Thailand: How sun, sand, snorkeling, and a Leonardo DiCaprio movie helped me get over my break up

It was the summer of 2012.

A pretty unremarkable year for most people, given recent standards. Facebook had had its IPO recently and it had bought Instagram for a billion dollars. On a more personal front, I’d been unceremoniously dumped by my boyfriend of nearly six years, and despite what my friends and family kept telling me, I was convinced that my broken heart would never heal. Any chance at love was now out of the question because my poor heart had been stabbed by a figurative ice-pick.

A few drinking sessions and innumerable not-completely-tone-deaf karaoke attempts later, my friends and I decided that a beach holiday would be the perfect distraction; we’d already been considering traveling to Thailand, or Vietnam and Cambodia — essentially, somewhere with beaches, interesting culture, good food, and no (or minimum) visa hassles. We settled on Thailand — our decision was made easier by the pictures of the stunning Koh Phi Phi islands and the madness that travelers online had described the full moon parties of Koh Phangan to be! Air Asia had the most affordable flights to and from Bangkok. And so, the decision was made — the flights were booked, the leave from work was granted, we were all set for our Thai trip. Broken heart, what was that again?

By the time we landed at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport at 4 am, after an unfortunately turbulent flight that had way too many lecherous men on board, we were so relieved that the long-ish queue at the immigration counter for the visa on arrival was a breeze. Walking around an international airport during non-peak hours (unless you’re at Heathrow or Changi, where there is no concept of “non-peak hours”) is a bit surreal: the stores with the displayed merchandise look a tad bit sad, and correct me if I’m wrong, but even a large airport looks smaller than it is when it’s empty, as if the people and their usual hustle and bustle add not just to its character but also to its size.

Looking at the cabs parked outside Suvarnabhumi Airport felt a little bit like being in Sephora — the array of colours that the cabs are painted in is faintly reminiscent of shades of nail polish or lipsticks — as if someone with a delightful sense of style and whimsy from the cab company (just FYI, the yellow and green cabs are independently owned ones while the other coloured vehicles are owned by taxi companies) thought to themselves, “I’d like fuchsia rouge for this car” or “My! that shade of petal rebel would look sweet on that ride!” The colours range from bright red and hot pink to mint green and bluish-teal — it’s quite something!

In Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach, a young American backpacker Richard travels through Thailand in search of a near-mythical, idyllic, and isolated beach that he believes to be uninhabited and untouched by commercial tourism. Four years later, as a lot of us know, Danny Boyle directed a movie based on the book starring Leonardo DiCaprio — a smorgasbord of hippie, trippy antics in a shockingly beautiful landscape. I must confess, I was one of those who read the book only after the movie released; my teenage crush on DiCaprio made his adventures through Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and that “secret” island they live on (which we now know was Maya Bay and the Koh Phi Phi islands) seem like the perfect coming-of-age story, and I’d made up my mind that I would someday travel to those places. His time in Bangkok was portrayed as more “crazy” than anything else — from drinking snake blood to running into Robert Carlyle’s eccentric Daffy. In the book, however, Garland describes Richard’s time in Bangkok in his inimitably dark witty words. Richard stays at a seedy hotel on Khao San road, a place that Garland described as “the centre of the backpacking universe.” And boy, was he not kidding!

When our cab driver cheerfully dropped us off at one end of Khao San road (it’s a relatively narrow street, so vehicles don’t enter the actual Khao San road) at 6 am, we’d expected to head to the D&D Inn (it’s the biggest of the backpacking hotels on that iconic street, and we’d booked ourselves a room there for a night before flying to Phuket) and wait for a while before we checked in. We knew we’d gotten there too early, so we’d assumed that in the meantime, we’d quickly freshen up, grab some breakfast at whatever place was open this early, and then explore the neighbourhood.

Now, just to give you some context, we (me and the two friends I was traveling with), are all pretty worldly and well-traveled — between the three of us, we’ve lived in at least three countries besides India and traveled to every continent except South America and Antarctica. All three of us were working together at a travel startup then, so we’d done our research about Thailand and were perfectly aware of the “ladyboys” and the “sex tourism” that the country is infamous for. “Culture shock” is not what we were expecting at all; so imagine our surprise when, getting out of our cab toting our luggage and still sleepy from the red-eye flight, we were greeted by a live orgy right there on the street! Ignoring the moaning sounds emanating from that group of people, we scuttled on with our bags, trying to turn a blind eye to anything else that might be unnecessarily provocative. The shops and stalls on the street were shut, but wide-eyed tourists still hungover from a night of revelry were constantly being accosted by aggressive ladyboys, right up to the lobby of our hotel. Clearly, Khao San road was still reeling from whatever madness had gone down last night. It’s alright, we told ourselves, this doesn’t affect us.

At the front desk, we were greeted warmly by the staff who informed us that the earliest they could get our room ready was by 10 am. Four hours feels like an eternity when you haven’t slept all night, but we thanked them, checked our bags in the luggage room, and stepped out for breakfast. McDonald’s was the only eatery open; satiated with a greasy breakfast of cheeseburgers and fries, we felt better equipped to deal with Khao San road. Bring it on Khao San! We walked back to our hotel to try and find the coveted spots on the sofa in the corner of the lobby, so that we could catch up on our sleep, when we were abruptly woken up by the loud voices of a group of British gap-year students arguing about something. Still groggy with sleep, we caught snippets of their conversation disinterestedly — there had been a fight the night before. And…..somebody had been stabbed in the elevator of our hotel! All three of us bolted upright and looked in horror at the bandaged arm (with blood still seeping through!) of one the boys in the group. What insanity was this! And what hell had we gotten ourselves into!

For the next two hours, each one of us took turns keeping an eye on things while the other two slept. Our first impression of Khao San road had been terrible! We’d booked ourselves in the same hotel on our last night in Bangkok as well, after we returned from Krabi, and before we flew out of the country. Now, we were seriously considering checking into a different hotel for that night — maybe this backpacking thing was okay through Europe, maybe this wasn’t the ideal place for it. In her essay in the The Best American Travel Writing 2001, Susan Orlean, a staff writer for The New Yorker, referred to Khao San road as “the place to disappear.” I’ll unashamedly say that, in hindsight, that sounds creepy and ominous!

At 10 am, we were handed the keys to our room — a triple room with a clean bathroom, a television and fridge, and nothing much else. And here’s when things start to get interesting — I don’t know if it was the much-needed hot shower and sleep or the afternoon sunlight bathing the hotel and Khao San road in its warm glow — but when we stepped again in the afternoon, it’s like the world had suddenly changed. Khao San road was alive and buzzing with activity: local shop/store/stall owners were proudly displaying their wares, luring us to their merchandise with sweet smiles on their sun-tanned faces; politely inquisitive about us and where we were from and respectful if we weren’t interested in buying anything from them right then. The air was somehow sweeter and perfumed; my memory of it is a bit blurred now, but I’m pretty certain I’m not just making it up — maybe it was because of the flowers in water buckets next to some stalls, maybe it was the food and the Sato (Thai rice wine) that was being sold in many places — there was definitely something there! We wandered around Khao San road, taking in this pleasant surprise of a makeover. Our first proper meal in Thailand was perfect: outdoor seating at Green House restaurant on Rambuttri Alley (it’s a street parallel to Khao San road — perfectly close to the shops but away from the manic-ness of Khao San) with our first traditional pad thai, with crispy chicken and sticky lamb broth. These were the days before Instagramming your food became a prerequisite, so there’s no photographic evidence of the food we ate. But take my word, won’t you?

We traveled in a tuk-tuk to Siam Square that evening. Siam Square is Bangkok’s shopping mecca and pretty much the center of the city — giant Hello Kitty and other dolls welcome you to the main shopping malls, there are some interesting sculptures all over the places, and the many footbridges over the busy main road give you glorious glimpses of street food vendors, shoppers, and traffic. Expectedly, we went on an insane shopping spree, and had to constantly remind ourselves that spending all our money shopping at the start of our trip was a terrible idea!

Siam Square. All photos courtesy the writer

Siam Square. All photos courtesy the writer

Street food at Siam Square

Street food at Siam Square

It was maybe around 9 pm when we got back to our hotel. A quick change of clothes (into our recently bought new clothes, natch!) and we were out on Khao San road to see the legendary partying for ourselves. And it did not disappoint!

Plenty has been written and said about Bangkok’s street food; since we didn’t have enough time to go to Chinatown or Sukhumvit, Khao San was our golden standard. And it did pretty darn well for itself! While Chinatown has its photogenic glass noodles and Sukhumvit does really yum pad krapao moo, grilled chicken and sticky rice, Khao San is where the crazy is at. This was a test of our bravery (DiCaprio’s Richard would’ve been proud of me!) — fried insects and worms anyone? I ate grasshoppers and other insects for the first time in my life that day, and they were lip smackingly delish — lean mean protein!

Khao San road was lit! There were street performers singing and playing instruments, all kinds of stalls selling all kinds of things — food, souvenirs, bikinis, shoes; alcohol was being consumed by people as if there was no tomorrow (we drank alcohol out of a bucket that day!) — nobody messed with anyone else, no one took advantage of you being small and foreign (that’s me in a nutshell!), we could wear what we wanted and drink and eat what we liked, and nobody batted an eyelid. It was wonderful!

'Protein' at Khao San road

'Protein' at Khao San road

alcohol in a bucket; me eating a bug

(Clockwise from above left) Street performer; pretty lights; alcohol in a bucket; me eating a bug

We briefly toyed with the idea of staying up all night drinking and dancing (we knew that Khao San road didn’t really sleep at all) before catching a cab to the airport for our early morning flight to Phuket, but common sense ultimately prevailed, and a couple of hours after midnight (when the crowd and buzz on Khao San was still going as strong as it had for the past few hours!), we headed to our room and to bed. Had that seriously only been just the first day of our trip?!

This is what Thailand did really well — time stood still when we wanted to appreciate the beauty of a place or the random perfection of a moment; otherwise, the days extended to something that felt way beyond 24 hours — not in a boring, “are we there yet” manner, but so that we could fit all the crazy number of things we wanted to do in a given day. It was magical how it did that!

Phuket was a slower, more relaxed version of Bangkok; we got to Phuket on a sunny day, marveling at the beauty of the islands as our flight landed at the scenic Phuket airport.

The soft sandy beaches and the fact that our hotel (the lovely Amber Residence) was a two-minute walk from Patong beach compensated for the slightly garish tackiness of the cage dancers and the go-go bars on Bangla road.

We’d only committed to one night in Phuket; that evening, we booked ourselves on a shuttle to Krabi leaving the next afternoon. Krabi and Koh Phi Phi — here we come!

Krabi, like Phuket, is on southern Thailand’s west coast facing the Andaman sea. A ferry ride from Phuket to Krabi is approximately 1 hour; by road, it took us around three hours. As you approach Krabi, the scenery gradually changes; most of the drive is pretty, but Krabi is like a piece of art — sheer limestone cliffs and giant boulders covered with rainforest vegetation, jutting out of the sea — comprising over a hundred little islands. We were staying in the resort town of Ao Nang in Krabi, at the beautiful Krabi Aquamarine Resort & Spa. To say that the resort was a great choice for accommodation would be an understatement — with stunning, large rooms that opened up to the perfectly-manicured lawns and swimming pool, our 3-night stay here was a well-deserved indulgence (that’s not to say it was expensive, far from it — it was just not the typical backpacker’s style of accommodation).

(L) View while landing in Phuket; (R) Patong beach in Phuket

(L) View while landing in Phuket; (R) Patong beach in Phuket

Go-go bars on Bangla Road in Phuket

Go-go bars on Bangla Road in Phuket

Ao Nang is sort of a sleepy town. There is one main street that runs parallel to almost the entire length of Ao Nang beach; this street is lined with shops that sell the prettiest (if slightly expensive) merchandise and pubs that have some of the most spectacular views you’ll find anywhere! We spent our mornings cycling down the main street (our hotel provided free bicycle rentals); on one of the mornings during low-tide as the water receded, over a kilometer of the breadth of the beach was exposed, and we took immense pleasure just walking on parts of the sandy beach that would otherwise be completely submerged during high-tide. In the evening, we would amble down the main street exploring food joints and beachside shacks; many places would close early, although we still managed to grab a few after-hours drinks with the owners, played darts, and sat on the rock edge looking at the surrounding darkness over the water — a few flickering lights over the distant horizon would make it seem like a scene out of a Famous Five book. Maybe someone was trying to steal buried treasure from a hidden cove?

On our second full day in Krabi, we decided to go on a day trip to Koh Phi Phi and nearby islands. Equipped with our swimwear, sun tan lotion, and an urge to snorkel, we got on a pretty blue and white speedboat with adventure in our hearts — even an overcast day and a slightly choppy sea wouldn’t dampen our spirits! The speedboat ride is an interesting experience — very few things make you feel as joyously liberated as being on a speedboat cruising past beautiful islands with the wind in your hair. On the other hand, the bumps are legit! If you’re okay with being slightly bruised from the ride at the end of the day, go for it! For me, the bumps were a part of the experience — Maya Bay, where DiCaprio’s butt had touched the sand, was waiting for me!

Approaching the beach at Maya Bay

Approaching the beach at Maya Bay

825 Railey beach

Railey beach

Our speedboat

Our speedboat

By the end of that day, I’d snorkeled past clown fish and other underwater gems, I’d gone swimming in the prettiest blue water, eaten octopus for lunch, had speedboat-ride induced bruises on my thighs (which I wore as battle scars for a while after, for some strange reason), and sat down at the exact spot on the beach at Maya Bay where DiCaprio sat while filming The Beach — my teenage self would’ve been thrilled!

Later that night, back at Ao Nang, we hung out at a local bar called The Lazy Bar, owned by a sweet guy named Ra, who identified himself as a Thai rastafarian. We ate, we drank, Ra and his band (yes, he’s also in a band) played music for us, Ra’s brother serenaded me with a Thai song I didn’t understand the lyrics of (it was something about being beautiful like a flower and free-spirited like a river!), and had a terrific time all round.

A day later, we headed back to Bangkok for a night, when I ate, drank, and shopped to my (no-longer broken) heart’s content. We stayed at the D&D Inn once again — Khao San road had a special place in our hearts now. Sure, those first few hours on our first morning there had been unnerving, but the place had reiterated something we’ve been taught all our lives — first impressions can be changed, never judge a book by its cover, and so on. Things don’t always go or seem exactly as you want or exactly as you’d thought they would, which is fine. That’s life. We deal with it and do our best, in the process finding something else amazing about people, places, and even ourselves. My friends and I flew back home the day after.

My trip to Thailand marked many firsts: my first time snorkeling, my first time eating insects, my first trip as an adult that wasn’t with my family or my ex-boyfriend. Bangkok-Phuket-Krabi (Ao Nang and Koh Phi Phi)-Bangkok: this was a game-changing trip for me, cathartic in a lot of ways.

It’s when I realised that “adulting” isn’t so bad after all!


Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 09:41 AM

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