Prague

Prague had me from the outset. I spent the short walk from the train station to my hostel admiring the pretty pastel pinks, greens and yellows of all the buildings and feeling a world away from Berlin.

As soon as I had checked in, I headed back into the town centre and took myself on a self guided walking tour with a Rick Steves podcast at the recommendation of a friend, and it turned out to be so much better than I had expected. I would highly recommend it as a way to get your bearings in a new place, as you have to follow the directions rather than blindly following a guide, you can pause to spend more time at a place, and there was so much more history and information than most walking tours I’ve done.

The architecture never stopped amazing me; as the city stayed largely unharmed during the war, all of the Art Nouveau and Baroque buildings are still standing. I ended the tour walking across the Charles Bridge, which was heaving with tourists, then cut down some stairs to Kampa Island underneath it where a French festival was taking place all week – even in Prague my undying love of France comes out.

Even after just a few hours of walking, I already felt like I knew my way around fairly well. Back at the hostel, we all had a chill evening sitting in the beer garden. I had to admit to myself that I was definitely coming down with something, and sure enough was up all night with a fever.

The next morning I went in search of some meds, only to discover that you can’t buy anything over the counter in this country, not even paracetamol! I gave up and sucked it up, not willing to let a bit of illness stop me doing things.

The weather was a fun mix of thunder storms with torrential bursts of rain and scorching sun, and the oppressive heat wasn’t helping with the fever. At the recommendation of someone at the hostel, I took the funicular up Pétrin Hill and had a little explore, including climbing the TV tower which makes you feel miles above the city.

From there he had suggested going over to Prague castle, but by the time I got there I wasn’t really feeling up to it so went for lunch instead and chose to leave that for the next day. I’d been a bit unsure about eating Czech food, but figured a bagel place would be ok – and it was, other than being covered in so much mustard that it cleared my cold right up!

As I was in the area, I checked out the Lennon Wall (bit of a disappointment), walked along Kampa Island and over to Letna Park for more beautiful views over the city. I was quickly racking up the miles (15 for two days in a row) and with tired feet made my way back for another chilled out evening. The hostel I stayed at was super friendly and small enough that everyone staying there socialised most nights, which as a solo traveller is a huge plus. I also managed to get some ibuprofen off someone so finally got some sleep!

I woke up early the next morning though and thought I’d go check out Prague’s weekend flea market, something my mum has recently got me into, and while most of it was junk it’s always interesting! That afternoon I returned to the castle, mostly to see a photography exhibition that was on there but also to have a look around the grounds and gardens. For the third day in a row I’d managed to clock up 15 miles of walking, so took advantage of the sun to enjoy some chill time with a drink and a new book I’d picked up at the market.

I had hoped to take some photos in town at sunset and with less crowds, so hopped on a bus back into the city that evening and had a little walk around with my camera.

Sunday was my final day in Prague, as I was catching the sleeper train to Krakow later that night. A few of us had been talking about visiting the “bone chapel” – the Sederic Ossiary just outside the nearby town of Kutná Hora – so that morning we took the 50 minute train journey there. The Ossiary itself was like some kind of gothic nightmare, with chandeliers and garlands made out of human bones, and and huge bell-shaped structures of skulls.

The town of Kutna Hora is a short walk (or bus ride) away and is just a really sweet, sleepy little place to spend a few hours exploring.

Back in Prague, I enjoyed my final evening before heading to the station for my first ever sleeper train experience, which was… not what I expected! My room had six bunks, and thank god I was on the middle one as the top one involved clambering up somehow and the bottom one crawling into. My room-mates were a Scout group from Belgium who had taken over almost the entire coach, but who luckily turned out to be a lot more considerate than I had feared!

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Berlin

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Unsurprisingly after an all nighter and a 6.5 hour train journey, I wasn’t in the best mood when I arrived in Berlin! Add to that a cold, grey, windy day and my first impression of the city wasn’t great.

As I had a couple of hours until I could check in, I left my bags and went for, what i thought would be, a wander of the city. Quite quickly I realised that Berlin is massive. My hostel was in the Mitte area, so I walked down to Alexanderplatz which I thought was quite a central square but is mostly just a transport and shopping hub. After checking out the TV Tower, a quick look around Museum Island, and ducking into the town hall to avoid a quick rain shower, I made my way back for a much needed shower & nap.

The hostel I was staying in was huge (like everything else in Berlin it felt), and overrun with kids on their gap years. But on the upside it was comfy, I had a private bathroom, there was a kitchen and a bar. The idea of stodgy German food doesn’t really appeal to me and I was already missing making my own food, so cooked dinner at the hostel and met some other travellers, then we headed up to the rooftop bar for a couple of drinks before I finally succumbed to exhaustion!

The next morning I joined a free walking tour which went around some of the main sites – Pariser Platz, the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, parts of the Berlin Wall, the site of Hitler’s underground bunker, the former Air Force headquarters, Checkpoint Charlie, and various other memorials and churches. From a historical point of view it was fascinating but also heart-wrenching to see all of these places and learn about what had happened here. Our guide was great, and even as someone doing that every day he was getting emotional telling us about everything.

After the tour, a couple of us returned to the Holocaust Memorial to visit the museum underneath it. I don’t think it’s an experience  that I can really put into words, but we both came out of it feeling a little speechless.

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I had booked an entry ticket for the Reichstag, the parliament building, later that afternoon so I headed off there afterwards. The building has a glass dome on top which is open to the public and offers amazing views over the city. Apparently this was built after the reunification of Berlin so that the people could have a sense of power rebalance with the government – they are able to look down on them and keep watch.

My final day in Berlin I woke up to sunny skies! I also woke up to major back pain and a desperate need to do some yoga, and luckily there’s a Jivamukti studio in Berlin. First though, I walked over to the East Side Gallery – a long stretch of the Berlin Wall which still stands and has been turned into an outdoor art gallery painted with murals. In all I did a 3 hour round trip, coming back through the Kreuzberg area, and just from walking around so much was starting to warm to the city a bit more.

That afternoon I went to check out the yoga studio, and as I had some time before class I visited the Berlin Wall Memorial Museum where the largest part of the two walls still stand. Two hours of yoga later and I was feeling much more like myself and enjoying that amazing high you get afterwards – and with the sun shining and having seen a bit more of Berlin, it was definitely growing on me.

Back at the hostel, after dinner with some of the girls, I went off to pack and found I had some new roommates in the form of 3 very stoned guys. They made for some pretty unusual chat but I was glad to be leaving the next morning!

Amsterdam

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Of all the cities on my trip, Amsterdam is the only one that I have been to before. I first came here 5 years ago, in March 2014, and always wanted to come back to see it in the Summer.

My first time in Amsterdam was more of your stereotypical experience – me and a couple of friends having a jam-packed few days of coffee shops, culture & cocktails. Being a bit older now and feeling like I’ve seen that side of the city, this time round was much more sedate – to the point where I was staying in a Christian hostel in the peaceful (and my favourite) neighbourhood Jordan. As a very non-religious person I was a bit dubious; The area and the fact it was unlikely to be overrun with stoned 18 year olds were the main draws for me. But turned out to be one of the better hostels I’ve stayed in.

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I arrived at Amsterdam Centraal station around 11:30pm, from where the hostel was a 20 minute walk. Strolling down Damrak at that time on a Friday night, I felt like the only person in the city who wasn’t high on something. But once I turned off at Dam Square, the bar lights gradually gave way to flower covered streets (literally, I was staying on bloemstraat – flower street).

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As is pretty normal for me I barely slept my first night, and was up at the crack of dawn. Free breakfast was a major plus, after which I went for a wander around the neighbourhood and to the market. I came back to the hostel for a short walking tour they were running, during which I met a few of others who were staying there (and of course no free walking tour run by a Christian hostel would be complete without ending in a church…)

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I befriended a New Zealander and and an English lad, and after the tour we went for some lunch then continued our own exploration of the city. After a pretty full on day of walking, and all of us feeling pretty sleep deprived, we collapsed back at the hostel to chill and I went on a quick wine & waffles run which we snuck in to help us recover.

We ventured out again later to escape the bible study session (for real) and to find somewhere for dinner, and after some indecision and wandering decided to head the Vegan Junk Food Bar which our Kiwi pal had been desperate to try – and oh damn it was good. Even the devout carnivore of our group was converted.

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We took a leisurely stroll back with a detour through the red light district, which was just as awful as I remembered it. Back in our cosy, hipster neighbourhood, I think we were all feeling pretty grateful for where we were located, even with the praying and alcohol ban!

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I finally got some sleep that night, and over breakfast we said goodbye to the English guy but picked up a couple of girls from Australia & Morocco, and the four of us headed out for another day of adventures.

The famous IAmsterdam sign has been moved from outside the Rijkmuseum to Amsterdam Nord, a quick ferry ride over from behind the train station, and we decided to start there. Afterwards we went to a free chocolate tasting, then picked up a picnic and walked down to the Vondelpark where there are free music concerts on throughout the summer. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

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Looking like a giant attacking the city

I had noticed a cute little Brown Cafe on our street, and after we got back we popped along there for a drink. Turns out it’s the 3rd oldest bar in Amsterdam and was such a sweet spot! Great for people watching and we wound up chatting to an American couple and a local Dutch man, and going to watch the final of the woman’s football world cup – Netherlands v USA – with them.

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Bar Cat

I had rather stupidly decided to catch my train to Berlin at 5am the next day, and figured I could just stay up all night. So as we were all winding down after dinner and  couple of drinks, I was gearing up for an all nighter and a 6.5 hour train journey…

Day 0

Well. Hello! It’s been a while.

But with a three week trip around Europe on the horizon, what better time to bring back the old travel blog than now?

Tomorrow I leave for Amsterdam, and from there I’ll be explore Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Vienna and Budapest over the next few weeks. Like a 17 year old on their gap year, I’ve decided to cling on to the remainder of my youth and go interrailing and stay in hostels the whole time. So, here’s to a bit of adventure and who knows what else.

Partying in Koh Phangan

After a long day of travelling, I arrived on Koh Phangan on Saturday evening. For my first night I was staying near Thongsala, where the boat from Surat Thani arrives, so that I could get to my hostel easily and also to visit the Saturday night market along the main street. After checking in and a quick shower, I walked back along to the pier to check it out and try some yummy new Thai foods – I picked up some kind of coconut ball, pork satay, a spicy noodle sausage and some dragon fruit for a meagre 60 baht. Once back at the hostel I got chatting to a Spanish guy in my room and we had a couple of drinks before joining in with the beer pong tournament the hostel had organised. We pretty quickly lost and went for a wander along the road with a pack of dogs following us, as they seem to be everywhere in Koh Phangan. After bumping into some other people from the hostel we wound up in a salsa club for a bit of a dance before calling it a night. Considering Slumber Party has a reputation as a serious party hostel, it was quite a tame night for which I was definitely glad after a long day!

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Saturday Night Market – Bugs pick n mix & some tasty coconut ball

The next morning I was up fairly early to move up north to Shiralea Backpackers Resort. My plan while being here was to get some serious relaxation in and explore a bit of the island, but as usual my plans never work out. Admittedly when I first arrived it was dead quiet, and I walked the minute down the road to a totally stunning and almost completely deserted beach. After an hour there during which I got seriously sunburnt, I went to explore the area and maybe grab something to eat, only to discover it is pretty isolated and without a car or scooter there is almost nothing within walking distance, other than the more expensive beach-side restaurants.

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Practically a private beach

Feeling a little disheartened I made my way to the pool to read and write for a bit and got talking to two South African guys, a French man and two Scottish girls. The men had just arrived as well, but unlike my attitude to use the place to detox and relax, they were already enjoying a few early afternoon drinks. Eventually I gave in to their offers and so I got involved in what turned into a pretty messy (for them) and very fun night.

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The next morning I was up early for my first ever scuba dive! I was going with Reefers Diving who are conveniently located right next door to Shiralea, and we were heading out to Sail Rock, the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand. After a quick drive up to Chaloklum, we hopped on the boat where we had breakfast and the two of us who were new to diving had a quick theory lesson. As we approached Sail Rock, the storm which had been lurking nearby all morning finally hit us, but as we were about to get under water it didn’t matter so much.

We spent some time going over the basics again in the water, learning the four simple skills, and getting used to breathing from the tank. We then had an hour long dive which was just mind blowing. Sail Rock is one huge coral reef and I was just in awe the entire time. The highlight for most people was seeing a whale shark, but honestly just being down there and swimming amongst all the weird and wonderful fish was the best bit for me. After the hour, we surfaced and had a break for lunch and then went down for another hour, by which time I was feeling way more comfortable and confident and we were able to really explore the coral reefs.

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To top off the amazing day, I went to watch the sunset on the beach when I got back down and it was easily one of the most stunning ones I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously fantastic day.

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The next day I was up early as usual, got in a nice bit of yoga then caught up with my French friend over breakfast. He was planning on exploring some more of the island on his scooter that day and invited me along so I figured why not? After a quick coffee stop in Thongsala we spent the whole day driving all over the place. He’d been coming to Koh Phangan for years, so showed me some of his favourite spots, we took refuge from a storm and had a mid morning cocktail then a delicious lunch at Jip Shop, where I had the best Thai curry ever next to a talking bird and a baby rabbit, visited a friend of his at his boxing gym come stoner cafe (weird place) and just generally had a really nice day exploring and practising each other’s languages. The idea when I came back was then to have dinner, a couple of drinks and an early night, but it ended up being more than a couple of drinks and waking up in the middle of the night with serious food poisoning.

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Scootering around the island & eating tasty food

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Tropical paradise

Having been up all night being sick I was feeling pretty rough the next day. But my lovely Spanish friend Raul from my first night at Slumber Party had planned another day of island exploration, and I had to move hostels anyway, so the utter babe that he is, he came to pick me up and we had a really lovely day together. Our first stop was the national park where we hiked up past the waterfalls to the most amazing view point and had the picnic lunch we’d brought and then sat and chatted for an hour or so. From there we went to the (not so) Secret Beach, and even though it was a bit overcast it was still lovely, and exactly what I needed when not feeling my best. Easily my favourite part of the day though was learning how to ride a scooter, so I drove us back to Thongsala where we came across a night market and had our dinner from a few of the stalls there.

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At the top of the waterfall and swinging at the Secret Beach

As we were both moving down to Haad Rin that night, we then had to make our way further south and already the party atmosphere was building with songthaews packed with neon clad backpackers. My amazing Spanish man drove me down on his scooter and we were subjected to a very stern faced drug search en route.

Arriving in Haad Rin was surreal after the past few days spent in other parts of the island, and honestly the second I arrived I already wanted to go back. When I got to my hostel, that feeling only worsened. Finding the Zoo Hostel was hard enough, as only the bar and tattoo studio actually have signs. So I asked at the bar, where I was signed in and led down an alley behind the tattoo shop to a dark room. When I asked which of the tightly packed together beds was mine the guy had no idea, but as most were filled with sleeping bodies it seemed a safe bet to show me to one of the empty ones before leaving me there in the dark with no further information. Great. There was barely room to move, let alone a place for me to put my things, and it’s a good thing I’m fairly slim because even then it was a struggle squeezing between the beds to get up to my bunk.

With the full moon party the next night and still feeling pretty rough from my fun filled night of food poisoning, all I wanted to do was get a good night’s sleep. My arrival seemed to wake everyone up though and it turned out they were all power napping before heading out to the Jungle Party at midnight. I felt pretty lame staying in on my first night at a new place, but I knew it was that or miss out on the main event the next night. But I got to briefly meet some of my 13 roommates before they headed out, and with the place pretty much to myself after that I was able to get some sleep.

The next morning I was up early as usual, but was definitely on a different sleep pattern to everyone else in the town, for whom it seemed normal to sleep all day and stay up all night. I had a quick walk around Haad Rin to get my bearings and went down to the beach for a spot of sunbathing, by which time a few people had emerged including a guy from my hostel in Bangkok, so we caught up over some food in the hostel bar – which turned out to be one of the only good things the place has going for it. After getting food poisoning from my beloved pad Thai, I needed a little break from Thai food and the Zoo Bar was able to provide a damn good burger at the best price in the whole of Haad Rin.

To be honest, there isn’t much to do or see in Haad Rin, so I wiled away the day on the beach. Around me the party was getting set up and people were already starting to drink by the late afternoon. Most people from the hostel didn’t want to head out to the party until a lot later on, but everyone from the Shiralea hostel was out earlier than that so we had a nice little reunion. I decided not to start drinking until later on so I could pace myself, and to be honest after seeing the buckets of booze I was slightly put off the idea all together. The Zoo Hostel was giving us a free one along with neon body paints, so I made my way back to get my full moon party look on, and then just wound up going back to the Shiralea crowd for the rest of the night. Admittedly I’m not huge into partying; It was a fun night but by no means the highlight of my trip. And when the torrential rain started around 1am I decided to call it a night!

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Shiralea crew reunited for the Full Moon Party

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A whole lot of neon & fire

Next morning I was up before some of the others had even made it back. According to the map there was a view point about a 15 minute walk from the hostel, and I thought I’d go and check it out. Instead of a quick stroll, this turned into me getting lost in the jungle for an hour and a half, adding to my already numerous injuries, and almost being completely stranded. But it was worth it for the amazing views from the top and I discovered a much nicer beach around the other side from Haad Rin.

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When I eventually made it back some of the others were emerging in various states of hangover or still drunk and a few of us caught up over lunch. The rest of the day was super chilled out, and Haad Rin itself felt like a ghost town. I was supposed to stay another couple of nights, but with most people leaving that day or the next, me and another of the guys decided to move to a different hostel back at Thongsala to make it easier to catch our ferries in the morning. The next morning we all checked out and jumped into one of the many Songthaews loaded with people getting out of there.

The hostel we moved to was supposed to be The Majestic, but it seemed to be the same place or taken over by Phangan Arena and was a completely different vibe from what we were expecting. But it was cheap and it wasn’t in Haad Rin, and that was all we really cared about! It was another really chilled out day. We grabbed some lunch and had a wander into Thongsala, a quick visit to Wat Pho, which after the temples of Bangkok and Chiang Mai was hugely disappointing, and a final visit to the night market for my last ever mango sticky rice. I was hoping to get a decent night sleep but the hostel had some pounding bass music playing until about 3am – not ideal.

The next morning I left the island after having one of the best weeks ever, and began my long journey home…

Escape to Ayutthaya

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As nice as it was to be back in Bangkok, it was mostly just for being back at Born Free, and especially after being in Chiang Mai I didn’t much fancy spending the day in a big city. So I figured I’d go check out Ayutthaya instead.

The former capital of Siam, it was once a city full of ornate, grand temples until the Burmese burnt the whole place down. Now all that remains are their charred remains and it is a UNESCO world heritage site. It can be reached from Bangkok by train for only 15 baht 3rd class and takes around 2 hours, so I aimed to get on the road quite early. The previous evening Kevin had advised me which bus to take to the train station, but typical Bangkok busses they are not the most reliable. I have learnt that on the quieter routes you generally won’t have to pay, as it’s not worth their while to employ someone to take tickets – but it is equally not worth it for them to stop and let you on if they just don’t bloody feel like it. So after 2 busses passed me by without even slowing down, when a scooter taxi approached I figured I didn’t have many better options. After negotiating him down to 60 baht from 100, I hopped on.

Luckily when I arrived a train was leaving in 10 minutes, and getting my ticket was really easy. Two painfully slow hours later, we pulled in to Ayutthaya station, and after a quick 5 baht boat ride across the river into the main part of the city, I was finally there. I was having serious mango sticky rice cravings and also badly needed some caffeine, and there was a huge market as soon as I got off the boat for me to get my supplies for the morning.

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Wat Mahathat

My first Wat of the day was Wat Mahathat, best known for the Buddha head in the tree, and it was only about a 20 minute walk away. I’d heard it was best to rent a bike or scooter to get from temple to temple, but I thought I’d start off walking and see how I went. Admittedly they are a lot further apart than they look on a map, but equally there are only so many you can see in a day. As stunning as they are, they are also quite similar in many ways seeing as it is just their remains.

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Wat Phra Si Sanphet

After Wat Mahathat I grabbed some cheap and delicious pad see ew for lunch and then walked through the park to the main temple, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, admiring many of the others along the way. From there I headed off of the island to Wat Chai Watthanaram down in the south west of the city. That was definitely quite a walk, and one that took me through some real local living.

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Wat Chai Watthanaram

After a look around there it was getting quite late in the afternoon and I was contemplating the best way to get back on to the island and basically to the complete opposite side of the city. I overheard a couple of guys speaking English and asked if they knew a quicker route back, and they said they could give me a ride back in the songthaew they had hired for the day – success! They let me out at their hotel in the middle of the city and from there it was a quick walk and the wee boat back to the train station, where I got my ticket – and was told there wasn’t another train for over 2 hours.

While I could have gone to see another temple, I was pretty much Wat-ed out at this point, so I went in search of somewhere for dinner and a drink instead. Most of the places around he station are quite touristy, yet still decently priced, and I had a surprisingly nice green Thai curry for only 60 baht.

The train journey back felt even longer than on the way there, not helped by the woman selling food who walked up and down our carriage shouting in the most annoyingly screechy voice the entire time. I then had a similar issue of getting a bus back to the hostel, and it took another age for to find the bloody bus stop and for one to actually arrive. This time I was taking no chances as I could see it wasn’t slowing down, so I pretty much planted myself in front of it in the middle of the road, and that seemed to do it!

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All in all it was a good day and I’m so glad I went, but it was fairly tiring with the amount of travelling involved in the space of a day. If you have time it’s probably best to stay over night, or if you do it as a day trip check the return train times when you arrive!

Chilling in Chiang Mai

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My arrival in Chiang Mai didn’t exactly fill me with positivity, but I could not have been more wrong about the place. First off, I chose to take the shuttle bus for 40 baht rather than a taxi for 300. This is a shared mini bus service, which will only leave once ten people are on board. When I bought my ticket and this was explained to me, the woman said we were just waiting on two more after me, and as I was paying two guys also came up to buy tickets. This was clearly a lie though, and we then had to wait around 45 mins for enough people to get going. The airport is only a 15 minute drive from the old city so this was slightly frustrating.

So by the time I arrived at my hostel it was last afternoon. My first impression of Mojito Garden also wasn’t great. It felt an awful lot like camping. A series of bungalows, which were basically garden sheds, surround a kind of central relaxing area and there is a separate toilet and shower block. It’s super basic, but I guess you get what you pay for. The weird thing was how deserted it was and that the few people that I did try to make conversation with were very antisocial – strange for a hostel.

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Mojito Garden Hostel

Not to be put off though, I left my things and headed out to the Sunday Walking Street. The old city of Chiang Mai is relatively compact and the one good thing about Mojito Garden is that it is very central, meaning most things are within a 5-10 minute walk. Every Sunday, the main streets of the old city become a sprawling market place. As the late afternoon sun slowly began to set, I spent a leisurely couple of hours browsing the stalls, picking up wee bits of street food here and there, listening to some of the surprisingly good live music (and some of the less good), shopping, and just generally soaking up the atmosphere. Even just after this short time I was already in love with Chiang Mai, and it was such a nice change to being in a big city.

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Sunday Night Walking Street

I’d been hoping some more people may have been around when I returned to the hostel, but it was still deserted. Equally the staff were not in the least bit helpful, and when I enquired on how to get to Doi Suthep, they hardly even knew what I was talking about. The following morning it was still dead, and the staff were equally as unresponsive. A free breakfast was supposed to be served between 8 and 11, but at 8:15 there was still no sign of anyone. Eventually someone stumbled bleary eyed through the garden, and when I asked about breakfast he seemed surprised and said he could do it in 10 minutes. I have to say though, what I got was pretty damn good so that kind of made up for it.

My plan for the day was to visit the temple at Doi Suthep and then hopefully do some walking up in the mountains. The cheapest way to get up there is by Songthaew, which cost 50 baht per person and leave just across the road from the North Gate. It’s the same kind of system as the airport minibus, in that you need to have 10 people for it to go. When I got there, a group of three Canadians were also waiting so I got chatting to them. After a while another woman joined, and the driver said if we paid 100 each we could go now. Not wanting to waste the day and it still being extremely cheap, we went with that option. The drive up the mountain takes about 40 minutes, and in the back of a truck I imagine the windy road may not be for everyone!

Wat Doi Suthep sits at the top of the most ornate 309 steps I have ever climbed, flanked on either side by beautiful green and gold dragons. Once inside, the temple itself is stunning, a gold beacon shining on top of the mountain. It doesn’t even feel that much like a tourist attraction as it is a working temple, and the majority of people actually seemed to be there to worship. We each took part in some Kau Cim fortune telling which was pretty cool.

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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

After the temple, the Canadians wanted to go out to a hill tribe village where they grew coffee. It was about 6km up the mountain, so we hitched another lift on a songthaew and figured we would walk back from there. In the village itself there wasn’t a huge amount to see, though it was still interesting and there was a gorgeous flower garden and small waterfall which could be visited for 10 baht. After that we grabbed some lunch in a small cafe and tried some of their locally grown coffee, which really was delicious.

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The flower garden in the hill tribe village

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At the bottom of the 309 steps and relaxing in the village

Although the walk back to the bottom of the temple was along the road, it was quiet enough for it to still be enjoyable. We got there just in time to catch one of the last songthaew back down, and got out at Chiang Main University to go to a temple around there. Every Monday to Friday from 5-7pm, the Wat Suan Dok runs something called Monk Chat. It’s an open session where anyone can go in, sit with the monks and learn about Buddhism. I had mentioned it to the Canadians that morning and they were also interested, and I’m so glad we went. It was such an open, honest, and fascinating two hours, and felt more like a lesson in philosophy than religion. From there I dragged the poor guys the last 2km home, and safe to say when we got back we were all pretty exhausted, but what an amazing day.

Day 2 in Chiang Mai was one that I’d been looking forward to for a long time – spending the day at the Elephant Nature Park looking after rescued elephants. They take in animals which have been abused, such as elephants used for tourism, illegal logging, or forced breeding, and rehabilitate and look after them. It’s one of the only places in Thailand to do so in actual humane conditions, so if you want to see elephants when you’re here, this is the way to do it. I was picked up from my hostel and my group was made up of another 6 people, plus our guide for the day Sai, who was fantastic. When we arrived they provided tea and coffee while telling us what the day would involve, and then our first thing was feeding time. There were many groups there, and as an elephant wandered each group got to feed one. After an entire basket of fruit and veg, which to her was probably just a light snack, she had had enough.

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We then got to walk around the park and meet the different ‘families’. The elephants themselves choose their companions and then generally stick together, so there were mostly groups of two or three, but a few who were either newer and hadn’t made friends yet or were simply more solitary and preferred spending most of their time by themselves. After that it was time for lunch, which was one of the best meals I’ve had here. It was all vegan Thai food, with a massive hot and cold buffet to choose from. After lunch, everyone headed down to the river to see some of the proper families, the ones with babies. For this we had to keep our distance as the mother and the nanny in particular are very protective of the baby, and the herd as a whole keep it surrounded a lot of the time when they are walking. But we got to watch a couple of different families, one with a 1 year old and the other a 5 year old, as they played and cooled down in the river and then ate some more. The guides were all super helpful in answering our questions, telling us each elephant’s story, and you could tell they had a real connection with them.
Finally, after a quick snack and some iced tea (for us) it was bath time. This kind of ended up being for both the elephant and us as we all got utterly soaked, but I’m sure she enjoyed being covered in muddy water more than the rest of us!

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When I returned to the hostel there were actually people there being sociable! I was pretty exhausted after two quite full on days, so it was nice to just spent the rest of the evening chilling out and chatting to some really sound people. After a while we decided to check out then night bazaar as everyone wanted to get some food, so we hopped in a songthaew. I’d been wanting to go there anyway but I was a bit disappointed. I think after the Sunday market it just felt quite touristy, over priced and inauthentic. Some of the others wanted to stay out for a drink but I needed some sleep and a couple of the other girls felt the same, so we walked back from there. Unfortunately I didn’t get any sleep that night, as the hostel staff were up until 6am drinking and talking right outside my room.

The next day I really just wanted to take it easy, see some of the sights around town and hopefully do some shopping (and get another pair of the Thailand backpacker staple, the “elephant pants”). There was a temple just round the corner from our hostel, Wat Chiang Man, and my plan was to see that in the morning then head to a market. Irma and Alice, the two girls I had walked back with the night before, wanted to join me, so after breakfast (I was getting slightly addicted to Thai omelette and rice first thing in the morning) we set off. The day was already stiflingly hot but luckily we didn’t have far to walk. My main reason for visiting Wat Chiang Man was the ‘Elephant Chedi’, but the whole temple was gorgeous. From there we walked up to the market just north of the city, but it turned out to be a massive let down as it just wasn’t the kind of things any of us were looking for. We did stumble across the huge produce market though, where huge buckets of live fish were being sold if you were happy to kill them yourself…

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Wat Chiang Man

From there we took a tuk tuk to the Warorot Market hoping it would be a bit better, but again it was more of a food, fabric and bric-a-brac kind of affair. We decided to give up and walk back into the city to see what we could find there and for some lunch, and this was really what we should have done in the first place! Chiang Mai surprisingly has some really cool and unusual shops, and we spent ages browsing a second hand book shop and a kind of fairy fantasy themed jewellery shop before getting lunch.

After we’d eaten we were feeling pretty wiped so decided the best thing to do would be to go for a massage. The Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution trains inmates within 6 months of their release in various skills as part of their rehabilitation, and one of them is massage. All of the money they earn through this they personally get to keep for their release, so you can feel like you’re doing a bit of a good deed as they pummel and knead you into a state of blissful relaxation. It was actually the first massage I’ve ever gotten but the girl who did it did a fantastic job on my sore, achy muscles. It’s a good thing it was only around the corner from our hostel, as we sleepily meandered back and pretty much all fell down in a dozy happy heap in the garden. Eventually we woke ourselves up enough to shower, and I headed back into town to see some more shops. After a day of hunting for them, the first stall I came across had the exact trousers I’d been looking for and I successfully managed to barter them down to a much cheaper price.

When I got back I returned to our garden hang out where the French guys were already chilling after their day with the elephants. Alice had to fly home that evening but Irma joined us as well and after a quick drinks run to 7/11 we stayed there the rest of the night drinking and chatting, while various other people stopped in and out. Really it wasn’t anything special, but it’s the people that make things enjoyable and it wound up being a perfect last night in Chiang Mai.

I still had most of the next day however, as my flight back to Bangkok wasn’t until the evening. I’d originally intended to see some more of the temples, feeling kind of bad that I hadn’t properly checked out a few of them after a quick glance during the Sunday Walking Street. But the night before, the French guys Pierre & Benjamin had said they were going to rent some scooters and head up to the waterfalls of Doi Suthep National Park, and frankly that sounded a hella lot more fun. So my last day in Chiang Mai was spent riding around the mountains, playing in waterfalls, and hiking through the jungle. The path we took for our hike clearly hadn’t been used for a while and we had to forge our own way a lot of the time, resulting in some minor injuries on my part as I attempted to scale a fallen tree. But at the bottom we were rewarded with a tiny stall selling bags of delicious plums, and to add a bit of protein to our snack, Benjamin found some red ants on a tree, and adamant that they tasted like lemon insisted that we all try one. And yes, they actually did. On our way back down the mountain we stopped off at another waterfall for some cliff jumping off the rocks surrounding the pool, which was heaps fun, but then it was time for us to go so I could catch my flight.

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Jungle trekking and playing in waterfalls

Getting back to Bangkok and Born Free felt nice and familiar, and I was warmly greeted by Sam the receptionist and Kevin the owner. My first stop was naturally their cafe for a massive plate of pad thai, and then Kevin invited me to join him and his friends for a drink at a local bar, the Cinema Winehouse, which had decent wine, great live music and lovely staff. Eventually the exhaustion set in though, and I had another early start the next morning, but all in all a pretty fantastic day.

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Tree pose on a tree in a waterfall…