Thailand is a fascinating country to visit with a culture rooted in strong beliefs and history. There are so many unique facets that make it special: the food, arts, wellness, temples, landscapes, history, adventure, and friendly people. You may know about how beautiful the temples and beaches are or how cool a night out in Bangkok is, but here are a few experiences you may not know about:
Discovery of something different and interaction with the locals are why I found these experiences so incredible. The experiences highlighted below are spread throughout the country, which speaks to Thailand’s diversity:
1. Koh Chang Wellness
Located in a remote part of Koh Chang, Thailand’s second largest island, The Spa Koh Chang Resort was a vacation from every bad toxin I had in me. The 26 tropically styled rooms on property were all nestled amongst the trees and tucked away from the beach. We dined on only raw food, did yoga and meditation every morning, pampered our bodies with massages, sat in the herbal steam room, and swam in a natural swimming pool admiring the beautiful wooded surroundings. With all of this, I was surprised that the retreat was reasonably priced. It was my own hidden gem.
The food was so tasty and I felt better and healthier every day. Healthy recipes demonstrated in the dining room left me really wanting to change my diet permanently. In fact, I left the retreat wanting to be more mindful of healthy practices in my life.
The resort is known for its detoxifying cleanse and fasting program for people that clearly have more willpower than me. I met an American living in Malaysia that came to Thailand just for this cleanse program. She specifically loved the yoga classes and massage therapy. She also told me she didn’t feel hungry at all with the juices, even though she was only halfway through her seven-day program. Meanwhile, I kept to myself a lot to clear my mind and focus on the program, I enjoyed meeting and talking to her.
The health retreat was kind to its environment. The more I visit Thailand, the more I’ve noticed that Thai people really value and protect their natural resources. The Spa Koh Chang Resort uses an environmentally friendly system for irrigation and doesn’t use plastic bags in any of its operations
In my life I’ve slacked on yoga, I eat quickly not really thinking about what I eat and I haven’t mediated since I was first introduced to it in Woljeongsa Temple (in South Korea) sitting on a hardwood floor, but I’ve liked the way I felt. And hopefully I can continue some of the good habit I picked up at the Spa.
2. Phuket elephants
Visiting an elephant camp in Thailand is such a special experience and one that you can’t miss while in the country. In the Chalong Highlands lies the perfect locale for a gorgeous ride up the hills overlooking the bay with your own special elephant and trainer, or mahout, with Siam Safari.
For four full hours, we were totally immersed in Thai culture. My sister and I saw what can be created from the sap of a tree and learned about the importance of rice farming. We learned how to make yellow curry with chicken and pineapple, we sipped on Thai coffee and we tried our hand at helping turning a coconut into coconut oil. I enjoyed the Thai culture lessons from Siam Safari. I’ve been to other elephant tours in Bangkok that just offer elephant rides around a temple or through a small wooded area. Given there were awesome views of temples and scenery but there’s nothing like sharing the natural habitat with these cute guys for half of the day—as we were able to do with Siam Safari.
Before our rides, the time came to hear about the Asian elephants we were about to become buddies with. We also learned about an elephant conservation project that supports government-run elephant hospitals in Thailand. Elephants at this camp only take a few rides a day and are all female to ensure the safety of visitors.
Finally, it was our turn to sit on an elephant’s back! My sister and I were so excited. My sister got on first as I snapped photos at an insane pace. I remember sliding a bit from side to side in my chair as the elephant took us away. It took us some time to get comfortable and calm our excitement. We were holding onto our purses so they didn’t slide away and taking a ton of pictures. The experience left me genuinely speechless.
Eventually, I needed to put down the camera when the elephant stopped for a bathroom break. All of a sudden, it was just us and the breathtaking views of Phuket. From that point on, we stayed present in the moment, bonding with our elephant and the beautiful surroundings.
3. Chong Changtune Live Ecomuseum in Trat
Go off the beaten path in eastern Thailand’s Trat province to take a lesson in life from the locals. This village, like several in the area, is involved in community-based tourism. This form of tourism focuses on environmental, social and cultural sustainability. Our tour company, Local Alike, introduced us to the villagers and translated those that only spoke Thai for us. We listened to the locals tell us about the importance of sustainability practices and helped make an herbal balm.
We then received Thai massages in the open air and a Thai herbal steam treatment using a chicken coop! Yes, you read that right. The chicken coop covers the entire body, except for the head, making it easy to breathe and sweat out the toxins. I guess some people struggled to stay in this contraption. I loved it and I found it as fascinating as it was hilarious-looking.
After lunch prepared by the village, we rode on a salenger, a motorbike with a sidecar. Next was a white mud spa treatment with the village children. We sat on rocks in the river, looking at the Cambodian border just over the trees, while the sweet village children pasted white mud on our arms and back. Thai belief is that the mixture helps to brighten and exfoliate the skin. And it definitely gave my skin a bright boost that day!
While at the river, we panned for Siamese rubies using an ancient village technique to sift through the mud. Yep, I did that. And there was a moment or two that I liked rolling around in the river! The locals also gave us a ride on a salenger, and we learned how to build a river check dam using palm leaves to reduce the water speed and soil erosion.
I was amazed at how this community could get so much out of their natural resources. But most of all, I was humbled by the people I met and the experiences we shared. Book several nights in the villages of Trat with Local Alike for a meaningful and fulfilling experience.
4. Bangkok flowers
The Bangkok Flower Market, Pak Klong Talad, is the largest fresh flower market in the city. If my first passion is travel, a close second could be flowers. And this is any flower lover’s dream. You’ll walk through stalls upon stalls of fresh orchids, roses, lotus buds, and basically any flower you can imagine. Don’t do what I did and gawk too long or else you’ll be plowed over by a local dashing past you to make their purchase and get out quickly.
Unlike the popular floating market, this is a local spot. I wanted to spend hours just observing the hustle and bustle without the crowds of tourists (just crowds of locals). You’ll spot flowers sitting on ice and ladies sitting on stools weaving marigolds into garlands, which you’ll find in Buddhist temples and pretty much everywhere. These garlands or phuang malai symbolize good luck.
In addition to flowers, the market has an enormous selection of fruits, veggies and spices for consumers and larger packs for wholesalers. I sought this place out to buy dried butterfly pea flowers to make tea. The market is located south of Wat Pho on Chak Phet Road near Saphan Phut.
5. Ban Nam Chiao ecotourism community in Trat
Local Alike also took us to Ban Nam Chiao. In this small Trat village, Thai Muslims and Thai Buddhists live together peacefully. Throughout Thailand it is not common to observe a living situation in which different religious groups live in the same village. It was really special to observe something like this and also communicate with them.
The locals taught us how to make some of their local dishes like Thai rice shrimp pancake (khao kriab yana) and crispy caramel (tangme krop), a traditional dessert. Next, a sweet 70-year-old lady taught us how to make a local hat of palm fronds called ngop. Later we took a small boat to plant a baby mangrove tree (well the mangrove root) to help extend the mangrove forest in the village. The villagers not only support community tourism but also take care of their beautiful land and the natural resources that they’re blessed with.
I never took notice that there were two different religious groups sharing the day with us. After a full but exhausting day that I’ll always remember, I shared a moment watching two friends laugh—one a Buddhist and one a Muslim. I later found out they were best friends and leaders in the community. I respect this community so much for going against the norm in Thailand and coming together to champion community-based tourism despite their differences.
My hope is that this list inspires you to visit Thailand not just for all the incredible sites or the beauty of the landscape but for some truly meaningful experiences like these.
Have you been to Thailand? What were your most memorable, unique experiences? Please share them with me in the comment section!
All photos credited to Caitlin Martin.