Tried and true as a vacation destination, Thailand is both safe and exotic, with wonderful people and a diverse range of activities for all ages and interests. We spent two weeks in the “land of smiles” this past June with our two daughters, and found plenty to love about this Southeast Asian nation of 70 million. Here are 10 compelling reasons to visit Thailand . . . or go back for another visit:
1. Sensational Food – Trying out new dishes is one of the perks of travel, but there aren’t too many countries (that I’ve visited at least) where the food defines the culture. Italy is one; Thailand is another. Whether from a street cart vendor, a shopping mall food court, a traditional restaurant, or even an overnight train, Thai food never disappoints. It’s spicy, fresh, cheap, and delicious. A couple of tips . . . if you’re not partial to spicy foods (my kids are not!) you can say “mai chawp phet” (pronounced “my chorp pet”) which means “I don’t like it spicy.” Also, don’t expect to enjoy your meal with a nice glass of wine, especially outside of established restaurants. I ordered wine a few times, but it wasn’t very good, probably because the weather is so hot and humid, and many places lack proper storage for wine. Instead, pair your pad thai with a refreshing local beer; it’s much better – and cheaper!
3. Awesome Elephants – Hands down, the highlight of our stay in Thailand was our visit to an elephant sanctuary called Elephant Nature Park (ENP), about an hour and half outside of Chiang Mai. Unlike most other elephant destinations in the country, ENP’s elephants do not give rides to tourists, perform tricks, play soccer, paint pretty pictures, or do other un-elephant like activities. The park’s thirty-plus elephants have been rescued from lives of misery and abuse in the tourist or logging industries, and spend their days doing what elephants like best – rolling in the mud, inhaling vast quantities of bananas, watermelon and squash, bathing in the river, and socializing with each other. ENP’s founder, Lek Chaillert, has dedicated her life to improving the treatment and perception of elephants in her native country – among tourists and locals alike. Our family had the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with many members of the herd, and left the park committed to be advocates for this magnificent creature. For more about Elephant Nature Park, visit www.elephantnaturepark.com.
4. Temples and Incense – For young children, Thailand’s temples can be a bit like the great cathedrals and museums of Europe – boring, especially when it’s really hot. My kids, who are a little on the older side, did enjoy lighting incense and “kneeling in prayer” before the temple’s impressive Buddha statues however. I’d like to think they found something spiritual about the experience, though I suspect at least part of the appeal was the chance to rest and escape the scorching sun. Much to my daughters’ delight, many of the “working” temples also served as shelters for Thailand’s vast population of stray dogs and cats. Monks traditionally feed and care for these animals, often with the support of rescue agencies set up by foreign visitors. Don’t miss the opportunity to be blessed by a monk. It’s very spiritual, and as part of the ritual, they tie a bracelet around your wrist as a memento of the experience.
5. Conversing with Monks – Wat Suan Dok, one of Chiang Mai’s 700 temples (that’s right, 700!), has an interesting program called “monk chat” a classroom venue of small, informal discussion groups where visitors and monks come to connect, share stories, learn about Buddhism and practice English. We were visiting in the low season, so it was just our family with two monks sitting in a pleasant, shaded courtyard. Conversation was a little awkward to start, but once we got going, we gained interesting insight into the life and training of Buddhist monks. Learn more at www.monkchat.net.
6. Colorful Street Markets – My poor husband — traveling with three females can’t be much fun when shopping is on the agenda! The shopping was in a word phenomenal, and I would recommend saving most of it for Chiang Mai if Thailand’s second largest city is on your itinerary; of the three areas we visited (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui), it was the best. We came home with lots of inexpensive, beautiful, and easy-to-pack souvenirs that now provide constant reminders of our trip – silk and teak wall hangings, pillow covers, a table runner, a hand-embroidered handbag, handcrafted silver jewelry, and carved wooden statues. Because the markets are so relatively cheap, the kids had a field day buying knick-knacks for themselves and friends without making too big a dent in their piggy banks!
7. Relaxing Massages – Let me start by saying that I am not a massage person. I never get massages at home because I never feel like I get my money’s worth. But in Thailand – and throughout Southeast Asia – you can get a fabulous, full-body massage for less than $10 (maybe closer to $50 at upscale, western resorts – still a bargain!). My daughters were still a little too young to get a body massage, but they enjoyed the foot massages, manicures, and pedicures available almost anywhere; they probably had one or the other almost every day. My husband and I were frequent customers of one of the countless massage stalls on Chaweng Beach and often went at the end of the day to enjoy our massage with a front-row view of the setting sun.
8. Scenic Beauty and Adventure – Plying through calm waters in the Gulf of Thailand, my daughter and I headed towards a towering rock formation that’s part of the impressive Ang Thong National Marine Park. The park is an archipelago of 40 limestone islands, and our kayaking adventure was part of a day-long boat tour that included snorkeling among the coral reefs, hiking through jungle terrain to an island lagoon, discovering pristine beaches, and enjoying a delicious buffet lunch on a solar-powered island of fishermen and their families. You’ll find an abundance of tour operators that can arrange an excursion to Ang Thong, but prices vary, so do your homework. We went with Angthong Discovery and were happy with the service.
9. Ultra-Modern Malls in Bangkok – Bangkok is a city of contradictions – jam-packed sidewalks are impossible to navigate, the heat and humidity are stifling, traffic is chaotic, and child beggars are everywhere. Walk into one of the city’s mega shopping malls, however, and you’re on a different planet. Siam Paragon is one of the biggest, and like the street markets we frequented, was like Disneyland for my tween and teenage daughters. Bangkok malls are so glitzy and modern they make the average U.S. suburban mall seem like an ancient ruin. You’ll find many of the big-name international brands popular with young people everywhere. The food courts offer a tantalizing variety of healthy Asian cuisine, plus the usual fast-food fare.
10. Al Fresco Beach Dining – As I mentioned, the beach we stayed at on Koh Samui was a lively line-up of restaurants and casual bars. Without a restaurant guide, it’s hard to distinguish one from another, so our dinner routine usually consisted of strolling the beach until hunger set in or we found a spot that looked appealing. Since we were travelling in the low season, tables were always available on the beach, and the first thing we did upon being seated was kick off our flip flops and dig our toes in the sand. Now that’s the way to dine al fresco!
Ready to go? Peak season in most parts of Thailand is November through February, when rain is infrequent, the sun shines, and humidity is low. While the weather may be ideal, the crowds are overwhelming and hotel prices are high. March through May is dry and very hot. The monsoon season starts in June and extends through November, with the worst rain (and possible flooding) being in September and October. This period is also marked by stifling heat and humidity.
We chose to travel in June because the kids were out of school, but also figured since it was early monsoon season, we’d be less likely to encounter big stretches of significant rain. Our gamble paid off. Even though we were fully prepared to get wet, we only had two or three of rain, and we had lots of elbow room at hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions. The heat and humidity were at times uncomfortable, but tolerable for the most part.
Keep in mind that Thailand has distinct climate zones, and it’s important to check the weather for your specific destination during your travel dates. For example, we chose the island of Koh Samui over the many other wonderful Thai islands because its location in the eastern coast in the Gulf of Thailand is more or less protected from the monsoon during the summer months.