It's nearly 21 years since Leonardo DiCaprio showed the highlights of Thailand in the movie The Beach. Along with the odd murder and plot device, of course. But what was it like to travel through southeast Asia's most popular nation before Hollywood caught on and the internet followed after?
Looking back through the years, I thought I'd share the real highlights of Thailand...
The Highlights of Thailand
This post is sponsored by Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) - although as ever, as always, we kept the right to write what we like.
Thailand Before the Internet: A Travel Story
They say you never forget your first time. The anticipation, the quickening of heartbeats, the blurring of sound and touch and taste.
Of course, we’re thinking back over 20 years ago now, for me. To a world without mobile phones and cameras, without the angst of social media and the tech to make everyone a budding paparazzi. To a world where everything felt fresh, new and exciting on the skin.
Yes, it’s been over twenty years since I first travelled to Thailand, a young teen blinking out at life while the baby years of the internet blinked back.
I mean, it wasn’t totally a dark, black hole by then, kids. We had telephones, for sure. And if you flicked through the dust-smudged pages of a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, you could find an internet café, take a plastic seat and spend half the day and half your budget trying to send a simple email back home to say hi.
But for the most part, once you left, you were gone. Weeks went by and parents, boyfriends, friends (in no particular order) knew not to hear from you until you got back.
And as for getting in touch with you? Well, they couldn’t. News, whether bad or good, simply had to wait.
So, what did we do in this age of relative darkness and absolute freedom?
The Popular Circuit
Thailand in the late 90s and early 2000s had a welcome reputation for young travellers. Cliched though it may be, the “land of smiles” really did offer a more welcome experience for novice travellers than other parts of the world (and trust me, I tried those too.)
Back then, the familiar circuit went like this: arrive in Bangkok, get confused, head to Khao San Road with Alex Garland’s newly published The Beach and hope you don’t find a corpse on the other side of your bamboo hostel screen.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s take on the book hadn’t yet hit the screens.
After a few days, with the jet lag fading and confidence growing, head north to Chiang Mai for trekking through villages and then south to the islands for, well, the beach.
There were no digital nomads, Thailand’s dream for travellers today. And no instagram (which I sometimes feel is everyone’s nightmare.)
As for me? I arrived in Bangkok with a boyfriend, a book and not a whole lot else.
And I was thrilled. The sticky-sweet air in Bangkok made me dizzy, tinged with city fumes and street food and floating markets. Traffic made my head spin, as I walked into the road with only a prayer, and gestures in alleyways served as the only way to find something to eat.
But, oh, how that food was sublime. Kaffir lime, coconut and tangy fish sauce. At the time, Thai food hadn’t really arrived in the tiny grey island of Britain. Friends who had spent a year working in Australia knew of dishes like Pad Thai and Red Green Curry but even these anglicised names sounded foreign back home.
Before travelling, I read up on the region, geek as I am, though a mix of history and fiction. And one book, Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj, lit the desire to visit Ayutthaya.
But first, to Chiang Mai in the north. Today, I hear it’s where you’ll find any foreign digital nomad. Back then, well, as Thailand’s second biggest city, this isn’t a story of sleepy village changed beyond all recognition.
Yet with no Google Maps, no AirBnB, no Hostelworld nor Booking.com, we travelled without a plan, stumbling from our sleeper train, relying on books and crowds.
Everything had to be done in person. The sense of connection was immense. Hawkers hung around the train stations and in broken Thai, broken English and fluent hand waving, beds were found and deals were done.
As the main city in the north, Chiang Mai oozed a cooler, calmer atmosphere after Bangkok. Its jewel box temples, like Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Wat Phra Singh sent domed spires stretching into the sky, with white stone lanterns and glittering facades nestled beneath.
But despite the beauty, we were there for the mud. Or more specifically, the trekking routes that threaded between elephants, beneath jungle canopies and past and into tribal villages on the hills.
Until this trip, I had thought I hated trekking. Or even going for walks. But somewhere between the slopes of orchids and the rhythm of my feet upon the earth, I changed my mind. A lifelong love of hiking began.
I loved the landscape, for sure, but I loved meeting people even more. We slept at night in the village, sharing food, sharing chores and sleeping on raised tarpaulins within earshot of the roosters.
And then we broke from “the path” and headed to Ayutthaya.
Time was once kind to Ayutthaya. The city had a good long stretch as the capital of Siam, founded in 1350 and flourishing as a prosperous international trading port until razed by the Burmese in 1767.
While the temples in Bangkok and Chiang Mai glittered in gold and shimmered in fresh white paint, in Ayutthaya, had a different look.
Stripped bare, revealing blood red stone and fallen rocks, we visited alone. Deserted foreigners in a deserted city.
And then, from this UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was time to hit the beach.
Not THE beach, the one immortalised in that upcoming Hollywood film.
Just one of many impossibly beautiful white sand beaches dotted along impossibly beautiful shores.
With impossibly secluded access.
We longed to see these stunning beaches, to avoid the concrete walls. And so, we thumbed through our Rough Guide and chose the name Koh Tao, or turtle island.
Backpacks heavy in the sun, a blur of train, crowd, boat and hot sand led us to the shore, walking without purpose and feeling all the better for it.
We found a spot, a beautiful spot as oh so many were. A wooden cabin, on stilts, with a basic bathroom and a functional mosquito net.
No emails pinging from home, no odious notion of “bragging rights.”
No selfie sticks, no pre-booked apps.
No shackles, no tinned noise crackles and absolutely no phone.
And between you and me? A better beach than Leonardo’s anyway.
Highlights of Thailand:
What to See and Do in Thailand
When it comes to what to see and do in Thailand, some things never change.
Let’s talk about the highlights of Thailand.
Some of the Best Beaches in the World
Honestly, even after more than ten years in the travel writing game, it’s hard to know how to convey just how beautiful Thailand’s beaches are. The sand is so soft, so white. The water so blissfully, unbelievably clear.
On the east coast, the most famous islands are Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao, Koh Samui. On the west, Phuket receives direct international flights. And near the border with Cambodia, you’ll find the ever so beautiful Koh Chang.
Bangkok takes the notion of a tranquil, laid-back vibe and laughs in its face. The city is busy from dawn til dusk, with tuk tuks bobbing between the skyscrapers and the traditional floating markets.
The Grand Palace sends spikes into the sky in white and shimmering gold, just don’t expect a quiet route to get there.
The Historic City of Ayutthaya – UNESCO World Heritage Site
As the former capital of Siam, these red-brick ruins of gigantic monasteries and prang (reliquary towers) evoke a different world. Look out for the Buddhist head surrounded by tree roots.
Trekking in Northern Thailand
Putting one foot in front of the other through the verdant hills Mae Hong Son is one of the highlights of Thailand. A natural tonic to the bustle of Bangkok, this sparsely populated area is home to several different peoples, including the Shan and Hmong.
Most travellers use Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, as a base but some travel on to the sleepier, smaller Chiang Rai.
Gorgeous National Parks
Khao Yai National Park
Only two and a half hours from Bangkok, Khao Yai National Park is a popular spot for business travellers who don’t have the time to head further afield. You can trek by day and then head out on a night safari in open-top jeeps. Look out for elephants…
Khao Sok National Park
In the south, the striking limestone karst features of Khao Sok National Park form the backdrop for hornbills, gibbons and tigers. Dense jungle surrounds Cheow Lan Lake, but you can still manage to hike, raft or canoe your way long the Sok river. Look out for the massive parasitic Rafflesia flower, a bulbous landlocked kind of sea anemone.
Erawan National Park
The Erawan Falls cascade down seven separate tiers in the Erawan National Park near the Myanmar/ Burma border. Within the Ta Duang Cave, you can hike past stalactites and stalagmites, wondering once again which is which, while stopping to admire the rock paintings.
Thailand Travel Tips
- Wear sturdy shoes that you can easily slip on and off, as you’ll need to when visiting temples. Avoid flip-flops, though, as they don’t offer enough protection for hikes.
- Dress to cover your knees and shoulders at the least when visiting temples. Carry a scarf or sarong with you to help with modesty.
- Keep calm, polite and pleasant. It’s considered very bad form to lose your temper.
When will Thailand open up?
At the time of writing, Thailand plans to start opening up to international travellers from July 2021 for vaccinated travellers. See the small print here. As ever, as always, check with an official source before making any firm plans and be aware that situations can change rapidly!
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