A couple of weeks ago I visited Patpong, Bangkok’s night market with a friend and saw the Ping Pong show.
That part wasn’t remarkable. What WAS remarkable was that it was my very first occasion witnessing the infamous matinee where women display special talents with unique parts of the body (a show so famous and iconic of Thailand to tourists), even after nearly three years of living on and off in Thailand.
I’ve been living in Bangkok for the last nine months, and I realized that the experience of living here is worlds apart from the experience that the typical visitor gets. It’s astounding how different the myopic, neatly-packaged touristic view is from the reality of actually living in Thailand.
To me, Bangkok (and Thailand as a whole), is so much more than the 1% of what you see in touristic zones like Khao San, Silom, Sukhumvit, and so on.
In my experience of several years traveling through different continents, no other city in the world offers such a quality of lifestyle for so little.
Bangkok to me is the view of the city from the river’s edge. It’s the cheap and delicious chicken and rice that you buy on the street for a mere 30 baht. It’s the free gym under the bridge at the park, where the differences between myself and the locals melt away and we’re united in our love for lifting weights.
Bangkok is the convenient song-thaews that you jump on for only 7 baht. It’s the thrill of discovery whenever you wander down a sidestreet and discover something new and amazing. It’s a never-ending offering of cheap and delicious food everywhere you turn. It’s the community of locals that you see every day, exchange smiles with, and say “Sawadee-krab” to every day.
This city (and Thailand as a whole) offers so much to be discovered, if you’re willing to peer beneath the surface. I also think that Thailand is a great second country to live or base yourself in. When I arrived back in Thailand last year after more than six months of wandering from country to country, I was exhausted. Both my personal and business life were in a tenuous position. My first book, “Buy Your Own Island” was taking much longer to finish than I had hoped, and I was running out of time, money, and willpower.
I chose Thailand because it is has the fastest Wi-Fi speeds in the Southeast Asia region, and its a place where in general, the living is very easy (especially in Chiang Mai, which I’ve seen others refer to “the world’s most user-friendly city). It’s also an excellent place to bootstrap your startup, plus co-work and network with digital nomads.
I changed up my travel style, and instead of backpacking forever I decided I wanted to base myself somewhere where it was convenient to take “micro-trips” for a few days on the weekends as well as make sorties into surrounding countries in the region. Ultimately I settled on Bangkok because of its convenient location, and while its not a perfect place, as I said earlier, it offers a great lifestyle for next to nothing.
Cha-Am is a place I had never heard of before I accidentally ended up there while on the way to Kang Krachan National Park. After spending a night in Cha-Am, we abandoned our plans to proceed to the park and decided to explore the area around Cha-Am instead.
The town is as quiet and sleepy as it gets. The pace of life is 1/100th the speed of nearby Bangkok, which is but a mere 170 kilometres away. Cha-Am is also home to the friendliest people I have ever met in Thailand. I stand behind the statement 100% percent. The locals – both Thais and foreign transplants – are an absolute joy to interact with.
Even Thais who come from Bangkok and the surrounding cities to Cha-Am for a weekend vacation are friendly and approachable, willing to offer a drink and a few words of conversation. Also, Cha-Am has nice and empty beaches with a variety of intense watersport activities (without much safety regulations, as a warning).
Further afield from the town proper is Khao Nang Phanthurat Forest Park, the most well-maintained park I have ever visited in Thailand. The local legend is that a female giant died here after suffering a broken heart and formed the limestone cliffs atop her resting place, which have trails that you can walk up for a stunning 360 view of the surrounding coast and farmland.
Hua Hin is a historic retreat of Siamese royalty and the residence of King Bhumibol, Thailand’s current king. It’s a pretty quiet town with an inviting beach that’s famous for windsurfing. Lately, though, the town has become very crowded with retirees from Europe (evidenced by the alarming number of pizza restaurants in the town. Yes, pizza!).
Hua Hin is not a party town, but it has a lot of activities to offer. There’s some good hiking with some great views of the coast. There’s a famous winery about an hour out from the town. There’s also some charming and comfortable accommodations if you’re willing to go outside of the city and look around a little. There’s also a number of charming cafes and restaurants begging to be discovered.
Nothing too extraordinary here, but a pleasant spot to spend a relaxing weekend and bask in the sun and sea.
Thailand’s wild, wild, west… Sangkhlaburi is way, way, out there. A very secluded corner of Thailand, the town just received its first 7-11 recently. We somehow ended up here after a very, very long drive from Kanchanaburi. On the border with Burma, the trip takes around 8 hours each way. Another location that we stumbled upon by accident, we arrived in Sangkhlaburi late at night while trying to find Khao Laem National Park. We had no idea what to expect.
As it turns out, Sangkhlaburi offers a very unique experience that’s hard to find anywhere else in Thailand. To start with is a lush setting of verdant mountains and green jungle all around you. Then there’s the man-made river that runs through the town, where the old town was buried underwater. You can rent a kayak for very cheap and explore the ruins of the sunken temple, the only structure that remains – a real life Atlantis.
Another landmark is the Mon bridge, the largest handmade wooden bridge in the world (the structure resembles a miniature bridge I made of popsicle sticks in fifth grade). You can also visit the Mon village on the other side to experience the culture of a distinct, but significant ethnic group (the current line of Thai kings – the Chakri dynasty – are descended of Mon ancestry through Rama I). There is also a market in the center of the town with a variety of Burmese and Mon delicacies to whet the appetite.
About 20-30 minutes drive from the town is the Three Pagodas Pass and the Thai-Burma border. The three pagodas themselves are not impressive, but the countryside that surrounds them is. You can also (illegally) walk across the border into Burma, just don’t let the small group of Thai authorities stationed there find out.
Kanchanaburi has been appearing on a lot of tourism brochures lately; but it’s a far cry from what tourists normally expect from Thailand. A small town in Thailand’s western backcountry, Kanchanaburi is surrounded by rivers, mountains, and national parks, Erawan National Park being the most prominent. A great destination to get away and reconnect with nature.
The town’s restaurants, hotels, and cafes are concentrated on a single road that runs adjacent to the iconic “Bridge over the River Kwai,” the most famous symbol of Kanchanaburi. It’s a charming little area conducive to a pleasant evening stroll. There is also a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant called “On’s Thai Isaan” with some of the freshest and most delicious vegetarian cuisine I’ve tasted. This restaurant is so good that I’m planning to revisit Kanchaburi just to eat there again.
Pattaya historically has a bad rap as it originally grew as a city for soldiers to let loose during the Vietnam War. However, the city has cleaned up a lot. It took me a long time before I visited Pattaya because of its reputation, but now I think quite highly of the place.
It’s actually a very livable town, with a smattering of restaurants and fun activities. The stretch of beach (Jomtien beach) is quite long and while not as stunning as the south of Thailand, it’s quite pleasant. The city is built along the coast so it’s a real treat to just walk the streets and soak everything in. Pattaya’s proximity to Bangkok and its international airports is another plus. The only downside of the city proper is the heavy traffic.
Pattaya also offers a number of other attractions, such as parks, gardens, hilltops, and a ferry which can take you to nearby islands for only 30 baht (less than $1USD). We visited Koh Larn, a small island that’s both beautiful and easily accessible. The island has good roads and motorbikes are available for rent near Koh Larn’s dock at a very low cost.
Ayutthaya is another destination that I’d held off on visiting for a very long time. The first three times I visited Thailand, each time for a whole 30 days, I’d only visited two cities: Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The south seemed too touristy, and places like Ayutthaya didn’t seem that interesting. I had seen pictures of Ayutthaya’s ruins and it didn’t seem like it had enough going for it.
One weekend, however, I finally decided to make the short trip out of Bangkok to visit Ayutthaya (I was running out of places to go). The drive is less than 2 hours. At any rate, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. Visiting Ayutthaya is like being transported back into time, to a completely different world before globalization and modernization.
Ayutthaya was the seat of the royal Siam government, and when it was still used as a city it rivaled contemporary London and Paris. The Burmese eventually conquered the city after a long siege that lasted many months, by tunneling to the walls and using dynamite to blow them open. I found that walking among the complex and imagining the livelihood and events that took place at the site to be a deeply satisfying experience.
Sriracha (just like the sauce) is a province halfway between Bangkok and Pattaya and very few non-Thais know of this place. The town provides an interesting look into a more traditional Thai culture and way of life than you’ll see in Bangkok’s tourist zones or other touristed locations in Thailand.
There is also an island off the coast, Sriracaha island, which is worth a visit. It’s not quite as nice as Koh Larn in Pattaya, but it’s very uncrowded, peaceful, and of historical importance to Thailand. The closest coastal island to Bangkok proper, it was the vacation retreat of King Chulalongkorn. Today, you can visit the king’s coastal retreat and visit the queen’s lodgings on the island. There are also mountains, beaches, and temples to explore.
Bang Kachao Island
Ha… surprise! Probably another place you’ve never heard of, Bang Kachao island, for me, was quite the discovery. From my office building in Silom, I would often look out the window to an area of the city that was completely covered in greenery. In a concrete jungle of steel and concrete, it was endlessly fascinating.
Finally, one day, I decided to visit the place to see what exactly this area was. As it turns out, getting to Bang Kachao island is no easy feat. We drove around in a circle and took the car onto a ferry, and finally after going in a circle again, did we find the very tiny one-lane bridge that leads into the island.
Bang Kachao, geographically, is located adjacent to the center of Bangkok and yet it is an entire world apart. There are no skyscrapers or even two-story buildings. It’s a look into the past of how life used to be. The king of Thailand decreed that the area be freed from development and serve as “The Green Lung of Bangkok.”
A quick and easy escape out of the big metropolis, this island is a great place to rent a bicycle for the day, explore the small forested streets, and pick a fresh coconut or two. There is a nice park to visit and a very unique microclimate of swamp and mangroves. The locals, comprised of both Thai and Mon minority populations, are exceedingly friendly and will invite you to join them for a drink if you talk to them.