Thai Backpacking

Thai Backpacking – It’s a great way to see the whole country

Published in the Saturday Star on 17 March 2007

Written by Gero Lilleike

I stand over a drain in the vicinity of Khao San Rd, with a rotting stench rising to meet my nostrils. I feel bilious. Everything about this place overwhelms my senses. The sidewalks are lined with mobile food stalls, vendors cooking endlessly, coaxing everypasser-by into buying food.

Every tuk-tuk driver offers a ride, I respond with Mai, Khop Krun Krap, meaning “no, thanks”. They smile and drive off, instantly melting into the chaos of the street. When the sun sets over Khao San, roadside markets dominate, luring every character onto the street only to indulge in shopping, eating, drinking and sex. This is Bangkok. As a first time traveller to Thailand, I didn’t know what to expect. I only had R8000 that had to see me through a month.

I had no choice but to surrender to an average budget of R260 a day, which had to pay for basic necessities such as accommodation, food and of course shopping. For most people this would seem impossible, but I was soon to realise that my Rands would get me a whole lot more than I bargained for.

Thailand caters exceptionally well for the large influx of foreigners it receives on a daily basis, so accommodation is easy to find. The area around Khao San Rd is known worldwide by backpackers, offering the lowest accommodation rates in Bangkok and is certainly the place to be in terms of entertainment and nightlife. You can expect to pay R100 for a double bedroom, adjoining bathroom and air conditioning. If you can live with a fan and communal bathroom, expect to pay R80 per night, for two people.

Obviously if backpacking isn’t your style, simply find your way to the hotel district in central Bangkok – at a price of course.

When hunger consumes you, there is no need to go far for a feast. Thai cuisine is considered to be of the best in the world, using a large variety of fresh vegetables, meats, noodles, rice, herbs and spices, leaving no room for disappointment. There are restaurants wherever you go in Thailand with popular mobile food stalls being the cheapest in Bangkok.

Meals can be bought for prices as low as R5 – unbelievable, but true. If you consider yourself brave then feel free to snack on some really tasty local delicacies such as spiders, scorpions, grasshoppers and maggots. You might need some water to wash that down, but remember that tap water in Thailand is not drinkable so bottled drinking water has to be on your daily shopping list.

Bangkok has much to offer the tired, stressed traveller. The full body Thai massage is a must. For only R35, you can receive an hour long rub down that will ease you into the vibe and leave you totally relaxed.

Bangkok is also famous for its shopping, so if your budget is in the green then go wild. Merchandise stalls are permanent features in the streets, selling anything and everything imaginable.  Markets are a way of life, with the biggest being at the weekend and also know as the Chatuchak Market, with more than 15 000 stalls and catering for about 250 000 people a day, this market will simply blow you away. Vendors love bargaining, so don’t feel shy to name your price – you will be amazed at the result.

Bangkok is undoubtedly one of the most exciting cities to visit in the world, but does require a certain level of tolerance. The intense bustle of Bangkok has the ability to bring anyone to their knees, but being sun loving South Africans, we decided to move on and go in search of the much acclaimed islands of Southern Thailand.

If diving is your favourite pastime then the island of Ko Tao is the place you want to be, but getting there is a mission. A 10-hour overnight bus trip took us 800km south of Bangkok, to a town called Chumpon where we boarded a leaking ferry for four hours before arriving on Ko Tao.

The whole journey set us back about R250, which is amazing considering the distance we travelled. Long tail boats or taxi boats offer daily snorkelling trips around Ko Tao, with lunch and fresh fruit served on board.

These particular boat trips are a pleasant way to experience the surrounding reefs, but also to get a good idea of the overall size and beauty of the island., and for only R100, what more can you ask for.

If you are lucky, you can find yourself in the presence of a black tip reef shark. Apparently they don’t bite humans. After the 2004 tsunami, places such as Tonsai Bay were left with long tail boats washed ashore which are now home to new coffee bars and restaurants.

Massive limestone cliffs rise from the sea, creating a world class playground for rock climbers. Located some 40 km west of Tonsai Bay lies the island of Ko Phi Phi which forms part of two islands, namely Ko Phi Phi Leh and Ko Phi Phi Don. Ko Phi Phi Don was one of the islands worst hit by the tsunami, with estimates of more than 10 000 people missing or dead. Effects from the tsunami are visible, with the construction of new buildings still underway.

Despite the tsunami, Ko Phi Phi remains a popular tourist destination, with the warm spirit of the island remaining untouched.

A snorkelling trip around the islands will take you to ancient caves and popular beaches such as Monkey Beach. Ko Phi Phi Leh is uninhabited , with cliffs enveloping deserted beaches. Maya Bay, on the northern end of Ko Phi Phi Leh is home to a beach called Noppharat Thara that became famous with the filming of the movie The Beach taking place there in 1999.

Accommodation on Ko Phi Phi Don was more expensive than we expected, about R160 a night, but considering that Ko Phi Phi Don was overrun by the tsunami – the rates increase is justified.

We covered 3000km and witnessed the awesome scenery the islands had to offer, but just as you commit your soul to Thailand and all the good things that linger there, the realisation of returning home creeps in and slaps you in the face. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end and our time in Southern Thailand was wearing thin, so a flight from Phuket got us back to Bangkok – just two days before our flight back home to South Africa.

The creativity and love for life displayed by the Thai people will both surprise an impress you. Thailand is so vastly different from South Africa in all aspects, making it a perfect holiday destination.

No amount of words or photographs can grasp Thailand entirely, but one thing remains, as South Africans we are all well aware of the fact that our money doesn’t buy a hell of a lot.

In Thailand, our seemingly worthless Rands made us feel like kings. So save some money, take a deep breath, and plunge into paradise, it really is heaven on earth.

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