Craig Tansley discovers the breathtaking adventure highlights and charming, low-key hidden gems of this exotic getaway.
Chiang Mai is known as the roof of Thailand for its abundance of tall mountains – so it goes without saying that it offers the best mountain biking opportunities anywhere in the country, and indeed, in all of Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai is surrounded by mountains and some of Thailand’s largest national parks which are criss-crossed with hundreds of trails for all levels of riders.
It’s the best way to discover old Thailand – you’ll get to see traditional hillside villages and ancient temples as you ride.You’ll have the choice of renting your own bike and exploring the region yourself, or joining a range of guided tours which range from half-day to multiple day adventures. You’ll ride past coffee plantations, lychee orchards and waterfalls and through pristine rainforest of the Suthep National Park. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, why not take a four-day riding tour following the Mekong River to the Golden Triangle – where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet by the junction of the Mekong and Nam Ruak rivers (check outwww.spiceroads.com).
Koh Tao – in the Gulf of Thailand – offers the best scuba diving and snorkelling in Thailand and is regarded as one of the best places to dive anywhere in the world. Only discovered by western tourists for the first time in the 1980s, Koh Tao is now one of the most popular places on earth to earn an open-water dive certificate (only Cairns in Australia issues more). But if you imagine a crowded ocean, then think again. Despite its size – Koh Tao only measures 21 square kilometres – it’s one of Thailand’s most relaxed island destinations, a perfect escape from other bustling tourist epi-centres. Its beaches too are amongst Asia’s finest – private bays with white sandy beaches like Tanote Bay and Haad Thien rate as some of the world’s finest beach destinations. But it’s what lies under the clear, blue waters of KohTao that offers the island’s real treats. Koh Tao is an important breeding ground for Hawksbill and Green turtles which are seen regularly by divers, but you’ll also see a massive variety of sea life including giant trevally, tuna, large grey reef sharks, rays, grouper and clown fish.The coral formations too are intricate, colourful and undamaged and there’s plenty of drop-offs, caverns and caves to explore. There are also whale sharks in the area.
The soaring limestone cliffs of the Krabi region offer some of the best rock climbing opportunities anywhere on earth.There are over 650 routes up and down the rock faces to choose from – suitable for everyone from complete beginners to experts (it would literally take you months to try every climb in the area). Karst formations of limestone rock jut straight out of the warm Andaman Sea creating the ultimate location for rock climbers and beach lovers alike. Many rock climbs are only accessible with a journey by traditional long-tailed boat, or after a jungle hike or by abseiling down from above while other climbs are found right outside luxury resorts. If you’re game, you might also be willing to try the latest craze in the sport – deep-water soloing, where climbers free-climb without ropes over deep water, allowing themselves to fall into the sea if they lose their grip on the limestone. Railay, Ton Sai and Phra Nang are the main climbing areas around Krabi and all are located close to Krabi’s main tourist centre, Ao Nang.The area’s considered so fantastic as a rock climbing destination because it offers every type of challenge to climbers – from steep, pocketed rock walls to overhangs to limestone crags and hanging stalactites. Numerous companies offer all types of climbing tours, or you can hire your own gear once you get the hang of the sport. The views from on top of the cliff-tops make it all worth it – with sweeping views over the area’s numerous offshore islands and across the Andaman Sea.
While Bangkok bicycle tour operators seek to find empty back streets and laneways, any cycling tour around one of Asia’s busiest and most energetic cities will always carry with it a certain degree of adrenalin. But at least you’ll beat the heat and miss a lot of the endless traffic by travelling at night on a Bangkok Night Tour. It’s the best time to see Bangkok when hundreds of the city’s ancient temples (or Wats) are lit up like Christmas trees and are blissfully free of visitors. Starting off near the intoxicating chaos of Khao San Road and its motley collection of excited backpackers frequenting lively bars, you’ll soon take a local ferry crossing Thailand’s largest river – the Chao Phraya – then take the back roads to Wat Arun – one of Thailand’s most famous temples (known as the Temple of the Dawn).You’ll also stop at bustling night markets – experiencing all the energy that never quite stops in the Thai capital, before making your way back to the heart of the city. Numerous bicycle tours are offered, but for night rides, check out www.grasshopperadventures.com