I’m writing an article for my student magazine Hullfire at the moment about whether or not Thailand has been ruined by tourism. Ever-popular with student tourists, Thailand’s reputation seems to precede it. Whether it’s the idyllic islands, sex tourism, infamous beach parties, or the Leo DiCaprio film The Beach that attracts the millions of visitors that swarm into Thailand each year, this prominent South East Asian country certainly seems to have made its mark on the tourism business. In fact when I spoke to the STA branch manager in Leeds, Ewan Clarke, he said: ““If you take Australia out of the equation, I’d say Thailand is probably the most popular single destination to go to.”
So what makes Thailand so special? And is there still a chance to experience some real Thai culture when, according to www.1stopthailand.com/facts, up to 12 million visitors are flooding in on a yearly basis? Well of course there is!
Here’s some highlights:
There are dozens of schools offering to teach you how to cook Thai food in the Northern city of Chiang Mai. Most classes last about a day, and start with a trip to the market to give you an introduction to Thai ingredients. The strong smells and vibrant colours of the market make for a great start to the day. You then go back to the kitchens, where you can chose which meals to cook. Popular dishes include: Tom Yam Soup, Papaya Salad, Pad Thai, Thai spring rolls, and Red/Green Curry. In my course, we all shared each others dishes, so we were able to try every meal on offer and sample a real variety of Thai cooking. At the end of the day you are usually given a cookbook with all the recipes in to take home with you.
There are many jungle treks on offer in the North of Thailand, an activity which gives you the chance to escape the bustling citylife of Chiang Mai and Bangkok, and experience some of the breathtakingly beautiful scenery that Thailand has to offer. Most treks include an overnight stay in a hill tribe village, and sometimes bamboo rafting and elephant riding are included too. I chose to escape the tourist-heavy treks on offer in Chiang Mai, and went slightly further North to a little town called Pai to do my trek. The trek was amazing, although very challenging as we were walking for eight hours a day for two days. My feet literally started bleeding on the second day, as you can see in this picture:
Our tour guide was fantastic. I think its really important that you find the right tour guide for you, as some people told me that their tour guides shot animals in the wild for dinner, or smoked opium pipes. Perhaps these things appeal to you, so you should pick your tour guide accordingly. My tour guide, however, simply told jokes the whole time, which made the walk a lot more fun. He even made us cups out of bamboo, and then encouraged us to use them for drinking games in the evening!
The guide also took us to see two different hill tribes, which was an insightful experience. Some of the hill tribes are still very remote, and often still wear traditional clothing and live essentially very rural lifestyles. There is some controversy about whether tourism is having a damaging effect on these tribes. But I’ll reserve my judgment on this one. Go there and decide for yourself!
The idyllic beaches in the South/East Coast:
I’m not really a beach kind of person, but have to say that the picturesque beaches in Thailand really are worth checking out. The Southern beaches have whiter sand and clearer sea, but are more crowded with package-holiday types, whereas the East Coast beaches are more deserted, but not quite so beautiful, and the sea is not so great for diving in. Films such as The Beach might make you wonder if there is still unexplored islands left in Thailand, but whilst this might be the case, you’ll have to race all the other tourists still looking for the illusive deserted islands. This being said, if you visit Thailand out of peak season, there is much more opportunity to get one of the Southern beaches practically to yourself, provided that you stay away from the bigger, more popular islands such as Koh Samui and Phuket.
Koh Samed was my favourite of the Thai islands. Located on the East coast, Koh Samed is a relatively small island quite easy to get to from Bangkok. Although its beaches are not perfect, it offers some cheap accomodation and is a beautiful sight to see at night, when the whole island lights up with glowing lanterns in a myriad of colours, and fire shows make for great entertainment when sitting at the waters edge enjoying a bucket of alcohol in the evenings!
The opulent temples:
Travelling round South East Asia for two months, I saw more temples than I care to recall, however there really are some breathtaking temples in Thailand that are well worth visiting. My favourite was Wat Doi Suthep, a golden temple on the top of a hill in Chiang Mai. The hour long drive up the hill is well worth it, and you can get amazing city views from the mid-way point. Here it is at night, lit up beautifully: