real life

4 things you should do in Thailand (and 1 thing you shouldn't).

By MELISSA WELLHAM

Visiting Thailand recently was something of a revelation for me. I’d never been to South East Asia before, and after only seven days I had already decided that I needed to pack up my house and move there. The culture is chilled out, the people are so friendly, and the weather was blissful. (During the wet season, no less.)

I travelled to Thailand with Intrepid, and these are my recommended must-see, must-do, and must-eats.

1. Visit the Maeklong Railway Market.

I’ll be honest, I was a bit of a market-whore in Thailand. But there were two that really stood out.

First was the Maeklong Railway Market, Talaad Rom Hoob. The market was originally situated within a large, open warehouse, but as the market grew and grew, stalls started to spill outside – onto the train tracks. Now, vendors sells fresh fish, fruit and vegetables with their baskets placed on the train line.

When the train approaches the station, an alarm is sounded and the vendors spring into action. Moving their produce, pulling back racks of clothes, and finally leaping out of the way – just as the train careers by. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

2. … And the Tha Kha Floating Markets.

The other amazing market I visited was the Tha Kha Floating Markets. There are a few riverside markets outside the Bangkok area – but this is apparently one of the least touristy. The locals row their boats up the river, stacked with produce and products, and sell directly out of their boats to people walking by the side of the river.

The set ups inside the boats are amazing – the locals utilise every centimetre of space, turning each little boat into a self-contained food factory, whether they are making coconut ice-cream or sticky rice.

3. Go on a cycling tour.

While in Chiang Mai, I went on a cycling tour of the area. It only took about 20 minutes to cycle out of the bustling city, and after that I was cruising through fields of rice, past farmers working in their front yards, and detouring to take a look at the ruins of Old Chiang Mai.

It might have just been the endorphins, but it was definitely one of the highlights of trip. Cycling gives you an opportunity to observe your surroundings, in a way that being stuck inside a car or train just doesn’t; and you get more of a feel for what a place is really like.

4. Try a traditional homestay.

While in Chiang Mai, I travelled out to a local homestay run by an amazing woman named Aoi. Myself and the rest of the group on the tour slept under big, sweeping colourful mosquito nets, and had traditional Thai-style showers (not going to lie – they were cold). But the best part about the homestay was undoubtedly the cooking course.

Aoi taught us all how to make a variety of dishes – for both dinner and breakfast – including mushroom tempura (which we picked ourselves), traditional Northern Thai currys, and sweet sticky rice dyed with blue flowers.

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We were making curry pastes from scratch, crushing herbs and spices using a mortar and pestle, and it really gave me an appreciation for how labour-intensive traditional cooking methods were. I’m glad I have a blender, but I did enjoy the food so much more when I had to crush the ingredients myself.

5. Look out for animal welfare.

And here’s the one thing you shouldn’t do in Thailand… Take part in animal tourism that doesn’t look after the animals.

Asian elephants are highly endangered. There are about 30,000 in the wild, and 15,000 in captivity. In recent decades much of their natural habitat has been destroyed, which places the species in an even more precarious position. But elephant tourism in Thailand (and, in fact, other parts of the world) is huge – and this has led to a situation where elephants in captivity are forced to do performances that are unnatural to them.

Unfortunately, this also include elephant rides.

Research has found that riding elephants, along with other activities typically involved with elephant tourism, are very distressing for these intelligent, emotional creatures. That’s why Intrepid has phased elephant rides out of all their tours; and now works with rehabilitation and sanctuary facilities in their place.

The irony is, of course, that the majority of people who want to ride elephants are actually animal lovers – and if they knew it was causing the elephant pain and suffering, they wouldn’t want to do it anymore.

If you are keen to visit Thailand and go to an elephant sanctuary (but want to make sure place you visit is actually concerned with conservation, and not just including that word on their website to trick tourists into visiting) there are a few key things to look out for. Make sure the elephants you see have ready access to fresh water and adequate food, shelter and a comfortable resting area, sufficient space, natural stimulation, and company of the animal’s own kind.

If you want to know what a more-than-adequate elephant park looks like, visit the Save the Elephants Elephant Nature Park. Elephant Nature Park is run by a truly remarkable woman named Lek Chailert, who founded the park in 1996.

The industry in Thailand – and other parts of the world – won’t change, unless tourists make it clear that there is a demand for sanctuaries and parks that treat animals with compassion and respect. Vote with your feet, spread the word, and things will slowly start to improve for wild creatures in captivity.

To make a commitment to stopping the mistreatment of wild animals used in entertainment, visit World Animal Protection

The author travelled as a guest on Intrepid Travel, with World Animal Protection. 

If you are interested in attending some similar trips in Thailand with Intrepid Travel, there’s the Explore Northern Thailand trip, Chiang Mai and Elephants short break, Beautiful Thailand trip, the Thailand Family – Land of Smiles trip, and the Real Food Adventure (also includes the homestay).

Have you ever been to Thailand? What would you recommend doing? 

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