Whether you like to bake on the beach or crave the pulse of a big, bustling city, Thailand has a destination that will fit the bill. Trekkers, nature lovers, royalty watchers, foodies and wellness fans will all find plenty to enjoy. The country has been dealing with political turmoil for several years, but take time to get to know the Thai people, and you’ll see why the country’s nickname is the “Land of Smiles.”
Capital city Bangkok is packed with 8.5 million people, and it might seem like they’re all driving cars snarled in one huge traffic jam. Opt for the excellent public transportation instead, and you’ll soon be gazing at the dazzling Royal Palace, taking a cooking class or shopping till you drop at one of the world’s largest markets. Legendary beach destinations like Koh Samui and Phuket are an easy hop by plane, or head north to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, where hiking, trekking and more sights await.
In this slideshow, we’ll take you all over Thailand, on adventures both stimulating and relaxing. You’ll bike through ancient ruins, stay with locals, give an elephant a bath, discover the secrets of Thai cuisine and find out whether someone really walks on your back when you get a Thai massage. And don’t miss our advice on where to stay and how to get around.
See a Throne Room in a Cave
Hidden away in Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, the Phraya Nakhon cave and throne pavilion is one of the most unusual and spectacular sites in Thailand. The throne room structure was built inside a huge cave with a massive hole in its roof that lets sunlight flood in at certain hours of the day. You need to catch it at just the right time, after hiking a steep, slippery route to reach it — but what a reward! The scene looks straight out of a movie like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Avatar.” Visitors report that the best time for viewing is from November to February between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. If weather conditions are good, it’s possible to take a boat part of the way. From that point, it’s about a 1,400-foot climb to reach the cave.
Aside from Phraya Nakhon, there are plenty of other things to see at this marine national park. Birders will love the park’s wetlands, where you can take a boat to search for egrets, cormorants, herons and kingfishers. Hikers can trek for great mountain views. There are also beaches for lounging. The park is located in the Prachuap Khiri Khan province, about an hour’s drive south of the resort area of Hua Hin.
Give an Elephant a Bath
There are plenty of places you can take an elephant ride in Thailand, and some even claim to be “refuges.” But if you want to visit an extraordinary place that will give you a new understanding of elephants, where they’re treated ethically and with love, head to Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai.
Founded by a tiny dynamo, Lek Chailert, this sanctuary takes in elephants of all ages and abilities. The staff doesn’t advocate riding elephants, but lets you feed and bathe them. You’ll also have the option to watch a tough video about how wild elephants are procured and trained to work in lumber and other labor; it’s a real eye-opener and very saddening.
You can stay at the park in rustic accommodations, and volunteer as well. Day visitors can partake of a delicious vegetarian buffet, while overnight guests might have the experience of hearing Lek sing a baby elephant to sleep.
Find Your Om Away from Home
Thailand is a great place to rejuvenate your body and spirit. If you want to go beyond chilling at the beach or getting a massage, wellness centers can help you relax, reboot and detox. Yoga centers are particularly popular.
The island of Koh Phangan has a number of yoga options, including the Yoga Veda Institute’s Monte Vista Retreat Center. In addition to yoga classes, you can also participate in wellness, detox and cleansing programs. As a bonus, this center is near the beach.
Also on Koh Phangan, but in the jungle about 10 minutes uphill from the beach, the Yoga Retreat offers a broad range of yoga and wellness activities. Another center on Koh Phangan, Blooming Lotus Yoga, includes Thai massages in its packages, and will help you to arrange scuba and snorkeling trips to nearby islands. It also offers daily classes for travelers who don’t want the complete retreat experience.
Elsewhere in Thailand, the Kailash Akhara Yoga Retreat Center offers you the opportunity for instruction or to practice on your own in a personal retreat. It’s located near the Lao border and operated by the Dharma community. You can also study permaculture, arts, crafts and natural building.
Graze at a Floating Market
Want to visit an authentic floating market? Head about 30 miles outside of Bangkok to the town of Amphawa. A favorite weekend destination for locals, Amphawa gives you a real taste of “old Thailand,” with wooden houses plus the floating market where vendors sell food and produce. They’ll cook up a bowl of noodles, grill seafood or make you a banana dessert right from their boat. You can sit at little tables nearby or perch on the steps leading down to the Amphawa canal, where the boats gather.
The Friday/Saturday/Sunday markets here run from around noon to 8:30 p.m., with nearly 200 boats gathered along the canal. There’s also a traditional market on land, offering food, souvenirs and other items. Additional Amphawa attractions include a museum of Thai desserts and temples you can tour via long-tail boat. The canal is lined with old wooden shophouses and guesthouses, so it’s nice to stroll and just soak up the atmosphere too. We recommend going on Friday, when the area is a bit less crowded.
If you choose to stay overnight, hire one of the small local boats on the river for a trip to watch the fireflies. Wake up early, and you can see Buddhist monks making morning rounds to collect their daily food alms — by boat, of course.
See Thailand in Black and White
On a trip to Thailand, you’ll see countless temples and plenty of traditional architecture — but you won’t see anything like two unique black and white art projects outside of Chiang Rai.
The White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, was created by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, who opened it to visitors in 1997. From a distance it looks like a stunning, all-white version of a classic Thai temple. Get closer, and you see details like the Bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth, which leads to the main temple building. Below the bridge, hundreds of hands reach up, symbolizing the desires one must forgo to reach happiness. Inside the temple, along with traditional Buddhist imagery, you’ll also find Superman and Neo from “The Matrix.”
The Black House (officially the Baandam Museum) was also the passion-project of an artist, in this case the late Thawan Duchanee. Scattered around the grounds are more than 40 small buildings filled with the artist’s work and collections. Some incorporate traditional Thai architecture, but others are quite modern. Animal horns, skins and bones figure prominently. The whole effect is a bit eerie, but interesting, particularly in comparison to the White Temple.
Get Rubbed the Right Way
Thai massage is a totally different experience from Western massage. To begin, you’re usually given loose-fitting pants and a top to wear; then you lie on a thick mat on the floor. The massage work is like a combination of yoga, physical therapy and shiatsu as the therapist focuses on “energy paths.” As you’re manipulated, just relax and let the therapist know if you’re being stretched too far or prodded too deeply. And yes, in most cases, a massage will include having your back and thighs walked on. We recommend going for a two-hour massage (our favorite way to overcome jet lag), but you can also get a one-hour version at some places.
If you don’t want to go for a full massage, you can opt for a foot massage, which involves having pressure points triggered using a wooden tool (it can be intense!), as well as hand contact. Whichever type of massage you choose, tip as well as you can; the therapists don’t earn much and rely on gratuities. Since massages are such a bargain, you can afford to be generous.
One of the most unique places to get a massage is the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institution, where you can not only relax your body but also help women start a new life and career. Want something a bit less unusual? The Health Land spas in Bangkok are modern, clean and stylish — and the reservationists speak English.
There are plenty of opportunities to learn the secrets of Thai cooking. A good class will introduce you to the unique Thai flavor profile that combines sweet, sour, spicy and salty. You should also learn about key Thai ingredients, like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce; you may even visit a market with a chef. Some schools offer the opportunity to learn the intricate art of fruit and vegetable carving.
One of the most renowned Thai cooking schools is the Blue Elephant, with classes in both Bangkok and Phuket. It’s affiliated with a famous restaurant of the same name and offers morning and afternoon classes nearly every day, with a different four-item menu at each session. You’ll learn how to make soups, curries, salads, noodle dishes and fish specialties. You can also take a private lesson or try your hand in the restaurant’s actual kitchen, under the chef’s guidance.
In Koh Samui, an excellent choice is the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts, which also offers two classes per day on every day but Sunday. One of the highlights is learning to make Thai curry paste from scratch.
There are many other classes taught all around Thailand, so check out the options wherever you plan to travel. Some questions you might ask before signing up: Is this a hands-on class or a demonstration? Does each student have her/his own work station? How many dishes do I get to cook? If a curry dish is involved, do I learn how to make the curry paste from scratch? Are there options for vegetarians? Is it possible to visit a market with the chef? Do I get recipes or a booklet including techniques to take with me?
Shop Till You Drop
The Chatuchak Weekend Market (also known as Jatujak or “JJ”) is an amazing, sprawling, overwhelming collection of 15,000 stalls covering 27 acres (and that’s not counting the many sellers on its fringes). All of Bangkok goes here to find everything from clothing to housewares to antiques. Stalls are organized by the category of items they sell, and it’s helpful to have a map to sort it all out. You can print one from Chatuchak.org or pick one up at the visitor center near the main entrance.
We love exploring the stalls of entrepreneurs selling their own jewelry designs or Thai silk items. You’ll also find a vast array of T-shirts with slogans of all sorts. There are plenty of souvenirs and sections with original art too, often sold by the artists themselves. You might want to avoid the “pets” section, which can be a bit depressing, and don’t assume anything is an authentic antique unless you really know your stuff. By all means bargain, unless you see a sign that says prices are fixed. Even then, if you buy multiple items, it doesn’t hurt to ask if you can have a discount.
Food and drink stalls are scattered throughout Chatuchak, and there are also restrooms (fee charged) and ATMs. Nearly all of the market is covered, but it can get extremely hot in the afternoon, so be sure to stay hydrated. It’s easy to get there on either the Skytrain (BTS) or the subway (MRT).
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Experiencing Bangkok, The City of Angels by Elizabeth Melanie B-I
“When in Bangkok, haggle, haggle, haggle! I did quite a lot of that and got very good prices for my purchases. By the way, the prices for almost anything in Thailand are different for tourists and locals. They charge much higher if you are a tourist or non-Thai. I’d say a very good practice since Thailand thrives on tourism and visitors expect to spend.” Read more!
Explore Ancient Ayutthaya
On an easy day trip from Bangkok you can visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya. This former Thai capital was built in 1350 and became one of the world’s largest centers of commerce and diplomacy. It fell to the Burmese army in 1767, and the Siamese court fled to Bangkok.
The ruins here are similar in style to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and you have many options for tours that explore them. Many take you one way on the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok, with a return by bus. Since the river is Thailand’s historic highway, it’s fun to experience traveling this way.
Ayutthaya Boat and Travel offers a number of interesting tours, including a bicycle trip that begins at twilight and treats you to the monuments illuminated by spotlights. It’s a good way to beat the heat and avoid daytime crowds. Looking for a more active visit? The same company offers a two-day trip with biking and kayaking, including an overnight homestay where you’ll get up early to “make merit” by offering food to the local Buddhist monks.
If you really want to experience river life, consider the overnight trip offered by Mekhala, where you sleep on a converted rice barge and visit a local village and market along the way.
Stay with a Local Family
While Thailand has hotels and resorts to fit every style and budget, for a more personal connection you might want to try a homestay. A U.K.-based company called Responsible Travel is a leader in working with nonprofit organizations to create interesting, reasonably priced homestay opportunities.
It offers several in Thailand, including one that visits the Karen people in Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand’s most mountainous province. You can go trekking or join in daily activities such as cooking, basket making and cloth weaving. Or check out this opportunity in northeast Thailand to immerse yourself in a community focused on silk production, where you can learn about the process from silk moth to finished clothing.
A few things to remember about homestays: Ask about air conditioning, if that is important to you; ditto the plumbing situation. Inquire about drinking water availability, or bring your own. Thais are a reserved people, so refrain from giving your hosts a big hug as you say goodbye (it’s likely you won’t even see public displays of affection between married couples). Try giving them a wai instead: put your hands in a prayer position and perform a slight bow. The same gesture serves as a greeting, farewell, thank you and apology, so it’s quite handy!
Rub Shoulders with Royal Barges
Very few tourists visit Bangkok’s Royal Barge Museum, the boatyard where gorgeous — and huge — ceremonial barges are stored. But trust us, it’s well worth heading to the opposite side of the Chao Phraya River to see these elaborately carved teak vessels, some dating back hundreds of years. One of the most famous barges has a huge golden swan on its prow, but all of them are spectacular, with no lack of gold decoration. The largest is 150 feet long. Other exhibits include oars and outfits worn by the boatmen during royal processions.
Royal barge processions are rare, only held during major cultural or religious events. The 52 barges (only eight of which are on display at the museum) are manned by some 2,082 oarsmen. It must be quite a sight!
Best Time to Go to Thailand
The period from July through October is monsoon season, during which frequent rains are common. If you want to avoid crowds, don’t travel during big Thai festivals like Songkran, and avoid high season if you want to go to Thailand before the masses of tourists descend. High season for travel to Thailand is generally from November through March, corresponding with the North American winter.
Thailand on a Budget
Thailand offers affordable public transportation, as well as plenty of reasonably priced lodging and meals. Your largest expense will likely be your flight. To save on airfare to Thailand, book a flight in low or shoulder season, and keep an eye out for fare sales. Airlines such as Thai Airways regularly offer fare sales from select U.S. gateways to Bangkok. You should have little trouble finding budget-priced lodging in the country; just avoid the pricier five-star hotels, and opt for guesthouses instead.
–written by Gayle Keck