Looking to try something new? With over 3000km of coastline and countless rivers, Thailand is a premiere spot for water sports in South East Asia. Whether it’s surfing or snorkelling, white water rafting or sailing, no matter what strikes your fancy, there’s an unforgettable experience waiting for you in The Land of Smiles. Boasting a year round tropical climate, and prices that won’t break the bank, there’s no better place to take to the water!
In the northern region you’ll find wild mountainous jungle and enchanting waterfalls, alongside vast rice fields. To the south, you’ll indulge the senses with pristine beaches and limestone outcroppings towering over Palm Tree plantations. And you’ll always find something strange and exotic on the bustling streets of the City of Angels – Bangkok. Each distinct area has a personality and charm all its own, providing the foundation for unique memories, and because of the infancy of many of these sports in Thailand, be assured that you can easily find plenty of roads – or rivers – less travelled.
The south of Thailand is famous world-wide for its SCUBA diving, a sport which provides a door into the underwater world. A tank of oxygen strapped to your back is your key to unlock a delightful inner space adventure. Experience new and different sensations, and gain a perspective that brings with it a cool mix of quiet reflection and exhilaration. The shores of Thailand offer some of the most stunning scenery in the world, above and below the water line. Lush limestone islands jutting out of warm turquoise water, colourful soft corals and even a local whale shark population; Don’t forget to pack or hire an underwater camera, you won’t want to miss out on the photo opportunity of a lifetime.
Prefer to keep your head above water? Cable Skiing on specially built manmade lakes is quite popular. The obstacle courses will offer a challenge to just about anyone who crosses their path! Grab a paddle and helmet and get ready to ride the rapids, white water rafting on one of the many rivers in the north. Enjoy the simple relaxation as you skim the surface of the water paddling a kayak or canoe. Put some wind in your sails, windsurfing, kite-boarding or even cruising on a yacht. Hire a jet ski for a ride down the coastline in the south. Paddle your way across flat water or down the face of gentle waves on a Stand Up Paddle board, or carve some gnarly swells surfing off the west coast of Phuket. The possibilities are as endless as your imagination!
A few factors one should consider when planning a trip to Thailand; How much time do you have available? A short trip is satisfying, however, I would recommend spending as much time as you can in this amazing country, especially if you plan to travel long distances over land. Bus and train travel are my favourite ways to absorb the countryside but not if you’re time poor as both modes of transport are notoriously slow. Next, think about the climate. Thailand has two seasons in the south (hot: March- May / rainy: June – February) and three in the north (hot: March – May / rainy: June – February / cool: November to February). Certain times of year are better to visit certain areas; for instance, a trip to the North during the rainy season, will not be as fruitful as going there just after the rainy season ends, when the rivers are swollen and perfect for rafting. Always check the local weather forecasts. Interest in a specific water sport will effect what region you decide on. Let’s take a look at the different regions we will explore together; The North (everything north of Bangkok), The South (everything south of Bangkok), and of course the capital city itself.
Located 700 km’s from Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north. Arriving by train in the beginning of March I found myself roaming the streets, just as the hot season was starting to take a hold on the country. The northern part of Thailand is great for an escape from the heat during the hot season and subsequently locals, and tourists alike, flock to the north at this time of year. Heading north out of town on a hired motorbike, we settle in for a long and exhilarating, if not slightly terrifying at times, ride ahead of us. Armed with plenty of sunscreen and bug repellent we cruise north to a town called Pai, a well-known rafting and kayaking epicentre 80 km to the northwest. Hugging the curves of the road, zipping through the jungle dotted with a handful of subsistence farming communities, we occasionally gazed to the horizon where a red sun hung low in a hazy sky. Upon our arrival in Pai, we quickly booked a hut on the riverfront, a serene and intoxicating home-base. As the water levels were low, we were happy to take a kayak tour down the Ping River. Paddling in rhythm, slowly meandering down the river, a gentle hum of Cicadas in the background, our local tour guide informed us on many of the native plants and animals in the area. As we entered into the more rural areas, we exchanged smiles and waves with the locals on shore, who were always friendly if not a bit surprised to see foreigners. Kayaking is a great way to get closer to nature and explore remote areas, but I’ll have to go back just after the rainy season ends in late November for an exhilarating white water rafting experience. You can also organise bamboo raft tours, which is an excellent way to see the river and local hill tribes as well.
If you have your own transport, Mae Ngat Dam is a twenty five minute drive from Chiang Mai where you’ll find lovely houseboats available for accommodation and kayaks for hire. Many tour companies operate out of Chiang Mai that can take you to Pai, Chiang Dao, near Chiang Rai or to the Nan region, all of which have excellent single or multiple day kayak and white water trips. Closer to Bangkok, Ayutthaya has some exciting kayaking options, and a great way to see the temples and stupas near the river banks in the former capital city. You can also look into the Kanchanaburi region, which offers scenic trips of the River Kwai and is only a few hours northwest of Bangkok.
With so many river systems and tributaries, the north of Thailand is a treasure trove for freshwater fishing. Aside from the rivers there are a variety of fishing holes and lakes that any angler would be foolish to miss. Some of the world’s largest freshwater fish have been caught in Thai lakes and rivers. Fishing is a huge part of Thai culture and is brightly reflected in Thai cuisine. There are many different traditional styles of fishing to be found, don’t be afraid to ask the local fishermen for some tips.. Some of the species that you can battle wits and strength with are Alligator Gar, Arapaima, Freshwater Dorado, Monster Pacu, Chao Phraya Catfish, Mekong Catfish, Giant Snakehead, Striped Catfish and Giant Siamese Carp. Growing in popularity by the minute, Bungsam Lan Lake, just forty minutes outside of Bangkok, is a fisherman’s heaven. The tour operators here can provide you with a wealth of knowledge concerning best bait mixes, tips on equipment and how to handle large fish (they might even give you a recipe to use with your catch!).
As we travel south, we may lose and/or find ourselves in Bangkok. A recent and unexpected addition to the city, the capital city now has a Flow-boarding centre. You can catch a continuous wave right in the heart of the city! Unlike surfing, you ride an artificial wave, allowing more time to concentrate on balance and perfecting tricks, rather than swimming out in the ocean, waiting for a swell. There is also a Cable Ski lake not far from Bangkok, and you can find many tour operators that can organise your trip on Khao San Road. Once labelled “Venice of the East”, there is an extensive network of canals (khlongs) throughout the city. The Chao Phraya River is a central artery for commerce and travel in Bangkok and believe it or not, it’s possible to kayak in the river, watching the city slide by! There are also many river cruises available and offer a brilliant way to discover this vibrant city.
A ride in a boat going down the khlongs is not to be missed. The largest Khlong in the city, the Saan Saab, is an ideal place to catch a water taxi ride. Not your average boat ride; whiz beneath low hanging bridges watching the crew members quickly duck, feel the spray of the water in your face, experiencing how the locals commute. Unsure if it classifies as a’ water sport’ Songkran, the festival of water is one of my favourite watery activities! The celebration happens all over the country, but the colossal water fight that unfolds on the streets of Bangkok is my personal favourite. Expect to be soaked and expect to love it! Songkran occurs at the beginning of the hot season, (April 13-15) and is a fun way to beat the heat! Three solid days of water fights all over the city… watch out for kids throwing buckets of ice water. Refreshing? Yes. Shocking? Very! Make sure to stock up on Sangsom and have a blast!
Leaving Bangkok behind, let’s head down to the eastern seaboard. First stop, Pattaya, home to a multitude of water sports and a spectacular nightlife. If you’ve never tried Kite Boarding or Windsurfing, Pattaya is a great place to learn, the conditions are great most of the time, and there are plenty of places to have a coldie with your mates afterwards (trust me, you’ll need one!). If the winds aren’t cooperating, hire a jet ski anywhere along the beach, or soar above the landscape for a bird’s eye view, on a quick parasailing ride. I would recommend going to some of the offshore islands, if time permits, where the water is a bit cleaner. Koh Samet, an island southeast of Pattaya has some incredible sailing opportunities. A bit further south east is the gem of the eastern seaboard, the island of Koh Chang. Arriving on the island via ferry from Laem Ngop, near Trat, we catch the local bus to Hat Sai Khao where we rent a motorbike and head south towards our first dive site. The southern end of the island is not quite as touristy as the more well know dive sites at Koh Tao, or Phuket, and still offers first-rate dive sites. June through October is a great time for diving this area and be sure to keep your eyes open for playful dolphins and inquisitive turtles.
On the opposite side of the Gulf of Thailand let’s take a quick visit to the seaside town of Hua Hin. It’s worth doing a weekend trip here, or a rest stop on the way from Bangkok to Phuket. Water Skiing and Kite Boarding are available here, and you can rent inner-tubes on the beach for a lazing about in the gentle surf. Continuing south, you’ll want at least a week (if not more) for the adventures ahead in the lower Western Gulf, home to the infamous islands; Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. True paradise on Earth, and excellent for almost every water sport imaginable! Ferries link all the islands to each other and to the mainland, making travel here convenient and relaxing. For the SCUBA enthusiast, Koh Tao is the place to be. Kite boarders and windsurfers will find good conditions on all three islands but the time of year dictates which side of the islands have better wind. Kayaking is readily available at all the islands and surrounding areas as it is grown in popularity in the last few years.
If you’re looking to get rural, you can arrange a trip to Ang Thong Marine National Park from Koh Samui. The park is made up of over forty islands and is largely untouched, great for Kayak, Snorkel or Scuba. Back on land heading south west, take some time to visit the lovely Khao Sok National Park. You can book single and multiple day Kayak trips through the jungles on the Sok River. True wilderness at your fingertips, you’ll hear the call of monkeys in the distance, pass ancient limestone cliffs and caves, glide by waterfalls, and if you’re lucky you might see a Great Asian Hornbill soaring overhead. The early morning is the best time for spotting wildlife.
Phuket is The Pearl of the South and it’s easy to see why when you first lay eyes on the surrounding natural beauty. If you only have a short amount of time in Thailand, Phuket is the perfect place for you, as it offers the largest variety of sports in one location. If you are looking at doing multiple activities in different places on the island, not to worry as Phuket is a relatively small island and great for motorbike riding. Regardless of what you are searching for, or where you stay, you won’t need to ride far.
The tourism industry is in full force on the island, and there is a tour package for just about anything you can think of. It won’t be hard to find the activity that you’re after and with so much to choose from, it can be difficult to make a choice! A piece of advice, with so many tour operators, it pays to do some homework to make sure your guides are qualified, equipment is in good shape and that you are getting the best value for money; do yourself a solid and shop around first. A bit of research will help optimise your valuable time. If you aren’t the ‘tour’ going type, you can hire gear and explore independently, just make sure you know your surroundings and can take responsibility for yourself.
The west coast of the island is typically better for surfing and the east side better for diving, but this can change with the weather. Whichever side you choose, consider starting with renting a Stand up Paddle Board and take in the coastline, getting a feel for the island and the surrounding water. It was late May when I stepped off the bus in Phuket and the waters were looking good off the east coast, so I decided to go on a 3 day live aboard dive trip around Phi Phi Island. The scenery in this area is even more striking than the pictures we’ve all seen! I think if I had more time to spend, I would have booked a week-long trip to the Similan Islands north of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. Boat life is truly the life for me, and with such calm waters, it’s an enjoyable trip even for land lubbers! There are several dive trip options, ensuring you can find a trip that suits your needs and itinerary. In the last decade or so, windsurfing has taken off in Phuket and provides an extremely satisfying rush and requires very little gear. There are quite a few operators that hire gear and offer lessons. For the novice; when you stand up and feel the force of the wind and sail for the first time, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.
With so much to see and do in Thailand, just remember you could travel here for your whole life and still not see it all! We have only just skimmed the tip of the iceberg on our travels together. Not only are water sports physically and mentally challenging (not to mention FUN), the simple act of being on the water builds a connection with the Earth. If you think about it, water is something that touches all of our lives; and experiencing the power and beauty of this natural element can only foster awareness in our planet and the forces of nature. Thailand is an unforgettable country and will no doubt grab a hold of you. Find out for yourself what’s around the next corner, live life to the fullest, and don’t forget to bring a towel!