Virtual Vacation: Thailand

The back of a young woman walking and walking along the pedestrian street in the evening in Bangkok, Thailand, travelers and tourists.
© Image by Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

Being in social isolation doesn't stop us dreaming of all the places we'd like to visit; in fact now we've got even more time to daydream. Escape on a virtual vacation to bring a little piece of Thailand to your living room.

The fragrance of galangal and limes, the glitter of golden temples and the emerald sheen of lush foliage, the crash of beach waves and hum of motorbikes; a visit to Thailand is a feast for the senses that words can't quite touch. Beloved by backpackers, expats, wildlife watchers, foodies, and globetrotters of all stripes, it's easy to see why the Land of Smiles tops so many bucket lists.

While it's hard to hold off on a visit to cities like Bangkok, Phuket, Ko Samui and Chiang Mai for now, you can easily immerse yourself in all things Thai from afar. With such a long, rich cultural history, there's no shortage of books, films, recipes, and more that will give you a taste of what makes this an endlessly absorbing destination.

Wat Arun
Wat Arun temple in Bangkok during sunset © Anek S/500px

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Best movies

Romance:
Bangkok Traffic Love Story (2009): In this award-winning tale, the 30-something protagonists are struggling with the gap between expectation and reality when they find unexpected hope (and romance) on the BTS Skytrain network that winds through the city.
Sunset at Chaopraya (1988): There have been several adaptations of the novel Khu Kam – a historic romance between a Japanese soldier and a Thai woman during World War II, but this 1988 film is the author's personal favorite – with the star-crossed love story playing out against a lush backdrop.
Her Name is Pang (2014): A warm-hearted, nostalgic romp through 1970s Loei and modern Bangkok, this romance follows Tookae, a young cinephile, and Pang, a future actress, from their childhood crushes into adulthood – a Thai tribute to Cinema Paradiso. 

Drama:
The Overture (2005): This beautiful film traces the life of classical musician Luang Pradit, bringing the viewer through Thai history from the reign of King Rama V in the late 19th & early 20th century up to the 1930s, when Thailand when through rapid cultural changes, and on into the Japanese occupation of the 1940s.

Original Film Title: ONG-BAK.  English Title: ONG-BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR.  Film Director: PRACHYA PINKAEW.  Year: 2003. Credit: SAHAMONGKOLFILM / Album
Tony Jaa stars in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, one of the most popular martial arts films to ever come out of Thailand © Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Martial Arts:
Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003): This intensely physical film follows the titular Ong Bak from his home village to Bangkok on a quest to reclaim a sacred religious treasure. The plot is straightforward, but the stunts are jaw-dropping, famously using no wires or computer graphics to enhance actor Tony Jaa's stunts.
Chocolate (2008): One year after Ong Bak took the world by storm, director Prachya Pinkaew hired Yanin Vismitananda to start a four-year training program in preparation for Chocolate, the tale of a young girl who learns Muay Thai from watching martial arts movies (including Ong Bak) on TV. More than a gimmicky girl-reboot sequel, this film stands on its own with great acting and strong martial arts.

Horror & Fantasy:
Shutter (2004):
Directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom inspired several remakes in English, Tamil, and Hindi with Shutter, an intense supernatural scarefest which involves a couple haunted after a hit-and-run accident by a mysterious ghost who appears in printed photographs.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): Apichatpong Weerasethakul may have originally intended to craft a straightforward biopic, but ended up with a meditation on rural life and reincarnation that's packed with its own past lives. The Palme d'Or-winning film is layered with references to the classic Thai television shows and comic books of the director's youth, his hometown, and a 1983 book about the real-life Boonmee's transcendental memories. 

Listen

Thai popular music:
 

Classical Thai music:
 

Best Novels

Contemporary classics:
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth - Veeraporn Nitiprapha:
 this tale of two sisters in 1980s, '90s, and early aughts Bangkok blends political turmoil, the tropes of Thai soap operas and classical music, and vivid, literary depictions of small-town Thailand.
Four Reigns - Kukrit Pramoj: a celebrated historic novel follows one family through four kingships and vast changes in Thailand, from the late 19th century through World War II.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain: A Novel - Pitchaya Sudbanthad: a rain-drenched collection of linked character sketches that build on one another in delicate layers, adding up to a rich portrait of life in Bangkok.

Bangkok skyline panorama view
Bangkok skyline panorama view. © Prachanart / Getty Images

Shorter reads:
In Thailand It Is Night - Ira Sukrungruang : a poetry collection by a Thai-American author that lyrically bridges the ecologies and streets of the US Midwest and Thailand itself.
Arid Dreams: Stories - Duanwad Pimwana: 13 tales of blue-collar Thailand that give a glimpse of life behind the tourist circuit, from an acclaimed female author.
The Sad Part Was - Prabda Yoon: a postmodern whirl through contemporary Bangkok, these stories don't shy away from wordplay, genre bending, or street-smart humor.

Best Podcasts

The Bangkok Podcast: A podcast featuring "stories, rants, and conversations" on topics ranging from Thai cinemas to the daily life of Buddhist monks to the arrival of international coffee chain Tim Horton's to what disabled access is like in Bangkok.

Poet in Bangkok: a coffee house blend of art, culture and poetry, this podcast has a unique format blending serialized sci-fi storytelling and interviews with journalists, filmmakers, writers, painters about topics ranging from politics to emigration to remote regions like the Issan province.

Brewed in Bangkok: Though it's hosted by a foreign techie, this podcast squarely places its emphasis on letting Thai citizens tell their own stories on topics that matter to them and reveal intriguing slices of life, kind of like an audio Humans of New York in Bangkok.

Food

Thai food is deeply regional, with dishes specific to the north, central, and southern parts of the country. But everyone recognizes phat thai, with mounds of noodles punctuated with inviting palm sugar, tart tamarind, crunchy peanuts, and no-nonsense chilis. Fortunately, it's a cinch to make at home.

Best Videos

Introducing Thailand

Discover Thailand: snorkeling in Ko Phi Phi Leh
Discover Thailand: cycling on Ko Krang

Drinks

Thai cuisine traditionally layers elements of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy in each dish – and those balanced flavors can be applied to cocktails, too. Try mixologist Surasakdi Pantaisong's Siam Sunray, which takes ingredients like lemongrass and coconut from the Thai kitchen and puts them on ice, with a kick.

Cultural Highlights

Wat Arun in Bangkok 

Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai Province

Bangkok street markets

Epic Landscapes

Maya Bay at Ko Phi Phi Lee

The King's Pagoda Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai

 

Shop Online

Do some online browsing with these online sources for Thai goods (please note there may be some delays or restrictions due to COVID-19).

3 Aunties Thai Market, 64-04 39th Avenue, Woodside, NY. exterior storefront of a Thai grocery store in Queens.. Image shot 03/2020. Exact date unknown.
3 Aunties Thai Market is based in Woodside, NY and offers brick-and-mortar as well as online ordering of Thai groceries © Robert K. Chin - Storefronts / Alamy Stock Photo

3 Aunties Thai Market - imported Thai snacks, cooking ingredients, spices, and religious items
Brave Roasters - specialty Thai coffee from a roaster based in Bangkok
Mekhong Rum - known as The Spirit of Thailand, you can order this molasses and rice "whisky" online

You might also like: 

Why Thailand is the perfect LGBTQ+ honeymoon destination
Exploring Bangkok’s hidden waterways and islands by boat
How to interact ethically with elephants in Thailand
Bang Krachao: Bangkok’s Green Lung and city oasis

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