Thailand Guide: Trip Ideas for the Outdoorsy Traveller

Where to go sea kayaking, trekking, rock climbing, and diving in the Southeast Asian country. | By Margot Bigg  
Kayaking in Krabi, Thailand
Kayaking tours are a popular way to explore the mangrove forests and limestone caves in the northern part of Krabi. Photo: Sergi Reborwdo/Age Fotostock/Dinodia

From climbing limestone cliffs along the Andaman coast to trekking in the hill villages in northernmost Thailand, there is plenty on offer for outdoor enthusiasts and those who thrive on adventure. Here are a few of Thailand’s top outdoor activities and the best places to experience them.

Sea Kayaking in Phang Nga Bay

One of the most iconic images of Thailand that pops up the moment anyone googles the country is James Bond Island, a large chunk of rock immortalised in the 007 caper, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). While this iconic island is among Phang Nga Bay’s best-known attractions, the area is equally known for its exceptional sea kayaking. Day-long trips for beginners and experienced kayakers are available and usually include meals, hotel transfers, and gear. Longer expeditions—some of which last up to a week and include camping gear—are also an option.

While learning to paddle across the open sea and getting a good workout is a highlight for many travellers, some also use these kayaking trips to hone their photography skills. The unique vantage points offered on the kayaking routes allow for capturing unusual images of the water and the surrounding natural landscape. There are also plenty of opportunities to paddle into the mangroves for up-close views of birds, monkeys, snakes, and other jungle dwellers. Expect to get wet and be sure to bring waterproof bags to store electronics. John Gray’s Sea Canoe is by far the most popular operator who has been providing kayak ecotours in the area since 1983 (www.johngray-seacanoe.com).

Trekking and Motor Biking around Chiang Mai

Doi InthanDoi Inthanon National Park, Thailandon National Park

Travellers who want to experience Thailand beyond its beaches, often hike through Doi Inthanon National Park. Photo: John Elk/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Most of Thailand’s popular treks start out in Chiang Mai and tend to average 2-4 nights. Trekking outfitters generally provide a guide or two who double-up as cooks and translators, and porters can often be arranged. Travellers must be relatively fit to undertake some of the longer and more strenuous treks, but plenty of the shorter circuits only involve a few hours of walking a day. Bring a raincoat even when visiting outside of the rainy season, as unseasonal showers are common.

Treks generally stop in villages of the Karen hill tribe, where visitors can learn more about the rural way of life and maybe even share a meal with a local family. Many packages also involve visits to the Maetaeng Elephant Park and include a break at a waterfall for a quick dip. Travellers who want to spend time in the midst of nature can look into trekking options in the abundantly forested Doi Inthanon National Park. Turtles, lizards, gibbons, civets, and hundreds of species of birds are found there as is Thailand’s highest peak, the 8,415-foot-high Doi Inthanon.

Another way to explore Northern Thailand without hiking or taking guided tours is by renting a motorcycle. Head out on the Mae Hong Son Loop, a 600-kilometre ring of road that traverses valleys peppered with gorgeous temples, caves, hot springs, and viewpoints. The loop passes through the quiet town of Mae Sariang and the picturesque lakeside city of Mae Hong Son before leading up to the little backpacker village of Pai. The route takes around four days.

Diving in Koh Tao

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao is a hotspot for scuba diving. Photo: Shutterstock/Indiapicture

Clear waters and spectacular marine life on the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea make for excellent diving. The sites range from crystal-clear waters off the Similan Islands to the famous Richelieu Rock off Surin Islands in the Andaman Sea, best known for its violet-hued coral and regular manta ray and whale shark encounters. Those new to the world of diving can best get their feet wet in Koh Tao (Turtle Island) which sits just north of Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan. The 21-square-kilometre island has dozens of dive shops, and is easily the most popular beginner dive spot in Thailand, thanks to its abundance of easily accessible dive sites and affordable certification programmes. Popular operators include Asia Divers (www.asia-divers.com) and Ocean Sound Dive & Yoga (www.oceansoundkohtao.com).

Many dive schools offer scuba diving programmes for people who want to learn the basics in a day or two. However, if you have a few extra days to spare you’re better off enrolling in a proper diving certification course. Once certified, you can dive without an instructor at dive spots around the world. Certifications are generally issued under the auspices of PADI (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) or the SSI (Scuba Schools International) and beginner courses last three to four days. Most diving courses take aspiring divers to the area’s best-known dive sites, including the anemone-covered Chumphon Pinnacle, a popular habitat for sailfish, eels, and colourful angelfish. Another not-to-be-missed site is the HTMS Sattakut, a WWII ship that was intentionally sunk in 2011 to create a dive site. It has since become a habitat for a host of aquatic species, including snappers and barracudas.

Rock Climbing at Railay Beach

One of the best-known areas for rock climbing in Thailand, if not Southeast Asia, is Krabi Province’s Railay Beach. The surrounding area is covered with hundreds of routes along limestone rocks suitable for everyone from beginners to experienced climbers.

Though there are plenty of climbing centres and most offer similar packages. These range from short beginner courses that cover basics such as knot-tying and belaying (controlling safety ropes) to more comprehensive programmes in sport climbing (in which climbers attach themselves to bolts fixed into the wall). Equipment—including shoes, harnesses, and helmets—is included in most packages, and children’s courses and kids’-size equipment is available.

Railay also caters to the extreme sport of deep-water soloing. This activity involves climbing up sea cliffs—without the use of ropes or other protective gear—and relying on the depth of the sea waters to break your eventual (or planned) fall.

Appeared in the March 2016 issue as part of “Your Own Private Thailand”.

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