Tempting the Tigers in Thailand

Thailand travel bucket list adventure wanderlust tigers

In recent years, Thailand has quickly become one of the hottest international bucket list travel destinations. For years, I felt drawn to visiting this exotic and exciting country. However, I could never quite get enough days off of work. Finally, with a bit of luck I secured over two weeks off of work during the holidays. Without missing a beat, I took that opportunity to book a comprehensive north to south trip. Follow me on my unforgettable journey through Thailand.


I’m Tired, But Not That Tired!

The flight from Los Angeles to Chiang Mai is a whopping 18.5 hours. Eighteen and a half hours!! That is a seriously long time to be in the air. Needless to say, I anticipated a little jet lag. I tried as best as I could to take short little naps on the long plane ride. However, my plan was to stay up as long as I could. I wanted to spend the first night sleeping in sync with Thailand time.

So I had been up for some time and was starting to get tired. My flight landed in the early evening, and I was excited to get to my hotel. I couldn’t wait to unwind for the night in a comfortable bed. Just outside of the airport, you had to take a number and wait in line for a taxi. When it was my turn, the taxi driver looked me over and told me that the meter was broken. He said he would take me to my hotel for 500 Thai baht.

Not today, taxi man! I’m tired, but not that tired!

The typical cab fare from the Chiang Mai airport to the city center is about 100-160 Thai baht. I knew that, and wasn’t about to let this man scam me! It’s important to do your research and know benchmark prices for transportation in foreign countries. This “broken meter” excuse is a common scam taxi drivers use to take advantage of tourists. Prepare ahead of time, and know what to expect. I shot down his offer and negotiated an acceptable fare. We went on our way, and I turned in for the night.

Golden Temples Galore

I woke up feeling refreshed and without an ounce of jet leg, so I was ready to tackle the day. First on the itinerary: Doi Suthep Temple. The best way to get around Thailand is either by hailing a tuk tuk or using the GRAB app. GRAB is the UBER of Southeast Asia, and both options are equally convenient. When the driver dropped me off at the temple, I could not believe my eyes! I had seen photos, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw. Stunning gold temples and ornate statues filled the area. I had been in Thailand for less than 24 hours and already immersed myself with so much culture! It was exciting!

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The stunning golden temple in Chiang Mai. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

The BEST Christmas Present

Elephant Keeper For A Day

It was Christmas Day. December 25, 2018. After fully exploring the temples and statues of Chiang Mai, I headed to my next destination: the Patara Elephant Farm. This particular farm is a sanctuary for elephants that were mistreated at other locations. Patara rescues these animals and treats them well.

I was an elephant keeper for the day. Everyone in the group was assigned their own elephant. My companion was a youth named Ponsai. We learned how to approach them, read their mood, check their health and feed them. The ears, tail, and trunk flap and swing continuously in a healthy elephant. Downturned and motionless ears indicate poor health. Additionally, the eyes of healthy elephants are clear and bright, and their tongues pink and moist. My elephant was a happy little guy, and we were matched perfectly.

Splish, Splash, I Was Takin’ A Bath

After learning how to properly care for an elephant, it was now time to bathe him. So we stripped down to our bathing suits and put in some work.

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Getting ready to get down and dirty with the elephants!
Bathing elephant Thailand Travel bucket list experience adventure
Scrub-a-dub-dubbing my elephant!

Little did I know that after I finished giving Ponsai a bath, he would return the favor. It was completely unexpected and absolutely hilarious!

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My elephant returned the favor with a bath of my own!

Hole In The Wall

After an amazing Christmas Day exploring the ornate golden temples and hanging out with the elephants, I set out in search of food. Some of the best food I’ve ever had has always been at the smallest “hole in the wall” places. I was excited to try Khao Soi Samer Jai. This little eatery is largely frequented by locals. In fact, the menu was completely in Thai and the waiters didn’t speak a word of English. I was definitely in the right place for authentic Thai food. I ordered what turned out to be the most delicious Thai food I would eat during my entire trip. It was also the cheapest – three American dollars for a full dinner plate, dessert, and a drink. I left the place with my tongue on fire, my stomach content, and a Christmas Day for the books!

Tempting the Tigers

Continuing my theme of interacting with animals in Chiang Mai, the next morning I set out to play with tigers! I’ve heard a lot of controversial things regarding the Tiger Kingdom in Thailand, so I wanted to see for myself. From first hand experience, I learned that the tigers in Chiang Mai are definitely NOT drugged. On the contrary, they are incredibly active. They were darting around from one place to another, and had plenty of space to run free.

These animals are raised and trained by humans, which accounts for their agreeable nature. As a young cub, the tiger is rewarded for good behavior and gets a little bop on the nose for bad behavior. This is the same way you would train your dog to be able to interact with humans. Even so, I have to admit I was a little nervous stepping into an enclosure with multiple 500 pound tigers. There were three adult tigers in my area, and I had the privilege of interacting with two of these beautiful, magnificent animals.

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Just walking my pet tiger. No big deal!

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Getting up close and personal with this beautiful white bengal tiger.
Not going to lie – I was a little scared he was getting ready to slap me with that huge paw!

Buses and Tuk Tuks and Taxis, Oh My!

The next stop on my itinerary was neighboring Chiang Rai. I originally planned on taking a three hour bus ride to Chiang Rai. However, after walking around and failing to locate the actual bus station, I decided to go for plan B. I flagged down a tuk tuk, wondering if he would be able to take me to the next city. Tuk tuks are typically used for short rides within a city, and not for intercity transport. They are usually cheaper than taxis, so I thought I would at least give it a shot.

The tuk tuk driver ended up being one of the friendliest people I would meet on the trip. He was determined to safely get me to my next stop. This man even stopped off at headquarters and filled out special paperwork for permission to bring me to my destination. Unfortunately, he was denied. However, this didn’t stop him from going above and beyond. He drove me to the city limit, and phoned a trustworthy friend that drove a taxi and negotiated a fair price. As we parted ways at the city limit, he charged the bare minimum and refused to take a tip. I insisted and tipped him anyway. I felt blessed to cross paths with this sweet man, who helped me get to Chiang Rai without any hassle.

“I’ll Take One In Each Color”

The new taxi driver was just as nice as the last one, and was happy to offer helpful suggestions. My original plan was to stop by Chiang Rai’s famous White Temple on the way to my Airbnb. What I didn’t know was that there were lesser known Blue and Black Temples as well! He said that the Blue Temple was especially well designed, and also on the way to my accommodations. So I added it to the list of places to see!

White Temple

I briefly read about the White Temple while preparing for my trip, and the photos didn’t really register in my mind. Needless to say, I was grossly unprepared for the sheer magnitude and presence of this landmark. Wat Rong Kun, the White Temple, is actually a large art exhibit designed around the style of a Buddhist temple. I marveled at the intricate white and silver detail work. It consists of incredible statues and has an amazing overall design. It looks like something straight out of the movie Frozen – Elsa’s castle! The artist poured so much of his heart and soul into creating a true masterpiece.

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White Temple. Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Blue Temple

I was awe-stricken by the White Temple. There was so much work and beauty poured into the details, and I was more excited than ever to see the Blue Temple. Would it be similar? Surely it couldn’t be as beautiful and detailed, as it was much less known than the White Temple. I had no idea what I was about to walk into. When the taxi driver pulled up to the Blue Temple, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is just personal preference, but it was even more spectacular than the White! Huge blue dragons guarded the ornate blue and gold temple. A large blue Buddha graced the stage inside, while various other deities stood guard outside. It was like something out of a dream. That striking blue and gold design left a deep impression on my soul, and memories of this temple will stay with me for a lifetime!

blue temple Thailand ornate design

Red Temple

Based on the taxi driver’s recommendations, I made the decision to forego the Black Temple. It is located a bit further north and not as ornate as the others. Perhaps I will see it on a return trip. The driver dropped me off at my amazing Airbnb. Side note: accommodations are incredibly inexpensive in Thailand. I easily found spectacular places to stay ranging from $19 – $40 per night! My choice for much of Northern Thailand is definitely Airbnb accommodations.

After I settled in, I set out in search of dinner. During my walk, I stumbled across a magnificent red temple. I am amazed by how much thought and detail is put into designing these temples. This stunning red temple was not even intended to be a tourist attraction, yet the builder put so much care and effort into its structure and design. Chiang Rai, so far you get the award for the most beautiful temples in Thailand!

…Taxi, Taxi ?!

The next morning, I jumped on a flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok. After landing, I took a train to the city center. From there, I planned on either grabbing a taxi or walking to my next airbnb. Since I had a fair amount of luggage to haul around, I opted for a taxi.

…that is, if I could get one!

I tried the UBER app – no luck. So I moved on to the GRAB app – still no luck. Then I tried standing on the side of the road and hailing a taxi, but they all seemed to see me, yet pass me by. The taxi situation wasn’t going to happen, so I ended up walking to my apartment with two weeks worth of luggage on my back.

What’s Going On? Do I Smell?!

I dropped my luggage off at the apartment and set out to explore Bangkok. First on the agenda: The Grand Place. I walked down to the lobby and three empty taxis refused to take me to my destination. I remember thinking, “Okay, what’s going on?! Did I forget to put deodorant on today? Do I smell?!” A friendly guard at the building helped me secure a taxi cab. He told me that the traffic in Bangkok is extremely congested, and the fare is not worth the time and aggravation a driver will have to face getting me to my destination.

Ah! Now I understood! Finally, I found a driver that was willing to take me to the Grand Palace. The Grand Palace is a cluster of ornate golden palaces and buildings located in the heart of Bangkok. The palace is used for royal ceremonies in Thailand, and several of the surrounding ornate buildings are used as administrative offices. As expected, the detail work and thoughtful design were unreal! I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful temples and palaces of Thailand!

Maxin’ and Relaxin’

Wat Pho is one of the most famous temples within the Grand Palace. It houses a huge 46 meter reclining Buddha, and is one of the oldest temples in Bangkok. In order to enter a temple, you have to remove your shoes and dress properly. This includes covering your shoulders and legs. Additionally, avoid tight leggings. Because many tourists are typically unaware of these restrictions, vendors flood the area surrounding the temples. They sell loose fitting “elephant pants” and shawls as coverups. Although I came prepared, I bought a pair of these nifty $1 elephant pants. I wear them every time I’m in the mood for lounging!

Lean, Mean, Fighting Machine

I had a ringside ticket for the Muay Thai fight this evening, and was excited. My seat was literally front and center, first row! I had never been to any type of similar event, so I was looking forward to all the action. The Rajadamnern boxing stadium hosts fights four nights a week. I arrived early and secured my seat. When the first round of fighters came out, I was so shocked to see how young they were! These kids couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old! And they were ripped. 100% lean muscle, no body fat. Children usually start practicing the martial art of Muay Thai as young as five years old.

muay Thai boxing ringside
These young Muay Thai fighters are incredibly disciplined in their art.

The fighters were so skilled with their art. Every movement had a purpose, and the blows were direct and meaningful. Professional fighters are usually of a lower economic class and fight to earn money to support their families. Perhaps even more interesting was the show that was taking place behind me. While tourists purchased the ringside seats, all the locals and gamblers filled the second and third tiers. Gambling is legal in Thailand, and hundreds of gamblers fill the stadium with animated hand movements and shouting to place their bets. Its all very entertaining, and a great place for people-watching!

muay Thai boxing ringside
Muay Thai fighters in action at the Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium. Bangkok, Thailand.

Debauchery: Thwarted

After the last fight, another tourist who had been in Thailand for several weeks invited me to check out nearby Khao San Road. I had read about it in my planning, and while the party scene is typically not up my alley, it was at least worth checking out while I was in the area. Khao San Road is the backpacking district of Thailand. It is full of young tourists, bars, food, and nightlife. I tried a little street food and watched a couple of train wrecks in action, but that was the extent of my “wild night” on Khao San Road. An early morning bike tour and visit to the floating market was on my itinerary for the following day, which sounded much more appealing to me! I turned in for the night.

Floating Markets

I was off to an early start to visit the floating markets of Thailand. The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is the largest and most popular one. It is about 1.5 hours from the Bangkok city center, located in the lush countryside on the outskirts of the city. Hundreds of vendors and tourists flood the river in long tail boats. Although the hustle and bustle is part of the draw, you can beat most of the crowds by arriving in the early morning hours. The colors and energy of the atmosphere add to the excitement of this novel way of shopping.

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Riding the long tail boat on the way to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
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The colorful floating markets of Thailand.

Exploring in Style

After a fun experience bartering on the floating markets, it was now time for an exciting bike tour through the outskirts of Bangkok. I’ve always thought this is one of the best ways to explore a city. Also, my guide was especially pleasant and informative, which just added to the overall experience. As we biked through small towns with friendly locals, I happily rang my bell, waved, and yelled “sawadee” as we passed. “Sawadee” is the common Thai greeting for “hello.”

bike tour Bangkok
Biking through the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand.

Temple in the Trees

When most people think of Bangkok, they think of city skyscrapers and a booming nightlife. However, it was such a treat to explore the lesser known side of Bangkok. On this leisurely 20 mile bike ride, I got to visit one of the coolest, oldest temples in Thailand. What makes it so unique is it essentially became a part of the trees that surrounded it! Hundreds of banyan roots cover the ancient Wat Bang Kung temple, cloaking it from the outside world.

wat bang Kung temple in the trees overgrown roots hidden temple
The ancient Wat Bang Kung temple, which has slowly become one with the trees that surround it.

The Hangover

If there is anything the movie The Hangover taught us, it’s that no trip to Bangkok is complete without visiting the famous rooftop restaurant at the Lebua Hotel. So I booked a dinner reservation at Sirocco for the evening to see what all the hype is about! Here is what I learned: a virgin mojito will run you about $30. The food, while good, is ridiculously overpriced. However, what you are actually paying for here is the view from the top.

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Dining at Sirocco, the rooftop restaurant at the Lebua Hotel. Bangkok, Thailand.

What Happens in Bangkok, Stays in Bangkok

Patpong is just steps away from the Lebua Hotel. It is infamously known as the Red Light District of Bangkok. The question is: did you really visit Bangkok if you didn’t check out the Red Light District? While you don’t necessarily need to participate in the very many opportunities for debauchery, a trip to Bangkok just wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Patpong night market.

Tons of seedy establishments line the streets, and every two steps you take, there is a promotor handing out flyers. Flyers for what? You name it, they’ve got it! There are nightclubs, bars, stupid human tricks, and people offering tourists a good time around every corner. I watched one man that was curious about ladyboys ask the promoter of a strip club if there were ladyboys inside. He assured him, “no, these are real women!” The man looked upset – another failure in his quest for ladyboys. Realizing this, the promotor (who was an older man and seemed hard of hearing) loudly exclaimed “ohhhhh, you like ladyboys!! You go around the corner for ladyboys!!” :: wink ::

Thai Ladyboys

I laughed uncontrollably as the man turned a bright shade of red. He looked around and quietly defended himself, “uhh… no, no, I’m just curious! I like women! I’m just curious!!” I decided to pop into the club around the corner, where bikini clad women danced on stage. Again, I watched as the man discreetly asked the host if there were any ladyboys around. She waved her hand across the stage and said “yes, ladyboys.” This time, it was his time to be loud. He exclaimed, “those are ladyboys?!” The mama san shushed him, urging him to lower his voice. Again, I laughed uncontrollably.

These Thai ladyboys were absolutely beautiful. They all had a great body shape, spot on makeup, and a genuine air of femininity about them. I was completely sober and it was truly difficult to spot any glaring differences. I can see how unsuspecting men looking for a good time might be in for a little surprise as the night progressed!

Get In My Belly !!

After an adventurous bike ride and fun on the floating markets, I made it a point to set aside time for rest and relaxation today. I began my day with a traditional Thai cooking class at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. There were 12 people in the class, perfect for the instructor to provide individual attention. After some brief introductions, we all headed to the local market to purchase fresh ingredients for our meal. While there, one of the men in the class asked the instructor if he could purchase Durian for the class to try. The chef reluctantly agreed…

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Durian at the local market.

Did Something Die In Here?!

Durian is a type of fruit that is common in Southeast Asia. It has an extremely pungent smell and taste. As a result, most places will ban it from public transportation, hotels, and other common areas. Yes, the smell is that bad! I knew this going into Thailand. I had seen it featured on travel and food shows. Andrew Zimmern came to fame by traveling across the world with a brave appetite for exotic foods. Despite his adventurous eating, this was the one food that Andrew Zimmern could not stomach.

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A sign banning durian at one of my hotels in Thailand.

Knowing all of this, I was excited to taste it and see what all the controversy was about. The smell hits you right away, and it’s offensive to the nose. Although the taste was not great, I was able to stomach it much better than others in the class. I think this was due to a combination of two factors: 1) my sense of smell and taste aren’t the best and 2) I took a tiny little baby bite of it. The man sitting next to me went all in and took a large bite. His description was the best: “this tastes like a soggy, rotten onion that was dropped in the sewer.”


Spice Level: Inferno, Please!

Once we were done with that little experiment, the chef moved the remaining durian to another location outside of the building. The smell lingers and permeates the entire room. Now we were on to the cooking lesson! We split up into three groups of four and began. One of the items on the menu was a traditional Thai red curry sauce. As we were preparing the chilis, our instructor suggested an amount of spice to add to the dish, but left it to our discretion. Anyone that knows me knows I love spicy food! Thankfully, my other group members were on the same page. We threw in all the chilis we had and were looking forward to tasting the meals we created.

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Chopping chilis at the Mandarin Oriental Thai Cooking School. Bangkok, Thailand.

Cooking as a group was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it. Food is such a big part of our lives, and brings people together. The students in my class were from all walks of life and had so many fun and interesting experiences to share from their time spent in Thailand. We cooked, we laughed, we ate! This type of experience is definitely high on my list, and a must-do activity all over the world!

Thai cooking class dinner
Enjoying the fruits of our labor.

Light Pressure

Next up for my day of relaxation was a massage at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. I booked it to coincide with the end of the cooking class, so I was already where I needed to be. There would be plenty of opportunities for a traditional Thai massage in the near future (more on this, later), so I chose a relaxing “Deep Sleep” massage. Maybe it’s just me, but I love a nice, light, relaxing massage. I always ask for the lightest pressure possible, and never quite understood people that like to feel as if they’ve been beaten up after a massage. The spa treatment was perfect, and exactly what I needed.

Dinner, Dancing, and Decor

A lovely dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River was the perfect way to end the evening. This section of Bangkok has been dubbed “The Venice of the East.” Shops and temples line the river and are only accessible by boat. After my massage, I browsed the beautiful Thai tapestries before heading over to board the cruise. The ticket was a bit confusing and I wasn’t really sure where to catch the boat! After several phone calls and a little help from a local shop, I was well on my way.

The port was also confusing, and hundreds of tourists wandered around, wondering where to catch the boat for their reservation. I was no exception to this! It had also started to rain, which just added to the hectic scene. Finally I was able to get on the right boat (I think… to this day, I’m still not quite sure!) and enjoy the dinner, dancing, and the beauty all along the Chao Phraya River.

Wat Kalayanamitr Varamahavihara Chao Phraya River
Local shops and ornate temples line the Chao Phraya River.
Wat Kalayanamitr Varamahavihara. Bangkok, Thailand.
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Evening shot of Wat Arun, which sits along the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok, Thailand.
This temple is illuminated at night, and is the star of the show on the Chao Phraya River cruise.

From Intricate Temples to Clear Blue Waters

Up until this point, I was completely in awe of all the amazing temples and culture that northern and central Thailand had to offer. I learned so much and was eager to soak it all in. However, I was also ready to shift gears and relax on the beaches of Southern Thailand. So I flew from Bangkok to Phuket to kick off the beach vacation leg of the trip.

Phuket had such a different vibe compared with the past few days. My hotel was right on the water, and it was a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. No congestion, no worries – just me, the blue waters, and pure bliss.

Phuket clear blue water Sunita Bendale

Thai Massage

I know what you must be thinking: “how could have you possibly gone all this time in Thailand without getting a Thai massage?!” Patience, grasshopper! I carefully planned the first leg of the trip to be extremely busy, focused on temples, history, and other experiences unique to Thailand. The second half of my trip was to be strictly rest and relaxation, injected with bits of adventure along the way.

So I waited patiently for the right time and place for my first Thai massage. The resort in Phuket was located right on Patong Beach. What better setting for a massage than outside, surrounded by beautiful blue waters? Since it was outdoors, there was no such thing as privacy, as another guest was enjoying his massage right next to me, in plain sight.

While most massages involve little to no clothing, a traditional Thai massage is different. You remain fully clothed, and the massage is geared toward realigning the body. My masseuse worked her magic as she skillfully released every kink in my body. Through a series of yoga poses, she stretched, twisted, and pulled my entire body into alignment. I got a massage and a chiropractic treatment all in one shot. Score!

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The beautiful backdrop for my first Thai massage . Phuket, Thailand.

Deep Pockets

The highlight of my massage, however, was watching the man next to me receive his treatment. I looked on in awe as a tiny Thai woman pulled and pressed her feet against the large, muscular man. She realigned his entire spine. The characteristic “crack, crack, crack” led the man to exclaim loudly in wonder, excitement, and relief. He also seemed to have a never-ending train of items in his pockets, which she asked him to empty. Wallet. Phone. Keys. Another wallet. Pocket knife. Handkerchief. And then… packets of hot sauce! We all laughed as we watched the hilarious spectacle. This man was animated in his delivery – he put on a show for us, and it was all very entertaining!

Exploring the Island

Outside of beaches and beautiful blue waters, there are plenty of things to explore throughout Phuket. Some of my favorite highlights included:

  • trying to snag a photo with a couple of thieving monkeys
  • watching a snake charmer handle venomous snakes at the Phuket Snake Farm
  • climbing up several steps to the Big Buddha, which sits atop the Nakkerd Hills
  • wandering through the colorful night markets of Phuket
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A snake charmer face to face with a king cobra.
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Phuket’s Big Buddha sits atop the Nakkerd Hills.

Dancing in the Moonlight

Beach parties are one of the biggest draws to the islands of Thailand for young tourists. The most famous beach party in Thailand is the Full Moon Beach Party on Koh Phangan. Not being much a of a party girl, I didn’t intentionally seek out any beach parties. However, they inevitably found me.

I was lounging on Patong Beach, hoping to catch a beautiful sunset, and a party seemed to pop up out of nowhere. Full band with a stage and psychedelic screen behind them, loud music, and hundreds of young party goers. Apparently this happens every single night in Phuket. So I figured “when in Phuket… do as tourists do!” I ended up dancing the night away under the moonlight, and with an impossibly gorgeous red sunset as the backdrop.

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Dancing the night away at a beach party in Phuket, Thailand.

From One Beautiful Paradise To Another

Before I knew it, it was time to leave Phuket and set sail for the famous Phi Phi Islands. I had always seen amazing photos of the crystal clear waters of the Phi Phi Islands. Visiting this magical place was on my bucket list for quite some time. Getting from one place to the next was simple and easy via a short (but crowded) ferry ride.

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On the ferry from Phuket to the Phi Phi Islands.

I made it to the Phi Phi Islands and the scenery was far more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Crystal clear turquoise water, surrounded by towering limestone karsts.

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View of Loh Samah Bay, Phi Phi island, Thailand

“No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed!”

Kayaking is a must-do activity while on the Phi Phi Islands, as there is so much beauty to explore. One of the most popular routes involves kayaking from Loh Dalum Bay to Monkey Island. So I grabbed my paddle and set out to explore! The water was impeccably calm, which made for a very easy paddle. I navigated my way to the secluded little beach of Monkey Island. If I had to single out one “let down” from my Thailand trip, it is this: I searched high and low, but unfortunately I did not spot any monkeys on Monkey Island! Even so, the scenery made up for the lack of monkeys.

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The view from Monkey Island . Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

New Year, New Me

Before I knew it, it was New Year’s Eve, and I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to ring in the new year than the Phi Phi Islands. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t looking for beach parties, but they always seemed to find me all along the southern islands of Thailand. It was an evening filled with fireworks, freedom, and fire dancers. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

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Ringing in the New Year on the beaches of Thailand.


After ringing in the new year on Phi Phi Island, I woke up to a leisurely breakfast on the beach and made my way to the nearby island of Krabi. The boat ride was easy… the taxi, not so much! I was tracking the drive on Google Maps and tried to show the driver where the app was directing him to turn. I felt the frustration build in the taxi driver. I’m not sure if it was a language barrier, or a difficult Airbnb address, but he dropped me off in the middle of the street! So there I was, lugging two weeks worth of luggage, trying to find the address. Internet service can be difficult in foreign countries, but luckily I had access to Google Maps. I schlepped my baggage for about half a mile and there was my Airbnb, tucked away on the outskirts of the rainforest.

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Airbnb tucked away on the outskirts of the rainforest.

Honestly, I was just happy to have found the place, and was eager to set down my luggage! The cabin was absolutely beautiful, surrounded by lush greenery. However, where there is greenery, mosquitos usually follow. Anyone that knows me knows that I am a magnet for mosquitos! I spent my two nights here sleeping in pants and a long sleeve shirt; the mosquitos still managed to eat me alive! Even so, my adventures in Krabi ended up being some of my favorites.

Railay Lagoon

I am usually one of those excessive planners. The one that has everything perfectly mapped out and has a good idea of what activities I want to experience for the day. Krabi was different. While I had a few things in mind, my itinerary was mostly open. I decided to take a long-tail boat to Railay. As I explored the beach, I learned that there was hike to a hidden lagoon. This seemed right up my alley, so I set out to find the trail.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

The trail took me by surprise. It was an almost vertical hike up and required all fours, using tree roots as hand and foot anchors. The hike up was one of the most fun climbs I’ve done. Although I didn’t get to see any monkeys on Monkey Island, there were plenty of little monkeys swinging from the trees throughout this hike. Bonus!

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Climbing up twisted tree roots to the Railay Lagoon overlook.

The top of the hike opened up to a beautiful bird’s eye view of Railay Lagoon. From here, most hikers choose to turn around after making it to the viewpoint. However, there is another option to continue on down to the lagoon. As fun as it was climbing up, it was equally as treacherous climbing down. However, braving that vertical descent and a claustrophobic hike through tight caves leads to an unforgettable private emerald lagoon. Very few people actually complete this hike, so if you do, you are likely to have the entire lagoon to yourself. Highly recommended, however tread carefully!

The private, isolated, emerald green waters of Railay Lagoon . Krabi, Thailand.

Excuse Me, You’re Offering Me What?!

I then stumbled upon the Phra Nang Princess Cave just a short walk from the Railay Lagoon trailhead. This is definitely the most interesting cave I have ever seen. It has beautiful stalagmite and stalactite rock formations, but this is not what makes this cave so unique. Instead, the main attraction of this cave is its bizarre contents – hundreds of wooden penis shaped offerings. I was caught off guard, to say the least!

Legend has it that fisherman used to visit the cave prior to going out to sea and made phallic offerings to the Indian deity, Shiva. They prayed for a bountiful fishing trip, and believed these offerings would facilitate a safe journey and return home. It is also rumored that an Indian Princess was killed in a shipwreck offshore. Her ghost is believed to reside in this cave.

Phra Nang princess cave penis shrine offerings fishermen shiva indian
Shrine of Penises at the Phra Nang Princess Cave . Railay Beach, Thailand.

While I was exploring the cave, I watched as one man read about the legend on the placard. Without missing a beat, he immediately looked up at me and exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! It you! The Indian Princess!” And then he coyly suggested he make a penis offering.

Um, no thank you . Not interested . Move along.

…but I have to admit, that guy was hilarious!

Railay beach Thailand tropical paradise crystal clear waters
Railay Beach . Thailand

Koh Samui

After my fun little adventure in Krabi, the next day I set out to the island of Koh Samui. After a very crowded ferry ride and a less than smooth check in, I was ready to set my bags down and explore. The best way to explore Koh Samui…? Motorbike! I hopped on the scooter and went on my way.

motorbike scooter beer bottle gasoline
I thought it was amusing that they sell gas in recycled old beer bottles!
big buddha Koh Samui
Big Buddha . Koh Samui, Thailand

Koh Samui was a nice little summary of all of the previous cities I had visited throughout Thailand. It was an eclectic mix of beautiful temples, white sandy beaches, nightlife, and amazing food. Fisherman’s Village is one of the main attractions, and hosts a variety of boutique shops, trendy restaurants, and a booming night market.

Although Koh Samui is a cute little island, to be honest I wasn’t that impressed by it. I strategically chose to visit the island only because of its proximity to Koh Tao, where I was scheduled to dive later in the day. It was also the cheapest and most convenient place to fly out of back to Los Angeles. More on this later.

Just Kidding!

One of the activities I was most looking forward to in Thailand was diving the beautiful waters of Koh Tao. I had just completed my diving certification in Maui two months prior, and was itching to go on my first “real dive!” And what better place than Koh Tao? The island is known for spectacular diving, as its waters are home to a variety of exotic marine life – whale sharks, eagle rays, and colorful coral and reef fish. However, on the day of my dive, the company called with an update. Although the weather was currently calm, Tropical Storm Pabuk was expected to sweep through the island with fury. They were predicting 22 foot waves, and the company canceled the dive trip. Better safe than sorry.

Uh Oh!

My flight back to Los Angeles was scheduled to take off the very next day. Would the weather pass? Would my flight be delayed? The impending weather put the entire island on high alert. The news warned residents to shelter indoors, and most restaurants along the water packed up and took cover. While the weather was still temperate, I made my way to the airport early in the morning to evaluate the situation. When I arrived, it was crowded with loads of people trying to get off of the island. All flights for the day had been canceled. I thought perhaps I could find a way off of the island and fly out of Krabi or Phuket, or any other island. No luck. All trains, buses, ferries, and planes were not operating. Darn!

Everyone at the airport was stuck in the same situation. I waited there for hours, hoping to be rebooked on a flight for the following day. I didn’t care where it was going, as long as it was getting me out of dodge. With a little bit of patience and a lot of luck, I managed to secure a seat on a flight to Taiwan the next day. There was no guarantee I would find a seat from Taiwan to Los Angeles, but I didn’t care – I would deal with that situation when it arose. For now I just crossed my fingers, hoping I wouldn’t be repeating this same process the next day.

Am I Missing Something?!

Luckily I was able to extend my airbnb reservation for an extra night. As I left the airport, I couldn’t help but feel like the island officials were overreacting. The weather was calm. It was slightly windy, but there was no rain. Certainly no storm at the present moment. I feel like my flight could have safely taken off, but I figured it wasn’t the end of the world if I had to be stranded on a beautiful island for an extra day. So what do you do when you have an extra day to explore? Massages, beaches, and (virgin) drinks, of course! I don’t know what Gilligan was so upset about!

thai massage washing feet Sunita Bendale
Having my feet washed before my last Thai massage in Thailand.
virgin mojito Sunita Bendale paradise
Enjoying a virgin mojito because, why not?
virgin drinks tropical paradise
Relaxing at the oceanside Tiki Bar while stranded on Koh Samui.
bophut beach Sunita Bendale elephant crystal clear waters
I still don’t understand why the flights were canceled that day, but it gave me an extra day to enjoy Bophut Beach.

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

The next day – the day of my rebooked flight – it was pouring rain outside! The streets were flooded and my ride to the airport canceled without notice. Great. I managed to grab a taxi to the airport, however I didn’t have high hopes for my flight. There was no way the plane would take off in this type of inclement weather, especially considering they refused to fly the day before in perfectly nice conditions.

flooded streets flash flood tropical storm
Flooding on the streets of Thailand.

To my surprise, my plane was set to take off according to schedule. I couldn’t believe it. The wind was whipping violently and the rain was coming down as hard as can be. It was truly a torrential downpour! If you have ever flown into or out of Koh Samui, you will know that the airport is pretty much outdoors, with a shabby little thatched roof. I remember finding it incredibly comical waiting at the airport and getting rained on while sitting inside the building! Rather than be annoyed, I couldn’t help but find the humor in it. It was a funny little memory that will stay with me for a lifetime.

The plane took off on time, rain and all. I guess the powers that be decided it would be too financially destructive to ground all flights two days in a row. As a result, they seemed determined to get this plane off of the ground, rain or shine. It was a very turbulent take off, to say the least.

Okay, So What Now?

Before I knew it, I landed in Taiwan with no other plane tickets in hand. That was it. That was my ticket off of Koh Samui. So now I was tasked with finding a flight as a standby passenger. Any flight really would have worked for me. I simply needed to get back to Los Angeles, preferably in the least amount of time possible. This part really felt like I was running a leg of The Amazing Race. I shuffled from one ticket counter to the next, schmoozing with airline personnel, hoping someone would have a seat for me. The problem is it was literally days after the New Year and all the flights were completely filled with tourists returning from vacation.

Finally I managed to book two flights that would take me all the way to my final destination. To be honest, it was a little bittersweet. While I was relieved to have a ticket home, I was also a little sad, as it marked the end of this wonderful journey. However, I definitely plan on making my way back to Asia again in the near future!

The Time Is Now

Many people spend a lot of time sitting on the fence when it comes to big vacations. When is the best time to do this? Can I find childcare? Do I have enough money saved up? Many times, the answer to these questions is yes. Yet we spend our lives worrying and fussing over all the small details. Where there is a will, there is a way. You just have to want to make it happen, and put the effort into planning out what works best for your particular situation and resources. Life is highly unpredictable, and tomorrow is never guaranteed. So don’t put it off any longer. Take the first step to planning your next big vacation today. You will be happy that you went forward with it, and will come out with memories that will stay with you for a lifetime!

Happy Travels!!

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Hello! My name is Sunita Bendale and I have been an avid solo traveler for the past twelve years. I grew up with the values of a traditional Indian family, and lived a very sheltered life. After becoming a registered nurse, I made the very difficult decision to challenge my cultural and familial norms, and moved clear across the country to sunny California.

Best . Decision . Of . My . Life!

I didn't know anyone within a several thousand mile radius; my friends and family were back home in New Jersey, but I was not going to let that minor inconvenience deter me. My adventure had just begun, was absolutely thrilling, and I welcomed the challenge to create a new life for myself.

With an innate passion for dance, I quickly found myself immersed in the Los Angeles Argentine Tango dance scene. I was a young woman with big dreams and stars in my eyes. One day, on a whim, I decided that I wanted to see the world and dance in Paris. It was a spontaneous last-minute trip, booked only for four days, but I was determined to see and experience as much as I could. I spent those days running up the steps of the Eiffel Tower, taking in the views during the day and night, wandering through the Louvre, staring straight into the eyes of the Mona Lisa, stuffing my face with the most exquisite macarons and every delicious pastry you could imagine, making friends with the taxi cab driver that drove me all over the city, catching the 1am last sparkle of the Eiffel Tower, and dancing the nights away. I didn't sleep. I wanted to soak it all in. The experience was immensely liberating, and jump-started my obsession with travel.

Since that glorious trip, I have made it my life's goal to dance all over the world. It is wildly invigorating walking onto a dance floor in a foreign place, not knowing a single soul or speaking the language, yet being able to dance flawlessly with any random person in the room. To be able to detect the slightest, most subtle shift in weight and move perfectly in unison without so much as breathing a single word - it's enthralling.

Every successive trip since then has fueled my addiction. For the past several years, I have been working as a Nurse Anesthetist, which has been fulfilling in so many different ways. Not only do I absolutely love my career, it also affords me the financial independence and flexibility in scheduling to pick up at a moment's notice and travel the world. 

Many people find the thought of traveling alone a daunting experience, especially as a solo female. However, I am here to share my experiences and safety tips, and assure you that it is not only possible, but can be very cathartic. My goal is to empower women (and all travelers) by providing them with tools and resources that will bolster the confidence to travel solo.
I'm just a girl dancing through life, and enjoying every step along the way.

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