Occupation: Business owner/chocolatier
Kristian Levinsen moved to Thailand eight years ago after being recruited by a Danish firm to work on a web development project in the firm’s Chiang Mai office. After a couple of years, he became tired of his job in the tech industry and discovered that he enjoyed Chiang Mai greatly. Consequently, he attempted to figure out an exciting way to remain in Chiang Mai that would provide him with the energy he desired.
Together, he and his American friend Neil Ransom, who holds a Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture, founded a chocolate company in Chiang Mai. And after returning from a trip to South Africa, he decided to learn how to make chocolate. So they began exploring the cocoa farms in the area. After a year of trial and error, they had finally succeeded. Their six-year-old company, Siamaya Chocolate, is a Chiang Mai-based chocolate company that values direct trade and sustainable practices with local farmers.
Are there any specific items or things that Nordic travelers should bring with them to Thailand?
A lot of people who come to Thailand for the first time don’t realize how well-functioning Thailand is [laughter]. They might think it’s not exactly a third-world country but not to the standard of European countries, but I think the reality is the opposite. When I have people visiting me, I always tell them to bring flip-flops, sunglasses, and sunscreens, but if they forget anything it’s not a problem because they can buy them in Thailand. Coming to Thailand is the easiest thing in the world because, first of all, the food is amazing, and everywhere is easy and convenient; there are always ways to solve any problem. And Thai people are so helpful. That’s actually what I love about traveling in Thailand – you don’t need to bring anything and there’s always a way to fix a problem.
The one thing I suggest you bring is an international driver’s license, especially if you want to ride on motorbikes. There are many traffic policemen out there [laughs], and you will be fined if you don’t have it with you. You can rent a car here without a driver’s license, but two minutes later you will be stopped by the police [laughs].
Are there any differences between Thai and Nordic cultures that travelers should be aware of?
There is one cultural difference. It has to do with the fact that Thai people are so nice; they always want to help you and be friendly with you. So, some people misunderstand or try to take advantage of that. So don’t do that. Be respectful of Thai culture. When Thai people approach you with friendliness and smiling faces, you should repay them with kindness. And you’ll have an amazing trip. Sometimes, I see young backpackers driving around on scooters with their shirts off and that’s offensive to Thais. So, you should respect Thai culture when you come here. Just know that you’re visiting a country that’s very different from yours.
One thing I noticed when I first came to live here eight years ago was the noise [laughs]. In Scandinavian countries, the cities are quiet, clean, and orderly. You come to Bangkok, it’s noisy and you’re always sweaty and there’ll be 20 taxi drivers screaming at you [laughter]. That can be overwhelming for Scandinavian travelers. So, I suggest you just take a step back and relax, and don’t stress. Take it easy. Everything will sort itself out.
What would be your recommendations for traveling in Thailand like a local?
What I do is I have a big motorbike and I go on a lot of road trips. Thailand’s roads are just made for this, especially in the north of Thailand. I think a lot of people already know about Pai (a town in Mae Hong Son province). But there are also Chiang Rai, Nan, Payao, Phitsanulok, etc. The whole area is just so pretty. So you can rent a bike or a car and go explore. There are little homestays everywhere on these mountain roads. So, what I often do when I travel is I don’t plan where I’m going to stay for the night, and I just keep driving until I find a place to stay.
There are some amazing beaches and islands in the south of Thailand, but usually when you’re there it’s very hot and humid, and all you want to do is sit and drink cold beers. And that’s great too. But if you want a more adventurous trip. See the local Thailand. The real Thailand. Then I think northern Thailand is way better. It’s a little bit colder and you’ll see beautiful mountains, especially during this time of year when the rain comes and the jungle is green. So pretty.
The roads are safe to drive. Of course, there can be accidents. So just be careful and be smart. Don’t be too crazy when you drive.
Do you have any recommendations for hidden gem destinations – places not well-known to most tourists?
The province of Nan [in the North] is actually my favorite in all of Thailand. It’s in the east towards Loas. It is just insanely beautiful. And not many foreign tourists know about that area. The district of Bo Kluea is so pretty. I would take friends up there and they would always be in awe, not expecting Thailand to look like that. And then you have Mae Hong Son province. It’s also great to climb to the top of Doi Inthanon [the highest mountain in Thailand located in Chiang Mai]. And down south, my favorite place is Krabi with all the national parks around there. The beaches there are not as famous as those in Phuket or Koh Samui. But they are nice and more quiet. And Surat Thani is also great; it feels more local.
What are your top three favorite destinations in Thailand?
My first choice is Kanchanaburi and all the waterfalls. The second is the Golden Triangle near the Mekong River. And the third is Nan province.
What was your most memorable or meaningful travel experience in Thailand?
The Mae Hong Son Loop where you start in Chiang Mai and you drive to Pai in Mae Hong Son, then Doi Inthanon and come back to Chiang Mai. The first time I did that I was with a friend and it was just an amazing experience. We spent 8 days on the trip. We took our time and really explored and enjoyed everything. It was my first real road trip to Thailand. So beautiful.
What is the Thai dish(es) you would recommend to visitors?
I think Thai curries are special. Massaman curry is an amazing dish. And of course, Khao Soi. I love that dish. I even made it into a chocolate bar [laughs]. And if you don’t want something spicy, then you go for soups like Tom Kha Kai coconut soup, which is not so heavily spiced but is rich with coconut, lemongrass, and galangal. Just amazing.
What are some of the things that visitors should avoid in Thailand?
There isn’t anything in particular I feel you have to avoid here. I mean… I wouldn’t want to go to seedy areas like Pattaya myself. But of course, some people go there and really enjoy it. So that’s OK.
I would just recommend visitors to be curious and interested in Thai culture. And try to be respectful. When you visit a temple, make sure you wear the right kind of clothes. Look at how Thai people behave and learn from it. Don’t stand in the middle of the street kissing your partner. Thais don’t do that.
What are the best Thai souvenirs for visitors to buy?
I like to bring Thai “Lanna” fabrics to my mother and my sisters. Things like scarves, etc. They’re so beautiful and easy to carry in your bag. There are also elephant statues and other handmade woodwork that I really like. And of course, chocolate [laughter]. There are also a lot of great coffee and tea in Thailand.