The Thai Touch: Mingle with Locals on a Thailand Tour
Why do monks wear saffron robes, what does rambutan taste like, and how does it feel to wear necklaces of brass rings? Join one of these tours in “The Land of Smiles” for a chance to chat with a monk, help a farmer, or meet Lisu villagers.
It’s always the people you remember from a trip. And in places like Thailand it’s the welcoming nature of the people that truly define a visit here—from a fisherman striking up conversation in broken English and mime to a young couple who invite you to sit on a wobbly plastic stool in their kitchen and help chop vegetables you don’t recognize. On a small, local-led tour, guides can help you access places after-hours, go behind-the-scenes of venues other travelers miss out on, and arrange intimate experiences with the people who live there.
As well as saving you precious time in the trip planning process, a tour operator organizes logistics from the moment you depart, from transport and accommodation to dining out—giving you more time for cultural encounters. What’s more, an in-the-know guide will dodge spots crowded with tourists in favor of a little-known street stall or help you skip the line down at the harbor. All you need to do is to pack your passport, once you’ve decided where to go, that is.
If Thailand’s high on your list for it’s the warmth of its residents, authentic cuisine, and diverse experiences now that it’s open to international travelers, a tour with a USTOA tour operator such as EF Go Ahead Tours, Ritz Tours, and Intrepid Travel will let you to get to know the country through the eyes of those who call it home. In addition to sampling authentic dishes that you won’t find on hotel menus, you’ll enjoy a range of activities such as shopping at a floating market and meeting charming people in communities you won’t find in a guidebook.
Markets, monks, and home-cooked meals in Northern Thailand
The world’s largest private education company, EF Go Ahead Tours, believes travel is the best way to learn about the world. And with the help of a global network of experts, it has been organizing tours for more than 55 years including their 13-night “Thailand Adventure: Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the Islands” tour. On the adventure, you’ll visit a farm to learn about organic practices and traditional methods, plant or harvest produce yourself, and then sample fruit and fresh coconuts the size of soccer balls.
Foodies can also jostle with traders at a market in the village of Sankampaeng, nestled among rice paddies on the outskirts of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Once you’ve learned about seasonal ingredients, you’ll help culinary school chefs prepare four Thai dishes which you’ll sample over dinner on a terrace. At the end of the evening, you will leave with a cookbook—as well as incredible memories and stories for future dinner parties.
Your next dinner party may come sooner than you think, however, as an optional excursion on the tour includes a meal in a local Lanna family’s teak home. After exploring your host’s orchard and gardens, you will help them cook a traditional Thai meal to enjoy together. Sharing a meal isn’t the only way to interact with locals, as the tour also gives you the opportunity to meet a monk at a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai. Instead of passing novices in orange robes at Wat Suan Dok and wondering what their life is like, you can chat with one directly to learn about Buddhism, discover how the monks live, and ask questions about their work and traditions.
Handicrafts and hilltop dwellers
Established by a couple in 1980, Ritz Tours is still a family-run business that prides itself on providing affordable tours with the help of local experts like their 12-day Thailand Explorer tour. You’ll get to do everything from explore Bangkok’s gilded Grand Palace to visit the lively Damnoen Saduak floating market, where boats piled with flowers, starfruit, and hairy rambutan fruit nudge against each other like bumper cars at a fairground.
From there, tour-goers leave Bangkok for Thailand’s historic capital, Ayutthaya, an archaeological park that’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, prized for its temples, stupas (dome-like structures for meditation), and monasteries. As you cruise in a riverboat along the Chao Phraya back to Bangkok, you will glimpse entire families balancing on bicycles, women walking with parasols and dogs napping in the shade.
Head north into the hills to meet tribal women characterised by their oversized earrings and elongated necks enveloped in brass rings stacked high like incense coils. Watch the women weave fabric on looms and boost the local economy by buying silk and other handmade keepsakes. With the help of your guide, gestures, and the international language of a smile, take time to get to know the women before you leave. You can also explore the Buddhist temple Wat Doi Suthep atop Doi Suthep mountain, where the chimes of bells reverberate above the city of Chiang Mai.
End your tour in the south of Thailand, navigating the mangroves and caves of Ao Phang Nga National Park by longtail boat. You’ll wind past shards of limestone as jagged as tiger’s teeth en route to a stilted village before your final stop: the island of Phuket.
Tribes and temples
Over the past 30 years, Intrepid Travel has established itself as a responsible tour operator to off-the-beaten-track destinations. The operator keeps groups small to minimize disruption to local life, plus tour participants can access areas off-limits to bigger groups, like on the “Premium Northern Thailand” tour, limited to a maximum of 12 travelers. In addition to being carbon-neutral, the company has put in place verified carbon reduction targets, making it an industry leader in climate action. Its not-for-profit arm, The Intrepid Foundation, has also raised more than $10 million for 130 charities around the world.
The 12-day Thai tour features a local guide who will ensure you eat at the best places, so as well as street food, expect lunch aboard a rice barge and a barbecue around a campfire in the hills. Your guide will also identify wildlife and rare plants in Hup Pa Tat valley.
During the day you’ll discover temples, explore Sukhothai Heritage Park by bike, and learn about the Allied prisoners of war who constructed the railway bound for Myanmar featured in the 1957 war epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Come nightfall, you’ll stay in premium accommodation including Lisu Lodge, an intimate collection of bamboo huts set among orchards, gardens, and rice paddies that mirror the sky.
The lodge employs Lisu villagers, an ethnic hill tribe, and aims to preserve their cultural heritage. You’ll be able to linger at the lodge to talk with the staff and gain insight into their ancestral home of Tibet, learn a few words of their language, and find out about their traditional dress—colorful tunics, pants and tasselled turbans for women, a black jacket and blue or green pants for men.
Whichever tour you choose, the meaningful memories you create with the Thais that you meet will ensure you return home with much more than a camera roll of photos.
For these and many other tours that mean expertly planned trips, access to VIP and off-the-beaten-path experiences, local and knowledgeable guides, around-the-clock service, and more, head to USTOA.