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As soon as we started planning the SOTM Tour, Mario and I knew we would have a visitor on our trip: Mario’s nephew Isaac.
Isaac is 20 years old, lives in the small town in the Midlands (central England), and his international travels have been with his family, mostly to Malta. Mario and I wanted to introduce him to a completely different culture and the world of backpacking and teach him how to survive (and survive awesomely) on his own in another country.
Niece and nephew travel is actually a new and growing travel trend. Travel Market Report shares that PANKs (professional aunts, no kids) are increasingly traveling with their nieces and nephews.
A few friends of mine are part of that trend: Sherry Ott has her Niece Project, taking each of her six nieces on a trip anywhere they want when they turn 16. So far she’s taken her first niece to Italy and her second niece to Vietnam. Shannon O’Donnell had her 11-year-old niece live with her in Southeast Asia for six months.
When it came time to choose a destination for Isaac’s trip, Thailand was a no-brainer. It’s fun, it’s cheap, it’s diverse, it’s got tons of things to do — and in my opinion, it’s the perfect “first time in Asia” destination.
Isaac was coming out for twelve days and the task of organizing the itinerary fell to me. I chose destinations that I knew well and were high on culture: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Pai.
Bangkok’s latest protests had begun kicking off in a few days before Isaac’s arrival in November. One of the results? Almost no cabs would go anywhere near Khao San Road, where we were staying, and our driver from the airport refused to drive beyond the protest at Democracy Monument. No problem! We’d walk right through it.
At this point in time, the protests were largely peaceful and looked more like an outdoor picnic with everyone from the kids to the elderly taking part. We wove our way through the crowds, making our way toward the river. A lady even offered Isaac a taste of her coconut ice cream!
During our time in Bangkok, we were fairly low-key, taking in the usual activities: street food, massages, Chinatown, temple-hopping, sipping Thai iced tea at every opportunity. Mario and Isaac went to get a fish foot massage and they both screamed like little girls the whole time.
We also took in one special activity: Muay Thai at Lumpinee Stadium. This is the world’s epicenter of Thai boxing.
Lumpinee Stadium will be closing fairly soon, and I’m so glad we got to see it in its glory — the fans overhead, the gamblers in the back, girls serving popcorn and beer, the screaming friends and relatives of the boxers, even their mothers yelling from their corners as the two men kicked and punched each other in the ring.
But most importantly, in Bangkok we began teaching Isaac how to get by in a different country. Each day, we would give him tasks ranging from negotiating with tuk-tuk drivers to finding the best-priced bus tickets. He was a bit nervous at first, but soon it became second nature to him.
At the time, trains weren’t running from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Mario and I both loathe overnight buses, so we booked a short flight for the three of us instead.
Chiang Mai was exactly as I remembered — beautiful temples, fun markets, fantastic street food around the clock, and my favorite form of transportation in Thailand — the songthaew, the shared taxi with journeys costing 20 baht ($0.66) each!
Chiang Mai is a great place to just hang out — and we did plenty of that. Eating delicious food, relaxing in coffee shops, going on photo walks around the old city and taking pictures of everything that looked interesting.
After visiting Wat Chedi Luang, we noticed a sign up for Monk Chat — an opportunity to speak with a monk and ask questions about Buddhism, Thailand, and monk life. We joined one of the groups and had an interesting conversation with one of the monks, who hails from Pai originally.
“What do you miss the most from your life before you became a monk?” I asked him.
“Playing sports,” he said without missing a beat. Not what I expected!
We had a meetup one night — one of our best meetups yet, with bloggers (nice to finally meet Sam and Audrey!), digital nomads, readers of mine, SOTM fans, teachers, Couchsurfing hosts, and a variety of people who make Chiang Mai their home. Mario and Isaac took 20 Someone Once Told Me photos between the two of them — a record for the trip!
We also made a visit to Wat Phra Doi Suthep, a temple that I was too cheap to visit my first time around. (A return journey in a songthaew will run you 600 baht ($18), whether it’s one person or ten people, so we split it three ways.) I loved the gold and the peaceful atmosphere, and it’s become one of my new favorite temples.
The boys finished with a trip to Elephant Nature Park to play with the graceful pachyderms. I unfortunately was swamped with writing deadlines and had to opt out at the last minute. Mario and Isaac came back raving about their experience.
Pai, located a three-hour, 762-turn drive from Chiang Mai, is such a great little town. I first went three years ago and loved the scenery but wasn’t impressed with the town itself. I think it was mostly due to hanging out with the weird hippies, not the cool hippies.
This time, I couldn’t get enough of Pai! Motorbiking and exploring the landscape during the day, having green smoothies and okonomiyaki on the street at night, getting massages, then finishing with some fantastic live music at one of the bars. Perfection.
It was the motorbiking, in fact, that brought us to Pai. Isaac was keen on learning, and I think Pai is one of the best places in the world to learn to ride a motorbike — bike rentals are cheap, the roads are well-maintained, the scenery is outstanding, and there’s hardly any traffic. Conditions couldn’t get more ideal.
After some quick lessons up and down the street, we set off, exploring the surrounding villages and the phenomenally beautiful scenery.
Pai, formerly a hippie haven, is also a popular destination for musicians. Isaac, himself a music student, was in heaven. Later I bought a ukelele on a whim and he gave me my first ukelele lesson!
The train had started running again a few days ago and it was clear that the kinks weren’t quite sorted out yet — we ended up stopped for hours in the middle of nowhere and ended up being five hours late. A good reminder to you all not to plan to fly home the day after an overnight bus or train to Bangkok! We were glad we had booked in that buffer day.
We finished the trip with a stroll down Soi Cowboy and probably the most entertaining cab driver ever, telling us about his life’s conquests, starting with, “I go with ladyboy once.”
On the final day, Mario and I gave Isaac his final challenge — he would get himself from our Sukhumvit hotel to the airport using public transportation and not a taxi. He passed with flying colors.
We returned Isaac to England with all his limbs and no new tattoos, to the relief of his mother. Success!
A few weeks later, I asked Isaac his thoughts on the trip.
His favorite parts:
“There was honestly so many things to choose from…but if I had to choose a few: the food both on the street and in restaurants was just incredible! The bars and clubs have a nice atmosphere too with their open mic/karaoke nights.
I really enjoyed getting deep in the culture like when we went to the famous Lumpinee stadium and got to see real Muay Thai boxing. That was amazing! Viewing all the amazing temples and getting blessed by a Buddhist monk was really fulfilling, I felt so at peace when that happened.
Last but not least, I can’t forget the trip to the elephant sanctuary, it was just such a lovely experience and they were great fun to photograph.”
Was Thailand what he expected?
“There were a few surprises like organizing transport and hiring the motor bikes, I had no idea it was so easy to do. That was a nice surprise. That and I had no idea how hot ‘Thai spicy’ was, that was a shock!
In terms of Thailand itself, I did notice that there was quite a large gap between the people that have money and the people that don’t. But everyone was polite and smiled, I found it easy to talk to locals and share stories and interests with people that live halfway around the world.”
Any plans to come back to Thailand with his friends?
“Most definitely! I’m currently in the recruiting stages with some of my friends and they seem very keen to have a go.
“I know what to do and how to get about and I still remember and employ the safety tips, keeping personal possessions close and wrapping the camera strap around your hand twice, etc.
“I would go back but I’d be tempted to visit the coastal areas and sit on the beach for a day or two before we moved on. It’s still early days and we’re possibly doing Germany in the summer but rest assured that I’ll be back for more Thai adventures, I am Thaisaac after all.”
As for Mario, he had this to say:
“It was a lot of fun to get quality time with someone I first saw when they were a day old, small, pink, and squealing a lot — and now is bigger than me, still pink and still squeals a lot.
“But also, travel really broadens your perspective, makes you grow as a person, and Isaac took to the challenge of coming to Southeast Asia brilliantly. He got fully involved and you could literally see him becoming more confident and less nervous each day. The whole experience did wonders for him and we all had a marvellous time.”
As for me, I was happy to show off Thailand to Isaac and see everything through his eyes. I also loved getting to know him better — I’m happy to have a very cool, very funny nephew-to-be. I can’t wait for the next time we get to travel together — we were talking to him about Berlin, so maybe it will be there!
It was a great family trip, and it won’t be the only trip — next up for an adventure with her uncle and aunt-to-be is Isaac’s younger sister Ellie. We’d love to take her on a trip next!