With sixteen million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand is Asia’s primary travel destination and offers a host of places to visit. Yet despite this vast influx of visitors, Thailand’s cultural integrity remains largely undamaged – a country that adroitly avoided colonization has been able to absorb Western influences while maintaining its own rich heritage. Though the high-rises and neon lights occupy the foreground of the tourist picture, the typical Thai community is still the farming village, and you need not venture far to encounter a more traditional scene of fishing communities, rubber plantations and Buddhist temples. Around forty percent of Thais earn their living from the land, based around the staple rice, which forms the foundation of the country’s unique and famously sophisticated cuisine.
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Tourism has been just one factor in the country’s development which, since the deep-seated uncertainties surrounding the Vietnam War faded, has been free, for the most part, to proceed at death-defying pace – for a time in the 1980s and early 1990s, Thailand boasted the fastest-expanding economy in the world. Politics in Thailand, however, has not been able to keep pace. Since World War II, coups d’état have been as common a method of changing government as general elections; the malnourished democratic system – when the armed forces allow it to operate – is characterized by corruption and cronyism.
Through all the changes of the last sixty years, the much-revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol, who sits at the pinnacle of an elaborate hierarchical system of deference covering the whole of Thai society, has lent a measure of stability. Furthermore, some 85 percent of the population are still practising Theravada Buddhists, a unifying faith that colours all aspects of daily life – from the tiered temple rooftops that dominate every skyline, to the omnipresent saffron-robed monks and the packed calendar of festivals.
Facts about Thailand
- Divided into 77 provinces or changwat, Thailand was known as Siam until 1939 (and again from 1945 to 1949); some academics suggest changing the name back again, to better reflect the country’s Thai and non-Thai diversity.
- The population of 63 million is made up of ethnic Thais (75 percent) and Chinese (14 percent), with the rest comprising mainly immigrants from neighbouring countries as well as hill-tribespeople.
- Buddhism is the national religion, Islam the largest minority religion, but nearly all Thais also practise some form of animism (spirit worship).
- Since 1932 the country has been a constitutional monarchy. King Bhumibol, also known as Rama IX (being the ninth ruler of the Chakri dynasty), is the world’s longest-ruling head of state, having been on the throne since 1946; the current prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, entered politics only six weeks before winning the general election in 2011 with an absolute majority.
- Thailand fell to 153rd out of 178 countries on Reporters without Borders’ index on press freedom in 2010, because of a surge in the use of the lese-majesty laws.
- The world record for nonstop kissing was set by two Thai men in Pattaya on Valentine’s Day, 2012, at a gobsmacking 50 hours, 25 minutes and 1 second.
Festivals in Thailand
Nearly all Thai festivals have a religious aspect. The most theatrical are generally Brahmin (Hindu) in origin, honouring elemental spirits and deities with ancient rites and ceremonial costumed parades. Buddhist celebrations usually revolve round the local temple, and while merit-making is a significant feature, a light-hearted atmosphere prevails, as the wat grounds are swamped with food and trinket vendors and makeshift stages are set up to show likay folk theatre, singing stars and beauty contests.
Many of the secular festivals (like the elephant roundups and the Bridge over the River Kwai spectacle) are outdoor local culture shows, geared specifically towards Thai and farang tourists. Others are thinly veiled but lively trade fairs held in provincial capitals to show off the local speciality, be it exquisite silk weaving or especially tasty rambutans.
Few of the dates for religious festivals are fixed, so check with TAT for specifics (wtourismthailand.org). The names of the most touristy celebrations are given here in English; the more low-key festivals are more usually known by their Thai name (ngan means “festival”). Some of the festivals below are designated as national holidays.
A festival calendar
Chinese New Year Nakhon Sawan (three days between mid-Jan and late Feb). In Nakhon Sawan, the new Chinese year is welcomed in with particularly exuberant parades of dragons and lion dancers, Chinese opera performances, an international lion-dance competition and a fireworks display. Also celebrated in Chinatowns across the country, especially in Bangkok and Phuket.
Flower Festival Chiang Mai (usually first weekend in Feb). Enormous floral sculptures are paraded through the streets.
Makha Puja Nationwide (particularly Wat Benjamabophit in Bangkok, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai and Wat Mahathat in Nakhon Si Thammarat; Feb full-moon day). A day of merit-making marks the occasion when 1250 disciples gathered spontaneously to hear the Buddha preach, and culminates with a candlelit procession round the local temple’s bot.
Ngan Phrabat Phra Phutthabat, near Lopburi (early Feb and early March). Pilgrimages to the Holy Footprint attract food and handicraft vendors and travelling players. For more information, see Ban Vichayen.
King Narai Reign Fair Lopburi (Feb). Costumed processions and a son et lumière show at Narai’s palace.
Ngan Phra That Phanom That Phanom (Feb). Thousands come to pay homage at the holiest shrine in Isaan, which houses relics of the Buddha.
Kite fights and flying contests Nationwide (particularly Sanam Luang, Bangkok; late Feb to mid-April).
April and May
Poy Sang Long Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai (early April). Young Thai Yai boys precede their ordination into monkhood by parading the streets in floral headdresses and festive garb.
Songkhran Nationwide (particularly Chiang Mai, and Bangkok’s Thanon Khao San; usually April 13–15). The most exuberant of the national festivals welcomes the Thai New Year with massive waterfights, sandcastle building in temple compounds and the inevitable parades and “Miss Songkhran” beauty contests. For more information, see Chiang Mai festivals.
Ngan Phanom Rung Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung (usually April). The three-day period when the sunrise is perfectly aligned through fifteen doorways at these magnificent eleventh-century Khmer ruins is celebrated with daytime processions and nightly son et lumière.
Visakha Puja Nationwide (particularly Bangkok’s Wat Benjamabophit, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai and Nakhon Si Thammarat’s Wat Mahathat; May full-moon day). The holiest day of the Buddhist year, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha all in one go; the most public and photogenic part is the candlelit evening procession around the wat.
Raek Na Sanam Luang, Bangkok (early May). The royal ploughing ceremony to mark the beginning of the rice-planting season; ceremonially clad Brahmin leaders parade sacred oxen and the royal plough, and interpret omens to forecast the year’s rice yield.
Rocket Festival Yasothon (Bun Bang Fai; weekend in mid-May). Beautifully crafted, painted wooden rockets are paraded and fired to ensure plentiful rains; celebrated all over Isaan, but especially lively in Yasothon.
Phi Ta Khon Dan Sai, near Loei (end June or beginning July). Masked re-enactment of the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation.
Candle Festival Ubon Ratchathani (Asanha Puja; July, three days around the full moon). This nationwide festival marking the Buddha’s first sermon and the subsequent beginning of the annual Buddhist retreat period (Khao Pansa) is celebrated across the northeast with parades of enormous wax sculptures, most spectacularly in Ubon Ratchathani.
Tamboon Deuan Sip Nakhon Si Thammarat (Sept or Oct). Merit-making ceremonies to honour dead relatives accompanied by a ten-day fair.
Vegetarian Festival Phuket and Trang (Ngan Kin Jeh; Oct or Nov). Chinese devotees become vegetarian for a nine-day period and then parade through town performing acts of self-mortification such as pushing skewers through their cheeks. Celebrated in Bangkok’s Chinatown by most food vendors and restaurants turning vegetarian for about a fortnight.
Bang Fai Phaya Nak Nong Khai and around (usually Oct). The strange appearance of pink balls of fire above the Mekong River draws sightseers from all over Thailand.
Tak Bat Devo and Awk Pansa Nationwide (especially Ubon Ratchathani and Nakhon Phanom; Oct full-moon day). Offerings to monks and general merrymaking to celebrate the Buddha’s descent to earth from Tavatimsa heaven and the end of the Khao Pansa retreat. Celebrated in Ubon with a procession of illuminated boats along the rivers, and in Nakhon Phanom with another illuminated boat procession and Thailand–Laos dragon-boat races along the Mekong.
Chak Phra Surat Thani (mid-Oct). The town’s chief Buddha images are paraded on floats down the streets and on barges along the river.
Boat Races Nan, Nong Khai, Phimai and elsewhere (Oct to mid-Nov). Longboat races and barge parades along town rivers.
Thawt Kathin Nationwide (the month between Awk Pansa and Loy Krathong, generally Oct–Nov). During the month following the end of the monks’ rainy-season retreat, it’s traditional for the laity to donate new robes to the monkhood and this is celebrated in most towns with parades and a festival, and occasionally, when it coincides with a kingly anniversary, with a spectacular Royal Barge Procession down the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
Loy Krathong Nationwide (particularly Sukhothai and Chiang Mai; full moon in Nov). Baskets (krathong) of flowers and lighted candles are floated on any available body of water (such as ponds, rivers, lakes, canals and seashores) to honour water spirits and celebrate the end of the rainy season. Nearly every town puts on a big show, with bazaars, public entertainments, fireworks, and in Chiang Mai, the release of paper hot-air balloons; in Sukhothai it is the climax of a son et lumière festival that’s held over several nights.
Ngan Wat Saket Wat Saket, Bangkok (first week of Nov). Probably Thailand’s biggest temple fair, held around the Golden Mount, with all the usual festival trappings.
Elephant Roundup Surin (third weekend of Nov). Two hundred elephants play team games, perform complex tasks and parade in battle dress.
River Kwai Bridge Festival Kanchanaburi (ten nights from the last week of Nov into the first week of Dec). Spectacular son et lumière at the infamous bridge.
Silk and Phuk Siao Festival Khon Kaen (Nov 29–Dec 10). Weavers from around the province come to town to sell their lengths of silk.
World Heritage Site Festival Ayutthaya (mid-Dec). Week-long celebration, including a nightly historical son et lumière romp, to commemorate the town’s UNESCO designation.
New Year’s Eve Countdown Nationwide (Dec 31). Most cities and tourist destinations welcome in the new year with fireworks, often backed up by food festivals, beauty contests and outdoor performances.
Entertainment and sport in Thailand
Bangkok is the best place to catch authentic performances of classical Thai dance, though more easily digestible tourist-oriented shows are staged in some of the big tourist centres as well as in Bangkok. The country’s two main Thai boxing stadia are also in the capital, but you’ll come across local matches in the provinces too.
Drama and dance
Drama pretty much equals dance in classical Thai theatre, and many of the traditional dance-dramas are based on the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana, an adventure tale of good versus evil that is taught in all schools. Not understanding the plots can be a major disadvantage, so try reading an abridged version beforehand (see M.L. Manich Jumsai and The Ramayana/Ramakien) and check out the wonderfully imaginative murals at Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. There are three broad categories of traditional Thai dance-drama – khon, lakhon and likay – described below in descending order of refinement.
The most spectacular form of traditional Thai theatre is khon, a stylized drama performed in masks and elaborate costumes by a troupe of highly trained classical dancers. There’s little room for individual interpretation in these dances, as all the movements follow a strict choreography that’s been passed down through generations: each graceful, angular gesture depicts a precise event, action or emotion which will be familiar to educated khon audiences. The dancers don’t speak, and the story is chanted and sung by a chorus who stand at the side of the stage, accompanied by a classical phipat orchestra.
A typical khon performance features several of the best-known Ramakien episodes, in which the main characters are recognized by their masks, headdresses and heavily brocaded costumes. Gods and humans don’t wear masks, but the hero Rama and heroine Sita always wear tall gilded headdresses and often appear as a trio with Rama’s brother Lakshaman. Monkey masks are wide-mouthed: monkey army chief Hanuman always wears white, and his two right-hand men – Nilanol, the god of fire, and Nilapat, the god of death – wear red and black respectively. In contrast, the demons have grim mouths, clamped shut or snarling; Totsagan, king of the demons, wears a green face in battle and a gold one during peace, but always sports a two-tier headdress carved with two rows of faces.
Khon is performed with English subtitles at Bangkok’s Sala Chalermkrung and is also featured within the various cultural shows staged by tourist restaurants in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya. Even if you don’t see a show, you’re bound to come across finely crafted real and replica khon masks both in museums and in souvenir shops all over the country.
Serious and refined, lakhon is derived from khon but is used to dramatize a greater range of stories, including Buddhist Jataka tales, local folk dramas and of course the Ramakien.
The form you’re most likely to come across is lakhon chatri, which is performed at shrines like Bangkok’s Erawan and at a city’s lak muang as entertainment for the spirits and a token of gratitude from worshippers. Usually female, the lakhon chatri dancers perform as an ensemble, executing sequences that, like khon movements, all have minute and particular symbolism. They also wear ornate costumes, but no masks, and dance to the music of a phipat orchestra. Unfortunately, as resident shrine troupes tend to repeat the same dances a dozen times a day, it’s rarely the sublime display it’s cracked up to be. Bangkok’s National Theatre stages the more elegantly executed lakhon nai, a dance form that used to be performed at the Thai court and often re-tells the Ramakien.
Likay is a much more popular and dynamic derivative of khon – more light-hearted, with lots of comic interludes, bawdy jokes and panto-style over-the-top acting and singing. Some likay troupes perform Ramakien excerpts, but a lot of them adapt pot-boiler romances or write their own and most will ham things up with improvisations and up-to-the-minute topical satire. Costumes might be traditional as in khon and lakhon, modern and Western as in films, or a mixture of both.
Likay troupes travel around the country doing shows on makeshift outdoor stages wherever they think they’ll get an audience, most commonly at temple fairs. Performances are often free and generally last for about five hours, with the audience strolling in and out of the show, cheering and joking with the cast throughout. Televised likay dramas get huge audiences and always follow romantic soap-opera-style plot-lines. Short likay dramas are also a staple of Bangkok’s National Theatre, but for more radical and internationally minded likay, look out for performances by Makhampom (wmakhampom.net), a famous, long-established troupe with bases in Bangkok and Chiang Dao that pushes likay in new directions to promote social causes and involve minority communities.
Nang, or shadow plays, are said to have been the earliest dramas performed in Thailand, but now are rarely seen except in the far south, where the Malaysian influence ensures an appreciative audience for nang thalung. Crafted from buffalo hide, the two-dimensional nang thalung puppets play out scenes from popular dramas against a backlit screen, while the storyline is told through songs, chants and musical interludes. An even rarer nang form is the nang yai, which uses enormous cut-outs of whole scenes rather than just individual characters, so the play becomes something like an animated film.
All sizeable towns have a cinema or two – Bangkok has over fifty – and tickets generally start at around B80. The website wmovieseer.com lists the weekly schedule for many cinemas around the country. In some rural areas, villagers still have to make do with the travelling cinema, or nang klarng plaeng, which sets up a mobile screen in wat compounds or other public spaces, and often entertains the whole village in one sitting. However makeshift the cinema, the king’s anthem is always played before every screening, during which the audience is expected to stand up.Fast-paced Chinese blockbusters have long dominated the programmes at Thai cinemas, serving up a low-grade cocktail of sex, spooks, violence and comedy. Not understanding the dialogue is rarely a drawback, as the storylines tend to be simple and the visuals more entertaining than the words. In the cities, Western films are also popular, and new releases often get subtitled rather than dubbed. They are also quickly available as pirated DVDs sold at street stalls in the main cities and resorts.
In recent years Thailand’s own film industry has been enjoying a boom, and in the larger cities and resorts you may be lucky enough to come across one of the bigger Thai hits showing with English subtitles.
Thai boxing (muay thai) enjoys a following similar to football or baseball in the West: every province has a stadium and whenever the sport is shown on TV you can be sure that large noisy crowds will gather round the sets in streetside restaurants. The best place to see Thai boxing is at one of Bangkok’s two main stadia, which between them hold bouts every night of the week (see Cinemas), but many tourist resorts also stage regular matches.
There’s a strong spiritual and ritualistic dimension to muay thai, adding grace to an otherwise brutal sport. Each boxer enters the ring to the wailing music of a three-piece phipat orchestra, wearing the statutory red or blue shorts and, on his head, a sacred rope headband or mongkhon. Tied around his biceps are phra jiat, pieces of cloth that are often decorated with cabalistic symbols and may contain Buddhist tablets. The fighter then bows, first in the direction of his birthplace and then to the north, south, east and west, honouring both his teachers and the spirit of the ring. Next he performs a slow dance, claiming the audience’s attention and demonstrating his prowess as a performer.
Any part of the body except the head may be used as an offensive weapon in muay thai, and all parts except the groin are fair targets. Kicks to the head are the blows that cause most knockouts. As the action hots up, so the orchestra speeds up its tempo and the betting in the audience becomes more frenetic. It can be a gruesome business, but it was far bloodier before modern boxing gloves were made compulsory in the 1930s, when the Queensbury Rules were adapted for muay – combatants used to wrap their fists with hemp impregnated with a face-lacerating dosage of ground glass.
A number of muay thai gyms and camps offer training courses for foreigners, including several in Bangkok, as well as Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Yao Noi – see the relevant accounts for details.
Whether in Bangkok or upcountry, you’re quite likely to come across some form of takraw game being played in a public park, a school, a wat compound or just in a backstreet alley. Played with a very light rattan ball (or one made of plastic to look like rattan), the basic aim of the game is to keep the ball off the ground. To do this you can use any part of your body except your hands, so a well-played takraw game looks extremely balletic, with players leaping and arching to get a good strike.
There are at least five versions of competitive takraw, based on the same principles. The version featured in the Southeast Asian Games and most frequently in school tournaments is played over a volleyball net and involves two teams of three; the other most popular competitive version has a team ranged round a basketball-type hoop trying to score as many goals as possible within a limited time period before the next team replaces them and tries to outscore them.
Other takraw games introduce more complex rules (like kicking the ball backwards with your heels through a ring made with your arms behind your back) and many assign points according to the skill displayed by individual players rather than per goal or dropped ball.
Spas and traditional massage in Thailand
With their focus on indulgent self-pampering, spas are usually associated with high-spending tourists, but the treatments on offer at Thailand’s five-star hotels are often little different from those used by traditional medical practitioners, who have long held that massage and herbs are the best way to restore physical and mental well-being.
Thai massage (nuad boran) is based on the principle that many physical and emotional problems are caused by the blocking of vital energy channels within the body. The masseur uses his or her feet, heels, knees and elbows, as well as hands, to exert pressure on these channels, supplementing this acupressure-style technique by pulling and pushing the limbs into yogic stretches. This distinguishes Thai massage from most other massage styles, which are more concerned with tissue manipulation. One is supposed to emerge from a Thai massage feeling both relaxed and energized, and it is said that regular massages produce long-term benefits in muscles as well as stimulating the circulation and aiding natural detoxification.
Thais will visit a masseur for many conditions, including fevers, colds and muscle strain, but bodies that are not sick are also considered to benefit from the restorative powers of a massage, and nearly every hotel and guesthouse will be able to put you in touch with a masseur. On the more popular beaches, it can be hard to walk a few hundred metres without being offered a massage – something Thai tourists are just as enthusiastic about as foreigners. Thai masseurs do not traditionally use oils or lotions and the client is treated on a mat or mattress; you’ll often be given a pair of loose-fitting trousers and perhaps a loose top to change into. English-speaking masseurs will often ask if there are any areas of your body that you would like them to concentrate on, or if you have any problem areas that you want them to avoid; if your masseur doesn’t speak English, the simplest way to signal the latter is to point at the offending area while saying mai sabai (“not well”). If you’re in pain during a massage, wincing usually does the trick, perhaps adding jep (“it hurts”); if your masseur is pressing too hard for your liking, say bao bao na khrap/kha (“gently please”).
The best places for a basic massage are usually the government-accredited clinics and hospitals that are found in large towns all over the country. A session should ideally last at least one and a half hours and will cost from around B250. If you’re a bit wary of submitting to the full works, try a foot massage first, which will apply the same techniques of acupressure and stretching to just your feet and lower legs. Most places also offer herbal massages, in which the masseur will knead you with a ball of herbs (phrakop) wrapped in a cloth and steam-heated; they’re said to be particularly good for stiffness of the neck, shoulders and back.
The science behind Thai massage has its roots in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, which classifies each component of the body according to one of the four elements (earth, water, fire and air), and holds that balancing these elements within the body is crucial to good health. Many of the stretches and manipulations fundamental to Thai massage are thought to have derived from yogic practices introduced to Thailand from India by Buddhist missionaries in about the second century BC; Chinese acupuncture and reflexology have also had a strong influence. In the nineteenth century, King Rama III ordered a series of murals illustrating the principles of Thai massage to be painted around the courtyard of Bangkok’s Wat Pho, and they are still in place today, along with statues of ascetics depicted in typical massage poses.
Wat Pho has been the leading school of Thai massage for hundreds of years, and it is possible to take courses there as well as to receive a massage; it also runs a residential massage school and clinic in Nakhon Pathom province (wwatpomassage.com). Masseurs who trained at Wat Pho are considered to be the best in the country and masseurs all across Thailand advertise this as a credential, whether or not it is true. Many Thais consider blind masseurs to be especially sensitive practitioners.
While Wat Pho is the most famous place to take a course in Thai massage, many foreigners interested in learning this ancient science head for Chiang Mai, which offers the biggest concentration of massage schools (including another satellite branch of the Wat Pho school), though you will find others all over Thailand, including in Bangkok and at southern beach resorts.
All spas in Thailand feature traditional Thai massage and herbal therapies in their programmes, but most also offer dozens of other international treatments, including facials, aromatherapy, Swedish massage and various body wraps. Spa centres in upmarket hotels and resorts are usually open to non-guests but generally need to be booked in advance. Day-spas that are not attached to hotels are generally cheaper and are found in some of the bigger cities and resorts – some of these may not require reservations.
Outdoor activities in Thailand
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.
Hill-tribe trekking etiquette
As the guests, it’s up to farangs to adapt to the customs of the hill tribes and not to make a nuisance of themselves. Apart from keeping an open mind and not demanding too much of your hosts, a few simple rules should be observed.
- Dress modestly, in long trousers or skirt (or at least knee-length shorts if you must) and a T-shirt or shirt. Getting dressed or changing your clothes in front of villagers is also offensive.
- Loud voices and boisterous behaviour are out of place. Smiling and nodding establishes good intent. A few hill-tribe phrasebooks and dictionaries are available from local bookshops and you’ll be a big hit if you learn some words of the relevant language.
- If travelling with a loved one, avoid displays of public affection such as kissing, which are extremely distasteful, and disrespectful, to local people.
- Look out for taboo signs (ta-laew), woven bamboo strips, on the ground outside the entrance to a village, on the roof above a house entrance or on a fresh tree branch; these mean a special ceremony is taking place and that you should not enter. Be careful about what you touch; in Akha villages, keep your hands off cult structures like the entrance gates and the giant swing. Ask first before entering a house, and do not step or sit on the doorsill, which is often considered the domain of the house spirits. If the house has a raised floor on stilts, take off your shoes. Most hill-tribe houses contain a religious shrine: do not touch or photograph this shrine, or sit underneath it. If you are permitted to watch a ceremony, this is not an invitation to participate unless asked. Like the villagers themselves, you’ll be expected to pay a fine for any violation of local customs.
- Some villagers like to be photographed, most do not. Point at your camera and nod if you want to take a photograph. Never insist if the answer is an obvious “no”. Be particularly careful with the sick and the old, and with pregnant women and babies – most tribes believe cameras affect the soul of the foetus or newborn.
- Taking gifts can be dubious practice. If you want to take something, writing materials for children and clothing are welcome, as well as sewing tools (like needles) for women – ask your guide to pass any gifts to the village headman for fair distribution. However, money, sweets and cigarettes may encourage begging and create unhealthy tastes.
- Do not ask for opium, as this will offend your hosts.
Thailand’s main dive resorts
The east coast
The Gulf coast
Ko Pha Ngan
The Andaman coast
Ko Phi Phi
The deep south
Top National Parks in Thailand
Spectacular archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, generally visited on a day-trip from Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan.
Waterfalls, hill tribes, orchids, around four hundred bird species and the country’s highest peak.
An exceptionally pretty, seven-tiered waterfall that extends deep into the forest. Hugely popular as a day-trip from Kanchanaburi.
Khao Sam Roi Yot
Coastal flats on the Gulf coast known for their rich birdlife plus an extensive stalactite-filled cave system.
Southern Thailand’s most visited park has rainforest trails and caves plus a flooded river system with eerie outcrops and raft-house accommodation.
Thailand’s most popular national park, three hours from Bangkok, features half a dozen upland trails plus organized treks and night safaris.
Remote group of Andaman Sea islands with famously fabulous reefs and fine above-water scenery. Mostly visited by dive boat but limited national park accommodation is provided.
National marine park archipelago of beautiful coastal waters in the Andaman Sea, though much of its coral became severely bleached in 2010. Good snorkelling and national park campsites.
Beautiful and wildly varied land- and seascapes on the main 26km-long island and fifty other smaller islands on its western side.
Dramatic and strange 1300m-high plateau, probably best avoided at weekends.
Top image: Thai khon dancers © saravutpics/Shutterstock