. One Chinese teenager vomited his lunch to half of the plastic bag. He was crying on the process.
Perhaps, all that paid off when the speedboat slowed to a stop and we were on our destination. Khrai has more space than Maya Bay; it’s open, treeless and isolated. There we swam for a longer time and even interacted closely with colourful fishes!
The tour ended at 5:00 PM. We have a flight to catch at 8:45 PM and after taking a bath in our hotel’s public shower, we commissioned a taxi to Phuket International Airport for 800 baht. There ended our two days one night Phuket adventure.
The aerial view of Bangkok at night was amazing!
We landed at 10:00 PM and had to check in to another Airbnb home. Our host fetched us through GrabCar and after a couple of minutes, we found ourselves on a creepy, quiet Thai residential place. It is different living in Bell’s condo surrounded by noisy business establishments. It’s another story to live in a house in a cluttered village surrounded by local Thais who know little English and who might not be used to in dealing with foreigners in their place. The experience was new for us, but we were glad we experienced it anyway (though it was really uncomfortable at the time).
“We’ll be going to A-yut-THA-ya,” I said to Tarn in one of our conversations in Bangkok.
She laughed, “Maybe you meant A-YU-tha-ya.”
I wondered whether I sounded stupid saying the few Thai words I know.
Ayutthaya was our last destination, and one I know we must go. It’s a 14th century UNESCO world heritage site. No place can provide any traveller a historic paradigm of the old Siam than this historical city.
We had to wake up early, despite sleeping past midnight. The train arrives at 8:00 AM and it’ll be one hour before another train arrives. Good thing is that we left at 7:00 AM (and at excruciating silence; we’re on a residential area remember) and had time for breakfast. Turning left at a nearby crossroad, we found a local eatery selling home-made Thai delicacies. Many Thais, mostly from the working class preparing for a busy day, came to eat as well. They chatted in an alien language while the vendor was peddling her goods. Some scurried along the street, perhaps getting late for work; others were riding motorbikes in threes. The chain of events was simple, yet fulfilling. We were witnessing ordinary Thais in an ordinary day doing their ordinary routines and it was extraordinary for us. Funny as it may sound, we were Thais for a moment, being immersed in a Thai community. This is one of the joys I get from traveling: to experience difference, to escape my own world and join another’s.
For just 30 baht each, we were able to order fried chicken and sausage (we’re craving for something less Thai, that is, spicy).
The train ticket to Ayutthaya costs only 20 baht and luckily for us, the train arrived in less than five minutes. From where we were in Don Muang Station, it took 1 hour to get to Ayutthaya. But duration was not really an issue since we had the opportunity to view the countryside of Thailand. We were done with the city, the beach and now to complete the Thai-trifecta are the vast Thai ricefields.
Arriving in Ayutthaya, we were swarmed by tuk-tuk drivers offering a tour around the tiny historical city. If you’re traveling in groups you could commission a tuk-tuk because it’s cheaper and more convenient. But if you’re traveling solo or in small numbers, then you could rent a bike for lesser costs. In our case, it was raining so we decided to commission a 4-hour tuk-tuk ride for 1000 baht, which is way too expensive.
The first Wat we went was Wat Yai Chai Mongkol. Wat, by the way, means a Buddhist temple. Here you’ll see a giant reclining Buddha.
Next was Wat Ratchaburana. This Wat has staircases leading to an open window, giving you a nice vantage of the Wat from the top.
Then we proceeded to Wat Mahathat where found is one of the iconic symbols of Thailand (and one of the most photographed): an image of Buddha head overgrown by a fig tree.
Finally, we took a longer ride to Wat Chai Wattanaram. This Wat has the perfect façade and perhaps the wider space for strolling.
Ayutthaya was amazing, I and my friends agree. Personally, when I had a first glance of the first Wat we went, I felt possessed by the place. Every Wat after multiplied the surrealism. They’re breathtaking, especially knowing that flamboyant architectural wonders as these Wats were built centuries ago by ancient people.
If you don’t know the international fame that is Thai cuisine, then you’re surely missing out entirely on the food scene. Be it the famous pad thai or the tom yup soup, every Thai delicacy is a feast of the palate (why do I sound like endorsing?).
But they can be really spicy! My friends couldn’t endure it, despite my warning of them.
Thai street foods are awesome as well, not to mention really cheap!
Then you’ll realize Thailand is not just a feast of the eyes.
Thai Brand of Kindness
We were thrilled by the bustling city of Bangkok; relaxed by the cool breeze of Phuket and marvelled at the breathtaking Ayutthaya ruins. But what we didn’t expect that would complete our ultimate Thailand trip were the many simple acts of kindness Thais had shown to us. We had taken snaps of the picturesque scenes and enjoyed at the cuisines, but what we’re really happy to have are the anecdotes of Thai hospitality we’ve experienced first-hand. Here are some of them:
- Bell! We couldn’t find the enough words to describe on how awesome Bell had treated us.
- Tarn! “She’s never changed. Always the kind friend I knew from three years ago,” I said to my friends. It’s surreal to meet a friend you’ve never seen for three years, and it really made me happy to see Tarn again. She was very kind in touring us around her home – Bangkok. And although she captioned in her Instagram post that she’s a “failed tour guide”, to us our Bangkok trip would’ve been less fulfilling without her.
- It’s past 6:00 PM and people are building up in the BTS Stations. My friend was inserting coins in the ticketing machine when we noticed the machine is not accepting our 2-baht coins. We were sweating, before a lady behind us spoke. Apparently, she’s telling us the machine is not accepting 2-baht coins. But we don’t have any coins. Realizing that, she gave us a 10-baht coin, which is what we just needed.
- We’re on the last days of our stay and we’re running out of money. To save, we fixed our dinner budget to 100 baht. In a 7/11 store, we picked up steamed rice, fried chicken and instant noodles – believing we had enough money. But after scanning the items, the POS machine displayed 101 baht. We were accountant, how could simple math fool us?! “Have only 100 baht.” I said to the cashier. “Just return this (instant noodles).” “No, never mind,” the cashier replied who at the same time asked 1 baht from his co-worker.
- It’s 30 minutes past ten in the evening. We were carrying lots of things: luggage, 6 kilos of longan, and many bags of souvenirs. We don’t have any idea how to go to our hostel in Don Muang, as we were waiting at the bus station. I and my friends have not been talking for 30 minutes (I think). Frustrated, tired, each of us thinking what to do next on our own. Then one friend decided to ask two teenage girls nearby. What surprised us is how these girls did everything to make sure we could get to our hostel: from personally talking to drivers, Google-ing the directions, etc. They didn’t mind wasting their 30-45 minutes. Because of them, we were able to get to our hostel safely.
Thailand happened like a dream for us. The one week we’d spent there felt like out of this world, out-of-place. For a while, we weren’t ourselves in our real world. We were wanderers who had nothing coming in but gained wonderful stories, memories and experiences going out. It was a good dream.