Thailand: Land of Smiles
Thailand has the distinction among Southeast Asian nations of never having been colonized. It has not suffered a civil war nor the racial conflicts that have at one time or another plagued other countries in the region. Thailand’s escape from the domination of foreign powers for an extended period of time is reflected in the nature of Thai people. They are fiercely proud and independent.
Here you will encounter a paradox: an ancient culture juxtaposed against a vibrant, dynamic modern age. Thailand’s past, represented in its art, architecture, and religion, is itself reason enough to visit the country. But add to this a surfeit of natural beauty, ease of traveling to all regions, safety, superb cuisine, and the traditional friendliness and hospitality of the Thai people, and you will end up with an exceptional country.
In Bangkok, the East does more than meet West – it collides it with a thunderous explosion. You’ll find traffic jams, bustling crowds, towering buildings, a neon-pulsing nightlife, unashamed consumerism in gigantic shopping malls, fashion-conscious people, and a fair share of street hustlers.
Then take another look: Buddhist monks in saffron robes ride the city’s modern Skytrain. An elephant, being ridden by his handler, lumbers down busy Sukhumvit Road among the BMWs, colorful three-wheeled tuk-tuks, and smoke-spewing overcrowded buses. In quiet side streets, people make food and incense offerings daily to spirits in doll-size temples set on pedestals. People still greet each other with a traditional wai (hands joined in a prayer-like position in front of the chest, and head bowed slightly). Standing next to high-rise office towers, huge, riotously ornate temples, full of gilded images, are constant reminders of the pervading influence of Buddhism in the country.
Chiang Mai and the Mountains
Those interested in culture and the outdoors should visit Chiang Mai, about an hour north of Bangkok by plane. The capital of the historical Lanna kingdom and home to 700-year-old temples, Chiang Mai, is also a favorite jumping-off point for mountain treks into the hill-tribe country. Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak is close to Chiang Mai, and the hike on it leads to a beautiful temple.
Even if you’re not into hiking, day trips to nearby hill tribes are enlightening experiences, as are visits to elephant sanctuaries, such as Elephant Nature Park. For an exotic cultural experience, visit the Long Neck Tribe where the Kayan women wear rings to elongate their necks. Hire a scooter and ride six miles east of the city to Bor Sang. Popularly known as ‘Umbrella Village,’ the village is locally and internationally recognized for its beautiful hand-painted paper umbrellas. A significant region for handicrafts, Chiang Mai has several workshops along San Kamphaeng Road.
The Beaches and Islands
If you prefer sand and sun, Thailand has two coasts with gorgeous islands and turquoise waters. Both the west and east coast of Thailand are dotted with postcard-perfect palm-crowned beaches with white powdery sands. Located on the west coast, Phuket is a doorway to the nearby islands. In addition to being a party hub for backpackers, Phuket also attracts seekers of culture and outdoor activities. Phuket has something for everyone: from hiking along the coast to snorkeling, surfing, and swimming, as well as jet skis and parasailing for the more daring. Located three hours south of Phuket by road, Krabi is comparatively more laid back and allows access to Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, and Koh Yao Noi.
On the east coast is Ko Chang, which was transformed from a backpacker’s haven into a posh resort tagged the “Phuket of the East.” Closer to the water, mangroves proliferate, and clear water laps up on lovely, white beaches. To get through Ko Chang, you must pass through Trat, a small but thriving commercial enclave, and the sleepy port village of Laem Ngop, the launching point for ferries across the island.
Off the Beaten Path
Those looking to get off the beaten path should explore the northeastern provinces – what’s called Issan – for ancient Khmer temples and rural life centered on agriculture. Udon Thani is an excellent base to explore this region. Nature enthusiasts should consider Khao Sok National Park (fly to Surat Thani or Krabi – both less than an hour flight south from Bangkok) or Khao Yai National Park (108 miles/175 km northeast of Bangkok via bus, car, or train), both sanctuaries for indigenous birds and wildlife – including elephants! The ancient capital of Sukhothai is known for stunning ruins. The Loy Krathong festival here in November is spectacular.