You sometimes hear foreign tourists complaining that islands like Phuket and Samui are not what they would call "the real Thailand". Although it's true that many visitors choose these destinations for their fine beaches, blue seas, myriad shopping choices and fun-packed western style nightspots, there's also plenty of opportunity to experience local life and Thai culture, even while enjoying a tropical island getaway.
Here are a few ways to "keep it real" on a villa holiday.
When you arrive at (or even before you leave) your main holiday location in Thailand
, which if you're smart will be a private villa overlooking the azure waters of Phuket or Koh Samui, you can easily infuse a little extra "Thainess" into your stay, which will not only make the vacation more interesting, but also more fun and memorable.
Cook up a storm
Cooking classes have become a popular holiday activity in Thailand and indeed all around the world in recent years. Fortunately, Thai food is one of those multi-faceted cuisines that lends itself perfectly to fast track, first time success in the kitchen. A seemingly endless menu of delicious flash fried dishes can be swiftly prepared by simply sprinkling the right blend of fresh ingredients into the wok, and even if you don't manage to create the perfect Pad Thai first time, the chances is are it will come out better than you expected, especially with a little expert local guidance. Most private villas on Phuket
offer cooking classes in the kitchen of your own holiday home and they also include a trip to the local market to buy ingredients, which adds another cultural feather to your holiday cap to take home and brag about.
Learn the lingo
One of the most obvious ways to get to know a different culture is by learning its language and although Thailand's sing-song vernacular might seem a tricky one to grasp at first; it's surprisingly easy to pick up a few basic phrases that you can use every day. Villa guests have the distinct advantage of a captive (and appreciative) audience for their linguistic attempts, in the form of the staff. Lets face it, receiving a positive response to your efforts at communication always feels good. Stick to the basic phrases first, like "Good Morning", "How are you?" and "Thanks", then perhaps ask for some help with certain words by asking the simple question, "What's this?" (Ni Arai Krub/Ka?) and, of course, making an effort to remember the answers.
Watch the box
You are unlikely to reach a level of Thai fluency on holiday that enables you to understand local TV programmes, but watching a bit of local TV is great way to enjoy a snapshot of the country's unique popular culture. Thailand's daily televisual extravaganza is particularly entertaining for first time viewers and well worth spending an hour or two watching with friends and a bottle of wine. Slapstick comedy, crazy talent contests, and best of all, heartbreakingly over dramatised soap operas are all common fodder and even if you don't understand a word that's being said, it's difficult not to smile along. The TV commercials are also pure entertainment and often produced to a very high standard, with creativity and comedy in abundance.
Like many countries in Southeast Asia, even though Thailand has developed fast into a global destination, its people still celebrate a number of traditional festivals and follow important rituals. If you are anywhere in Thailand (including the islands) during Songkran, the official New Year festival in mid-April, you will certainly experience local culture first hand, probably in the form of a bucket of ice water poured over you head with good natured glee (to wash away the previous year's bad luck). Then in November, you can witness the skies light up with lanterns and fireworks for Loy Krathong, the Thai Festival of Light. On both sides of these two major national celebrations, scores of smaller but equally important religious and cultural events take place around the country, many of them best experienced at a local temple, where people arrive in their hundreds to make offerings, then party into the night at a specially presented evening food and fun fair. Phuket has its own special festivals linked to its rich history as a Chinese settlement. These include Chinese New Year and the Phuket Town Festival in February, as well as the breathtaking Phuket Vegetarian Festival in October.
Although Muay Thai is now a global sport and large numbers of foreigners train, practice, compete and even win world Thai boxing titles and big international contests, it is a sport still firmly rooted in traditional Thai culture. In many ways, attending a Thai boxing contest is like stepping into another world. The elaborate ritual of the "Wai Kru" is still performed before every fight and dates back thousands of years. Then there's the powerful and aromatic balms used to warm the contenders' muscles and heal their wounds, all of them made from powerful local herbs. Finally, the sheer strength, agility aand precision displayed by the best fighters as they attack and defend seems to come from a more skilled and respectful period in human history, when technique and endurance were considered more important than brute force and weaponry. The overall experience is a raw loud and boisterous affair, but one still infused with a real sense of Thai honor.
Bangkok's two airports welcomed 21 million visitors last year and although a good number of these people headed straight for the beach, considerably more stopped off in the Thai capital to see the city's most famous sights, notably the Royal Palace, the Temple of the Dawn, the Reclining Buddha and the Floating Market. Whether you decide to take in these cultural wonders on the way to or from your chosen beach destination, Bangkok is definitely still worth a multi-day stopover for its unique sights, sounds, flavours and feel — especially if you factor in trips to a few smart new shopping malls and a special treat meal or two at one of the capital's fine restaurants.
by LVH Marketing