Last summer, a friend gave me a booklet produced by Thailand’s tourist body listing its top 20 attractions the country had to offer – the ones no visitor to Thailand should miss.
Amazing Thailand Top 20 Things to do in Thailand:
1. The Grand Palace – relish a regal and religious experience
2. Khaosan Road – come down to the crossroads
3. Chatuchak Weekend Market – break your budget at this mammoth bazaar
4. Khon, Hun Lakhon Lek and Siam Niramit – be wowed by yesteryear’s theatrical traditions today
5. Pak Khlong Talad & Yaowarat – let yourself bloom
6. Floating Market & Khlong Tour – cruising on the canals, rolling on the river
7. Gulf of Thailand – make a big splash in the Gulf of Thailand
8. Relaxing in Pai – call of the wild
9. Muai Thai – jump in the ring
10. Biking Tour in World Heritage Sites – time travelling on a bicycle
11. Elephant Trekking – riding a jumbo
12. Abseiling in Khao Yai – on top of Thailand
13. Diving at Similan & Surin Islands – explore sunken treasures
14. Andaman Coast – be adventurous like James Bond
15. Meditation – find some peace of mind
16. Beauty Spa & Thai Massage – take a dose of healthy tourism
17. Tom Yum Kung, Phat Thai, & Cooking – savour the true spices of Thai life
18. Songkran & Loi Krathong Festival – make memories at amazing festivals
19. Golfing – tee off on tropical greens
20. Travel by Rail – ride the rails in splendour and comfort
Some are worthy, others are tourist gloss. For (on the whole) a real feel for authentic Thai culture, what follows is my own top 20. Some of those highlights from the tourist brochure are entirely worthy of inclusion in my own list (the Grand Palace, for instance) but for the sake of variety and in the spirit of encouraging the discovery of something new and less hyped, I have omitted them; likewise with the downright obvious inclusion of pad thai and tom yum.
Others – Khao Yai, the Similan and Surin islands – I haven’t included simply because they are yet to be graced with my own touristic presence. Some I have deliberately left off because frankly in my mind they defeat the object of going to Thailand; Khaosan Road and the more popular floating markets like Damnoen Saduak are just tourist machines, and about as far from representative of everyday Thai life as you can get. Others yet fall into both those last two categories – the likes of Pai are places which I’ve not had the chance to visit but which, by all accounts, are also paradises lost to the cogs of the tourism meat grinder. As an aside, I find golfing an entirely bizarre idea for this list, and Pak Khlong Talat I found incredibly dull and an anticlimax if there ever was one.
The Real Thailand Top 20:
1. Prachuap Kiri Khan
A find that I can’t stop talking about. While the crowds head for Hua Hin on the Gulf coast, an hour further south is the provincial capital of Prachuap Kiri Khan – largely untouched by tourism and with genuinely breathtaking scenery that wouldn’t be out of place in the Andaman. Read more here…
Equally off the tourist trail, save for a few gap year travellers on volunteer work, Sangkhlaburi is also ranked as Lonely Planet’s number two Thailand attraction, and every bit worthy of the accolade. A rural setting, cooler climate, friendly people, stunning landscape and some great food options make the trek from Bangkok well worthwhile. Read more here and here, check out one of Sangkhlaburi’s accommodation options here and see more photos here.
3. Mae Khlong Railway Market
It’s difficult to beat this for an out-of-the-ordinary day trip from Bangkok – a traditional old wet market, with the twist that it has a real passenger train pass through it eight times a day! The journey in from Bangkok is exciting and easily done and, with few enough Asian tourists and practically none from the west, this is a real glimpse at authentic Thai market culture. Read more here…
4. Talat Rot Fai
Bangkok is as hip and happening a city as they come, and its buzzing markets are often where the action’s at. They don’t hang around for long, but for the time being Talat Rot Fai – railway market – is at the top of its game. Think camper vans, old retro goods and beers straight out of the ice. Read more here…
5. Khon Kaen
The self-titled capital of northeast Thailand’s Isaan region and the heart of the region’s economic success, Khon Kaen is probably the least Isaan-like of them all. But a wonderful fresh food market, plentiful choices at the night market (including what could well be Thailand’s best pork satay), a beautiful lake and the feeling of fresh air and greenery right in the middle of a bustling city – all this makes Khon Kaen a destination of its own. Read more here…
6. Samut Songkhram
For genuine, innocent fun, it just has to be Samut Songkhram. Stay on a stilted rafthouse, plant mangrove trees on the river banks, go burrowing for fresh clams – then top it all off with a wade in the mud and a ride on a river jet ski! Read more here…
7. Erawan waterfall
This is one of those that appears on everyone’s must-do list, purely because Erawan is an incredible attraction. Seven beautiful storeys of clear waterfalls, with skin-nibbling fish for a free foot scrub pedicure!
8. Train travel
One worth repeating from the original top 20, but with less emphasis on the luxury of the Eastern & Orient Express (which I’ve never been on anyway). Wherever you go in Thailand, if you can, go by train. Well worth it for the scenery, the added comfort and the sheer atmosphere of families and friends travelling, hawkers getting on and off to tout their food and wares, and village communities passing by the carriage window – it really does make the journey as important as the place you’re headed. As an added plus, many argue that train travel is the safest way to get around – this certainly would suggest so…
9. Khao mok gai
A less well known Thai dish, far down the radar from green curry and pad thai, but my all-time favourite all the same. Of southern origin and with influences from Malaysia and India, this ‘Thai-style chicken biryani’ is made up of heavily marinated on-the-bone, melt-in-the-mouth chicken buried in a mountain of fragrant yellow rice – all topped with a minty sauce. Irresistible, and addictive from the first mouthful. It is widely available around the country, and Bangkok has impressive array and quality. Read more here…
No serious visitor to Thailand leaves without a taste (or several) of the infamously fiery papaya salad. With many regional variants containing everything from salted eggs to fermented fish (bones and all) and small, soft-shell crabs, the traditional Thai staple combines green unripe papaya, tomatoes, peanuts, garlic, green beans and plenty of chilli, bashed senseless in a pestle-and-mortar with fish sauce, palm sugar, tamarind and lots of lime. Irresistible, and even more so when accompanied by a meaty pork nam tok! Read more here…
11. Chatuchak Market
Another justifiable stalwart of tourist itineraries, Chatuchak (or JJ, for the way Thais pronounce the ‘ch’ sound) is famous purely for its size – 8,000 to 35,000 stalls, depending on who you ask. What is sure is that, if you can’t find what you’re looking for at this massive outdoor market, it doesn’t exist. Keep your plans realistic and tackle a small area each time you visit in order to avoid overdoing it.
12. Koh Samet
This tiny island just three and a half hours from the capital is a hive of development and massively popular with Bangkokians (Thais and expats alike) for its crystal white beaches, sparkling clear water and moonlight seafood dinners. Go midweek to avoid the crowds.
13. Full Moon Party
Okay, so it’s no way to experience authentic Thai culture – not by any means – but it is a lot of fun, and something that no Thai experience is complete without. Feel the sand between your toes and sip vodka buckets until dawn on the tropical island heaven of Koh Pha Ngan (which is just as lovely, perhaps more so, when there’s no lunar party going on).
14. Thai massage
A reason to come to Thailand in itself! Get your entire body worked with your masseuse’s hands, feet, knees, elbows – you name it, they’ll jab it into you! Expect something closer to a lively yoga workout than the Swedish massage you might be used to – and, at Thai prices, you can make it a regular thing.
15. Songkhran and Loy Krathong
All sorts of festivals liven up the Thai calendar; these are two of the best. Mid-April’s Songkhran, Thai new year, takes the country into a massive water fight that everyone plays a part in – expect not just water pistols everywhere, but families driving their kids round on pick-up trucks with huge buckets of water to throw over unexpecting passers-by. There are religious traditions behind the festival too, and it also has a role in welcoming the rainy season, but generally it is just a massive heap of fun!
Loy Krathong is for lovers – in mid November, small handmade candle-bearing are floated down rivers, lakes and any other available body of water as a way to get rid of bad luck and negative traits in favour of fresh energy. For a visitor, it makes for a stunning annual display of light and water agains the dark night sky – beautiful.
16. Phu Lang Ka
About as ‘away from it all’ as you can get, getting to Phu Lang Ka is a mean feat but the stunning vistas in this part of Phayao province make the effort every bit worth it. Sunrise is particularly beautiful and, on a clear day, you can even see Laos far in the distance. Read more here…
17. Doi Suthep
Chiang Mai has much to offer – khao soi (see below), massage schools and coffee shops aplenty – but Chiang Mai wouldn’t be Chiang Mai without Doi Suthep, the stunning national park mountain with its own famous temple and array of waterfalls. Go further than most and take a motorbike or songthaew right to the top for some stunning views (and just a few goosepimples from the colder temperatures up this high). New post on Doi Suthep coming soon…
18. Khao soi
Perhaps it’s foodie bias coming through, but Chiang Mai’s signature dish khao soi is enough to leave as much of an influence as anything else the city has to offer. Rice noodles combine with deep fried crispy noodles in a thick, gravy-like broth soup to make a rich, satisfying dish. Read more here – and find out where to get it in Bangkok here.
Smoky charcoal scent, rich coconut cream marinade and spicy peanut sauce all combine to create this authentic southern Thai snack that beats any western imitation. Sharp cucumber salad cuts through the fat and makes it all too easy to order another 20 skewers. Get it in Bangkok here or make the trip to Khon Kaen for Thailand’s best satay…
20. Fruit shakes
No visit to a tropical country is complete without a healthy dose of tropical fruit, and what better way to enjoy it than blended up with ice and plenty of sugar, refreshingly cold and sucked through a straw as you lounge on the beach? Don’t leave Thailand before you’ve supped on as many shakes as your body will tolerate – it’s all about watermelon, mango and dragon fruit flavours.
Yes, 5 of my list are directly food and drink related – what can I say, I’m a greedy pig!