As my time in Thailand comes to an end I wanted to reflect on some of my favorite experiences. These aren’t necessarily specific tourist activities, simply experiences that I think those coming to Thailand shouldn’t leave without having.
Starting with an obvious one because whether you love them or hate them, a trip to Thailand without visiting at least one of the temples (wat’s) is sacrilege. Not being the biggest temple fan myself I only visited a few in Thailand, my favorite being Wat Pho, the 40+ meter reclining Buddha in Bangkok.
2. Traffic Jams
Bangkok is famous (infamous?) for traffic jams and it is an unavoidable experience that you may as well be prepared for. If you are lucky you may get street vendors walking up and down the road offering snacks and drinks to help pass the time. Outside of the capital you’ll find yourself in traffic jams from a whole other source – animals. Whether it’s cows, chickens or a pack of stray dogs, nothing makes you feel further away from the cities back home than having to stop and wait on the highway for some animals to pass.
When in the north, you simply cannot pass up the opportunity to gaze and wonder at these beautiful creatures that, at one time were an integral part of Thai industry. Between modern machinery, reduction of habitat and hunting, wild elephants are becoming a rarity so if your mind is set on riding one, seek out an organization that works to protect and help the species. There is an elephant sanctuary just outside of Chiang Mai that rehabilitates abused and sick elephants. Unfortunately I missed out on visiting it, but I know that there are no elephant tricks or rides, instead visitors go to see elephants be elephants and not instruments of entertainment.
Considering how cheap and fun they are, at least one day of any journey must be spent exploring on a scooter. Smaller towns and islands provide a great opportunity to seek out off the beaten track experiences. I wouldn’t recommend hiring one in Bangkok as the city is just far too busy and dangerous for any non-local driver to attempt. Instead, jump on a motorbike taxi after a few drinks at night and hold on for a thrill as these crazy drivers fly through traffic to reach your destination in half the time of a taxi. In a similar vein, tuk tuk drivers will do almost anything for a few extra baht. Ask one to do a wheelie and you’ll see what I mean.
5. Thai Massage
A good Thai Massage can be just the thing to relax the muscles after a big day of exploring. The Thai’s use a combination of heating oils/lotions and their whole body (seriously: hands, forearms elbows, knees, feet etc) to lift, pull, poke and stretch your knots out. A good one will leave you feeling relaxed and pain free, however the problem lies in finding a good masseuse. As a rule I don’t go anywhere which has a group of women out the front screaming ‘Helooo Thai masaaaagee’. I find it is also best to seek out the older women as they are likely to have been practicing a long time and are less likely to be more skilled in prostitution than massage. Unless, of course, a happy ending is what you are after.
6. Muay Thai
The art of 8 limbs (legs, knees, elbows, fists) plays a huge part in Thai culture and seeing a fight is definitely something you cannot skip. The ceremony before each fight and respect between fighters is something lost in much of the western world and is great to see. Lumpinee stadium in Bangkok is the biggest Muay Thai stadium in the world and hosts fights a few nights a week, with the biggest events being held on a Friday night. As a foreigner, the entrance fee won’t be cheap (expect 2000 Baht) but the quality of the fights will be far greater than anything advertised on the back of a truck that drives around tourist hot-spots like Phuket, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai etc. Alternatively, if you have the time, consider enrolling into one of the many Muay Thai camps throughout Thailand. They are a great way to get fit, learn a martial art and understand a bit more about Thai culture. Not to mention that a month of food, training and accommodation will most likely be well under your monthly budget back home.
7. The ‘Bum Gun’
There are a few things that the Thai’s (and many other Eastern countries) do better than the Western world. Undoubtedly in my mind, the bum gun is one such invention. For those unsure of what it is, I’ll describe it without going into too much detail. Essentially, instead of using toilet paper to clean away your dirty business, a hose in the shape of a gun is used to spray it away. The concept is the same as the Japanese bidet except the Japanese take it further by making it button operated, as well as adding an arsenal of other features to their high-tech toilet seats. Many backpackers are too intimidated to give the bum gun a go, as I was for the first week. Now however, Mitchy and myself are convinced that when either of us buy/build a house, that the bathrooms will be fitted out with these clean and efficient devices.
8. Rooftop Bars
Experience Bangkok without the stench and noise by having a drink at one of the many rooftop bars throughout the city. Depending on your budget you can enjoy a mojito out of a crystal bucket, a far cry from the plastic used on the islands, or a five course meal in a 360 degree view dining room. Backpackers in Khao San Rd are guaranteed a good night out at the Khao San Rd Rooftop Bar as excellent live acoustic music delivers hit after hit until you realize that the whole bar is singing along to ‘Hey Jude’ by The Beatles.
9. Get Ripped off
It’s going to happen, so don’t stress about it or think you will be the first tourist to ever make it out of Thailand without it happening to you. Learn from your mistakes, bargain hard and if all else fails, walk away. Also, if you find yourself bargaining over 20 or 30 baht, stop for a second and consider how much energy you are putting into saving less than $1 and if it is really worth the effort. A few tips – if a tuk tuk driver offers you to take you somewhere for free, be very wary of ending up at his friends jeweler. Secondly, and I’ve mentioned this before, if a taxi driver won’t use the meter – don’t get in the cab. Finally, and leading to my next point – shop wholesale instead of markets in high tourist areas.
If shopping is your thing, then Thailand will definitely keep you busy. Chiang Mai holds an incredible Sunday night market which takes up a huge portion of the ‘old city’ which is well worth a look. In Bangkok there are many shopping centers around Siam and a few other districts where a single center could fill a shopaholic’s whole holiday. MBK is a personal favourite which sells clothes, DVDs, homewares, phones/iPods (second hand ones also) and many other items in its 6 or 7 floors Clothing is already cheap in Thailand however if you want to stretch your baht even further, consider seeking out some of wholesale markets and shopping centers which supply the stalls in the tourist centers such as Khao San Rd. Be informed however, that electronics and phones aren’t as cheap in Thailand as other countries such as Cambodia (for Apple products) or Singapore.
Whether it’s east or west coast, Thailand has some incredible islands with much to offer. If diving is your thing then Koh Tao and Koh Phi Phi are considered the best diving islands with a huge number of diving schools and boat operators. Koh Phi Phi also has stunning white sand beaches and turqoise water, as well as day trips to the nearby Maya Bay which was made famous in the movie ‘The Beach’. Party-goers can’t go pass a full moon party or NYE party on Koh Phangan’s Haad Rin beach where tens of thousands of backpackers flock to each month to dance, drink buckets or experiment in their (in)famously potent mushroom shakes.
Rounding out the list at number 12 is food, something there is no shortage of in Thailand. Thai cuisine is loved world wide however once you get here you discover that there are a lot more options than pad Thai and green curries that are on the menu’s back home. You will undoubtedly find delicious Thai food in restaurants however most Thai’s eat from the street. Find a stall which has a selection of curries on display and try your luck with what’s on offer. Keep in mind that if the Thai’s consider a dish ‘a little bit spicy’ it may blow your head off so ask to try a spoonful of the sauce first. My favourite thing about food in Thailand however is the quantity, quality and price of fruit. Fruit carts wander up and down streets everywhere offering to cut up pineapples, apples, papayas and mangoes. At around a dollar for a pineapple, fruit is a cheap and easy snack.
I’m sure there are many other experiences that I’ve missed however one more that I think warrants a quick mention is versing a hustler at pool or connect-4 at a girly/go-go bar – you will very, very rarely win.
Have any experiences of your own that you think anyone visiting Thailand should enjoy? Let me know in the comments.