There are two distinctly different travellers that live inside me.
One seeks the familiar, likes to walk again down a well-trodden path.
This traveller likes to visit again and again favourite cities like Paris, and stay always in one of the poky rooms of the Hotel Chopin down the higgledy-piggledy Rue De Jouffroy, and visit the Musee d’Orsay and have at least one meal or a drink in the open air restaurant atop the Pompidou Centre; this traveller never tires of London and the Friday free lunch time concert at St Martin-in-the-Fields and lunch at Terroirs just around the corner, and he must go to the National Gallery and gaze in wonder at Raphael’s Madonna of the Pinks.
The other traveller prefers the unfamiliar, the exotic, the differently perfumed streets, languages that fall strangely on the ear.
This traveller revels in the humid, insect-rich atmosphere of the Congo Basin, drifting down the impossibly wide Sangha River in a dug-out canoe, as remote from the world of the first traveller as it is possible to be on the same earth. This traveller recently visited Thailand, and gorged to the full on its smorgasbord of exotic and welcoming delights. Like many places around the world, the political situation is far from perfect, but in nearly two weeks of travel, this was never an impediment. Instead, the warmth of the reception and the delight in my decision to spend time with them never wavered. This truly is one of the most welcoming places on earth for the leisure traveller.
Photo: Chiang Mai door to enlightenment
My trip started in Chiang Mai, my second time there and one of my favourite places on the planet. It’s ancient in spirit and modern in the conveniences it provides. The temples are places of reflection – still-points of a turning world. The inner, walled city is a place to lose oneself, secure in the knowledge that help is unlikely to be needed, but, if it is, it is just a questioning smile away. There is deep, long history around every corner; there is always present a riotous confusion of colour, scent and noise, but always there is also kindness and embrace.
The shopping is varied and rewarding, the bargaining is languid and friendly, the quality excellent, the prices even more so. The food is as exotic as your spirit of adventure desires. There is a MacDonald’s; there is a Starbucks; there are many places that cater for timid palates. But ask the right people with the right clarity of intent, and there is also food that sears the roof of the mouth with pungent delight; that has a cacophony of flavour as clamorous as the ceaseless flow of scooters in the street outside. There are adventure options a-plenty – zip lines and white water and placid rivers and elephants. There is so much to do and see and experience that one always leaves immediately thinking about the next trip.
Photo: Andaman Sea in moonlight
My next port-of-call was the Andaman Coast – the Ao Nang part of Krabi.
Most visitors to Thailand have a beach as a primary goal for their visit. Sun and water-related activities during the day – party-time at night. And Ao Nang offers that in spades. The beaches stretch for miles; the water is caressing and inviting; there is a bar with ice-cold beer and warm smiles every few metres. The long-tailed boats bob in the sea waiting to whisk you away to Hong or Bond Islands, or to the white sands and ultramarine seas of Phi Phi.
Photo: Long tail boats in Ao Nang
Should you wish to shake off your sun-induced lassitude; there is caving and kayaking and rock-climbing and snorkelling to build up the appetite for the cold beer and the fresh red snapper. Ao Nang is not as busy and frenetic as Phuket, but neither is it a wholly tranquil idyll. It is a place where both naturally beautiful solitude and a party buzz can be sought and successfully found.
Photo: Elephant Hills tent
Then it was a two-hour drive south to Paradise – aka Elephant Hills Camp in Khao Sok National Park. This was the first place in Thailand to accommodate guests in African safari-style tents, and they do it beautifully – with style and elegance and comfort. My only real regret of this trip to Thailand was only being able to spend one night at Elephant Hills – it’s 100% my kind of place.
I only managed to fit in a small percentage of the activities on offer – the gentle kayak trip down river; a walk through the fertile botanical and avian richness of the Thai jungle with a Thai ‘bush’ brunch at the end of it; and an encounter with their small herd of elephants that was charming and touching in its simplicity and respect for the animals. There are so many reasons to go back to Elephant Hills, not least of which would be at least one night in their unique offering of a floating tented camp on the lake in the middle of the National Park.
This is wild Thailand, a wilderness that is under threat, but a wilderness that must be preserved, and operations like Elephant Hills play a very important role in securing this exquisite wilderness area. Neither guests not staff get to see much more than the after-traces of the wildlife that inhabits the park still, but camera traps reveal the nocturnal movement of wild elephant and tiger and sun bear and many other wild animals that have depressingly few protected habitats left.
Photo: Jungle Walk
Then it was a jam-packed 36 hours in Bangkok – one of my favourite big cities. So much to see and do, and so little time to do it in. On a previous visit I had visited the must-see temples and palaces and markets, and made the fascinating pilgrimage to the Bridge over the River Kwai, so with time limited on this trip, and it being the Queen’s birthday and therefore a public holiday with many of the obvious tourist attractions closed, I gave my feet the all clear to wander where they would.
There is very little I enjoy more than getting sore feet while indulging my curiosity about how other people live. And there are very few places more rewarding for this kind of activity than Bangkok. And then, after one of the Most Unexceptional meals I have ever eaten – at the very highly-rated Gaggan, where Chef Gaggan Anand applies the techniques he learnt while working with El Bulli’s Ferran Adria to his native Indian cuisine, it was off to the airport and home. Ten richly enjoyable days and nights and the memory banks refreshed and immeasurably enriched by this indelible adventure. Thailand rocks!
Photo: King Prawns baked in salt
Photo: Gaggan delight
Below are the contact details for those that helped John put this trip together.
- Barely Noticeable Thailand in South Africa - trip itinerary
- Perfect Destinations Holidays - travel arrangements
- Tour East - transfers and tours
- Shangri-La Hotel - Chang Mai accomodation
- Krabi Thai Village Resort - Ao Nang accomodation
- Pakasai Resort - Ao Nang accomodation
- Elephant Hills - Khao Sok National Park accomodation
- Radisson Blu Plaza Bangkok accomodation