Thailand is a dream come true for backpackers, as the country is full of things to do, delicious food to eat, and reasonably-priced accommodation.
I spent 6 weeks there this summer (which I don’t recommend, don’t go in the rainy season!) and these 10 things were some of my favorite experiences. Some of these, such as hanging out with elephants, you’re probably already planning on doing, but some of the other activities will get you out of your comfort zone and into the culture!
1. Hang out with elephants, ethically
Thailand is famous for its elephants experiences— who wouldn’t want to get up close to these majestic and gentle beasts?
However, elephants are generally treated very cruelly in elephant camps and shows. Riding them, especially multiple people on one elephant, is really bad for their backs. In order to train elephants to be ridden, their owners use sharp metal hooks to beat them; you’ll notice some even have dents in their faces from being beaten for decades.
Thankfully, many ethical sanctuaries have opened up recently started by animal-lovers and elephant owners. Many pose as ethical, but still allow riding and invasive bathing— sometimes it’s ok to bathe with elephants, but some places do force elephants to bathe with very large groups of people.
Do your research and make sure to always be respectful. They are living things and have very traumatizing pasts, and sometimes they don’t want to be around people. They are massive and can kill you easily so don’t be stupid.
My mother and I visited Phuket Elephant Sanctuary and had a really lovely 1/2 day touring the facilities meeting 10 or so elderly elephants who’d spent their lives in brutal captivity and now were free to live on a huge plot of land. We were able to feed them and watch them bathe, they seemed genuinely happy and were playing!
2. Get a massage (or a few)
Thai massages are a traditional part of self-care in Thailand. During a Thai massages one wears traditional loose-fitting Thai pants and a shirt— this is not necessarily a sexy or relaxing massage, but for your health! The masseuse/masseur not only rubs your body with their hands but uses their elbows and knees. They will crack your toes, fingers and back, and may even crawl on top of your back, in order to apply more pressure. It can be very intense for first-timers, but you’ll feel really relieved after they stretch back and legs in ways you didn’t know they could stretch!
Thai massages and foot massages are the cheapest, anywhere from 150-300 baht, ($5-10 US), while oil and herbal massages and other specialities start at 350-400 and can go as high as 1000+.
There are also massage studios that have blind and or deaf masseuses, convicted prisoners on work release, etc. it’s sort of a novelty but it feels good to help people who have a hard time getting jobs— for the blind or those with criminal records, it may be their only option.
*make sure to tip 10%*
Massages are really great in Thailand after a long day walking around or trekking. Or, just to beat the heat/rain.
3. Chat with a monk
Chances are, if you’re in Thailand long enough you’ll bump into a friendly monk and strike up a conversation. If it doesn’t happen naturally, or if you’d like to meet particularly chatty monks, there are several “monk chats” hosted at temples in Chiang Mai. While you’re in Thailand (or Laos) novice monks will probably surround you and ask you if you speak English, they really love to practice!
4. ‘Ride’ a giant water lily
Halfway in between Bangkok and Chiang Mai lies the small city of Phitsanulok, which most tourists use as a transit point to reach the ruins of Sukhothai. By, doing so, they overlook one of the coolest experiences! An older couple owns a small farm with 3 ponds full of Victorian water lilies, and for 100 baht you can ride one! It’s harder than it looks to balance on these thin but durable mega-flora.
Phitsanulok also has a great, very local riverside restaurant, Anna’s, with a full vegetarian menu, something that can be difficult to find outside of the big cities.
4. Explore the ruins of ancient Siam
Both Ayutthaya and Sukhothai boasts impressive ruins of Thailand’s past. The many temples in each historical park showcase the influence of the invading Burmese and Khmer peoples over the centuries.
Both parks are easily accessible by bus or train from Bangkok, and easily toured by bicycle in one day.
5. Take a traditional boat (anywhere!)
The island of Koh Phi Phi are famous for their long tail boats, but there are many places to take similar long wooden boats all over Thailand. Koh Phi Phi was inaccessible the week I was in southern Thailand due to weather, but that didn’t stop me.
You can take a canal tour of Bangkok to see how some of the locals live, boat down the Salween river and visit Karen villages in Mae Hong Son, cruise the Ping River in Chiang mai, motor your way down the Mekong near the Golden Triangle, or tour several temples by boat in Ayutthaya.
6. Visit a floating market
Another great boat-related experience is to visit a ‘floating’ market. Landlubbers fret not; you can watch the vendors cruise by from the non-floating markets which surround the canals. Taling Chan floating market is smaller (but by no means small) than Damnoen Samnuak floating market, but much more authentic. Damnoen Samnuak is full of trinkets and Western tourists while Taling Chan caters more to locals and Asian tourists (and therefore has better food and cheaper prices).
They are a little far from the city proper, but worth your while, and there are also inexpensive half-day tours available.
7. Take a cooking class
If you love Thai food as much as I do, or just want a chance to try many new dishes at once, you’ll definitely enjoy taking a “cookery class” in Chiang Mai. Most start with a market tour before diving into the kitchen. Fine Thai cooking is very different than Thai street food, so treat yourself to a real feast at least once!
Traditional Thai noodles and curries are surprisingly easy to make, and delicious. There are typical courses, vegetarian and vegan classes available, accommodating most dietary choices, allergies or religious restrictions. You can read more about my 1-1 experience here:
8. Visit “hilltribe” villages, Thailand’s minorities and refugees
Thailand has many tribal groups and minority ethnicities, many of which have migrated from the neighboring countries. The Karen, Akha, Lisu, Hmong, and Shan, just to name a few, have their own languages, customs, and distinct styles of dress from the Thai people. The Karen and Shan for example are largely refugees from Myanmar; they fled to Thailand to escape persecution, while the semi-nomadic Hmong migrated over time from southern China.
NOTE: Many tours are fake, visiting not actual villages but tourist markets where tribe-women sadly sell knick-knacks, as most Karen are refugees and cannot work. The longneck Karen for example, have been particularly exploited and exoticized for their brass neck rings. Some of these hilltribes people do not live in the villages or actually dress this way, they only do it for tourists. Regardless, please ask before taking photos— they are people, not objects.
My advice is, do your research, find out the names of real villages or refugee camp you’d like to visit and drive or hire a tuk-tuk not a tour to take you to those villages specifically. Just be mindful that they may turn you away. You’ll notice the difference between a real village and a tourist trap immediately when you see beautifully woven and thatched homes, rather than stalls of tchotchkes and tin roofs.
9. Binge on street food
Street food is part of Thai culture, for locals and tourists alike. Street food venues are diverse, whether it’s eating at a stall attached to a motorbike, or sitting on mats along the river while the vendor prepares the food in a makeshift open-air kitchen, you’ll be sure to enjoy the wide and inexpensive selection of food.
There are morning markets, which are generally more local, for those on their way to work, pop-up day markets for lunch, and night markets for dinner which often run from 5-10 or even later. You can shop while you eat at most night markets.
In my opinion, the Mae Sariang had the best markets, where everything was only 10 baht (30 cents) per serving– and they weren’t small servings! Pai had the worst market, with a disappointingly low amount of vendors, most of which weren’t selling Thai food, or even Thai themselves.
For more about Thai food read here:
10. See a “Ladyboy Cabaret” show!
Disclaimer — though it might not be politically correct in the U.S., many men and transwomen self-identify as “ladyboys”
In Phuket especially, but also in Bangkok, ladyboy shows are the perfect evening entertainment– a good family alternative to the many strip clubs and ping-pong shows. You’ll be dazzled by the dozens of sequined and feathery costumes, as the performers take you through time, from ancient Siam to Beyonce. Seeing a ladyboy show is not like any other drag show! Simon’s is the big famous one, it was $35, but well worth it for the level of production.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Thailand, that’s for sure! After 6 weeks, I still didn’t want to leave, and I’m already wondering when I’ll be able to go back.
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