The image of Thailand in the western world is that of a country full of smiling, contented people. The image is also a reality. I don’t know how contented they are, but the Thais sure smile a lot. On my list of global destinations, Thailand is right up there near the top. It’s a happy place. The only drawbacks I can think of are that it is far away (the other side of the world), its hot, and most people don’t speak English. Don’t let that put you off.
Thailand has a wide variety of tourist destinations and I sure haven’t visited them all on my journeys there. Basically, it goes like this; you land in Bangkok and spend some time there, then you head south (beaches and islands) or north (hill country). For detailed information on many other destinations, check with your Flight Centre travel rep. Chances are they know more than me. Actually, I am sure they do.
Bangkok! It’s a huge city, very modern in many ways, the Los Angeles of Asia. Freeways and high rises. Hot, humid and somewhat polluted from all the cars. For my money, the “old Bangkok” is where you need to explore, and you can easily do that by sticking close to the river. The majestic Chao Praya River, that is, around which the city was originally built. Stick close to the great river and you can’t go wrong on a short introduction to this fascinating country.
For the purposes of establishing Ground Zero in Bangkok, let’s say that the Oriental Hotel right on the Chao Praya is your home base. Lucky you if you can afford to stay there. A grand hotel, one of the finest in Asia. But it’s centrally located, near lots of tourist attractions, and on the river, so we call it home base and move on from there.
All along the river you will find landing stages or platforms where you can hop on and off the ferries that ply the river constantly. Each flies a red, white or yellow flag. The flags indicate where the ferry will stop. You can buy a ferry pass at many of the stations, and there are English signs and the ticket sellers speak English. Climb aboard and let’s head north.
On both sides of the river you will spot “wats” (temples) and palaces. My favourite is Wat Arun, the tTemple of the Dawn, on the west side of the river, where you could spend all day wandering around and looking at the amazing sculptures. Any good guidebook will have a list of wats. Further north, on the right side of the river, there’s the Royal Palace and the palace of the Golden Buddha, and on it goes. Check your guidebook.
At one time, Bangkok was known as the “Venice of the East” for its amazing variety of canals. Many of them have been filled in, but you can still tour the remaining canals. “Fantail” boats can be hired at several ferry landings. These are smaller boats (a dozen or two seats) that are powered by car engines. They will take you to various side canals in the suburbs. This is the real Bangkok. People live in houses right on the river. Children dive into the water. There are wats and pagodas to explore. There are orchid gardens and snake farms you can visit. Do it.
Continuing north on the river, the global crossroads of Asia is the neighbourhood known as Khao San Road, also accessible via a short walk from the ferry landings. This is the backpackers centre of the universe, with cheap hostels and bars and t-shirt shops and restaurants. Not my own preference as a district in which to stay, but if you want to meet other global travellers, this is your chance.
Not far from the river is the central railway station, where you can enjoy an overnight train ride to the north. (Flights available as well.) Chiang Mai has become the launching point for treks to hill tribes. I didn’t book one so I can’t advise. In the city itself, I revelled in several different experiences. First off, I have never seen as many massage parlours anywhere in my life. You can get someone to stomp on your back or pound you into hamburger for the price of a beer. (Gentler varieties available.) If I lived here, I would have a massage every day of the week.
Second, there must be even more temples here than in Bangkok, and you can visit a lot of them on a bike. I visited far too many, so they have become a blur. Most hotels will rent you a bike. Whether you wish to risk the traffic is up to you. When I went, half the city was under water. I think it was monsoon season.
Lastly, I always make a point of visiting night markets wherever I go in Asia. The Chiang Mai market was centrally located, and well worth the stroll. I tend to avoid the cheap watches and discount clothing stalls, but you can always have a good meal and a great time in Asia at any night market.
The chief lures to Thailand are the beaches and islands in the south of the country. Sad to say, I never went to any. Well, I went to Hua Hin, the first beach escape in the history of the country, where the Royal Family enjoys their own villas. The white sand beach was lovely, and I am pleased to report I ate seafood right off the boat and blistered my tongue for a week. No doubt you can do better.
Ask the fine folks at Flight Centre for their own opinions and suggestions. Thailand is a small country with a wide variety of interesting destinations to visit. You need an expert. Check with Flight Centre, and let me know what you learn. I need to go back to Thailand and ride an elephant. I missed that last time around.