If you’ve never been east, Thailand is a good place to start.
After visiting Southern Thailand and getting a bite-size look at this diverse country – it is easy to understand why some 18-million people decided to visit in 2015.
A place diverse enough to satisfy wanderlust cravings for a tropical jungle escape, a frenetic-paced urban adventure or some blissed-out beach zen. Thailand responds and surprises, much like the tropical fish of the Andaman Sea – in an exuberant and enchanting manner - it leaves you with goose bumps, as stress and busyness is exchanged for adventure and relaxation.
My recent first visit was with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to Discover Thainess – well for the Southern part that is. You can read about my first impression here.
What I discovered was an old-world, tropical window into what Phuket is said to have been like some 30 years ago - nothing like the fervent pace you’d expect of Bangkok for instance.
Thailand is easy, which is exactly what you want from a long-haul holiday destination with a six-hour time zone difference. As South Africans we are welcomed with a 30-day visa stamped into our Green Mambas upon arrival - and above all it is one of the more affordable international destinations - since the bhat is rather friendly with our rand (R1/Bh2.22), much like the locals found in Phuket and surrounds, as I soon found out.
During our week-long stay, we undertook to cram as much as possible into our visit, from adventurous water escapades to blissfully romantic settings that really should be enjoyed with your special someone - and of course not forgetting that authentic Thai food is an entirely legitimate reason alone to visit this country. Serious foodie alert.
Here are my top 12 things to include in your itinerary if you find yourself in the areas of Phuket, Khao Lak, Khoa Sok and the Island of Phi Phi.
1. Snorkelling off Phi Phi island and a visit to Maya Bay
Thailand is a beach holiday paradise, but then you knew this already thanks to THAT beach movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. We visited in the low / rainy season during September and even then the waters and swimming conditions were good. Walking to the famous Beach scene and movie set that now doubles as a tourist attraction has a slightly eerie feel, since the place pretty much resembles an abandoned castaway camp. And the view? Just superb.
It is interesting to note that with specific marine protected areas, the focus is not about motorised water sport but more around enhancing the natural appeal and attractions - however at times, it did feel very commercialised as a number of boats crowded around the snorkelling hotspots.
2. An elephant experience in Khao Sok National Park
This jungle adventure blows the conventional Thailand beach escape out of the water. Here you'll find the concept of the African glamping tent incorporated with the mangrove swamps and legendary jungle lakes of the Khao Sok National Park.
Elephant Hills gives that Out of Africa moment with 30 luxurious tents similar to those you’ll find at any reputable Kruger or Madikwe safari lodges, all set amidst the largest area of rainforest in Southern Thailand. The tents are comfortable, spacious and suites an adventurous eco-traveller looking for a little bit more than just the basics. The communal dining area not only showcased the exceptional food of the area with daily cooking experiences but also culture and community initiatives run through the camp.
While I'm not one for interactions with wild animal, since I see petting a feral beast much like trying to mix oil and water – you can’t help but reconcile yourself with the good intentions of the folks over at Elephant Hills when it come to their elephant experience on offer.
Thailand's infamous logging industry, which ended towards the end of the 1980s has left a legacy of elephants that are neither wild nor tame. While Elephant Hills has chosen to abandon any form of elephant riding, it instead offers an intimate feeding and washing experience. Not a bad way for these elephants to spend the rest of their days after being liberated. There is no denying, elephants are old souls.
3. Kayak along the “Klong Sung Nae” river and explore Little Amazon, the hidden forest in Takua Pa
While on this trip we merely passed through bustling Phuket, the southern regions of Khao Lak and Khao Sok captures the nature lover within. Perfectly situated on the mainland between Phuket, Krabi, and Koh Samui - the natural jungle state of this area comes alive as your meander through this Klong Sung Nae river. It’s not known as the Little Amazon for nothing.
4. Take a luxury lake safari on Cheow Larn Lake
Sometimes you just need to take a different view on life to refresh your perspective – like floating belly-up, star-fish like in a man-made lake surrounded by the jungle and towering limestone rock cascades of the Khao Sok National Park. Water can therapeutic and healing in both the literal and spiritual sense and I certainly felt it that day in this beautiful lake of jade and emerald waters.
While I didn't get to stay at Rainforest Camp, said to be one of the only floating tented camps in the world, we had a sublime day-trip here complete with a water safari boat trip and a lot of swimming in this rather special rainforest lake.
Rainforest Camp is far from commercial with its 10 Luxury Safari Tents, run in the most responsible manner as it is powered solely by both Solar and Wind energy and uses unique waste management systems - a rather unusual and intimate base from which to explore, at the same time allowing you to feel at one with nature.
5. Take a Thai cooking lesson
We sampled a number of dishes, tasted Thai street food, sipped on slush iced coffees as a measure against the heat even in the rainy season, as well as indulged in everything from Mai Tais to the signature Tom Yum Martinis at Zeevola.
Let go and indulge in this foodie taste adventure. At Sarojin, we got our hands all spiced up preparing a delicious Thai beef salad – simple, packed with fresh, healthy ingredients and filling.
One of the resident chefs at Sarojin, did her best to impart some Thai cuisine cooking skills – all I can say is Hot Dang! Don’t forget to raid the fresh goods markets for pastes that will last until you get back home so you can practice and wow your loved ones with your authentic recipes.
6. Have an authentic Thai Massage
Being pummelled into oblivion by the lithest, littlest person able to strong-arm the most stubborn knots out of your back was the Sarojin faa fait (four-hand) welcome all Thailand adventures should start off with. All indicative of a proper Thai massage - on offer at resort spa sanctuaries including the Zeevola with its Phi Phi island setting enhancing the experience even more (Your therapist will even go so far as to braid your hair as an authentic treat), or in the form of a pop-up at Elephant Hills for example. Enjoy the full extended version or just get some good reflexology circulation going with a quick foot massage after a busy day of exploring.
7. Enjoy dinner beneath the magical Rainbow waterfall
If you’re looking for what could possibly be described as one of the most romantic settings, Thailand’s Rainbow Falls is your place. Set aglow by some 500 candles, with a dinner table set to perfection just a bit away from the cascading waterfall leaves you feeling like you’ve stepped onto the set of some reality TV Bachelor series.
Fancy a spontaneous after dinner rock-pool dip? Do so at your own risk. Staff are discreet and not likely to stop you should you feel the urge. At least they didn’t with our all-girl media group. Just magical.
8. Learn about Thai Spirit houses and the unique cultural traditions
The ancient Thailand traditions are everywhere – including the spirit house that you’ll see outside almost every establishment and residential house. Some small and inconspicuous, others loom and demand attention. I’m told there are more than 41 000 across Southern Thailand alone.
9. Visit a fresh goods market
Each village in Southern Thailand has a fresh market selling everything from vegetables, fish and all sorts of Thai delicacies. Some of it may be a little bit too fresh if you know what I mean, expect the market places to be alive with smells of all sort but it’s an interesting mix that must be experienced and tasted.
10. Have dinner on the beach and celebrate life
As I’ve said before, Southern Thailand is beach paradise. Cocktails at sunset as you curl your toes in the sand and slurp up some of the best ginger-infused tom yum soup – this was the scene at Centara Seaview a lovely four-star family orientated resort. This was also one of the many resorts intensely affected by the Tsunami of 2004 but some 12 years later, like at Zeevola on Phi Phi , only memorial signs and Tsunami emergency escape route signage hint at the catastrophe’s massive devastation.
11. Catch-up with some locals, they have the most interesting sights and sounds to share
Our best evening during the entire trip was spent with the locals on Phi Phi. Our dinner happened to coincide with a staff party of epic proportions. We got to experience a pop-up version of Thai nightlife with a resident Lady Boy enthralling in full dress as fancy-free locals simply murdered the dance floor. So much fun.
My advice? Don’t stay confined to your resort, locals can show you where all the cool kids on the island hangout. Same-same, but different. If anything, it made me want to experience a Full Moon party for sure.
12. Explore the old places to get a deeper sense of Thai life…
We visited Takua Pa Old Town in the Phangnga district where traditional Thai culture is slow and deliberate - and life has apparently remained unchanged for more than a hundred years. As I walked down the main street, intrigued by the old buildings that hint of a former ‘Portuguese’ architectural period, passing a Chinese shrine and a rather kitsch-looking teahouse, an elderly man who was barely able to speak a word of English, gestured for me to come inside. Slightly sceptical, I wondered in to what was also a shrine with candles and a mix of worship statues. We exchanged looks and I understood that he was inviting me to light some incense.
A simple and touching exchange that left me knowing that no matter where we call home, we’re all pretty much the same at the core of it, with something to remember, hope and give thanks for.
Recommended Hotels to check out, ranging in price and amenities:
Exclusive and Luxurious: The Sarojin Resort in Khao Lak
Family friendly: Centara Seaview Resort is set on Nang thong Beach
Adventure eco-traveller's must-do: Elephant Hills located in the Khao Sok National Park
Superb indulgence: Zeevola Resort on Phi Phi island, Krabi province
High-end central: Amri Hotel, Phuket
When to go: High Season: November to March for comfortable temperatures and lush landscapes. Know that the Christmas/New Year holiday period does pull the crowds and higher prices.
Off Peak: April to June is the hot season, while July to October sees the monsoon season, affecting some boat transfers to the various islands – consider this especially when visiting Phi Phi. Despite patches of rain, weather is still pleasant and enjoyable despite the humidity.
Disclaimer: Traveller24 Editor Selene Brophy was hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which include all accommodation, meals, activities and Cathay Pacific Flights.