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A month on Thailand’s backpacker trail, from Hat Yai in the south to Chiang Mai in the north; what to see and do & which island to avoid

backpacking thailand beautiful beaches
One of many beautiful beaches in Thailand

My first ever glimpse of Thailand was on a bus journey from Penang in Malaysia, across the border to the city of Hat Yai in southern Thailand. Looking back, I perhaps should have spent some time in Hat Yai - famed for an amazing night market and huge Buddha statue - but I simply arrived, changed buses and headed further north to Trang, where I crashed out for the night after some amazing Pad Thai and my first beer in three weeks. Although Malaysia is a secular country, I'd mostly been staying in Muslim-owned guesthouses so had avoided drinking alcohol for the most part, but arriving in Thailand, an icy cold beer from a glass bottle proved too enticing and this was my initial memory of Thailand, that first cold beer & deliciously filling noodles.

After one night in Trang, I caught another bus to Surat Thani, where I stayed for the night before heading to the nearby pier to catch a boat over to Ko Pha Ngan. The full moon was nearing which is why my sleepovers in Trang and Surat Thani were short lived. Although clichéd to head to a full moon party on Thailand's most famed party island, I was young, mid-way through a year of backpacking and in Thailand for the first time so I really wanted to see a full moon party for myself and I'm so glad I did. 

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Had Salat beach

Once on the island I based myself in Haad Salat where I rented a cute wooden bungalow just two minutes from the pristine beach where the daily temperature of the sea reached a dreamy 33 degrees. Haad Salad is often described as one the islands best-kept secrets and sits on the opposite side of the island to the pier you arrive at. I chose this location as although I wanted to experience a full moon party I didn't want to stay in a party area, instead I spent my days swimming in the ocean and walking to nearby deserted beaches. One day I discovered an eerie deserted island, only reachable by walking out to sea by a thin sand bank. Later I found out the name of the place was Koh Ma, there seemed to be remnants of a bar and beach huts on the tiny island, but it looked like it had all been abandoned, it was a weird place that seemed to have so much potential. 

koh ma deserted beach thailand
Taking a walk to Koh Ma

Once the night of the full moon party rolled round I got a taxi with some friends to Hat Rin, where we decided to have dinner before heading to the beach. I had my reservations about what the full moon party would be like but it turned out to be so much fun. The beach is lined with makeshift stalls all selling the infamous 'buckets' of alcohol. Stall owners will shout and entice you in with free necklaces and bracelets, while stall owners compete with each other over how obscene their stall names can be. The standard drink is a Sangsom (Thai rum) & coke, all poured over a bucket load of ice, it'll set you back around £3. Along the beach, people spin skipping ropes of fire that anyone can jump into and fire breathers encouraged party-goers to follow their lead, it was a fun atmosphere and everyone was in good spirits, I’m not sure if it’s still so fun and carefree today, but I loved my time under the light of the full moon. 

bucket stalls at full moon party ko pha ngan
Bucket stalls line the beach, each competing to get a sale

A few days later I left Ko Pha Ngan and ventured over to Ko Tao for four nights where I met a friend completing his open-air dive course. I liked this island for its chilled vibes and spent days swimming, snorkelling and walking up to the highest points across the island. Aow Leuk Bay on the other side of the island to where I was staying was incredible for snorkelling with some of the brightest, most vivid coral I’ve ever seen and an abundance of sea life. I saw purple fish that looked like pipe cleaners, lots of parrot and clown fish, as well as other wonderful fish with beautifully crazy patterns and prints. The walk over was also very beautiful, through lush jungle and sweeping views across the whole island, taking around two hours.

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The view across Ko Tao

From Ko Tao I had a brief stay in Ko Sok National Park, then headed onto Krabi to do an incredible cooking class with Smart Cook Thai Cookery School. I stayed in Chan Cha Lay, a cute little guesthouse in Krabi town, that although was simple turned out to be one of my favourite places to stay throughout the whole of Thailand. As part of my cookery course I learnt to make papaya salad, thai red curry, spring rolls, banana in coconut milk, pad thai and tom yum soup, all were incredible and the teacher was very good, the class with all ingredients and a glass of wine cost around £25 which is amazing value and of course you have a feast once you've finished. From Krabi town I took a long tail boat over to Railay, a place surrounded by incredible limestone cliffs that draw in rock climbers from all over the world. You can only get to Railay by boat but it’s not a long journey from Krabi and the scenery is like something out of a movie, I stayed for three nights before heading onto Ko Phi Phi. 

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The unmistakable limestone cliffs of Railway beach

I’d heard Phi Phi was one of the most beautiful islands in the Andaman Sea, I went expecting unspoilt beaches and serene views, but what I found was groups of teenage tourists running wild and bars blaring out British pop music. Everyone seemed to be drunk or high or getting a tattoo and girls fought each other in makeshift boxing rings, it was kind of grim. I’d come expecting ‘The Beach’ but what I found was more like Blackpool beach at 2am on a Friday night, so much for a little piece of paradise, maybe I’d been too naïve. I took a boat over to see Maya Bay, the place where The Beach was actually filmed and although it was undeniably very beautiful, I couldn’t help but feel sad when I noticed cigarette butts and plastic bottles on the shore. It’s ironic that we humans seek out these ‘unspoilt’ places but once we get there we ruin them, the experience of visiting Phi Phi made me question travel as a whole and wonder how we can be more responsible as tourists. Aside from visiting Maya Bay, I also did some snorkelling which turned out to be absolutely astonishing with clear tranquil waters and the brightest of fish, a magical world away from the chaos above. 

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Exploring Phi Phi

From Phi Phi I took a boat over to Phuket and then flew up to the north of the country and one of my favourite cities in Thailand, Chiang Mai. As much as I loved the islands of the south I was really craving some good street food and wanted a temple fix so booked into a guesthouse for five nights and hired a bicycle (for less than a pound) the very next day. 

chiang mai temple backpacking thailand
Temple hunting in Chiang Mai

Exploring this area I was in awe of the many Buddhist temples (wats) spread throughout the city, there were just so many and each was incredibly beautiful, from glimmering gold structures hiding gleaming Buddha’s to ornate tile work covering facades, it’s hard not to be impressed. For the rest of my days in Chiang Mai I visited orchid farms, trekked to waterfalls, tried white water and bamboo rafting and spent time eating out or visiting the impressive night market. It’s a blissful place to spend the last of your time in Thailand before heading home or if you’re lucky enough, onto Laos.

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