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Top 4: A taste of Thailand

Thailand is a nation crammed with exotic-yet-accessible experiences, from elephant sanctuaries and bat caves to airplane graveyards. Our writers describe their favourite experiences in the Land of Smiles

Top 4: A taste of Thailand
Soi Rommanee, Phuket Old Town. Image: Getty

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Phuket

Old Town tastes

Long before Phuket’s wondrous landscape exerted its pull on tourists, it was tin that fuelled the local economy. Following its discovery in the late 19th century, Chinese and European traders flocked to the island to mine for their fortunes. They married the locals, mingled with the Malays, and, in turn, deposited a unique mash-up of architecture, culinary traditions and cultures in its place. For this reason, a trip to the Old Town is always on the itinerary when I have friends come to visit me on the island.

We taxi into town in the morning, before the overwhelming heat of April can beat us into submission. My friend Mark, a culture buff, and his botanist boyfriend are in their element as we stroll around crumbly old clan dwellings with leafy inner courtyards, rainbow-bright shophouses with shuttered windows, and grand wooden mansions resting in the shade of two-hundred-year-old banyan trees. We lunch in the gardens of the China Inn Cafe, a cinematic little eatery which sells high-end handicrafts and Southeast Asian antiques, as well as bowls of blisteringly delicious red curry.

I have an alternative plan for dessert, though: Soi Soon Utith, a tiny lane lined with rickety food carts selling sticky sweet treats. Easier said than done; the Old Town’s higgledy-piggledy lanes leave even taxi drivers scratching their heads. But as I often find, getting lost turns out to be a boon. A wrong turn off Soi Dibuk confronts us with the sight of Wat Mongkol Nimit, a firework-bright Buddhist temple with a gold stupa and a colonial-era Portuguese mansion, which houses monks. Coming to cross purposes on Phang Nga Road leads us to Sang Tham Shrine, a Hokkien Chinese temple, a swirl of incense, murals and scary Taoist gods. And we get some souvenir shopping in along the way too — a linen shirt, a hill-tribe bracelet, a hand-carved wooden ox — much better than the Chang Beer vests and neon-pink Buddhas on sale in Phuket’s tourist traps.

Eventually, we find ourselves on plastic stools on Soi Soon Utith, tucking into buttery roti stuffed with bananas and condensed milk — a steal at just 25p a portion. In the background, the motorbikes whizz by and the smiley old dears shut up shop.

Words: Lee Cobaj

Wat Phra That Phanom. Image: Getty

Wat Phra That Phanom. Image: Getty

Chiang Mai

Elephant sanctuary

There’s something different about this elephant. He’s plump, the skin on his face taut, his feet spotless. There’s no shackle on his foot, no neck chain, no tourist on his back; this is an elephant that’s found sanctuary in a country still struggling to find a place for its most iconic creature.

I’d come to Elephant Nature Park as a volunteer. Located in countryside north of Chiang Mai, the sanctuary was set up in the 1990s as a place for mistreated and abused elephants — and since the ban on elephants in the logging trade, it’s become a pachyderm retirement home with dozens of residents, paid for by donations, day-trippers and volunteers.

And there is plenty to do. There’s football-sized chunks of elephant dung to be shovelled from across the pasture. There are fruit and vegetables to scrub in giant concrete bathtubs and deliveries to unpack. There are fences to mend and banana trees to hack down with machetes in the forest; hard work that leaves me with aching muscles and blisters on my palms. And I love it, because the rewards — like feeding time — are so sweet.

Each elephant is assigned a mahout from the village; they line up their charges behind a barrier, to ensure they mind their manners. We feed them, hand-to-trunk, watermelon, banana, pineapple and pumpkin, their trunks snatching for more before we can fetch it from the bucket. Luckily, they’re as gentle as they are fast, gently prodding us for more long after the bucket is empty.

Day trippers arrive, lunch is served and there’s more dung to shovel and food to prepare. Then it’s bath time, and everything slows down again.

The river is the colour of mud, the elephants eagerly trudge into the shallows. Knee-deep, for a half-hour, we throw pails of water over their hides, while the elephants spout water from their trunks over their backs, drenching us all.

Long after the elephants have been tucked away, I change out of my sodden clothes. As I take my shirt off to hop into bed, I notice it’s stamped with the perfect imprint of an elephant trunk: the mark of a good day.

How to do it: Elephant Nature Park is 40 miles from Chiang Mai. Day trips are available from Chiang Mai, volunteer programmes run weekly, and overnight stays are available.

Words: Shaney Hudson

Boeing 747, 'airplane graveyard', Bangkok. Image: Lee Cobaj

Boeing 747, ‘airplane graveyard’, Bangkok. Image: Lee Cobaj

Bangkok

Decadence & decay

How did it get here? How did a Boeing 747 end up parked between apartment blocks in the Bangkok suburbs? It’s nowhere near an airport. No one seems to know. But here she is, a 100 series, built in the early ’70s, with her tail and wings torn off, but with that iconic schnozzle still proudly tilted upwards as if ready to take to the skies one last time. I slip the gatekeeper — an unofficial looking lady in a housecoat and slippers — 200 baht (£4) to get in for a closer look. As an ex-flight attendant, this is the stuff of my dreams.

I find my way inside her hulking body through a cargo hold door. In the sunless, airless space I can make out the rhombus-like shape of overhead lockers piled one on top of the other, blocking the rear of the plane. But the path forward, to the avionics bay, is clear and from there I pull myself up a set of rusting ladders into what was once the aisle of the main cabin. The seats, wall panels, window frames and wiring have been stripped away, leaving the riveted ribs of this metal monster on show; tentacle-like oxygen masks twist in the air; and a ghostly galley, where mini-skirted stewardess once served G&Ts, now stands silent. Another set of steel stairs takes me up to first-class and the cockpit, where I can almost hear the clinking of Champagne glasses and transatlantic chatter of decades past.

Back outside in the pounding sunshine, it’s rush hour. To beat the squeeze, I opt for a tuk-tuk, gripping the multi-coloured metal frame for dear life as we whizz down back alleys and up the wrong side of the road en route to the Mandarin Oriental.

When I alight from my rickety carriage covered in aircraft grime, the white-suited doorman offers me his hand and a big smile. The hotel celebrates its 140th birthday this year, an occasion marked by a £13m restoration of the Author’s Wing, the original hotel building, and the Garden Wing, home to 12 luxurious suites.

It’s a push for me to leave my suite but the lure of chilled Champagne and fluffy cream cakes has me cleaned and preened and back downstairs quick-smart. In the snow-white Author’s Lounge — so named in honour of the Oriental’s illustrious literary guests, including the likes of Noël Coward, Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene — the fans are slowly swirling and the ivories are being tickled. It’s all so calm, so civilised: a world away from the hubbub of Bangkok. Outside, long-tail boats meander up the river, and somewhere in the suburbs, beyond curly-topped temples, street markets and shimmering malls, lies a wingless 747.

How to do it: Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok has rooms from £277, B&B; the Garden Suite is £960, B&B. Afternoon tea from £31 (1,595 THB).

Words: Lee Cobaj

Long-tail boats at sunset, Koh Lanta. Image: Getty

Long-tail boats at sunset, Koh Lanta. Image: Getty

Koh Lanta

Bat cave

A sun-bleached T-junction on Koh Lanta, the sea dazzling before me — I plant my legs to balance my motorcycle, lift my sunglasses and open my map.

Inland, rainforest viridescence darkens to dappled bottle-green, beckoning me down a cragged track towards Khao Mai Kaew Cave, where, minutes later, a hand-painted sign tells me I’ve arrived.

“Caves tour?” asks a Thai man, appearing from a hut. I nod, and he shoves a head-torch into my hand and makes a start up the steep path before us.

Scrambling over rocks, using knotted ropes to heave ourselves over escarpments, my guide is nonchalant. I have two phobias: heights and spiders. The former isn’t usually a problem in the subterranean world, but I’m soon faced with slippery inclines that abruptly end with drops into oblivion. It’s hotter than hell, and we’re clad in sweat, which thankfully conceals my anxious perspiration from my new friend, whose grey vest top has darkened from ash to charcoal.

We arrive at a cane ladder, which descends into an immeasurable abyss.

“It’s strong,” says my little Thai guide from the darkness below, as I hesitate. I head down first, noting with silent alarm that this is ladder number four, all of which have had layers of snapped rungs. But by the time we come to three flimsy bamboo trunks bundled together to form a makeshift bridge across another unfathomable chasm, I’m feeling invincible. Shining my torch down the drop to the right reveals a bristle of stalagmites. I resolve to cross, clinging to the wall to the left, upon which emerald jewels glimmer in the blackness.

Approaching in wonderment, whispering guesses like ‘crystals’ and ‘bioluminescence’, I freeze when I get close enough to identify the green sparklers as the eyes of hand-sized cave spiders.

“Not poisonous,” my guide laughs as he taps their backs, chasing them towards me, and I cross the span in seconds, fuelled by my two greatest fears.

Crawling through the final claustrophobic fissure to daylight, and finding freedom through a large, open chamber, my guide cackles and shouts “behind you!” — waking the hundreds of bats dangling from the cave walls and enveloping us in a maelstrom of leathery wings.

Words: James Draven

Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)