Enlightening activities on a visit to Thailand

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Snorkeling at Koh Rang, an island in Thailand’s Trat province.
Snorkeling at Koh Rang, an island in Thailand’s Trat province. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Competition, egos, jet lag: It's not unusual for folks on a media trip to rub each other the wrong way.

However, it is rarely part of the itinerary.

But there we were at Bangkok's Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School, armed with instruction manuals and a steadfast refusal to perform the morning's task: practice our nascent Thai massage skills on each other, under the guidance of our infinitely patient instructor. So he was left to simply demonstrate the techniques on his reluctant students, without seeing us put them to use.

Students at the Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School in Bangkok.
Students at the Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School in Bangkok. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Our time at the massage school, which we undertook alongside serious students from around the world, was part of a plan by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to have us experience off-the-beaten-path activities and destinations on a 10-day fam trip through Bangkok and Trat province. And, our massage lesson aside, the itinerary proved engaging and enlightening.

We were squarely and happily in client mode the day before when we received Thai massages at the Let's Relax spa in Bangkok's tony Thong Lor district. The two-hour treatments, capped with soothing tea and plates of mango slices and sticky rice, were a serene finish to our half-day touring the Thai capital's Chinatown.

No pagoda-lined tourist trap, the city's sprawling Chinatown is a real neighborhood, with hardware and auto parts vendors lining its alleys and restaurants and bakeries proffering goods revealing their Chinese culinary heritage. 

Our tour with local operator HiveSters started off at the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Center, where we got a primer on the country's history of Chinese influence and immigration (at its peak, from 1918 to 1931, more than 1.3 million Chinese arrived in Thailand). Later on, lunch at a Cantonese restaurant in Chinatown's Talat Noi community proved remarkably similar to my dim sum dining experiences in the U.S.

A temple in the Talat Noi neighborhood of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
A temple in the Talat Noi neighborhood of Bangkok’s Chinatown. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

The good eats kept coming thanks to Bangkok Food Tours. One highlight of our evening tour was Thipsamai, where throngs waited along Maha Chai Road to sample the pad thai once enjoyed by Anthony Bourdain on his show "No Reservations." Speedy service capably kept up with demand, however.

And while Bangkok's Wat Pho temple complex could hardly be considered off the beaten path, we did see a somewhat different side of it: After our food tour, we were able to see it at night, when its famed Reclining Buddha hall and other buildings were closed but the stupas were lighted to show off their intricate exteriors.

Of course, it's no substitute for seeing Wat Pho during the day, when its myriad gold-plated Buddhas and art-lined interiors are open for viewing. In fact, the medicine hall, with its drawings depicting pressure points and other aspects of human anatomy, offered some insights about the origins of Thai massage, as Wat Pho is said to be the birthplace of the discipline. So we learned something about Thai massage, after all.

Tranquil stays at two Thai hotels

Given the itinerary for our Thailand fam -- first Bangkok, then the lesser-known Trat province -- one might conclude that chaotic city life at the beginning gave way to island idyll and tranquility toward the end. Read More

Traditions in Trat

After a few days in Bangkok, we took a one-hour flight to Trat province. Trat plays a central role in the Tourism Authority of Thailand's LINK campaign (LINK being an acronym for Local experiences; Innovation; Networking; Keeping character). The campaign is designed to "enhance the distribution of tourism income to local communities," according to a brochure from the tourism authority.

Our first stop was the fishing village of Ban Nam Chiao, which, we learned, embodies a sort of confluence of Thai, Chinese and Muslim cultures — the "harmony of heritage variety," as promotional literature puts it.

We had a taste of it, literally, as we learned how to make delicate, tostada-like rice crackers, a local specialty said to have roots in the Muslim community. Lunch, on the other hand, included a variety of seafood dishes demonstrating Thailand's well-earned reputation for spice (the sauce topping a whole fried fish proved tear-inducingly hot for even our Thai guides).

The Khlong Nam Chiao canal in the fishing village of Ban Nam Chiao, in Trat province.
The Khlong Nam Chiao canal in the fishing village of Ban Nam Chiao, in Trat province. Photo Credit: TW photo by Eric Moya

Ban Nam Chiao is also known for ngop nam chiao hats, woven from palm leaves and an effective way to ward off the sun (though regrettably a little large to pack in my carry-on). We watched as a group of women painstakingly crafted the hats, which can be made in a variety of styles.

Over several days, via speedboat, we traveled among the province's islands to spend some time on its beaches. Certainly they were less touristed by Americans than those on Phuket, but not exactly what I'd call a secret: The sunburned throngs walking along the main drag on Koh Chang kept the souvenir shops, massage parlors and bars busy, and the myriad boats shuttling visitors among the various Trat islands kept the designated snorkeling sites packed.

On the island of Koh Chang, we visited another fishing village, Ban Salak Kok. There we watched locals prepare planters (made of wire, plastic pipes and concrete) to replenish the area's coral, damaged by divers and fishermen in decades past but on the rebound thanks to the village's restoration efforts.

Thailand: Bangkok and beyond

As we returned to the mainland, a last-minute addition to the itinerary proved a pleasant surprise. The modest Trat Museum offered a comprehensive look at the area's history, with concise English translations to accompany its fascinating exhibits: everything from prehistoric artifacts to an overview of the region's role in fishing and commerce to an examination of 1941's pivotal Battle of Koh Chang, which saw Thai forces defeated by the French. Thailand, it seemed, had a couple of lessons left for us.

For more on Thailand tourism and the LINK program, visit www.tourismthailand.org.

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