Thailand offers endless delights, from exploring Khmer ruins to snorkelling crystal blue waters or breathing in the fresh mountain air. I could list hundreds of sights. Where ever you go, there is so much to see, do, taste, hear, smell and savour. A benefit of retiring in Thailand means time to explore this diverse country and experience the famous and less visited spots. Here are my top 10 things to experience during your time in Thailand.
1. Experience Thai Massage
One of Thailand’s national treasures is cherished not only by the millions of visitors who come to Thailand each year but also by the Thai people who use it as preventative medicine as well as to remedy aches, pains and ailments. Many expats espouse the health benefits of a weekly massage to keep the body aligned, supple and the mind relaxed. And you don’t have to spend a lot.
Picture this, a one-hour foot and leg massage under the stars with a gentle sea breeze for just $6—the bustle of a night market happening behind you. Or pop into a massage salon for a more extensive menu of treatments. My personal favourite is the traditional Thai massage where they apply pressure to specific points along the body’s meridian lines to release muscle tension, improve joint flexibility and clear energy blockages. Want something a little more upmarket? The luxury resorts and spas can tailor a two-hour (or more) package to your needs from about $160.
2. Taste ‘New Latitude’ Wines
For hundreds of years, wine production has been mainly in regions between 30° and 50° latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres. In the last decade or two research and technological and viticultural advances has resulted in it successful growing of grapes for wine production in other places like Denmark, Indonesia, Brazil and Thailand.
Several vineyards are making a name for themselves like Monsoon Valley Vineyard (above), GranMonte Estate, PB Valley Winery at Khao Yai , Village Farm and Winery at Wang Nam Khiao and Silverlake at Pattaya. And many wines have been rewarded at international competitions! Each of these wineries offers tastings and tours and have great dining options so plan to spend some time and sample the wines.
3. Get Off The Beaten Track
Search the internet for attractions and activities and you may be overwhelmed with the choice. Sometimes though, it’s lesser known or less visited places or situations that bring a smile. Travelling the khlongs (canals) in Bangkok is fun and insightful as you see how people live in this city that was once called ‘Venice of the East’.
Walk the back streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown to see Joss Papers being meticulously folded in preparations for some festival, sample Teas from around Asia or feast of delicious street food.
Trekking and staying with hill tribes of the far north to experience life at a different pace and time could be an option. Or just taking in the quintessentially Thai countryside—be it lime green rice paddies, pineapple fields as far as the eye can see or coconut plantations often with magnificent limestone mountain backdrops. There are so many opportunities.
4. Explore the ANZAC History in Kanchanaburi
The Thai-Burma Railway was constructed during the Imperial Japanese Army occupation of Thailand in World War II. Several attractions including Hellfire Pass, the Thailand Burma Railway Centre and the War Cemeteries are all ‘must sees’. Most people take the train journey over the famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ and up to ‘Death Railway’ or beyond. Aside from the WWII history, you can stay on raft hotels on the river, take in 13th century archaeological ruins or visit national parks. A favourite for me is the Mae Khamin Waterfall in Sri Nakarin National Park (below).
5. Travel by Tuk-Tuk
The iconic three-wheeled motor rickshaw can be seen plying streets throughout Thailand. They first appeared in Thailand around 1960 and have morphed into different styles. I particularly like the Isaan model with a full sized motorcycle pulling a brightly coloured capsule dubbed Skylab after the spacecraft of that era. Perhaps not the most practical form of transport, with open sides, low roof and small cabins open to traffic noise, fumes and the occasional downpour. But they are fun!
‘Dtuk-dtuk’ in Thai means ‘cheap-cheap’, though that doesn’t make them the cheapest form of transport. They are unmetered, so make sure you negotiate a fare upfront.
6. Visit a World Heritage UNESCO Site
Thailand is very proud of the fact that it has never been colonised by a European nation—unlike most of its neighbours. However, Burmese, Laos, the Khmer and Thais did engage in regional wars for many centuries. You can explore this history via the 13 designated and nominated sites with historical, cultural and natural significance.
Be mesmerised at Ayutthaya and Sukhothai (below) the ancient capitals of Siam on Thailand’s Central Plains, or off the beaten track to 11th – 13th century Khmer ruins of Phanom Rung and Muang Tam in the Isaan region.
Chiang Mai makes a list as a UNESCO ‘Creative Cities Network’ and boasts a plethora of cultural sites as well. One UNESCO site listed for its natural significance is Khao Yai National Park. Thailand’s second largest park with lush tropical forest, cascading waterfalls, an abundance of wildlife and fantastic birdwatching. My tip: go during the week and include an overnight stay in a Thai style bungalow right in the middle of the park from $32 a night.
7. Visit an Island
The 3,200 km of coastline is home to hundreds of coastal resorts, but for many, there is a romantic allure of staying on an island. Popular Phuket and Ko Samui (below) offer an extensive range of accommodation, entertainment and plenty to keep you busy.
Or maybe you’re picturing somewhere more secluded… Perhaps laidback Ko Samet off Rayong—just seven kilometres long with 14 attractive beaches—or the lesser known Ko Kut, home to about 2,000 people in the archipelago and boasting stunning beaches and snorkelling or the more remote Similan group of islands off the west coast of Thailand.
8. Find a Festival
Thailand doesn’t just hold festivals, it turns everything into a celebration. Many are steeped in ancient traditions, with modern twists and plenty of sanuk (fun) thrown in. Some may be of national significance—like the picturesque ‘loy krathong’ whereby people gather and float krathongs (banana leaf boats) or release lanterns, to pay respect to the water goddess and to release negative emotions that may have accumulated during the last year.
‘Songkran’ the Thai New Year in April, involves sprinkling Buddha images and elders’ hands with water to wash away the past ready for the new year and all its blessings. It has morphed into a full blown national water fight, lasting up to five days in some regions. And there are plenty of regional festivals too, like Chonburi’s Buffalo Races, Rocket Festivals in Isaan, Chiang Mai’s Flower and Umbrella festivals or Phuket Vegetarian Festival (also known as the Nine Emperor Gods festival) which is famous for its extreme celebrations.
9. Eat Like a Local
Thai food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world. Regional specialties, with local produce, are featured where ever you travel.
My favourites include khao soi (above), a rich and spicy coconut milk based curry served with chicken and two types of noodles. I was won over by Phat mi Khorat, a pad Thai style dish of rice noodles with a delicious spicy sauce and unique to Khorat. The Isaan kai yang grilled chicken with som tam, a spicy green papaya salad is hard to pass by, as are delicious seafood dishes on offer in restaurants and markets along the coastal areas on the Gulf of Thailand. Make sure you take the time to fully explore Thai cuisine.
10. Shop ‘Til You Drop
From mega-shopping centres or the famous Jim Thompson Silk fabrics, to speciality handcraft outlets, regional pottery villages or beautiful teak furniture; shopping in Thailand is colourful, diverse and exciting.
Check out Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market with over 15,000 stalls or Amphawa Floating Market (below) or just wander into any of the local markets.
If you want to support local communities, look out for products with the logo OTOP (One Tambon One Product). This stimulus program encouraged each village to select a superior product unique to their area to receive formal branding. OTOP products cover a broad array of local products, including handicrafts, cotton and silk garments, pottery, fashion accessories, household items and foods. They make excellent gifts and treats for family and friends back home.