THAILAND: OFF THE BEATEN PATH
Emerald jungles and sapphire oceans. Bustling city scenes and meditative temple ceremonies. Worldly travellers and welcoming locals. Thailand sits at the intersection of great contrasts, making it one of the most exhilarating countries in the world.
Like all great countries, Thailand is an endless experience of world-renowned destinations. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who has not wanted to visit the rice farms of the Golden Triangle in the north of the country; or, to sunbathe on the legendary beaches of Phuket in the south; or to explore endless curiosities at Bangkok’s Chatuchak market.
And, like all magical countries, Thailand is an endless experience of off-the-beaten-path discoveries.
Travelling to Thailand most often begins with a stop in Bangkok, followed by a journey north and southward. It is easy to feast on Thailand. But, we want to make that feast a little bit more unique, by highlighting unexpected experiences across Thailand; unique corners of a country where, everywhere you turn, there is a moment of magic. For everyone.
Exploring the city’s canals on one of Thailand’s ubiquitous (and frenetic) long-tail boats is certainly typical to most itineraries, but a small, teak boat tour with Pandam Tours puts a meaningful spin on one’s exploration of Bangkok's waterways. Tom Praisan, the owner, will recommend the most local of stalls in the morning market, teach you of the monk’s life at the “Forest Temple” and, true to the company’s name, guide you through the orchid and pandam nurseries. Bangkok comes more alive the more you experience it as a local.
Whether by canal or road, make your way to Nonthaburi, northwest of Bangkok, for a tour of the city’s bustling craft beer scene. Khun Wichit is the king of craft beers and his creations are yours for the tasting at Chit Beer on Koh Kred. Then, make your wait to Taopiphop Bar Project and from there, to the Fellowship of Beer brewery. Let it be known that microbrewing is a high-stakes brewing and drinking game as it is still illegal for people to make and sell their own beer in Thailand. But, it is worth the adventure and the delicious brews.
The best retail experience will always follow once you’ve had a few beers! Make your way to the Papaya market for Bangkok’s version of the Paris Flea Market. Here you’ll find everything from Thai curios to mid-century masterpieces. And, while you’re feeling that design vibe, make your way to the Thailand Creative and Design Center. This converted post-office now houses everything from hip Thai sneaker shops to exhibits on Thai architecture.
Three-and-a-half hours north of Bangkok, you’ll find Wat Ban Rai in Nakhon Ratchasima province. This temple is an elephant-shaped colourful temple in the middle of a lake and guarded by two gigantic 19-headed nagas, a group of serpent gods in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Besides its distinctive elephant structure, Wat Ban Rai boasts of astonishing statues and paintings depicting Buddha’s life. From pillars to walls to ceilings, Wat Ban Rai has an endless spectacle of vibrant art.
A different form of temple is the natural beauty of Pai, 25 miles from the Myanmar border. It is home to unparalleled ecological treasures, including the Mae Yen waterfall. The trek to the falls can be demanding, but along the way you’ll come across local farmer’s stands selling fruit and encounter a wide range of fauna in its untouched habitat. What people universally praise of this difficult hike is the reward of experiencing these wholly untouched falls.
Hiking through the jungle will make you hungry, so a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai will help take the hunger edge off. There are many outstanding cooking instructors in the region, but we recommend A Lot of Thai, run by one of Thailand’s top TV chefs, Yui. She is still committed to small classes, intimate teaching and opening her home up to her students, including celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay. As an alternate, consider Red Chili Cooking School and its very affable and funny chef and instructor Aon.
Next, head southward, perhaps on one of Thailand’s famed sleeper trains, and make your way to Anurak Community Lodge, which is nestled between Khao Sok and Khlong Phanom national parks. While basic, the 18 stilted bungalows are surrounded by protected rain forests and the 50 varieties of animals that live therein, including elephants, leopards, tapirs, macaques and flying foxes.
About an hour away is Cheow Lan lake. The long-tail boat you didn’t ride in Bangkok, you will take you here to one of several raft-houses built for visitors to spend a night on the lake and help fund the upkeep of the national park. The vast lake is just 35 years old, created after the building of a dam flooded the area. Surrounded by jungle-clad limestone cliffs, it resembles better-known Phang Nga Bay near Phuket or Halong Bay in Vietnam. The only clue to its origins are the dead trees that push up through the water, ghostly reminders of the flooded forest.
Take a swim in the lake and kayak to the other side to hike the surrounding mountains. Make your way through the clouds hanging heavy around the lake and listen for the apes in the distance, the toucans flying overhead and, especially, for the Asian brown bears who have left their claw marks on the surrounding trees. This is a wildlife adventure unlike any other.
Having spent time experiencing the wilder side of Thai life, get thee to the Six Senses resort in Yao Noi to indulge in some well-earned luxury. Yao Noi island is an hour boat ride from Phuket. Inhabited mostly by Muslim fishermen and their families, this is not your typical Thai island. And, Six Senses is not your typical resort, either. Suffice to say that you will never, ever take in views quite like the ones offered by each of the property’s pool villas. The serenity of these views surpassed only by the extreme pampering offered at the resort’s spa or any of the inexpensive Thai massage services available on the beach or in town. Perhaps one of Thailand’s best experiences, everywhere you might find yourself, is the fact that you can get high quality massage very inexpensively.
Being on Yao Noi is about little more than indulging in extreme relaxation and life at its simplest.
For those of you who want to experience your body at its fiercest, make your way to KYN Muay Thai Gym for one of the most intense of Thai boxing camps. No amount of Crossfit will ready you for what awaits you under the guidance of Hlukhin, a 10-time Muay Thai champion.
After time hiking jungles, boxing by the ocean, experiencing Buddhist temples and connecting with the man of your dreams, Thailand will deliver you both to a reinvigorated state of mind, body, heart and soul. To spend time in Thailand is to thrive as a person.
We invite you to explore one of Thailand's most valuable resources for travel information across the country at www.gothaibefree.com.