I bought my ticket to Bangkok about a week before I left. I was in Australia for most of February, then came back to Korea to a flurry of packing and leaving. I had hardly caught my breath or thought about travel plans when I found myself touching down at the Bangkok airport. I had a moment of wondering what I was doing there, and why I didn't just go home after a year of being away. But as I sat in the back of the taxi on my way to my hostel, and watched the city loom larger in front of me, I as filled with that glee of the unknown, of arriving in a new place. We turned on to a narrow road where all the buildings seemed too close together, like a Tim Burton movie, and where people were still bustling about on the streets though it was nearly 1am. "Here," the taxi driver said and I was also filled with that travel pride of successfully navigating through the daily necessities, such as finding my first night's accommodation and insisting that the driver use the meter.
I have always wanted to go to Thailand- many friends have traveled here and it always sounded amazing. I first heard about Angkor Wat in Cambodia when my friend Scott went years back, and resolved to go there too. And after my friend Alex's trip to Vietnam last year, I knew that was must as well. I'd really love to go all over Southeast Asia, but I can't do it all on this trip. For now I'm sticking to those 3 countries and a quick 1-month visit.
As soon as I arrived at the hostel in Bangkok, some folks invited me to go out for a drink. I had been flying all day, and it was late, but hey, why not? I had my first Singha and a crazy, deliciously spicy plate of basil chicken and rice. Bangkok proved to be an easy place to meet friends, and I spent that first weekend mostly with Norwegian guy- a music journalist who had lived all over the world- and an incredibly sweet Irish woman- a make-up artist who had also lived abroad a lot. We went to temples, took canal boat rides, went out to dinner, and had a quintessential Bangkok night out of various bars, a dance party across the river, late night street food, and a tuk-tuk ride home on the nearly empty streets in the wee hours. Bangkok was big and a bit overwhelming, but actually friendlier and more navigable than I imagined. In general, I have found Thai people incredibly kind and laid-back, and it seems like nearly every one speaks some amount of English. I am totally loving the food, cheap and abundant and flavorful. Lots of noodles and chicken and chiles and tropical fruit and soups and curries. I also discovered Thai iced coffee. This Seattle-born, thrice-employed barista is a little embarrassed to admit how satisfying I find their blend of instant coffee, raw sugar, and sweetened condensed milk over a mountain of ice. It has a nice caramely flavor, is ridiculously sweet, and mostly cold and refreshing. One of my favorite moments was when I went to the Grand Palace, and as you are walking in they hand you the map/brochure. I get in and open mine up, an it's in KOREAN. As I clearly don't look Korean, I thought it was hilarious that they made that mistake, and I figured I must still be putting off a Korean vibe or something. It was good to see Korean writing, and sound some of the words out, but needless to say, I did exchange it for an English version. Anyway, I got my visa for Vietnam, then got out of the city just before it got to be too, well, big cityish.
I headed south to Phuket, where my friend Tonya is teaching English on the southern tip of the island. We met last year because she was also living in Gunsan, Korea, teaching English before going to Thailand. She has been a total sweetheart about people staying with her, and I was actually her 10th visitor in her 4 months here! Compare that to one person visiting her all year in Korea, go figure. There's not any public transit on Phuket, every one takes taxis or rides motor bikes, including Tonya on her scooter. She suggested that I rent one while I was there, so with signing a paper and paying about $12, a lady hands me the keys to a sporty Honda Click for two days.
Now for those of you who know me, you know that I'm not the kind of person who is usually entertained by riding motorized things. I would usually rather walk or cycle than drive somewhere. I'd rather snowshoe than snow mobile, rather sail or swim than take a motor boat. But riding a scooter on Phuket was a blast. I was nervous at first, and actually had Tonya ride the bike to her house so I could practice in the driveway before going on the road. I know two friends who crashed their scooter in Thailand as soon as they drove out of the rental place! Also, in Thailand, they drive on the left, so it's really lucky that I was just in Australia and practiced driving on a road trip. It was really confusing at first, but on Phuket it all clicked (despite the lax road rules and bikes zipping all over the place), and Tonya and I rode to beaches, viewpoints, and went hiking. One day at the beach, we had just gotten in the water when it started to rain. Downpour. The water was actually warmer than the air, so we kept swimming and tried to wait out the rain to ride home. It was still raining when we left, and arrived back at her place 100% drenched and exhilarated. Luckily she was using a dry-bag as her purse that day, so the important things were kept dry. I also met up with a friend from Orcas Island (small world!) who works part of the year here. I knew he was living on Phuket, but it's a really large island of almost half a million people. It turns out he lives right down the street from Tonya. Seriously crazy! We had an amazing dinner one night, sitting cross-legged on the ground at a low table, on colorful mats with candles right on the waterfront, watching the dark tide come in and lift up boats off the sand, sharing a grilled mackerel, spicy green papaya salad, mixed veggies, pad see ew, sticky rice, and cold beers in the warm night air.
From there I went out to Phi Phi island. It's a really beautiful island, though probably the most touristy place I've ever been in my life. It felt a bit like Cancun or Puerto Vallarta for Europeans, a spring break party paradise. I enjoyed a massage, Phad Thai, mango shakes, and laying on the beach before an evening rooftop movie. They were showing "The Beach", which was stereotypical but appropriate, since one island over was the beach where they filmed The Beach. I had also never seen it, so I got a glimpse of where I would go snorkeling the next day. Later that night it was mojitos and a fire dancing show on the beach, then some dancing before calling it a night before 1am. I like keeping the drinking low-to-moderate, and getting a good night's sleep, so that was enough party for me. But I heard voices and music long into the night, and woke up (for the millionth time) when it was finally quiet. That was at 5:30am. I woke up again at 7:30 to pounding rain on the rooftop, wondering if the snorkeling trip would be cancelled.
The boat trip was still on, though a bit cold in the beginning. We took a long boat, and it felt great to be out on the water, along huge sheer cliffs, even in the cool spray of ocean and rain. I met two other people on the boat who had just finished teaching in South Korea. "Don't you miss Korea?!" the girl asked. Well, not yet, but I have only been gone for a little over a week. It will be interesting to see if I miss it later on. I also met an awesome French woman, and we talked travel and about how much we missed cheese being in Asia. She had only been away from home for a week though, haha! By the time we got to Maya Bay to snorkel, the sun was peaking through the clouds, and the visibility of the water was good. I saw so many fish, at least 20 different kinds, as well as huge purple anemones and camouflaged sea cucumbers.
I would have loved to go to Ko Lanta, to Krabi, to Tonsai beach, and to Khao Sok National Park, if I had more time. I think I got a good taste of the islands and beaches in southern Thailand, but it's already time to head back to Bangkok. I want to get to Cambodia tomorrow, and time is of the essence. For now I'm grateful for the time that I have had here. I really really really miss home, but I'm excited for a few more weeks in SE Asia, and a few more moments of the unknown.