Recently, my friend Beth and I staged a jailbreak from freezing, snowy Moscow and hopped an 8 hour flight to Phuket, Thailand for some Vitamin D and R&R with friends. Get ready for a photo deluge, people – Thailand is just too beautiful!
My good friends from Seoul, Tori and Jeff, are living in Phuket now with their adorable son who I call Little G. As you might note from his swagger in the photo above, G wasted no time in securing Beth under his thumb.
Phuket is a tourist town in the south of Thailand but lucky for us, we were able to stay off the beaten path. Jeff and Tori took us to their favorite hangouts and on our first night, we watched the sunset with our toes in the sand (and G in our laps).
Known for “James Bond Island” (AKA Khao Phing Kan), the bay is littered with fascinating formations made from sedimentary and volcanic rocks. Our driver took us island-hopping and we did a little spelunking, too.
Next our motley crew pulled up on an island, deserted save for a bunch of umbrellas calling our name. The pineapples filled with mai tai didn’t hurt either.
We had the place to ourselves for a good hour before the other boats turned up. The good life never looked so good.
Our day on the bay was an incredible jumpstart to our time in Thailand. Good times, great friends – just another reason why Thailand is a little piece of heaven on Earth.
We spent the rest of our time in Phuket taking it in – brunching, siesta-ing, listening to Little G babble on. His smiles have grown along with the rest of him and he’s just so adorable at this age. It was hard to leave!
We spent a night in downtown Phuket, just a 5 minute drive from Phuket International Airport. I honestly didn’t love downtown but staying across from the beach was not a bad deal. Got in some star-gazing in the equatorial sky as we sat eating dinner on the beach.
Phuket’s proximity to the airport made city-hopping very easy. Having traveled Laos and Thailand by bus a number of years ago, I knew I was ready to leave those days behind any take the easy flight. Beth and I hopped an Air Asia flight straight to Chiang Mai, a cozy city to the north of Thailand.
When you travel to Thailand, they say you only have to pay for the plane ticket. Beauties like this one cost a whopping $2.
I loved Chiang Mai when I first visited 6 years ago and I will admit this chill town still has a hold on me. With no beaches to speak of, Chiang Mai is a university town with the old portion surrounded by a moat. Night markets are plentiful and temples dot the hills surrounding the city. Chiangmai is also known for the hillside villages belonging to the Karen people.
We checked into our hotel (Le Charcoa Hotel – cannot recommend this gem more) and wasted no time hiring a car to take us up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. With many steps leading up to the temple, visitors are rewarded with the incredible gold-drenched temple at the top.
No surprise – I can never get enough of the mosaics in SE Asia. This temple is top local attraction and, therefore, kept up extremely well.
Back in Old Town Chiang Mai, we explored the night markets. I was struck by how much this little city has grown in the past six years. Where there once were internet cafes and coconut stands, swanky hotels now stand shoulder to shoulder, ushering in a whole new future for the people of Chiang Mai. There’s two sides to that coin, I suppose. I really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, including supporting the mission of Lila Thai Massage to help support the lives of newly released inmates back into mainstream society.
One of the main draws to Chiang Mai was the presence of an elephant rescue called Elephant Nature Park. Beth is a huge lover of animals and, while I’m not normally drawn to animal sanctuaries myself, I’ve found that one of the cool things about traveling with friends is embracing new experiences.
While at the elephant park, we had the chance to prepare food for the elephants and wash them in the river. Definitely intimidating at first, these gentle giants impressed me with their presence and ability to reform family herds, showing love and affection despite the terrible hardships many have faced.
We chose to stay overnight at the sanctuary, which also provides the opportunity to stay longer if you wish to volunteer. I could hear the elephants occasionally trumpeting in the night, seemingly right below our cabin on raised stilts. It was pretty wild!
Our experience at the park was not all rainbows and sunshine. While watching these elephants enjoy their breakfast, a screech rang out from across the river. In the shadows, we saw an elephant with a man on its back. With another shriek from the elephant, the man forced him to come to a stop and drop to his knees. The juxtaposition between the care we saw at Elephant Nature Park and this other trekking camp could not have been more startling. One works to help elephants heal, while the other works to break their spirit. Elephant painting programs, any elephant riding whatsoever – chair or no chair – these are all programs that “break” elephants using terrible techniques such as beatings and nails to the ears, etc. After this experience, I can’t stress more the importance of doing your homework before taking an elephant adventure in SE Asia.
Our time at Elephant Nature Park was a truly unique experience, one I will not likely ever forget. This organization is expanding into Cambodia soon and working to fight legislation all over SE Asia that still allows elephants to be used as logging labor. I can only hope they succeed.
On our last night in Thailand, we set up camp on the same beach down in Phuket. We were treated to a sky show – first of clouds, then of lightning – as a storm made its way across the bay.
Thailand was a fantastic journey full of adventures. I’m so thankful for these wild experiences life has laid out. Once again, Amazing Thailand has lived up to its name and I’m already looking forward to the day I get to return.