Vietnam slows down for a few weeks in February for Tet holiday, a celebration of the Lunar New Year. Since we had some time off school, some fellow adventurers and I took off to Thailand seeking cheap thrills. We returned 11 days later, exhausted, in an impermeable state of awe and over budget.
Our first stop was Chiang Mai, a northern city that attracts many tourists for its stunning mountains and rousing tours through untouched natural landscapes.
Other than the barebones hostel we booked ($10 per person per night), we failed to arrange anything else in advance. Instead, we lived for the day, haphazardly making plans and gleefully falling into spontaneous adventures.
The first adventure was an all-day, semi-guided trek featuring a jungle hike, bamboo rafting, a visit with elephants, a walk through an orchid farm, lunch and transportation to get to each of these activities ($35 per person). It was a stunning introduction to Thailand, although the price for such an immersive trek seems low and borderline exploitive — even coming from a cheapskate. Had we prepared for the trip more, we would have researched a more humanitarian tour and willingly paid the price.
The following day, our hostel mates invited us to go swimming and cliff jumping (a $3 cab ride away). After getting over the initial reluctance to hurl our bodies off a towering rock, we zealously leapt over and over again, freefalling through the foreign air until our bodies slammed into the quarry waters.
On the third day, we awoke with throbbing whiplash and went for Thai massages ($7 each) without having any idea what exactly a Thai massage was or that we would leave sorer than we entered. The masseuses were more like Olympic-level yoga instructors; they contorted our bodies into positions that could easily be mistaken for Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Top 10 Worst Sex Positions.” What did help to ease the whiplash were the many margarita pitchers we guzzled ($10 per pitcher) before strolling through Chiang Mai’s infamous weekend night bazaar.
On our final day, we were eager to hike more. Our hostel hosts recommended a sunrise climb to Doi Inthanon, the highest mountain in Thailand ($10 entrance fee per person). To make it up the mountain in time to see the sunrise, we were hauled away in the back of a pickup truck at 3 a.m. ($7). As the driver barreled down dark roads, it got gradually colder. By the time we arrived at our hike, it was below 40 degrees. Standing in shorts, tank tops and sandals, we felt foolish for jumping into yet another adventure without doing proper research…or even checking the weather. Our ignorance resulted in unnecessary purchases at the souvenir shop (cheesy Doi Inthanon sweatshirt, $12). But the cold and the money spent were well worth hiking through the pitch-black forest and experiencing the sprawling beauty of Thailand’s mountains.
Bangkok brought on a different type of rumpus — that of whirring tuk-tuks (essentially golf cart taxis), neon-lit backpacker streets, swooning pool decks, crowded markets and thumping bars. Four of us rented a one-bedroom apartment through Airbnb ($14 per night per person). Although small, the apartment had a view of Bangkok’s skyline, a rooftop pool and, best of all, a clean bathroom.
Having already spent too much money in Chiang Mai, we cooked many meals for ourselves and navigated Bangkok’s impressive public transportation system instead of eating out and using taxis. Since Bangkok is a dense, modern city with many tourists, we could speak English almost everywhere.
The highlight and greatest expense in Bangkok was seeing Wat Phra Kaew, a sacred temple that houses the Emerald Buddha. We spent hours wandering the precisely crafted temple and admiring the artwork and care that went into its creation and preservation ($15 per person).
Bidding farewell to Bangkok, we boarded our discount airline flight back to Saigon (about $150 total for flights between Saigon, Chiang Mai and Bangkok).
This cheapskate is so grateful to have adventured to such an amazing country. But poor planning led me to spend more money than I intended ($453 total for food, 11 days of housing, eating, entertainment, ground transportation and flights). I can hear my savings account whimpering all the way from Chicago.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be tightening my belt and getting back to living on less than $5 a day in Vietnam to make up for the hedonistic holiday.