My travels in Thailand have been strictly independent. I’ve never booked a tour (save for one small cycling tour), never taken a tuk-tuk, and never visited the Grand Palace. It’s not something to boast about, as those activities surely provide some insight to the country’s culture. However, coming from a country with such diverse culture, including Thai, has led me to seek other means to appreciate Thailand as its own unique entity.
As such, I’ve embraced slow travel for my exploration of Thailand. Slow travel involves taking a mindful and unhurried approach to exploring a new place, immersing into the local culture, and making meaningful connections. It encourages taking time, embracing spontaneity, and appreciating the journey as much as the destination.
Here are some ways you can also benefit from slow travel while in Thailand, as I have.
1. The destination
Thailand boasts many tourist-known cities across the country, from its capital Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north, and party town Pattaya to island destination Phuket. If you’re travelling from Europe or the Americas, covering them all might require at least a couple of weeks. But rushing through them would defeat the purpose of slow travel.
These cities are undoubtedly worth visiting at least once to experience the essence of touring Thailand. Yet, I also recommend venturing a little beyond these urban hubs. Consider exploring Bangkok but going out to Kanchanaburi, where you can immerse yourself in nature with a national park and the historic Death Railway. Or perhaps spending a night in Doi Inthanon instead of doing a day trip from Chiang Mai. I once completed an entire loop around Doi Inthanon, and it remains one of the best trips I’ve taken.
With a bit of research, you’ll discover that Thailand has so much more to offer beyond its cities!
2. Slow Transportation
It’s tempting to hop on a tuk-tuk for novelty or a taxi to get everywhere. But if you’re in Bangkok, the city’s traffic congestion and the risk of tourist scams make them less appealing options, especially during peak hours.
Personally, I’m fond of taking motorbike taxis. Easily booked via Grab or found near popular spots, they offer a cheaper and often faster alternative to navigate through the city’s traffic, albeit at the cost of enduring the heat and occasional rule-breaking!
For a unique experience, consider taking the boats that traverse along the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok’s canals. These books, which are mainly used by locals and operate only in the day, offer a different perspective of the city at a very affordable price.
Beyond Bangkok, train rides provide an excellent way to explore other parts of Thailand at various price points. I opted for a first-class seat to Ayutthaya and a third-class seat back to Bangkok, bypassing the touristy tours and saving a significant amount of money. Despite the crowded, hot, and slow conditions of third-class seats, you’ll find yourself immersed in the local experience—truly feeling like you’re in Thailand.
3. Local Food experiences
Thailand’s vibrant food culture is one that I would always return to and never tire of. From classics like tom yum kung (spicy and sour soup) and pad kra pow (Thai basil meat rice) to pad Thai (stir-fry noodles) and mango sticky rice, there’s always something to satisfy your hunger.
Exploring beyond these popular dishes is always rewarding. In Chiang Mai, I savoured khao soi, a curry-based noodle soup unique to the north. In Bangkok, I indulged in tom kha kai, a coconut milk soup with chicken, and it remains one of the best Thai dishes I’ve ever tasted. Another standout was the pork spine soup, a delicacy found only at Jodd Fairs in Bangkok.
Instead of relying on maps or reading blogs for recommendations, I prefer wandering around the neighbourhoods and night markets, sampling whatever catches my eye from the menus of street food vendors and eateries. One memorable experience was stumbling upon a mookata barbecue restaurant in Mae Sariang, where only locals dined. We enjoyed one of the best meals on the trip.
It’s often these hole-in-the-wall places that you find not only great food but also affordability.
4. Cultural Immersion
At the heart of Thailand’s culture is Theravada Buddhism, which infuses every aspect of daily life, from religious rituals to social customs. Thai people exhibit deep respect for elders, and their vibrant festivals serve as colourful celebrations of the Thai identity.
Planning a trip to Thailand during festivals like Songkran (Thai New Year), Loy Krathong (Festival of Lights), and Phi Ta Khon (Ghost Festival) offers the opportunity to witness lively parades and participate in ritual ceremonies. Temple visits can transcend mere photography, offering the chance to engage in monk-led meditation sessions and explore Buddhist teachings. Understanding these aspects of Thai culture requires keen observation and meaningful conversations with locals, who are eager to share their heritage.
Another immersive experience I’ve enjoyed in Thailand is attending a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) class. This provides a unique window into Thai martial arts tradition and philosophy. Through participation in the sport, I’ve learned about resilience, discipline, and respect deeply ingrained in Thai culture. A Muay Thai match also becomes more than just a fight—it’s a connection to Thai heritage and values. After two years of training, I still continue to seek further knowledge in Muay Thai.
While Thailand boasts numerous luxury hotels in the cities, I often find myself drawn to smaller, homelier accommodations scattered throughout the country. These hidden gems may be challenging to find, but the search is well worth the effort.
The best hostels are those where you not only interact with fellow boarders but also connect with the staff. I have a habit of striking up conversations with receptionists to learn about recommended places and local cuisines, often forging friendships that extend beyond mere transactions.
At Doi Inthanon, I stumbled upon a charming accommodation nestled in the countryside. With just five rooms in chalets offering picturesque views of the sunset over farms and mountains, it was a hidden treasure. Despite the language barrier, I used Google Translate to convey my appreciation to the owners for their wonderful accommodation. Witnessing their genuine smiles warmed my heart, reaffirming the sincerity of Thai hospitality from these humble individuals.
6. Nature and outdoors
Thailand offers no short of outdoor activities, with its myriad islands and national parks throughout the country. A simple rule of thumb is to head south for water-based adventures or north for mountainous terrain.
While many islands are renowned for crystal-clear waters, the scourge of overtourism in recent years has wreaked havoc on the ecosystems. Maya Bay, immortalized by the Hollywood blockbuster The Beach, was once closed to mitigate the damage inflicted on the coral reefs and marine life by overcrowding. Similarly, numerous other islands have suffered irreversible changes. Therefore, it’s advisable to explore lesser-known islands where pristine beaches still exist, such as Koh Lipe and Koh Rok.
In terms of national parks, Khao Yai stands out as the most accessible from Bangkok and the most renowned. However, there are many others worth exploring in the vicinity, including Khao Sok and Khao Luang. Personally, the best way to reach these destinations is to hire a driver or rent a vehicle, allowing you to leisurely hike the area and relish the tranquillity away from the urban sprawl.
7. Sustainable and Responsible Practices
After considering the impact we have on local community and the environment, it becomes clear that our actions matter greatly. While an individual’s involvement may seem insignificant, their influence can ripple outward and lead to meaningful change.
Opt for responsible wildlife encounters and support initiatives focused on conservation and cultural preservation. Consider volunteering with organisations like New Heaven Reef Conservation or participating in everyday initiatives such as Trash Hero. Choose sustainable accommodation like the Bangkok Tree House.
Above all, by respecting local culture, we deepen our understanding of the kindness inherent in the Thai people. From the warm greeting of “sa wa dee,” followed by either “krup” or “ka” depending on gender, to dressing and behaving modestly in temples, we honour their customs and traditions.
Explore other interesting customs through research. While some may initially seem peculiar, understanding their significance can foster a newfound appreciation for them.
8. A Tip on Planning Your Slow Travel
Despite Thailand’s heavy reliance on tourism to fuel its economy, there is much more to discover beyond the flashy structures and tourist traps. Thanks to the internet, we now have access to resources that unveil off-the-beaten-path destinations, provided we invest the time to research.
When planning for a motorbike trip from Chiang Mai, I initially contemplated the Mae Hong Son loop, as it appeared to be a popular route among travellers. While Pai, one of the stops along the route, is known as a tourist hub, my journey took an unexpected turn when I arrived in Mae Sariang. Here, it became evident that few ventured through this part of the region, offering me the chance to contribute to the local community in my own small way.
If you come across destinations that receive less mention, seize the opportunity to explore them. Trust your instincts if you can’t find sufficient information, and consider ditching a fixed itinerary. By embracing spontaneity, you’ll uncover pleasant surprises that you will remain etched in your memory for a lifetime.