I have a big, scroll map hanging next to my door, where I see it every day. For the longest time, whenever my eyes would scan that map, they’d go straight toward Asia. I was there 10 years ago. When I came back, I promised myself I’d return soon. But, the years flew by, work became a priority and the idea of Asia was moved to the back burner.
Late last year, I decided it was time to put everything on that back burner – all of the dreams and bucket-list items – out on the forefront. And, almost on a whim, I booked a trip to Thailand. Because I was going solo, I booked with Contiki, a travel company for travelers between the ages of 18-35. Contiki came highly recommended by a client and some other friends, and truly, it was the best travel decision for me. For roughly $900, Contiki took care of all accommodations during my 8-day stay, 8 meals, all transportation between cities and, best of all, they put really amazing activities on the itinerary. We visited a different city a day, and I loved feeling that we were covering as much ground and packing in as many moments as possible, all with a bunch of strangers I became so fond of. Contiki also provided us with a truly knowledgable and fun leader who guided us through our whole experience. And nope, they’re not paying me to write any of that. (But hey, Contiki, if anyone there is reading this, I welcome any and all travel opportunities. Hashtag winky face. Hashtag thumbs up.)
Carrying on, here’s a map and list of the stops I made in Thailand and my eight must-do activities:
Elephant Nature Park
This is first on my list because, well, elephants. The elephant is the official national animal of Thailand, and also, they’re fucking adorable with their little (big) fuzzy foreheads and floppy ears. I mean, who doesn’t wanna cuddle an elephant, right?
The thing is, while elephants are historically an important part of Thai culture, they’ve also been severely mistreated. For centuries, elephants were captured and trained to carry and transport logs through the forests. They’ve been hunted for their ivory tusks, sold to the exploiting animal entertainment industry, and used as tourist attractions to beg for money, paint pictures or carry people on their backs. And while the latter (elephant rides) doesn’t sound too awful, keep in mind that elephants are, obviously, animals, and in order to be tame enough to give you a piggyback ride for a few minutes, they need to be severely broken and trained for months. So, please, never ever get an elephant ride. Promise? K, I’m holding you to that.
Instead, you can experience these beautiful creatures by visiting a sanctuary where they are rehabilitated and cared-for. Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is the sanctuary we went to, and it was the top highlight of my trip. The guides at the park will educate you on elephants (like, really, I know a bunch of random but pretty cool elephant facts now), and then, once you know how to interact with the gentle giants, they’ll allow you to feed them, bathe them and, um, hug them while staring lovingly into their eyes. (See the big photo above.) There are also rescued dogs, water buffalos and cats at the sanctuary, so it’s an animal lovers heaven.
If you can’t make it to the park, go “like” them on Facebook and Instagram because, as I mentioned, fuzzy foreheads and floppy ears.
1. Cooking lessons
What kind of monster doesn’t want to enjoy Thai cuisine on the regular? That’s my reasoning as to why you should absolutely, definitely, positively take a Thai cooking lesson while in this beautiful country.
In Chiang Mai, Thai cooking classes are easy to find, but you can stop at The Best Thai Cookery School, which was one of the first (if not THE first) in the area to offer up its culinary expertise. The school’s owner (I wish I knew how to spell his name) is the jolliest man you’ll probably meet in all of Thailand. He starts by taking you to a local market to tell you all about the local produce and what tastes they add to Thailand’s traditional dishes. There, he will laugh at his own jokes and set the mood for a really fun, unique experience. When he takes you back to his gorgeous open-air kitchen that overlooks a rice farm, you’ll get the inside scoop on how easy it is to cook Thai food. The best part – you get to eat the 3-4 dishes you’ll prepare. Be warned – do NOT eat the chilis.
2. Floating raft hotel
Here’s what originally sold me on this unique hotel, or, floatel, if you will: you get to jump off your balcony into a river. Sounds awesome, right? Well, it’s even awesome-r in person. The River Kwai jungle Rafts, where you are absolutely forced to disconnect because there’s no service out there, was the most peaceful and gorgeous accommodation from the trip. During the day, your options are to float down the lazy river, read a book on one of the hammocks on the balconies, get a Thai massage on one of the decks, eat the delicious Thai food served there, or go hiking in the jungle to explore the adjacent village. At night, look up. With no light pollution anywhere near, you get an amazing star show from Mother Nature. They also have dance shows and a bar that’s open till 10 p.m. The most fun thing for me was running to one end of the floatel, jumping into the river, letting it take me to the end and doing it all over again… about twenty more times. It was a real-life lazy river, and seeing all of us join in on the fun felt so wholesome and free-ing. Oh. AND. There’s an elephant. Her name is Wendy, and she comes by the hotel in the morning to eat fruits and leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. She’s the town elephant, and I’m honestly not entirely positive what her living conditions are, but she’s available for snuggling, so why not. Lastly, if I ever get married, this is a high contender for a honeymoon stay.
3. Buddhism & Buddhist temples
With about 94 percent of the population in Thailand being Buddhist, it’s impossible to get to know this culture without learning a bit about Buddhism and its traditions. I think my no.2 regret of the trip was not learning more about the religion while there and not having a more spiritual experience. (Note: Buddhism doesn’t fit neatly into the category of “religion,” but for the sake of keeping things simple, I’ll call it that.) (Another note: My no. 1 regret was not staying in Asia longer while I was there.)
Anyway, learn from my mistakes and get to know Buddhism better while at “The Land of Buddhism.” Don’t just visit sacred Buddhist temples, ask questions about them, learn their history and really experience them by immersing yourself into Buddhism.
Also, remember to be respectful and follow etiquette. Dress modestly and neatly, act like you should at a sacred place, and learn some of these rules.
4. Eat all of the food
Listen, you’re not in Thailand to lose weight, right? I sure hope not. You’re there to experience the culture, and part of the culture is Thai food. So do it. Get all of the Thai food in your belly. Try new things, and have Pad Thai for breakfast. (Yeah, they serve Pad Thai for breakfast there!) Be warned, your tolerance for spicy food will be forced to go up, but you’ll be ok. And also, know that Thai food outside of Thailand doesn’t taste exactly like Thai food in Thailand.
That’s all I have to say about that.
5. Thai massage
Thai massages are pretty much the bee’s knees. You’ll be twisted into a pretzel, and pulled and stretched more than you ever thought possible. But it feels. so. good. Actually, so good, I got four of them while there. One time, I’m pretty sure the lady cracked every joint in my body. I felt like a new person walking out of there! And the best part? Thai massages are about $6 USD (20 baht). That’s about $60 USD less than what an Asian massage will cost in the U.S. Winnnnning.
For all the smells and colors and sounds and culture in one package, go to one of the many markets you’ll find, well, pretty much everywhere we went in Thailand.
The best markets, in my opinion, were the night markets in Chiang Mai and Pai, where you could take one step and buy a nicknack or clothes, take another step and find some really delicious street food, and take one more step and find someone karaoke-ing the night away. Granted, the markets are inevitably filled with lots of tourists and backpackers, but I didn’t mind it too much. It was part of the experience, and hey, maybe you’ll find some other travelers to hang out with.
Pai’s market, in particular, was great because of the down-to-earth, hippy vibes of this town that makes it feel more like it’s by the beach rather than in the mountains. Chiang Mai’s market seemed bigger and busier, but what made it memorable was seeing a ladyboy cabaret show there. If you’re ever in Chiang Man, this show is a MUST. The women are so gorgeous, it’s hard to believe they haven’t been women their whole lives.
Experience the people
Here are three small-but-meaningful moments with people I’ll never forget from my Thailand trip:
1. I was exploring Chiang Mai by myself, shopping and eating and talking to strangers, and I needed to cross a busy two-way street.
In Thailand, street lanes are more of a suggestion to drivers. Use them if you wish, and really, no one wishes to use them. It’s crazy driving.
From the side of the road, I kept looking both ways, stepping up as if ready to cross, and then backing out because, shit, I’m not trying to get run over on my way to a damn Thai massage.
Then, out of nowhere, a Thai woman stepped up to me and reached out her hand. She said nothing. I reached out back to her, grabbed her hand, and she pulled me in, giving me a look that said, “Ready?” We crossed the road together, running across to the other side. “If you no cross, they no stop,” she told me. I bowed my head to her and thanked her profusely, and with a smile she disappeared.
2. During my cab ride to the airport, I asked my driver what his name was. He pointed to a sticker on his dashboard. “Kris,” he said. “You?” I told him my name is Zai. He started laughing. At first I just enjoyed his laughter for a second and then I asked, “What’s so funny?” He looked in his rear-view mirror at me and said, “My name American, your name Thai.” (Apparently, my name is a common girl’s name there?) The irony made him crack up. Ah, the little things.
3. When I took my seat on my flight from Chiang Mai to Hong Kong, I internally happy danced because again, for the second time this trip, I had a row all to myself. Yasssss, time to spread out, I thought. But moments after we took off, an older man came and sat in my row, totally disrupting my good airplane luck. Maybe 30 minutes into the flight, though, he asked me a question that I can’t remember. From there, we talked the entire flight – three hours, I think. He is 77, a former businessman who worked in the Chrysler building in Manhattan, and he is still on his journey to travel the world. We’ve been to many of the same places, and any time I told him about a mountain or a river or a lake, he scanned his brain and told me how tall that mountain is or how long that river measures or how deep that lake goes. The man has a mental encyclopedia. He’s visited a bunch of the places on my bucket list, and recommended where to visit. His dream is to someday take his wife of more than 50 years to the Met Opera in NYC. He lives in Osaka, Japan now – it’s near his birth town, where he goes on a Buddhist retreat once a year. He also goes to Thailand once a year, but that’s to play golf with longtime buddies.
When I told him I was a photographer, he pulled out his camera and showed me photos of his travels.
And then, before we finished our very long conversation, he took out a pencil and small piece of paper. “Your email?” he asked me. “So you can send me pictures of your travels.”
I’d take this moment over an empty row any day.
So talk to the people you meet on your getaways. Smile at them. Don’t let language barriers or differences in culture keep you from finding your common grounds or simply making a friend.
Oh, and before you go, here are some useful dos and dont’s in Thailand.