July 6, 2012
In September of 2009, I spent two weeks in Thailand. My friend and I flew to Bangkok, took the overnight train to Chiang Mai, and then flew to the south, stopping in Khao Sok and Ko Samui before returning to Bangkok. Here’s a list of my 10 favorite activities, sites, places to stay, and things to eat in the places I visited, along with a recipe for my favorite Thai dish, som tam.
1. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center is the reason I wanted to go to Thailand in the first place. I came across it via the New York Times “36 Hours in Chiang Mai” article published in 2008. When most people think of Thailand, they most likely envision white sandy beaches, colorful drinks, and drag queens so feminine they’re almost unidentifiable. I, on the other hand, will always associate Thailand with elephants. I’ve always been fascinated by elephants and when I discovered I could spend a day with them—learning how to communicate with them, ride them, etc—I became fixated on the idea. At the Elephant Conservation Center, which is a bus ride away from Chiang Mai, you not only learn about these magnificent creatures and their significance in Thai culture, but you contribute, through the cost of the training, towards funding elephant conservation efforts and maintaining the center. That’s my kind of tourist adventure.
2. The second best adventure in northern Thailand is mountain trekking. The lush, emerald countryside offers spectacular views and an opportunity to stretch your legs and stay overnight in a mountain village. Be aware that you will need proper gear for this trip—not necessarily high tech camping equipment, but at the very least a pair of boots or shoes with good grip on the sole, and some quick-drying clothes (polyester or breathable nylon). The rain, mud, and humidity ensure that even with the right clothing, you’ll be damp the entire time. This is also not a trip I’d recommend for anyone in poor shape—several of our group members were struggling to make it to the village and regretted coming at all. I, on the other hand, regretting signing up for only two nights!
3. If I had to plan my Thailand trip all over again, I would go to the western side of southern Thailand, to Ko Phi Phi, where the movie The Beach was filmed. We went to Ko Samui instead, and I was very put-off by the tourist scene there—sad, creepy, or misogynist white men are on the prowl for young Thai girls everywhere you look. There is one diamond in the rough on this island though, and it’s Poppies Restaurant. Poppies is actually a resort hotel, and the restaurant is in one of its romantic gardens overlooking the ocean. The menu is half Thai and half international—we went the Thai route. I ordered a white snapper steamed in a light broth with a pile of julienned scallions and ginger. This dish is the best plate of seafood I’ve ever eaten and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to recreate it. I guess that means I’ll have to go back.
4. Khao Sok National Park is an ancient rainforest located the middle of southern Thailand, so it’s easily accessible from either coast. Its biodiversity is greater than that of the Amazon, and it’s home to a plethora of wild animals—monkeys, deer, alligators, elephants, tigers, etc. The guide we hired to take us through the park was sufficiently aloof, scarred, and bizarre to have been a character in a Stephen King novel. But the best part of visiting Khao Sok is that you can stay in a tree house. We stayed at Our Jungle House, which has excellent food in addition to its unique accommodations. The tree houses are definitely for grown-ups (they all have running hot water), but they will still satisfy your inner child. Just make sure to secure your mosquito/reptile/spider net before you turn out the lights.
5. My favorite Thai dish is som tam, a green papaya salad with lime dressing, snake beans, tomatoes, and dried shrimp. It’s crunchy, salty, sweet, and acidic—everything a salad should be. Som Tam, like many Thai dishes, can be incredibly spicy depending on how many chilies you use. Make it on a hot afternoon and wash it down with a cold Singha, Thailand’s notorious brew. (Scroll down for a recipe.)
6. Another reason to visit Ko Samui is its proximity to Ang Thong National Marine Park, an archipelago of little misshapen islands. Our day excursion to the marine park included a kayaking trip around the islands and through a few caves, a steep, perilous hike to a spectacular view, and some much need relaxation time on the beach. There’s also the Emerald Lagoon, a salt water lake, that’s worth checking out for its brilliant blue-green color.
7. Bangkok was my least favorite place in Thailand. The rest of the country is so beautiful and exciting that staying in the capital for more than two days would be like sitting in one’s room playing Xbox on a perfect summer day. Unfortunately, some of the most impressive temples and the Grand Palace are in the city, and they’re all must-sees. The only other place in Bangkok that I enjoyed was the Moon Bar on the roof of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Moon Bar offers excellent cocktails (including lychee martinis, my favorite) and panoramic views of the city, which is quite impressive when it’s lit up at night.
8. Chiang Mai is the cultural epicenter of Thailand and home to many of its temples, including Doi Suthep, which is situated on a hilltop and houses gilded shrines and exquisite murals. My favorite temple, however, is the Forest Wat (Wat Umong). Unlike Doi Suthep, the Forest Wat is not much to look at. There’s no gold and glamour at this quiet, shaded temple, but there are some interesting tunnels and a small lake to explore, as well as a gorgeous chedi, or stupa. Anyone interested in learning about meditation or Buddhism is welcome to talk to the monks who live there year round.
9. Thai cuisine in the Western world is mostly synonymous with pad thai or green curry, not soup. But when you’re in Thailand, soup is everywhere. I loved stopping at the soup carts that line the streets of Bangkok. The cart owner—usually an older woman—ladles some broth, noodles, and maybe some meat in a bowl. You can add spicy condiments and fresh herbs to taste. If you order soup at a restaurant, try one of the numerous variations of tom yum, a fiery soup with a base of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, red chilies, lime juice, and fish sauce. My favorite tom yum is the sea bass tom yum served at Palaad Tawanron, a restaurant behind the Chiang Mai zoo with a great view of the city.
10. Wat Arun is my favorite of the Bangkok temples, probably because it’s less gaudy than the rest. You can climb around the stone staircases to admire the colorful porcelain façade and carved figures. It also has nice views of the Chao Phraya River that runs through the city.
Peel the papaya with a knife and grate with the grating attachment of a food processor, a julienne/kiwi shredder, or mandolin grater. Put the shredded papaya in a bowl with plenty of cold water and leave it to soak while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
For the dressing: Smash the garlic clove and chilies in a mortar and pestle with a pinch of salt until a rough paste forms. Alternatively, mince them on a cutting board and make a paste by crushing the pieces into the board with the sharp edge of your knife. Transfer the paste to a small bowl and stir in the lime juice, melted palm sugar, and fish sauce.
Gently pound the beans in batches with a mortar and pestle just to bruise them a little so they absorb the dressing. Repeat this process with the grape tomatoes and then the dried shrimp.
Mix all the ingredients together and let stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes. Serve immediately (this salad does not hold up well in the refrigerator because of the tomatoes).
*Note: Make sure you buy an unripe papaya that is entirely green, not just a slightly less ripe papaya, which will be orange inside. Green papayas are usually available at Asian markets.