Let's be realistic. No matter how long it sits on my 'to-do' list, I am never going to get round to delivering that lengthy, nuanced, insightful, evocatively-written, anecdote-peppered, florid prose masterpiece that is 'Elly's travels around Thailand' on the blog. I think I exhausted myself for life in that area when I wrote an almost book-length post on Vietnam and Cambodia a couple of years ago, and have never had the inclination to repeat the effort. I keep a hand-written travel journal and simply cannot find it in me to take the time to transcribe it for the benefits of the internet. But, since we're all obsessed with lists and bite-size chunks of information these days, I thought I would deliver a Buzzfeed-style recap of my trip that cuts out the boring parts and gets straight to the valuable, the memorable, the gastronomic...and the cat-related. Because I've heard the internet loves cats too.
P.S. Scroll down to the bottom for accommodation/restaurant recommendations.
1. If a waiter/waitress in a Thai restaurant asks if you would like your food 'Thai spicy', and you eagerly nod and reply in the affirmative, do not labour under the illusion that this is what you are actually given. What you are given is food slightly less bland than that which they normally serve to Westerners. And you should be very thankful for this indeed, if you value your stomach lining and/or the flesh on the inside of your mouth.
2. Sticky rice is so much easier to eat when cooked inside a piece of bamboo. You need a friendly guide in the Chiang Rai area, who will take you on a hike through the rice fields and forests with his excitable dogs, hack down a specific type of the plant with his machete and take it to a local village where the ladies fill it with sticky rice and bake it over an open fire. The result, when you crack open the tough woody exterior of the bamboo, is that the rice steams inside a thin membrane on the inside of the plant, forming a solid tube of soft sticky rice that you can then pick up with your fingers and dip into your curry. Not one to try at home, really, but a lovely experience. You can also fill the bamboo with beaten eggs and vegetables, with a similarly tasty result (but slightly less pick-up-able).
3. If a friendly local tells you that the attraction to which you're on your way is closed for a 'Buddhist holiday', it's a lie. It is also nearly always followed by the hailing of a tuk-tuk driver in convenient proximity with the suggestion that they take you to see 'lucky Buddha', which is - also conveniently - only open for this one day. Apparently this is a common scam designed to get hapless tourists to part with large sums of money for fake gems at the next stop after the lucky Buddha. We were also told by several locals that the Grand Palace was closed and didn't open for another hour, while standing in clear view of the open doors through which many tourists were entering uninhibited. Odd.
4. Every meal needs to come with som tam. This green papaya salad is, I think, a far better option than caffeine if you're feeling sluggish. Its crunchy, sweet, sour, salty, spicy kick will wake you up in seconds. It became my habit to order it with every single meal and my favourite souvenir from Thailand is a little vegetable shredder that has enabled me to make it myself. On a similar note, shredded green mango salad with peanuts is a luscious accompaniment to a thick piece of meaty kingfish - go to Krua Apsorn in Bangkok for this.
5. Trying to eat soup while your overnight train to Chiang Mai - a route notorious for frequent derailments - is swaying and juddering violently is no easy task. However, I also learned from this experience that restaurant cars on Thai trains offer excellent food, like chicken with cashew nuts and red duck and pineapple curry. You should probably order double, though, to allow for the amount you will spill on the table/yourself/the floor/passers-by.
6. We need to ban those baggy harem pants with elephants on. If I see one more gap yah girl with artfully tousled hair and a selection of leather bracelets sporting a pair, I might have to make an official complaint to the Thailand tourist board. Ditto 'Bia Hoi' tank tops in Vietnam, and Bintang beer T-shirts in Indonesia. I have also written in my travel journal, on a similar note, 'selfie sticks are a plague on humanity. Ditto white girls with dreadlocks'.
7. A little cafe called Angel's Secrets does the best breakfast in Chaing Mai. You need to try their thick banana pancakes doused in honey and almonds, and their lemongrass tea accompanied by flower-shaped cookies that melt in the mouth and contain a sweet jam filling. While doing this, you can attempt to count the number of yoga/holistic therapy/meditation flyers on their noticeboard and get an instant impression of what Chiang Mai is like for expats.
8. If you order ginger tea in Thailand, let them put honey in it. Don't be a moron and think you'd prefer it a little less sweet so ask for it without the honey. The result will be a taste sensation akin to drinking corrosive acid as the hot, hot ginger (I'm sure the Thai variety is spicier than the English) rasps its way down your oesophagus like sandpaper, leaving you heaping teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar into the cup with no discernible difference and eventually having to abandon the almost-untouched beverage, conscious of the tragic irony that the ginger tea you ordered to numb the nausea of food poisoning has actually compounded it. In fact, my travel journal sums this up fairly succinctly: 'it was so acidic I may as well have just sucked on a hot lime'.
9. For under £5, you can travel from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in a minibus so comfortable that the seats are massage chairs and they bring you free coconut buns. The catch? You might also have to endure the quirks of Thai cinema on the overhead TV. This, in our case, meant a film about ninjas with a surprisingly scatalogical focus. But the coconut buns were nice.
10. Don't try and visit the local waterfall swimming spot when it hasn't rained for two weeks. 'Swimming' will quickly become 'sitting waist-deep in freezing water while batting mosquitoes off your goosepimpled limbs'. See illustration below. Should you add a photographer boyfriend with an interest in insects into this equation, the result will be the same, but you will be sitting for a lot longer.
11. The best Thai curries are beef panang (a coconut curry thickened with peanuts and fragrant with galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves), and khao soi (a Burmese-inspired dish that features both fried and boiled egg noodles in a sweet, creamy broth). No argument.
12. Elephants eat over 200kg of food a day. This means that, should you go to Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, you will be given a basket of watermelons approximately four times the size of a small child, and allowed to proffer these to the eager trunks of the waiting elephants. This will constitute one of many meals that day. Another interesting fact: you can buy memo pads and cards made out of recycled elephant poo.
13. If you go on a boat trip to Chiew Lan lake near Khao Sok national park and sign up for the post-lunch 'hike', be aware that 'hike' actually means 'wading waist-deep in fast-flowing waterfalls while leeches drop from overhead'. You may want to reconsider your choice of outfit and footwear. You must, however, do it, as it's amazing. See picture below.
14. Glutinous rice dumplings filled with black sesame paste and served in ginger tea. I learned how glorious this combination is in Chinatown, Bangkok. I learned later, back in York, that they are an absolute bitch to recreate, but I valiantly persevered. It sounds a strange mix, but there is something incredibly crunchy, savoury yet buttery about black sesame paste, and the fiery ginger tea is an instant pick-me-up. Add a squidgy exterior and pleasantly doughy texture, and you have a satisfying dessert or snack that is also vaguely good for you.
15. If an Englishman with a cockney accent marries a Thai woman and teaches her to speak English, she will also speak with a cockney/Thai hybrid accent. This needs to be heard to be believed.
16. Don't drink cold drinks after a massage. Apparently this can give you cramp.
17. Sweet coconut sticky rice with mango is a glorious breakfast when in Thailand. It's not so easy to recreate back home, because imported mangoes in the UK are tragic. Therefore you must gorge yourself on it while you can.
18. Always check the toilet roll dispenser for cockroaches before you pull a piece off and get the shock of your life.
19. The Thais put pea aubergines in a lot of their curries. These are a bit like eating bullets, and will fill your mouth with an unpleasant bitterness that is not masked by the delicious curry sauce. Or, as I expressed much more neatly in my travel journal: 'pea aubergines. I just don't understand :('
20. There are 459 species of mosquito in Thailand. This probably means many things for those interested in entomology. For the lay person, however, it means that you will end up with many bites that will all swell up and blossom in a variety of different ways and different sizes until you are covered in an interesting cornucopia of pink and purple shapes. Fortunately, you can buy something called 'White monkey holding peach balm' from a local pharmacy which will both improve the itching and your mood with its quirky name.
21. You know all those times you ask yourself 'where can I go to get a drink and a piece of cake while being able to play with twenty cats, all of whom are named after Star Wars characters or astrological entities'? I have the answer for you: it's called Catmosphere, and it's in Chiang Mai.
We visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Phuket, Ayutthaya and Khao Sok national park. I would highly recommend the Bamboo Nest in Chiang Rai and Our Jungle House in Khao Sok, as far as accommodation goes, as well as the Metadee Resort in Kata Beach, Phuket. For food, you must try Krua Apsorn in Bangkok, the Black Elephant in Chiang Mai, Kanjana in Chiang Mai, and Angel's Secrets in Chiang Mai (for breakfast).