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Thailand: An island holiday from travelling and venturing north

It's fair to say that up to this point, my schedule has been pretty nonstop, with my itinerary barely allowing me to stay in one place for more than two days. With plenty of treks, sightseeing and other activities shoved in there for good measure I was pretty exhausted!

I'd had a fantastic time in South America, but as I'd waved goodbye to my travelling companions, I'd found myself slightly jealous that they were jetting off to their respective home countries while I would be continuing to live out of a backpack, sharing a room with strangers.

Admittedly this was mainly because after more than two months away I was desperate for a few days of sloth. As I trekked around sweltering Bangkok trying not to get taken in by scams, haggling at every transaction, and chatting to strangers in bars, I found myself fantasising about lying in my bed in Leeds watching movies and enjoying lazy evenings in beer gardens with my friends, not to mention chowing down on a good Sunday roast, complete with Yorkshire puddings. This is something that happens to every weary long-term traveller at some point.

A stretch of Ko Tao's pretty coastline

A bit burnt out mentally, and physically exhausted, I decided it was time for a holiday from travelling before returning to the backpacking trail for a trip up north. Where better to escape to than some of the gorgeous Thai islands that lay just one flight and a high-speed catamaran away. What's more, two of my friends were flying out from the UK to join me in my Thai paradise.

Due to a combination of seasonal weather conditions and ease of travelling, we'd chosen to visit Ko Samui, Ko Tao and Ko Phangnan. We had around ten days to tackle all the islands, and I was wondering whether we'd have enough time to pack it all in, but it turned out to be the perfect itinerary that allowed us to chill out without getting bored.

Ko Samui

The sun goes down in Ko Samui

Ko Samui was first on our list, and after a short flight on a plane painted like a tropical bird (Nok Airlines likes to make its planes stand out!), a bus ride to the port, and a high-speed catamaran journey, we had arrived.

As our taxi wound its way through Ko Samui's leafy streets my first impression was that the island seemed very touristy, but was strangely lacking in tourists. As we were visiting in low season, we barely saw any other travellers the whole time we were on the island: and once we checked in it even appeared that our giant, luxury hotel was playing host to us alone.

A pretty standard Ko Samui resort, our hotel boasted two massive pools and a beach bar, along with a number of spa services - and yet we were the only ones using them.

We took a wander along the beach - which was quite dirty and full of wildlife so there were no sunbathers - ate lunch in a beach bar and treated ourselves to manicures and massages at a seaside stall. And still, no other people! At night we took the hotel's bus into the town for dinner and - to our disappointment - it dropped us off at a giant shopping complex, similar to the shiny new ones you'd see in the UK.

Again, it was deserted. "This is not what I came to Thailand for", my friend Beatrice remarked. Luckily a quick wander into the backstreets opened up a world of fairy light-bedecked restaurants and bars to us - although as we ate alone in the restaurant we reflected that this was hardly the authentic Thai experience we'd been after either. Something tells me though, that that sort of experience might be quite difficult to find on Ko Samui.

Slightly unnerved by the feeling of being apparently alone in a giant holiday resort, we decided to hop back on the high-speed catamaran and move on quickly to Ko Tao - which turned out to be a seriously great decision.

Ko Tao

Relaxing by one of Ko Tao's many infinity pools

Ko Tao is a small island, famed for its beautiful shoreline, its snorkelling and diving opportunities, and for being just slightly more off the beaten track than Ko Samui and Ko Phangnan. The small town at its centre boasts plenty of bars, restaurants and souvenir shops, which are predictably filled with luminous t-shirts, ankle bracelets and tie-dye dresses. Evidently this is not the place for you if you're looking for authentic Thailand, but for stunning sunsets, walks on the beach and relaxing by the pool it's hard to beat.

Getting around involves either renting a motorbike or taking taxis: the bumpy roads, hilly terrain and scorching heat mean that cycling amounts to nothing more than a death wish. Travelling around Asia, you see numerous tourists with wounds from driving scooters and motorbikes. Hiring one is not difficult: all the shop needs is your passport, signature, and a couple of hundred baht.

View from a Ko Tao beach bungalow

However, I learnt the hard way that unless you're a confident driver with experience of these vehicles, it is advisable to avoid them. Furthermore, no matter how good you might be, the rules of the road in Asia are chaotic, if not non-existent, and most people don't come away from the experience without a few scratches - and that's if they're lucky.

We decided to hire scooters one day, and I made it about ten metres down the road before overbalancing and falling off, cutting up my leg, hand and arm. Undeterred, I persevered until I nearly crashed through a shop window, at which point I asked my friend Richard - who had much better motoring skills than I did - to take it back to the shop, and bleeding and aching decided to get a taxi back to the hotel. I'd been planning to motorbike from the north to the south of Vietnam, but it's safe to say this experience put a pin in my plans, and after learning that there are 33 fatal road accidents per day in Vietnam, I'm really glad it did!

While it is fairly cheap to hire scooters on Ko Tao, it can end up costing you a lot more if you crash - something it seemed that the shop owners were almost expecting. When Richard returned his bike to the shop, the owner - who had previously seemed overly friendly - was apparently devastated that both he and the bike had returned in pristine condition.

We stayed in a bungalow on the beach, on a quiet side of the island. For around £15 each a night, you can get absolutely stunning hotels and apartments on these islands, and we'd decided to splash out. Again, this wasn't the sort of beach you lie out on (there are not many of those in Asia, it seems), but the sea was swimming with colourful fish of all shapes and sizes, which makes for some great snorkelling opportunities, and there are plenty of chances to cliff dive from rocks, if you're into that sort of thing. In addition, if you fancy it you can even get your divers' license during your time there, with a number of schools offering diving packages with accommodation included. Aside from snorkelling, the most common activities on Ko Tao are lying out by the pool and indulging in the beach bar.

Dusk at a Ko Tao beach

We had decided to head to Ko Tao at this point in the trip to avoid the Full Moon Party that was taking place on Ko Phangnan. With its reputation for young, drunk Brits abroad and a bad safety record, we didn't feel like it would be in line with our relaxing beach break. However, after meeting a number of other travellers, we decided to head to the beach on the louder side of the island for a spot of partying, and with fire dancers, laughing gas and half-naked teenagers, it did feel like we'd landed in the Full Moon Party of our nightmares.

Unless this sounds like your scene, I'd strongly recommend avoiding it: the tourists partying on this beach were so drunk it was common to find people lying passed out in the sand or wading out into the sea to dance by themselves. The promoters were encouraging young girls to jump into the pool naked in exchange for free drinks, while drugs - which carry a heavy penalty in Thailand - were in abundance.

For a quieter - but still fun - night, you can head into the centre, where there are plenty of bars with good drinks deals and pumping music. Due to its touristy nature, there is plenty of international cuisine, and one night we had a fantastic Italian with an expensive but delicious bottle of imported Sauvignon Blanc - something seriously lacking on my trip so far.

Ko Phangnan

A view of Ko Phangnan

After yet another high-speed catamaran trip we landed in Ko Phangnan, unsure of what to expect. While the island has the biggest party reputation of any of our destinations, we were visiting in low season, and again it appeared to be pretty quiet - especially as we'd managed to avoid the "Full Moon Party" a couple of days before.

Laziness overtook us and we spent most of our time swimming in our luxurious hotel's infinity pool, drinking cocktails and indulging in the delicious Thai food at local restaurants.

It's also worth hiring a car to drive round the island - there are a number of nice beaches to go look at, but again they're not really for sunbathing thanks to the number of crabs and other animals that inhabit them, not to mention the unbearable heat. However, there are plenty of cute beach bars and little shops to explore in the seaside villages dotted around the island - and they're all pretty easy to navigate to with a map in hand.

Ko Phangnan was also where we saw some of the best sunsets of the trip, with oranges and reds streaking across the sky, and it's worth assigning at least one evening of your visit there to finding a great place to watch the sun go down with cocktails in hand.

And all of a sudden it was time to say goodbye to my pals and jump onto the backpacking route up north, which would involve some seriously long bus trips.

Chiang Mai

A gilded temple in Chiang Mai

After flying back to Bangkok I caught an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, which turned out to be not that bad. After enduring several overnight journeys in South America, I seem to have developed a talent for sleeping pretty much anywhere, so although I didn't invest in the ‘VIP' class tickets usually suggested to tourists, it was a pretty cushy journey overall. Thai buses usually provide you with reclining seats, blankets and water even if you haven't opted for the most expensive tickets. The only mildly confusing thing about these journeys is working out when you've arrived, when the toilet breaks are and when the bus is just stopping to let people off, as the bus staff don't tend to have good English, and they have been known to leave people behind.

Luckily, we escaped unscathed and disembarked from the bus very early in the morning in Chiang Mai.

Haggling with a street food vendor on the streets of Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a northern town that, while touristy, allows you to get your breath back from Bangkok. It's busy but not too busy and boasts a still-quaint old town packed with temples, coffee shops and cafes. Most backpackers heading to Chiang Mai use it as a jumping off point for one of the many jungle treks on offer - as I did five years go.

As far as trekking goes in Thailand, these ones are a pretty solid option, with most companies offering packages for between two days and four days, with trekkers spending nights at homestays in local villages. Make no mistake, these treks are very much on the tourist trail, but that's likely to be because they offer up stunning scenery, a great experience and plenty of extra options like bamboo rafting, white water rafting, zip lining and elephant riding. Active travellers should shop around in Chiang Mai's many travel agents to find the trip - and the price - that's right for them and their budget.

Chiang Mai, popular with tourists, features many Western restaurants

For those looking for more to Chiang Mai, temples and Thai cooking classes are your best bet - with plenty of both to choose from. A wander round the sprawling old town will take you to Chiang Mai's main temples, as well as a bunch of quieter ones where you're the only one there. This is a peaceful departure from Bangkok where most of the wats are packed with tourists. The rules of visiting temples are the same everywhere in Thailand: slip your shoes off before entry, don't take pictures of monks, never show Buddha or monks the soles of your feet and be respectful at all times.

Inside one of Chiang Mai's colourful markets

One of the downsides to Chiang Mai is that it is sometimes painfully hot, so you need to ensure you slap on the sunscreen and take a hat with you on your wanderings. And don't try to get an alcoholic beverage between the hours of two and five in this town as it is banned, which means no late liquid lunches!

A relaxing slice of Pai

The sleepy hippie-haven of Pai

From Chiang Mai it's just a four-hour minibus ride up to the sleepy hippie haven that is Pai. These small automobiles take both tourists and locals, and when a monk boarded our bus, we all had to shuffle round to ensure his seat wouldn't be near any women, as Buddhist monks are not allowed to come into contact with females.

Pai is a gorgeous leafy town surrounded by mountains in the north of Vietnam where hippies flock to practice yoga, attend the local circus school and enjoy the countless bars that line the streets. There are also options to hill trek and ride elephants here if you missed out in Chiang Mai.

A rainy day spent inside one of Pai's many cafes

Having learnt from my Ko Tao scooter disaster I rented a bicycle to get around, and thanks to Pai's mainly flat streets this was perfect, admittedly aside from the pack of aggressive dogs that kept chasing me. The town is bursting with low-budget hostels complete with hammocks and beanbags, but you can also opt for some higher end hotels - although luxury is not really an option here.

A night out in Pai is a pretty relaxed affair, with a variety of restaurants to choose from. Pai's main street is dotted with backpacker bars and souvenir streets, and so are the streets off the main street. A favourite bar among travellers in Pai is The Witching Well, which I can personally confirm does fantastic cake, and once the sun goes down everyone heads to "Edible Jazz" - a bar featuring a truly excellent Thai jazz band. You can while the warm night away lying in a hammock with a beer and listening to live western music.

Thailand summed up

After Pai, I had to get a bus back down to Bangkok to pick up my passport from the Vietnamese embassy where it had been getting a visa for the past week. This was incredibly annoying since my failure to plan ahead meant a bus followed by a night bus down to the capital, and then a very long overnight bus from Bangkok all the way back up to Vientiane - the capital of Laos - which was to be my next destination.

By the time I was crossing the border and getting charged 500 baht (£10) for overstaying my 30 day Thai visa for all of six hours, I was very ready to leave the country.

Thailand remains one of the most tourist-friendly destinations in South East Asia, with its backpacker trail very well worn by this point. This undoubtedly has its advantages - it is easy to get around, a lot of people speak English, and there is a variety of international cuisines in most places. However, it also means that there are plenty of scams you have to watch out for during your time there, and it's difficult for travellers to find authentic places.

That said, there's still plenty worth seeing and doing in Thailand, and I'd encourage everyone with an interest in travel to make the trip at some point in their life. It provides everything from the incredible atmosphere and culture of Bangkok to the holidaying opportunities of the islands and the northern treks which enable you to learn a little more about the country's indigenous people. Ultimately it's a fantastic introduction for anyone wanting to visit South East Asia, but my mistake was probably spending over a month there when I'd already visited twice before.

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Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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