When I was planning my first trip to Asia in 2013, the countries that I was most looking forward to seeing were Thailand and Indonesia. I thought for sure Bali and Thailand as a whole were going to be my favorite spots from my two months of travels.
In reality, they ended up being the biggest disappointments from that trip.
Maybe it was because Thailand was built up so much by other people before I went, or maybe it was just because I didn’t jive with the country at the time. Whatever it was, I hardly enjoyed my time in Thailand and wrote it off as an overrated spot in Southeast Asia.
Partly, I think I came to this conclusion because I only had two weeks in the country and stuck only to the tourist route. I traveled to Bangkok, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party, and Chiang Mai. That was it.
I don’t think you could have more of a cliche Thailand backpacker experience than those few places.
And yes, although I had fun at my first Full Moon Party, I also had my money stolen on the way down to the islands. I only used the annoying “tourist buses” to get around the country instead of the government buses.
I despised the traffic and unrelenting heat of Bangkok, and I found Chiang Mai to be an overrated tourist trap.
I also didn’t sleep much when I was in Bangkok on my first trip, because I made the foolish decision to stay right on Khao San Road. My room vibrated from the bass beat downstairs every night until the sun came up.
I cringe now to think of how much of a noob I was at traveling in non-western countries only a few short years ago. But hey, you have to learn somewhere, right?
My return to Thailand this year was a completely different experience. I finally saw the draw that so many people claim to have with the country. I found myself more fully immersed in the local culture, and connected to so many fellow travelers as well.
I still have no love for Bangkok, it’s probably my least favorite city in Asia (and I’ve been there six times now so I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon), but I saw everywhere else in a new light this time.
My trip in Thailand this year was four months long. That’s a long time to get to know a country, and get to know Thailand I did.
Two of those months were spent living on a tiny island called Koh Mak on the Eastern Gulf. It’s not a place where many travelers go, and because it was such a small island I interacted with laid back locals every day.
I worked part-time at a dive shop on the island, and I would see the same people walk by every day, waving hello and gradually sensing them open up to me.
I would go out with the local boys who also worked at the dive shop and experience a proper Thai night out.
They would help me with my Thai and laugh as my tongue tried to work the unfamiliar sounds. We would drink beers and they would show me their favorite dishes at the restaurant nearby.
I got used to seeing scorpions on the side of the road, large and small lizards and geckos everywhere, and plenty of cockroaches – although I already got used to those when I lived in Sydney. I spent most days writing and swimming in the ocean, or at least sipping on a mango smoothie next to it.
I would ride my bike all over the island, stopping in at my favorite cafe for a coffee near the ocean. At sunset, I would ride back to my bare white room, sometimes stopping off for a cocktail in a hammock as the sun went down.
Life was simple, but by slowing down I started to see why Thailand is such a special place. I saw how beautiful it was, how friendly the locals can be when you go outside of the tourist spots, and the wild untouched nature that still exists in a few parts of the country.
The rest of my time in Thailand was almost the complete opposite. It involved a lot of partying, countless new friends, and life in the more popular southern islands, both on the Andaman Coast and the Western Gulf.
I would spend every night watching the sunset, dancing under the stars with the sand between my toes and a Leo in hand. I spent a good chunk of that time on Koh Lanta, and that’s where I met some of my favorite people in my whole eight months of Asia.
One aspect that I loved discovering about Thailand this time around as a solo traveler: it’s arguably the most social country in the whole of Asia.
There was always a beach party to go to, body paint to deck yourself out in, and fire shows most nights. I went back to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party and Songkran this year, and fully enjoyed myself for five days straight.
Making friends was as easy as asking someone where they were from and enjoying a group dinner together.
Thailand is the hub for making travel friends because it’s so easy to meet people. Everyone is there to simply enjoy a beautiful place and have a good time.
And it’s no wonder that Thailand is a favorite country for travelers and expats, because travel is just as much about the people you meet as it is about the places you go.
I still didn’t get a whole lot of time to explore the north of Thailand, because the islands kept calling me back to their shores, but I explored many new areas of the country just the same.
I made it to spots like Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang, Railay, Chanthaburi, Koh Chang, Koh Mak, Pai, and Chiang Rai for the first time.
Thailand didn’t steal my heart the first time around, but it easily became one of my favorite countries in Asia after this trip.
Have you ever had a completely different experience when you visited a country for a second time? It makes me realize how it can be worth it to give countries you didn’t like a second chance.
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