Adventure & Wellness Travel
While for some, the ideal holiday is spent lolling on a beach sipping smoothies or cocktails, others want to push themselves to the limit, seeking thrills and adventure. Fortunately, Thailand's well-developed tourism industry offers lots of adventurous options for the more intrepid traveler. Adventure-tour operators have opened up nature's wild side to those who would dare, providing exciting experiences that are well planned and safe for everyone, from beginners to experts.
The first thing many people consider for an active vacation is scuba diving or snorkeling. Living coral reefs grace the waters of the Andaman Sea, off Thailand's southwest coast and the Gulf of Thailand. More than 80 species of coral have been discovered in the Gulf, while the deeper and more saline Andaman has more than 210. Marine life includes hundreds of species of fish, plus numerous varieties of crustaceans and sea turtles. With the aid of scuba gear, divers can get an up-close-and-personal view of this undersea universe. For those without certification, many reefs close to the surface are still vibrant.
From Phuket, you can take a day trip that includes two or three dives. Long-term scuba trips on live-aboard boats run seasonally. Always check that an operator has PADI-certified dive masters, and that their boats are carrying the full bevy of certificates of approval issued by international marine safety organizations. Scuba training and certification packages are common and can have you ready to dive in 5 days. Pretty much every beach has independent operators or guesthouses that rent snorkels, masks, and fins for the day. A few boat operators take snorkelers to reefs off neighboring islands, especially from Ko Lanta, Ko Phi Phi, Krabi, Ko Samui, and Pattaya.
Thailand's mountainous jungle terrain in the north has become a haven for trekkers. At the same time, human rights organizations have highlighted the damage this does to sustainability in remote villages inhabited by poor hill-tribes, where the places visited have become little more than paying human zoos.
Choose your operator carefully and look out for community-based projects, where the local people reap real benefits from your visit. Treks can last 1 to 5 nights but usually involve no more than 3 to 4 hours per day of walking on jungle paths. All tours provide local guides to accompany groups, and the guides will keep the pace steady but comfortable for all trekkers involved. Some trips break up the monotonous walking with treks on elephant-back, trips in four-wheel-drive jeeps, or light rafting on flat bamboo rafts. Chiang Mai has the most trekking firms, while Chiang Rai, Pai, and Mae Hong Son also have their share of trekking companies. Recommended trekking operators are Trekking Collective (tel. 05320-8340; www.trekkingcollective.com) and Active Travel (tel. 05320-4664-5; www.activethailand.com).
River rafting in rubber dinghies and kayaks is becoming increasingly popular in Thailand, with operators taking off in places such as Pai. Winding through dense jungles, past rock formations and local villages, these trips include camping and sometimes trekking. Rapids are rarely extreme but are big enough to be loads of fun, and safety measures are taken seriously.
A few lucky folks know that Thailand is home to one of the top-10 climbing walls in the world. Rock climbing at Railay Beach, in Krabi, is attracting lovers of the sport, who come to have a go at these challenging cliffs. The views from the cliffs are breathtaking. A few small outfits accept beginners for training or will organize climbs for more specialized experts, providing all the necessary equipment.
If the wild isn't calling you, know that Thailand is Southeast Asia's top spa and wellness destination, with a bewildering variety of programs, varying from posh beach resorts, such as the Chiva-Som, in Hua Hin, to low-key centers, such as the chain of colonic centers known as The Spa. Health programs at these centers may include yoga, tai chi, massage, fasting, and alternative therapies.
It may seem strange to go on vacation in order to study, but when the subject is Thai cuisine, Thai massage, Buddhist meditation, or handling elephants, that's not so. Visitors get to appreciate these aspects of Thai culture so much more, as well as go home with new skills they can show off to their friends.
Cookery courses have been all the rage in Thailand for a decade now, with flexible courses that allow students to choose anything between half a day and a full week getting to grips with the subtleties of Thai cuisine. Try a 1-day course to start, which usually involves taking a trip to the local fresh market to buy ingredients, then following the teacher's steps to produce a few Thai classics, such as kaeng khiaw waan (sweet green curry), thawt man kung (shrimp cakes) or yam hua phli (banana-flower salad). Then, if you enjoy homework, which involves eating what you've cooked, sign up for another day. Bangkok and Chiang Mai have the widest choice of schools, but many small towns now also have a cooking school.
Massage courses are also hugely popular among Westerners who appreciate the multiple benefits of a thorough, pressure-point massage and want to induce a deep relaxation in others. Once again, courses are flexible, ranging from a few days to several weeks, with 10 days being an average. Though you can get a good traditional massage anywhere in the country, few schools outside Bangkok and Chiang Mai have courses for foreigners. To study in style, head for Chiva-Som on Sukhumvit Soi 63, which runs an academy with a huge range of wellness techniques taught in English by trained therapists. Visit www.chivasomacademy.com for info.
Meditation courses present perhaps the ultimate challenge to fast-living Westerners who couldn't get through a day without their cellphone or TV. The challenge also involves no reading, no idle gossip (in some monasteries, no talking at all), and, toughest of all, no thinking. Most temples teach the Theravada Buddhist tradition of meditation and developing insight, known as Vipassana. The best-suited temples for foreigners are Suan Mokkh or Wat Khao Tham, in the south; Wat Rampoeng, in Chiang Mai; and Wat Mahathat, or The House of Dhamma, in Bangkok.
Finally, if you've ever dreamed of being an elephant handler, or mahout, Thailand is the place for you -- you can work with elephants at a number of places here. One of the best places is the Thai Elephant Conservation Center at Lampang (tel. 05424-7875), where you can train to be an elephant mahout and learn how to hop on and steer your very own 2-ton elephant. You'll get to know the language of the elephants (a mix of Thai and Karen words), and you'll also be called upon to feed and wash them.
If you really want to commit yourself to giving as well as getting during your vacation, then consider signing up for volunteer work. What's more, people who experience the country in this way are guaranteed closer contact with Thais than those on the tourist circuit. The most common opportunities in Thailand involve teaching English, but computer skills and any other expertise might be employed to good effect. Below are some organizations that offer the chance to do voluntary work in Thailand; most require a donation to cover expenses such as accommodation and food.
If you know how to dot your Is and cross your Ts, you might have what it takes to be an English teacher. Contact Lemon Grass Volunteering, in Bangkok (tel. 081977-5300; www.lemongrass-volunteering.com), or Travel to Teach (www.travel-to-teach.org/thai), an international organization with some teaching projects in the kingdom, for more information.
Mundo Exchange Thailand (www.thai-experience.org), with a base in Nong Khai in Thailand's remote northeast, has requirements for English teachers and people with computer skills, but will try to place anyone with a sincere desire to help the underprivileged.
Several organizations welcome volunteers at elephant camps that look after sick and mistreated elephants, including the Elephant Nature Foundation (tel. 05327-2855; www.elephantnaturefoundation.com), which is based in the north of the country.
There are also organizations trying to protect gibbons from exploitation and extinction, such as the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, on Phuket.
Those seriously interested in marine conservation can join the volunteer team at Ko Phra Thong near Phuket, where an Italian-led organization called Naucrates has spent over a decade educating local communities on ecological issues and monitoring the decline of local turtles. It also runs a mangrove revitalization scheme.