Same Same, But Different
I promised to do a travel post monthly and people have been reminding me all month that it is December and time for another country. So here we go!
The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.
For those of you that are familiar with the term “same same but different” you don’t need me to tell you the name of my featured country for the month of December, you’ve already experienced this madness…for those of you that have no idea what I am talking about, you will understand soon enough.
I had hardly been back from Costa Rica for a month before the travel itch struck and even if I wasn’t booking flights, at the very least I needed to start thinking about the next destination. It didn’t take much thinking at all. For a couple of years already, I had a place in mind, one I actually longed after much earlier than Costa Rica. So let me rewind a bit to a few months before my Costa Rica trip to help make sense of all this. In the fall of 2004 I was planning my very first backpacking trip, I just had to work up enough courage. I had my destination selected, I’d applied for my leave of absence at work, I had even started training my replacement. But on December 26th, 2004 all of that changed. My dream destination was one of the 15 countries that had been hit with one of the worst natural disasters my generation has ever seen. 227,898 people were killed, another 1.69 million people displaced.
Being that I was 20 years old, inexperienced with travel and already terrified of my first big trip…I had no idea what to do. I mean, I couldn’t very well still go…I couldn’t go vacation in front of people that had just lost so much, in some cases everything. Their family, their homes, their crops, their possessions, I mean everything. I cancelled my trip. Which, looking back on now, I find funny, I think now I would respond differently, but who knows. They needed volunteers to help rebuild their country, but back then I wasn’t strong enough to make myself that person. So, back then, it was as simple as that, I cancelled my trip. Within a month, I had selected a new destination for my first backpacking trip and inside of 6 weeks, I was ready to go. I was off to Costa Rica.
So needless to say, I felt like I had a bit of history with my next travel destination. And upon my return to Canada, work and the real world I was ready to get away. I’m sure everyone knows that feeling when you get back from a trip. At first, it is all “It’s nice to be back”, “It’s good to see you”, “Oh, I missed my own bed”…that lasts for about a week…then you go right back to wishing you didn’t have to wake up at 6:30am and go to work…right back to wishing you were anywhere else. Or maybe that is just me?
Right away, I started re-planning my trip for the next winter. Only this time, I was going for longer. I was going to be gone for 3 months. I wasn’t going to have a job when I came back, but I didn’t seem to care. I was going to my dream destination. I was going to Thailand.
Thailand rebuilt an incredible amount in one year. It’s impressive the resolve people can have when faced with adversity. It’s impressive how people get back up after being kicked down by nature in such an extreme way. Thailand will forever impress me, not only because of it’s sheer, raw beauty and diversity but because of the people that make it one of the most special countries on Earth. It will forever be very special to me and very high on my list of recommended spots.
Note: In this post I will refer to “we”. This was a trip I took with my boyfriend at the time, I was not travelling alone for this one.
So let’s get to the trip itself:
Thailand is not a short and sweet flight from Canada. IT IS LONG! 3 layovers (one of which was 9 hours) and a day and a half later – BAM WELCOME TO BANGKOK! (On a side note, we flew Singapore Airlines, it was incredible! The service, the flight, the meals, all of it – incredible.) Upon arrival into Bangkok, I can honestly tell you I experienced culture shock for the first 2-3 days. The taxi ride to Khaosan Road (backpacker central) was eyeopening. The city was huge, heavily populated (not comparable to our cities here), dirty and it smelled like compost and garbage. I remember thinking “Oh My God, what have I gotten us into?”.
Khaosan Road is a busy bustling spot. Filled with guesthouses, shops, stands with pad thai, fried rice, fresh orange juice, spring rolls and banana pancakes as far as the eyes can see. Sounds good right? It was…it just took some getting used to. The tourists looked more like hippies and every local had something to sell you that was better than the next guys and it always seemed to dramatically go down in price as you showed less interest. I am sure you are all thinking right now “yeah, I’ve been to Mexico and I know how that is” or yeah “It was just like that in the Dominican and Cuba”…let me assure you, it is not. Speaking as someone who has seen the difference, trust me when I say…the Caribbean countries don’t come close.
This brings me to the title of this blog post. “Same same but different” is a saying very popular in Thailand. You can even purchase it on t-shirts. SAME SAME on the front and BUT DIFFERENT on the back. Perhaps you can figure out where I am going with this…not only do Thai people love to sell you things. They love to say SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT. Urban Dictionary puts it perfectly.
Question: Is this a real rolex?
Answer: Yes sir, same same but different.
The tuk-tuk drivers would offer to take you anywhere and everywhere for next to nothing. What they didn’t tell you, is that they are going to stop at many places along the way to try to sell you things in different shops, where they get a commission. At one point, upon refusal of entering the “mandatory” shop, I was kicked out of the tuk-tuk and forced to take a cab back to Khaosan Road. I don’t blame these people for trying to make a living, this is how they put food on their table and keep a roof over their heads. I’m the guest in their country. If I don’t like it, I can GET OUT. But I assure you, if you aren’t in the mood for random shops and incessant bartering, take a taxi, it’s $3 instead of 10 cents…you’ll get over it. Oh and remember, in Thailand, everyone is your best friend and they have a wonderful deal just for you…so forget your Canadian ways for your stay in Thailand, learn to say “no” and for God’s sake, don’t stop walking, otherwise you are going to be stuck talking to a salesperson for 30 minutes. Politeness gets you no where…literally.
This might sound negative so far and I don’t want that to be your staying impression. I simply want you to know, that you have to be prepared and ready for the change in pace, processes and general way of life. At first we found Bangkok overwhelming, infuriating and frustrating. By our second or third time there, it felt like home. It doesn’t take long to learn your way around (both the streets and the people) and fit right in like you’ve been there your entire life. Once you make that switch, you’ll never want to leave. And believe me, when it is “time to shop” there is no better place than Khaosan Rd and I wish I had brought more stuff home than I did. In all honesty, you should go with an empty pack and purchase everything you want to wear when you get there…because you are going to want to buy it all anyways, you might as well have room in your bag. The temples in Bangkok are gorgeous. The Golden Palace is busy and crowded, but worth it. Just try to get there first thing so you can get some time before the tour buses arrive. The smaller temples in the city proved to be much more enjoyable because you can take your time, they are peaceful and serene – I highly recommend the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, it is not to be missed!! (Within walking distance of Khaosan Road as well, maybe 15 minutes away).
All in all, Bangkok has a tonne for you to do and see. It is the central hub of the country and if you are going to be in Thailand for a while travelling around, you will end up there more than once. Don’t worry, that stench and heat that hits you like a brick wall as soon as you get off the bus…that goes away, you get used to it. 🙂
From Bangkok, northern Thailand was the first place on my list. So we set out for Chiang Mai, situated on a river and located in the countries highest mountains, this city allows you to explore the beauty of Thailand that doesn’t involve the ocean. All guesthouses there can set you up with tours to go Elephant riding (much less expensive here than down in the southern islands), bamboo rafting, checking out waterfalls and visiting local mountain villages. Not to mention the festivals in Chiang Mai are of the best in the country. The accommodations are very inexpensive here compared to the rest of the country as it is a little off the beaten path. You can get there from Bangkok by overnight train, or overnight bus. We took the train on the way up and the bus on the way down. The train was much more comfortable and had gorgeous views, but be prepared it is also much slower and will take a few hours longer.
Moral of the story for this chapter – if your timeline allows, don’t miss out on Chiang Mai. So many people overlook it because they go to Thailand solely for the beaches, but I assure you that you won’t regret it if you make the extra time for the north.
After two weeks in Thailand and not having seen a single beach yet, it was time to hit the islands. Koh Samet, Koh Mak and Koh Chang were the next stop. (east side on the Gulf of Thailand, not the Andaman Sea side). These islands had a variety of accommodations really giving you a range of choices depending on what you could afford or were looking for. Oh yeah….and the beaches were stunning. The bungalows we chose to stay in were a whopping $10 a night…keep in mind though, that at most places that won’t get you hot water or a flush toilet. Welcome to the world of what I fondly call “the trough”…it wasn’t so bad. 😛
At this point a border run was required and we actually ventured into Cambodia for 5 days to visit Angkor Wat. But Cambodia deserves its own blog post, so it will be my featured country next month – sorry for taking the surprise away. 😦
So, upon the return to Bangkok from Cambodia it was time to do more exploring. Heading south down the coast made Hua Hin a good place to stop. For the time I was there, it was actually windy and made the beach very unpleasant as the sand liked to attack. It was apparently non-typical weather for the time of year…so don’t worry, I’m sure it will be better when you go. 😛
My trusty guidebook told me about a place not far from Hua Hin that was worth a visit. I was shocked when we got there and we were the only tourists….anywhere. The only reasonable explanation for this that I was able to come up with was King Kong. Let me explain…in Prachuap Khiri Khan they have a gorgeous temple on the top of a mountain, that you can see from everywhere in the town. Not touristy at all though, we were only able to find one restaurant that had English anywhere on the menus, and the food was terrible (the only time in Thailand that I can say that – the food was amazing! mmmm I’m getting hungry). Oh! I almost forgot, this was also the only place on the entire trip that we stayed in which there wasn’t a western style toilet, but instead there was a hole on the tile. See pictures. Okay back to King Kong – sorry! So, waking up the next day, we had tickets for a train that was to depart at 4pm, so we had all day to climb the gazillion stairs to the top for an incredible view. The guide book did mention monkeys….but what it didn’t say is that they are EVERYWHERE, aren’t scared of you, stare you down and haunt your dreams. Getting too far ahead again. Let me slow down. So we cross the park to the stairs at the bottom of the mountain. There are monkeys in the park, but if you keep a distance, all is good. As you go up, you see a few monkeys here and there, on the stairs, in the trees on either side of the stairs, on the railings, etc. As you get higher, the monkeys get bigger. And they were curious. We made the assumption that if there are monkeys laying on the stairs, as you walk towards them, they would scatter. NO! Instead, they let you get super close (not sure about you, but I wasn’t prepared to start stepping over large monkeys). So naturally, we would stop…they would stand up…walk even closer to us. These things were everywhere, talk about being uncomfortable. We pushed through a little further and at about half way the monkeys were double the size of the ones in the park at the bottom. There was 5 or 6 of them on the stairs and as we approached they stood up and came towards us. We could only assume that they would just keep getting larger and at the top we would find none other than King Kong. We had enough of being brave, especially with all the babies around and the protective mothers. We turned around and jogged to the bottom of the stairs. We don’t know what the view from the top was like, we just know how uncomfortable it is to be in the middle of hordes of monkeys when you are the only human beings anywhere around. I did get a picture of the view from how far we made it, still beautiful. And let me be clear, I’m definitely not complaining about the temple overrun with monkeys. It is their turf, not mine.
So this post is already really long and there is still a tonne of content to post. And if I want anyone to actually read through this, I should stop now and continue tomorrow. So, if I was lucky enough to hold your attention until now – thank you! More beautiful pictures and sites to come.