Thailand is a kingdom of tastes, tones and sharp differences. In crossing the Southeast Asian country from north to south, both sides of the country which has it all are revealed; glistening verdant rice fields, Buddha statues and golden chedis, to sandy beaches and sex tourism.
Thailand straddles old and new with consummate ease. From the skyscrapers and smog of booming Bangkok to the columns of monks in saffron robes, walking through the villages in the early light of dawn to collect rice in their bowls, this is a land of clichés and surprises; the familiar and the astonishing, a place where the stench of open sewers wafts into your nostrils as often as the heavenly aroma of satay on the grill.
But there is one thing Thailand never is: it is never boring.
“Welcome to the land of smiles,” say the signs that greet you as you arrive at the airport in Bangkok. But only the most determined of souls are still smiling once they have negotiated the traffic-clogged highways and made their way downtown. As a nation Thailand may be flanked by sun-kissed sandy beaches backed by gently swaying coconut palms. But cosmopolitan Bangkok is a world away; a city that is contrast made flesh. And this is where most people get their first taste of one of Asia’s hottest tigers.
Often referred to as the ‘Venice of the East’ because of its network of khlong or canals, Bangkok was once swampland, and much of everyday life still revolves around its waterways. Floating markets have become one of the most familiar symbols of the city, where women spend their lives by the waterside preparing food and selling it from boats.
The best way to see one and go shopping is to take to the water yourself, aboard one of the distinctive if somewhat noisy long-tail boats, their long propeller shafts making it easier to steer and to cut through the often choking later of water hyacinths on the surface. They are Thailand’s second-favourite form of transport after the immortal sputtering twostroke, three-wheeled taxi: the tuk-tuk.
There are huge social and financial differences between classes in Thailand and nowhere is this more evident than in the capital. Soaring towers of luxury apartments rise up within eyesight of the soi—narrow alleys filled with slums where the poorer inhabitants build their homes out of whatever is available. Yet randomly wandering this tangled maze of filth can also be one of the most rewarding and fascinating glimpses of ‘reality’ in this multi-faceted metropolis.
Bangkok is developing rapidly, and in the last few decades has become almost unrecognisable from the past, with gleaming towers linked by traffic-choked multi-lane highways, over which the metro glides smoothly past—built above ground because regular flooding during the rainy season makes an underground railway a foolish proposition.
Yet no matter how much the modern world has made inroads into Thai society, two things still dominate: religion and royalty. Thailand’s head of state is revered almost like no other. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has reigned since 1946, making him the longest-serving monarch in the world. And even though his position is constitutional and officially he wields no power, he commands huge respect throughout society: every home, every restaurant, even every road junction proudly displays a picture of the beloved king.
As befits a ruler of such stature, Bangkok’s Royal Palace is an essay in grandeur, with each building in the complex seemingly outdoing the last. At its heart is the jewel in the nation’s crown and one that seamlessly blends the monarchy with the other national cornerstone: Buddhism. The Wat Phra Kaew - Temple of the Emerald Buddha—is an endless parade of jewel-bedecked statuary, golden stupa and intricately painted friezes depicting stories from the Ramayana.
The whole is so impossibly picturesque that even the most amateurish of photographer could happily swing a camera around their head, clicking away randomly, and still come away with breathtakingly colourful shots of gold and jewels sparkling in the lush tropical sunlight.
But when it comes to Bangkok temples, Wat Phra Kaew is just the tip—albeit the most magnificent tip—of the iceberg. Barely less impressive is the Wat Po complex, home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha. At 46 metres long, even the feet of the gold-plated statue easily dwarf any man, while the intricate mother-of-pearl-inlaid soles contrast the vast scale with their breathtaking delicacy.
Across the Chao Phraya river from here is Wat Arun—the Temple of the Dawn—with its dizzyingly steep chedi; while Wat Traimit—the Temple of the Golden Buddha may be less impressive from the outside, but it contains a quite astonishing treasure within. The Buddha statue within is made from five and a half tons of solid gold, which is so perfectly formed it almost seems to glow with its own luminescence.
North of Bangkok, Thailand has a gentler charm and more laid back energy typical of Southeast Asia, but the influence of Buddhism remains strong. Its impact on the history of old Siam is best seen in the ruined former capitals of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya. This is a timeless world alive with the legends.
In Ayuthaya, Wat Phra Mahathat is celebrated for its lines of two hundred Buddha statues, each of which are said to contain urns with monk’s ashes.
Further north still are the forests and rivers around the city of Chiang Mai. The remote areas here are still home to fiercely independent hill tribes—albeit not so shy of the modern world they won’t happily welcome paying tourists, who arrive by the thousands on trekking tours to admire their culture and colourful traditional clothing.
But it is the sandy beaches lapped by warm tropical seas that are the biggest draw for most farang (foreign visitors). And while their beauty is undeniable, the secret is most definitely out, and there are few places left untouched. From the gaudy package resorts of Phuket and Pattaya, to the backpacker hangouts of Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi, the one thing you won’t be getting away from is your fellow travellers.
When it comes to nightlife the contrasts are once again in evidence. Every evening, the array of mouth-watering food stalls multiplies exponentially, as pretty much every street in the country becomes one huge outdoor eating experience. At dinnertime, those in the know don’t head to the restaurants, no matter how great some of them can be.
Thai families act out their social lives outside. When they get hungry, they go browsing the world’s most delicious street food. You can get everything here, from calamari skewers barbecued over charcoal, to scalp-tingling, sweat-inducing, spicy Thai curries, in the most fabulous culinary parade on Earth.
And yet it’s not all about families. There is also a seamier side to Thai nightlife; one that feeds off the tourism industry like a leech. The sex industry that spawned the countless girlie bars, massage parlours and ‘shows’ of Bangkok’s Pat Pong district, and the seedy kiss-me-quick beach Valhalla of Pattaya, first appeared in the 1960s and 70s when American GIs came looking for a particular kind of “rest ‘n’ relaxation” during the Vietnam War.
Today these red-light districts are places where anything goes, and usually does, and the girls will do whatever the customers ask for a few dollars, while the infamous kathoeys (ladyboys) are also there to catch out the unwary (and usually inebriated) tourists.
Rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, enchanting and seedy; if ever a country deserves the title of ‘the place that has it all’, it is Thailand. Besides beaches or shopping, there are the glorious palaces; the glittering temples where young monks laugh, joke and debate; and the bustling markets laden with exotic tropical fruits, albeit often cloaked in a cloud of noxious moped fumes.
Add in a superb spicy cuisine, fabulous natural beauty, the friendliness of the people, a rich culture, and whatever you want in nocturnal diversions, it is easy to see what makes this land of smiles so irresistible.
THAILAND FAST FACTS
Population: 65 million
Currency: Thai Baht
Getting there: All major airlines including Air Asia (below) fly frequently to major cities in Thailand
BANGKOK (7x daily)
As the political, cultural, culinary and spiritual capital of the kingdom, Bangkok features old-world charm and modern convenience, often times served in a chaotic manner.
CHIANG MAI (daily)
Dubbed the ‘rose of the north’, a cultural and natural wonderland of ethnic diversity, centuries old temples, elephant camps and breathtaking scenery.
Frequently spelled Had Yai, the southern city is home to The Prince of Songkhla University making it the educational centre as well as the south’s heart of transportation, commerce and tourism.
A labyrinth of archipelagos where islands seem to erupt vertically out of the sea and secluded beaches are only accessible by colourfully adorned boats.
PHUKET (4x daily)
The highest peak on this popular island is Mai Tha Sip Song, “Twelve Canes”, which rises 529 metres above sea level.