Last updated 04/07/04
A restaurant chain in Thailand, serving mostly Thai food (some western too, but their Thai is really good). The setting is decidedly restaurant-like and not fast food, presentation of dishes is tasteful, quality of the food has been great every time we tried their outlets, and prices are quite reasonable (2-4 USD per dish). Be sure to try their Thai ice tea freeze - it is the best!
A sweet refreshing cold drink that has very little resemblance to any tea you've ever tried. It is indeed a tea, served chilled, with the addition of milk and sugar (or sweetened water) and ice cubes or, better yet, crushed ice. The resulting concoction, when done right, is light orange in color and unsurpassed in taste. The secret of the specific flavour may lie in the tea leaves used to prepare the base of this drink; our Thai cooking class teacher Ya claimed that the correct brand of tea to use is made in Thailand and has a "white bear" on the package. We shall experiment in preparation of this wondrous drink once we're back home. Thai Iced Coffee is similarly sweet and milky, meaning very tasty, but not as mysterious as the Tea.
Swimming on your tummy with your face submerged in the water, so you can see the beauty of the marine world. A mask on the face protects your eyes from the water and prevents you from breathing through the nose; instead you breath with your mouth through a breathing pipe which sticks out above the water level. The pipe is called "snorkel", hence the name of the activity. Water is not supposed to get inside the mask, but sometimes it does anyway, then you stick your head out of the water, drain the mask and put it back on - unavoidable annoyance. You may also choose to wear plastic fins on your feet to help propel your body in the water, this helps a lot if you aren't the greatest swimmer, in which case you should wear a life-vest as well. Normally you only use leg motion to snorkel, while arms can be utilized to point out cool underwater stuff to your partner, or to try catching fish (impossible) or touch marine life forms (dangerous, since most corals are sharp, and prohibited, since they are endangered species). Snorkelling makes sense in places where there are coral reefs, because they are fun to observe: bright-colored tropical fish of different shapes and sizes, plant-like formations of the corals themselves, sponge creatures that look like breathing mouths, black spiked balls on the seabed, green shaggy carpets of seaweed, and much, much more.
In some places in Thailand good snorkelling spots exist right next to the beach resort (Monkey Beach on Koh Phi Phi is one such location), but usually you need to take a snorkelling tour. You will be taken on a passenger boat to some small islands, the boat will be anchored, you will descend into the water right off the boat and snorkel around the reefs, then get back on the boat and go home or to another snorkelling location. Such tours cost anywhere from 10 to 50 USD per day (8am to 4pm), including lunch on the boat. In our experience, Koh Phi Phi is cheapest and best for such excursions, while the much-touted Similan Islands aren't that great. If you intend to snorkel a lot, it is advised to buy your own mask, snorkel and fins, because the equipment you get on tours may be of inferior quality or wrong size (fins have sizes just like normal footwear). A decent set runs for around 40 USD. Renting a mask and snorkel will set you back 2+ USD per day, with fins extra.
Rule #1: do not bring any beach-related items into Thailand, as you will be much better off purchasing it here. Swimming suits, beach towels and mats, fake-brand sunglasses, sunblock lotion, sarong skirts, slippers -- all these are available here in wide supply and cheaper than back home. The exception is maybe only real-brand-name sunglasses and snorkelling gear that you already own. Useful things to buy on the spot are: sunblock (you need it even if you are of Indian descent! the sun here can be brutal, and you can get sunburn even when the sky seems overcast), a beach mat that rolls into a shoulder bag, a dry bag (available from diving shops) and a waterproof neck pouch for money. The latter is a plastic tube that fits coins and rolled-up bills, closes tightly and hangs around your neck while you lazy around on the beach and go swimming. That way you don't worry about leaving money in the hotel room or, worse, under your beach towel while you have fun in the water. A dry bag is a rubber sack of 5 or 10-liter capacity (10 is perfect) with a special waterproof closure on the top. It makes for a very convenient place to put your towel, T-shirt, book, camera etc. when you go out on a kayaking or snorkelling trip, because often boarding the boat involves walking hip-deep in the water, and any normal bag is likely to get wet.
Both terms refer to the water sports where you get in a small narrow boat and paddle it yourself. Kayaking always implies a long, narrow plastic boat for 1 or 2 people (sitting behind one another); if you have a child, get a "triyak" - 2-person boat with a child seat in between. Canoeing may mean exactly the same as kayaking, or else may involve a rubber air-filled boat. This activity is a good exercise, but does not require great physical shape from the participant; however, be careful of the tides and strong winds, and wear a life jacket if you are not a confident swimmer. You can either rent a kayak yourself and paddle out into the sea along rocky cliffs (fun to do on Koh Phi Phi, Koh Samui, Krabi, but not Phuket - rentals are not available at all on Patong beach due to strong tide), or join an organized tour. Fun tours include river trips among mangrove forest and sea cave kayaking (you paddle through tunnel-like caves). Tours that combine kayaking and snorkelling can be a good value as well. Prices run from 20 USD for a day's tour and up, depending on the program.
Some island beach resorts in Thailand, such as Koh Phi Phi, are blessed with majestic limestone cliffs that happen to be perfect for rock climbers, even newbees like yours truly. The activity involves the actual climb up the vertical rockface, coming back down (called rapelling), and holding the safety rope for other climbers (called belaying). The climbing is done by finding spots in the rock to grab onto with your hands, and similar crevices for your feet, and pulling yourself up using leg and arm muscles, all the while clinging to the surface of the cliff. Yes, it really is as hard as it sounds! If you fall, which happened to us about once per climb attempt, then you hang on the safety rope. One end of the rope is attached to the harness around your waist and hips, the middle is pulled through a hook at the top of the climbing area, and the other end is held by a person standing at the ground level. Hence, in the event of falling, your weight is supported by the guy/gal on the ground, and you better be able to trust them! They are doing the "belaying" -- pulling onthe rope to allow you to climb further up, and releasing it to bring you back down. You "rapel" yourself down, i.e. hang in the air on the end of the rope, push off the rockface with your feet, and descend in jumps as your ground partner slowly (or quickly) releases the rope. All of this is a lot of fun, but the activity is strenuous and accident-prone; beginners will get off with small scrapes if they do it right. Be careful, and climb on!
Thai food is spicy, that much is true, but don't let that scare you off; it is perfectly possible to get your order without any chili peppers whatsoever, or with a reasonable heat level. Moreover, Thai cuisine includes dishes that are not at all spicy. On the other hand, if you are a spice lover, be sure that chili sauce can always be found to raise the heat in your plate. Condiments will always include chili peppers in oil, fish sauce (similar to soy sauce, quite salty) and some vinegar. Thai food can be classified into soups, curries (liquid sauces with vegetables and meat or seafood, look like soups to a foreigner but are supposed to be eaten over steamed rice), fried noodle or rice dishes, and salads.
Curries are often based on coconut milk, which makes them somewhat sweet, and can be very spicy unless you ask otherwise; they come in green, red and yellow variety and do not differ much from one another to a foreign palate (they will taste different if done right, but restaurant fare will likely be one and the same). Curries can contain any kind of meat (chicken, beef, pork), fish, prawns or other seafood. Soups can also be coconut-milk-based and therefore taste similar to curries, but will be eaten without rice. Otherwise, noodle soups make for a nutritious meal; those are basically fried noodles (probably of the wide kind) with meat/seafood of your choice and veggies, served in brown broth. Fried noodle dishes include the famous "pad thai" and endless other varieties, and rice can also be refried with anything you can think of (pineapple-fried rice is quite good). Fried noodle or rice dishes are normally savoury, not sour or sweet. Salads hold some surprises; be sure to try green papaya or green mango salad, it is a delicious classic, and glass noodle salads are not to be missed. Salads will often be sour in flavour, probably to offset the sweetness of the curries.
Thai desserts are not as numerous as main dishes, but include a few lovely dishes: fresh mango with sweetened sticky rice is awesome, and anything (banana, the mysterious taro balls, etc.) served in coconut milk will be good but very, very sweet. Try Thai pancakes, aka "roti", when you are in Krabi. And no worries -- if you get tired of Thai food, touristy places have large selection of Western cuisines as well, from American burgers to Dutch apple pie.
I do not know precisely what is considered an authentic Thai drink, but can describe the commonly available things. The best drink found in Thailand but not elsewhere is Thai iced tea. Thai iced coffee is decent too, unlike their normal coffee which is mainly available in the instance Nescafe form (you will have to put some effort into finding good brewed coffee). Fruit shakes can be extremely delicious, but their quality is hit-and-miss from one location to another. They do make unforgettable banana shakes in Krabi... Fruit shakes may or may not include milk and crushed ice. Good bets are lemon shake, which is really a lemonade (sweetened water, juice from fresh lemons, a pinch of salt and crushed ice), banana shake (banana, milk, crushed ice if you're lucky), mango (no milk here). Fruit and milk shakes do not contain ice-cream, you will only find that in "ice-cream shakes". Drinking water in Thailand does not come from the tap, but bottled water is very cheap.
Many of the Thailand resorts offer classes in Thai culinary art at "cookery schools". This can be a fun way to spend an afternoon - certainly consider it for a rainy day! You get hands-on experience in making classic Thai dishes such as curries, soups, a noodle fry called "pad thai", fried rice, all of the above with meat or seafood. Some places also teach you how to carve fruit and vegetables, which is an important part of Thai food presentation. In any case, you will get to cut up the vegetables for the meal, then cook the dishes on the stove under supervision of the teacher, and finally eat what you and your fellow students have prepared. We enjoyed our time at the Krabi cookery school, and found it to be a great activity for 25 USD per person for a 4-hour class. We will cook Thai at home now!
Before coming to Thailand, I had heard other vacationers describe "Thai massage" as a highly pleasureable experience bordering on X-rated. They must have meant something else, maybe the expensive body-to-body massage that I never tried. The Thai massage I am now personally familiar with, which is offered by a hundred shops in every resort community, is more like sports massage, or passive muscle exercise. The masseur (usually a lady) bends and stretches your limbs in every which way, drums on your head with her knuckles, rubs into your muscles with all of her considerable strength, and uses not only her hands but arms and legs as well to exercise the hell out of you. The sensations are almost, but not quite painful, but your body truly feels envigorated afterwards. Overall, I would rate this experience as one of those "good for you" things, like eating steamed vegetables, rather than a treat. Try it yourself...
A "wat" is a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Thai Buddhism is a prosperous branch of buddhism, somewhat influenced by hinduism as well (Thai people even have their own version of Ramayan, the famous Hindu epic). The wats are nice to visit, as they are visually pleasing on the outside and clean inside. The visitor is supposed to take off shoes before entering the temple building. Wats often contain statues of Buddha and sets of bells that can be rung for good luck or as the prayers are said. Some wats double as monasteries, or more exactly dormitories for the monks, as Thai buddhist monks spend a lot of their time outside the temple. For instance, in the morning they leave the grounds to go procure food for the day, as they are supposed to eat only donated food. On the whole, Thai religion is non-threatening to an outsider, easy to approach and observe, and wats in particular can be visited much like museums elsewhere in the world.
An interesting aspect of the religious attitude of Thai people is their belief in spirits, which manifests itself even to an untrained eye, since nearly every building (be it home, commercial shop, school, anything) has a "spirit house" next to it -- a small colorful structure in shape of a wat, with sacrifices of food and flowers in the "front yard" area. A spirit house is built to accomodate potential spirits of deceased people who may have inhabited the area now occupied by a new bulding, so the spirits would not disturb the new tenants, and sacrifices are made daily to the same purpose.
For better or for worse (depends on whom you ask), Thailand is a major center for software, music and video piracy. For the average less-than-conscientous traveller, that means the ability to purchase software and computer games, as well as console games (PS2, XBox, GameBoy etc.), music and MP3 CDs, video CDs and DVDs at much lower prices than official distributors would charge (for instance, music CDs go for 2.5-3 USD). All of the above can be purchased from street stalls right next to the ice-cream vendors, or at large malls. The quality of the wares may vary, but overall it is acceptable, making it all the more difficult to fight the piracy - who'd want to pay five times the price for the official release if the pirates got it as good?..
Trekking basically stands for hiking in the wilderness (as opposed to hiking in national parks), and usually implies long hikes with overnight stays on the way. In Thailand, trekking is mainly done in the northern regions (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, all the way to the Burmese border) where local tribes still keep to their traditional customs, but are becoming more and more of a tourist attraction along the trek -- trekkers can visit, watch the show of local crafts, even stay overnight in the tribesmen's villages. The original meaning of "trekking" implied going alone or in small groups (maybe with a hired local guide) on uncharted routes to explore the nature and authentic Thai ways of life, but it is becoming more organized. Now you can join a trekking tour that will include not only walking on foot, but also elephant riding, river rafting, visiting the more commercialized tribe communities, all that with an English-speaking guide and all equipment provided.
Festival of Thai Buddhist New Year, which happens in April and is most widely celebrated in northern provinces, with the center of festivities in Chiang Mai. This holiday involves a lot of water throwing, which signifies washing off the person's sins and negative impressions of the last year to welcome in the new year with clean soul. The ritual sprinkling of a few drops of water on one another's left shoulder has developed into full-scale water fights with water guns and buckets, so the whole town goes around drenched to the bone for several days. Other festive events include carnival-like parades and worshipping of Buddha images.