Here’s how I spent 9 days seeing as much of Thailand as possible.
First, I want to preface this blog by saying two things; 1.) I am not a travel blogger and I have no intention of becoming one. I am just very proud of the trip my sister in law and I put together and I want to share everything I learned with people who are planning their first Thailand trip and may not know where to start. 2.) This was not a vacation. This was a whirlwind of flights and cars to see as much of the country as possible. Vacation and travel are not the same thing in my book, and this trip was very much travel.
Thailand is literally on the other side of the globe from Nevada and I wanted to make sure I felt like I had seen enough of the country if I was going to fly all the way there. On top of that, my husband doesn’t have the luxury of taking multiple weeks off of work, so we were limited in the amount of time we could spend there. I had to be strategic.
Day 1: Half day in Bangkok
After 32 hours of travel time, we arrived in Bangkok around 1pm. Bangkok by car is pretty difficult due to lots of traffic, but with our exhausted brains it was our only option. It took us an hour to get to our hotel from BKK.
We opted to stay at the Theatre Residence Hotel in Bangkok due to its proximity to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. It’s a short (and cheap) ferry ride across the river.
When we arrived, we changed out of our compression socks and plane clothes and tried to adjust to the time zone by going out to get food immediately. We had originally wanted to try the famous Jay Fai’s street food, but she was already booked out for the day. So, we went next door and got some quick pad thai.
After dinner, we walked to the world’s first Muay Thai Stadium – Rajadamnern Stadium to watch their national sport in real life. Watching the locals make bets on the fighters and seeing the combat sport was energetic to say the least. We were pretty tired from a long 2 days of flying, so we went back to our hotel to catch some shut eye early.
Day 2: Fly to Chiang Mai and explore
The next morning we got up early to make the hour long trek back to the airport to catch a domestic flight to Chiang Mai. You’re probably wondering why we stopped in Bangkok at all. Well, flying to Chiang Mai from Reno wasn’t an option we could afford as the flights were significantly more expensive for that route. The domestic one-way flight via AirAsia was about $60 USD and only an hour long, so we figured this would be better for us financially.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai, we took a 15 minute taxi to our hotel, which was my favorite hotel of the trip. Phor Liang Meum Terracotta Arts Hotel was founded by the grandson of a world-renowned elephant healer who established his own story as a terracotta sculptor. The hotel is adorned with incredible hand sculpted terracotta architecture and healthy, beautiful, tropical plants.
After dropping off our luggage and changing into something suitable for hiking, we taxi’d to the Monk’s Trailhead of Wat Pha Lat, which is a small temple complex built deep in the jungle. It was definitely dry season in early March, so the jungle wasn’t as lush as it is during the rainy season, but the hike was beautiful. The hike was about 3.5 miles round trip and the trail is out and back.
The temple itself was definitely my favorite one of the trip. It felt very mystic and so very Thailand. The authentic architecture of the many temples and stairs built atop a waterfall is the stuff of fairytales and an absolute must see. The jungle felt alive around us with the sound of the waterfall and the birds in the trees, while monks prayed quietly in their respected sacred places.
Pro Tip: Bring temple appropriate clothes to put on before entering, water, and LOTS of bug spray.
Once we finished the hike and caught a taxi back to our hotel, we showered and changed for dinner at our hotel’s sister restaurant: The Faces Gallery and Gastro Bar. The vibes were absolutely incredible. The restaurant is an oasis of the same textured terracotta art as our hotel, with even more plants and warm, upward lighting. The food was also wonderful.
Day 3: Elephant Day! The day I had been looking forward to most.
Okay, quick rant! I spent literal days researching elephant interaction tours and sanctuaries in Thailand. I combed through blogs, google reviews and social media to find the most ethical one I possibly could.
I am by no means an expert, but I am a heavily researched person and it takes a lot for me to feel comfortable with the treatment of animals – especially for profit/tourism.
Here are all the boxes an organization has to check before I’ll partake:
- Absolutely no forced interaction. Responsible and consensual interaction with animals has to be the tour guide’s number one priority and it needs to be enforced with the participants. The tour company has to operate by the rules that the animal makes the first move and the animal is NEVER to be pursued or chased. This means, no riding, no touching unless they touch you, etc.
- No drugs. If an animal has to be heavily sedated in order to interact with humans, I consider that abuse.
- Physical abuse. If the animal is beaten into submission/participation, I’m out. I know it’s hard to tell and it’s often hidden, so I read a lot of google reviews to make sure the treatment that other tourists witnessed is positive. Especially if something is noticed behind the scenes.
- Small organizations. I will always support a smaller tour if they check boxes 1-3. I’m not trying to give my money to greedy people. The ones that cap their tour times, tourist numbers and active days are the best ones. Even if that means they have less animals or a lesser experience to offer. Animals being forced to entertain hordes of tourists every single day without any breaks, days off or downtime is the equivalent of a zoo. Even if they were “rescued” from a “worse” situation, that doesn’t make it okay in my book.
- REAL education. No, not that Sea World shit. Actual conservational efforts and care in educating the public on the animal’s behaviors, history, plans to care for them and actionable steps to help protect their species in the wild. Even rehabilitation when it’s possible. I want to give my money to organizations that truly give a shit. Period.
I am stoked to say Elephant Freedom Village checked all of those boxes and more. EFV is a family of Karen people who have deeply cared for elephants for 7 generations and they do everything they can to give them a life of freedom while also keeping them safe. They live in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai and care for a small number of elephants. We got to hang out with 5 of them. They have an enormous property where the elephants spend 90% of their day grazing and exploring the jungle, and 10% in sheltered paddocks where they eat dinner and bed down for the night. The elephants and their caretakers all live together on the same giant property. The elephants were not forced into interaction, they just really liked the treats we had and are super food motivated animals.
We got picked up at our hotel by an EFV driver who took us to the village. When we arrived, we were given traditional Karen attire to wear for the day. There were only 9 people in our group including the 4 of us. They provided us with coffee and gave us a 20 minute rundown of how EFV operates. They explained the elephants lifestyles, their personalities, and the Karen people who care for them. We were given the rules of interacting with them safely and a rundown of how the day would go. Once we finished our coffee, 5 elephants were walked (untethered) to the village. The adult elephants stood behind a fence and we were given the opportunity to feed them fruit and bamboo as a little test to see how our group of humans acted around the animals. After we all passed the test, we all walked into the forest with the elephants to another large spot with more snacks to feed them. We spent about an hour getting to know each elephant’s personality and learning about their history. There was one pregnant elephant, 2 baby elephants, 1 teenaged female elephant, and the adult mama elephant to the 3 young ones. The three younger elephants were so silly, naughty and hilarious. The two older mamas were super calm and sweet.
After the snack sesh, we took a leisurely stroll through the jungle with the untethered elephants. They were stubborn and funny, going at exactly their own pace. The trail was thin, so we all walked in a line with elephants randomly dispersed between humans. About 45 minutes later, we arrived to a vista overlooking a waterfall, we were served an authentic Karen lunch wrapped in bamboo leaves. The elephants moved along down the trail with their caretakers while we ate so they wouldn’t try to steal our food – which we were told was something that has happened in the past.
Once we finished eating, we hiked down to the waterfall to take in the sights and stick our feet in the cool water. Elephant trekking is hot, dusty business, so it was a nice little break. Quickly though, our elephants were on the move again, so we walked with them to another waterfall pool where they got ready for their bath. We all removed our shoes and Karen clothes to reveal our bathing suits and we were given brushes for scrubbing the elephants.
While the rest of the group got in the water, I stayed back with the pregnant elephant for some quiet quality time. She seemed content to take the day slowly, and I was content to hang with her a bit longer while everyone splashed around with the baby elephants. It wasn’t long before us girls got in and joined the fun though.
The elephant’s skin care is actually very important to their health. Bathing regularly and getting a solid scrub down is pivotal and we were so lucky to be part of that. There were many times throughout this experience that I teared up and had to pinch myself. We were bathing elephants in a waterfall pool in Thailand. Literally what the fuck. How did we get so lucky?!
Once the babies were freshly cleaned and dusted (this protects them from biting insects and mosquitos) it was time to head back to the village. We got back, said our final goodbyes and toasted to a truly treasured experience.
An EFV driver took us back to our hotel and we showered and changed quickly to go see the famous Chiang Mai Saturday Night Market. It was absolutely packed with delectable street food vendors and souvenir shopping galore. I got some delightful pad thai (I think I ate pad thai every single day, lol) and mango sticky rice. My husband found some fresh squeezed juice and some Khao Soy. My sister in law and her partner each found their own favorites throughout the market. To say the market was overstimulating would be an understatement. That place was nuts. The food was incredible though.
Day 4: Explore the last of Chiang Mai and travel to Khao Sok Village
Khao Sok National Park is not an easy place to get to, really. Especially when you’ve got a trip packed with plans to see it all. Day 4 was dedicated to getting there, but not before we spent the morning exploring a few more temples in Chiang Mai and seeing the last we could of the lovely city. We saw the Silver Temple and Wat Chiang Man. Walking around Chiang Mai in March is hot as hell, so we spent the last hour or so of our morning sitting in the air conditioned lobby of our hotel.
In the afternoon, we flew 2 hours from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani. In Surat Thani, we were picked up by our hotel shuttle and driven another 2 hours to our glamping accommodation in Khao Sok Village.
Man, I wished so badly we had another night to spend here because Khao Sok Boutique Hideaway was unbelievable. It was really just a landing spot before our Khao Sok National Park adventure, but the lush scenery and glamping accommodations felt so unique. We each had our own little tent with a private bathroom and shower. The bed was surprisingly comfortable and there was air conditioning. There was a pool and a restaurant on site so we didn’t have to go anywhere for our creature comforts. I will forever wish we’d had more time there.
Day 5: Khao Sok National Park
This was probably the most difficult part of the trip to plan. I wanted a jungle wildlife trek, a tour of Cheow Lan Lake and an overnight stay at a floating bungalow all wrapped into one experience/payment. I needed it to be an all-inclusive situation due to the language barrier mostly. I didn’t want to get stuck anywhere or have some portion of it all lost in translation. The reason this was hard to find was because staying at a floating bungalow resort was an experience in itself, so tacking on a boat trip, a wildlife spotting guide and a trek was beyond what most people wanted. There are only a handful of floating bungalow resorts on the lake and they all range greatly in comfortability. It seemed like I could find a comfy bungalow with air conditioning and nice beds, but they didn’t offer a guided tour of the lake or a jungle trek. On the flip side, I also found companies offering treks and boat tours, but the accommodations were pretty rough. And listen, I’m all for primitive accommodations if it means I get unique experiences, but we were going hard and ya girl needs air conditioning or else she’ll fight someone. There was one that initially caught my interest but it was wildly expensive – like thousands of dollars per night.
After lots of digging, outgoing emails, and pros and cons lists, I emailed Khao Sok Lake Tours and told them what I wanted and asked if they could provide it. Luckily, they made it incredibly easy and took care of everything for a very reasonable price of $725 USD for 4 people – 2 bungalows, all meals, all pick ups and drop offs, a private 2 day boat tour and a private guide for all of it. Holy shit, what a treat.
So, on the morning of day 5, Khao Sok Lake Tours picked us up from our Boutique Hideaway and drove us to the tour office 30 minutes away. We were told to pack a lake bag with 1 outfit, our bathing suit, our camera, and our toiletries. We were instructed not to bring our whole ass luggage on the tour and it was to be locked safely away at the office. Once we were repacked and ready, we were driven 1.5 hours to the National Park entrance to meet our guide. I don’t trust myself to spell his name correctly, but he was the absolute best. He chartered a long tail boat with its own driver for us. We told him we wanted to see as many jungle animals as possible and he took our request very seriously. Right off the bat, we went off the beaten path to spot a huge colony of bats and then he took us to a special secret spot to see wild elephants. We got to sit in each spot for a lengthy period of time just watching them. Photographing wild elephants amongst towering Avatar-esc limestone mountains was one of the most euphoric feelings I think I’ll ever have.
A while into our wildlife adventure, we were getting hungry, so we were taken to our overwater house at Phupa Waree Floating Bungalows to check in and drop off our bags. Shortly after that, we were given a huge lunch with green curry, rice, an egg omelet and veggies. We had about an hour to relax before we met our guide for an afternoon jungle trek and sunset boat cruise.
On our jungle hike, we scrambled up waterfalls and watched the trees around us for birds, monkeys and snakes while following our energetic guide. He cut up mangos and picked wild berries for us to try while butterflies flew between our limbs and the sun slowly went down. The sounds in the jungle were straight from my Calm sleep app but, like, in real life. Describing the experience doesn’t do it justice at all.
We watched the sun set from our longtail boat and we watched the full moon rise over the limestone cliffs around us while passing around a makeshift bamboo shot glass of whiskey our tour guide made for us. It was pure magic.
We rode back to our floating bungalow for dinner and a shower. Dinner was a large roasted fish with more green curry, rice and veggies. Our rooms were pretty primitive and the beds were not the most comfy, but they were clean and we got to peacefully watch the full moon from our private balcony. I would’ve slept on the ground in an elephant hut for another day like this one.
Day 6: Sunrise monkey spotting and a farewell to Khao Sok
Our guide told us to meet him at the dock for a sunrise boat ride and some more animal adventuring. So we met him at 6am and we ventured out to find some monkeys. We saw wild macaque and one very loud gibbon. We also watched a water monitor scramble into the bushes on a cliff bank and some crazy looking birds.
A few too short hours later, we were told it was time to eat breakfast and check out of our bungalow. So we did and got back into our boat for our final lake ride amongst the limestone. We took lots of pictures and rode around the famous Three Brothers. Finally, we were back at the marina and we said our final goodbyes to to our guide over pad thai and then made our way back to the tour office to get our luggage.
The Khao Sok Lake Tour company arranged a ride for us from Khao Sok Village to Krabi, which was about a 2 hour ride.
Once we made it to Krabi, we checked into our awesome AirBnB and resolved to rest for the night. We had been running non stop and the pool was calling our name. The AirBnB was super clean, comfortable and the balcony overlooking the pool was my absolute favorite spot. I watched the sunrise twice from that spot, I read many chapters of my book, and it was nice to just breathe.
Our AirBnB was a bit off the beaten path, which is something I ended up being grateful for, but it was tough to find taxis that would pick us up at such a remote location. The AirBnB offered scooters to rent, but none of us had ever driven one and we were rather sleep deprived so we opted out. We found a nice little dinner spot close enough to walk to though, so it wasn’t that big of an issue. The delicious little local restaurant was called Khun Noi Authentic Thai Food. The walk was a bit sketchy as the highway was pretty busy. It was worth it though because Khun Noi was a delight. We ate there twice during our stay in Krabi.
Day 7: Explore Krabi
We honestly didn’t have much of a plan for day 7 other than a bit of exploration and heavy relaxation. So we taxi’d to Ao Nang for a late breakfast at Cafe 8.98 and got massages at Royal Palm Spa. I, personally, am not made for traditional Thai massages. I’m not bendy and I don’t want to be bent, lol. However, I was happily surprised to find that Royal Palm offered relaxation massages and I can confirm it was the best massage I’ve ever had. My sister in law and her partner each got Thai massages and they loved them.
After we were sufficiently softened up, we got ferry tickets and took the short 15 minute longtail boat ride to Railay Beach. It was absolutely breathtaking, but it was packed with tourists. I was somewhat expecting this, so it wasn’t too unpleasant, but the authentic Thai experience was a bit watered down and everything was significantly more expensive.
We walked around for a bit, laid on the beach, found some feral monkeys stealing trash, and basically just wandered about looking for shade.
During my research, I read about bioluminescent plankton in Railay Bay. Seeing bioluminescent plankton is on my bucket list, so I found a clear kayak company that specializes in taking people out into the ocean after the sun went down to see the phenomenon. The kayaking trip ended up being cute, and the sunset was really nice, but the plankton were a bit underwhelming. It was a cool vibe though, and super fun to see.
Day 8: Sunrise Phi Phi Island Tour
This was probably the most disappointing day of the trip. In the grand scheme, we were in Thailand, which was dope, so it wasn’t that bad. But since I’m recapping, I’ve gotta be honest about it.
I found a tour on Get Your Guide to see all the “must see” beaches in Southern Thailand. The speed boat was packed with 42 people, and the boat was enclosed on both sides, so we couldn’t really see anything. Getting on and off the boat was a nightmare with all the people they stuffed onto it, and we hardly got any time in each location. While seeing the beaches was nice, I think there are better and more authentic ways to see them. After awhile they all look the same, so choosing 1 or 2 is probably a better option. They also included lunch on the tour, and it ended up making my husband super sick and he spent our last night in Krabi projectile vomiting every 5 minutes.
Additionally, my sister in law got stung by a box jellyfish and had a long, gnarly gash up the inside of her leg. Luckily it was a mild sting and she didn’t suffer any dire symptoms other than the pain of the sting, but it was scary, as box jellyfish can be extremely dangerous. This obviously was not the fault of the tour, and the tour medic was super helpful, but it was the icing on a shit cake of a day.
Southern Thailand during the high season is what I imagine Miami Beach is like during Spring Break. Everywhere was packed with tourists which made it hard to really enjoy anything at all. I was not surprised because I had read this ahead of time and was mentally prepared, but it was still a bummer. Luckily the AirBnB we chose was a nice little oasis away from all the chaos.
If I could go back, I probably wouldn’t.
Pro Tip: The ocean water bites in Southern Thailand. While we were snorkeling we saw some amazing fish, but we kept feeling constant little stings all over our bodies. I read somewhere that it was stinging coral and that’s why the locals snorkel and dive with full wetsuits on even though the water is warm.
Day 9: Back to Bangkok
We caught an early flight to Bangkok and landed just in time to explore a little bit before packing up once and for all. We opted to stay at the same Theatre Residence Hotel we did on our first night, because it was familiar during the planning process. Plus the proximity to the temples we wanted to see was great.
Wat Pho had unfortunately closed by the time we got there, but we got to walk around the Grand Palace. We spent about an hour trying to soak in all of the murals and incredible architecture. Everything about Grand Palace was amazing.
My husband and I made Omakase dinner reservations at a restaurant called Momono Omakase. It took us roughly 2 hours to get to our reservation from the hotel because Bangkok traffic is bananas. Dinner was lovely with no shortage of dry ice and creative displays. My husband and I are huge sushi connoisseurs and we truly love the Omakase experience. Saying our farewells over such a delightful meal was a perfect way to end the trip.
Tips & Tricks:
We used an app called Grab to get most of our rides. It’s like their equivalent of Uber or Lyft. It was sometimes difficult to get a driver, but it usually ended up working out. If it didn’t, we would find a taxi driver. It was nice not having to count out cash because Grab used a card on file to charge us for the rides.
If we didn’t get a Grab, we had previously arranged for a pickup by our hotel or the tour we were doing. It’s sometimes more expensive to get a transfer from the hotel, but in a place as rural as Khao Sok, it was a must. Be sure to map out most of your logistics before the trip.
We didn’t brush our teeth with the tap water, and we didn’t typically accept ice unless we could physically see the ice maker from where we ordered. We drank a lot of hot bottled water, which was fine because we brought a lot of Liquid IV. Just like Mexico, don’t open your mouth in the shower!
Each of us ended up packing in only one carry on sized suitcase and a “personal item” which was a small duffel. We didn’t want to check our bags for fear of our luggage getting lost. I did check mine for the domestic flights because I had a lot of liquids and I didn’t want any of it to get flagged and tossed out while going through security.
Anyway, I hope this helps! If you end up following this itinerary, let me know how it worked out for you!