Kayaking, culture on Thailand trip

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Kayaking in Phang Nga Bay off Phuket, Thailand.Lying flat in my kayak to float under the rock wall just inches above my nose, I couldn't help wondering how long until the tide would rise, trapping my fellow kayakers and me on the far side of the bat-filled cave we had just paddled through.

But after emerging into the secluded, pristine lagoon, with sheer limestone cliffs rising up to the blue sky above, and a family of macaque monkeys descending from the trees, I was in no hurry to leave.

I had arrived in Phuket, Thailand, the previous day, not to lounge on the popular beaches but to explore hidden sea caves found in many of the towering rock islands that dot Phang Nga Bay.

Thailand has long been a popular destination for those in search of rich culture and food, and for beach-lovers and backpackers.

But with record numbers of tourists arriving in Thailand — more than 22 million last year, up nearly 16% over 2011 — the country is trying to attract people looking for something different.

At the recent Thai Travel Mart in Bangkok, the deputy minister for tourism, Juthaporn Rerngronasa, said that Thailand is focusing its marketing efforts on several niches, including golf, wellness, weddings and honeymoons and green tourism.

In addition, Thailand is looking to promote itself as an ideal launching pad for other countries in the region, including the increasingly popular Myanmar.

After the conference, I sampled the country's variety, beginning at Lampang in northern Thailand, where I visited the city's elephant conservatory. Visitors there can ride the animals or observe them in their traditional duties of helping loggers move felled trees, or painting, with the elephants' artwork then available for purchase. Elephant lovers can stay up to three days and work with a single elephant to learn how to handle and care for it.

From Lampang, it is a short drive to Chiang Mai, where visitors come to see the elaborate temples, try spicy Northern food and trek to indigenous hill tribes in the surrounding countryside.

For a relatively sleepy city, Chiang Mai boasts a surprising range of high-end hotels. I was a guest at the Chedi, a four-star hotel with impeccably manicured grounds. Its central building is the restored 1913 British consul headquarters.

A unique Chiang Mai experience is a hotel called 137 Pillars, a luxury property, opened in January 2012, whose centerpiece is a beautifully restored, 1880s-era building that once served as the offices of a timber business run by the son of Anna Leonowens, of "The King and I" fame.

From Chiang Mai it is a short flight to both Thailand's neighbor, Myanmar (see report, below), and from there down to Phuket for the kayaking adventure.

My tour guide for the kayaking trip was John Gray, a U.S. expat who has spent the last 24 years exploring the caves and islands of Phang Nga Bay. Gray's operation emphasizes environmental education and a respect for the area's delicate environment.

The two-day outing, which included a night camping on an isolated island beach, is an ideal way for an active traveler to end a Thai trip. Gray operates the John Gray Sea Canoe Co. in Phuket. See www.johngray-seacanoe.com and email [email protected].

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