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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Thailand.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Thailand.
The backpacker brigade that popularized such idyllic havens as Ibiza, Goa, and Bali first stumbled upon Koh Samui in the 1970s. The island changed considerably once word got out – an airport was built in 1989 and Western tourists, drawn by talk of dazzling beaches and a kick-back vibe fill the growing number of upscale hotels – but much of its early appeal remains. So far. (According to a local ordinance, a hotel can be no higher than the palm trees – roughly three stories.)
Long sweeps of empty white beaches encircle the island, while the middle of the island remains dense with thick coconut plantations. Coconut palms have long been the mainstay of Koh Samui’s economy, and 2 million coconuts are shipped to Bangkok each month. Beachside bars, tattoo parlors, $15 bungalow rentals, and “life’s a beach” T-shirts testify to the island’s somewhat receding tie-dyed character.
At the other end of the spectrum there’s the Baan Taling Ngam resort, which proves that you can spoil guests – with an idyllic, secluded, exclusive setting – without spoiling the island. Nestled on one of the best spots on the island’s western coast, Baan Taling Ngam (whose name translates as “home on a beautiful cliff’) offers uncommonly lovely views from its guest rooms and terraces, revealing small islands and jungle-clad outcroppings scattered across the Gulf of Siam.
Most of the humpbacked islets seen from any of the deluxe rooms of this cliff-edge aerie, or the breezy beachside restaurant and villas, are part of the Ang Thong National Marine Park, a popular destination for world-class diving and snorkeling. Eighty islands litter the surrounding blue-green waters of the Gulf of Siam. The largest inhabited island, Koh Pha Ngan (7 miles north and connected by daily boats), draws budget travelers and scuba lovers the way Samui once did.
Despite its unfortunate English transliteration (Pee Pee Island), Koh Phi Phi is a textbook version of the ultimate dream isle, now officially so: It was Hollywood’s pick for the Leonardo DiCaprio sand-seeking-vagabond dud The Beach.
Against a backdrop of steep, jungled limestone cliffs, a few simple bungalow resorts dot crescents of palm-shaded bleached-white sand. Lucky day-trippers from nearby Krabi or Phuket are transported by boat to the beaches of Koh Phi Phi Don (Big Pee Pee Island), while those who hop a long-tailed boat can visit the even more spectacular Koh Phi Phi Le (Little …). Here you can visit unspoiled coves, crystal-clear waters, and nearly undeveloped beaches; Maya Bay, surrounded by soaring cliffs, is particularly beautiful. Snorkling is excellent.
About the only other thing to do, besides waiting for a simple grilled-fish lunch at an open-air beachside spot, is to visit the immense, cathedral-like caverns, where Sea Gypsies harvest edible birds’ nests, a delicacy prized by Chinese gourmets for their nutritional value. That simple grilled-fish lunch sounds better and better.
Chiang Mai is usually the jumping-off point for treks into the surrounding jungles, where a dozen or so hill tribes live much as they have for centuries, without electricity and plumbing – not to mention schools and clinics. Until recently, these villages harbored opium-growing operations, which were their sole source of revenue. Today the Thai royal family has taken an interest, encouraging the cultivation of alternative agricultural crops, which the people are slowly accepting. The Karen people have lived in the region since ancient times.
Others – Hmong, Akha, Lisu, and Lahu – began migrating in the 19th century and continue to cross from the nearby borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. A village-to-village trek through the mist-blue mountains offers fascinating interactions with a variety of cultures, and often includes overnight stays in simple settlements. Western visitors may be considered either commonplace or exotic, depending on the village’s previous experience and accessibility, and on your local guide’s personal connections.
The older women proudly dress up in full regalia to welcome visitors from abroad, layering on colorful embroidered and handwoven traditional clothing and silver-bangled headdresses. Get there before MTV does.
Bangkok does not lack for five-star international hotels of pan-Asian decor heavy on Western aesthetics, but the Sukhothai has become the hotel of choice for discerning guests looking for an elegant ambience where they can nevertheless wake up and know they’re in Thailand.
A palm-lined drive and 6 acres of flower gardens and lily ponds recapture the serenity of the 13th-century kingdom of Sukhothai, from which this striking hotel takes its name and inspiration. Despite its size (there are some 200 exquisitely appointed rooms with oversized teak-floored bathrooms), the hotel evokes the air of a Buddhist retreat, with Sukhothai-style stupas reflected in pools of lotus blossoms and illuminated at night.
Native craftsmanship is evident in the artful use of wood, granite, ceramic, and fabrics that recall the palatial salons of the ancient capital. This quintessential Thai experience crescendos on the open terrace of the Celadon, where traditional piquant cuisine mingles occasionally with the modem in dishes that are a feast for palate and eyes alike.
Once upon a time, the Grand Palace was the walled residence of the Thai monarch, its monumental, phantasmagorical excess created some 200 years ago by the revered Chakri dynasty of the Kingdom of Sian.
With 5 million tourists a year visiting one of Thailand’s must-see sites, it’s not surprising that current king Rama IX has moved down the road to nearby Chitralada Palace, closed to the public. No matter – it could not possibly be more gilded, decorated, and inlaid, more ornate and fantastical than the maze of more than 100 Eastern/Western buildings and courtyards at the Grand Palace, which remains the greatest single display of traditional Thai arts and architecture. The most famous of Bangkok’s 400-odd temples is found within these walls: the Wat Phra Kaeo, popularly known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
Adjoining the original royal palace, the temple will be the grand finale of your visit, symbolically linking Thailand’s spiritual heart with the former seat of its temporal power. Here sits the most venerated religious object in Thailand, a 26-inch seated Buddha carved from a solid block of semiprecious jade, which was lost and then discovered in the 15th century.
Guarded by ancient bronze lions and precious beyond measure, it is perched serenely atop a gilded throne 34 feet high. As protector of the country, the Buddha presides over the only area of the Grand Palace where incense-burning Thai worshippers outnumber awestruck tourists.
You’ll be able to explore only a small part of Chatuchak’s 30 jam-packed awning-covered acres before your head starts to swim from cultural overload.
One of the world’s largest outdoor markets, with an estimated 5,000 merchants ready for business every Saturday at 6 A.M., Chatuchak is the ultimate Bangkok market experience – a one-stop shopping extravaganza where the rare, the costly, and the unusual are sold side by side with pushcart food, computers, tribal crafts, genuine counterfeit everything, spices, orchids, pirated CDs, souvenirs, and pets (or are they?) that range from Siamese kittens to Siamese fighting fish.
Silk garments and hand-painted china sell for a song, but Chatuchak is as much a sociologist’s dream as a bargain hunter’s paradise. It’s a crowded, sense-numbing carnival, teeming with saffron-robed monks, ancient crones, mothers shopping for toys with their children, and pinstripe-suited businessmen buying provisions for dinner. Its exotic sights, smells, and sounds will stay with you for a lifetime.
Once “the pearl of the east,” the artistic, spiritual, and military center of Southeast Asia, Ayuthaya was the capital of Thailand from A.D. 1350 until its destruction by marauding Burmese four centuries later. Thirty-three kings of various dynasties built hundreds of temples and thousands of images to Buddha in a city-state that archives claim was one of the richest and fairest in Southeast Asia.
The city’s destruction in 1767 was so complete that rather than rebuild, the heartbroken king chose to relocate his court to Bangkok, 50 miles downriver. Today its mins and canals (which are slowly being restored and reclaimed) still speak of the city’s former splendor, and visitors with a good imagination – and a good guide – will have no difficulty grasping its onetime grandeur and importance.
The royal way of visiting Ayuthaya today is via the Chao Phraya River, the River of Kings. Snaking 227 miles from Thailand’s northern highlands to the Gulf of Siam (though technically speaking, everything above the lower 160 miles is known by a different name), it is Bangkok’s lifeline.
The Manohra Song, a lovingly restored, fifty-year-old, 50-foot rice barge made entirely of teak and rare woods, is the most luxurious vessel on the river, built to world-class yacht standards, with just four staterooms outfitted with Thai tapestries, sumptuous fabrics, carvings, and sophisticated crafts and antiques evocative of the ancient kingdom of Siam. The candlelit dinner served aboard is one of the best in Thailand.
The Manohra is available for private charters, but its most popular cruise is the two-day overnight trip to Ayuthaya, a 50-mile trip that passes houses built on stilts, children splashing, bathing, and washing in their “front yard,” and the timeless bustle and activity of watercraft plying the muddy river.