Before coming to Thailand, I had done an exorbitant amount of research on what to expect, what to avoid, and what to absolutely see and do. But as a rule in life, and also when I travel, I try not to have hard and fast expectations about things—I like to let my first-hand experience influence my impression and direct my path. This is how I create my own personal norm, tailored to me.
Pretty much every person and blog said something along the lines of “avoid the tourist trap of Khao San Road” or “go to Khao San Road just to experience it, but don’t stay there.” I decided to go against this advice completely by, instead, booking my first night of accommodation in the center of it all. I had researched some good, reasonably priced hotels in Bangkok and the one which stuck out to me was called the Rikka Inn. It was calling my name—literally!—and so I didn’t care about its location or its higher-than-usual price compared to the guesthouses in the area. I just knew I’d need a good night of sleep after the 11-hour flight from Munich.
Most people would probably ask, “Why the hell would you stay on Khao San Road if you need a good night of sleep?!” The street is known for being loud with music and drunken tourists until the wee hours of the morning. But I ignored this bit of information and took my chances. Turns out it was the perfect place to be for my first few days in Thailand.
The plane and the port
First of all, Thai Airways was a new flight experience for me. I chose to sit near the back of the enormous, unpopulated 747 and had 3 seats to lay across for the whole flight. There was a regular outlet and USB outlet to charge my Surface and phone for the whole flight. I ate great Thai curry for my main meal. The flight attendants were not wearing the typical Western button-down and pencil skirt or slacks—they wore traditional Thai dresses (which I later found out they change into from their corporate suits just for the flight). Finally, I watched one of the most hilarious safety videos I’ve ever seen. I’ve watched more Thai TV since this flight and it continues to be just as entertaining. Take a look:
Just beyond customs at the Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok, I witnessed a huge crowd of people waiting eagerly for their relatives’ flights to arrive in the designated “family mart” area. They were mostly women wearing head covers with their children hovering at their knees. I felt it would be too invasive to take a photo of them so I just peered over occasionally to watch them as I stood in front of the cell phone service booths getting my True Move SIM card set up in my phone.
They spoke to each other in a language unfamiliar to me and were all dressed beautifully in traditional robes—a style of dress I had never seen before even in NYC where muslims were common in my neighborhood. You could tell they had dressed up for the occasion of their family members’ arrival.
Despite this being a very unusual sight for my eyes, what came next was very familiar. Family members came around the corner from customs and were greeted by crying and squealing wives and sisters, brothers and children, mothers and uncles. I was reminded of a similar scene in the reverse—when I said goodbye to my family at the airport on September 1st. The families at Bangkok airport embraced and took photos and squeezed each other in large group hugs. I got emotional standing there viewing the scene as an outsider, yet realizing our sameness. No matter our cultural differences, love for family is universal.
My stomach had butterflies—the excitement kind!—just from this alone. For the first time in my life, I was not in Western society anymore!
From the airport to Bangkok
I was unsure how I was going to get into the city of Bangkok from the airport. The airport is about 30 km outside the city and, while I am quite comfortable on public transportation after living in NYC for so long, I was not ready to navigate the Bangkok public transit with jet lag. Through some amazingly detailed instructions on Trip Advisor, I was able to easily navigate my way outside and into a cab. Noting the driver turn on the meter, I sat back ready to take in the drive.
The A/C in the cab created a delightful chill in the air—a contrast to the outside temperature. The sun was shining through an overcast sky and the air was warm—much warmer than the 10C/50F I was getting used to in Germany. Out the window, I could see we were following a main highway. It looked like any highway back home. The difference was the Thai language on billboards everywhere, the occasional temples peeking out amidst palms and other tropical trees, and some very fancy signs with pictures of the Thai royal family. Then the rain came.
What seemed out of nowhere, the rain came pouring down decreasing visibility to only a car or two in front. “Yup, I’m in Thailand.” I thought to myself. I got my jacket out in preparation.
Khao San Road
The cab driver would not go down Khao San Road, understandably so. He dropped me on a nearby side street and I navigated the rest of my way to the Rikka Inn. Smells of rich fried foods, car exhaust, and something else a bit fouler filled my nostrils as I pulled my hood over my head and buckled my backpack around my waist.
As soon as I turned down Khao San Road, I heard men calling out “Ma’am!” and “Tuk-tuk! Where you go?” I went immediately into New Yorker mode and ignored their comments with a scowl and a straight ahead stare. I was only going a few meters up the road and didn’t feel like being hassled.
The sidewalks were covered with little shops and items for sale, people sitting on the curb and behind carts in the street selling fried rice, spring rolls, mango, etc. I felt funny in my sneakers—everyone was walking around wearing flip flops, from tourists to locals. I walked right past the Rikka Inn, missing its entrance which was set back into a building off the street. Luckily, Thai people are overwhelmingly helpful. I asked where to find it and was given clear directions that sent me back the way I came.
My room was luxurious by the standards of the nearby guesthouses most backpackers frequent. I had a full bed, linens, towels, a small refrigerator, hardwood desk, chair and lamp, hot shower, two complimentary water bottles, and access to the pool on the roof. After showering and settling in, I walked down the road to find some dinner. I went with a classic: Pad Thai for 30 Baht and a coconut water for 20 Baht setting me back a whole $1.50 USD. Yea, I could get used to this.
I took the street food up to my room and opened the window overlooking the road and alley next to the inn. After about 8pm, I heard live music—some Top 40 hits from the 90s and early 2000s—coming from one of the bars on the block. The person playing beautiful guitar had lazy English, barely getting the words to songs like “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith and “Sex and Candy” by Marcy’s Playground. I smiled and sang along as I sipped my cool, sweet coconut water.
With a full belly, I closed the window and turned on the A/C which easily drowned out the sounds of the revving up nightlife on Khao San Road. I slept until check out time the next morning.
At the front desk the next day, I asked to stay another night and they gave me a free upgrade because they ran out of standard rooms—an example of the benefits coming from not planning ahead too much! After checking back in to my "deluxe" room, I spent most of the day relaxing and writing by the rooftop pool which I also swam in that night, of course! The views from the top of the Inn of the various temples lit up at night were splendid!
But I also had to make plans for where to go next. As much as I was already enjoying myself, I was not planning to stay in Bangkok another night. I had to make a choice: North or South?
I was in touch with my friend Dasha’s travel buddy, Astrid, who had moved from Austria to live and work at a dive resort on Ko Tao. She told me the rainy season was in session on the islands, but there would still be some sunny days. It was also low season for tourists so things were fairly quiet there—music to my ears! Now for getting there.
Luckily, Khao San Road is known for being a central hub for many tours and trekking destinations all over Thailand. This is one of the reasons it’s so popular among tourists and backpackers. Astrid suggested a bus & ferry company to get me from Bangkok to Ko Toa—Lomrayah—for being less sketchy and prone to theft than some of the others. I looked up the office address and discovered it was literally around the corner from the Rikka Inn. How convenient! I put on my flip flops, walked the 5 minutes there, purchased my ticket to leave 6am the next morning, and was all set.
Considering I had no idea what I was going to do first in Thailand, being on Khao San Road really was the perfect place from which to start my travels. The next morning, I would walk to the opposite street and be on the bus heading to Ko Tao—a 7-8 hour trip South to Chumphon and then another hour on a ferry boat to the island. I was on my way to an island adventure!
Here’s a little preview of my arrival on Ko Tao (more to come soon!):