10 Days in Beijing and Thailand
I’ve always wanted to spend a few months backpacking through Southeast Asia. It’s cheap, gorgeous, and who doesn’t want to cruise through an exotic landscape on a moped? But when my sister moved to the-middle-of-nowhere Nebraska there seemed like no better time for us to set off on a mini-adventure.
We touched down in Beijing and it felt like an entirely new world. I’ve been to countries where few people spoke English but never to a place where I couldn’t recognize their alphabet or decipher a single thing.
Getting a taxi from the airport to our hotel meant doing our level best to write down the address in Chinese. Our best confused our driver so he asked us to get in his cab while he went to clarify where we were going (or that’s what we got from his hand gestures). We hopped inside at around the same time as his naked wife popped up on FaceTime. Bursting into mad giggles, we hid behind the seats awkwardly until she changed the view to be of the dinner she was preparing for him.
I think we knew at that moment how the rest of our time in China would go. It was a hilarious misadventure (though I think Megan might describe it as a stressful series of mistakes).
The next morning we set off to see the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall with an assurance from our hotel concierge that we’d be able to use their version of the Uber app to get home.
The Great Wall was everything we’d hoped for. It stretched for miles but blended in so well with the mountains that you wouldn’t see it unless you had a bet going for who could spot it first—which obviously we did.
This is a good time to mention that I sprained my ankle the day before we left Seattle. Like, can’t-walk-on-it-without-a-brace sprained. It made me love the scenic gondola ride to the top that much more.
We walked along the top of the wall for as long as my ankle could stand the uneven stones and insane amount of stairs. Every time I got ready to give up, someone would applaud my hobbly efforts and I’d get a little pep in my step and keep going. All the while, Megan laughed at me and took embarrassing photos and videos. Best. Sister. Ever.
When it was time to return to Beijing, we tried to use the app the receptionist suggested with zero luck. Several locals approached us trying to sell us rides at high prices but we turned them down. Instead, we opted to ask the information desk. Their advice, “Catch any bus from that stop out there.” So we did. We had no clue where it was taking us and when it veered away from Beijing, we tried to get off but it was so packed and people wouldn’t let us leave. Thirty minutes later, we fled out the door at a popular stop and hopped into a random car with a guy who said he’d take us to Beijing for more than the locals at the wall had wanted to charge us. We didn’t get murdered and got back to our hotel, so we’ll count it as a win.
Our second day in Beijing, we walked through the temples and gardens in the city. Ten miles of walking in a day with a sprained ankle and another zillion stairs was wonderful. I’d have felt better about it if temple one didn’t look exactly the same as temple two through twenty. But alas.
When we arrived at our final and most anticipated stop, a few local college kids told us that it was closed to tourists for the day but that they’d love to take us to a local tea shop and work on their English. After a day of everyone either ignoring us or wanting a selfie with us, we decided to go with them. They were so nice. Until they worked with the tea shop to scam us both for $200. This turned out to be a bit of a blessing because for the rest of the trip, we could immediately recognize all the signs of scammers. I highly recommend reading up on common scams in Asia before embarking on any trip here, or you might end up like Megan, eating loads of watermelon (which she hates) to not be rude to people who are trying to rob you.
You might have guessed by now that we didn’t love our time in China. We came away with a million fun stories of how dumb we were that I’m sure I’ll love telling the kids I don’t plan to have someday.
I can’t say whether I loved Thailand more because it was an escape from Beijing or because it was absolutely beautiful. Either way, it was magical.
Our first stop was in Bangkok. My assumption was that it’d be dirty, crazy, and just another big city (most of these assumptions were formed by watching The Hangover 2). When the first thing we saw as we stepped out of our hostel was a rat swimming for it’s life down the canal, I thought, yep, this is exactly how I imagined it.
That being said… We LOVED Bangkok. It is a city that is full of life, culture, and temples of more than one color. The locals were so friendly, the food so scrumptious, and the Thai iced coffee was the perfect beverage for the hot climate. You don’t need an app to get a cab, you can just take an adorable tuk tuk or a private long-tail boat for almost no money.
We visited the Grand Palace, the Sleeping Buddha, and a nighttime flower market. Each one was an unmissable experience that bursted with color and a buzz of energy from locals and tourists alike.
On the way to see Wat Arun, we got sidetracked by $7 Thai massages. Best. Massage. Ever. It is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. For an hour we were human pretzels. I was so intrigued by all the positions they were putting me in that I couldn’t really relax but the entertainment value was definitely there. There was no popcorn but there was ample popping. If you go to Thailand, get a massage. No excuses.
Side note: we ended up missing our flight to Chiang Mai because of our massage. But Phuket, it was worth it.
We decided at the last minute to detour to Chiang Mai before heading to the beaches of Phuket. Why? Elephant sanctuaries, that’s why.
Chiang Mai is the backpackers haven of Thailand. It’s a bit less touristy than the other cities, hostels are super cheap, and nearly everyone has rented or bought a moped because they plan to be in Southeast Asia for a long time.
We spent two days in the city but didn’t explore it much because we did long day excursions to see Wat Rong Khun (aka the White Temple) and to hangout with elephants.
The White Temple was one of the most beautiful sights of our trip but the full day tour to it and the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet) was in no way worth it. Roundtrip, it was about 12 hours in an uncomfortable bus that felt every single bump in the road (and there were plenty). I’d only recommend adding the White Temple to your itinerary if you’re staying in Chiang Rai.
Our second day in Chiang Mai, we went to meet the elephants. When we got to the forest, we switched from a van to the back of a pick-up truck. At first we were confused, but when they told us to stay standing and to hold on for dear life, it sunk in. We were going straight down a hill at a ridiculous angle and with huge holes in the road. It was exhilarating.
We finished the trip in on foot. Hiking down a hill to a clearing where three of the gentle giants stood. When you hangout with elephants, you have to wear clothes they like. It’s a thing. So we changed into elephant-approved shirts before feeding them sugar cane.
Feeding an elephant is such a bizarre experience. First, they’re huge. Second, you have to say their keyword (“Bon Bon” in our case) and raise your arms above your head so that they’ll lift their trunk and you can reach their mouths. The first time was a bit creepy if I’m honest but once we got into a rhythm it was fun.
Bath time was next. We stripped to our bathing suits and walked into a muddy river with the elephants and splashed them to cool them off. Then we went for a hike with them through the forests so they could eat their fill of tree bark.
You may have realized by the sheer fact that you’re like a million words deep into this article that we tried to cram too much into a ten-day trip. In an attempt to slow down, we chose to spend the last few days of our vacation in Phuket. Known for its beaches, Ping Pong shows (please go Google that at work), and the Phi Phi Islands off the coast—Phuket is a touristy destination that does not disappoint.
We spent the first day just chilling at the beach (read: getting super burnt), eating delicious food that was cooked right in front of us, and then hanging out with everyone at the hostel to watch the World Cup. It was perfection, minus the similarities I had to a lobster by the end.
Our last day in Thailand came too soon. We woke up early to catch the ferry to Phi Phi islands (pronounced "Pee Pee”). As we boarded, someone sent us an article about a tsunami having sunk a boat on the same route two days before with no survivors. The tsunami watch was real and we crafted a lot of escape plans before pushing off from shore. Spoiler: we didn’t die.
I thought that Phi Phi islands couldn’t live up to the hype but they were seriously so beautiful. We got our last bowl of curry, watched some girls take NSFW photos on the beach (gotta get that Tinder profile pic), and then nearly missed the ferry back because I needed my second ice cream of the day and they had to hand make it. Not sorry.
If I could do the trip over again, I’d skip our second day in Beijing and spend at least two days exploring Phi Phi islands with the $200 I’d have saved from being scammed.
Our trip ended much like it began—a hot mess. We nearly missed the ferry, then the flight, then the next flight… but the thought of being stranded in Thailand for the rest of our days was not a bad one at all.
If you’re planning a trip or want to and have questions, leave a comment below and I’ll do a follow up “Tips for Thailand” article and do my best to answer everything. I made loads of mistakes so that you don’t have to. You’re welcome haha.