Outdoor Tivities & Special Interests



Outdoor Tivities & Special Interests

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Thailand offers an impressive range of outdoor activities and special interests. The coastline in the south is ideal for aquatic fun, from sailing, waterskiing, and windsurfing to big-game fishing and diving to see some spectacular coral reefs. Northern Thailand’s mountainous forests are famous for their waterfalls, caves, and wildlife, including rare birds, gibbons, elephants, and tigers. Trekking in this beautiful region to see hill tribes is a controversial activity, and there are claims that constant visits from outsiders are eroding traditional culture, so be sure to choose a responsible trekking company with knowledge able guides. Thailand also has an extensive network of national parks. Exciting ways to explore the country’s natural wilderness include sea canoeing, bamboo rafting, white-water rafting and rock climbing. Some visitors take advantage of the growing number of excellent golf courses. Others come to learn cultural skills such as Buddhist meditation, traditional massage, and Thai cooking techniques, which include delicate vegetable carving.

Diving and Snorkeling

Abundant coral reefs thronging with aquatic life – serviced by countless diving operations – make Thailand one of the world’s most accessible and rewarding destinations for underwater exploration. The Andaman coast and islands, in particular, have some stunning reefs, ocean drop-offs, and submerged pinnacles. The visibility in these areas often exceeds 30 m (100 ft) – a distance unheard of in most parts of the world. A rich variety of marine life can be spotted in these waters, such as whale sharks off the Burma Banks. Much of the best diving is to be found in the national marine parks containing the Surin, Similan, and Tarutao archipelagos in the Andaman Sea; Ko Tao in the western Gulf of Thailand; and Ko Chang in the eastern Gulf. The once magnificent Ko Phi Phi has not been protected by this preserve status, and has been heartbreakingly damaged by careless anchoring and snorkelers breaking the coral. Reckless fishing with dragnets, harpoons, and explosives has also killed some reefs, while siltation and pollution pose growing threats. Though the devastating tsunami of 2004 caused a tragic loss of lives, its effect on the coral reefs of the Andaman Sea was fortunately minimal. Because of rough weather brought on by monsoons, the Andaman sites are accessible from November to April; the shallower waters of the western Gulf are best visited between January and October. The Eastern Seaboard is accessible all year round. Diving trips vary in length from one to several days, and many tours accommodate snorkelers, too. Selected dive companies are listed in the directory , and fuller listings and details of dive sites appear in the books Asian Diver Scuba Guide: Thailand (Asian Diver) and Diving in Thailand (Asia Books). PADI- and NAUI-approved diving courses are widely available in Thailand. The main centers offering courses are Phuket, Pattaya, Khao Lak, Ko Tao, Ko Samui, Ko Phi Phi, and Krabi. Basic diving rules include: inspect your equipment and get the right fit; don’t dive unless you are confident in your instructor and have been well trained; make sure there’s a buddy system; check that your group is small enough for the dive masters to monitor; and never touch the coral. For people who do not want to spend the time or money on the training necessary to become a certified diver, snorkeling is an excellent alternative, since all you need is the ability to swim. Most hotels and guesthouses located near reefs can rent out equipment, but to make the most of the experience, it’s best to buy your own. While the beautiful patterns of the corals and brilliant colors of the fish that live among them can be mesmerizing, it’s important to be constantly aware of your position and not to venture too far from the shore.


Thailand’s dramatic coastline is popular with the yachting fraternity, who come to Phuket every December for the King’s Cup Regatta. Chartering a yacht – with or without a skipper – is possible, though daily rates for this very exclusive sport are not cheap.

Gulf Charters Thailand operates on the Eastern Seaboard, where sea breezes are often ideal, but the widest choice of sailing companies is found on Phuket. Some of the best are Phuket Sailing, Yachtpro, and South East Asia Liveaboards

Water Sports

Water sports are hugely popular at many Thai beach resorts, but the disturbance they cause to holidaymakers is of concern, and in places such as Krabi they are banned. However, at most other seaside towns it is possible to rent windsurfing boards, and jet skis and banana-boat rides are becoming commonplace even in national marine parks such as Ko Samet. For the best range of water sports, including paragliding, waterskiing, and motorboat rental, head for Jomtien beach at Pattaya; Hua Hin and Cha-am; and Patong and Karon beaches on Phuket. Anglers can make use of the excellent facilities for big-game fishing at Pattaya and Phuket. This can be a thrilling way to pass a day, but be prepared to pay in excess of 10,000 baht for boat rental. See the directory (pp452–3) for details of service providers.


Sea canoeing is not just the most peaceful way to enjoy the unusual karst islets of Phangnga Bay and the Angthong archipelago, but also the only way to explore their collapsed sea caves. Ringed by forest and often containing tiny beaches, many of these spectacular hong (literally “rooms”) were first discovered by Sea Canoe Thailand, which runs the most responsible tours to these fragile “lost worlds.” Another reliable outfit that operates tours around Phangnga Bay, Ko Tarutao National Marine Park, and the huge reservoir in Khao Sok National Park is Paddle Asia.

White-Water Rafting and Kayaking

Sedate bamboo rafting is a popular tourist pastime, particularly on the rivers in the north. More exciting, though, is white-water rafting on hardy inflatables. No experience is necessary apart from the ability to swim, since instruction is given to paddlers before setting out, and each raft has a capable crew to deal with any emergency. The upper reaches of the Pai and Moei rivers in the north are ideal for this thrilling sport, and Umphang’s Mae Klong district near Mae Sot is particularly notable for world-class rafting. Thai Adventure Rafting, Siam Rivers, and The Wild Lodge are a few of the best trip organizers.

For athletic types looking for a challenge, white-water kayaking offers plenty of thrills and spills. Siam Rivers offers day courses for beginners on the Mae Taeng River, just north of Chiang Mai, and tougher, five-day trips on the Nam Wa River in Nan Province.

The season for white water rafting and kayaking in Thailand lasts from July to December: this is when water levels are high enough to ensure an exciting ride


With green and caddie fees cheaper than in the West, it’s easy to see why so many visitors include a round of golf on their itinerary. Golf is very popular in Thailand, and the country has hosted several international competitions at its growing number of courses, many designed by the game’s top names. The greens around Bangkok are mostly flat and uninteresting, but there are some beautiful backdrops at golfing resorts in Phuket, Khao Yai, and Chiang Mai. Exclusivity is a feature of some clubs, though many are open to non-members, and golfing vacation packages are particularly popular at places such as Pattaya, Phuket, and Hua Hin. Visit www.golf thailand.net for an idea of what is on offer. The best printed guides to courses are the Thailand Golf Map and Thailand Golf Guide; TAT also publishes a free directory of the country’s top 75 courses. For improving your handicap, there’s a David Leadbetter Academy of Golf at the Thana City Golf and Country Club. See the directory for additional golf clubs.

Elephant Riding

After the mechanization of logging, and then its supposed ban in 1989, working elephants were no longer in great demand, and their mahouts were reduced to begging on city streets for a living. Offering elephant rides was an obvious way to generate income and was perceived by many as a positive step toward securing the survival of this national symbol, since the elephants’ lowland forest habitat had been largely destroyed. However, recent research has provided us with greater knowledge of the intelligence and emotions of these animals, and animal welfare groups have expressed serious concerns about the ethics of training and riding elephants, and of forcing them to perform elaborate shows for the amusement of tourists.

There are many ways to enjoy the landscape and wildlife of Thailand without riding an elephant, such as trekking, kayaking, white-water rafting, or taking a river cruise. If you wish to make a positive contribution to elephant conservation, consider a visit to the Elephant Nature Park in northwest Thailand , where you can observe rescued elephants (and a whole menagerie of other animals), and spend a day or a week as a volunteer helper


Thailand has some ideal terrain for hiking, from the precipitous karst forests of Krabi and Khao Sok in the south to the undulating mountains around Mae Hong Son and Loei in the north. Aside from the country’s outstanding natural beauty, it is the opportunity to visit hill tribes that has caused the trekking business to boom. The novelty of encountering hill tribespeople in elaborate costumes undeniably adds cultural interest to a trek. However, over time, traditional tribal values cannot but be eroded by continued exposure to tourists. Many villages close to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, and Mae Hong Son are depressingly exploited. Additionally, there is the issue of trekkers feeling like voyeurs, especially at cynical shows such as the long-necked Padaung . Try to establish a rapport with tribespeople and always ask their permission before taking photos. Be wary of Burmese border areas, especially around Mae Sariang, where there is a chance of skirmishes between the Burmese military and ethnic armies fighting for inde pendence. Malaria is also a risk around these parts, as it is in Kanchanaburi. In general, the health risks increase the farther you travel away from the towns. For nature-based treks, head for Khao Yai National Park . Many treks also include poling on a bamboo raft, if the rivers are high enough. Treks can last a week but most take place over two to three nights and include visits to several villages. Be aware that scams are commonplace; to avoid being swindled, ask TAT for the list of companies recognized by the Professional Guide Association of Chiang Mai or the Jungle Tour Club of Northern Thailand, of which Eagle House and Mae Ping Riverside Tours are both members.

All treks should be led by at least two competent guides (who should speak the tribal languages and be aware of local customs). Check that the group doesn’t exceed about eight trekkers, that the trek is registered with the police, and that transportation is not by public buses. Useful tips include lining backpacks with plastic bags to keep damp out; sleeping in dry clothes (even if it means wearing wet clothes by day); wearing a sun hat and cream, long trousers to protect against leeches, insect repellent, and worn-in hiking boots or at least supportive athletic shoes. Nights are cold in the mountains, so take warm layers: thermal tops and leggings, and silk sleeping bags. The best times to trek are November to February and early in the wet season, in June and July. For eco-friendly visitors, Siam Safari, The Trekking Collective, The Wild Lodge (see White-water Rafting and Kayaking), and Phuket Trekking Club have a good reputation, and Friends of Nature organizes genuinely ecological treks.

Wildlife Watching

Unfortunately, Thailand’s wildlife has been hunted almost to extinction, so there is little point in spending a few days in a hide in the hope of seeing a wild tiger or a bear. However, the country has a wide network of national parks, where some effort has been made to protect pockets of natural beauty. Here, visitors might well see rare and colorful birds, huge butterflies, and foot-long centipedes. The entrance fee to national parks for foreigners has been doubled to 400 baht, and while this may be justified for a stay of a few days, it is hardly worth paying for a brief visit. Some parks have camp sites, and most have log-cabin-style accommodation that can be reserved through the National Park, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department. The more popular parks, such as Khao Yai, Khao Sok , Phu Kradung , and Doi Inthanon, have well-marked trails, but in less popular parks, visitors should ask park rangers to lead them to interesting features.

Boat Trips

Before the arrival of the motor car, boats were the only form of transportation in Thailand apart from walking. Low-lying areas of the country, such as the Central Plains, were criss-crossed by canals that enabled locals to visit friends and do their shopping. These days, floating markets are strictly for tourists, where visitors can enjoy the colorful spectacle and bustle of boats at places like Damnoen Saduak .

Apart from the floating markets, there are several other opportunities for sightseeing by boat. In Bangkok, Chao Phraya Express Boats offers short tours with commentary on the main riverside sights, such as the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. In the south, companies like Sayan Tour organize half-day and day trips in long-tail boats around the limestone stacks in Phangnga Bay, with the option of canoeing for an hour. In the north, long-tail boats cruise on the Ping River in Chiang Mai. Another popular trip is along the Mae Kok River from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai, either on bamboo rafts that take a couple of days or on long-tail boats that roar downriver in a few hours. Some of these tours, which can be arranged at the jetty in Tha Ton, include a stop at the Karen village of Ruammit for visitors to take a quick elephant ride


With cycling growing in popularity worldwide, it is no surprise that more and more people consider touring Thailand by bike, on a model either brought from home or rented locally. Not only is cycling healthy and environmentally sound, it also guarantees meaningful encounters with local people along the way. Though traffic on main roads can be dangerous to negotiate, it is possible to put a bike on a bus or train and head for quieter rural areas. Mostly the terrain is cyclist-friendly, and several companies organize guided rides along country lanes.

Anyone considering a cycling holiday would be advised to consult www.thaicycling.com and www.mrpumpy.net for information on possible itineraries. One of the most popular routes in the country follows the flow of the Mekong River from Chiang Khan to Nong Khai, or even right round to Mukdahan

The best time to cycle in Thailand is from November to February, when temperatures are cooler, particularly in the north; the worst is between March and May, when pedalers are guaranteed to end each day dripping with sweat. Cycling in the rainy season (June– October) is worth considering, since there is frequently cloud cover, tropical storms tend to pass over quickly, and the landscapes are at their most lush at this time. See the directory for cycling tour operators.

Rock Climbing

Those looking for an activity that gets the adrenalin flowing will find that rock climbing is hard to beat. Providing dramatic views from limestone peaks at the end of a climb, Thailand is one of the world’s most popular destinations for this sport.

The epicenter of rock climbing in Thailand is around Krabi, especially at Railay beach, where several companies offer half-day to three-day courses for beginners and rent out equipment to experienced climbers; the more reliable operators here include Tex Rock Climbing, King Climbers, and Hot Rock. More than 700 bolted routes in the region offer climbs ranging from 5a to 8c in terms of difficulty, graded according to the French system. For more details of rock climbing and other activities in this area, visit www.railay.com.

Ko Phi Phi has a similar lime stone terrain, and a few local companies, like Spider Monkey, offer instruction for beginners at Ton Sai Tower or Hin Taek. Rock climbing is also getting a foothold in the north, where Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures runs climbs on more than 100 bolted routes at Crazy Horse Buttress, near San Kam phaeng, about 25 miles (40 km) east of Chiang Mai. These routes range in difficulty from easy to extremely challenging.


Though Thailand’s limestone landscapes are peppered with caves, few are set up for visitors to explore, so caving remains an activity largely for specialists. However, one cave that has been popularized is Tham Lot , near Soppong, in the northwest of the country. It contains some coffins that date back 1,700 years, and each evening there is a spectacular sight when hundreds of thousands of swifts return to nest in the cave. Cave Lodge is an ideal base from which to explore Tham Lot, and they can even arrange kayaking trips that pass right through the cave.

Bungee Jumping and Ziplining

Visitors who fancy having their feet bound and being thrown off a platform 165 ft (50 m) above the ground should head to Jungle Bungy Jump, a successful company operating in popular tourist locations such as Phuket, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai. A certificate is issued on completion of the jump. Ziplining is a popular activity that lets you sweep through the forest canopy on a steel cable secured to a body harness. The course’s rest stations are ideal for enjoying the jungle’s sounds

Horse Racing and Riding

Plenty of people enjoy a day at the races in their homeland, so why not try your luck in tropical Thailand? It may be difficult to decipher the form card, but a keen eye on the runners in the paddock might just land a winner. As one of the few forms of gambling allowed in Thailand, horse racing attracts a strong local following, and the atmosphere is always vibrant. Races are held on weekends in Bangkok at the Royal Bangkok Sports Club  and the Royal Turf Club.

Air Sports

As if visitors to Chiang Mai didn’t have enough activities to keep them busy, a couple more options, depending on weather conditions, are microlighting and hot-air ballooning. Chiang Mai Sky Adventure offers regular take-offs from bases just northeast of Chiang Mai during the cool season, giving the chance for a bird’s-eye view of the Ping Valley and some spectacular photos.

Cultural Study

Courses in meditation can give a valuable insight into Thai culture and, if followed diligently, also provide an invaluable skill to help cope with stress in the modern world. Participants are required to dress in white and adhere to the fundamental vows of Buddhism, which include refraining from killing, stealing, lying, and eating after midday. Practitioners are also expected to be up before dawn and to plan their day around sessions of walking and sitting meditation, as well as abstaining from entertainment (for example, no watching TV or listening to music) and idle chat (no mobile phones). Since the Dharma (literally, “Way of the Higher Truths,” or code of conduct) is given for free, most places suggest that students make a donation to cover their lodging and food.

For meditation sessions in English and longer, disciplined retreats, contact the World Fellowship of Buddhists or visit www.dhammathai.org. Visitors are welcome to join the 10-day course that is run by the International Dhamma Hermitage at the beginning of each month at Wat Suan Mokkh, near Chaiya in the south. Other options include the Northern Insight Meditation Center’s month long retreats at Wat Ram Poeng in Chiang Mai, Wat Mahathat in Bangkok, and Wat Kow Tahm on Ko Pha Ngan. Some locations have facilities where women can study, while others are only for men. Visitors also come to Thailand to study traditional Thai massage, a vigorous combination of yoga, reflexology, and acupressure. Learning to cook Thai food the Thai way Courses typically tend to last between a week and two weeks and consist of theory, demonstration, and practice, leading to certification of competence. Popular training in English is conducted at Wat Pho  in Bangkok and in Chiang Mai’s subtler style at centers including the Old Medicine Hospital and the Thai Massage School of Chiang Mai.

The techniques of preparing Thai food – including fruit and vegetable carving – can be learned at various hotels and cooking schools, such as the Blue Elephant restaurant and cooking school with branches in Bangkok and Phuket, and Baipai Thai Cooking School in Bangkok. Reliable schools in the north include the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School and Baan Thai Cookery School. Students can sign up for either a day or several days, and a typical day’s “study” includes a shopping trip to the market, a demonstration of how to prepare a few dishes, followed by practice, then the best part – the eating – in which students get to taste and savor their own culinary creations.

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