Soft adventure options in Thailand include rock climbing in the coastal town of Krabi. // © 2014 Red Lantern Journeys
Feature image (above): Spending a day with elephants is often on the top of travelers' must-do lists when in Thailand. // © 2014 Asia Transpacific Journeys
While listening to Kirsten Louy-Nasty, CEO of Asia Transpacific Journeys, talk about a recent encounter with elephants in Thailand, I could not help but daydream about dropping everything to catch the next flight to this extraordinary country.
“I will never forget the feeling of holding a banana and having this massive creature so gently take it from my hand and eat it,” Louy-Nasty said.
Spending time in a Chang Mai elephant sanctuary, typically helping to feed and bathe Thailand elephants that were once part of the country’s logging industry, is just one of several soft adventure tourism options that Asia Transpacific Journeys, a member of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), can help travel agents book for clients.
And while it’s certainly not a groundbreaking new offering, visiting a proper elephant sanctuary and working closely with the animals is a must-do for most first-time travelers to Thailand. I’ll certainly never forget my first experience at Elephant Hills, a luxury tented camp near Khao Sok National Park, where there simply was not enough time in the day to enjoy the incredible creatures.
“I actually got a little teary when I left,” Louy-Nasty said of her recent encounter with a female elephant in Northern Thailand. “I really got to know her, and she was just so gentle and amazing.”
But there’s far more to Thailand than just elephants. Irene Wong, director of product development for Red Lantern Journeys in Seattle, said many of her company’s North American clients who head north in Thailand are also booking experiences with the region’s hill tribes.
“A lot of the hill tribes were formerly refugees from Myanmar and Laos and have been displaced by civil war, so it’s really fascinating to be able to visit with them,” Wong said. “That region is still very rustic, with people living in very rural areas and high in the mountains, sustaining themselves mostly off of agriculture.”
Another ATTA member, Red Lantern also offers more active outings to travelers heading farther south in Thailand.
“In the south, there are places where you can do some really, really amazing rock climbing,” said Wong, whose husband is an avid climber. “Along the coastline of Krabi, there is this very fascinating bay that is not accessible by road. You do have to get there by boat, but it is world-famous for its rock climbing.”
Wong said Red Lantern can arrange commissionable outings with local guides for more advanced climbers, but she noted that travelers looking for a beginner experience can also be easily accommodated. The company arranges diving and snorkeling excursions in the south as well, depending on the seasonal impact of the weather, but boat trips to renowned dive sites are another adventure option.
“We can book people on a live-aboard boat, for four or five days, that can take you out to the border of Myanmar,” Wong explained. “And that’s where you can really do world-class, top-notch diving.”
Louy-Nasty pointed out another highly popular full-day soft adventure activity Asia Transpacific Journey’s offers their customers: sea kayaking from a larger boat tour.
“You get off the mainland, and you travel to these beautiful limestone environments off the beaten path,” Louy-Nasty said. “You drop the kayaks in the water, where you can paddle around the wonderful rock formations. Some of them are shaped like doughnuts, so if the tide is right and you can get in through a cave entrance, you end up in the middle of these beautiful outcroppings — where there are birds and reptiles — and you can get out of your kayak and swim.”
Both Wong and Louy-Nasty mentioned that no trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to Bangkok. Both companies offer a soft adventure tour in the pulsing Asian metropolis that showcases the city’s often missed historic neighborhoods.
“Most people wouldn’t normally think about biking in Bangkok,” Louy-Nasty said. “You might think ‘Wow, that sounds crazy. Where on earth could you go? Isn’t it smoggy and dirty and crazy and dangerous.’ On our tour, it’s really not, and while riding through the backstreets of Bangkok, you get to see real people living real life. You can stop and talk with shop owners, and at one point, you put the bikes on a barge and cross the river to this luscious oasis of an island — just off the outskirts of the city.”
According to Wong, many of Bangkok’s residents avoid the city’s notorious street traffic by taking to the city’s system of riverboat transportation. She noted that Red Lantern offers travelers a chance to journey around some of the capital’s older districts by water.
“It gives our clients really great insight into what old Bangkok feels like — or even just what normal, everyday Bangkok feels like,” she said. “Traveling by river boat is actually really cool and fun, and you get to see areas of the city that have not been changed for the last 50 years. There still is a lot of old Bangkok architecture in the city itself if you know where to look.”