With only a few weeks left in Thailand, I’m cramming in places I’ve been meaning to visit, but couldn’t get to over a regular 2-day weekend. I had 3 destinations for Part 1 of my travels: Khao Sok National Park, Koh Samui, and Pai.
I’m embarrassed to say that my solo trip got off to a bumpy start that was totally my own doing; wanting to eat breakfast with Jessica one last time in Chonburi, I failed to leave at an early enough time to maneuver Bangkok traffic and get to the airport. And so, I arrived at the airport just as they doing final boarding call for my flight. Because I’m in Thailand- the land where every form of transportation runs late and nothing is taken seriously- I was hoping that I’d experience that movie scene where airport staff rushes me through security and the gates are held open for me.
Nope. I missed my flight.
Meaning that I also missed my connecting van ride that would take me to Khao Sok. Frantically, I purchased a new plane ticket for later that day and called my hostel in Khao Sok to set up a private van pickup for that night. Needless to say, my wallet felt a bit lighter and I was annoyed at myself as I sat down to read a book for the next 5 hours…
Eventually though, my plane landed in Suratthani where I met my driver (he was holding a sign with my name on it- so I did get a bit of a “movie moment”). We then drove a couple of hours in the dark to my hostel in Khao Sok.
Located in Southern Thailand, Khao Sok is one of the world’s oldest rainforests and is populated with a diverse range of animal and plant life. Waking up the next morning, I was treated to a stunning view of my surroundings- high mountains, cliffs, and lush greenery- that I had totally missed in the dark the night before.
While you can spend a good week exploring Khao Sok, I only had a full day to spare before moving on to my next destination. My day, I had decided months before, would be spent out on Cheow Lan Lake. This lake is huge and home to hundreds of jutting rock formations, cliffs, and cute bungalows that you could spend the night or day at.
At 8:30am I was picked up from my hostel in a van (the driver was my driver from the night before- we waved knowingly at each other!). After picking up the rest of my fellow tour participants, we were on our way! In my van, I made friends with an older couple, Kate and Steven, who were from the UK. It was nice to exchange stories and interact with new people who spoke English for a change.
Cheow Lan itself lived up to and went well beyond all my expectations. We spent an hour in our long-tail boat zipping across the lake. As before, pictures are better than words to describe the sights I saw:
Here, we stopped our boat to take pictures by the 3 limestone rock formations behind me. The trio is a very iconic image of Cheow Lan.
After our long-tail boat tour, we had a delicious lunch and time to chill at some bungalows on the lake.
Take me back now!
We also had plenty of time to swim in the lake! And when I say swim, I mean me trying to not drown.
At this point, we were given the option to either kayak or trek through the rainforest and take a bamboo raft to explore Pakarang (Coral) Cave. I decided last second to sign up for the cave.
Bamboo raft! (Kate and Steven are to the left)
Cave exploring! My guide found out that I was a teacher in Thailand and referred to me as “Coon kru” for the entire cave trek.
Simply put, the day was perfect from start to finish. Although I hate the idea of ranking places in Thailand (I have loved everywhere I’ve gone!), Khao Sok would be the first place I would recommend to travelers looking to go off the beaten path. The sights here were even more gorgeous than- dare I even say it?- the famous Koh Phi Phi. The fact the Khao Sok is not well known to foreigners is both a tragedy and a blessing. It is a paradise yet to be spoiled by an abundance of outsiders. Totally worth having to pay extra for another flight and van connection.
I was sad to say goodbye to Kate and Steven, who had acted somewhat as parent figures for me that day. I then treated myself to my favorite meal- som tam (papaya salad) and spent some time exchanging stories with my hostel roommate, Will. However, I had to go to sleep early to recover from the day’s activity and prepare myself for the next leg of my trip.
In Thai, “Koh” means “island.” And with planning a mini vacation in Thailand, I knew that an island had to be on my itinerary list somewhere. The question was, where to go? Thailand has so many islands, just picking one is a tough- though thoroughly enjoyable- decision-making process. After much research, Koh Samui became the winner simply because 1) it was only a 3-hour trip from Khao Sok with direct transfer options available and 2) it had a beautiful temple that I had seen a picture of months before and couldn’t shake from my head.
To get to Koh Samui, I had to take 2 separate vans and a ferry. The first van dropped me off by myself at what looked like a deserted junk yard in the middle of nowhere. I was told to take a seat under a small pavilion and just wait. Now, if I had been told this 11 months prior, I would have had a mini panic attack. What am I waiting for exactly? Why is there no one else around? How long am I waiting for? Where’s the bathroom? Am I going to be murdered and disposed of in this junk yard???
Thankfully, by now I understand that Thailand is truly a land of randomness. You just say “mai pen rai” and trust that everything will work out. And that you won’t be killed in a horror movie-like junk yard. So, I just took out a book and read for 30 minutes and what do you know- another van appeared to take me to the island’s ferry.
I got to my hostel in Koh Samui right at sunset. This hostel was also a breakfast and lunch restaurant that had unfortunately closed for the evening by the time I arrived. So of course I was locked out by the time I got there! Why they would lock up the hostel when I had made a reservation way in advance was beyond me. After making several phone calls, I got in touch with one of the workers who thankfully swung on over to let me in.
I ended up sharing a room with a woman from France for the next 3 days. Since she knew little English, our conversations were limited to “hello!” and “have a good day!” The room we shared was meant for 6 people, but we were the only two staying. Something tells me that this hostel doesn’t see too many guests- which is probably why the owners don’t check to see their reservations and were surprised when I showed up.
Anyway, the first morning, I wanted to check out Wat Plai Laem- the temple I had seen a picture of- before I became a literal beach bum for the next 3 days. My one negative for Koh Samui is that transportation was hard to come by (at least at the section of the island I was on). I had to walk a good 40 minutes by the road before a motorbike driver saw me and gave me a lift the rest of the way to the temple.
On the bright side, the temple complex ended up being just as beautiful as the picture I had seen:
Lucky for me, I got to the temple at around 8:30am, meaning I was completely by myself and had time to wander around and take nice photos. At exactly at 9am though, several tour buses rolled on in, killing all sense of tranquility and the chance to take any more good pictures.
After my temple seeing, I spent the rest of the day on Maenam Beach. There were a lot of fancy resorts right on the beach and I was surprised by how little people there were. The population consisted of families and older couples. And then me. The sand may have been a little too coarse for my liking, but the water was amazingly refreshing. I spent a relaxing 2 beach days here.
Maenam Beach- thank you for the peaceful vibes and awesome sunburn!
After quiet days at the beach, I would then catch a motorbike over to Chaweng Beach, which has a reputation for being lively and having a more fun nightlife. A friend from Chonburi, Darlene, happened to be staying at the island the same time I was! It was nice to see a familiar face and have someone to check out Walking Street with. We also met Tim- another traveler from the UK. Since we all like to travel (obviously), we had a lot to talk about over Indian food.
At one point, Darlene and I went to a night hangout place right on the beach to watch a fire show.
And guess who got picked to be part of the show?
Don’t I look completely thrilled and confident?
Still not sure whether I was selected for a fire show or for sacrifice🤔
The man in the Jason-like mask kept whispering at me to look at the camera and smile.
Well sir, I appreciate you wanting to make this a Hallmark moment, but I rather keep an eye on that ball of fire that keeps coming dangerously close to my hair…
Fun, if not rememberable, times.
I said another round of goodbyes to Darlene and Tim (I’m really getting tired of these goodbyes) and I headed back to my hostel.
The next morning, I sweated it out a bit- both literally and figuratively- trying to find some form of transportation back to the pier so I could catch my ferry back to the mainland in time. Of course, nothing was in sight so I had to start walking. I was really starting to panic (flashbacks to missing my flight started occurring) when I finally found a taxi cab to take me the rest of the way. Although I was able to talk the driver down 100 baht, I was still at his mercy and the ride was still ridiculously expensive.
Like I said before- the one negative of Koh Samui is limited and expensive transportation. Awwww well. The important thing is I made my return ferry, bus ride, and flight back to Bangkok. From there, I took an overnight bus to Chiang Mai and then a van ride to…
I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous to go to Pai by myself. Located in Northern Thailand, Pai is- simply put- the quintessential hippy town for backpackers. With its themed cafés, late-night bars, little shops and countryside excursions, Pai is a haven and place to chill. I’ve heard from countless people that “I only intended to stay 2 days, but ended up staying 2 weeks…”
And yet, I’ve also heard people complain that they didn’t like Pai because after a while, there was nothing to do there except to chill.
Me being me, just the thought of simply relaxing for 3 days had me feeling antsy and guilty. And- let’s be honest- I’m not the most social human being. Making friends with strangers to then chill with for the next 3 days sounded cumbersome.
There was also the issue of transportation. In Pai, many people rent motorbikes to navigate the winding roads and explore the surrounding areas. For one, I lost my driver’s license in Bangkok many months ago now (not that I think anyone would ask to see it, but still…). Secondly, I became apprehensive after hearing that many people walk around Pai in bandages and wraps. Apparently the hospital in Pai is VERY used to seeing motorbike accidents on the daily. As I have never driven a motorbike- and didn’t want to learn beside other newbies on winding roads- I figured I would be walking some long distances in the next 4 days.
To get to Pai, I took a minivan bright and early Friday morning. As a precautionary measurement I made sure to skip breakfast that morning. Why? Because the 3.5 hour drive to Pai requires 762 hairpin turns. I’ve heard that many people become violently ill on the way up and down the mountains.
Thankfully, I am not one to get carsick and neither were the people who were in the van with me. Which ended up being a really good thing as our driver went crazy fast and veered into the other lane quite often to get us to Pai in 2 hours (1.5 hours ahead of schedule). I swear, the man had a sixth sense of knowing when to veer back into our lane just before an oncoming car crested a hill and zipped past us.
Before I continue with my adventures in Pai, let me just pause and appeal to the foodies out there. Pai has some pretty amazing food. It’s like all the cool smoothie bowls and avocado toasts of Instagram got sucked into this little town. Food-wise, I was in heaven! The only internal dilemma was whether to continue to go to the same eatery, or try a new one at every meal.
Getting reintroduced to the avocado after being deprived for so long. The reunion was so much sweeter as it was paired with toast @ TTK Restaurant
Earth Tone Café
This smoothie bowl from Bom Bowls was definitely the best thing I ate
Om Garden Café– I wanted to eat EVERYTHING!
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system…. anyway. My first day in Pai, I tried out this “relaxing” thing by reading my book in a hammock for most of the day and then moseying through the night and food market later that night. I admit, it was nice to have nothing to do. But, I wasn’t sure if I could do this on repeat for the next 3 days.
Thankfully, I had signed up for a full-day tour the following day. So again, I was picked up at my hostel the next morning and soon got talking to all of my fellow tour-mates for the day. There were people from Germany, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea, Argentina, and even another American!
It still amazes me every time that so many people from other countries are bilingual (sometimes trilingual) in their native language and English. It makes me feel guilty and jealous that all these people could switch back and forth between conversations in English and another language. I really wish I had paid better attention in Spanish class.
The first place we went to was the White Buddha that overlooked the whole town and required many flights of stairs to get to:
We then went to the Kiu Lom Viewpoint. The problem was, apparently March is the worst month to visit Pai as all the farmers are burning their crops in preparation for the new growing season. Meaning, paired with natural fog, the smoke made it impossible to actually see anything at the viewpoint. After losing interest within the first 30 seconds, we all turned our attention to a 4-seated swing and tried to figure out the puzzle of how to get 4 people on it and swing.
How many people does it take to get a swing moving? Apparently a lot more than 4 people and with many eyewitnesses to give their 2 cents.
Don’t worry, we got there in the end.
Next up was… another cave!
I think I liked this cave a bit more than the one I visited in Khao Sok because we got to go on a bamboo raft to explore inside the cave. Aside from our lantern, it was completely pitch black. We had bats and monster-sized fish to keep us company though!
Felt like I was in the cave scene from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
After having Pad Thai for lunch, we then went to some hot springs to relax for an hour.
The hot springs weren’t really a cool down from the hot day, but it’s the thought that counts
Next up, Mor Pang Waterfall!
Hmmmm, something is missing here…
So apparently the crop burning is not the only reason to avoid Pai in March. March is also the middle of Pai’s dry season. Meaning, bone-dry waterfall.
My disappointment was quickly reversed with a visit to Coffee in Love, a cute café perched on a hillside that I’ve wanted to go to even before coming to Thailand!
Coffee in Love
Aside from the spectacular view, they also had REAL coffee- no instant. And when I asked for not sweet, I actually got a cup of black coffee. Oh, how I have missed my black coffee.
With coffee in hand, we rushed back to our songthaew to make it in time for our last destination: sunset at the Pai Canyon.
Pai Canyon consists of a series of cliffs with narrow walkways. And no, there were no safeguards or railings. For those of you who were/are into video games, you might recall this mini-game from Mario Party 4:
All I could think about the whole time…
Sucks for me because I was horrible at this game when I was a kid. And here I was, now having to play it in real life.
And these cliffs were no 7 footers- if you fell, you would not be in a happy place. Suddenly Pai hospital would have a much larger concern than bruised motorbike newbies.
Pai Canyon would have no business in being in the United States. I could see too many careless falls and lawsuits occurring.
So why risk going to the Pai Canyon? So you can see the sun set behind the mountains:
And for the adrenaline rush, of course 🙂
We’re not going to talk about the fact that I practically crawled to this edge and that I felt light-headed the whole time this picture was being taken.
After our long tour, a few of the people I had met and I decided to met up later that night to explore Pai’s nightlife. One of our stops was at the Edible Jazz Garden Café and Bar. We went there 2 nights in a row to listen to some music. They had an open-mic the second night that some of my friends even participated in!
So, it turns out that I really loved Pai and became one of those people who wished that they could have stayed longer than they originally planned. My worry of being motorbike-less went unfounded- the whole town was walking distance and everywhere outside of town that I wanted to see I saw on the day tour. I really had a connection to the people I met and felt that I became good friends with them in the short amount of time we were all there.
From my solo traveling, I’ve found that one of the best and worst things about it is the coming and going of people. Even though you’re alone, you’re never really alone. It’s interesting, but when I meet new people here, I never ask for their name (which is what I would typically do back home). Instead, the questions go like this:
- Where are you from?
- How long have you been traveling?
- Where are you going?
- Where have you been?
If these questions have been exchanged and there’s still an opportunity to continue the conversation, we might ask each other our names. But I’ve had many conversations where I tell people my life story (why I’m in Thailand, how long I’ve been here, where I’ve been etc.) and have never been asked or have asked for a name.
Maybe this is becoming too deep of a thought, but while it’s fun to meet all these new people from around the world, it gets exhausting to constantly make a friend and tell them goodbye (“have a nice life!”) 24 hours later. I hate it.
Still, I’m thankful for all the incredible people I have met these past 11 days.
So, I’m back in my hometown of Chonburi right now. Next Wednesday, I leave for After School Travels- Part 2: Vietnam. Stay tuned!