Who knew that there are so many things to do in Bangkok? I stopped there for a few days during my second trip to South East Asia, on my way to Vietnam. After having visited Indonesia in October 2015 on what was an enlightening experience as well as a complete cultural shock, I wasn’t expecting much from the Thai capital or from Asia, to be honest. I just had no idea of what to do in Bangkok, I guess.
I must admit it positively surprised me. Truth be told, before going I didn’t know much about Bangkok; I had never bothered researching about what to do in Bangkok. I just thought of it as yet another huge city. The thing is, I don’t really enjoy big cities and, for as interesting as they might be, after spending a mere two days exploring the must sees and browsing the museums, I start feeling suffocated by the concrete and the crowds and I feel the urge to leave and immerse myself in nature. That’s what happened when I visited Buenos Aires, in Argentina. That’s how I felt when I went to Panama City, in Panama.
However, none of this happened to me in Bangkok. There are a million things to do in Bangkok, and so many things to see in Bangkok that would keep me entertained for days on end. It is a fantastic place to visit for solo travelers, and there are plenty of Bangkok solo travel tips online to help a girl find her way around and have a blast.
One of the best things to do in Bangkok is visiting the temples
Bangkok is a fantastic introduction to the region and a great starting point to further explore Thailand – it is fairly easy to reach the famous Thai islands such as Koh Chang from Bangkok. It is busy and full of life, with a very Asian soul, yet international and open minded. It helped me ease down the inevitable cultural shock of jumping from the Western world to the completely different South East Asia, and the range of things to do in Bangkok is incredible.
As I set out to discover what to do in Bangkok, I finally understood why so many travelers rave about it. Although I only had a few days to explore Bangkok, I managed to make the most of it and to get a good feel for the city. I have thus decided to put together my personal selection of the things to do in Bangkok in just a few days, with a few recommendations to save time (and money) here and there.
13 Unmissable Things To Do In Bangkok In Just A Few Days
Enjoy Bangkok funky architecture and multiple layers
Among the millions of things to do in Bangkok, I particularly enjoyed admiring its funky architecture. I was immediately captured by how modern skyscrapers stand right next to historical buildings, traditional homes and temples. Modern highways cut across the city, whereas tiny alleys develop a web that connects its most remote corners.
One of the things to do in Bangkok: gazing at its many layers – photo courtesy of I@mie (flickr)
To me, seeing the many layers of the city is what to do in Bangkok. I have yet to think of another city that I can compare to this when it comes to crazy architecture. It is simply incredible how a huge part of the city has developed on three different levels.
Cars, buses, tuk tuks and scooters dodge the traffic of the ground level: one of the best things to do in Bangkok is actually riding a tuk tuk. The state of the art sky train and the metro dominate the first level, with huge led screens placed around town to entertain the passengers that stand in orderly lines waiting for their train and to advertise the latest mobile technology. Finally, on the top level there’s the sky walk, that allows pedestrians to walk across the city without having to bother with the traffic of the ground level.
I really enjoyed walking around Bangkok, following the sky walk and looking at the buzzing life below: it’s one of the unmissable things to do in Bangkok.
Visit the stunning temples
One of the unmissable things to do in Bangkok is visiting the temples of Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. This is where to go in Bangkok to be impressed by its beauty; they have an incredile historical, cultural and religious value and that they are perfectly kept. Watching the tall white buildings, with their golden roofs and colorful green and blue mosaic walls against the clear sky is simply fascinating.
One of the things to do in Bangkok is exploring the temples
One of the things to do in Bangkok is pay homage to the enormous statue of the reclining Buddha in Wat Pho temple. Wat Phra Kaew temple is even larger and more elaborate, if only a bit harder to explore due to the crowds and the vastity of the place. Another of the places to visit in Bangkok is Wat Arun, also known as the temple of dawn (it takes its name after the Indian god of dawn). However, its main feature, which is an 82 meters Khmer style tower, is currently under restoration and can’t be climbed.
Practical information and advice:
These Bangkok attractions are right next to each other and can be easily visited during on a half day guided tour. Admission to Wat Pho is 100 Baht; whereas Wat Phra Kaew costs 500 Baht.
These are some of the best tours of Bangkok Temples:
One of the things to do in Bangkok if planning a visit to the temples is to be dressed appropriately. As most of the temples in the city, these are sacred places and it is required to wear long pants, skirts below the knee and long sleeves shirts in order to visit. It’s better to wear sandals too, as visitors are required to take off their shoes before entering the sacred buildings and to observe silence wherever people are praying.
If visiting the temples is what to do in Bangkok, make sure to avoid visiting during the weekend and plan a visit during the week. Apparently large numbers of Chinese tourists consider these to be the things to see in Bangkok, and battling with a large crowd of people who push, elbow, speak loudly and seem to always be in a rush is not a pleasant thing – in fact, it definitely isn’t one of the things to do in Bangkok.
And then go to the Grand Palace
Of all the things to do in Bangkok, visiting the Grand Palace is a real must. Part of the bigger complex that includes Wat Phra Kaew, the original name of the palace is Phra Borom Maharatchawang, and the place used to be a royal residence. Nowadays, the Grand Palace is used for ceremonies, and it is mostly seen as a tourist attraction. It’s only possible to explore some of the buildings, including the Grand Palace Hall, which is the largest one.
Explore Bangkok’s Canals and floating markets (and avoid a scam or two!)
Not far from the area where the temples are located, among of the most interesting things to do in Bangkok is boarding a long tail boat to explore one of Bangkok attractions: its canals. The boat tour goes by Wat Arun temple and then enters a narrow canal; it moves on to another temple and various areas where people stop to feed the fish. There even are some ladies on boats that sell all sorts of items, in the fashion of the floating market. This is a nice way to get away from the chaos and noise of the city, but it is not possible to disembark the boats unfortunately. The views are pretty nevertheless.
Taking a cruise along the canals and exploring the floating markets is one of the things to do in Bangkok
Practical information and advice:
Taking a boat tour of the canals is one of the unmissable things to do in Bangkok, but beware of scams. The tour lasts about one hour and should cost no more than 100 Baht per person and depart from one of the official docks around town – it is better to check in advance for the departure points.
Bangkok is packed with “friendly locals” who are keen to help tourists find their way around town and who suggest what to do in Bangkok. I only know too well (or else, I would not be an unsuccessful backpacker): the people who are so nice to offer help to find a boat tour are typically scammer, and unaware tourists may end up paying over 1000 Baht for the tour. If you really do want a friendly local to take you around Bangkok, consider hiring one here.
The best way to go may be to book a tour in advance. These are some of the best tours I have found:
Among the things to do in Bangkok, visiting Jim Thompson deserves a special mention. He was an American architect turned silk entrepreneur who fell in love with Thailand and did everything he could to bring back to splendor the art of silk production in the country. So much he loved Thailand that he established his residence there, in a house that was fully built according to Thai traditions. He disappeared mysteriously during a visit to Malaysia in 1967.
Jim Thompson House is one of the places to visit in Bangkok – photo courtesy of Clay Gilliland (flickr)
Visiting Jim Thompson House is one of the best things to do in Bangkok, but it can’t be done independently. It is necessary to arrive a bit in advance and sign up for a guided tour, which costs around 120 Baht including the entrance fee. The tour is available in English and French. The guides take visitors around the house, giving a good explanation of the architectural style of the house and of the various artifacts to be found there. Photos are not allowed inside the buildings but just in the gardens.
These are some good guided tour of Jim Thompson House:
Among the top things to do in Bangkok there is visiting the wholesale flowers market, Pak Klong. What is interesting about Pak Klong is that it is open 24/7 – in fact I visited when it was already dark. Pretty much any kind of flower is sold here, from the traditional roses to the lotus flowers which are worked to various shapes. Shop keepers use ice to keep the flowers fresh against the heat of the city, and most businesses are family run.
Here’s some amazing tours of the flower market to pick from:
If I had to pick just one of the many things to do in Bangkok, it would be eating its incredible food. Those traveling on a budget should rest assured: eating the delicious street food is what to do in Bangkok. Coming from me, a terribly picky eater, such a statement is worth a million times more. Unsure where to start from, and hardly adventurous with food, I decided to go on a street food tourso that I would have some guidance on what to eat and on where to go in Bangkok for the best food. It was the best decision I took in a long time!
Eating pad thai is one of the unmissable things to do in Bangkok
Doing a street food tour is one of the best things to do in Bangkok not only for the short term gain of eating delicious food, but also because it teaches a lot about the culture of the country (the importance of eating together, of sharing the dishes, and the overall food culture of South East Asia), and it gives some good insights on how to pick the best places for street food. I quickly understood that the best places are those that have a line (that has to mean something, when people line up to eat!), where the food is cooked to order and constantly being cooked.
The tour took me around Chinatown – by the way, visiting Chinatown is what to do in Bangkok – and stopped at some of the most popular food stalls. The first dish I ate was a vermicelli stir fry which consisted of glass noodles, shrimps, chicken and eggs as well as cabbage, celery and spring onions. It was deliciously spicy and thus made my beer all the more welcome and refreshing.
The second place where the tour stopped was so popular that we actually had to wait for a while before being seated – and yes, it was really worth it! This was a seafood place, where my guide ordered some grilled squid and some scallops. They were mouthwatering and just delicious. And after all, having good seafood is one of the top things to do in Bangkok!
Our final stop was at a homemade noodles place – the kind of place where, once the noodles are sold out, has to close for the day. We ordered two noodles dishes – a soup one and a dry one. Both came with a dumpling and both were absolutely mouthwatering. So much I enjoyed it that I think this place should be where to go in Bangkok for noodles.
Gorging down noodles: one of the things to do in Bangkok
Stuffed as I was, I still managed to eat some fruit on the go. I tried a pineapple – I must have been the first sale of the evening as the lady who sold that pineapple said some sort of prayer after my guide paid her, for good business. She then cleaned the small pineapple and put it on a stick, much as a lollypop. So I walked around with my fruit lollypop, juice drooling all over my face and arms as I enjoyed what must have been the sweetest pineapple I have ever had. It was one of the most fun things to do in Bangkok.
Lumpini takes its name from the Lord Buddha born in Nepal. The park sees lots of older Thai generations either practicing Thai Chi; or younger ones going for a romantic walk by the lake. It’s a great place to be during the weekend; and one of the top things to do on Bangkok is hanging out there in the early morning or right before sunset, to get away from the chaos of the city.
Go people watching
As with all countries in the world, one of the most fun things to do in Bangkok is to go people’s watching. The place to do it in Bangkok is the famous (or rather, infamous now!) Khao San Road. This is a road where bars are clubs are one after the other, and it is just a matter of picking one where to sit and have a drink. It now is a backpackers’ hub, so a good place to meet other travelers too.
Have fun in Bangkok nightlife
Dodging Bangkok nightlife is no easy task. There are bars and nightclubs everywhere in Bangkok, but with such a choice and in such a wide city, it isn’t always easy to find a place that matches one’s tastes and interests. I was lucky enough to have a friend who lives in Bangkok take me around – she knew exactly where to go in Bangkok and we ended up at a fun place with live music, the kind of place we used to go in our college years back home.
Admiring a good sunset before a night out – one of the nicest things to do in Bangkok
In recent years Bangkok nightlife has seen a tightening of regulations. Bars and clubs now close between 1:00 and 2:00 am (way past my bedtime anyways!) and smoking is not permitted indoors (a welcome fact for me, as I can’t stand cigarette smoke!). In general, unless at a dirt cheap backpackers’ kind of place, cocktails are generally good. I’d suggest going to a sky bar as one of the top things to do in Bangkok.
As my friend who lives in Bangkok explained to me, the trick to make the most of a night out in town is to know where to go on which night of the week. In lack of a local friend, there are some websites that report the various bars, clubs and whatever is on in Bangkok nightlife. Consulting these sites is what to do in Bangkok if in search of a good time.
I have never really had much interest in shopping, yet I admit that one of the best things to do in Bangkok is shopping, so much so that I would never recommend the city to a shopaholic on her way to recovery. From small market to shopping malls, from designer clothes to bargains, the only issue one may find while shopping in Bangkok is having to choose among the millions of inviting items to buy. Even I could not resist the temptation and had to shop! Those looking for where to go in Bangkok for shopping, should head straight to Chatuchak Market.
Have a proper night’s sleep in a fabulous hotel
One of the nicest things to do in Bangkok is to be treated to a great hotel. The good news is that luxury is more than affordable there, and that even a budget hotel such as Nasa Vegas can be a total treat. Besides, Bangkok is so big that, in terms of accommodation, there is something for any budgets and need: from hostel dorms to home-stays, from boutique hotels to luxury and anything in between.
Treating myself to a nice room: one of the things to do in Bangkok
Knowing that I can’t stand traffic noise and that I need my beauty sleep, I decided to stay in Lumpini Park, an area that, although very well connected to all the main Bangkok attractions, is not nearly as busy. Lumpini Park, in Silom, is where most embassies and consulates are located; it is clean, quiet and with lots of trees and pleasant to walk around. If treating yourself to a nice room is what to do in Bangkok, Aetas Hotel Lumpiniis the right choice.
I stayed at Somerset Park Suanplu Bangkok and had an entire 70 square meters apartment to myself. Arriving there after a long journey from Italy, I was really happy to find such a spacious, comfortable and quiet place. It was one of the top things to do in Bangkok that I picked to do!
Things to do in Bangkok: enjoy a fantastic view from the balcony
Having a good view of the city is one of the nicest things to do in Bangkok. I was lucky then that my apartment was on the 20th floor, offering an incredible view of the city. It consisted of a large bedroom with all the amenities and a balcony; a fantastic living room with a cozy sofa and a large flat screen tv; a walk in closet which included an ironing board and a safe; a fully equipped kitchen with a large fridge, washing machine and anything I may possibly need to prepare and serve a meal (provided that one would ever cook in a city like Bangkok, where street food is so good!) as well as a large dining table; and a bathroom with a walk in shower.
Relaxing in a great room: one of the best things to do in Bangkok
The hotel has a gym, but I am more of a swimming pool kind of girl so I found no better way to relax and wash away the heat of the day after having explored the city than jumping in that fantastic pool. Chilling at the pool is what to do in Bangkok after a day of exploration.
Treating myself to a nice pool – one of the things to do in Bangkok
Breakfast at Somerset Park is incredibly varied – from traditional Thai dishes, to eggs, pancakes, and pastries and a very large selection of fresh fruit. The hotel also offers a free tuk tuk service to the main metro station nearby – which is very convenient. Indeed, using public transportation is one of the coolest things to do in Bangkok.
To sum up, these are the best places to stay in Bangkok:
At such convenient prices, one of the unmissable things to do in Bangkok is having a relaxing yet invigorating full body massage. Nothing better than this to end a day of exploration and right before going to sleep.
Riding tuk tuks is one of the most fun things to do in Bangkok
Dodge the local transportation
Getting around town is really easy, and one of the most fun things to do in Bangkok is actually trying out every possible mode of transportation around. Whether taking the sky train, a tuk tuk, a taxi or, even better, a moto taxi, all of these systems are very convenient money-wise, and they are fantastic ways to get to know the city. An easy way to reach all the best places to visit is by taking the tourist bus.
As is the case in most tourist destinations, scams against tourists in Bangkok are rather common, and it is easy to fall for them. Even the most experienced travelers end up falling for them – it sure happened to me. Knowing about the scams is what to do in Bangkok to protect against them. These are the most typical ones:
The very friendly locals: typically hanging out around major tourist attractions, such as the Grand Palace, exceedingly friendly locals will say that the attraction is closed and invite tourists to do something different, caring to offer transportation and guidance for an inflated price. Checking the opening times of attractions is one of the things to do in Bangkok to avoid this scam.
The tuk tuk: as there is no meter on tuk tuk, agreeing on a price before jumping on is what to do in Bangkok to avoid paying an inflated price. Also beware of drivers that suggest taking you to souvenir shops that have the best prices.
The taxi: contrary to tuk tuks, taxi have meters. One of the things to do in Bangkok as soon as getting on a taxi is making sure that the meter is on and that the correct rate is set.
The change: street vendors often give back incorrect change, on purpose. Among the things to do in Bangkok is going out with small change so to avoid using big notes.
The bag: not so much a scam, and again this happens in any big city. One of the things to do in Bangkok is to wear bags by putting the strap around the shoulder, as it is not uncommon for petty criminals to drive their motorbikes right by and try to pull it away.
Have you ever been to Bangkok? What did you like the most about it?
Thailand is a wonderful place to visit at all times of the year, in every season and every occasion. It is a land of a remarkable culture, history, festivities and exotic natural landscapes. As Austin Bush, a writer, succinctly and magnificently puts:
“It’s easy to say that the thing I love most about Thailand is Thai food. But then I’m reminded of that feeling of freedom during a motorcycle trip upcountry. And of the sensory overload of a busy morning market – or a night out in Bangkok. And of encounters with history and culture, the new and the old, at just about every turn.”
I went to Thailand last February and March, not expecting much to be honest: I was just on my way to Vietnam and decided I may as well stop in Bangkok on my way there. I then visited Koh Chang before getting back to Bangkok in order to fly back to Europe, and after having spent some time in Cambodia. What I found is a beautiful, welcoming country that I am keen to visit again as soon as possible.
So, here are the top five places to visit in Thailand – which I am keen to visit for the first time or again.
Bangkok is a city of many wonders
Bangkok is the metropolitan capital of Thailand and is a city with exciting collision in every sense; whether it is a new food that you taste or a market that you plan to take a trip to. I found it to be a city full of contrasts.
Bangkok is very populated but even the slow moving traffic gave me a good opportunity to capture stills of the surrounding shops, passengers and buildings. The food offered on the streets as well as the restaurants is truly flavorful and savory. I enjoyed taking a street food tour of the city. The people of Bangkok are warm, friendly and always ready to welcome the tourists with open arms.
Finding where to stay in Bangkok is really easy. One thing I did’t know about is that there’s lot of time-shares in the city. A friend of mine has one, and recently told me: “I want to sell my timeshare.” I am actually considering buying it, it may be a good investment and perhaps my first step into becoming a home owner!
In Bangkok, I truly enjoyed visiting Wat Arun, Jim Thompson House, Wat Phra Kaew and Dusit Palace Park. Bangkok airport is the main hub of South East Asia, where most of Thailand flights land and where lots of budget airlines fly to and from. It is incredibly well connected.
My idea of paradise: a deserted beach with clear waters. Koh Wai is one of the best islands in Thailand
Koh Chang and Koh Same are two islands that are tourism magnets, located along the eastern side of the Thai coast. They are home to multiple attractions and beautiful resorts. Koh Chang has a charisma of its own that attracts millions of tourists every year. Visitors spend their day diving, swimming, hiking through the green dense jungles and sunbathing on the west coast beaches.
The island ambience is mostly party-like and tourists love mingling in with the crowd and losing themselves in its extraordinary nightlife and excellent cuisines. Yet, I managed to get away from it all, staying in a far away beach where silence and nature were the main features, and every day I could enjoy a beautiful sunset (and a sunset drink) and a delicious dinner at the beach. I also took a day trip to Koh Wai, which felt like a lost paradise!
I can’t wait to explore Central Thailand – photo courtesy of Christian Junker (flickr)
Central Thailand is famous for its historical and religious magnificence. I would love to visit there for a chance to explore the memorials and the mighty Death Railway that is their tribute to the WWII prisoners.
Central Thailand has beautiful waterfalls, falling from jagged mountain ranges, steep galore and deep caves surrounding the entire area. I would love to witness their treasured tigers, only a few of which now exist. This region is home to some of the oldest ethnic tribes who visit their sacred temples daily and walk through the monkey filled roads.
But whatever happens, I will always make sure that no animals are harmed in tourist attractions. Read more about my opinion on the use of animals in tourist attractions on my post “Don’t ride that elephant.”
Lively Chiang Mai – photo courtesy of Caitriana Nicholson (flickr)
Chiang Mai is the capital of the northern part of Thailand and is pretty far away from the hustle bustle of Bangkok. Rumor has it that once people enter this land, it feels like stepping through a portal. It has a rich history of captivation and kingdoms. A lot of tourists visit this part of Thailand every year and it has developed to be a traveler centre for a number of tourists of all ages. The province is a great exploration site for nature lovers as well as history enthusiasts like myself – hence my urge to go. Travelers raft through its clear waters and try out a number of adrenaline pumping activities.
It’s easy to see why I would love to visit Koh Samui – photo courtesy of Arnie Papp (flickr)
The lower gulf of Thailand comprises of Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Pha-Ngan. They are a bunch of spectacular isles with alluring beauty. Koh Samui is the oldest among the trio and has sophisticated resorts that are a mixture of contemporary and traditional brilliance. A number of tourist spots are present here like Nam Tok Phaeng, National Museum, Chiaw Lan Lake and likes.
Yet, I am keen to spend my days in one of the palm-fringed beaches, sipping a coconut and swimming in the clear waters and then immerse myself in the thick rainforest.
With all these places to visit, I truly look forward to go back to Thailand. The good news for me and for anybody who is keen on going is that flying to Thailand is relatively cheap.
Have you ever been to Thailand? What did you like the most about it?
A few months ago, when my trip to South East Asia was still in the preparation phase, my sister (the only person I really enjoy traveling with) and I started browsing any possible material we could find in search of information about places to visit and things to do. Travel blogs, travel guides, travel magazines, travel diaries published by online travelers communities, in Italian and English – whatever it was, we wanted to read it.
I immediately noticed that a few of the travel diaries published by the biggest online travel community in Italy, as well as a number of travel blogs, mentioned visiting the Tiger Temple in Thailand, not too far from Bangkok and supposedly a conservation centre run by Buddhist monks with the aim of saving tigers and re-introducing them into their natural environment. Attached to the diaries and posts, a series of pictures, testimony of the activities that go on in this “temple”: a tourist with a tiger pup being fed on a baby bottle; with a tiger enjoying being pet as if s/he was an overgrown cat; with a tiger on a leash, being taken for a walk (as if s/he was a dog!) and the never-missing selfie.
The unmissable selfie with a tiger – photo courtesy of xiquinhosilva (flickr)
I thought it looked a bit odd that tigers – wild animals by definition – would allow people to feed them with a baby bottle. And in fact, taking a closer look at those pictures, I could see that the tigers were always chained, and they had a bit of an absent, sleepy expression on their face.
Using animals as tourist attractions
I was not born yesterday and I know that lots of attractions and shows exploit animals. Some are even considered part of the cultural heritage of a country (what with the corrida, or bull fights, in Spain and in Latin American countries) – though I can’t understand what’s cultural in killing a bull just for the sake of it.
But while some shows such as bull fights are visibly and vividly cruel, other shows or attractions look more innocent, there is no violence in them – at least none that is immediately visible. Tourist are inevitably attracted to them. They want to go on that romantic ride through the city, on a carriage pulled by beautiful horses (that have likely been under the scorching sun all day and that are stressed because of the traffic and noise); parents want to take their children to the circus; people want to see those animals that they otherwise may only see on tv, or in pictures.
All countries in the world are involved at some level in the ill treatment of animals for the sake of the tourism industry.
Indeed, as Mike Huxley, of Bemused Backpacker, says,
A huge amount of greenwashing is employed to prey on the naivety of tourists and travelers alike who think it is okay to ride on an elephants back, get a selfie with a tiger, cuddle a baby orang utan or swim with a dolphin, despite all the evidence that states these actions cause irreparable harm to the animals involved. Unfortunately too many people put their desire for a once in a lifetime experience with their favorite animal above any ethical concerns, and are either unaware of, or don’t care about the abuse and exploitation that occurs just so these wildlife tourism companies can turn a profit.
I hoped my gut feeling that the Tiger Temple was just another horrible tourist attraction to be linked to animal abuse may be wrong. I told myself I may well be paranoid for doubting one of the best known online travelers’ community in Italy. Surely, they would have made a clear statement against such tourist attractions if they really were exploiting animals, and invited their members not to pay for them, right?
I decided to investigate a bit. After all, I am terribly curious (I may well qualify to be a CIA agent). I did a very basic search on the web by inserting a few simple key words on the search engine. If I managed to clear all my suspects and doubts, my sister and I may well be able to pet a tiger and scratch her behind the ears, and spend the money we had been working hard to save for a good cause.
A bit too sleepy not to raise suspicion. And on a chain – photo courtesy of Nick Hubbard (flickr)
A few clicks and a whole bunch of information popped up – without really having to put much of an effort. Right there, available for anybody to read, was a piece on the Tiger Temple by National Geographic (not exactly comics or tabloid, in case anybody doubts its reputation) where the journalist told of a series of “bizarre” events in the conservation centre. Nothing to worry about (*sarcasm*) other than the fact that the tigers are “beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors,” and that they are likely drugged so that they wouldn’t be aggressive and the visitors would be able to pet or take the unmissable selfie without risking their life; or the sale of tigers to the Chinese black market where they’d be used to extract a little bit of everything. All in the name of conservation and protection.
The same issues had been already denounced in 2008 in a report by Care for the Wild International, which concluded that an attraction like the Tiger Temple was not only not contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild, but it in fact increased the illegal trafficking for the sake of keeping the captive population.
It looked like we wouldn’t be going to the Tiger Temple, after all. Because as long as tourists make it profitable for the monks to run such an attraction, they will continue in their abuse.
But we didn’t despair. We’d spend a month traveling across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and we would surely come across the possibility of living unique experiences.
So we left. And we saw some amazing places and lots of weird things too. And we got confirmation that this part of the world isn’t exactly a champion in environmental protection (I don’t think I have ever seen so much garbage as I have in Vietnam) and animal welfare and protection, including that of species that are at risk of extinction.
I had noticed this already during my trip to Indonesia, where the horses meant to carry visitors to the crater of Mount Bromo looked malnourished, sick and distressed. And already then I understood that for any one tourist that refuses to ride the horses because they are ill treated (guess who that was?) there’s at least 50 who don’t care at all. I was so angered by that situation that I even wrote a post about it.
If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.
I should have been prepared for more of this kind of scenes on my second trip to South East Asia. Yet, I was deeply saddened to see that the gorgeous complex of Angkor Wat was packed with elephants used to take around groups of tourists – in the scorching 40 degrees Celsius (plus the unbearable humidity). In a place where there hardly is any want for tuk tuk and bikes are easy to use, as the terrain is almost entirely flat and easy to ride, what is the exact need to ride an elephant? Oh right… people do it for fun. I am not really sure where the fun is in riding elephants, but hey different people have different tastes, right?
Too bad that some of these “tastes” have a negative effect on animals. But not everyone thinks of these effects, not even well-meaning people. Mike recalls how during one of his first backpacking trips, he joined an elephant safari – something he is now ashamed of and an experience which he used to change his way of traveling altogether, now having become an advocate for responsible tourism.
Tourists riding elephants in Angkor Wat. I was hoping not to see such things…
Since riding an elephant is not to my taste, but I do love the idea of seeing them up close, I thought that I may be able to find an elephant camp in Koh Chang, to have fun in a more responsible way. I know that a few recovery and conservation centers have opened in South East Asia, so I was hopeful. Besides, Koh Chang is packed with “elephant camps,” so I figured at least one of them would be a conservation centre. I started enquiring about them, and concluded that I would not see elephants on this trip. All these camps would offer are elephant safari. Fun! (more *sarcasm*)
Evidently, though, the revenue such businesses generate is still quite big, since they continue existing. And it didn’t take me long to meet people who had enjoyed such attractions. I would have thought that in 2016 getting online would be enough to be literally bombarded with news just about anything, including those about animal abuse in attractions where animals are involved.
The fact that elephants are subjected to any sort of abuse to be trained to carry people isn’t exactly recent news – but a fact that has been known for a while now. In order to be trained to carry people, elephants go through a training known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, which has the aim of crushing the elephants’ spirits and forcing them to be more pliable and submissive. They are then confined in small cages or pits, so small that they can’t move around. Finally, they are tortured and beaten constantly for a long period of time with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. Elephants are starved, they are not allowed to sleep, they are tortured and abused both mentally and physically.
All those elephants seen carrying around tourist have gone through this process. Furthermore, carrying people actually causes the elephants a lot of harm and physical pain. As Mike explains, their spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, even less so when they have to do it all day long, every day, without the chance to rest and eat. Yes, they are huge but despite their size their backs hurt when they carry people as well as the wooden saddles strapped to their backs, causing skin and tissue damage. Elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries and crippled as a result of these activities. Not to mention the emotional pain of being abused, the fear they feel constantly, and the stress that such a social animal – used to living in groups – feels when forced to live alone.
All in all, a tourist that decides to take part in an elephant safari is in a way stating that no, s/he really doesn’t care if his or her actions lead to the atrocious suffering of an animal. Or to death, even – just as it happened a few weeks ago in Angkor Wat, where an elephant died due to exhaustion.
Baby elephant chained by all fours, men pulling on his/her legs – this is how elephants are trained for circus or to carry humans – photo courtesy of Sam Haddock (PETA)
It isn’t just elephants that are trained to do things that don’t come to them naturally just to entertain people. The same sad fate is faced by dolphins who work in dolphinariums. Giulia, of Travel Reportage, shares her experience:
As a person who had the chance of working with dolphins in captivity but also of encountering them in the wild, I have learnt about the way these beautiful beyond words animals are treated and threatened so that they will keep performing and entertaining the human spectators. Dolphins are trained to follow their trainers’ instructions, and if they don’t they will get no food or some other kind of punishment. They are very stressed as they have to work continuously, every day and many times a day.
Giulia used to work in dolphinariums and knows what goes on behind them
But, as Giulia adds
Most people will take part in the so called “dolphin encounters” and “dolphin shows” without knowing nor asking themselves what is behind this reality.
I only know too well. Years ago, as part of a tour I was doing, I was taken to a dolphinarium. I don’t even know why or how I ended up there. The show kind of made me sad – seeing those gorgeous animals in a tank, and the entire environment around. But when I was approached by a member of staff asking whether I’d want to swim with the dolphins, I was happy to do it. I don’t know what had gotten over me, I can’t really explain why I did it, even though I had a gut feeling that it was wrong. I just did. Years later, I am still ashamed of what I did.
Giulia underlines the importance of raising awareness when possible, and of
Encouraging others to take some important factors into consideration: No dolphin (or any other animal) would choose captivity over freedom (so simple right?). Furthermore, it is possible to meet dolphins in their natural habitat. They come close to the boats out of curiosity, following them, jumping, playing with people, disappearing and reappearing, often in large groups formed by old and young individuals – so obviously families! – speeding just below the water surface… This makes us understand how the vastness of the oceans is where dolphins belong; no tank, of no size, will ever replace the sea.
What about seeing animals in their natural environment?
After my shameful experience of swimming with dolphins in a dolphinarium, I have seen dolphins in their natural habitat, in many countries – Peru, Panama, Argentina above all, and recently even in my very own hometown. Seeing them in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, and every time that happens, I get very emotional and tear roll down my cheeks, expressing how thankful I am to see them and how sorry I still feel for having contributed to their ill treatment in the past.
Yet, the fact that it is possible to see animals in their natural environment doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not being endangered.
Emily, of the incredible duo Along Dusty Roads, regrets her experience with whale sharks:
We still feel ashamed. A quick survey of the options down by the beach and we all too quickly agreed to meet a man at 5 a.m. the next morning. “And we’ll definitely see them out in the sea?” “100%”, he told us. And the price was cheaper than we had expected.
We first thought something may be amiss when the boat had been going for a couple of hours without a word from our captain. However, we were on holiday in the middle of the ocean with some serious sun-bathing to be done. Why stress?
Once land came into full view – plus dozens of other boats and tourists – it was clear that our request to see whale sharks swimming in the wild was not really understood. Instead, huge majestic creatures, doped up on constant food chucked from rowing boats, surrounded by far too many snorkeling humans and penned into a small section of water was the “attraction”. We too went in the water, but the guilt was already weighing us down.
Did you know that whale sharks are attracted with food? – photo courtesy of Klaus Stiefel
Jules, one of the two bloggers behind Don’t Forget to Move, stopped himself short of doing the same:
When I first heard that you could swim with whale sharks in Cebu, Philippines I was set on making the experience part of our itinerary. The thought of being able to experience the world’s largest fish up close is just incredible! But, like any animal tourism activities that you come across during your travels, it’s always best to do research to make sure that engaging in an activity that doesn’t have a negative affect on the animals.
Unfortunately, the more research we did the more we learned that the whale shark experience in Oslob isn’t an animal-friendly activity. After speaking with marine biologists from the Philippines we discovered the tour guides actively feed the whale sharks to encourage them to stay in the area for the tourists. This may not seem harmful at first, but the practice is having detrimental effects on the whale sharks. It is changing migratory patterns of the whale sharks, which may alter their breeding habits in the future, as well as providing them with an insufficient diet for repopulation.
When we passed through Oslob on our trip, after deciding not to participate, we could see the scene from shore. All of our lingering regret for not doing the activity faded then and there when we saw snorkelers crowded in a small buoyed area, crammed in with dozens of other boats, all vying to get up close with these majestic animals. All unknowing that they could actually be contributing to the decline in their species.
And even the places that feign a responsible tourism badge are not entirely trustworthy. Michaela, of Travel Intense, remembers her negative experience in Dominica:
During my trip to Dominica I stayed at a resort that claimed to take part in sea turtle conservation. Their beach is a major nesting ground for leatherback and green turtles. So, they created a small group that is supposed to save the eggs and turtles from local hunters and at the same time educate visitors and let them experience the nesting and hatching process. During our stay, a couple large leatherbacks came ashore; the resort notified me and some other guests, and we all headed for the beach. However, we did not receive a briefing on how to behave around turtles. Originally, I thought this was because the staff knew it wasn’t my first turtle-nesting encounter.
Not exactly the quiet environment turtles need – photo courtesy of Michaela
But when I saw the crowd around me taking pictures with flashes and using flashlights without red filters (even when the turtle wasn’t in “trance”), and chatting away like they were at a beach party, I realized that none of the guests had been briefed, and they had no idea about how to safely watch turtles lay eggs.
Too make matters worse, the staff even allowed people to touch the turtles. I started to really feel very bad about this uncontrolled frenzy and retreated under a palm tree down the beach. While lost in thought, pondering how people could show such interested in wildlife and nature and yet be so careless, I suddenly heard a tired sigh just a few feet away. Another leatherback had made its way to this quiet part of the beach and started to dig a nest.
I left my flashlight and camera where they were, enjoyed Mother Nature’s show under the moonlight, and decided to keep my little secret and not risk letting anyone potentially disturb this already exhausted mother (even though the staff was supposed to take measurements and bury the turtles eggs in a different place). I simply felt that sitting there in the dark and letting the turtle do what her ancestors have done for countless generations without man’s interference was the best call.
The duty of travelers and travel bloggers
What can we do to make sure that animal abuse and practices in the tourism industry that have an adverse effect on animals stop for good? It actually is more simple than we think. We must read. We must ask ourselves questions. And we should never participate in activities that have a negative impact on animals.
Since , we’re happy to say that we haven’t actually visited an attraction like that; the lesson has been well and truly learned. Our golden rule now is that if animals are involved in an attraction, it’s likely something that we shouldn’t be doing. And, if we want to see them in the wild (the proper wild), we do our research online to ensure that the tour is done in a wholly ethical, responsible and safe manner – unfortunately, the majority are not.
As Mike puts it, travelers should
do research before travel, take the time to educate elves on the issues involved, don’t support organizations that profit from animal cruelty and abuse, and instead search out and support the truly responsible wildlife tourism activities. Watch and observe from a distance instead of getting up close and personal, walk alongside elephants instead of riding on top of them, support good zoos, not unethical ones.
Travel bloggers in particular should never miss the chance to educate other travelers on responsible wildlife holidays, especially when it comes to tourist activities that involve animals.
Hoping that within the next few years all dolphinariums and other kinds of animal confinement will not exist anymore, Giulia says that
In order to reach this very important goal everyone can do their part, first of all by not paying for such shows and encounters, but also by educating the new generations teaching them the true value of nature, whose beauty reaches its greatest expression only when far away from our exploitation.
Similarly, Jules points out the importance of educating the wider public about the consequences of irresponsible tourist practices. He adds:
That’s why we prioritize responsible tourism practices in our travels and articles that we write. Not to make people feel bad about their choices, but to educate them. Little by little we can all start to shift the tourism industry to become more responsible.
Thankfully, more travelers, more people working in the tourism industry and even more authorities are now understanding that responsible tourism isn’t just a trend. As Mike points out,
It is still possible to have an awesome experience, and at the same time help the animals instead of contributing to their abuse, exploitation and ultimate extinction.
Some may argue that local communities still need these kind of attractions to make a living, but indeed, local communities can still earn a living and the tourism industry profit if attractions involving the use of animals are run in an ethical way, that emphasizes the need of caring for them and if they actually offer tourists the chance to interact in an actually constructive way.
Soon enough, responsible tourism will be the only way to travel – or else, we should be ready to say goodbye to dolphins, elephants, tigers and so many other species that make this world a wonderful place.
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Hi, my name is Claudia. One day I packed my life and started traveling… except I packed too much. Follow me as I fill my life with dreams, drop the weight and inspire you to live your dreams. View and download my media kit here (updated Oct 2018). Learn more about me here…