Chiang Mai Sunday market, held every… well, Sunday, is the mother of all markets. It’s the most touristy and crowded market we’ve ever visited. We loved every minute of it.
Every Sunday night the main street of Chiang Mai was lined with stalls after stalls selling anything from handmade crafts to deeply discounted branded backpacks. The front yards of the wats (the temples) – and there seems at least a wat in every block – are turned into instant food courts crammed with more food stalls than my stomach knew what to do with.
This is what heaven must feel like. To be surrounded with morsels of food (and so cheap) everywhere you look. (Although in heaven, I’d have 4 stomachs like a cow so I could eat 4 times as much).
People come out in droves: tourists and locals alike. By early evening, the speed of the crowd has slowed to snail like.
Then the strangest thing happened..
My brother and I were stuck in this crowd, trying to make our way back when I noticed a crowd of people gathering around a stall. With great effort I elbowed my way through the crowd to see what they were staring at only to be mildly disappointed. They were watching people making smoothies. Wha?
Now that I’m paying a closer attention, the people working behind the booth aren’t even doing that good of a job at it. They look bored, standing around doing nothing. Don’t they realise that there’s a group of people waiting?
Quickly losing interest, I turn around and ran smash into a wall of people. Quite literally. We – as a group of people – have stopped moving and were standing completely, utterly, still.
Just imagine New York Times Square on a weekend night. You’re out and about ogling the orgy of light displays when all of a sudden the thousands of people around you are standing still as if frozen by an invisible light beam of an alien spaceship. Only the movement of their eyes give a hint that there’s life within.
Of course by this time, my brain was whirrring frantically trying to find an explanation to this phenomena.
Is it an alien attack? But no, aliens only attack American cities. Or big cities. I mean, they’d attack Bangkok. But Chiang Mai? No.
The lack of noise was obvious. I didn’t even notice how loud the thoroughfare was until it stopped being so loud. We could only hear the gurgle of static coming out of the loudpeakers spread out throughout the street. It seems that… wait, is it playing a song?
Suddenly everything clicks together. Something I read a while ago comes rushing back from the depth of my memory. They’d play Thai national anthem before every movie in movie theaters and during this time, you’re supposed to get off your butt and stand up to pay respect. The loudspeakers are currently playing the national anthem and this is why everyone has stopped whatever they were doing in the market: to stand up, stay still, and pay respect.
As soon as I realised this, the song ended. As if relased from the spell, everyone went back doing what they were doing before. The smoothie makers go back making smoothie, the shoppers and the vendors go back bargaining, we – as a group – continue inching forward as if the last 10 seconds, when the whole street of Chiang Mai stood still, didn’t happen.
You just have to be there. I swear, it was the most surreal thing that ever happened.
Did you guess right away what was happening before the end of the post? 🙂
First thing I noticed about Thailand (besides the humidity) was how easy travel became.
Take note that I just arrived from Africa, and by comparison, Thailand (and to lesser degree, its neighbors) felt much more, oh, about a gazillion times much more accommodating to travelers.
Which is why whenever someone asks us, “Where should I go as a first time traveler?” I say – “Thailand” or “South East Asia” then gush about why I ended up falling in love with the region.
It’s Easy to Get Around in South East Asia
In the spirit of making broad generalization – I’d like to say that South East Asia is an easy place to get around. The roads are decent, the border crossings are well documented, and the public transportation options are relatively comfortable and clean.
Although to be honest, after my brother was stuck in a piss-smelling, cramped train compartment in Vietnam for 12 hours – it’s not perfect. But for the most part, they’re…endurable.
But the big reason why it’s easy to get around in SE Asia is because there’s an established infrastructure to ferry backpackers around (see below).
There’s an established backpacker’s trail in South East Asia
This was another thing that came as a pleasant surprise for me. Not the fact that it’s popular with backpackers (I knew that) – but how much I enjoyed what it actually means.
Traveling in a region popular with other backpackers mean everything things are as streamlined and as efficient as it can be. Because thousands of others have walked on the trodden path.
Trying to figure out how to get from Phnom Penh to Vietnam? You’re not the only one who want to do it.
The Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos (and to a certain degree, Myanmar) circuit is a well trodden path with few variations. Wherever which way you’re planning to go, most likely others have done it in the past and many others are planning to do so at the same time as you are.
There are many companies who offer transports and there’s plenty of information about the best way to get there (land, river, ocean?), however you want to get there (In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi?), whenever you want to get there (now, next hour, in a few hours?).
Even better, guesthouses in South East Asia can provide you with this information. While in South America and Africa I had to rely more on guidebooks or online. Here, all I had to do was come down to the common area and look at the community board. Oh, the mind boggling options (land, river, ocean? In a bus, a minivan, a private taxi? – you get the gist). All easily arranged through the guesthouse.
South East Asia is cheap, traveling there feels like a vacation
Because your dollar stretches further, the little things that make traveling become so much more than sight seeing – like ducking in for a quick Thai massage, or renting a scooter to drive around an island, or renting a private beach cabin – is affordable.
I had never felt so… rich. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the kind of lifestyle I’ve always wanted to have – but can never afford back in the states.”
Having said that, SE Asia is not as cheap as a lot of people think. This was a sentiment I heard quite a bit from other travelers. I actually found that my daily cost there was about twice as much as South America.
South East Asia people are friendly
Yet another broad generalization. Which I usually hate to make (or hear). But in my limited personal experience, this is true. Especially in Thailand and Myanmar where the locals would get out of their way to help the lost and confused tourists.
Smiles, like humidity and strange looking fruit, was something that come in abundance in South East Asia. Even those who want to rip you off do so with a smile.
If you like Asian food (or good food, in general), you’ll find that South East Asia is the place to be.
I can go on and on about the variety of food and how easy it is to find food. For me, like many others, having not only good food, but easily accessible good food regardless of what time it is, is almost important as having good wifi. Almost.
When we were traveling South America, food was aplenty, but most of the times it was just ok. It wasn’t bad – but it wasn’t like, “Omg, that trucha frita was to die for!” because fried trout is just… fried trout (in Peru, the food did get better).
In Morocco, I knew there’s more than just tajine, but how come all restaurants only serve tajine? I don’t get it.
Meanwhile, I’d go back to Thailand in a heartbeat just for the food and I know my brother would love to go back to Vietnam for some awesome pho.
(Here Jack would like to add that Tokyo is still his favorite foodie place – and I’d like to add, “Japan doesn’t count. It’s not even in South East Asia.)
Cheap, cheap, cold beer
Yes Asia can be hot and humid. But Asia is also the land of 50 cent draught beer. Brilliant!! Yes, some of them taste like water buffalo’s piss – but here’s my beer recommendation (not all available as draught): Beer Lao (Laos and Thailand), Angkor (Cambodia), Larue (Vietnam), Batavia Lager or Anker (Indonesia).
Wifi Is Everywhere
You won’t have an internet withdrawal syndrome. I think it’s partly because it’s so popular with the younger crowd, the South East Asia gringo trail is well served with wifi. It’s widely available in coffeeshops and honestly, finding a guesthouse that does not have wifi might as well be the more challenging task.
For first time backpackers, this will definitely ease the anxiety of being away in a foreign land. Plus, how else can you brag about your travels other than uploading all of your pictures on Facebook?
English is Widely Spoken in South East Asia
With the exception of Vietnam, we found that we could get by with only knowing English. Which is great, because even though I always strive to learn the basic words in local language, the tonal language and the crazy characters are daunting.
South East Asia is Safe (with regular precautions)
Because South East Asia is so popular with backpackers, and because there’s a big disparity between our purchasing power and that of the locals – the region is also rife with scams. Some of them are pretty creative ones, like the fake embassy on Thailand – Cambodia border, to the “the temple is closed, come with me on a shopping spree” in Bangkok.
Fortunately, most scams are harmless. And regardless of how you feel about bribes, know that in most situations, a little bribe can go a long way in smoothing them out.
There will be some unexpected things that don’t go as planned. But in a way, that story would be much more interesting than “We went to see this tourist site and everything went very well according to plan.” If you and I ever meet in person, ask me about Ethiopia. Or Vietnam. Boy, do I have stories to tell you.
— I never planned to go traveling in South East Asia. The opportunity just presented itself and I took it with the, “Well, might as well” attitude. But I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed my time there and I think it was mostly because how accommodating everything was.
So yes, I have no reservation in recommending first time travelers to go backpacking South East Asia. Or even seasoned travelers. It’s easy enough, but with a dash of challenges thrown in to make it exciting. I personally can’t wait to take Jack to Thailand. I know he’d love it there.
Do you agree? Where do you think first time backpackers should go?
When my 18 year old brother with his freshly minted driver license suggested that we rented a car to visit the golden triangle region in northern Thailand AND offered to do the whole drive himself – it took me a split second to decide that it was the most brilliant idea, ever!
We really didn’t know what to expect when we decided to come to Thailand, that was why a lot of the things about Thailand came as such a nice surprise.
One of these nice surprises was discovering traditional Thai massage. We got addicted to this (and for $7/hr, it’s hard not to) and got one at least every other day (what a tough life traveling can be).
Places offering Thai massage are everywhere, and some sidewalks have been converted into an impromptu spa simply by placing some reclining chairs.
Sidewalk Thai foot massage in Chiang Mai
I have always found that even the deep tissue massage one gets here in the States is never – and not trying to sound too masochistic here – painful enough. Some of you will know what I mean, no?
Waiting for my Thai massage
Thankfully, I never had that problem with traditional Thai massages. This is the massage for those who crave that invigorating feeling, that ‘Oh, it hurts so good’ sensation.
My first time getting a Thai massage came as a mild shock. It was a lot different than what I was used to.
First, they ask you to change into a pajama/robe thingy and proceed to wash your feet.
Second, the masseuse use not only her hands, but her arms, elbows, knees and feet – that’s right, feet – to apply the pressures.
Third, some of the areas they work on are just simply more intimate than your regular Western massage. Your butt, inner thighs, outer thighs, and your groin area are all fair game. And not only that, they get pretty close to you – physically. As in, they get all over your body while pulling, stretching, and bending limbs.
And fourth – I had the skinniest Thai women with an amazing vice-like grip that made me go ‘Oh my holy mother gaaawd’. I mean, the one masseuse I liked to go to in the states was this burly Mexican guy (who has sadly moved to Texas) and whom compared to these Thai ladies, had a grip as soft and gentle as a fluffy kitten. How did they get so strong?
And if the vice like grip is not enough, they stand on you. I found out about this as I was laying face down and noticed an out-of-this-world strong pressure on my pelvis. I was like, “What the heck?” – craning my neck I noticed the shadow cast on the wall.
“Eeeek, she’s standing on my back!!”
Which, was awesome. If you like hard massages.
Thai massage is for you if you:
– find regular deep tissue massage is not deep enough – are looking for an invigorating more than a relaxing massage – are not particularly ticklish or shy
Thai massage? One more reason why we love traveling in Thailand so much.
Where to find a good Thai massage place in Bangkok and Chiang Mai
Unfortunately, not all Thai massage places are created equal. If you ever had to endure a bad massage (where 1 hour feels like an eternity), you know it’s important to find a place that works for you.
For a Thai massage place in Bangkok, we love Boonsita in Soi 1, Sukhumvit (the best Thai massage yet!), and in Chiang Mai, we like Lila Thai Massage (3 locations in Chiang Mai) that employs rehabilitated women prisoners. Some hotels in Bangkok and Chiang Mai also offer good Thai massage but these will be more expensive.
We didn’t have a long list of things to do in Bangkok. My brother and I arrived in Bangkok, the first city in our SE Asia trip, with only one thing in mind:
Eat Thai food
We quickly realised it wasn’t an ambitious enough list. Not by a long shot.
The thing is, I sort of underestimated Bangkok: To be honest, I was expecting Bangkok to be your typical Asian capital city: hot and dusty, legendary traffic jams, uninspiring and dusty concrete buildings…
But Bangkok surprised us. (Even though the hot part and the traffic jam parts are also true).
The thing about having an unambitious to-do list is that all the other extra stuff we ended up enjoying about Bangkok was just extra bonus points.
The Grand Palace was a wow-zer in its over the top way – Bonus point!
Thai Grand Palace
The giant reclining Buddha was well… big and horizontal. Very cool, indeed. Bonus point!
The fact that Buddha has a come-hither look that makes this the sexiest Buddha statue I’ve ever seen? Double bonus point!
Many of Bangkok’s points of interest are located within walking distance from Chao Phraya river. You can jump on a public boat and get on and off at any pier that looks interesting all for 15 Baht (50 cents) a trip – Bonus point!
We took a trip on a long boat tour through the residential part of Bangkok canals. The idea is that you get to see the life of those who live by the river. It would’ve been interesting, but we must’ve picked a bad time because we didn’t see any ‘life’ so to speak. The only people we saw on this trip were people in the laughable ‘floating market’ – 3 boats selling overpriced bananas. This was just ok and does not merit a bonus point.
And then there’s the famous Bangkok’s nightlife. I took my brother out to a bar on Nana district. We saw men the age of our fathers acting like frat boys: going crazy on the dance floor with beer in one hand and a young Asian girl my brother’s age on the other. Rocking it, grinding it, and in general having a grand old time. I found it all very fascinating. My brother found it shocking. I almost can never shock my brother so – Bonus point!
And of course we ate a bunch of Thai food. The wonderful Thai people makes it so easy. Empty sidewalk is considered a disgrace and when not taken by souvenir stalls, it’s filled with stands selling fresh fruit, fish cake, grilled fish, grilled meat and other types of deliciousness that makes my mouth water just writing about it – GIANT Bonus point!
Delicious Thai spring rolls - one of our nibbles
My brother and I have adapted a grazing style of eating while we were there. We never sat down to eat, we just kind of… nibbled. A little bit here and there.
So many things about Bangkok came as a pleasant surprise.
The only thing that was NOT a pleasant surprise? The heat and the humidity. My brother and I are probably the only non heat-resistant Asians out there. In Bangkok’s relentless humidity, my face turns into an oil slick OPEC would be interested in. My brother sweats so much he often looks like he’s just fallen into one of the canals.
People say you’ll get used to it. We’re still waiting for it to happen. (Our guide at the Grand Palace said that Bangkok has 3 seasons: hot, hotter, and hottest).
Despite the heat, I have to say I kind of like Bangkok. It’s a fun city and I never thought I’d say that about any capital city in Asia. As we’re traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam (where we’re currently at) – we keep saying to each other: “Oh, can’t wait to get back to Bangkok!”
1 hr long boat trip: 300 Baht a person Bangkok Grand Palace admission fee: 400 Baht Bangkok Reclining Buddha admission fee: 100 Baht A tip on which area to stay in Bangkok: We stayed in Sukhumvit district and loved it! Staying close to a BTS station makes a huge difference.