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Thailand’s Famous Fresh Markets

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Thai food is famous around the world, and there is no better way to experience the real deal than to head to a local food market.  Here you’ll find just about everything under the sun and you’ll have the chance to dine out the way the locals do and enjoy the people-watching.  Thailand boasts dishes that are unique to each region so it is worth visiting multiple markets with a local guide who can help describe what you are seeing, smelling and sampling, and who can also translate and make suggestions for you (and let you know when to steer clear of things that may be too spicy or not properly cooked).

Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel

In Chiang Mai, Tien, explained the local specially encompasses a certain egg noodle soup (which was delicious) , but she also had me sample the local coffee, the best fried chicken that I have ever eaten in my life, fried pork rinds, fried water buffalo skin, a variety of fruit, a different noodle soup and as I was feeling bold, blood sausage soup, which I decided was not to my taste.  Pork dishes seem to be a particular favorite to the Thais.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel

In Bangkok, Well led me to a local market (hidden down a maze of back alleys between the tall buildings) where fresh vegetables and spices are brought in daily from the countryside.  Here we sampled tamarind, fresh ginger, turmeric, a variety of candies made from sesame seeds, peanuts and honey, and admired the fresh flowers used in decorations, wedding ceremonies and as offerings at temples.  (I confess that I steered clear of the very large fried cockroaches- I’ve tried crickets before and so far that has been the extent of my bravery on eating bugs.)  The space for this market was donated by the Royal Family so there was also a shrine set up in their honor.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel

If you find yourself drawn to food, we’d recommend our Bangkok’s Culinary Delights tour to sample more of Bangkok’s legendary street food.  I personally can’t wait to go back and try more of the savory soups and delicious grilled meats and fried fish I spotted.  If you want to learn to prepare these dishes yourself, we recommend taking a cooking class with Pantawan Cooking School in Chiang Mai, and Amita Thai Cooking School in Bangkok.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel
Photo by Courtney Ridgel

Royal Cremation Ceremonies in October 2017

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

Thailand has been mourning the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej since last October, and this October (2017), will mark the end of this period of mourning.  The king’s body will be cremated and both official and religious ceremonies are expected to mark the occasion.  The Thai government has officially announced that the ceremonies will take place October 25th -29th, 2017, with the official cremation date on October 26th.

For travelers heading to Thailand in October, this means that the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and the surrounding areas will likely be closed off to the public.  It is rumored that the Grand Palace may close as early as the 23rd of October in order to make preparations and rehearse for the ceremonies.   The day of cremation (October 26th) will be a public holiday, and many business, museums and attractions will be closed out of respect.  You can find further details about the expected schedule of the cremation ceremonies in this article from the Bangkok Post, and you can see photos from the last Royal funeral, which included an elaborate procession, in this article from the International Business Times.  A procession for the upcoming ceremonies in October is also likely, and so traffic delays can also be expected.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

We will continue to monitor the situation and will keep our guests updated on what to expect, and if necessary will adjust itineraries to work around the closures.   If you plan to travel to Thailand before the end of October, we recommend reading our blog about what to expect when Visiting the Grand Palace during this period of mourning, as there are certain unusual regulations in place for the year.  For example, visitors to the Grand Palace are still expected to dress entirely in ‘mute’ colors – black or dark navy until after the cremation ceremonies in October.

As always, please remember that deep respect should be shown to the King and Royal Family at all times. Showing respect for King is the law (known as the lese majeste laws) and all people within Thailand, including foreigners, are required to abide by this law.  Additionally, the Thai people loved their King and deeply mourn his passing.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel


Other Blog Articles Related to this topic:

King Bhumibol Adulyadej

What to Expect in Thailand Over the Next Month – October 2016

What to expect from Loi Krathong this year – October 2016

Visiting the Grand Palace

Kanchanburi: Riding the Death Railway

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

I grew up hearing about WWII from my grandparents, and I studied abroad in France where I had the chance to observe the rusting relics around the beaches of Normandy firsthand.  When the chance came to visit another infamous WWII site, the Death Railway, I felt that I couldn’t pass up the chance – both to pay my respects, and to enjoy another adventure in beautiful Thailand.

Photo by Well

I was joined by the Thailand office team – Nicole, Chris and Joy, along with one of our top guides in Bangkok – Well, and together we met at the hotel for an early-morning start to head out to Kanchanaburi in the Thai countryside.  To my great surprise, our driver for the day had brought his personally outfitted van which would not have been out of place at a bachelorette party, and came with light up etched glass displays with koi fish, bejeweled seats, an impressive sound system and a drop-down TV.  There we were on our way to visit memorials dedicated to a particularly harsh piece of history, riding along in great luxury, compete with coffees from a drive-through Starbucks at Joy’s insistence, and I could not help but see the irony and be grateful for what I have in life (and laugh about the van).

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

For those who are not already aware, the ‘Death Railway’ was constructed during WWII by Allied POWs and forcibly drafted Southeast Asians known as Romusha,  to bring supplies to the front in Burma (now Myanmar).  The difficult terrain, jungle diseases, malnourishment, beatings and around-the-clock work schedule led to the deaths of 12,621 Allied POWs, and thousands of Ramusha (the exact numbers are unknown, and the estimates vary), giving the railroad its name.  Now, the railway serves as a tourist attraction and mode of transportation to some of the small towns in this area.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

As we drove out into the green countryside, our first stop was to visit the main Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in downtown Kanchanburi, where 6,982 fallen POWs from Australia, the UK and the Netherlands are interred.  The cemetery also displays a plaque to commemorate 11 fallen Indian POWS who fought for the British during the war.  (The bodies of fallen American POWs were repatriated after the war.)  Across the street, we visited the small but well-done The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre which houses 8 main galleries which detail the construction of the railway through first-hand accounts, photographs and artifacts.

Photo by Courtney Ridgel

After this somber start, we next drove to the train station, at the edge of the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.  I could not help but notice the vendors who had set up a temporary market selling souvenirs such as soaps carved in the shape of flowers, t-shirts and coconut drinks.   The weather was lovely with beautiful bright sunshine, blue skies and beautiful green vistas along the riverbanks.  Even knowing where we stood, I found it difficult to feel anything but cheerful, and we strolled across the bridge with the other tourists while we waited for the train.

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The train itself was a joy – an antique passenger train from another era with uniformed ticket checkers and waiters bringing beverages – and I couldn’t help but picture my grandparents coming along for the ride with me.  I know they would love it as much as I did.  We enjoyed the breeze blowing through our hair and took in the beautiful and peaceful countryside rolling past.

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Once we reached the small town of Krasae where we disembarked to visit a large Buddha statue built into a cave in the cliff, and to enjoy lunch at the Krasae Cave Restaurant, looking out over the river.  I also took note of a WWII era bomb which had failed to detonate sitting on a plinth in the middle of town, and it served as a reminder that this lovely place was once a war-zone, and that the allied forces had destroyed as much of the railway as they could to prevent its use in bringing supplies to the front in Burma. After we’d visited the impressive Buddha, had our fortunes revealed through the fortune sticks, stuffed ourselves on a big Thai lunch of salad, noodles, rice, shrimp, chicken and curry, and did some souvenir shopping, we reunited with our driver and bedazzled van.

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We drove past green winding green hillsides and small towns until we reached our next stop – the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, which the Australian government built and maintains through a partnership with the Thai government.  After exploring the museum, we strolled down the path through the bamboo forest until we reached the old railway bed.  The railway here had long since been removed, with only a short section left as a memorial to all those who died here.  The jungle scenery was beautiful but there was a quiet and sad eeriness to the place.  Small Australian flags and mementos had been left behind by comrades, loved ones and relatives, hinting at what this cut in the railway grade used to look like.  Feeling a strange sense of standing in both the 1940’s and in 2016 at the same time, we walked back up the hill to our waiting driver and began the journey back to Bangkok, stopping to purchase pumpkins from a roadside stand and feed fish along the way.  It is a memory that will stay with me – both as a wonderful day with friends, and as a reminder of those who served.

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If Kanchanaburi interests you, check out our new two-day Kanchanaburi tour which includes spending time at an elephant sanctuary.

How would I decide between Laos and Northern Thailand?

The view from Mt. Pou Si in Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

By Courtney Ridgel

One of the hardest parts of planning any trip is choosing between dozens of wonderful options among destinations, activities, tours, temples, and even restaurants.  I tend to have a very difficult time narrowing down my own wish list to a feasible itinerary – there are only so many hours in a day after all!  This blog stems from having that conversation with myself – if I was to go back to either Laos or Northern Thailand – two similar destinations, which would I choose and why? 

I love Thailand – the culture, the food, the friendly people, the elephants, the scenery, the temples, and of course, the unbelievable beaches.  As it turns out, so does everyone else – Thailand was ranked the most visited country in the world in 2016, and even when it doesn’t top the charts at number one, it is consistently listed among the world’s most popular destinations.   Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, was also ranked as the most visited city in the world for 2016.

Luang Prabang is a charming town – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

What does this mean?  I found that parts of Thailand, for all of its charms, can be crowded (especially over high season).  While I’ve met many people (including my stepdad) who visited Thailand 10 – 20 years ago, and spoke of having a grand adventure, in person, I must confess that although I had a lovely time, I found that Thailand felt developed, modern and packaged when compared to some of the neighboring countries.  None of these are attributes are bad, and all are reasons why many of our guests prefer to travel to Thailand on their first trip to Asia – it can be a more user-friendly experience for new travelers.  However, while our guests who travel to Thailand very much enjoy their trips, the feedback we consistently receive from our guests is that Laos was the highlight of their tour, and was the one place they wished they could have spent more time.  Here are my list of reasons why I would choose to head to Laos rather than Northern Thailand on my next trip:

Looking across Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Availability: Thailand welcomed over 30 million visitors in 2016, and Laos, by contrast, welcomed 4.3 million in 2015, which with a modest increase in 2016 – roughly a sixth of Thailand’s tourism traffic.   If peak season, (I.e. – the weeks immediately surrounding the winter holidays) is the only time you can get away, finding rooms available in Thailand that fit your taste and budget can be a challenge, especially if you find yourself planning a last-minute trip.  Laos doesn’t receive the same press that Thailand does or the hordes of other travelers to match, so you may have better luck finding accommodations.  If you find yourself traveling during the shoulder season, you’re also likely to find low season promotional deals in Laos.  Hotels in Thailand are less likely to offer deals because they have no trouble filling their rooms.

Looking across Luang Prabang from the Luang Prabang View Resort – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Elephant Experiences – Many people flock to Northern Thailand in order to fulfill the bucket list goal of spending time with elephants, and the best centers can become booked months in advance.  Travelers can also have incredible elephant experiences in Laos – check out our blog about the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, where you can witness and interact with elephants in their natural environment.

A resident mother and calf at the Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Center – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The scenery: Thailand is famous for being picturesque but Laos is stunning – there is no getting around it.  Steep mountains covered in mist plunge into the mighty rivers carving their way through the jungle, and a wide variety of flower species and native butterflies call Laos home.   You’ll also find beautiful sunsets, small wooden villages, golden temples, verdant rice paddies and orange-robed monks.

Some of the many limestone pools at the Kuang Si Waterfalls – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Food: If your taste buds are craving an adventure, Laos may hold surprises in store for you including delicious local delicacies such as stuffed bamboo shoots or the famous Luang Prabang sausage.  As a legacy from their time as French colony, Laotians have retained a love of coffee shops and amazing French pasties, and I can never resist a good ‘pain au chocolat’.  Our favorite cooking class in Luang Prabang is the Tamarind Cooking School.  We always offer our guests a list of our favorite restaurants to provide a delicious and stress-free sampling of Laos’s culinary delights.

Sone enjoying a delicious desert at the Silk Road Cafe alongside the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Markets & Shopping: If you love to shop, you’ll love Luang Prabang.  The Night Market here is legendary and you can find excellent deals on incredible hand-made jewelry, fabrics, clothes, bowls, lamps, etc.  Laos is also renowned for the skill of the local master weavers. Be sure not to miss a trip to Ock Pop Tok, where you can learn how silk is made and watch the local artisans at work, creating their incredible pieces.  On my last trip, most of the gifts and souvenirs that I brought home for family, co-workers and friends came from Laos – this was where I found the most unique and meaningful gifts for the best prices.

Some of the beautiful handcrafted silk weavings made by the master artisans of Ock Pop Tok – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The Festivals – If Loi Krathong has long graced your bucket list, you may be interested to learn that Laos has its own version – Awk Phansa, or the Festival of Lights. Monks decorate the temple grounds with handmade paper lanterns, lights and candles, and local families do the same outside their homes.  The second day of the Festival of Light is more celebratory with costumes, and fire boat processions.  The locals make ’Khatongs’, or little boats, out of banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense and release them in the evening to float down the Mekong River.  There are other Festivals throughout the year as well – check out our Festivals page for more information.

Haw Pha Bang near the Royal Palace – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

Spirituality – While you can find orange-robed monks and beautiful temples throughout Southeast Asia, Luang Prabang is particularly famous for having numerous historic temples, decorated with beautiful glass mosaics.  At dawn you can witness the ritual of alms-giving or you can partake in our Evening Chanting and Meditation tour.

One of the many beautiful glass mosaics in the temples around Luang Prabang – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

The local people – I’ve found the locals in Laos to be very warm and friendly, and I really felt that personal connection that the guide books boast of.  Everyone I met greeted me with a smile and a ‘Sabadee’ (hello).  I don’t speak more than two words of Laotian and I found that ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ was enough to make many new friends, and I never felt stressed or worried.  One example of the warmth I experienced here, was the impromptu Mekong Sunset Cruise and BBQ dinner I enjoyed with Onkeo, Anan, James and Pet.

Some locals live on their boats on the Mekong River – Photo Credit: Courtney Ridgel

From the Ground: New Kanchanaburi Tour with Elephants

By Nicole Long & Jay Austin,

We are excited to announce a new 2 day Kanchanaburi Option.  Kanachanaburi is beautiful and for guests with the time, we highly recommend visiting this region to take in more of Thailand’s recent history and beautiful countryside.  This particular option combines the historical significance of the area with a more active, philanthropic element with a visit to ElephantsWorld. This nonprofit organization was founded in 2008 and considers itself a “retirement home” for elephants who are too old or have become injured working in the tourism industry.  We love this tour option for returning guests who have been to Thailand before, and want to spend time with elephants in a sustainable setting, without needing to return to Chiang Mai.  This option is also great for families as there are discounted rates for kids aged 4-11, and children under 3 years are free!

Here’s what you can expect from this two-day tour, which can be combined with any itinerary:

Day 1: Bridge Over The River Kwai

You will be met at your hotel in Bangkok at 7:00am and taken by minivan to Kanchanburi. Enjoy the beautiful views along the way, with your guide available to answer any questions you may have. Your first stop will be the WWII Museum and Donrak POW Cemetery, before continuing on to the infamous bridge over the River Kwai. You can walk across the bridge and take some time to soak up the atmosphere and watch the river go by before taking the original “death railway” train to Krasae station, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant. Later you will board a long-tailed boat and head up river to your hotel with wonderful views of the jungle along the way. After checking in to your floating accommodation, enjoy your dinner before watching a Traditional Mon Dance performance.

Day 2: ElephantsWorld Day Program

After an early breakfast, check out of your hotel and coast down river to meet your driver, who will transfer you ElphantsWorld’s camp, located approximately an hour from the town of Kanchanburi.  When you arrive at the camp, you’ll join the other participants for your introduction to the camp and ElephantsWorld’s mission, which is to provide sanctuary for sick, old, disabled, abused and rescued elephants. You will have the opportunity to meet and feed the elephants and meet their mahouts. You will assist with preparing food for the elephants by cleaning fruits and vegetables, and preparing sticky rice for the elderly giants. Afterwards, you and the group will break for lunch. Work off your lunch by planting fruit trees and/or gathering food for the elephants’ afternoon meal before helping the mahouts to feed sticky rice balls to the older elephants. Then it’s to the river for bath time! Enjoy getting wet with these gentle giants as you bathe and scrub them clean. Finally, give them the fruit and vegetables you collected earlier before saying goodbye to your new friends. You will depart the camp at approximately 4pm and head back to Bangkok.

Please note: We recommend bringing a change of clothes as you will get wet in assisting with the elephant’s bath.