03/03/2013 - 11/03/2013
After returning from the Elephant Nature Park, we spent a few days exploring the city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's second biggest city after Bangkok but thankful a lot less chaotic. We had a reminder of home on our first evening when we were surprised by a sudden downpour as we were wandering around the Sunday Walking Market; the streets descended into chaos as customers ran for cover and street vendors rushed to pull waterproof sheets over their products. We took shelter for a while, then decided to head home regardless (we are English after all).
The next day we had a dose of culture; Chiang Mai has countless temples but we limited ourselves to three to avoid getting 'templed-out'; a term seemingly common among backpackers in Southeast Asia. Our first stop was Wat Chedi Luang, an impressive old brick structure with four staircases leading up to the centre, where a Buddha statue is housed. We then moved on to Wat Phan Tao and Wat Phra Singh, both impressive temples with gold Buddha statues and incense abound.
We then decided to treat our aching limbs to a Thai massage...at the Chiang Mai Women's Prison. While it hardly sounds like the most luxurious way to relax, Chiang Mai runs an admirable rehabilitation program for its female prisoners by teaching them the art of massage, and thereby giving them an employable skill for when they are released. The massage parlour is located across the road from the prison in a tranquil garden setting, and the massage was as good as any you'd find in Chiang Mai.
For our last day in the city we had booked a cooking school, and I cannot recommend it enough. We were picked up from our hostel by a member of staff from the school, taken to a local market to select ingredients, then to their school where we each had a cooking station and were able to select our dishes from a list of options. I chose Thai vegetable soup, red curry (with paste made from scratch), sweet and sour stir fry, Thai big noodles and mango with sticky rice.
Although the demonstrations were quick, it was easy to follow as Thai food is actually amazingly quick and easy to cook; most dishes just involve throwing all your ingredients in a pan, and only take about 10 minutes to cook. We also got a recipe book to take away with us, so we have no excuse not to cook for everyone we know when we return.
That night we began our long journey to the island of Ko Tao on the east coast; after setting off at 7pm we finally arrived on the island at 4pm, 2 coaches, 2 taxis and a ferry later. We stayed in the busy village of Sairee by the main beach, so our opinion may be slightly biased, but we found the island to be extremely touristy, overpriced and westernized. The highlight of our trip was the scuba diving; we found a lovely dive schhol filled with friendly staff and took a boat out to two dive sites - 'Japanese Gardens' and 'Twins'. The water was beautifully clear, and we saw lots of fish, and even a few stingrays!
The next island, Ko Phangan, was similarly touristy, but as we arrived shortly after the Full Moon Party, the island was pretty quiet; just how we wanted it. We stayed in a gorgeous Thai bungalow for just £7 a night, and had a lovely few days lying on the beach and recharging our batteries. We also caught some beautiful sunsets over Haad Rin Nai.
However, we still couldn't shake the feeling that the islands had fallen short of our expectations, and so came our change of heart. We had planned to go to Ko Samui, the third island in the Gulf Coast cluster, but after being underwhelmed by the previous two, we decided to head to Malaysia, and see what lay in store for us there. The only thing standing between us and the island of Penang was a bus journey from hell...