The bell rang; it was lunch time and officially the end of my first semester teaching in China. It seemed the bell struck a bittersweet note because as the students poured out of class, canteen bound, I found myself both happy and sad. Happy at the realisation that ‘school was out’, and now it was time to adventure for two months; sad because I realised I’d no longer be teaching these students whom I felt I had only just got to know in the last couple of weeks. But after lots of goodbyes and what felt like an infinity of selfies, I got on the bus and left for Guiyang.
My first stop was Chengdu to celebrate Western New Year with friends I had made through The China Teaching Experience. What more can you ask for than adorable pandas, incredible hotpot and Western surprise treats in the form of Costa? One day I ordered some of the best green tea in an outdoor café in People’s Park, where old men played Chinese Chess, aggressively slapping the pieces down, while two children ran back and forth to the lake, trying to convince their mother to let them go on a paddle boat, (they didn’t succeed).
After a few days adventuring in Sichuan’s capital which included watching an incredible face changing show while eating ridiculously spicy dumplings, and visiting the world’s largest stone carved Buddha in the world, I found myself sitting in the hostel lobby, all layered up and wondering where to go next. After trawling the cheap airline websites one after the other for hours – we’ve all been there – I found an insanely cheap flight to Bangkok, it was decided. Heading for Thailand was next on the cards and I was elated to finally shed the thermals.
I stepped off the plane with my backpack, still in jeans and a fluffy jacket, (mistake number 1… I should have changed) within seconds I began sweating the clothes off. Bangkok was blisteringly hot. After deciding on a general area to look for somewhere to stay, I found my way to the train. My introduction to Thailand was Khao San road, it is everything the guide book tells you and more: loud, vibrant, and a little bit crazy. With foreigners everywhere, food carts littering the streets and neon lights flashing, it was safe to say I was no longer in China.
After traipsing around in the sweltering heat I found a place to stay just far enough away from the craziness to enjoy it, yet far enough to actually be able to sleep. The next few days involved being ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers (even though I was forewarned), temple viewing and eating some of the best pad Thai I’ve ever tasted. After another day wandering around the capital I ventured to the train station to head off toward Chiang Mai, my next stop. A lovely Thai woman at the bus stop on my way advised me to go via Ayutthaya, the nation’s ancient capital, it was great advice. The whole place was a strange combination of UNESCO world heritage sites made of crumbling burnt red bricks and small hut-like convenient stores.
Ayutthaya is best seen by bicycle, so I rented a vintage looking, (and sounding), bicycle to explore the tumbling temples. After only a day there, I caught a night train to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai was probably one of my favourite spots I’ve been to so far in Thailand. It really is a melting pot of culture and activities. With elephant sanctuaries, an introduction to Muay Thai and cookery classes there really is so much to do, then there are still the temples and the street markets of course; it’s a wonderful city, everything you could want all enclosed within its wall.
I’d been travelling for a bit longer than two weeks by this point; the rest of my holiday was spent in the south of the country at Thailand’s renowned stunningly white sandy beaches and in the national park of Khao Sok. I wanted to learn to scuba dive so naturally Koh Tao was my first stop.
When we arrived (I was now travelling with my boyfriend and friend) the sky was grey as steel, and it was raining, who knew that was a thing in Thailand? We decided to head to the beach anyway and luckily the rain didn’t last long. The day we chose a dive school was actually my birthday, so we signed up to begin the next day so we could spend the rest of the day celebrating. Turning 22 in Thailand was amazing, I spent most of the day on the beach or in the sea and then went for a decadent (yet still incredibly cheap) three course dinner featuring freshly caught seafood and Koh Tao’s best desert option… crepes!
Diving was incredible. It was hard at times and quite exhausting too, but after my first dive I knew it was something I was so happy to finally be doing. Swimming alongside schools of fish, seeing incredibly rare species, and even just being so close to coral that was thousands of years old was unbelievable. It’s a feeling like no other, seeing more of the beauty the world has to offer.
We island hopped a few times after completing the diving course until we landed back on the mainland to go to Khao Sok. After researching beforehand I knew that there was an opportunity to stay in a floating bamboo house on the lake inside the park, so when we arrived we made reservations to do just that. The whole package was an insane deal, it included our floating accommodation, two jungle treks, cave exploration, and local food for every meal.
So picture a slightly taller, older but shorter haired version of Mowgli from the Jungle Book and that was what our trek guide was like, he really made the whole experience more than extraordinary. He caught fish with his hands, drew our attention to different plant species and their uses, and called out to gibbons in the jungle, we actually saw a whole range of monkeys in their natural habitat.
The second day our almost naked, bar a fabric bandana and some threadbare shorts, trekking guide took us to a cave inside the park in which we had to scramble at times swim in chin-level water. As we delved deeper inside, the cavern space became tighter and the flow of water faster. It was such an adventure, as we scrambled through again he explained different rock formations and how they formed, and told us of any wildlife as he came across them.
Leaving Khao Sok was a hard decision since there was so much to see and do, we barely scratched the surface, but our entry visas were quickly nearing their expiration so we decided to head to Phuket our final Thai island to fly out from there. By now it was just me and my boyfriend, and since I had to head to Beijing (as I was flying back to England to visit family and friends for some of the holiday too), we randomly found that a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was cheaper than from anywhere else in South East Asia… that made our decision for us!
Kuala Lumpur bound, in a monstrously long line for immigration clearance on leaving Thailand, and the clock ticking, we finally made it to the front of the queue only to realise that the tiny scrap of paper they give you on entry to the country is actually important. Fortunately, being the hoarder I am, I was planning on scrapbooking all the odds and ends from my trip so I still had mine, my boyfriend though didn’t… The officer at the desk was not best pleased with the raucous we were causing in our panic and emphatically told us he MUST find it. By some stroke of fate Jeff found it completely crumpled up in a side pocket of his rucksack, after sheepishly handing it over we sprinted through toward our gate that was now flashing red with ‘final call.’ We literally just made it onto the plane, they closed the door right after we got on and off we went.
Malaysia has such a different vibe to Thailand. There were fewer tourist traps, but just as many massage parlours it seemed, you couldn’t walk down one particular street without thirty people offering you some kind of therapy. The food in Kuala Lumpur was a wonderful fusion of Indian and Asian, we ate some of the best curries ever and probably far too many lassi’s.
The metropolis of Kuala Lumpur is vibrant and friendly, sky scrapers on every corner and street venders too. We decided to leave the city for a few days and had to the Cameron Highlands, they were exactly that… high. The coach climbed the mountain’s winding roads worryingly fast at times. Here we hiked; picked strawberries, and visited tea plantations where we learnt about the whole process while sampling numerous beverages too. Tea and strawberries – does it get much more British than that? It was the perfect way to end the trip and send me off home to visit my friends and family in England.