After 21 weeks of travelling with the girls, we decided to go our separate ways due to differing desires, trip lengths and bank balances! Lone travelling isn’t entirely new to me; I traversed Tanzania for three months by myself when I was 18, and had the most incredible time. However for that trip I had most things planned out before I left – this time absolutely nothing was pre-planned except my flight home from Bangkok seven weeks later! People keep asking me: were/are you scared to be travelling by yourself? My answer every time is absolutely not, I was super excited! Loads of people travel by themselves, including increasing numbers of girls. Especially in well-travelled continents like Asia too. No doubt, travelling with friends is good fun and definitely has it benefits, but solo travelling has benefits in equal measure and I was so game for a brand new chapter in my big adventure! If you’re feeling apprehensive, I would definitely urge you to take the plunge and head off by yourself 🙂 I doubt you’ll regret it, and you’re guaranteed to meet people along the way.
Technically I’d actually been solo for over a week, however I’d spent that time in Kuala Lumpur and Penang with my gorgeous Malaysian friend, Elyza. My time with Elyza had been less like travelling and more like normal life, so I’d lost steam and become a bit lazy with my forward planning. Which is how I found myself on a bus to Bangkok (not the train, dammit), without a plan further than that. The only place I was set on visiting at the time was Chiang Mai in Thailand, SO, although it may be long winded and not necessarily the most logical route for whatever my future plan turned out to be, I decided to just head up north. When you travel you realise that the world really is your oyster. The options are endless, and app’s like Skyscanner make it easy for you to put where you are and then click ‘anywhere’ to see where’s cheap to fly to next. This is obviously fantastic and we are lucky to live in such a world, but it does also make life difficult for the anyone like me who is incredibly indecisive and with a never ending wanderlust list. I figured heading to somewhere I knew I wanted to go would at least bide me a bit more time to figure the rest out!
The bus I took from Penang at 12pm arrived at Hat Tai in Thailand around 5pm. I then had to wait an hour and a half to catch a sleeper bus all the way to Bangkok which arrived around 9am. Details of where I booked my bus and how much I paid can be found in my Penang blog post. With my disappointment on missing out on the sleeper train in Penang, I was determined to get the train up to Chiang Mai. Luckily I was there early so if that didn’t work out, I could always head to the north station and get a bus instead. Arriving in an unknown bus station in Bangkok, I firstly needed to figure out where I was in relation to the train station. As standard, I was immediately hounded by taxi drivers who said they would take me there and that there was no wifi anywhere close for me to double check my plans. Obviously somewhat dubious to that fact, I went inside the bus station, asking security guards and the information desk for help. No-one seemed to have a clue about anything or be helpful in the slightest. After a lot of wandering I located Black Canyon Coffee on the second floor tucked away in the corner with secret high speed wifi. So there’s my insider tip! After some social media catching up and more travel planning I caught a metered taxi to Hua Lamphong Railway Station for 170 THB. Ensure your taxi driver hasn’t conveniently ‘forgotten’ to turn on the meter, otherwise he can charge what he wants and you may well find you overpay.
Everything is made easy for you at Hua Lamphong; there is a ticket office specifically for foreigners to the left of the platforms, where they speak very good English and will help you with any enquiry. I also found seat61.com is a very helpful source when planning your train journey, with up-to-date times, costs and general information. I paid 791 THB for the 6.30pm train that arrived at 7.15am. I hadn’t been on a train in five months, or ever been on a sleeper train before so I was particularly excited for this journey! Totally done with buses. The bottom bunks are slightly more expensive as they are wider and include the window. The price difference is negligible though, so I’d opt for the bottom bunk if you can. Booking a mere seven hours before the train departed, I ended up with a top bunk, but to be honest I just count myself lucky to even get a seat! Although not necessarily any smoother or less noisy than a bus, the sleeper train offers the benefit of being fully horizontal which is a key deciding factor in how well I sleep. The beds certainly aren’t spacious, so if you’re tall like me be prepared to adopt the foetal position (but not too much because the top bunk is narrow too..). There are also no safety lights meaning they leave the main lights on all night; an eye mask is a must! It was such an adventure to take a totally different transport after so many months, and to see all the incredible countryside views along the way, without the traffic jams.
The centre of Chiang Mai is about 20 minutes drive from the train station so it’s necessary to take a tuk-tuk or red minibus. The red minibus’ are actually converted pick-up trucks and are your cheapest way to get around. Thankfully, the lady from my hostel sent me an email detailing how best to reach the hostel, and what sort of prices to pay. So I was fully prepared to laugh in their faces when they tried to charge me 3x the amount she had suggested. I showed them the message she sent me and they finally agreed to take me for her top end estimation (50 THB). In these situations it all comes down to what you’re prepared to pay and how long you’re willing to wait around for someone who will take you. The hostel lady had suggested 30-50 THB for the red minibus, and to be honest I was willing to pay £1 for a half hour journey direct to my door.
It was the start of only good things to come from that lovely Thai lady called Marisa! Chiang Mai Capsule Hostel wasn’t in the most popular backpacking district, but it was perfectly located on the edge of the old town and right next to a nightly food market. During the day there is a much less touristy day market called Bumrung Buri Market where I found the most vibrant sticky rice with mango and enjoyed watching the locals go about their daily business. The hostel had all the amenities I could want including a high speed desktop for all my blogging needs! She offered genuine discounts and free breakfast for tours and always greeted me with a smile. Can’t fault it.
I had been toing and froing for weeks about going to Vietnam. It was somewhere I desperately wanted to visit, but wasn’t sure how much time I would need to dedicate towards it, and if I was going to pay for a monthly visa then really I wanted to spend the whole month there. It is also required that a visa is pre-arranged before entering the country, which meant commitment to a date and some level of organisation – not something I was entirely ready for. Up until 30th June 2016, British nationals can enter Vietnam for 15 days visa free; after that date everyone will be required to organise and pay for a visa. So, on a bit of a whim, I thought f**k it/YOLO and booked myself a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi with Jetstar for a couple of days later. Plan decided.
Coveniently, the Saturday walking street market was also located on my hostel’s doorstop. It is incredibly extensive, stretching the whole length of the street, and takes a good couple of hours to explore end-to-end properly. Rather than having one big meal, I decided to sample lots of different nibbles. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you the name of what I ate – Thai isn’t exactly the easiest language to read – but like any digital nomad/Instagram whore like myself, I documented my gastronomic journey via photographs! Pudding was a not-so-Thai banana waffle with chocolate sauce. Normally I find waffles a bit ‘meh’, but I couldn’t even begin to describe to you the smell and the buzz surrounding this small stall. I mean, I had to try it, didn’t I? Well, I can report that the soft and chewy banana sponge smothered in sweet hot chocolate did not disappoint, and my faith in waffles has been fully restored. Eyelids dropping, I waddled back to bed with my purse mostly empty but my belly very full.
The next day I went on a cooking course at Thai Farm. I decided to write a separate blog post on my experience which you can read here!
…the same goes for the following day which was spent playing with majestic elephants at The Elephant Nature Park. That was also worthy of its own blog post so please give that a read here!
Another of Chiang Mai’s draws is it’s abundance of temples. With over 300 ‘wats’ as they are called, you really are spoilt for choice. So, the question was: what wats to see in Chiang Mai? Wanting a few of the best and to skip the rest, I did what any modern traveller now does and Googled it so I can get opinions from a few different sources. I jotted down the location of a couple, and then figured I might just stumble upon some more on my way. My core list included Chedi Luang, Phra Singh, Chiang Man and Phan On. I was distracted somewhat by a short-muy-Thai-boxing-street-seller desperate to show me a 1970s photo of his Bondi Beach Australian wife and talk about his trip to Birmingham, so I never actually located Phan on. But by ambling about, I also came across Fon Soi, Chang Taem and Phan Tao.
My favourite Wat, Wat Phra Singh, also happened to be the largest that I visited. There is a boys school adjacent to the temple and I happened to get talking to a teacher who told me that the boys were all learning to become monks and welcomed me in. I watched them playing football for a short while, mildly amused by their school uniform which reminded me of a slightly more camp version of British boys scouts. I was particularly amused by one small monk who upon leaving the temple was so hot that he poured a cup of water over his head when he thought no one was watching. I was. And so was my camera!
In general, I found Northern Thai people to be the most friendly and welcoming Asians I have encountered so far. They were so eager to just say hello, to tell me about the best places to go shopping, to grab a bite of local food or to see a holy celebration I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. They seemed to see me as a guest to be welcomed before a tourist to be fleeced, and for that I am very grateful.
Before heading to the train station, I treated myself to a Thai massage at the women’s prison. Yup, dead serious. As a vocational training programme for female inmates, you can get a foot or body massage, as well as a cup of tea and cake at The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution. It’s unsurprisingly popular so you have to book your daily slot when they open at 8am, or thereabouts. I had a coffee in the cafe whilst I waited, and had a quick browsed at the craft items on sale underneath the big ‘Prison Products’ sign. The waitress who served me looked like a Thai Jaimie Winstone and had the sternest and most pissed-off face imaginable. I will never know the nature of her criminal conviction but if you told me she was in for murder, I probably would’ve believed you. When my time came around, I was taken inside and given an outfit to wear that look decidedly like a pair of scrubs – strange because I’ve always taken my clothes off for a massage! It certainly wasn’t my most relaxing massage experience to date; they all take place in one big room, so you share the experience with about 20 other people. The women also spent the entire time giggling and whispering about the latest gossip, or perhaps the new escape plan. Okay that’s not completely fair… they did have a smile on their face the whole time, but 20 gossiping young Thai women is somewhat off putting when you’re trying to get in the ‘zone’! What I extracted from my hour long experience was that Thai massage works mainly on applying weight to pressure points and stretching out the muscles. Albeit it less relaxing than the Balinese massage I had in Ubud, I sure felt good after it and it was definitely the most effective massage I’ve had on my trip. Plus for a mere 200 THB I can now say I’ve had a Thai prisoner rub me down!
I bought a ginormous bunch of lychees for 40 THB before boarding my train to Bangkok. I paid 881 THB for the train back; this time splashing out the little extra for the bottom bunk and air con, though unfortunately for me neither seemed necessary this time around. My train was very differed from before and there was no apparent distinction between the bunks. The air con was over overpowering and I was cold even with two blankets and loose fitting trousers on. Still, I put my eye mask on and slept like a baby until the train guard came through around 6am shouting ‘BANGKOK’ at the top of his voice.
From Hua Lamphong train station I needed to reach Suvarnabhumi airport to catch my flight to Hanoi. I had previously searched online sites and travel forums for the best route, but almost all suggested the easiest option of taking a taxi. But with the chaotic and somewhat unpredictable Bangkok traffic, the lesser promoted public transport route is quite likely be quicker. Plus, unless there is three or more of you, it’s almost definitely cheaper. The journey time is about 45 minutes, though I would allow yourself an hour, especially with luggage. The route:
- Take the MRT towards Sang Bue and get off Phetchaburi (30 THB).
- Walk two minutes to Makassan station; this is a short walk over a bridge and is well signposted.
- Take the SRT-City line towards Suvarnabhumi (35 THB)
My time in northern Thailand was short, but very sweet! The activities were so much fun, the locals lovely, the scenery beautiful and the food so delicious that I wasn’t really ready to leave. Luckily, I have a few days in Bangkok planned for the middle of next month! So see you again soon Thailand.
Love, Lottie xx