14 Months in Thailand - The Land of Smiles!
Thailand is known as "The Land of Smiles" and from my experience, the country lives up to that name, and more! The Thai culture is friendly, kind, happy, easy going, and just fun to be a part of. As a foreigner, I appreciated the intent to help without the underlying current of selling me something; I never felt like I was being hustled or taken advantage of. It was a welcomed change from other travel experiences in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Peru . Don't get me wrong, people tried to sell us stuff we didn't want at times, but a simple "no thank you"/"mai kha" was enough. The landscape was just a welcoming as the people: the tropical islands and white sand beaches in the south and mountains and lush green forests in the north were beyond impressive. It was a wonderful country to explore and to live in!
My husband and I departed Anchorage AK and 50 hours later we landed in Phuket, Thailand. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) this was in early March 2020, just as the pandemic was getting serious. We spent 1.5 months in lockdown, travelled for a bit, and then settled back in Phuket - the place where we felt the most at home (and where the best surf breaks are!). We spent 10 months total living at the southern tip of Phuket, specifically Karon and Nai Harn. Due to the pandemic, Phuket was quiet, but amazing. We experienced minimal traffic, clean beaches and water, and sparse crowds at popular tourist destinations. In normal times, Phuket's economy relies heavily on international tourism; I heard that 80% of the economy of Phuket is tied to tourism. Due to the high influx of Western travelers, Phuket is full of the creature comforts I want and need: malls, coffee shops, international food options, health care, live music, good bars, and air conditioning almost everywhere.
To this day, the crowds remain thin in Phuket (and all of Thailand) due to the Thai government shutting borders to all people (foreigners and Thai citizens) in April 2020. The Thai government did not make it a secret that their priority was to keep Covid out. Even now, 1+ years later, it remains difficult and expensive to get into Thailand. To enter the country government organized quarantine is still mandatory (and expensive). Phuket is currently working on a plan to reduce or eliminate that ASAP but it remains questionable due to a "third wave" happening right now. Hopefully something safe can be worked out soon because Phuket's economy needs it!
In between Covid "outbreaks" we traveled to: Krabi, Railay, Koh Lanta, Trang, Koh Lipe, Koh Sok, Khao Lak, Chiang Mai, Chiang Dao, Chiang Rai, and Pai. My absolute favorite trips were hiking in Pai over Christmas/New Years and a weeklong island getaway to Koh Lipe. My biggest disappointment was not spending time in Bangkok. On 2 occasions the trip we had planned got cancelled due to mini spikes in Covid numbers. Ultimately, we just ran out of time.
Overall, traveling through Thailand was easy and cheap. Due to the pandemic, ferry schedules and buses weren't running as frequently but it was easy to work around that because we had no specific time commitments. We took (and drove) a combination of planes, taxis, boats/ferries, car, scooter, and buses. The biggest issues involved scooter flat tires, parking tickets, scooter registration tickets, and a little fender bender in Chiang Mai.
Fender benders are never an easy thing to deal with, then add in a language barrier. We eventually got things settled with the help of Google Translate. Thai language is hard! After 14 months I came home with a repertoire of ~20 words. Mostly numbers, greetings, food, and animals. My favorite part of Thai language is the focus on being polite. This is achieved by adding "Ka" for females, and "Krap" for males onto the end of nearly every sentence. When people are being really polite the "ka" turns into "kaaaaaa". To say hello, for a female, is "Sawadee Ka" and is used very liberally. I believe saying "hello" in the country's native language shows kindness and respect when visiting a foreign country. With my darker skin and hair, a Covid mask in place, and clothes purchased locally, it was common for me to be mistaken for Thai. It became pretty obvious that I wasn't Thai when I had a blank stare on my face when they tried to have a conversation in Thai with me!
One of the most important Thai phrases I learned was "mai pet" = not spicy! The food in Thailand was amazing but oh so spicy! Even with my "mai pet" request my lips ended up burning from the spice after most Thai meals. My favorite Thai dishes to eat were pad see ew ("drunk noodles", $1.50), khao soi ("noodle soup", $1.50), massaman curry (a peanut flavored curry, $2), and som tom ("papaya salad", $1.20). Along with being spicy, it is common for Thai food to be chock full of processed foods, sugar, and sodium. Luckily, there were plenty of high quality Western restaurants to choose from to add some diversity to my diet. Some of my favorites were wood-fired pizza (~$8 for a large), paninis (~$6), and croissants ($2).
In addition to loving the international food scene in Phuket, I loved developing friendships with people from around the world. These friendships made my experience in Thailand much more enjoyable and meaningful. My favorite times in Thailand involved hearing other's life stories, sharing cultures, and laughing with friends from all over the world. The last few months I offered a free Sunday morning yoga class for friends that was always followed by a 1-3 hour brunch at our favorite spot overlooking the ocean (Rustic & Blue by the Sea in Rawai).
The original plan was to spend 1 month in Thailand; the unexpected extra time in Thailand meant a lot (too much?) of free time. At first, it was great, and then it became overwhelmingly boring. I took some online classes, worked out a lot, went to the beach, and slept. 5 months into my extreme boredom I decided to attend a 200 hour yoga teacher training on Koh Phangan, a small tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand. It provided the structure and purpose I was craving! During this month long experience, my brain started spinning and I eventually came to the conclusion that I wanted to start my own physical therapy and yoga practice! Over the next few months I worked on a business plan, started an Instagram account, built 2 websites and launched the online portion of my business offering virtual physical therapy, yoga, health coaching, and personal training. Now that I am back in Denver, I will continue to virtual offerings but also will have a clinic space for in-person visits in the City Park West neighborhood! I am beyond excited to develop my practice and provide services that provide whole-person care (vs. isolated injury care).
There are many things to be excited about being back in Denver: Chipotle (this is where it originated!), D Bar chocolate cake (the bakery that made our wedding cake), good wine that doesn't cost a fortune (a box of bad wine in Thailand costs $30), and Supper Club (monthly dinners with 25 of our closest friends). The pandemic is still effecting daily life in Denver but things are improving; hopefully this trend will continue!
Living abroad for a year has been life changing. I've been back for 10 days and there are already things I miss about Thailand. The depth of experience was amazing and I have no doubt it will eternally effect my perspective on life and happiness.