Thailand is fondly referred to as the land of smiles, and three weeks travelling through its sunlit shores was enough to convince me that the smiles are genuine. Whenever you travel abroad there are always going to be areas set up for tourists, with people pushing to sell you their wares and persuade you that their shop/bar/museum is the best, but in Thailand they tend to take refusals with good grace and smiling faces.
I was a complete newbie to the East and though I arrived armed with a Lonely Planet and heaps of advice from some great sources, till you experience it for yourself, everything else is just words on a piece of paper. Here are my top ten unmissable experiences that I strongly suggest you add to your itinerary.
Co Van Kessel Cycling Tour in Bangkok
Chinatown is a weird winding mess of crazy side streets, narrow alleys and men frying fish whilst juggling cans of condensed milk. It’s crammed to the rafters with all sorts of visitors, from locals doing their weekly shops to tourists trying to barter over jewellery. Add the sounds of motorbikes, mandolins and distant temple bells and you have a cacophony of colour and confusion. This was what I had to cycle through, manoeuvring my road bike in and out of people’s shopping bags, and the random escaped menageries that adorned the narrow paths. Bright colours, strange scents, it was strange to be whizzing past this vital thriving community on a bike, but my guide was insistent and we passed though this chaos to start exploring the hidden backstreets. Some roads were so narrow that both shoulders grazed the wall, whilst other paths meant near-fatal collisions with accelerating mopeds. Every forty minutes or so we stopped for water (provided) and there were many stops for pictures, which were happily taken by our guide. The tour of Bangkok involved two boat trips (depending which tour you opted for) and we took a ferry across the waterways to western Bangkok and spent an hour cycling through lush shrubbery.
It was humbling to view the variety of housing people lived in, from ramshackle shanty style buildings to palatial European marble houses, and seeing them built next to each other spoke volumes about the structure of society in Thailand. Lunch was held aboard a floating restaurant, a delicious mixture of rice with a variety of dishes, and there was fresh fruit for dessert. You couldn’t help but admire the guides dedication, as she spoke flawless English and had a huge wealth of knowledge on the surrounding area. ‘I did a degree in health and tourism’, she told us. ‘This is how I save for my training’.
Back on the bikes and we were exploring river ways and plants, with stops to taste the lemongrass and to admire the banana trees that flourished around us. The tour involved feeding the fishes by the monks temple, an area where fishing is prohibited which meant the water is so heavy with overfed fish that it turns black when you start throwing bread. We saw crocodiles from our boat, lazily swimming in the sun, their great ridged backs being pleasured by the heat and water lizards happily frolicking in the shallows.
If you opt for the afternoon tour you return in time to get the ferry across the water as the sun sets- a very impressive experience. It’s a great way to get to know the real city, and I couldn’t recommend this experience more- I liked it so much, I did it twice! Check them out here.
Renting mopeds in Koh Samui
A days rental of a moped will cost you between 200 and 400 baht, which works out as £4-£8 depending on the time of year. This will also include a helmet which you’ll be warned to wear, despite the majority of road users letting their hair stream behind them, King of the Road stylee. Make sure to check your tank is full, as I had mine cut out halfway up a hill, and then had a not so fun time of pushing it to the nearest gas station. Petrol is often sold in Evian bottles on the wayside for around a £1, and the locals keep the bottles afterwards as they’re very big on recycling.
You can rent mopeds on any of the islands, but I liked it best on Samui as the roads tended to be well maintained and relatively clear, and driving to the waterfalls and different beaches was much more pleasurable when done in ones own time, and not waiting for a tour. It felt very refreshing to hit the road with the sun on my back and just absorb the essence of the place without needing to be dependent on a driver. Be warned about renting in Ko Pha-Ngan though- there are some crazy hills there that would best be avoided by novice drivers.
I loved the fact that I had the chance to explore hidden coves and beaches as I’d never have visited the sandy stretch of Chaweng beach with the great swing (pictured above) if not for the freedom the moped gave me.
[The boy looking a little sun-blinded]
The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
Located in the outskirts of Bangkok, this market runs from 7am-1pm, so prepare yourself for an early start. You’ll be rewarded when you arrive however as you’ll be feasting on a breakfast of coconuts cut fresh from the tree and hot pastries that are covered in chili. There are two markets to peruse, one that you walk around that runs parallel to the river, where you can choose from gorgeous silk cloths, wall hangings and carved elephant statues.
The best way to experience the market is by along tail boat, and an hours ride will cost around £3 a person, if you don’t mind sharing with a couple of randoms, or a little more if you prefer to be more exclusive. The driver steers the boat along the narrow riverways and you’ll find yourself bumping into other boats as you float by. Some of the boats are full of traders selling delicious coconuts or chopped pineapple, and you have to make the transaction in a hurry before you float away. Multicoloured stalls line the sides of the river, selling a combination of herbs and spices and tourist style paraphernalia such as elephant embroidered cushions and decorative chopsticks. You can haggle on all the merchandise, as the stall owners have useful hooks that they use to keep your boat stationery whilst your barter.
There’s an incredibly exotic feel to the market as floating along in the sunshine feels like you have transcended to another world, one full of Disney style colours and scents that linger in the air, full of mystery and enchantment.
It’s pretty hard to get to though, so you might be best advised to visit it as part of a tour, just to get the transport sorted.
The Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Tiger Temple
This is a rather strange experience to recommend. Half of the internet seemed to suggest this was a terrible travesty towards animals, a cruel and inhumane caging and drugging of magnificent beasts, whilst the other half said it was the best experience they’d ever had. TripAdvisor didn’t seem to recommend it and also spoke of how they would try to rip you off for photos which worried me slightly. However, moral objections aside, I knew it was unlikely I’d get a chance to touch and play with tigers back home, unless I enrolled in zoo keeper school. Can you imagine the uproar if London Zoo let visitors play with the tigers? Yeah, exactly.
I signed up for a Tiger Temple tour with a company which charged 500 baht (approx £10) to get us there and they told us we’d then have to pay an extra 500 baht for entrance. All fine and dandy, though I wouldn’t recommend going by coach, as it stopped at so many places and left us sweaty and stressed before we even got there. Ideally get a train to the nearest station and then get a taxi- more comfort all round.
The Tiger temple we visited was called Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua and was run by Buddhist monks. It was a large sprawling place with endless acres of dry grass and sandy dunes. We started walking aimlessly through it, not really sure to go, then found ourselves at the Bengal Tiger canyon. These were the biggest cats of the park, around ten of them lolling elegantly in the sun, their eyes half open and their paws batting the air. Each tiger had a heavy chain around its neck attached to a spoke in the ground. We had to queue up in a line to go touch and pet the tigers, and there was an option of paying 1000 baht for photos. I started to worry- I really didn’t want to pay that much extra, but was determined to come away with my souvenir pics. Thankfully the guides were more than willing to take pics with my camera, and the extra cash was just for specially posed photos, such as the tigers head in your lap. The willingness to take pictures of tourists for free is something I’ve noticed at many of the main sights, which is really nice.
As I moved around the tigers I was told to squat and smile and stroke on cue whilst the guide snapped away. When I knelt beside the beasts I was aware that they were probably drugged, as though the Thai people may be lax about health and safety even they wouldn’t let tourists that close without some form of protection. Just touching the tiger felt electric as you aware of how huge their muscles were, even resting they seemed poised to jump and snap. I felt safe at all times, as one of my hands was constantly held by a guide (who were all randomly Australian students) and I quickly did the circuit.
Once we’d finished with Tiger canyon we kept meandering round the park, admiring the 3 month old tiger cubs who were mewling happily and laughing as the teenage tigers immersed themselves in water. A monk had two tigers in chains who started play fighting a foot in front of where I stood, and then one was let of the leash to play tag with one of the monks, running around us in circles. When you saw the tiger running you couldn’t help but step back, as even in play the sheer power and strength of the animal was evident. There were also buffaloes and cows in the park, and typically, some tourists started photographing them!
Overall I’m glad I went, it may not be the most positive place in the world for the adult tigers but the younger ones all seemed healthy and happy, and all admission money goes towards them having a better life. One small disclaimer though: They say they’re rehabilitating the tigers for the wild, but when asked how many they’ve released the answer was none.
Garra Rufa Fish Pedicure
When the fish pedicure first came to public attention it caused cries of disgust amongst the beauty community. Letting little fishes nibble away the dead skin on your feet just didn’t sound like a pleasant experience. However people’s view relaxed somewhat when they realized this could be a nice ‘natural’ solution to ridding themselves of calluses and fish spas became more commonplace. These fish spas are literally EVERWHERE in Thailand, and as my trip was all about experiencing new things, I had to try this out.
The idea is that the Garra Rufa fish are attracted to the dead skin on the feet and will eat that way, revealing healthy skin beneath. The suction from the fish is said to leave the skin more radiant and plumped up.
This therapy has been recommended for eczema sufferers and those with dry skin, but as a naturally squeamish and foot phobic person I was curious to see how it would turn out. Initially I shrank away from the basin after plunging my fingers into the water, but then with a shot of vodka (not provided) and a lovely cup of ginger tea (given to all customers) I decided to brave it out.
You start by washing your feet in a separate shower to make sure they’re clean before they go in the tank. Then I was given plasters to put over any bruised or red areas- after travelling for three weeks I had a number of small cuts that needed to be protected.
Initially it felt really strange, and as I saw the fish rush towards my feet I wanted to run away! The sensation was similar to being lightly tickled and I had to control myself to stop moving my feet away from the fish. Once I managed to relax it was interesting to watch them swarm over the foot and the ankles as they started building up in areas I was unaware I had dead skin. They pretty much covered the heels and the toes, but also concentrated on some places on the ankle. The fish are Middle Eastern in origin, hailing from warm river basins,which was why the temperature of the water was quite pleasant.
Cosmetology boards in the USA have recently fallen out of favour with this procedure, deeming it unsanitary and causing US businesses to shut down. There is an element of that involved as many people share the same tank and even though they’re cleaned daily you know you probably are touching someone else’s dead skin somewhere.
After the treatment I was given a soft towel to dry off my feet, and had a look at my tootsies. They looked extremely pink and clean, and felt a lot smoother overall. Some calluses that had existed prior to Thailand were tiny versions of themselves, and a potential corn that I had was very diminished. It wasn’t a completely even procedure as there were still areas I felt could have used more work, but overall I was very happy with the results- and for the price you really couldn’t complain. There are many fish spas in the Khao San Road area but I chose this one as it seemed to have the most fish per square inch of water. The owner a lovely girl, told me how she managed three of the spas, and that they pretty much never shut- open 10am to midnight daily. ‘I was here on New Year,’ she said, when I enquired about her night. ‘It was a busy evening’.
20 minutes cost 150 THB (around £3)
The Fish & Firm Spa, 273 rambuttri Road, Talad yod, Pranakhon, bangkok, 10200.
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(This is part one of the top ten- the second five activities will be in the next post)