My eyes, ears and taste buds had never had such an incredible feast. There we were, in Thailand, and my senses were beautifully overwhelmed with the rich culture I'd spent 10 years wanting to immerse myself in.

8 Things Everyone should do in Thailand
8 Things Everyone should do in Thailand

It was hard figuring out which direction to go in - so many places to see, food to eat and new things to try. So, if you're ever in the land of Buddhism, let me help steer you in the direction of some really memorable Thai experiences, the way Contiki's Northern Thai Highlights trip did for me.

  1. VISIT THE ELEPHANT NATURE PARK

    The elephant is the national animal of Thailand, and also, they're freakin' adorable. While elephants are historically an important part of Thai culture, they've also been severely mistreated. They've been used as tourist attractions to beg for money, paint pictures or carry people on their backs. In order to be tame enough to give you a piggyback ride for a few minutes, they need to be severely broken and trained for months.

    Instead, you can experience these beautiful creatures by visiting a sanctuary where they are rehabilitated and cared for. Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai is the sanctuary we went to, and it was the top highlight of my trip. The guides will educate you on elephants and, once you know how to interact with the gentle giants, they'll allow you to feed them, bathe them and hug them while staring lovingly into their eyes.


    Photo courtesy of @thelifeofzai

  2. STAY IN THE FLOATING RAFT HOTEL

    Here's what originally sold me on this unique hotel (or floatel, if you will): you get to jump off your balcony into a river. Sounds awesome, right? Well, it's even more awesome in reality. The River Kwai jungle Rafts, where you are forced to disconnect from technology because there's no service out there, was the most peaceful accommodation on the trip. During the day, you can float down the lazy river, get a Thai massage on the decks, and go hiking in the adjacent village.

    At night, look up at the amazing stars you can see due to the lack of pollution. Not to mention there's a visiting elephant called wendy, who's available for snuggling!

  3. GET COOKING LESSONS

    You should absolutely take a Thai cooking lesson while in this beautiful country. In Chiang Mai, Thai cooking classes are easy to find, but you can stop at The Best Thai Cookery School, which was one of the first in the area to offer up its culinary expertise. The school's owner is the jolliest man you'll probably meet in all of Thailand.

    He starts by taking you to a local market to tell you all about the local produce and what tastes they add to Thailand's traditional dishes. There, he will laugh at his own jokes and set the mood for a really fun, unique experience. When he takes you back to his gorgeous open-air kitchen that overlooks a rice farm, you'll get the inside scoop on how easy it is to cook Thai food. The best part – you get to eat the 3-4 dishes you'll prepare. (Be warned – do NOT eat the chilis).


    Photo courtesy of @thelifeofzai

  4. GET A THAI MASSAGE

    Thai massages are pretty much the bee's knees. You'll be twisted into a pretzel, pulled and stretched more than you ever thought possible – but it feels so good. I got four of them whist there. One time, I'm pretty sure the lady cracked every joint in my body. I felt like a new person walking out of there. And the best part? Thai massages are about $6 USD (20 baht). That's about $60 USD less than what an Asian massage will cost in the U.S. Winning!

  5. BUDDHIST TEMPLES

    With about 94% of the population in Thailand being Buddhist, it's impossible to get to know this culture without learning about Buddhism and its traditions. My only regret of the trip was not learning more about Buddhism whilst there.

    Learn from my mistakes and get to know Buddhism better while at 'The Land of Buddhism.' Don't just visit sacred Buddhist temples, ask questions about them, learn their history and really experience them by immersing yourself into the culture. Also, remember to be respectful and follow etiquette. Dress modestly and neatly, act like you should at a sacred place, and learn some of the temple rules.


    Photo courtesy of @thelifeofzai

  6. VISIT THE MARKETS

    For all the smells and colors and sounds and culture in one package, go to one of Thailand's many markets. I adored the markets in Chiang Mai and Pai, where you could take one step and buy a nicknack or clothes, take another step and find some really delicious street food, and take one more step and find someone karaoke-ing the night away. You might even find some other travelers to hang out with.

    The down-to-earth hippy vibes of Pai's market made it feel like the beach rather than the mountains. Chiang Mai's market was bigger and busier, made memorable by the ladyboy cabaret show. If you're ever in Chiang Mai, this show is a MUST. The women are so gorgeous!

  7. EAT ALL THE FOOD

    Get all of the Thai food in your belly. Try new things, and have Pad Thai for breakfast. (Yeah, they serve Pad Thai for breakfast there!). Your tolerance for spicy food will probably go up, but you'll be ok. Also, know that Thai food outside of Thailand doesn't taste exactly like Thai food in Thailand, so don't be surprised if it's different from what your taste buds have already experienced.


    Photo courtesy of @thelifeofzai

  8. CHAT TO THE LOCALS

    Talk to the people you meet along the way. Don't let language barriers or differences in culture keep you from finding your common grounds or simply making a friend. One time, when exploring Chiang Mai alone, I needed to cross a busy two-way street. I kept looking both ways, stepping up as if ready to cross, and then backing out.

    Out of nowhere, a Thai woman stepped up to me and reached out her hand. She said nothing. I reached out back to her, grabbed her hand, and she pulled me in, giving me a look that said, 'Ready?' We crossed the road together, running across to the other side. "If you no cross, they no stop," she told me. I bowed my head to her and thanked her profusely, and with a smile she disappeared. Kindness knows now boundaries!

Written by Zai De Guzman. Content courtesy of Contiki Travel Tours


*$100 off any Contiki trip 7 days or longer. Valid for all UNIGLOBE West agencies. Valid for travel any time before December 31, 2018. New bookings only. Offer is combinable with brochure discounts such as Early Payment Discount, Book with Friends & 2nd trip discount. Not valid with most national promos or last minute deals. Offer valid on all Contiki brochures. Please contact your travel agent for full details. Promo code: PPUNIGLOBEW100

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