You’ve got your itinerary, your guidebook, and recommendations from friends. You’ve scoured everything from internet message boards to every Frommer’s Guide and Lonely Planet at the store.
You’re ready to attack your vacation in Thailand.
Here are 5 things you might want to have on your list.
1. Bangkok Temples: The Grand Palace, Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), and others
The bling is the thing.
I wasn’t sure what to expect at The Grand Palace, but came away incredibly impressed. The way to describe this place is that it is over the top. There is a dizzying array of statues, towers, sculptures, and things to see at every turn, each more impressive than the next. It’s almost a little like Vegas.
We ended up getting an official guide once inside the gate, and feel it was well worth it as he quickly and efficiently helped us get tickets, get long pants for me and a sarong for my friend to go over our shorts, and explain things along the way.
We got there midday, and the crowds were pretty large. If I were to do it again, I might plan to get there right as it opens, to avoid the masses and be able to take better photos without dozens of people milling around. Overall, just a fun place to check out and a must-see on any trip to Bangkok.
Reclining Buddha – Just Chilling Out
This is another must-see stop for any tour of Bangkok, and the temple is incredibly impressive. There is a spiritual vibe that encompasses the entire area, and I definitely engrossed myself in the moment and the surroundings.
It’s very easy to visit the temples and immediately enter a state of peacefulness despite the urban chaos close by. Still, it’s hard not to picture yourself asking the reclining buddah how things are going and him responding, “Just chilling.”
If temples are your thing, don’t stop there. There are more then 40,000 in Thailand, and many other very impressive ones in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and all over the country.
2. Thai Food Cooking School
You’re eating great food, why not learn how to cook it?
There are a number of places that offer cooking classes in Thailand, and I ended up at the Baan Thai cooking class while in Chiang Mai. This was an awesome experience made up of three parts.
First, they take you on a market tour in the city, where you learn about all the ingredients. The guide speaks in pretty good English and shows you all the fresh ingredients that you’ll be using. Then they give you some time to roam the market, where you’ll see everything from raw meat, to dozens of types of cooking oils, and even pink eggs. Not sure what’s up with the pink eggs.
Then, you head back to the school and they present you with all the ingredients pre-allocated for you, so that you just need to chop them, prepare them, and cook them. For example, you’ll have a bowl of chicken, herbs, spices, sauces, peppers, and vegetables, and they walk you through the entire process.
One of the coolest things was spring rolls… you assemble all the ingredients for the meat of the roll, wrap it up tight, and then deep fry it. Other things we created were chicken with cashew nuts and coconut soup.
And finally, duh, you eat the meal you just created, along with many other students in a community setting. The cost was 700 baht, which comes out to about $23 US, but includes the entire night, including transportation, all your food, and a cookbook. A great experience overall.
3. Elephant Nature Park
Up close and personal experience
When visiting Chiang Mai, we knew a visit to an elephant reserve was a must do on the list. However, we made a distinction here, as the Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary that rescues distressed elephants that have been abused, vs. going to other types of parks that offer elephants for show, offering rides and making them do tricks.
There were three main experiences:
The first was feeding them from just a few feet away, but from a building where the elephants could come up to the railing. They staff was sure to be close by and make sure you stood comfortably behind the line as you warmed up to them and tested your boundaries. It’s amazing how much these beasts can eat.
At one point they bring you by the food storage and prep area, which shows just ridiculous amounts of bananas, pumpkins, and other items that they relentlessly consume on a daily basis.
Then, what was interesting is that they then allowed you to get much closer to them in the field, walking up right next to them and touching them and feeding them that way. It’s so surreal.
Finally, the group actually goes down to the river and lets you wash the elephants, wading in right next to them and throwing buckets of water at them to wash the mud from their body. By this point you’re probably feeling a lot braver and many people were comfortable being right nearby.
It’s definitely a rush being beside one of these creatures that could probably swat you away like a fly if it wanted to. For the faint of heart, you can go into a viewing area and watch the elephants from afar.
The cost was 2500 Baht or around $73 US. This included being picked up at the hotel and driven to the location about 1 hour north, as well as lunch. The only downsides could be a) the day was a little longer than it might have needed to be and b) I could see people getting a little wary of the reminders about how they elephants were rescued.
For example, we were shown a movie on the ride there (which actually helped kill the time), were told about the elephant abuse throughout the day, then shown another movie after lunch. Still, they never crossed the line into pushing anything on you or selling you anything, and they were just doing their job and raising awareness. It was really educational.
4. Mountain Biking Chiang Mai
Great day for off road bike lovers
One of my passions is mountain biking so I was excited for the chance to check out the trails in Chiang Mai, far from my home in New York. I had found the website MountainBikingChiangMai.com when I was researching before my trip, and had the hotel staff where I was staying (the Dusit D2) set it up.
The cost was 1650 Baht, which worked out to about $55 US, but that seemed fair considering all the value we received during the day.
First, you are picked up in the morning at your hotel and get to meet your fellow bikers in the back of the truck. We had people from New York, Israel, England, and elsewhere and everyone was really cool.
They bring you to their headquarters where they provide you with bikes, helmets, gloves, protective pads, water, and even shirts and backpacks. Recommendation: Because I was traveling without my usual bike gear, I ended up wearing one of my older boardshort style bathing suits on the ride. I was glad I did because I was caked with mud by the end of the trip, and it might have ruined a standard pair of shorts.
The dilemma I had was whether to do an intermediate trip or advanced. I do a lot of biking, so didn’t want to be stuck going slow with other tourists down a wide road that wasn’t challenging enough for me.
However, the advanced downhill course seemed a little too hard core. The weather was going to be wet, the conditions rocky, and I didn’t want to risk getting injured in a fall and messing up my vacation. I definitely made the right choice.
I think knowing this, the guides took a break pretty early on in the ride, stopping at a really cool coffee shop in the middle of the forest for coffee and cookies. Amazing.
The Old Smugglers Route ended up being pretty challenging given the time of year (September). As an experienced rider, I was always at the front of the pack, but never felt bored. In fact, one of the guides took me on some side trips along singletrack and then we’d meet up again with the group.
There were several things that set this apart from a normal bike trip:
1) Of course, just being in a completely new country with new surroundings was awesome
2) It was great bonding with people from all over the world, even when languages didn’t always line up
3) The guides took care of everything, loading and unloading, telling us where to go, etc.
4) Along the way, we also stopped to take in picturesque views of the countryside
5) Lastly, the trip ended at a lake, where we relaxed in a hut along the water. As we watched the rain come down and people fishing, the guides cooked us a delicious authentic Thai meal. Such a great ending to a cool day.
5. Speed boat tour of the Islands
Just like the photos you saw in the brochure
We saw Hong Island as part of a 4 island speed boat tour and it didn’t disappoint. We were picked up at our hotel and loaded onto a boat with other tourists from around the world. The cost was about 1400 baht ($46 US) although friends of ours paid a bit less.
It was great seeing multiple islands, and the tour included a little of everything … swimming, a Thai lunch cooked for you, postcard perfect sandy beaches, towering limestone cliffs, the crew coming around with a platter of freshly sliced fruit for you while laying out on the beach, with the highlight being snorkeling and getting to see hundreds of “Finding Nemo” style fish.
The one downside was that on the return trip one of the two engines on the boat had issues, so it took twice as long to get back to shore and the entire time there were alarms going off, the crew trying to fix it, and a little more rolling waves than needed.
Still, it couldn’t make me feel less enthused about the day. My photos don’t do it justice. Note that there are definitely several other beaches and islands in the area to see, and there are tours for most all of them. This just happened to be the best option for us at the time. Explore!