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The Ultimate Two-Week Thailand Adventure

I’ve been known to suffer from foot-in-mouth disorder from time to time, but my ultimate was when I gushed to a soon-to-be bride “So are you looking forward to Thailand”? Only to be met with a look from the fiancé that could make Railay Beach freeze over…I had ruined the honeymoon surprise. But hey, I mean EVERYONE goes to Thailand for their honeymoon, right? And why? Because it’s one of the most incredible, vibrant, beautiful, diverse, tourist friendly, safe, relaxing, accessible, affordable and memorable destinations in the world. Having travelled extensively through Europe and the States, my life, work, love and travel partner and I finally decided to find out what all the fuss was about. So I set myself to the glorious task of travel researching and after extensive googling, and searching of facebook groups and blogs, I came up with an itinerary that was within budget and ticked all the boxes of city, culture, jungle and beach in two weeks. In this blog I will attempt to impart as much useful and honest information on where to go, what to avoid and what not to miss.

Our itinerary in a nutshell

We flew to Bangkok from Cape Town on Emirates via Dubai which involves a good 20 hours of travelling. Bangkok is usually the easiest departure point, but some flights do go directly to the smaller local airports of Phuket, Surat Thani, Krabi and Chiang Mai. We chose December for our trip as it coincides with our yearly leave and is the best time in terms of climate to visit Thailand.

Day 1: Bangkok

Day 2: Overnight to Chiang Mai (*See note below)

Day 3-6: Chiang Mai

Day 7-8: Khao Sok National Park

Day 9-12: Ao Nang

Day 13-14: Bangkok

*We had booked an overnight train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok which departs at 7:35pm and arrives in Chiang Mai at 8:40am. After what we thought was conclusive googling we’d booked a first class sleeper which was supposedly equipped with a TV, WIFI, personal shower and air con. Great! However, upon arrival the dismal, cramped, dirty compartment and shared toilet (minus shower and including Turkish toilet) was not quite what we’d expected. After 10 minutes of debating whether our relationship could last 13 hours of “roach coach” we abandoned the train shortly before it departed. My OCD travel planning was then tested to the max as I frantically searched Agoda in a Grab taxi on route to Khao San Road. Agoda coaxed me into a whopping 78% saving on a great hotel one road up from the party chaos. Our hotel then proceeded to call their on-site travel agent (who was already at home in her pyjamas) to come back and help us book a flight for the next day to Chiang Mai. Lesson learnt: overnight trains are not romantic, accommodation apps are your friend and no matter what, the Thai people will solve any problem for you. At a fee of course.

Travelling within Thailand

Originally the thought of taking internal flights seemed tiresome, but the domestic airlines are reasonably priced and the flights are generally just over an hour. As discussed, there was the option of the train to Chiang Mai which might be more bearable during the day where the passing scenery could distract from the interior. We flew VietJet to Chiang Mai and Asia Air from Chiang Mai to Surat Thani. Both airlines were a little delayed, but otherwise very good. We had also pre-booked a shuttle through a company called Phantip who took us from Surat Thani airport to Khao Sok and another shuttle from Khao Sok to Ao Nang. The shuttles were great, except that they usually involve being dropped off in the middle of nowhere, waiting for an hour and then being marched into another bus only to be dropped off 700m downhill from your hotel. But don’t worry, you will always get to your destination eventually! For our flight from Krabi back to Bangkok I booked a private shuttle from Ao Nang to Krabi airport which was much better.

Accommodation

Hula Hula Resort and Spa, Ao Nang

Accommodation in Thailand is extremely well-priced and the hotels we stayed in would have cost us four times the amount in South Africa. Being a little exercise obsessed, I tried to book most hotels with a gym, but be warned – the one place Thai people don’t believe in air conditioning is in the gym!

Bangkok:

I found Bangkok very difficult in terms of hotels. Both of our pre-booked hotels were in the Silom district which is great for public transport, but not for restaurants and bars. Khao San Road on the other hand has an incredible night life, but does come with the disadvantages of noise and is not easily accessible by public transport.

Bossotel http://www.bossotelinn.com/

Trinity Silom https://www.trinitysilomhotel.com/

Villa Cha cha http://www.villachachaphraathit.com/

Chiang Mai:

Chiang Mai’s old town is clearly distinguished in a 2.5km square which is edged with the canal and ancient city gates. This area is the best location to stay in within walking distance to restaurants, bars, shops and temples.

De Charme Hotel http://de-charme-hotel.hotelschiangmai.net/en/

Khao Sok:

There are numerous places to stay within the region of the National Park, but I would recommend staying near the town centre (which is a small 500m strip of road) within walking distance to the restaurants. We also embraced the jungle feel by staying in a bamboo hut which was surprisingly clean and comfortable.

Our Jungle Camp https://www.khaosokecoresort.com/

Ao Nang:

There are loads of hotels to choose from in Ao Nang and most in walking distance to the beach. Our hotel was located 1km from the beach which did involve a bit of a walk up the hill at night, but the hotel offered an hourly shuttle service and we could have taken tuk tuks if we really had to.

Hula Hula Resort http://www.hulahulaaonang.com/

Your ultimate Bangkok to-do list

Bangkok skyline

 “Scenic” is definitely not the word I would use to describe Bangkok, but it’s an incredibly interesting city, saturated with layers culture and urban energy. Navigating the city can be quite overwhelming at first, but we soon found that it is surprisingly ordered and extremely welcoming. Sites and destinations are not grouped together, so make the most of the public transport and take your time exploring without a strict itinerary

Grand Palace

This is probably the first “tourist destination” on everyone’s list, but I’ll be honest…we didn’t actually go in. We walked past though (if that counts?) and saw the endless queues and buses of tourists being herded by strict Thai policemen with whistles. Coupled with the fee of 500 baht each we decided to give it a skip. If you do want to go, I would suggest getting there when it opens at 8:30 to avoid the crowds.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun

This beautiful hand painted temple is definitely a must. It is located on the other side of the Chao Praya River and we accessed it via our day pass for the hop-on-hop-off boat ferry. Entrance is 50 baht and as with most Thai temples the dress code for temples must be adhered to.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road

Besides being the notorious backpacker hangout in Bangkok, Khao San Road is one of my favourite places in the city and possibly the only area where restaurants and bars are grouped in a similar “European” manner. Apart from the obligatory tasting of scorpions, the restaurants are very good and the vibe is incredible. Khao San Road itself is a little chaotic, but Rambuttri Avenue – which runs parallel to Khao San Road – is a little quieter. Our hotel for our unintentional extra night in Bangkok was located on this road and was possibly the first time I’d entered a hotel lobby, squeezing my suitcase in between a packed restaurant. Most bars are open until 2am and that night I had the craziest dreams from the constant background noise and awoke to the sound of a cockerel crowing. Mad.

Rambuttri Avenue

Khao San can only be accessed via a Grab Taxi or tuk tuk and from the Phra Arhit Pier on the hop-on -hop-off ferry. If you continue down Rambuttri Avenue towards the river you will also come across some more restaurants and we had a fantastic lunch at the apply named “Ohungry” restaurant.

China Town

China Town

We experienced China Town on our first morning in Bangkok and apart from the great introduction to the distinctive “Bangkok smell”, it was an entry into the colourful world of Thai markets and streetscape. The constant buzz of traffic combined with fluttering banners, sizzling street food and rows upon rows of street stalls is an experience that not even the best go-pro footage can describe. While we visited during the day, the Instagram photos of the vividly lit streets are just as worthwhile. We walked to China Town from our hotel, but it can also be accessed via the Metro.

Shopping centres in Bangkok

Skywalk to the Palladium

I didn’t ever think I would list something like this as a tourist destination, but the shopping centres in Bangkok are architectural feats of retail mastery and a visit to at least one is necessary. Plus, they’re air conditioned – definitely a win!

The Palladium World Shopping

Accessed via a massive sky walk, this shopping centre takes the traditional market and turns it into floors and floors of internal pop-up shops. It focuses mainly on fashion and textiles and while a lot of the designer brands are “questionable” the quality and prices are undeniably good. We traveled to the area via the Saen Seap Khlong Express water ferry, but it’s not a far walk from the Metro and Sky Train stations.

Siam Center

The Siam Center was originally built in 1973 as one of Bangkok’s first shopping malls. It has since undergone various renovations and now stands as a very interesting piece of architecture with over 400 high end stores. As architects, we found the building more interesting than the shops and even the interior of the toilets was worth checking out! Just one tip: don’t attempt to try and find a quaint lunch spot in this area. After walking kilometres in its radius we just came upon more and more shopping malls (and I point blank refuse to eat in a shopping centre…ever). Luckily the area is very easily accessed by numerous sky train stations so we had a quick escape.

Icon Siam

Nothing is small when it comes to the Icon Siam. Built as a mixed used development in 2018, it includes one of the largest shopping malls in Asia and the two tallest towers in Bangkok. It is so incredibly over the top and yet beautiful that it’s worth paying a visit just to marvel at. The basement includes a Disney-like floating market and the radiating tiers of shopping floors are punctuated by a digitally programmed waterfall. While the best views across Bangkok are reserved for some seriously over-priced restaurants, the middle roof garden is beautifully landscaped with views across the city. Icon Siam is located across the Chao Praya River and we accessed it from our hop-on-hop-off ferry. There is also a free ferry from Sathorn Pier.

Bangkok markets

If high end stores are not really your thing than the bustling markets might be more down your alley (literally). Apart from the loads of street stalls, there are a number of must-see markets in Bangkok.

Chatuchak Weekend Market

Chatuchak Weekend Market

The question is not what you can buy at Chatuchak, but what you can’t. With 8000 stalls ranging from clothing, to homeware, to ceramics and spices, it’s pretty much your one-stop shop for all things Thai. The stalls are kind of organized into sections, but eventually one just ends up wandering and wandering for hours. At one point I had to Google map reference us just to make sure we weren’t walking in circles! Chatuchak is located fairly far north, but easily accessible by Metro or the Sky Train.

Ratchada Rot Fai Train Market

Ratchada Rot Fai Train Market

The Train Market was originally located on railway land near Chatuchak, but was moved further south to Ratchadaphisek Road in 2015. It is also easily accessed by the Sky Train and opens from 5 pm to 1am. We went there on a Friday night and I think the words “wild” and “mad” were uttered quite a few times that evening! Not only does it contain the usual night market food stalls, but includes rows upon rows of market stalls, restaurants, rooftop bars and a generous amount of fairy lights and techno music. While the stalls below were a bit claustrophobic and chaotic, the view from above of the brightly-coloured canopies and live entertainment (and Leo beer) was so entertaining that we almost missed the midnight Sky Train back to Silom!

Asiatique The Riverfront

Asiatique The Riverfront

If you’re travelling with children or don’t mind a bit of “Thai Disneyland” then I would highly recommend taking a trip to this night market. Opened in 2012, the development includes theme-park entertainment such as a Ferris wheel and haunted house, restaurants, market stalls and even cabaret shows and Muay Thai boxing (which apparently is also just a show for tourists). So basically, it’s a typical Thai city stage-set in a clean and accessible manner for tourists. That being said, we had a really good meal in one of the slightly shopping centre-like restaurants and enjoyed browsing through the stalls without the usual market harassment. Asiatique is accessed via a “free” (or 30 baht if you want to skip the queues) ferry from Saphan Pier.

Patpong Market

We had the fortunate (unfortunate?) experience of walking through this night market a number of times as we desperately tried to find a bar close to our hotel. Unless strip clubs are really your thing, I wouldn’t go out of your way to visit it. There are of course the usual street stalls which extends into Silom night market and it is quite “vibey”, but not really a place to have a quiet cocktail and discuss the next day’s plans.

Lumphini Park

Lumphini Park

One of my favourite things to do when travelling is to wake up early and go for a run (yes, even after our night at Ratchada Rat Fai!). Luckily for us Lumphini park was just 1km from the Trinity Silom hotel and trust me, it’s literally the ONLY place in Bangkok where you can run. So I joined the thousands of Bangkok runners on their 2.5km anti-clockwise loops, passing the morning Thai Chi classes, the elderly couples eating bowls of noodles, paddle boats on the lake and even groups practising traditional dance. The park isn’t quite on par with Central Park, but it’s a welcome break from the Bangkok traffic and worth a visit. Just be warned: every day at 8am and 6pm some invisible person blows a whistle and everyone stands still like Simon Says to listen to the National Anthem blaring from goodness knows where.

Getting around Bangkok

Public transport in Bangkok is very efficient and easily navigable. The train system is in the form of the Sky Train (with a line that connects to Suvarnabhumi airport) and the underground Metro. Passes are easily bought from ticket machines per trip and are very reasonably priced. All trains are airconditioned to which is a big plus! Water transport is also possible on the Chao Phraya River via the Express ferries or the hop-on-hop-off tourist ferry as well as via the canals on the ferry boats. Just make sure you close your mouth during the canal trips as the water can splash and is very polluted! We also made use of the Grab app to access areas such as Khao San. Tuk tuks are virtually accessible everywhere, but be warned: they are known to scam tourists into “special deals”. Crossing the road can sometimes be a little hair-raising as traffic doesn’t necessarily come to a stand still at pedestrian crossings. The trick is to stick your hand out and they (should) slow down with enough time for you to cross.

Chiang Mai: a place of hidden treasures

The first thing I noticed in Chiang Mai was the complete change in scale from Bangkok. This was most noticeable in the old city where buildings are seldom more than two storeys and with main roads intersected with narrow streets that wind in between the dense city fabric. On more than one occasion we were almost taken out by a scooter appearing from behind a bend or said to each other “have we been down here before?” before coming across something completely unexpected and beautiful.

Take a walk

There are loads of excursions and day trips that can be made from Chiang Mai, but before you plan away all your time, arm yourself with google maps and get lost in the winding roads. In just one walk you’re guaranteed to come across a temple (there are over 300), a massage spa, restaurants, bars, shops, street stalls and quaint buildings dressed in lush plants and timber paneling. Some restaurants and bars are grouped together and some are hidden in a side street offering ice cold beer and noodles for 70baht.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

It has been said that if you haven’t visited Doi Suthep, you haven’t really seen Chiang Mai. I’d like to dispute that, but I would recommend making the trip. The temple can be reached by booking day trips, hiring a motorcycle, Grab taxi or the Red Trucks (Songthaew). We opted for the cheapest option of the Red Truck which we caught on Huaykaew Road and managed to share it with a group of French tourists for 50 baht each. Entrance to the temple is 30 baht each and does involve a bit of a walk up some steep steps, but the sight of the lavish temple at the top is worth it. It was quite crowded so if you want the perfect Instagram photos, I would suggest going earlier than we did. The experience was still beautiful and the sight of the golden spires and ornate decoration was incredible.

Huaykaew waterfall

We got off the Red Truck at the Chiang Mai zoo on the way back down from Doi Suthep and did the short hike to the waterfall. Due to the low rain season in December the waterfall wasn’t flowing very strongly, but it was a nice change from the city fabric. There are also a number of longer hiking trails from this area if you’re willing to battle out the heat and humidity

Temple wandering

Wat Chiang Mun

As mentioned, there are  over 300 temples in Chiang Mai, so if this is your thing then you’re spoilt for choice. We googled the best ones, put them into a google maps route and spent a morning walking the city between temples. The temples were Wat Lok Moli, Wat Rajamontean, Wat Chiang Mun, Wat Phantao and the largest and oldest Wat in Chiang Mai, Wat Chedi Luang. Each temple was unique with its own features and beautiful elements. Females are forbidden to show legs above the knees or bare shoulders, so I carried Thai pants (that can easily be pulled over shorts) and a light pashmina in my backpack.

Thai Cooking Course

Somphet Market

Even if you’re not much of a cook, taking a cooking course is a really fun way to learn about the Thai cuisine. We did a day course from 9 to 3pm with Thai Basil Cookery (http://www.basilcookery.com/home/). The day starts with a visit to the Somphet Market where we were shown the various available fruits, spices and vegetables and discovered surprising differences between gingers, eggplants, limes and chilies. I also learnt something new: not everything in a green curry or Tom Yum soup is actually edible! Back at the school we were given a choice between 6 dishes of noodles, curries, soups, stir-fries, appetizers and desserts which we devoured in between. There were only 4 people in our class and the interaction with our instructor was fun and informative. He even dropped us off at the market afterwards so that we could buy a wok!

Warorot Market

This market lies just outside of the Old City and we reached it by foot, but you can also take a Red Truck, Grab or tuk tuk. The market is one of the most genuine Thai markets where you can buy a wide range of food, household goods and textiles. It was here that we purchased our wok and a large variety of cooking utensils at very reasonable prices.

Chiang Mai Night Market

Pavilion Night Bazaar

Further south from Warorot is the Chiang Mai night market. For some reason I had battled to google the correct market and we ended up taking a grab to Ploen Ruedee which a quite a pleasant market with a few stalls and some live music. Luckily, we decided to walk further along Changklan Road and came upon the indoor Pavilion Night Bazaar, Anusarn Market and the Changmoi market which made Ploen Ruedee look miniscule in comparison! These indoor markets are massive and filled to the brim with retail stalls, food stalls, live music and bars. We managed to grab a table (and some Leo beers) and proceeded to make our way through chicken satay, spring rolls and kebabs purchased for sums of 30 baht or less. On certain nights you can even watch a (genuine) Muay Thai match or attend a cabaret show.

Rooftop bars

While the Old City’s scale is kept low, the Nimman quarter to the north west of the city is punctuated by some incredible contemporary hotels and towers with rooftop bars. We took a Grab taxi to the Akyra Manor hotel for sun-downers at the rooftop bar and were rewarded with a city view, sunset and ridiculously over-priced drinks. The Instagram story was worth it though!

Chiang Mai Night Life

Zoe in Yellow, Ratvithi Road

Chiang Mai has many hidden bars and nightclubs, but there is an area in Ratvithi Road where a number of bars are grouped together and if you’re looking for techno thumping music and expensive drinks this is the place to go. A little further down there are quite a few quieter bars and I would recommend walking down Ratvithi 2 Alley which links to a number of restaurants in Moon Muang Road Lane 7. Other interesting hidden bars include The Lost Hut (seriously, I thought we would get lost getting there), THC Bar (which has a chilled rooftop bar and has nothing to do with marijuana) and Jack’s Bar which also boasts a chilled rooftop vibe.

Restaurants

The FACES Gallery and Gastro Bar

Chiang Mai is known for its restaurants and we stumbled upon a few that are worth mentioning. The FACES Gallery and Gastro Bar is located towards the south of the Old City and the setting alone is worth the visit. Hidden behind a solid timber door is a beautiful indoor-outdoor restaurant lined with carved panelling and filled with hanging plants and fairy lights. The food was a little pricier than usual, but had a unique Thai twist and completely worth it. We also had very good meals at Dash! Restaurant and Bar, The Old City Inn and ate some very good Khao Soi (a local Chiang Mai dish) at a completely hidden restaurant called “Tid Laom”.

Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center

Maya Lifestyle Shopping Center

Located in the Nimman area, this shopping centre is worth a visit if you had some extra time to kill. As with most Thai shopping centres, it’s completely over the top, but still architecturally impressive.

Chiang Mai Sunday Market

Due to bad planning on my part, we left Chiang Mai on a Saturday with the result that we missed the Chiang Mai Marathon by a day (gasp), but also missed the Sunday Night Market. I haven’t researched too much into it for fear of FOMO, but apparently, it’s really worth it!

Get a massage

Massage spas are everywhere in Chiang Mai. They can range from the small outlet off the street to luxurious spas and of course those that have neon flashing lights… We had intended to include this in our trip, but eventually the idea of lying still for an hour while being physically manipulated didn’t sound that exciting. If you’re wanting to try it out in a unique way there are massages available for as little as 120 baht for an hour at the Wat Paen Whaen temple or you could even get massaged by a convict from the Women’s Prison!

Day trips and excursions from Chiang Mai

There are loads of day trips that can be taken from Chiang Mai to the waterfalls, elephant parks and jungle tours, but due to time and money constraints we decided to give these a skip. I would, however, be wary of the elephant parks as even the “elephant sanctuaries” are a bit questionable in their ethical treatment of the animals.

Getting around Chiang Mai

Songthaew (Red Truck)

The cheapest form of transport in Chiang Mai is the Red Trucks also known as Songthaews…or “tourist cattle carts” as I liked to call them. They’re basically converted pick-up trucks that provide transport to the various tourist attractions and routes. You can pick them up by hailing one from the road or your hotel can call them for you. It’s cheaper to take them in a big group, but we managed to get one to the airport for just the two of us for 150 baht. Tuk tuks are also easy to get off the street, but they can be a bit more expensive and Grab taxis are easy to call from the app.

Khao Sok jungle experience

Our Jungle Kamp, Khao Sok

Khao Sok is situated in the heart of the jungle between Surat Thani and Krabi. The small village is edged by the Khao Sok National park which features the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, huge limestone mountains and the Cheow Lan Lake. The lake itself was man-made in 1980 and includes 165 square kilometres of breath-taking scenery and floating bungalow resorts. After searching the tag on Instagram, I instantly knew that we had to include it on our trip. I’m not such a fan of camping or “roughing it” so was a little apprehensive about two nights in a bamboo hut, but the experience turned out to be one of our highlights and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had also originally expected to be stuck in the middle of nowhere, serviced only by our hotel, but the village was in fact very civilized with many restaurants and some crazy bars surrounded by jungle vegetation.

Cheow Lan Lake Tour

Cheow Lan Lake

I did some research and came to the conclusion that it was virtually impossible to visit the park on your own and that it was best to book a tour. There are many of tours available to book from outlets in the village (jungle trekking, kayaking etc.), but I chose to pre-book a day trip from Our Jungle camp for the Cheow Lan Lake. I usually hate organised tours, but there were only 10 of us in the group and our knowledgeable guide made the experience very relaxed.

Lunch spot: floating bungalows on Cheow Lan Lake

The day involved speeding through incredible lake scenery on a long-tail boat, trekking 4km in the jungle, crossing a river on a bamboo raft, exploring a hillside cave, lunching on a floating bungalow resort, kayaking and swimming in the lake and taking loads and loads of photos. We returned late in the afternoon confident that it was a day well spent.

Ao Nang and the Andaman Islands

Long-tail boats on Ao Nang Beach

If you’re looking for an affordable yet scenic spot to access the Andaman Islands then the coastal town of Ao Nang is definitely the place. It’s less touristy than Phuket, but is still packed with restaurants, bars, shops, great hotels and boasts a beautiful beachfront.

Walk/run the beachfront

Sunrise on Noppharat Thara Beach

Ao Nang beachfront promenade runs for about 3.5km along Ao Nang beach and linking up with Noppharat Thara Beach. Not only was this strip fantastic for my early morning runs, but was edged with restaurants, shops and bars, making it a great place to stroll and enjoy the views. We found some really great restaurants along the strip as well as in main roads that link up to it. There are also a number of resorts that sit directly on Ao Nang beach and on Christmas Eve they all put on fantastic displays of lights and live entertainment.

Railay

Railay Beach

Railay is located just south of Ao Nang and is accessible by Long-tail boat from Ao Nang Beach for 200 baht return.  Just a short walk from Railay Beach is Phra Nang Beach and cave which is a bit quieter and great for swimming. There are no restaurants on this beach, but in true Thai style there are a number of colourful long-tail boats equipped with kitchens and serving up a combination of noodles and ice-cream. To the north of Railay is a strip of lively restaurants, shops and bars which connects to Railay Beach East on the other side.

Tew Lay Bar

Following a tip from a Facebook group we continued up the beach walk and came upon Tew Lay Bar, hidden in grove of trees. The bar features hanging chairs, and bird nest seating which extends out onto the water, making it an idyllic spot to drink some beers away from the crowds.

Phi Phi Islands Tour

Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Lee

The Facebook group “Thailand Advice & Travel Tips” is linked to a tour company called Andaman Islands Tour and Travel (https://www.facebook.com/Andamanislandstravel/) and following the rave reviews on the page I decided to book with them for the Phi Phi and Bamboo Islands day trip on speed boat. There are numerous companies that organise similar tours which can be booked from outlets in the town or at your hotel. Once again I had to forgo my dislike of organised tours as it’s pretty much the only way to see the islands. The communication from the tour company was exceptional right from making sure that we were picked up from the hotel on time to asking how we enjoyed it. I did, however, feel very much like a herded tourist, particularly as we were squished into a “cattle cart”, herded into groups at the pier and had lunch in what I can only describe as a mess hall (although the food was very good!). That being said, it made for a very systematic and well-organised tour as we saw the beautiful Pileh lagoon, Monkey Bay, Maya Bay (from the boat), Phi Phi Don and Bamboo Island. We were given loads of time to snorkel, swim, relax and get some breath-taking photo opportunities, so overall it was worth it.

Hong Islands Tour

Koh Lao Lading

Hong Island is situated north of Ao Nang in the National Park and after trying to work out how to get there ourselves, I once again came to the conclusion that it was worth the money to spend on another tour. I booked last minute with Andaman Island Tour and Travel via Facebook and was very impressed by their quick response. This time I booked a longtail boat in the hope that it would be a smaller group and found the experience a little less cattle-like and more genuine.

Hong Island

The tour took us to the beautiful island of Koh Lao Lading where we had a “packed lunch” (read: full spread of amazing Thai dishes produced from somewhere on the boat) beneath palm trees in a blue water cove. Much better than the mess hall! We were also able to visit the Hong Lagoon and spent a good 2 hours relaxing and swimming in the clear wave-free Hong Beach. The tour once again left me feeling happy with the money spent.

Ao Nang Night Market

Ao Nang Night Market

This outdoor market is not quite on the scale of those in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, but well worth the visit. Night markets are also often a lot cheaper than restaurants and came with the benefit of choosing your food by sight and smell rather than hazy photos on a menu. We also had the best chocolate ice cream rolls here which is worth ordering just to watch the process!

Getting around Ao Nang

Since we were mostly moving between our hotel and the beachfront, we either used the hotel shuttle or just walked. Taxis and tuk tuks are easy to get though. 

Thai Food

Shrimp Tom Yum

From stir-fries, to Pad Thai, to green and red curry, spring rolls, chicken satay and tom yum, we had it all. Sometimes even for breakfast! My advice is to eat as much Thai food as possible and avoid Western Food (which is actually more likely to make you sick). We often bought juicy, ice cold pineapple from street vendors, but did tend to avoid the stalls right on the edge of the busy roads. Even the simplest restaurant will make amazing bowls of noodles and I only almost died once when I asked for extra spicy!

Frequently asked questions

What must I pack?

Shorts, t-shirt/vests, good walking shoes, flip-flops, swimming costume, hat, sun-tan lotion and sun-glasses. Make sure you have a lightweight backpack and keep your suitcase empty as you’ll want to make space for all the clothes (and woks!) that you buy. It only rained once when we were there, but when it did, it poured, so a rain jacket might be a good idea and obviously a must if you travel in the rainy season. Chiang Mai was quite cool in the evenings and we did actually wear jeans a few times and needed a lightweight jersey.

What should I buy when I get there?

Thai pants (perfect for the jungle and temples), mosquito spray (the pink bottle from 7 Eleven), a sim card (we bought an AIS unlimited one month data for 250 baht) and basically anything that takes your fancy at the market.

Should I exchange money in advance?

I think we were able to swipe our cards once in Thailand, but otherwise we simply drew money from the many ATMs. Even Khao Sok has an ATM so don’t worry about not being able to get cash. Just make sure you unblock your cards from your bank before you leave.

Do I need vaccinations?

No.

Is Malaria a problem?

No, and I think I get more bitten by mosquitoes in South Africa than Thailand. The pink spray is seriously the best though!

What if I get sick?

I ended up losing my voice at one point (which was slightly hilarious in hindsight). This was probably due to all the running I did in traffic and luckily, I had brought a range of medication with me. The pharmacies are apparently very helpful though and we probably should have worn masks more than we did.

Is it safe?

Very. Coming from South Africa, I felt far safer than I do at home. That being said, there are pick-pockets so don’t be completely unaware.

How much money do I need?

That really depends on how much you want to spend. Food and accommodation for us was a lot cheaper than South Africa, whereas alcohol was pretty much the same. Wine unfortunately for me was extremely expensive and absolutely awful so not worth the money. Most meals in a restaurant range from 150 to 250 baht with a large Leo beer ranging from 100 to 150 baht. Cocktails were often on special for 100 baht, but could be over 200 depending on the place. Public transport can range from very cheap (45baht for a Sky Train trip) to moderately expensive (150 baht for a Grab trip). Clothing is much cheaper than elsewhere (100 baht for Thai pants) and if you barter you can get it for even cheaper! Tours are probably the most expensive items, but worth the money

When is the best time of year to visit?

We went in December, which is effectively their winter and so was not as hot and not as rainy. Since it was over Christmas, it was very busy and if you can go in January or February it might be a bit quieter.

What apps should I download?

We booked accommodation through Booking.com and Agoda so these apps are essential. Google maps is a must for navigation and we used the Grab app (similar to Uber) quite a lot. We also downloaded Google translate and while most signage was in English, it helped when our bill once came in Thai and we had been over-charged.

How do I get from the airport to the hotel?

If there’s one thing you do not have to worry about in Thailand, it’s transport. You will easily find a taxi at every airport and will be able to organise shuttles through your hotels very easily.

Essentials to always carry with you?

Avoid carrying your passport around, but you will need it to apply for a SIM card. Always carry water, sun screen and cash. Ladies: Thai pants and pashminas for temples and make sure tissue paper and hand sanitizer are always at hand. For island tours the hotels will usually provide you with towels. 

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5 Reasons Why You Should Invest in Your Garden

Owning a home is that never-ending list of things that need to be repaired or replaced. And just when you think you’ve conquered the list, you put a foot through a rotten floor board, the garage door breaks (AGAIN) and the wall you swear you painted “just the other day” starts to flake. This seemingly-circular process is often frustrating. On the other hand, it can also be extremely rewarding as your time, effort and money starts to add value and improve your living space. The age-old question though is “is it worth spending X amount to fix this?” and particularly “do we fix the roof, renovate the bathroom…or put in a pool?”. So, what if I told you one of the areas that you should definitely be focusing your money is your garden? Here’s why:

1. Increase the value of your property up to 20%

No, I didn’t just make that up. Studies have found that the impression of an outdoor garden can define a potential buyer’s initial feelings towards a house. Furthermore, the investment into renovating an outdoor area has seen dramatic increases in the selling price of up to 20% of the original estimate. Something as simple as laying new lawn and adding some splashes of colour into a garden bed can dramatically change the perception of the property. For long term investment, the introduction of elements such as decking and braai areas create the illusion of more value beyond the 3 bed, 2 bath scenario. That being said, the design of these elements is critical as a bad design could detract from the value while a good design can improve it by responding in an appropriate aesthetic and functional manner. Just remember that the cost of a professional design might seem expensive, but it’s just a tiny drop in the overall cost and future benefit.

2. Increase your living space

South Africa is blessed with a climate that provides us with an abundance of sunny days and warm evenings, making our outdoor spaces the perfect extensions to our indoor spaces. By investing in these areas, we can create outdoor rooms, spaces to braai and entertain, spaces for children to play and spaces to sit quietly and read. One simply has to type “Outdoor living” into Pinterest and begin to yearn for our own fire pit or pergola draped with fairy lights where we can breathe in fresh air and stare at the starry sky. Yes, it all sounds very romantic, but the benefits of creating these spaces can maximise every inch of your investment.

3. Benefit the environment

What if we all saw our gardens as tiny biomes with a unique set of living organisms and environmental processes? From providing trees for the birds, to planting flowers for the bees, the garden’s environmental potential is endless. In South Africa we are blessed with numerous indigenous plants whose roles in combating air pollution are incredible. Spekboom for instance has the ability to capture 4 to 10 tons of carbon per hectare – that’s 100 times more than a Pine Tree! How’s that for your return on your investment? We also need to see our gardens as part of the larger environment and the role each property has in absorption of water back into the ground water table, the impact on bird flight paths and other aspects such the control of invasive alien species. With that in mind it’s easy to see that our investment in our gardens isn’t just for our own benefit.

4. Improve your quality of life

Did you know that being in positive outdoor spaces has proven to reduce stress, improve creativity, fight depression and reduce anxiety? Not to mention the physical benefits of breathing cleaner air and the benefits of sunlight on blood pressure and our immune system. Numerous studies have proven that humans are simply not meant to be indoors all the time – we need and crave the outside air. That means that by investing in a garden space we are not just creating a pretty rose garden to be admired from the kitchen window, but a space that has the potential to improve our physical and emotional states. Add to this the benefit of social spaces to connect with friends or play areas away from indoor screen time and we can begin to see why our gardens provide such important places in our daily lives.

5. Reduce your grocery bill

No, I’m not saying turn your entire garden into and urban farm, but no matter how big or small your garden is, an investment into a few pots of herbs or even a large raised vegetable garden can go a long way to reducing the amount of fresh produce that we buy. There’s nothing better than being able to go outside and pick a fresh bunch lettuce for a salad or rosemary for the braai. What better way to fill your garden with greenery than with something that you can actually eat? Advice on where and what to plant is always helpful in this case to prevent a case of “crop failure”, but the benefits of having organic nutrients and rich, flavourful produce are definitely worth it.

So maybe now is the time to go outside and begin to imagine the potential for your garden. I can guarantee you that it will always be money well spent!

sketch-plan Rose Buchanan Landscape design

Landscape architecture – what happens when an architect embraces the landscape

“We lost the tender because we don’t have a landscape architect”. Sorry, a what? I stopped my notebook doodling and immediately recovered from my 8am Monday morning stupor. What the hell was a landscape architect? How had I studied architecture, enduring 5 years of creative awakening, sleepless nights and various model-building severed finger tips and NOT heard of landscape architecture? My immediate associations included something along the lines of a Heidi-inspired backdrop complete with rolling hills and mountain goats…with…architecture? How?

Back at my open plan desk I minimised my browser and candidly (yes, before the days of smart phones!) began to google. Perhaps if my life had background music something along the lines of the Hallelujah chorus would have played when I stumbled upon a website called www.Iwantobealandscapearchitect.com. Weirdly enough this website doesn’t exist anymore, but this simple url changed my life more than Pinterest or Facebook could every imagine. Unlike episodes of “How I met your Mother”, I seriously cannot remember the exact details, but what I read was one of those “this is totally me!” situations. I had always loved the idea of urban design and the broader view of the built environment, but quite frankly after adding coordinates to 500 odd lamp poles and benches, the idea wasn’t that exciting. But what if it didn’t just involve streets, paving details and “urban markers”? What if it involved something far more complex: the landscape.

So within 6 months I had uprooted my dog (and my other half) from Port Elizabeth and moved to Cape Town to study landscape architecture at UCT. I remember driving my tiny Yaris over Van Staadens bridge, trying not to freak out over the wind that was definitely going blow my car off the edge and listening to someone on the radio speak about new beginnings and change. Yes! On to the rest of my life and my awesome career as a landscape architect!

Okay, to cut the story short, it wasn’t quite that simple. What followed was another two years of creative awakening, sleepless nights and more model-building severed finger tips. For two years some people thought my other half had an imaginary girlfriend while I was processing concepts I’d never dreamed about. Terms such as “ecological urbanism”, and “phenomenology” become my lingo as I learn about the relationship between social, urban and natural processes and how as a landscape architect we can design spaces to facilitate this symbiotic relationship. Yes, I can see your glazed-over eyes and no, don’t close the browser just yet. While these things seem all theoretical, they’re the key to a rather important effort: the future of our planet. Yip, landscape architects are here to save the world!

Which is where I insert this meme:

Right, so what the hell do landscape architects actually do?

Let’s start with top left. Firstly, that’s not quite my design vibe, but we’re not here to do a design crit. Secondly, yes, I do a lot of this. In fact, this is where I make the majority of my income and I love it. I love going to clients’ homes and being bowled over by their giant-sized dogs. I love the look on people’s faces when they describe their favourite plants and their joy when they first see my design proposals. I love making a difference environmentally no matter how small it may be. No, this isn’t the definition of what landscape architects do (and my parents wouldn’t have funded a second master’s degree if it was!), but it’s still a very real and important part of the profession.

Images two and three: I kind of feel like these should be swopped around. As an architect I’m allowed to criticise and say that far too many architects have slapped on a green roof or made their building “emerge from the ground” and called it landscape architecture. The emoji with the slap to the face comes in mind. Image three: let me explain it to you this way. Does an architect cast a concrete slab? Nope? Well then, I don’t personally plant my trees. A landscaping contractor does that. And for the reference: “landSCAPING architecture” is not a term (laughing crying face emoji).

Image four: hahahahahahaha – add some wine, travel and a run and I’m there!

Image five: okay, unless you live under a bridge, this is the High Line and, in many ways, it is a bridge. This project in New York took a dis-used railway line and managed to create a linear green urban park that connected the city, created positive public space and combatted CO2 levels with greenery. It also made for a kick ass tourist and selfie-taking spot. I won’t go into all the technical speak about it, but basically it does something that architects can’t do: it responds to the urban, natural and social processes and connects them. Yes, that’s what I’d love to, and will do one day (grinning smiley face).

Sixth image: Story. Of. My. Life.

I’m pretty sure you still have no idea what landscape architecture is, but I hope this entertained you if nothing else. My story has only just begun (cue background music) and yes, if it’s a tiny drop in the ocean or a flower in the garden, I’m going to do my bit to save the planet.

House Watt Rose Buchanan Landscape design

Sorry, Lawn, it’s not you it’s my Climate – Why South Africans need to break up with their lawns

I’m the type of person who very rarely reveals my emotions, but on this day the look of absolute horror and disbelief peeled away my resting bitch face and left me completely stunned. I stared open-mouthed while the person in front of me proceeded to describe how she wanted a garden removed of all natural clutter, gesturing frantically at the beautiful canopy of trees above us. “All this” (more dramatic gestures), “it gives me a headache”. I tried to close my guppy-mouth, fighting back the urge to prescribe Myprodol (or perhaps an accidental blow to the head) and began to assess the situation. While this garden, filled with plants, trees and nature delighted and calmed me, it had the ability to produce the complete opposite impact on someone else. How was that even possible? 

How could someone even THINK to destroy something so beautiful and (horrors of horrors) replace it with artificial lawn? To me that was unthinkable, but to her she needed a “safe” play area for her children. I did wonder, as I marched myself quickly off the premises, whether her children wouldn’t actually prefer to run through the vegetation, climb the trees and jump from the Khoi pond rocks? Or perhaps that’s a far too pre-millennial thought?

What if we could get over our perception of what a typical garden needs to be? Think back to your childhood perception of garden: lawn, edged with beds, perhaps a tree or two and maybe a kitch water feature in the corner with a skewered fish regurgitating water. Sound familiar? Which is great, except for one critical factor: water. The reality of our South African climate has finally set in and our water thirsty European gardens are slowly wilting away. At this very moment of writing this article I have a team of guys in my garden spewing mud everywhere, while they attempt to locate a well point. And why? To save my f***ing lawn.

And surely there should be something more to South African landscaping than simply saving lawn or replacing it with heat-absorbing, dog wee smelling, un-recyclable astro? For goodness sake, we have one of the biggest floral kingdoms in the world! A true South African would never choose box wine over a good bottle of wine so why on earth do we do it with our gardens? Yes, lawn does have a place within a garden, but can we change our perception to realise that a garden doesn’t have to have lawn? All those poor plants who have been shoved to the edges are just begging to break free and become centre pieces, natural meadows, creators of space and most importantly, home to micro-ecosystems.

No, I’m not saying that every garden must become a natural wilderness complete with sandstone rocks, thatch grass and possibly a weed-smoking surfer. The potential is far greater than that. We just need to learn how to break the mould of our preconceived garden ideas and begin to use plants and materials to shape our gardens. I’m not even suggesting that we solely look to indigenous plants and natural materials, but rather explore how to combine indigenous and water wise exotics with natural and man-made elements to create spaces that reflect our own unique characters and identities. And let’s not even get into the potential of being able to eat your garden rather than lie on it! Whether your preference is for clean-lined architectural spaces, or wild organic chaos, I can guarantee you that apart from providing your Labrador with a place to dig, lawn cannot solely satisfy your aesthetic needs.

So while I resume my resting bitch face and continue with my landscaping endeavour, perhaps it’s time you considered a break up with your lawn?

Yuppy Chef_render Rose Buchanan Landscape design

Your Ultimate Guide to Drought Gardening

The reality of the drought has hit us hard and a visible result of this has been the dwindling state of our home gardens. We have all struggled to keep our thirsty plants alive, but try as we may so many of them have fallen victim to the lack of water. So do we just give up and make do with our unsightly spaces? No, of course not. We simply pick up our spades and adapt our gardens to cope. With this in mind I thought I would put together the ultimate guide to gardening your way through the drought.

Plan before you dig

You wouldn’t renovate your house without a plan so why would you renovate your garden without planning it properly? Take some time to measure out your space and consider the various options and the space required. Inaccurate planning and estimating can cause huge financial losses, not to mention the reduction of potential in the space. As with most things in life: if you’re not an expert rather cut your losses and hire someone to do it for you. Of course, I would say this, but I can guarantee that the benefits will far outweigh your costs.

Reduce or remove your lawn

Turf grass if possibly the most thirsty plant due to their very shallow roots and while changing your lawn to more water wise species such as Cynodon will help, we need to accept that rolling lawns are not an option anymore. Lawn areas need to be reduced or changed by creating larger areas of planting, replacing lawn with water wise ground covers or opting for hard landscaping alternatives. Artificial lawn is an option, but recent studies have shown that it has terrible environmental effects and it can get extremely hot under foot. More creative solutions using a combination of paving, stones, bark or decking can transform lawn areas into fantastic functional and beautiful spaces.

Change your plants

Yes, that does mean opting for more a more indigenous planting palette, but not all indigenous plants are water wise. Take some time to properly research which plants are appropriate and be careful to take note of the specific conditions in your garden. Obvious choices are our wide range of succulents, but there many other indigenous trees, shrubs and ground covers which require very little water. When at the nursery look out for plants with small, needle-like leaves or grey foliage as these have naturally adapted to reduce water loss. When placing your plants, consider areas of sun, shade, wind and soil conditions clearly and aim to group plants into various zones. By grouping plants of similar water requirements into “hydro zones” you can easily adapt your water requirements. For instance, place those requiring more water close to water tanks or to your house for ease of tank or grey water watering. If there are existing exotic plants that have survived the drought, rather leave them as established plants require less water. That being said, if there are invasive water-sucking aliens growing, make sure you remove them properly

Add to your soil

The drought has left our ground dry and lacking in nutrients, making it difficult to support even the hardiest vegetation. In order to counteract this you will need to add to the soil when planting with compost, manure and fertilizer. Various water-retentive polymers will also help to hold the water in the soil for longer and mixing in vermiculite or a gel-based product can help to reduce the need to water as frequently. It is also essential to add a layer of mulch on top of the soil after planting in order to reduce the rate of evaporation. Organic mulch comes in various forms such as wood chips, sawdust and peach pips with the added benefit of increasing the level of bacteria as it decomposes. Inorganic mulch includes gravel, pebbles and stones also which help to create micro-climates for insects and organisms.

Collect rain water

Water restrictions have meant that we cannot water our gardens with municipal water and while some plants will survive without water for an extended period of time, they will still require some water. This means that it is essential that we collect and store as much rain water as possible. Rain water tanks are the most obvious solution to this and the various shapes and sizes on the market have made it easier to fit into the tiniest spaces. These can be connected to the irrigation system or fitted with pumps to make hand watering easier. Other methods include creating channels from down pipes to divert water into planting beds or to terrace sloping gardens to retain water within each bed.

Irrigate wisely

Even if you have the benefit of a borehole or well point water, it is very important that irrigation during a drought is done efficiently to give the plants the right amount of water at the right time. Drip irrigation is preferable to pop-ups systems and try to avoid irrigating on windy days which will lead to large amounts of water loss. Plants which have been regularly watered will need to be trained slowly to receive less water, preventing them from going into shock and encouraging roots to dig further into the ground.

Maintain efficiently

Gardens require regular maintenance and this is very important during a drought. Fertilising should take place regularly, but lightly in order to prevent stressing the plants out too much. The same applies for pest control and organic pesticides must be applied as necessary, but without creating a sense of shock. Pruning should also be done lightly and continue to compost and mulch, but be careful not to dig too far into the soil as this will disturb the bacteria. Weeds are considerably less due to the lack of water, but must be removed in order to prevent them from sucking up all the water.

So now armed with a wealth of knowledge I’m sure you’re ready to make your garden drought-proof and beautiful once more. And remember: “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”

Written by Rose Buchanan