Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

This article originally appeared on my old blog, Downunderpirates, in June 2014.

 

Today I’m finally taking you to amazing Thailand, a place that everyone has to see at least once in its life. Thailand it’s an extremely easy country to travel in. It is South East Asia’s tourist hub and the final gateway to wilder destinations. A cosy country that welcomes you with a sticky hug and lulls you with its wonderful beaches, luxury accommodation, tasty food, bright colours and infinite smiles. Thailand is the perfect destination to have a glimpse of South East Asian lifestyle without behind swallowed by the hard-core frenzy of Vietnam, Cambodia and so on. Here are my tips for a nice backpacker trip to Thailand.

 

Thailand is the best Country
to start exploring South East Asia
if you’re new to the region

Coming from the challenging journey through Burma, Thailand was like a breath of fresh air for us: Reliable transport system, English speaking people, edible food (even western food sometimes!) lovely accommodations and no open sewage anywhere to be seen!
I know I might sound like a spoiled western tourist that travels around in stilettos and fancy dresses, but trust me, I’m not. After backpacking our way overland through Cambodia and Burma for two months, while also experiencing serious food poisoning along the way, we were a mess and we deserved a break.

backpacker trip to Thailand

We stepped in the northern part of the country as March and the hot season were approaching. Northern Thailand is a lush highland territory, known for its temples-filled cities: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; and its backpacker trail of small mountain communities and former hill tribe villages that still populate the border areas.

We embarked in an off road
scooter adventure
with nothing more than
a crayon-written map
of the area as GPS

As we still were in the mood for meet ups with hill tribe villagers, we embarked in an off road scooter adventure to explore the villages near Ta Ton. It was a big mistake. We ended up on narrow mountain tracks, then into a creek and in the end we Andre even had to push the scooter under the midday sun on an extremely steep and slippery hill. With no water. And nothing more than a crayon-written map of the area as GPS.
backpacker trip to Thailand
Of course there were entire Thai families travelling on the same scooter, who were handling this no worries, but hey, they’re local. Personally, I almost cried when we hit asphalt again. By the way there were no “traditional” villages to be seen, just regular mountain huts. Fail. Anyway, totally worth it. (Maybe not.)

Pai is a lush playground
for people
in their twenties

The next stop in our northern circuit was backpacker’s paradise and hippy headquarters Pai village. Pai is a (not so) hidden gem of the northern mountains, reachable only with a 4h minibus journey from Chiang Mai. The road is wonderful. Dotted with traditional wooden huts shadowed by lush vegetation. It’s extremely winding as well, and you have good chances of smelling puke on your way into town. If you’re lucky it won’t be yours. We spent four lovely days there, enjoying fellow travellers company again, strolling through night markets (where we ate THE BEST PIZZA in more than one year) and chilled by the pool. Basically it was like a playground for people in their twenties.

From there we moved north again, close to Burma, to have a last glimpse of the hill tribes before heading south for the islands. We explored the surroundings of Tham Lot cave, staying in the charming Cave Lodge, one of the best guesthouses I ever stayed in my life (you can see some pictures here). Despite our best efforts, we didn’t find any other “traditional” tribe. At least not as traditional as the ones that we met in Burma. I fear that in today’s Thailand hill tribes have been exploited for tourism purposes for so long that nowadays they (almost) blurred into modern Thailand.

Thus said, Thai constitution does not consider them as citizens, basically leaving them to themselves without even basic services such as schooling, healthcare, age care and so on. Don’t get me wrong, even if they don’t dress traditionally anymore, they are very interesting people to meet and have a chat with – we spoke with an Akha catholic catechist, that loved Pope Francis almost as Thai whiskey. But please, stay away from all those tourist-trap agencies in Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai that promise to bring you on “hill tribe tours”, often showing you the Padaung -long neck- women in in a very sad, sort of human safari situation. Spoiler: Padaung women are not Thai, they come from Burma EXCLUSIVELY to be exploited in the tourism industry. Please stay away.

In Krabi we assisted to our first
family friendly transgender beauty contest

From Pai, we engaged in a 48h trip that involved a minibus and two overnight buses to Krabi. Located on the Adaman sea, Krabi is the heart of a stunning coastline dotted with limestone formations and colourful ocean environment. The final scene of the famous 007 movie “The Man with a Golden Gun” was actually shoot here. In Krabi, we rested on stunning beaches that you can see here and went island hopping, experiencing the stark difference between westerner and Thai habits when on a boat trip. Thai do swim (with “swimming” I mean floating around in life vests and snorkelling gear) FULLY clothed. Which involves sitting on the boat all dripping wet. For them, a darker tone of skin is not desirable, so they make sure that even their hands and face (the only exposed body parts) are abundantly covered in SPF 90 or something. At the same time the few westerners that were with us lied bare skin on the prow of the long tail boat, sunbathing carelessly.

Diving in Ko Lanta was
one of the highlights of my life

From Krabi, where we happily assisted to our first family friendly transgender beauty contest, Miss Krabi, we moved south to Ko Lanta, which didn’t really stand out for us. Anyway, we got the change to dive here. It was my first dive! There’s no words to explain how great it was. I’m pretty claustrophobic by nature and the idea of going 12 meters underwater didn’t really excite me, but guys, it was seriously one of the highlights of my life. Never mind if the day after I was so sick that I thought I caught Dengue fever. The corals and the fish that we saw were as flashy as the ones that you can see on a National Geographic issue. Underwater it’s full of life, and crazy creatures and Co2 bubbles that float around. It was just perfect. Ten thousand times better than the poor Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that is now sadly greyish and dying. Not to mention that Australian Pacific waters are freaking cold even with a thick full sleeves wet suit. In Thailand you can dive comfortably with a short sleeved suit. Or even in your bikini if you’re called Sarah and you are a dive instructor coming from the UK, and therefore laughing in the face of anything warmer of the North Sea.

Ko Phangan is more than
anyone in their twenties
may ask for a holiday

From there, we finally got to our last beach destination, the ultimate backpackers paradise, the hippiest party island on planet earth, home of the infamous Full Moon Party that every month brings something like 200.000 people to the biggest beach party of the world: Ko Phangan. That place is legit. Way, way, way cheaper that Ibizia, Mykonos or whatever in Europe we consider a party island, Ko Phangan kicks ass. The good thing about it, is that it actually gets rid of the 200.000 clubbers as soon as the morning comes. Leaving the island to the quiet paradise that it is for the rest 29 days of the month. We decided to avoid the Full Moon Party, mostly because accommodation prices in those days raise even three times more than usual, and because going as a couple to a massive rave party didn’t seem to fit. But I’m definitely ready to get back as soon as some of my friends will want to. Ko Phangan is fun.

The mix between some of the most beautiful beaches I ever seen, parties (a part from the Full Moon one, there’s plenty of smaller happenings all along the month), cool people in their twenties, good food and charming bungalows on the beach. More than anyone my age can ask from a holiday. We stayed in Ko Phangan six days, the longest stop ever in our year-and-three-months of travelling.

From there on, our beach time was over, and our long long trip as well. But bustling Bangkok still stood in the way and offered us four days of crazy shopping, good food, amazing sightseeing (check out the Royal Palace pictures here!) and a pretty neat insight of what a South East Asian megalopolis looks like. I loved it. It was not as messy as Phnom Penh and way more clean than Yangoon or Mandalay. Bangkok is a city of sharp contrasts and surprising beauty. It has water canals and massive highways, majestic shopping palaces and narrow alleyways in Chinatown, historical palaces and skyscrapers. Make sure you check it off your bucket list soon!

Want more?
Browse my Thailand Photogalleries:

NORTHERN THAILAND

THAILAND BEACHES

BUSTLING BANGKOK

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

Disclaimer: This post has been written in 2014, when the country just stared to open up. Since then, things have changed A LOT. Friends that visited last year told me stories of cheap sim cards and 3G everywhere; online accommodation booking and no more Chinese trucks from the ‘40s. Anyway, the struggle is still real. The message here is that while Myanmar is a wonderful and still partly unspoiled Country, it ain’t no entry level Asian destination. I often discuss this matter with other well-seasoned backpackers that have been there too and everyone admits it’s a tough Country to travel in. I don’t mean to discourage you if you’re planning to go, but be aware that it won’t be a walk in the park, at all. Be prepared. So here are my tips for travelling to Burma.

“This is Burma
and it is unlike
any land you know about”

That is how Rudyard Kipling introduced Burma in his Letters From The East in 1898. More than a hundred years later, when you step in Myanmar, the feeling still stands. With a contemporary history marked by the longest military dictatorship in the world, the opening of its borders is quite a novelty. Virtually cut off from Western progress and influence, Burma is still a place where people travel on carts towed by oxen, on plows, on Chinese trucks 50 years old with bare engines and, more generally, on Thai vehicles (left-hand drive) driving the English way (driving on the left).

Both the direction of travel and the name of the country changed in 1948. Burma became Myanmar when the newly born military junta wanted to take a sharp turn after the English era.

 

Tips for travelling to burma

Outside the big centres, women still make laundry at the river. They carry water at home two ounces at a time, and electricity is almost never working. Even in Yangon and Mandalay, blackouts are still quite common, that’s why you’ll see gigantic diesel generators outside of most buildings. Although internet and mobile phones are spreading fast, costs are still a bit crazy: one hundred dollars for a sim card and a Wi-Fi connection speed that takes you back to the nineties. On street corners, you’ll find ladies sitting at small desks with a landline phone on top. They are the freelance of the phone booth: people go see them to make phone calls with spare change.

Myanmar is also a country inhabited by a huge variety of ethnic minorities. Tribal groups speak their own language, have different traditions and different religion. For decades they have fought for territorial independence, meeting the hard knock of the regime, bloodshed and persecution.

Despite the alleged current peace, disorders continue in various areas, obviously off limits for tourists. Indeed, entire parts of the country are still closed, others have just opened and can only be reached with endless combinations of buses, boats and jeeps, or even exclusively by air. In any case, no one seems to be able to provide reliable information about where you can go and where you can’t.

However, things are changing fast in Myanmar. In recent years, the regime has finally released the political prisoner and democratic ambassador Aung San Suu Kyi, it organized a pseudo-election and finally welcomed some opposition members in parliament. Some hundreds of political prisoners have been released, although as many remain in prison. Newspapers and magazines still have to pass through government censorship, making it impossible to publish anything more frequent than a weekly paper, but you can now see pictures and articles of the Lady in the local press. In many restaurants, you’ll find her portrait on the walls and people start to be less afraid.

 Since last August (2013), three land crossings with Thailand have been opened, and the tourist visa has been extended to twenty-eight days. All these changes have created a few discrepancies with the travel stories we collected before coming to Burma. Those who had been here only three or four years ago complained the lack of time and advised all the experiences they couldn’t do: day trekking through the countryside around Inle Lake, almost unattainable archaeological sites, slow boat cruises that lasted two/three days and so on. On the other hand, those who just came back argued that surviving the long month of the visa wasn’t easy. The truth is that traveling to Burma is tiring and exhausting. There are just four main destinations where tourists are pushed: Bagan Pagodas, the placid Inle Lake, Yangoon and Mandalay. Despite this, huge gaps in the newly born tourist industry make travelling extremely complex and tiring.

Long distance buses pass only once a day and usually leave on early evening, which means that their passengers will be conveniently vomited at their destination between 2 to 5 amWhile accommodation prices skyrocketed in recent years due to government taxes on foreign tourism, the overall quality is extremely poor if compared to the rest of South East Asia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a true down-to-basics hard-core backpacker, but I still get pissed when a lacklustre double room that in Thailand or Cambodia would cost a handful of dollars max, in Myanmar is worth more than twenty. But assuming that one does not go to Myanmar to relax (in theory, not even to freak out 24 hours a day),

There are many reasons
why the country of the golden pagodas
is worth visiting:

1. Exiting overland crossing

Crossing the border from Mae Sot to Myawaddy by land means moving along with thousands of Burmese and Thais on their way to the Friendship Bridge carrying massive luggage. We crossed the border mountain range on a six-seater car, with seven people aboard, on a dirt road where the traffic is one-way every other day. A desperate trip made in an infinite convoy of vehicles of all sorts and age, usually with a load twice their size. A compact mess that moves at 20km/h and stops each time a truck takes a break to cool down its tires and engine (locals has set up roadside business of water cane cooling, as in the best Asian entrepreneurship tradition).

Tips for travelling to burma

2. Folks and local traditions

The red grins of men, with their mouth full of betel. That’s a chewing mixture of nicotine-like herbs and red roots that makes everyone look like Dracula. The women’s shy smiles, with their tulle hats and their tanaka-painted face, the traditional make-up made of powdered bark and aloe, which keeps their skin fresh. The children who say hello non-stop: “hello, bye bye, ningalabaaaaaah!” Music that is everywhere and anywhere all the time. Everyone is singing, listening to a blasting radio or pumping traditional songs in home-made sound systems for the benefit of the whole village. The cult of tea and tea houses, open as early as 3am to welcome at their comforting bonfire the spare travellers that just descended a bus and have no idea where to go. Burmese tea is often mixed with condensed milk and served with hot fritters: so sweet that your coronaries might explode just looking at it.

3. Getting out of the beaten track

Near the southern border with Thailand you’ll find Hpa-an’s rice fields and granite pinnacles, Bhuddas-filled caverns and sleepy villages. Very few tourists make it till here so the place still holds plenty of atmosphere.

The railway line between Mandalay and Lashio sways for 240km through the countryside. From the window youl’ll spot farmers with the typical pointed hat and children walking to school wearing the traditional lonji (the local sarong). Misty mountains are crossed by the massive Goteik viaduct, where the train slows down at a crawl.

Absolutely not to miss are the tribal villages of the Golden Triangle, on the border with Laos and northern Thailand. Here time seems to have stopped a hundred years ago. Akha women still wear elaborate hats decorated with silver coins, while Ann women wear garments as black as their smile, darkened by the spices they mix with betel.

4. Making new friends

Myanmar ain’t no backpacker paradise. Actually, most of the time you can count tourists on one hand. This plus the scarcity of areas where you can actually go means that you’ll easily meet the same people everywhere. When I spent a day alone at Inle Lake (Andrea was back to Bagan to see the temples he hadn’t seen due to fever) I met more people then than during the previous month. I had a bike ride, I crossed the lake with other people loading five bikes on a longtail boat, I swam, climbed up to a mountain monastery, and attended an unlikely wine tasting on the hills at sunset. I even had an Italian dinner prepared by a local chef who learned the art from a passing italian. Everything was priceless.

 

Thus said, there are also many reasons
why I don’t recommend Myanmar
to Asia first timers or glampackers:

1. Moneywise it’s a mess

Theoretically, you shall enter Burma with all the cash you’ll need for your trip. No credit cards, no traveler’s checks, no ATMs. (Disclaimer: this is outdated, apparently ATMs are now present in big cities and locals accept also warned-out dollars)

The wad has to be equally divided in brand new US dollars and in Kyat, the local currency. Which can be tricky if you’re not coming from home but from Thailand, and you have just one credit card left between the two of you (This is another story, but just in case you are in the same situation: raise the card withdrawal limit, find a big bank like Bank of Thailand that allows cash back operations, withdrawl in bahts, change the bahts in dollars and then change half of it into Kyat on the black market of the border: swift and easy).

2. Constant travel discomfort

Like when we spent two days and one night on the local boat from Bagan to Mandalay, without any book, playing cards, food (or at least edible food), toilets (apart from a hole in the floor in the back of the boat), nor sleep. As if deck sleeping wasn’t sweet enough, the village where the boat was docked transmitted three hours of super loud Buddhist prayers in the middle of the night. A gem.

Be prepared for the sleepless nights. There will be many. Night buses arrive at destination in middle of the night, so you’ll spend the wee hours staring at roadside bonfires (bless the tea houses) waiting for guesthouses to open and eventually check you in. Continuous changes of plan due to travel complications, illness, rain or generalized desperation. I remember spending long hours wandering in Mandalay in search of something edible between dense traffic, the darkness of blackouts, and the constant terror of falling in the open sewage strategically placed where a sidewalk should be. Or to undertake a 200km train journey to go on an off-the-beaten-track hiking trip just to be bounced off to marvellous Mandalay again because of the non-stop rain (in the middle of the dry season!)

3. Sound pollution on public transport

On long distance buses, the ubiquitous TV-set broadcasts loud local soap operas with actors donning longjis and tanaka. Or super lame shows that include songs, dances, traditional costumes and very sad jokes highlighted by laugh track. Or even pop song karaoke videos. With the singers that look like faded photocopies of Western pop stars who struggle with love triangles. For some obscure reason aircon is always adjusted on level “arctic breeze”. Not that the rest of South East Asia is any better on the matter. So, as a general rule, wear your warmest clothes and for god sake put on a beanie. Buy one at the bus station if need to. You’ll thank me later. You’re welcome.

 

In short, Myanmar is a mess. If you choose to go, be ready. And if you’re ready, be more ready! Try to avoid the beaten track (the coasts of the south and the north-western territories just opened) and for the love of God keep away from the boats!

Want more?
Browse my Burma Photogallery:

BURMESE DAYS