A woman with her wares at the Tha Kha floating markets. Picture: Natalie Brown

Lush green trees dripping with leaves tower above us, tufts of pineapple leaves poke up from the embankment and all that can be heard is the light swishing of the paddle in the water behind us.

Spirals of water dance by our side and the occasional coconut shell spins through the water as it drifts by.

As we float along the Tha Kha canals on a wooden paddle boat, it's hard to believe we are just an hour away from the racing tuk tuks, bustling street markets and organised chaos of central Bangkok.

Our Intrepid Travel guide Soon has promised us a cultural experience - the "real" Thailand - as she takes us through the highlights of her country. A Bangkok resident and expert on the dining and spiritual customs of the Thai people, Soon is a guide who keeps stomachs full and minds broad.

As we step off the paddle boat to our destination - a wooden shack - we're introduced to the grafters who have, for decades, worked on the canal banks to make palm sugar.

They are some of many people making a living on the water's edge and each day make kilograms of palm sugar which is used as a staple in many of the wonderful Thai dishes we try during our trip.

As we head back upstream, locals greet us with broad smiles as they line the canals with their produce-filled paddle boats in a 100-year tradition known as the "floating markets".

Selling everything from fruit to spices, the locals are more than happy to see a group of foreigners among the regulars picking up food for their evening meal.

The relaxed markets are a contrast from the bursting alleyways at the Talad Rom Hoob Railway Markets where we were taken earlier in the day.

The markets, about 1.5 hours from Bangkok, have become a popular tourist attraction largely due to the added novelty of a working train line through the heart of the market.

Vendors taking up every inch of space on the packed marketplace are forced to frantically pack away to clear the tracks for the train for each of its six daily visits.

The benefit of having a local guide is evident when our group - whose culinary tastes range from "I'd love to try locusts" to "can I have ketchup with that" - are thrust into the market's endless rows of street carts for a feed.

Soon takes us through her favourites as we work our way through with a sweetened Thai tea in hand - sticky rice and mango, steamed buns and the freshest tropical fruits are some of the highlights.

With our appetites satisfied, we head north to Chiang Mai, the odd sideways glance exchanged when we're told we'll make it there via an overnight sleeper train.

The train, with its flickering fluorescent lights and vinyl covered seats, is surprisingly spacious in comparison to the claustrophobic cabins we expected.

After dinner, our seats are converted to bunk beds and we're each given privacy with a thick hospital-style curtain.

Rumour has it the no-alcohol and quiet-time after 10pm policy was enforced on the train only recently after a group of western backpackers turned the carriages into a mobile disco one night.

The enforced quiet time makes for a restful night and, for the equivalent of about $30, it's a cheap way to travel the length of the country.

On to Chiang Mai, where, among the Thai street-vendors, western tourists pour into bars and clubs, and there are sunburnt bodies aplenty.

Despite the western influence, shown in the towering luxury hotels, it isn't hard to find the local hangouts and surround ourselves in Thai culture once again.

An introductory cycle tour shows us how close the cultural gems of this colourful city are.

It takes only minutes for our tyres to turn off the smooth tarmac and on to the rugged countryside pathways into an oasis of never-ending rice fields and lazy rivers.

We're regularly reminded of the strong religious values of the Thai people - about 90 per cent are Buddhist - by the grand temples dotted among the modest houses.

This four-hour cycle is voted one of the highlights of the trip by members of our group because it shows how rural life plays out, just minutes from the busy city.

We are to experience this rural lifestyle for ourselves when we are taken to a Thai homestay for the night.

The matriarch of the household, Aoi, welcomes us with a visit to a local mushroom farm where she collects the produce we will help her cook.

Surrounded by hills, greenery and rice fields, we watch as neighbouring farm workers collect tadpoles - luckily for my Western tastebuds, they are for their dinner, not ours.

At Aoi's family home, we are taught the basics of Thai cooking - stir fry, dipping sauces, spring rolls and more sticky rice - thrown together with ease by our Thai hosts, but much harder for those used to the conveniences of blenders and supermarkets.

Aoi welcomes at least one tour group into her home every week, showing her cooking techniques as part of a foodie tour of Thailand.

While staying in the computer and television-free home, it is easy to switch off and appreciate the simple things in life.

We are given the top floor of their home to share as guests, listening all evening to the sounds of the farmland outside, feeling a million miles from the city.

Back in Chiang Mai, it is time to experience what the inner-city has to offer with a relaxing cruise along the main artery of the city - the Mae Ping River.

On a wooden motor boat, we snake through rich green trees, wooden shacks and grand riverside residences.

The young driver seems to enjoy pointing out the homes of the city's rich businessmen - "expensive for me, cheap for you".

The visitors on the other boats we pass echo our relaxed mood, sprawling on the benches, resting their arms on the sides and taking in the scenery - bliss.

In the evening, the tourists gather once again for the city's famous night bazaar.

Dozens of street stalls, selling anything from trinkets to underpants, colour the pavement and attract hundreds of foreign visitors. You get the impression the locals love the haggling as much as the tourists do, especially when we witness a street vendor turn down cash from a first-time visitor and demand she make a lower offer.

On our final day we are promised the experience of a lifetime - a chance to get up close to elephants at the Elephant Nature Park.

The park is home to 39 elephants rescued from mistreatment and, despite the hordes of visitors, is designed to be as close to their natural habitat as possible.

Tourists are given free rein to join in at feeding times and take a bucket to the river to give the elephants a bath.

It feels almost unreal when we wade into the river to throw the first buckets of water over these enormous creatures.

For almost half an hour, we're brought as close to an elephant as we're ever likely to get.

Later, we watch as they return to their herds and the inquisitive baby elephants chase the dogs on the property.

Here, with the backdrop of towering mountains, rich forest and colourful skies, our Thai experience is complete, watching the slow procession of elephants until it is out of view.

FACT FILE

Intrepid Travel runs an eight-day tour including a half-day cycling tour around rural Chiang Mai, a visit to Aoi's homestay and a trip on the overnight train for $803 per person.

Three-day visits to Chiang Mai and the Elephant Nature Park cost from $308 per person for a twin share or from $535 per person for a single room.

For more details, see intrepidtravel.com.

Natalie Brown was a guest of Intrepid Travel.

The West Australian

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