Military tourism in Thailand: Shoot guns, ride tanks, eat bugs
Illicit military experiences have long characterized the Southeast Asia travel experience.
Most expat residents and seasoned backpackers in the region know at least one person who has destroyed a small patch of jungle with a rocket launcher or popped off a few rounds from a government issue sub-machine gun by “renting” these weapons from enterprising military personnel.
But since 1997, the Royal Thai Army has been working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to develop programs that allow civilians to catch a glimpse of military life, legally.
The operation is simple -- give tourists a roughneck experience they can't get anywhere else. Let them fire M16 assault rifles, put them behind the controls of a tank and teach them what insects are OK to eat when learning jungle survival techniques.
Of the 300-plus armed forces bases throughout Thailand, more than 60 run programs such as simple bike rides or parachute jumping from a tower, from Phuket all the way up to Chiang Mai. To locate the nearest base, give the Royal Thai Army's Tourism Promotion Working Committee a call at +66 (0)2 297 5715-8.
In the meantime here’s a quick guide to some of the activities for military buffs or adventure travelers looking for an alternative to lounging around on the beach.
Learn to survive
Several army bases in Thailand teach visitors jungle survival techniques, such as knowing which bugs are safe to eat and how to kill a snake and drink its blood.
One organization that caters to foreigners is the Ranger Training Group, which has teamed up with the Royal Thai Army to offer courses at Lopburi's Army Special Warfare Training Centre, a couple of hours' drive north of Bangkok.
The intense week-long course includes instruction in rappelling, survival training, first aid, weapons, snares, booby traps and parachute jumps. A condensed weekend course is also available.
158/2, Mo 4 Tasala, Muang Lopburi. +66 (0)8 1827 9124
Drive a vintage tank
Pay a visit to Fort Adisorn Calvary Center in the Isaan province of Saraburi to check out Thailand’s collection of restored tanks.
Once you’re done looking, pay a small fee and hitch a ride in a light-armor Renault tank to cruise through the sunflower fields. The French machine is almost 80 years old, but it still runs strong.
Muang District Cavalry Camp, Saraburi, Thailand. +66 (0)3 621 2945
Take a lesson in marksmanship
For as little as 200 baht tourists can learn proper firearm techniques at the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy 140 kilometers northeast of Bangkok.
Participants have the option of firing a 9 millimeter pistol or a .45 revolver. A soldier will guide you step-by-step on how to load the weapon, hold it and fire. A paper target is provided to keep score of your accuracy.
Ear protection is provided, but shooters are advised to bring their own eyewear. One traveler taking part called the experience “a little scary."
"The language barrier made it funny at times, but I still had to remember that I was handling guns,” she said.
Other activities at the Chulachomklao Academy include biking, paintball, laser beam shooting, kayaking, trekking and rapelling.
Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Suwanasorn Road Muang, Nakhon-Nayok. www.crma.ac.th
Fly in a Vietnam War-era plane
The Khlong 15 flying club, located an hour north of Bangkok, owns and operates an ex-military Cessna L-19 “Bird Dog," a spotter plane used in 1949-1962.
The man in charge is Squadron Leader Boonyarith, and he’s happy to take anyone on a 60-minute flight for 10,000 baht.
Used to spot enemy troops, this plane has a 360-degree field of view thanks to the panoramic rear window, perfect for taking in views of the Thai countryside.
Captian Boonyarith, Khlong 15 Aviation Club, Khlong 15, Rangsit. +66 (0)81 866 5810
If seeing rather than doing is more your thing, a few museums highlight Thailand's military history.
In the northern province of Petchabun is a small artillery outpost known as the “Itti Base." It was here that Colonel Itti Simalax helped defend Thailand from communist insurgents.
An outdoor museum containing weapons, an F-5 fighter jet, tanks and firearms are on display. The entry fee is 10 baht.
Por Khun Par Muang Base, T. Saduang, Muang Phetchabun. +66 (0)5 621 9346
Jesada Technik Museum
Over the years, automobile lover and Thai business mogul Jesada Deshsakulrith has amassed an enormous collection of cars, aircraft, helicopters and busses.
Check them out at his free museum northwest of Bangkok in Nakhonpathom. It also has some examples of military transportation, such as the Volkswagen Kubelwagen, Germany’s answer to the American Willys Jeep.
You can also catch a glimpse of the Sikorsky S-58 Choctaw, one of the most popular military helicopters.
100 Moo 2 Ngiew-rai, Nakonchaisri, Nakhonpathom. +66 (0)2 819 4000 www.jesadatechnikmuseum.com
Royal Thai Air Force Museum
A large collection of Thailand’s aviation icons is housed in a series of hangars in the military zone of Don Muang Airport in Bangkok.
The Royal Thai Air Force Museum, open to the public, displays some of Thailand’s most revered aircraft like the Boripatra, a biplane developed and built by the air force's Aeronautical Workshops. Legendary war birds like the Spitfire and Corsair are also featured.
If you're looking for an aviation overload, check out the museum's small aircraft boneyard where scraps of fighter jets and transport planes are waiting to be destroyed.
Don Muang Airport, Phanonyothin Road entrance. Don Muang, Bangkok www.rtaf.mi.th