- Driftwood on a quiet beach
2. Blue seas and skies at the fishing village harbour
3. Sunset on the pier
4. A fishing boat in the dock
5. Scales and equipment for the catch
6. A dreamy beach
7. The famous horizontal trees
2. Blue seas and skies at the fishing village harbour
3. Sunset on the pier
4. A fishing boat in the dock
5. Scales and equipment for the catch
6. A dreamy beach
7. The famous horizontal trees
2. Majestic elephants
3. Decaying buildings and tuk tuks
4. A monk poses for a picture on a long staircase
5. Chinatown closing time
6. A tuktuk drives past Siam station traffic
7. Industrial Bangkok
8. Never ending skyscrapers
8. Architectural perspectives
10. Evening light on a Bangkok street
11. The setting sun over a Bangkok building
12. Market stock
2. Old cars parked in a garage
3. Colourful Chiang Mai windows
4. Bags of bananas
5. Wat Buppharam dragons
6. A quiet corner of Wat Buppharam
7. Candy floss at the Sunday Walking Street
Krabi Town in Thailand broke me. It was the first and one of the only times I cried on the trip. I was tired, far too hot, weak and I had a long bus journey to Bangkok ahead of me. I was ready to cry.
Then we entered an air conditioned department store. The noise and busyness was overwhelming. As we strolled through the departments, I noticed a pattern. One girl would spot me, her jaw would drop, she’d turn to her colleagues and then after a second they’d all turn around and point and scream with laughter. It kept happening, again and again and so blatantly. Others would see me, look away and laugh to themselves.
“Do I have a sanitary towel stuck on my forehead? Is my ass on show? Have I shat myself? Honestly what the fuck is so funny?” I asked myself. I begged Alessio to leave the shop immediately. On the steps of the store and I sat and cried.
“I’d just, for once, like to travel and be Black in peace. Is that too much to ask?”
I began to get used to it. In Myanmar, staring and giggling became the norm. The first was a lady who discreetly slapped her husbands arm when she saw me and he looked at me with a dropped jaw. The practice of one person seeing me, telling their friends, then all of them turning around and laughing happened over and over again, in each new country. I was pointed at and stared at and glared at. Some women would frown if I smiled at them. Women and men pointed at me, and didn’t think to be discreet when I stared back – they just kept pointing and laughing. Once, I felt a tug on my hair as I walked because someone had grabbed a few braids to feel. On two occasions at tourist sites, older Asian male visitors took artistic photos of me with DSLR cameras without asking – once in Angkor Wat as I posed for my own pictures, and another in Hanoi by the lake. They looked at me very sheepishly, and I asked to at least see the pictures. “Thanks… I guess.” Unsolicited pictures were regular, and I often ranted “Are these people here to see the bloody temple or here to see me? Shall I stand here and start charging them?”
A young hiphop-loving Vietnamese new friend was bemused as two men took a photo.
“This happens all the time? It’s because don’t see people like you a lot. Crazy.”
It wasn’t all bad. Youngsters in caps and sportswear always said hey and smiled. Tables of people would call to me and cheer when I said hello back. People called me beautiful. When I waved, or smiled at people who were staring, some would wave back and give a friendly smile. People asked me to meet their family. I took so many selfies with people who asked kindly, and they thanked me later. Often one girl would take a picture of me and her friend, then hesitantly look at me like a sad puppy as they walked off.
“Do you want a picture too?” I’d ask
“Yes! Oh, yes please! Thank you!”
“What is your name? Are you Vietnamese?”
Is this how it feels to be Beyoncé? Am I as nice to my fans as Lady Gaga?
My favourite was a young Burmese Muslim woman in Mandalay. She saw me and began giggling. When I waved back, she jumped up and down happily and buried her face in her friend’s shoulder.
The nice treatment balanced out the bad and the upsetting. I knew the reactions were because they probably had never seen a black person before. Some maybe only knew of a few Western black people and pictured most to be tribal Africans. I don’t know, but I was certainly seen differently to the white European travellers who passed by without a second glance. I knew their behaviour was not coming from a place of hate, malevolence or racism. I knew it was curiosity, confusion, maybe excitement. But even the good and funny experiences were as tiring as the bad. I sometimes had a little sense of dread when leaving the hotel because of the weight of being so conspicuous. No matter how big or touristic the city, I was conspicuous. I was pointed at, stared at, glared at, laughed at, waved at and photographed.
I understand in Asia, white people are also “other”. I know white people also get stared at and pointed at. Overwhelmingly however, the majority of other Western travellers were white. It’s not rare. If I travelled to around 25 cities and saw a maximum of six other Black people in two months, you can imagine how regularly they see black people. I was the “other” other. If people were curious about Alessio, I was a damn exhibition.
In Inle Lake, Myanmar I was walking towards the pier. Alessio tapped me.
“You’ve made a friend.”
A black girl in a café was waving at me with a huge grin. By now Alessio was used to the Black solidarity smiles that happen every time we’re away.
Five minutes later, the girl caught up with us, out of breath.
“Hey! I just ran to catch up with you guys! I am SO happy to see you! I ran as soon as I saw you! Wait, do you speak English?”
Her name was Simone, and she was a solo female traveller. She had been travelling for only a week, and had cried every night. The staring, pointing and laughing had worn her down too. We agreed it was exhausting, and it felt so good to meet someone who understood. Then she said the keynote.
“It feels like you have to always be so nice and so polite because their entire opinion of black people rests on you, and it’s so tiring.”
It was everything I knew but hadn’t yet put into words. I could see in her whole element she was sick of it – even moreso than I was. I could see how I also had it easier. She was alone. I was travelling with a white man. As regressively 1950s as it sounds, travelling with him made the weight so much lighter. The asking and answering of questions fell mostly to him. I walked closely by him. When people pointed, I held my head high and his hand tighter. It all said “I’m not that different – I’m with him”.
In Phnom Penh I took a stroll alone. I felt the difference. Without the protection of distant whiteness I was sneered at in a way I wasn’t the day before in the same city, and without distant maleness I was fair game. Curiosity, for that brief time, morphed into a meat market. When coincidence meant I ran into a friend from another city, a white girl, I let out my breath and laughed. I’m with her.
There was another, stranger aspect to my experience. I was sure some people, including Westerners, thought Alessio was paying for my company. It was confirmed when a local asked Alessio why, if yesterday he paid for a Cambodian girl, did he “choose” a different girl today? The fact he had seen Ale before was gas since we’d only just arrived in the city – but it reiterated what I had suspected and what other women of colour in relationships with white men had told me. Brown women and white men together meant money was involved, not love.
A drunk white man stumbled down Khao San Road, fondling and groping at the three Nigerian sex workers he had hired for the night. Some were older, but one girl looked my age. Her braided hair was tied up, just like mine. By chance, we had to wait in the lobby of the guesthouse-brothel-travel agency where they worked as cleaners by day. On the way to the toilet, I saw the same girl cleaning some plates and I smiled. She studied me for a few seconds and looked away. She later seductively winked at Alessio, and I understood everything.
We were not the same. Not to her. I had an expensive DSLR round my neck, writing in my travel journey about an experience costing an incomprehensible amount of money. I was Western, walking around with a white Western man who held my hand not my ass. She was an immigrant sex worker on one of Thailand’s most notorious, sleazy roads at night and cleaned toilets in a brothel for Thai sex workers by day. If I had any audacity to assume mutual solidarity, she soon taught me I had no right, and no idea. If other people didn’t see the difference, she certainly did and if I was having a hard time, she was having it harder.
In Sapa, Vietnam I explained the process of hair braiding to my tour guide. “Wowwwww! I saw one other girl like you before, last year! Wow… that’s so amazing. In Vietnam we have such thin hair, we never have curly hair like this. We can’t do hair like this. Can I put your hair by my face to see how it looks? I love it.” I heard her telling other Vietnamese women how they braid afro hair. When she held up nine fingers and pointed at me, to tell them it took nine hours to braid my hair, they all gasped “wow” in chorus. I smiled. That’s my favourite part of the story too, I thought.
The staring, the pointing, the tiresome weight. It makes it seem all bad.
Travelling in South East Asia whilst Black can be beautiful. I cannot overstate that enough. I can’t overstate how much you can take the curiosity in your stride. You start to shrug it off, wave, say hello back and by the end of the day you barely notice anything at all. You can have fun with it. Pull faces, blow kisses, wave as soon as the whole group turns around so they think you understand the language when really they’re just so obvious. Do whatever you need to do, until it’s part of the background and you can focus on being in a really beautiful part of the world.
And that’s exactly it. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. Remember that no one at all means any harm. Unlike some parts of the world where Blackness is unwelcome because it connotes badness and criminality, your skin here mostly is a fascinating novelty. As tiring as that can become, it’s not worth the days, hours, and minutes of incredible wonder you could miss out on if you only stuck to places where people were used to you.
Where Koh Kut isn’t white sand beach, it is thick lush jungle. There is only one ATM, and only one main road running north to south. When you’re riding down that wide stretch on the back of a motorbike, the serenity and bliss makes the twenty four hours of travel to get there more than worth it.
It doesn’t have to take twenty four hours. Koh Kut is a five hour bus from Bangkok, with a two hour ferry from Trat. Gluttons for punishment, we started in Luang Prabang, Laos. We flew to Krabi, with a stop in Kuala Lumpur. We were heading for the Andaman Coast beaches, but nature was not on our side and we didn’t want to risk joining the casualties of the floods. Krabi’s skies were dry but moody, and the town itself didn’t speak to me a lot.
We had a recommendation for Koh Kut – or Koh Kood as it is also known – and Travelfish declared it their favourite Thai island. We were sold. On the 19th we boarded our very first twelve hour sleeper bus to Bangkok.
It dropped us in the inexplicable Khao San Road. This is Bangkok’s infamous, maybe even notorious, backpacker and hedonist paradise. It was six in the morning, and I still managed to see a middle aged drunk European staggering back to his house with three African girls. Old ladies mingled with drunk dreadlocked hippies, monks collecting alms, stoned men bartering with sex workers who were heading home, and taxi touts with no teeth refused to use their meter. In the few hours I was there, I saw more rats than I had ever seen in my life. We bagged the last seats on a transfer bus to Koh Kut, and waited in the travel agency which, we discovered, doubled as a guesthouse and a brothel.
The bus was an easy ride, with the Boomsiri Ferry and guesthouse transfer included for 900 baht (I think usually it is 850 but we hadn’t the strength to argue over less than £2). We were weary of travel however, and anxious to get settled in our hostel. It further agitated things when the guesthouse couldn’t find our booking, could only offer one bed in a dorm for £6, or a tent. Since we had private rooms for less, we opted for a tent. It took a day for me to stop making the “sex whilst camping” joke. It’s fucking intents.
Agitated as I was, I wanted to walk to the nearby beach. What I didn’t realise was this island is jungle and beach. There are no lit paths to the beaches. The sun was setting fast and we were heading into jungle. The fireflies came out and we had seconds before there was no light at all. The bushes were rattling with animals, my phone battery was draining quickly and my “near death experience” sensors were screeching. We arrived at the beach in darkness.
On the way back we took a main road. There still were no lights, and the rain came, bringing distant lightning. That’s it, I thought. This is how I die. I should have chosen the Gold travel insurance package. My niece would be set for life.
I didn’t die.
In the morning, we hired a motorbike for two days, opened Maps.Me and headed out onto the road. My mind was geared towards the pristine beaches, but Alessio wanted to scour the three waterfalls.
His favourite was Khlong Chao, where he spent an hour “improving” the rope swing.
He also loved Huang Num Keaw waterfall, where we climbed under the cascades and showered in the waterfall together.
In the far north-west, we parked the bike and walked ten or fifteen minutes along a path through thick, littered palm tree forest. The sound of the sea became closer, until we found ourselves alone, here.
Alone. Not even a barking dog.
A lady lovingly made me a crushed ice lemon juice by pointing at the limes, smashing some ice and blending it all with sugar and water.
For our second day, we headed out on the bike to Ban Ao Yai, a small and friendly fishing village. The fish is so freshly caught it swims alive in small bathtubs in front of the restaurants.
We only rented the bike for two days, so our final day was spent on foot. We walked through the jungle path that so frightened me on the first night, beautiful and full of butterflies in the light of day. It took us to Bang Bao beach, which is well-recommended but I didn’t love it like the others. Especially after a shit time at the nearby resort restaurant.
Our aim was to snorkel, and you can rent a mask and snorkel from a number of places along the beach. We hired a snorkel from the resort, 100 baht plus a passport or 400 baht deposit if you aren’t a guest, and took it in turns to dive into the waters. It was so amazing to see who much life was swimming around us!
The only thing that began to bother us is that a lot of the beaches were sectioned off into private spaces for resorts, some beaches entirely private but understood the wish to protect the island from the mass tourism that has transformed some other islands. Another problem some people had was the rarity of taxis meant that the only way to get around was by motorbike. If you don’t ride, the walks are long. If you do, or like me, you have a driver then the roads are such fun to ride! It is hilly, so ensure you’re experienced enough.
It feels like a honeymooner island, which as a couple is great. There are also a small amount families, and a handful of young solo travellers or backpackers. The island has a great chilled feel, but it’s not the place for a loud crazy party, heavy drinking or a nightlife scene.
I hope it stays like that. The calmness, cleanness and peace really makes the island so magical. There are no hawkers or hassling, and the pace of life is slowed right down. For a peaceful, beautiful and friendly small beach island, Koh Kut is the prime option.
My best friend is queen of everything unicorn. It was probably the first thing I learned about her, and if she gathered all her unicorn accessories together and made a shrine, took a picture and put it online it would go viral. It’s that deep.
So when the Unicorn Cafe blew up on my newsfeed six months ago, I tagged Brooke, thinking it would be in Tokyo, Seoul, or any other place I wasn’t visiting soon. It was in Bangkok, and I had just booked flights there.”You HAVE to go there. For me.”
There wasn’t any question. I was going there for myself. To indulge my inner child who loves kitsch and cute. I had already been to the Bear Hug Café in Chiang Mai, and when I finally got time to visit the Unicorn Café, I made it my sole mission to go.
Unicorn Cafe is closest to Chong Nonsi station in Bangkok, down a small side road near the Belgian Embassy. You can’t miss it.
The Metro described it as looking like “they asked a five-year-old girl to describe her dream home, and then went with exactly what she suggested.” I can confirm that is absolutely correct, and what makes it so heavenly. The five-year-old you who wanted to live in a princessy palace and eat junk food can finally live vicariously through adult-you. And adult you can pretend not to love it…
But five-year-old you cannot deny the cute.
And the food and drink is delightfully on theme. His lychee soda came with sprinkles and hearts, and his burger with a unicorn horn. My waffles and bacon were fairly normal looking (I took normal food because coloured food never looks appetising), but came with magical cutlery.
It’s really simply a lot of fun. The food is not remarkable but no one was expecting that. Go because it’s adorable. It’s pretty, it’s silly and these kitschy cute Thai dessert cafés are so unique and adorable that they’re irresistable. This one in particular is magical, and really made my day. If nothing else, you owe it to your younger relatives… and your younger self.
Our first night in the northern city of Chiang Mai began at around 6pm. We stayed just south of the Saen Pung gate, at Cloud Hotel. The bright painted walls and wicker hammocks of the guesthouse were just an introduction to how aesthetic and cinematic this town could be.
The city at night is a different kind of vibrant, buzzing with night markets and bazaars. Wat Phan Tao sparkles with lanterns and the bells around the water add to the magic.
We arrived just in time for the busy Saturday walking street, a small market along the Wua Lai road in the south selling food, clothes and a few unique products. Craving any carbs apart from rice, I took a Turkish flatbread and the crisp sweet pineapple skewers I had seen all over Bangkok street stalls.
One of Alessio’s big excitements was the Chiang Mai monk chats. They are free exchanges with monks who wish to learn English, where you can discuss anything you want and vice versa. We chose Wat Chedi Luang for our chat – the hours are daily and from 9-6. The Wat itself is very majestic, grand lions guarding temple ruins and ornate red and gold dragons around the newer shrines.
We went for walk, feeling calm and intrigued by Somnang’s ideas. On this walk, we came across Wat Buppharam, a 20bht entry wat. Although Alessio was not convinced – I could see it was beautiful and the fee was absolutely worth it. It became my favourite wat in Chiang Mai.
The East side of the city is where a lot of hostels and guesthouses are but I didn’t like it a lot. It was a bit skeevy and not quite as magical as the centre or the West where we stayed. The Sunday Walking Street however was much better than the Saturday walking street or any of the Bangkok markets. It was enormous, the entire length of the Ratchadamnoen Road. What made it special was in between the usual food stalls and vendors selling things you see everywhere, were many unique sellers. Sunglasses, artworks, souvenirs – all unique to the market. It was pretty linear and easy to navigate unlike Bangkok’s Chatuchak, also.
The only thing I didn’t like was that quite a few of the performers were blind or otherwise disabled and it felt a bit exploitative, but I don’t have enough knowledge to comment too much.
The following day, we planned to visit Doi Inthanon with a songthaew. Then I became sick. Food poisoning sick. It took only five days to take me down. I rode it out pretty easily, and by the afternoon we walked to the bear hug cafe, a kitschy teddybear themed cafe in the East.
It was a great way to end our time in the magical city and if we had more time, Chiang Rai, Doi Inthanon and perhaps the elephant sanctuary would be on the list but I was happy anyway to explore and discover in our own way, ending up well within budget.
– A few people told me Chiang Mai was a bit seedy – I experienced none of that. I stayed in the south on Tippanet Road, by Saen Pung Gate. It was very calm, beautiful and not at all dingy.
– I recommend hiring a bike, we did it for 150 baht for a half day. Take the bike on the smooth roads of the town or head out of town for some scenery or the popular Doi Suthep
– If you can only see one market, definitely go to the Sunday Walking Street! It feels much more authentic than many other markets.
– Monk Chats are free, aside from the cost of the entry to the wat. We chose Wat Chedi Luang and didn’t feel rushed.
I was told so many times I wouldn’t like Bangkok. It was dirty, seedy and far too hot. I also had my own prejudices but I wanted so badly to like this city. I decided to keep the negatives to one side.
It started off interestingly. The taxi from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport sped through the city, unfurling huge concrete junctions spiralling above us alongside the dazzling tower blocks and enormous billboards.
I was oddly charmed.
Then we pulled into a side street and our taxi driver announced “Sukhumvit 33, aaah! This road is your hotel!”
My eyes narrowed. The dark street was lit by the signs above dubious massage parlours. Girls in tight dresses and heels tapped on their phone and chatted animatedly. After days of meticulously scouring the internet for a hotel away from the sex tourism of Bangkok, I had seemingly found the one street in the whole area buzzing with trade. I took a deep breath, left the taxi and entered the hotel.The hotel was a welcome respite after twenty one hours of sleeping and eating in airports and a further twelve on planes. Three large and dusty cities clung to my skin and I was glad to get out of my jeans and polo and into a shower. Which is when I noticed our hotel has a Tokyo Sukkuri Toilet. In other words, with a twist of a dial the toilet will gladly wash your ass and genitals. Biggest “thanks… i think?” moment so far. Do be gentle with these things by the way, one rough twist of the dial meant water sprayed all the way to the bathroom mirror. Not fun.
… a Western man, sitting in a bar in an Asian country that he moved to, bemoaning European economic migrants. Makes sense.
Our tiredness and boredom of these guys led us to an early night. I struggled to sleep, but we forced ourselves out of bed early the next day for a busy day of temple touring and exploring.
The first stop were the riverside wats: Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. All three are well trodden on the tourist trail, but well worth the visit because the pictures don’t do them justice.
To get there, we took the Skytrain which was efficient and generally fast – but being used to the London Underground I did get a bit impatient. We disembarked at Safan Taksin to get the river boat to Wat Arun – all in all around 300 bht for two.
Wat Arun is a large complex of temples, ornate and spectacular. There are many places to enter, pray and contemplate, as well as places to buy snacks and coffees. It is a very calm place. Be warned – the steps around the wat are very steep. You don’t want to be claiming on your insurance on the first day.
From where we crossed, we had to weave through a market which I suspect was Tha Tien market. There are many things on offer like spices and dried fish, resulting in a very stimulating sensory experience!
By this time we were beginning to get hungry, but the journey between Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew was very short on places to eat. Because of the King’s recent passing, the streets were packed with mourners in black, ready to pay their respects to the King at the Grand Palace. It is a 10 minute walk, but there are lots of diversions at the moment and our hunger made it that much harder.
Thank God, then, for the Thais beckoning us to a busy stall to eat. Our scam sensors were high, and we were ready to refuse until the lady shouted “Free!”
Our attention was piqued and a box of chicken noodles placed into our hands with a carton and bottle of water. Ravenous, after eating only prawns and a small portion of aeroplane rice the day before, we shovelled the lightly spiced noodles down our throat and walked to the Grand Palace.
The Grand Palace has an entrance fee of 500bht, roughly £11.50. This seemed pretty steep to our mind and we were getting a bit tired in our jetlagged haze so we skipped it in favour of resting in a nearby park.
So off we went to discover more of this city. We ended up walking around local areas with no tourists until we ended up at the golden mount – by far my favourite sight.
We descended the spiral stairs and walked some more through streets free of any other tourists. The carpenters stared in wonderment, breaking into smiles eventually, and the street hawkers who had only Thais queuing round the block.
The unusual market is five minutes from Wat Kamalawat. This temple is the most Chinese temple in Bangkok and hosts a monastic school for young monks. We had finally found Chinatown.
Chinatown is busy, fast and full of market stalls selling Chinese food and goods. I loved the bright vibrant atmosphere, even though night was falling and the stalls were beginning to shut.
We ventured onwards towards Hua Lamphong station, where we took the Metro to Sukhumvit station, and headed back home via a small Japanese restaurant, where we ate delicious char siu pork and teriyaki chicken.
Tired, with sore feet, we washed the city dust off our skin and slept.