Ten years ago my mother offered to take me on a holiday to Australia. That’s a hell of an offer, isn’t it? An all-expenses paid trip to Australia! Who would turn that down? Nobody, right?
Well, I did.
Sure, I liked to travel—I had been around the US a fair bit and had traveled to Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean. But Australia? “No thanks,” I told my mother. “It’s too far.”
A few years later I thought back on that moment and realized how absolutely ridiculous that was. There was a moment, I can’t remember exactly when it was, but I swore to myself that I would no longer run away from the things that scared me.
In fact, I swore to do everything that scared me. Soon afterwards I bought my own one-way ticket to Australia, and within a month I was jumping out of airplanes.
These days I live a little bit more by the seat of my pants, and I genuinely believe in making the most of every day. Sometimes that means watching a full season of Breaking Bad in a single sitting (or, let’s be real, the whole series in a weekend), and sometimes that means climbing, jumping, or racing as high, far, or as fast as we possibly can.
By the time I made it to Thailand, one of the most-visited countries in the world, I was looking for adventure everywhere. Sure, I love a lazy day on the beach as much as the next traveler, but I’ll also be the first one in line when it’s time to do something crazy.
1. Deep Water Soloing in Tonsai/Railay
Deep Water Soloing is one of my favorite adventure activities in Thailand—it's like rock climbing on steroids. It’s a form of free-climbing that involves bouldering and scaling cliffs without ropes, harnesses, anchor points, chalk, or any other climbing gear.
The only way up is to climb, and the only way down is to leap from the edge, whether you’re 10 feet or 100 feet in the air, plunging yourself into the water below. It’s just you, the rock, and the sea.
Near the Krabi province in southern Thailand, the Tonsai and Railay beaches are the best places to go Deep Water Soloing. Professional local guides will take you on a tiny long tail boat to the 200 foot karst rocks nearby that jut upwards out of the sea and into the sky.
Rope ladders will help you climb onto the rock from the water (it’s a lot more difficult climbing out than you might think), but once you’re up on the rock, you’re left entirely to your own devices, and you’re climbing straight up the side of a cliff with no ropes. If your foot slips or your grip gives out, the only safety net is the ocean 50 feet below you, and you’ve gotta freefall the whole way there.
2. Free Diving on Koh Tao
Scuba diving isn’t the only option for exploring coral reefs. If you really want to push yourself, try diving without an oxygen tank. Believe it or not, this sport has gained some serious traction in recent years, making it one of the best adventure activities in Thailand.
Freediving, also known as apnea, is relying on one breath of air and diving for a couple of minutes, down to 20 or more meters, to discover shipwrecks, sea life, and coral reefs. The longest freedives are upwards of 20 minutes on a single breath, but nobody is expecting that from you on your first day.
The key to successfully freediving is learning how to relax underwater and learning how to control your breath. You know that tightness that you feel when you hold your breath for a couple of minutes? Well it doesn’t actually mean you’re running out of oxygen.
In fact, rising CO2 levels fill up your lungs, which cause the diaphragm to contract and urge you to gasp for air. In actuality, this feeling indicates that you’ve only used about half of your breath capacity.
Without an oxygen tank, and with your breath and body under control, free diving is described as a type of underwater meditation. Your mind is the only thing holding you back.
3. Climb an Abandoned Skyscraper in Bangkok
More of city dweller? It might be worth trying your hand at some urban climbing.
Bangkok is home to an abandoned 49 story skyscraper. If you decide to do this, do so at your own risk—it's definitely not legal to enter and I do not recommend it. There are a group of squatters who live in the Sathorn Unique and, depending on how much flack they’re getting from the police at the time, and how much you intend to bribe them for, they may or may not let you enter.
The Sathorn Unique building, also known as Bangkok’s “Ghost Tower,” was left abandoned at 80% completion as a result of the collapse of the Thai Baht and the Asian Financial Crisis in 1990. It is now left as a reminder of that uncertain time, sporting only wild bundles of cut cables, rusted piping, unsealed elevator shafts, broken toilets, and huge holes in the ground.
You’ll have to climb the stairs to the 49th floor, and even then you won’t find any windows or guard rails. But, sitting on the edge of the tower, letting your feet hang down from 49 stories in the sky, the sense of accomplishment (and fear—don't look down!) will have made the climb totally worth it.
4. White Water Rafting on the Mae Taeng River
Feel the force of tons of water drenching you and tossing you in different directions. When you’re not paddling for dear life, you’re hanging on for dear life, on a whirlwind ride on an inflatable raft down some of mother nature’s most dangerous creations—rapids.
Northeast of Chiang Mai you’ll find the Mae Taeng River, home to class 2-4 rapids and exotic wildlife (including elephants), mountains, rice fields, orchid valleys, canyons, and indigenous hill tribes. It starts in the valleys and canyons near the Burmese border and joins the Chao Phraya River, which later pours out into the Gulf of Thailand.
If you just want a taste, stick to smaller rapids like class 2 and 3. On a class 4 or 5, I sat by as a gentleman asked to leave the boat—it was too much for him. We pulled over to the side of the river and he stepped out and walked himself home.
5. Off-Road Motorbiking Through the Northern Thai Jungle
Northern Thailand is home to some of the thickest jungle in the country. You could scooter your way around Chiang Mai like everyone else, or you could get out of town for a while to explore some of the lesser-seen landscapes of Thailand. This is definitely one of the best things to do in Thailand.
This is the ideal place to rent a motorbike and explore the jungle. You'll go off-roading on mountain trails, through forests and rivers and deep into the Thai countryside.
The Golden Triangle – This route is 390 miles of twisty, curvy mountain roads that take you through caves, farms, temples, elephant camps, hot springs, and mountainous scenery. The Golden Triangle route leaves from Chiang Mai and goes through Tha Ton and Phayao, along the Mekong River on the border between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
Sukhothai Loop – This 620-mile trip takes you through thick forests and historical heritage parks—with stunning panoramic views—from Chiang Mai, Phayao, Nan, Sirikit Dam, and the Sukhothai Dam Reservoir on one of the top ten best highways in the world, Highway No. 1148.
Mae Hong Son Loop – The 425-mile Mae Hon Son Loop, along the Myanmar border, features windy, narrow roads through the mountainous province of Mae Hong Son. This route takes you from Chiang Mai to the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon, (approximately 8,500 feet meters above sea level) and small villages like Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, and the backpacker capital of Thailand, Pai.
6. Waterfall Abseiling and Rappelling in Chiang Mai
Rappelling down limestone cliffs underneath a waterfall in the heart of the Thai jungle might be an adrenaline junkies dream. Rappelling down a cliff is one thing, but rappelling down the middle of a multi-tier waterfall is something else entirely!
If you've never been abseiling before, you might want to try it dry first…or don't, and jump right in! From Chiang Mai, visit the 985-foot Wachiratarn Waterfall of Doi Inthanon National Park—there's plenty of waterfall to climb.
7. Scuba Dive the Similan Islands on a Live-Aboard Boat to Myanmar
Those who’ve been reading for a while know that I love scuba diving. Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed by the diving in Thailand’s dive capital, Koh Tao. The heavy rates of tourism and the large number of visitors have destroyed the reef and caused much of the local marine life to relocate.
Instead, I’ve reached out to my friend Justin to ask his advice. He’s a man on a mission to dive the top 100 dive sites in the world, and when I asked him about the best places to scuba dive in Thailand, he had one simple answer: “Get on a liveaboard boat and go to the Similan Islands.”
You’ll spend four to ten days diving and sleeping on repeat on some of the best reefs in all of Asia. The Similan Islands, which are encompassed by the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar, are a world class diving destination. They host impressive coral reefs teeming with fish, whale sharks, barracudas, cuttlefish, lobsters, crabs, manta rays, underwater canyons, and more.
Because the Mergui region opened up tourism less than 20 years ago, its underwater reefs have remained almost untouched for a very, very long time. You be be assured that the diving there is immaculate.
While there, please be respectful of the reefs. We don’t want it turning into another Koh Tao.