A Thailand Travel Guide
PHOTO: An Elephant Nature Park pachyderm. (photos by Violet Baron)
It’s hard to go wrong in Thailand. Each part of this Southeast Asian country has fascinating historical temples, often still in living use as monasteries, a warm and clear ocean, or a thriving Asian city with the kind of street food that dreams are made of. Many times you will find a combination of these things in one smiley package, and with an extensive, budget-friendly bus and train system, travel in-country is in easy reach.
Regional airlines like Thailand Air, Nok Air, Kan Air, and Air Asia offer reasonably priced domestic flights to make the journey faster. Thailand’s rail system is also well connected and pleasant enough. But in this writer’s opinion, nothing beats a free snack and water bottle paired with a brutal American action movie sloppily dubbed in Thai. And for that, you must ride the bus.
The North: Chiang Mai
For centuries, modern-day Thailand was two separate kingdoms, with different foods, cultures, and customs. The mighty Lan Na Kingdom of the North made its capital in Chiang Mai, and the remnants of that era — down to the corners and moats of the old city wall — are still present. Much smaller and more walkable than cities to the south, Chiang Mai has a pleasant vibe and a great deal to see, starting with the splendidly decorated dragon-like guardians looming on either side of many temples.
For those experiencing temple fatigue, take a day off for an ethical elephant encounter at Elephant Nature Park. There is a range of themed tours of the park, which has pioneered the new trend of elephant conservancies that truly protect and rehabilitate their elephants. Starting with a devastating video about the practices used to “break” wild elephants, the park offers opportunities to feed, wash and adore the pachyderms it has saved.
Northern Tip: Hill Tribes
Chiang Rai is first stop for many travelers heading up to visit Northern Thailand’s hill tribes, groups of indigenous cultures from nearby lands who settled in Thailand to preserve their traditional way of life. Among the six major tribes who live in the country’s northern tip is the Karen, that group famous for the metal coils their women wind around their necks to make them appear longer.
There are many controversies surrounding the means by which large tour companies organize trips to these isolated groups, and whether any of the tourists’ money actually goes to the people who live there. A good way to assess the situation and learn a great deal about each tribe’s customs and history is a visit to Chiang Rai’s Hilltribe Museum. If a bit heavy-handed in its assessment of tourists’ impact on tribal life, the museum is informative and the proceeds from its own tours go to benefit the groups.
PHOTO: A statue from Bangkok's Grand Palace
Let’s start with the reality: Bangkok is huge. Stretching across 606 square miles with mind-numbing traffic, Bangkok can’t be done in a day — or even a handful. The best way to tackle the city is to choose a zone each day and stick by it. If you want to do it right, try hiring a guide or choosing a reasonably priced walking tour.
Yourthaiguide.com has some masterful guides who can share everything from street food spots to royal history, and Intrepid Travel offers a selection of themed walking tours led by locals who know the ins and outs of the big city.
A definite Bangkok must-see is the thriving Chinatown, a neighborhood stretching many blocks that comes alive at night, with neon lights, pulsing crowds and some of the best street foods around. Durian, the so-called King of Fruits that is an… acquired…taste, is everywhere here, but seek out the women peddling durian sticky rice and you won’t be disappointed.
For a sit-down experience, start with the Double Dogs Tearoom, which is a calm refuge and a fun Chinese teahouse experience. To get the night started, the Cotton Jazz Bar at Shanghai Mansion’s bar offers live music, good ambience, and powerful spicy cocktails. There are also many restaurants around that will serve the “Chinese delicacies” of shark fin and bird’s nest soup, but consider the unsustainable practices used to obtain the fins before you order a plate.
On your way to Chinatown, make a stop in the expansive River City, a mall whose misleading first floor shops belie incredible antiquities collections on the upper levels. This is great fodder for an afternoon of window-shopping.
Want the beach but hate the farang crowds? Try Rayong, a two-hour van trip from Bangkok that has placid beaches only Thais seem to know about. Rent a motorbike to get around — budget-friendly hotels are plentiful and the beach is a short ride away. One of the best things about this town is its food, though the same can be said for much of Thailand, duck soups and rice dishes here will leave a lasting impression.
The South: Phuket
One of the hottest places in Thailand in every sense, Phuket is that Thai beach paradise you were dreaming of, with a few Thai scams and high-priced taxis thrown in. This island is somewhat large, and the actual town of Phuket has little to see. The action is by the nicest beaches, like Karon and Kata Beach. If you have baht to spare, try the Blue Elephant restaurant.
READ MORE: Cambodia Grows and Links Up with Thailand
Southern Tip: Phi Phi & Thai Islands
Some of these smaller islands offer placid stays at well-priced bungalows, though bigger places like Phi Phi can feel like traps. If sailing is your thing, try Intrepid Travel’s laid-back four- to 15-night trips that pause at the best swimming, snorkeling and paddle boarding spots in the archipelago.
PHOTO: A sunset as seen from Intrepid Travel's sailing trip in the Thai islands
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