Everyone has a story about Thailand, and as one of the most popular and accessible international destinations for Australian travellers, I decided it was time to return to see if Thailand lived up to those expectations.
Thailand is renowned for friendly people, good food and bargain shopping. I was out to test the theory that the ‘Land of the Smiles’ could deliver all that and more.
Upon arrival in the unofficial Northern capital of Chiang Mai, we were greeted by what we had grown accustomed to in our previous week in Thailand – a crowd of smiling faces all willing and wanting to help you on your way. The real treat was yet to come, however, as within a few hours’ drive, the stereotype of Thailand as a hot, busy, westernised country became a distant memory.
As we arrived in the small traditional village of Mae Kampong; our mountain home for the next few days, we discovered a rare escape from the craziness of tuk-tuks and marketplaces … A place where you wake with the sunrise, sleep at sunset and bathe in the fresh mountain water that runs through the village – a true sanctuary where the locals, who shared their homes and a few of their local delicacies, were equally fascinated by the westerners with big blue eyes.
Each day we undertook traditional activities and before long, even the youngest of our travelling party showed off their newfound bravery, riding bareback through the jungle, taking their elephants for a swim. Northern Thailand had surprised us all, and we left with trepidation as we headed off to the lively Phuket.
The 2 hour flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket gave us time to prepare ourselves for what was sure to be a culture shock after the serenity of the village. The heat as we walked across the tarmac was a reminder that we had landed in a tropical destination, and the signs welcoming all the ‘Aussies’ was an indication to us that this was going to be more familiar than our previous two weeks in Thailand.
Phuket is home to some of Asia’s most beautiful resorts and is a wonderful destination for shopping and relaxing by the pool. Each day was a consistent 30°C temperature, and it was difficult to resist swimming morning ‘til night. The shopping was an eclectic mix of lively marketplaces and modern stores. The locals were wiser here and the prices were not as good as in our previous experiences in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but it didn’t stop us (and thousands of other Aussies) bartering like we were loan sharks!
Exploring the local islands by private speedboat was a wonderful way to discover the spectacular turquoise lagoons and to our surprise, remarkably good snorkelling. The fish did seem to have some issues distinguishing our lily-white Australian thighs from a more acceptable food source, but this added to the fun, and the snorkelling proved to be a highlight of our stay in Southern Thailand.
After 3 weeks, 15 serves of Pad Thai, 20 kg heavier in luggage and a dose of Bali Belly (Why do they call it Bali Belly, even when you’re in Thailand?), we bid farewell to Thailand. On the flight home and in the weeks following, we reflected on a country where western and eastern culture melted harmoniously – a country that welcomes tourists by the thousands but has somehow kept some small pockets relatively untouched. Thailand opened her heart, and we took a little bit home with us.
This story was published in issue 24 of the Coffs Coast Focus