Thailand’s tropical islands are ripe with natural attractions but also offer opportunities for visitors to explore local culture
Interacting with the locals is a great way to immerse yourself in authentic Thai culture
Thailand’s intriguing culture has long been one of the key reasons new visitors are drawn to the kingdom’s shores. From gleaming golden palaces to the hustle and bustle of local markets, Thailand offers a rich tapestry of local culture, much of which is built on centuries of tradition.
Seasoned travellers know that the best way to delve into a country’s authentic native culture is to rub shoulders with the locals whilst on vacation. On islands like Phuket and Koh Samui, this can mean anything from eating out in neighbourhood family-run restaurants. to getting involved with local charities.
If you’re keen to spend your Thai vacation exploring the authentic cultural delights of Koh Samui and Phuket, here are some top tips.
Speak like a local
Learning a couple of phrases of the Thai language will help you to interact with locals
In a land that’s known for its smiles, it’s not surprising that a friendly, smiling face goes a long way when you’re communicating with members of the local Thai community – but nothing beats learning a few words of Thai to encourage more meaningful interactions. Being able to use a few Thai phrases in places like markets and restaurants can be particularly helpful. If you’re trying to negotiate a discount at a market stall, for example, knowing how to count in Thai might be handy. Likewise, in restaurants, a basic knowledge of Thai food phrases will help if you want to explain your food preferences, or if you have any allergies.
As well as helping you to communicate with the locals, learning a bit of Thai will also show Thai people that you’ve gone to the effort of learn about their culture. If you really get hooked on learning the tonal nuances of the Thai language, you will soon be able to put your skills to the test when you make new Thai friends.
Eat like a local
Eating out at a family-run restaurant provides a golden opportunity to sample authentic Thai cuisine
For a true taste of authentic Thai flavours on tourist islands like Koh Samui or Phuket, a local family-run eatery is often the best choice. In some cases the dishes you see on the menu will be based on recipes that have been passed down through the generations, with secret twists and flavoursome infusions that make each plate unique. Street food stalls are another good option for travellers in search of authentic Thai flavours, and food markets allow you to sample an array of dishes as you graze from stall to stall. Another top tip when it comes to eating well is to follow the locals – wherever they gather and eat, you know the local food will be top notch good.
For flavourful local fare in Phuket, Kamala Beach is a good choice. This beachside village is less developed than Patong, so you’re more likely to be able to pick out a family-run restaurant. On the east coast, Koh Panyee is a series of floating restaurants, and a great place to sample the best of the Andaman Ocean’s best seafood at welcoming, family-run eateries. On Koh Samui, some of the finest seafood dishes can be enjoyed at the local family-run restaurants in sleepy fishing villages like Hua Thanon or on the beach in less developed areas like Bang Por.
Shop like a local
Look out for traditional sa paper goods when you’re exploring the handicraft stalls and markets of Phuket and Koh Samui
According to seasoned globetrotters, the best way to get to know a country is to visit its local markets. Thailand is home to two types of local market. The first is the talad sod, a permanent fresh produce market. The other is the talad nat, which is similar to the weekly farmers markets you get in the West, where vendors bring their own goods along to sell.
The talad nat on Phuket and Koh Samui are also good for those that want to browse local handicrafts, which can provide great souvenirs to take home as gifts for friends. Beautiful wickerwork and rattan goods worth looking out for if you’re shopping on Phuket, and they come in the form of everything from furniture to hats. Sa paper, a durable handmade form of parchment, is another item offered at Phuket’s craft markets. It can be made into masks, notebooks, lamps and greetings cards.
For those on holiday Koh Samui, the weekly walking street market in Bophut Fisherman’s Village is a an excellent choice for handicraft shopping. The range of products on offer is vast and ranges from souvenirs mad out of local coconut shells to hand-made jewellery and intricately carved, colourful soaps.
Explore like a local
Thalang Road in Phuket Old Town is home to plenty of traditional Peranakan boutiques, local people have made garments in styles that have endured for centuries
To truly immerse yourself in local culture, you need to get off the beaten tourist track. On a scorching afternoon in Koh Samui, most tourists make a beeline for the beach – whereas locals will head for the cool, shady waterfalls in the island’s interior. Visitors that hike to the stunning Na Muang waterfalls, for example, will be rewarded with a refreshing soak in the cooling natural pool at the bottom.
But local tourism goes well beyond heading for favourite natural attractions. If you’re keen to explore a little deeper, then a visit to Phuket’s Rawai Art Village offers an intriguing experience. Situated at the laid-back southern end of the island, the area has become popular with a group of local artists and is now home to a selection of galleries showcasing their works. Phuket Old Town is another excellent place to go if you’re keen to understand the island’s historical Peranakan culture. The customs of this community still play a vital role in local life, and the design and printing techniques you can see in the boutiques on Thalang Road are unique and stunning.
Giving something back
Visitors can volunteer at Samui’s Dog Rescue Centre
For many visitors, appreciating local culture also means giving something back to the destination that has made your vacation so special. This can range from making a donation to a local charity, or even getting involved in a beach clean-up event.
The newly opened Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is leading the way in terms of ethical animal attractions in Phuket. In addition to the morning and afternoon tours of the park, after which visitors can give donations, there are also volunteering opportunities. On Koh Samui, dog lovers often choose to volunteer at the Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation. Duties might include bathing dogs or playing with cats, either way, you know you’re doing something that has benefit to the island.
Picking up a few key phrases will help you to communicate with the locals
A variety of user-friendly apps can help you pick up the Thai language. Learn Thai is a favourite with visitors and expats in Thailand as it provides a bank of everyday phrases and words you can use whilst on holiday. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s own app, SpeakThai, is also particularly helpful. The app features sections organised by theme, such as eating out or going shopping. Nemo Thai is also worth checking out. The app’s handy Speech Studio allows you to perfect the Thai accent by recording your voice as you pronounce certain phrases, and then playing it back to you and comparing it to how the teacher pronounces the phrase so you can hear your mistakes.
More tips on how to make the most of local life in Thailand:
- Hire a local guide to learn more about the area where you’re staying. He or she will be able to draw your attention to a host of hidden highlights. It’s also a great way to put money back into the local economy.
- If you want to immerse yourself in Thai culture on Phuket or Samui, a respect of local customs is essential. It’s worth reading up on Thai etiquette before going on vacation and visiting some of the island’s temples when you are there.
- Using public transport is a great way to plunge into local life. You’ll have the chance to meet Thai people. Songtheaws are converted, covered red pick up trucks that ferry the locals between towns and beaches in Thailand. It’s worth trying at least one trip on one of these novel buses to see how the locals get around.