Many travellers’ itineraries take in a few days’ trekking in the hills and a stint snorkelling or diving off the beaches of the south. Trekking is concentrated in the north, but there are smaller, less touristy trekking operations in Kanchanaburi, Sangkhlaburi and Umphang. There are also plenty of national parks to explore and opportunities for rock climbing and kayaking.
Diving and snorkelling
Clear, warm waters (averaging 28°C), prolific marine life and affordable prices make Thailand a very rewarding place for diving and snorkelling. Most islands and beach resorts have at least one dive centre that organizes trips to outlying islands, teaches novice divers and rents out equipment, and in the bigger resorts there are dozens to choose from.
Thailand’s three coasts are subject to different monsoon seasons, so you can dive all year round; the seasons run from November to April along the Andaman coast (though there is sometimes good diving here up until late Aug), and all year round on the Gulf and east coasts. Though every diver has their favourite reef, Thailand’s premier diving destinations are generally considered to be Ko Similan, Ko Surin, Richelieu Rock and Hin Muang and Hin Daeng – all of them off the Andaman coast. As an accessible base for diving, Ko Tao off the Gulf coast is hard to beat, with deep, clear inshore water and a wide variety of dive sites in very close proximity.
Whether you’re snorkelling or diving, try to minimize your impact on the fragile reef structures by not touching the reefs and by asking your boatman not to anchor in the middle of one; don’t buy coral souvenirs, as tourist demand only encourages local entrepreneurs to dynamite reefs.
Should you scrape your skin on coral, wash the wound thoroughly with boiled water, apply antiseptic and keep protected until healed. Wearing a T-shirt is a good idea when snorkelling to stop your back from getting sunburnt.
It’s usually worth having a look at several dive centres before committing yourself to a trip or a course. Always verify the dive instructors’ PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) or equivalent accreditation and check to see if the dive shop is a member of PADI’s International Resorts and Retailers Association (IRRA) as this guarantees a certain level of professionalism. You can view a list of IRRAs in Thailand at wpadi.com.
We’ve highlighted IRRA dive shops that are accredited Five-Star centres, as these are considered by Padi to offer very high standards, but you should always consult other divers first if possible. Some dive operators do fake their PADI credentials. Avoid booking ahead over the internet without knowing anything else about the dive centre, and be wary of any operation offering extremely cheap courses: maintaining diving equipment is an expensive business in Thailand so any place offering unusually good rates will probably be cutting corners and compromising your safety. Ask to meet your instructor or dive leader, find out how many people there’ll be in your group, check out the kind of instruction given (some courses are over-reliant on videos) and look over the equipment, checking the quality of the air in the tanks yourself and also ensuring there’s an oxygen cylinder on board. Most divers prefer to travel to the dive site in a decent-sized boat equipped with a radio and emergency medical equipment rather than in a longtail. If this concerns you, ask the dive company about their boat before you sign up; firms that use longtails generally charge less.
Insurance should be included in the price of courses and introductory dives; for qualified divers, you’re better off checking that your general travel insurance covers diving, though some diving shops can organize cover for you. There are recompression chambers in Pattaya, on Ko Samui and on Phuket and it’s a good idea to check whether your dive centre is a member of one of these outfits, as recompression services are extremely expensive for anyone who’s not.
There are a number of useful books available on diving in Thailand (see Natural history and ecology).
Trips and courses
All dive centres run programmes of one-day dive trips (featuring two dives) and night dives for B1500–4500 (with reductions if you bring your own gear), and many of the Andaman-coast dive centres also do three- to seven-day live-aboards to the exceptional reefs off the remote Similan and Surin islands (from B11,900). Most dive centres can rent underwater cameras for about B1500 per day.
All dive centres offer a range of courses from beginner to advanced level, with equipment rental usually included in the cost; Ko Tao is now the largest, and most competitive, dive-training centre in Southeast Asia, with around fifty dive companies including plenty of PADI Five-Star centres. The most popular courses are the one-day introductory or resort dive (a pep talk and escorted shallow dive, open to anyone aged 10 or over), which costs anything from B2000 for a very local dive to B7000 for an all-inclusive day-trip to the Similan Islands; and the four-day open-water course, which entitles you to dive without an instructor (from B9800 on Ko Tao in high season). Kids’ Bubblemaker courses, for children aged 8–9, cost around B2000.
Boatmen and tour agents on most beaches offer snorkelling trips to nearby reefs and many dive operators welcome snorkellers to tag along for discounts of thirty percent or more; not all diving destinations are rewarding for snorkellers though, so check the relevant account in this book first. As far as snorkelling equipment goes, the most important thing is that you buy or rent a mask that fits. To check the fit, hold the mask against your face, then breathe in and remove your hands – if it falls off, it’ll leak water. If you’re buying equipment, you should be able to kit yourself out with a mask, snorkel and fins for about B1000, available from most dive centres. Few places rent fins, but a mask and snorkel set usually costs about B150 a day to rent, and if you’re going on a snorkelling day-trip they are often included in the price.
National parks and wildlife observation
Thailand’s hundred-plus national parks, which are administered by the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (wdnp.go.th), are generally the best places to observe wildlife. Though you’re highly unlikely to encounter tigers or sun bears, you have a good chance of spotting gibbons, civets, mouse deer and hornbills and may even get to see a wild elephant. A number of wetlands also host a rewarding variety of birdlife. All parks charge an entrance fee, which for foreigners is usually B200 (B100 for children), though some charge B100 and a few charge B400.
Waymarked hiking trails in most parks are generally limited and rarely very challenging and decent park maps are hard to come by, so for serious national-park treks you’ll need to hire a guide and venture beyond the public routes. Nearly all parks provide accommodation and/or campsites (see Tourist hotels). Some national parks close for several weeks or months every year for conservation, safety or environmental reasons; dates are listed on the National Parks’ website.
A detailed guide to Thailand’s wildlife and their habitats, a look at the environmental issues, and a list of Thai wildlife charities and volunteer projects are provided in “Contexts”.
The limestone karsts that pepper southern Thailand’s Andaman coast make ideal playgrounds for rock-climbers, and the sport has really taken off here in the past fifteen years. Most climbing is centred round East Railay and Ton Sai beaches on Laem Phra Nang in Krabi province, where there are dozens of routes within easy walking distance of tourist bungalows, restaurants and beaches. Offshore Deep Water Soloing – climbing a rock face out at sea, with no ropes, partner or bolts and just the water to break your fall – is also huge round here. Several climbing schools at East Railay and Ton Sai provide instruction (from B1000 per half-day), as well as guides and equipment rental (about B1300 per day for two people). Ko Phi Phi also offers a few routes and a couple of climbing schools, as does the quieter and potentially more interesting Ko Yao Noi and Ko Lao Liang. Climbing is also popular near Chiang Mai, and there are less developed climbing areas on Ko Tao and in Lopburi province. For an introduction to climbing on Railay and elsewhere in south Thailand, see wrailay.com, while Rock Climbing in Thailand and King Climbers: Thailand Route Guide Book are regularly updated guidebooks that concentrate on Railay, Ton Sai and the islands.
Sea kayaking and whitewater rafting
Sea kayaking is also centred around Thailand’s Andaman coast, where the limestone outcrops, sea caves, hongs (hidden lagoons), mangrove swamps and picturesque shorelines of Ao Phang Nga in particular make for rewarding paddling. Kayaking day-trips around Ao Phang Nga can be arranged from any resort in Phuket, at Khao Lak, at all Krabi beaches and islands, and on Ko Yao Noi; multi-day kayaking expeditions are also possible. Over on Ko Samui, Blue Stars organize kayaking trips around the picturesque islands of the Ang Thong National Marine Park, while Kayak Chang offers half- to seven-day trips around Ko Chang. Many bungalows at other beach resorts have free kayaks or rent them out (from B100/hr) for casual, independent coastal exploration.
You can go river kayaking and whitewater rafting on several rivers in north, west and south Thailand. Some stretches of these rivers can run quite fast, particularly during the rainy season from July to November, but there are plenty of options for novices too. The best time is from October through February; during the hot season (March–June), many rivers run too low. The most popular whitewater-rafting rivers include the Umphang and Mae Khlong rivers near Umphang and the Pai River near Pai. Gentler rafting excursions take place as part of organized treks in the north, as well as on the River Kwai and its tributaries near Kanchanaburi, on the Kok River from Tha Ton, and at Mae Hong Son and Pai. Southwest of Chiang Mai, rafts can be rented from the adjacent national park headquarters for trips in Ob Luang Gorge.
Trekking in the mountains of north Thailand differs from trekking in most other parts of the world in that the emphasis is not primarily on the scenery but on the region’s inhabitants. Northern Thailand’s hill tribes, now numbering over 800,000 people living in around 3500 villages, have preserved their subsistence-oriented way of life with comparatively little change over thousands of years (see The hill tribes). In recent years, the term mountain people (a translation of the Thai chao khao) is increasingly used as a less condescending way to describe them; since these groups have no chief, they are technically not tribes. While some of the villages are near enough to a main road to be reached on a day-trip from a major town, to get to the other, more traditional villages usually entails joining a guided party for a few days, roughing it in a different place each night. For most visitors, however, these hardships are far outweighed by the experience of encountering peoples of so different a culture, travelling through beautiful tropical countryside and tasting the excitement of elephant riding and river rafting.
On any trek you are necessarily confronted by the ethics of your role. About a hundred thousand travellers now go trekking in Thailand each year, the majority heading to certain well-trodden areas such as the Mae Taeng valley, 40km northwest of Chiang Mai, and the hills around the Kok River west of Chiang Rai. Beyond the basic level of disturbance caused by any tourism, this steady flow of trekkers creates pressures for the traditionally insular hill tribes. Foreigners unfamiliar with hill-tribe customs can easily cause grave offence, especially those who go looking for drugs. Though tourism acts as a distraction from their traditional way of life, most tribespeople are genuinely welcoming and hospitable to foreigners, appreciating the contact with Westerners and the minimal material benefits which trekking brings them. Nonetheless, to minimize disruption, it’s important to take a responsible attitude when trekking. While it’s possible to trek independently from one or two spots such as Cave Lodge near Soppong, the lone trekker will learn very little without a guide as intermediary, and is far more likely to commit an unwitting offence against the local customs; it’s best to go with a sensitive and knowledgeable guide who has the welfare of the local people in mind, and follow the basic guidelines on etiquette outlined below. If you don’t fancy an organized trek in a group, it’s possible to hire a personal guide from an agent, at a cost of about B1000–1500 per day.
The hill tribes are big business in northern Thailand: in Chiang Mai there are hundreds of agencies, which between them cover just about all the trekkable areas in the north. Chiang Rai is the second-biggest trekking centre, and agencies can also be found in Nan, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Chiang Dao, Tha Ton and Mae Salong, which usually arrange treks only to the villages in their immediate area. Guided trekking on a smaller scale than in the north is available in Umphang, Kanchanaburi and Sangkhlaburi.
The cool, dry season from November to February is the best time for treks, which can be as short as two days or as long as ten, but are typically of three or four days’ duration. The standard size of a group is between five and twelve people; being part of a small group is preferable, enabling you to strike a more informative relationship with your guides and with the villagers. Everybody in the group usually sleeps on a mattress in the village’s guest hut, with a guide cooking communal meals, for which some ingredients are brought from outside and others are found locally.
Each trek usually follows a regular itinerary established by the agency, although they can sometimes be customized, especially for smaller groups and with agencies in the smaller towns. Some itineraries are geared towards serious hikers while others go at a much gentler pace, but on all treks much of the walking will be up and down steep forested hills, often under a burning sun, so a reasonable level of fitness is required. Many treks now include a ride on an elephant and a trip on a bamboo raft – exciting to the point of being dangerous if the river is running fast. The typical three-day, two-night trek costs about B1600–3000 in Chiang Mai (including transport, accommodation, food and guide), sometimes less in other towns, much less without rafting and elephant-riding.
Choosing a trek
There are several features to look out for when choosing a trek. If you want to trek with a small group, get an assurance from your agency that you won’t be tagged onto a larger group. Make sure the trek has at least two guides – a leader and a back-marker; some trekkers have been known to get lost for days after becoming separated from the rest of the group. Check exactly when the trek starts and ends and ask about transport to and from base; most treks begin with a pick-up ride out of town, but on rare occasions the trip can entail a long public bus ride. If at all possible, meet and chat with the other trekkers in advance, as well as the guides, who should speak reasonable English and know about hill-tribe culture, especially the details of etiquette in each village. Finally, ask what meals will be included, check how much walking is involved per day and get a copy of the route map to gauge the terrain.
While everybody and their grandmother act as agents, only a few know their guides personally, so choose a reputable agent or guesthouse. When picking an agent, you should check whether they and their guides have licences and certificates from the Tourist Authority of Thailand, which they should be able to show you: this ensures at least a minimum level of training, and provides some comeback in case of problems. Word of mouth is often the best recommendation, so if you hear of a good outfit, try it. Each trek should be registered with the tourist police, stating the itinerary, the duration and the participants, in case the party encounters any trouble – it’s worth checking with the agency that the trek has been registered with the tourist police before departure.
What to take
The right clothing is the first essential on any trek. Strong boots with ankle protection are the best footwear, although in the dry season training shoes are adequate. Wear thin, loose clothes – long trousers should be worn to protect against thorns and, in the wet season, leeches – and a hat, and cover your arms if you’re prone to sunburn. Antiseptic, antihistamine cream, anti-diarrhoea medicine and insect repellent are essential, as is a mosquito net – check if one will be provided where you’re staying. At least two changes of clothing are needed, plus a sarong or towel (women in particular should bring a sarong to wash or change underneath).
If you’re going on an organized trek, water is usually provided by the guide, as well as a small backpack. Blankets or, preferably, a sleeping bag are also supplied, but might not be warm enough in the cool season, when night-time temperatures can dip to freezing; you should bring at least a sweater, and perhaps buy a cheap, locally made balaclava to be sure of keeping the chill off.
It’s wise not to take anything valuable with you; most guesthouses in trekking-oriented places like Chiang Mai have safes and left-luggage rooms.