Thailand Tips



David Whitley discovers that, if you’re planning to stay in Thailand for a while, it’s better to pick proper adventures instead of variety pack day tours


When I was in Thailand earlier this year, I headed up to Chiang Rai. I didn’t want to stay in the city for three days, so I decided to look into some day tour options. There were loads with different travel agencies, and I ended up plumping for one that offered a bit of everything – a few hours’ trekking through hill tribe villages, an elephant ride and a ride on a long-tailed boat.


As a day out, it was really enjoyable. It wasn’t one that I’ll be raving about forever, and it’s one that will never be regarded as truly special when I’m sitting on my deathbed recounting my life to sobbing family members.


On a return visit to Thailand in November, I ended up in Kanchanaburi and found myself doing the same thing. I wanted a day trip, had a look at the options with a few travel agencies, and ended up doing a day out that included a trek to the Erawan waterfall, an elephant ride, bamboo rafting and a train ride on the infamous Death Railway.


Again, it was a really enjoyable day out. The waterfall is gorgeous, the swim in the pools created by it was a welcome respite from the heat, the elephant ride was comically entertaining, the bamboo rafting and rail trip undeniably cool.


But I could foresee a problem here if I was planning to spend a few weeks travelling around the country. Day trips like this could soon get boring.


It doesn’t take much web research to uncover that similar day trips are available from many hubs across Thailand. Generally, these trips fit in three or four experiences that come from an increasingly predictable selection box. There’s trekking, visiting a hill tribe, rafting, kayaking, elephant riding, cycling and possibly a visit to a wildlife attraction that has dubious animal welfare credentials.


The problem is that once you’ve done a couple, they become very samey. And no one activity on any of them feels particularly satisfying. In Kanchanaburi, for example, the bamboo rafting lasted half an hour. It was nice, but it didn’t have the feel of an epic adventure that a half day or full day of rafting miles down the river would have done.


Similarly, there’s a massive difference between an hour in a kayak and having properly sore arms by the time evening draws in on a day-long expedition.


So my advice to people heading for a few weeks would be to pick out tours carefully. Research in advance where you can do one thing with a degree of depth – ie. A whole day’s elephant safari or a two day trekking trip – rather than continually plumping for bite-sized tastes of various activities across the day.


It’s better to spread the variety out over the course of the trip rather than taking similar doses of variety on numerous days. And that sense of achievement and epic adventure doesn’t come from small doses.

You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here





David Whitley takes out the context and history in Ayutthaya as he experiments with an ignorance-is-bliss method of getting over temple fatigue 


Under normal circumstances, I am a complete sucker for stories and context. I don’t just want to know what something is – I want to know its background, how it got there and what has happened to it since. The why is vitally important.


I have found one exception to this, however: Temples.


In south-east Asia, you can look through any guide book and temple after temple after temple will be listed in the main attractions. No-one wants to admit it, but this isn’t because every single temple will knock your socks off – it’s because there’s not much else to list and they need to fill space. South-east Asia doesn’t do sight-seeing and museums in nearly the same way that Europe, North America and Australia do. It’s a being destination rather than a doing and seeing destination.


Consequently, it doesn’t take long for temple fatigue to set it. See a couple, and the next fifteen are increasingly boring.


One way to tackle this is to get context – to either read up on the temples or get a guide who can explain why they were built and go into detail about what individual shrines and carvings mean.


I’ve tried this before, and it has had the wrong effect. Instead of making me more interested, it’s made me more bored. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t care about the machinations of long-dead kings, and that I’m not even faintly fascinated by what the engravings and carvings depict.


It has felt like a test of endurance, standing and listening to a guide explaining things that bore me rigid. That’s no fault of the guide – it’s just the same thing that would happen if a mechanic tried to tell me how all the bits of a car work or a scientist tried to talk me through DNA sequencing a weasel. They’re just things I’m not interested in, and I’ll die perfectly happy never knowing about them.


Ayutthaya is Thailand’s top temple city. The country’s former capital is full of the bloody things and visitor options are generally looking round temples or looking round temples.


Taking previous experience into account, I decided to experiment. While I’m sure Ayutthaya has a long, labyrinthine history, it’s one that doesn’t have all that much relevance to modern Thai society. I’m sure there are knowledgeable guides, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to look at the temples in complete ignorance. Maybe the way to enjoy looking round them was to completely take them out of context and just appreciate them visually? Stripping the story and context away, and just taking them in as incredible buildings, might offer a different perspective.


So we got on a boat. There are a few boat tours of Ayutthaya’s temples available, which generally moor up by three temples to allow you a quick look. The person running the boat tends to have little or no English, and is thus useless as a guide. And that’s exactly what I wanted.


First stop was Wat Chaiwatanaram which, from my limited architectural knowledge, bears more than a passing resemblance to Angkor Wat. Unlike at Angkor Wat, however, I had no-one to explain what everything was. It was quite liberating – I could just use my eyes and see what I liked. The ruins are currently under conservation, but I was struck by two things in particular – firstly that the temple was made of red brick – something I don’t associate with this part of the world – and secondly that it’s laid out in a very orderly pattern. This sense of pattern, with one central prang being surrounded by eight flanking towers, is strikingly pleasing to anyone with OCD.


The second temple is very meh – lots of fussy, colourful roofs and some statues of former kings on thrones – but the third ends up being utterly fascinating. Wat Phanan Choeng is a mazy riverside complex of buildings, some simple and wooden, some grandly given all the usual sparkly trimmings. As we arrive, a monk is outside, tying up his own boat. This is an active monastery rather than a ruin.


The star attraction requires ducking through a few little alleyways to get to and the removal of shoes before entry. The main hall has a small entranceway before you turn right to be faced with an absolutely gigantic Buddha statue. It fills the room that was almost certainly built around it, with the tiered roofs and pillars decorated in what looks suspiciously like Christmas wrapping paper.


It looks fantastic – sometimes seeing a bloody big Buddha is all you need. Knowing who made it or why it’s there is of such secondary importance that it’s irrelevant.


More to the point, if I’d been listening to a guide drone on about the history and significance of the Buddha, I wouldn’t have walked around the back of it.


There, I found an army of women, methodically folding up orange robes like we would do bedsheets from a washing line. The robes were piled high in baskets; an indication of how many the monks must get through. I hadn’t got an insight into the history of the temple – but I had got an intriguing one into the present.

You can get Thailand included as a stopover on your RTW here