If you are a casual traveller who has explored the US or Europe and now is looking to expand their horizons in Asia, then Thailand is the obvious choice. Located in the middle of Southeast Asia, it can be either a standalone destination or the start of a multi-country trip.
I’ll be honest. My expectation standards for Thailand were low, judging by the amount of Australian, Russian and other western tourists that are flocking to the area. To some extent, Thailand’s popularity caused the country’s facilities to adapt admirably to the western lifestyle and aesthetic. You could find coffee shops, tea shops, smoothie and milkshake shops at every corner, even inside metro stations, and their quality was always superb. I haven’t drunk a decent freddo cappuccino since the last time I was in Greece. Popular malls such as Terminal 21 show off by having different floors dedicated to different cities all around the world, from San Francisco to Istanbul. Especially regarding Turkey, kebab and ice cream seem to be immensely popular near crowded “walking streets” and bar places. The design of everything from small cafés to hostel rooms is giving out a warm, familiar sensation. That is, until you notice the “No Durian allowed” signs that are hanged almost anywhere (Durian is the world’s smelliest fruit, which smell many compare to rotten food scraps and rubbish).
But the European feeling is not the sole target here. Japan and China play a big part in Thailand’s economy and account for a large percentage of its tourists. A lot of Thai people are actually second or third generation Chinese that fled the Japanese during the Second World War (not that Thailand was a safe harbour at that time, but it is what it is). Considering that I visited the country just after the Chinese New Year, a lot of celebrations and traditional Chinese markets were still accessible. Japan seems to have invaded both Thailand’s business and popular culture, if you judge by the amount of big Japanese corporations expanding there, may that be to construct railways or to provide fancy Japanese cuisine. In the centre of Bangkok, right next to the huge mall “Siam Paragon” one can see the giant logo of Tokyu Corp. Sometimes, it was extremely hard to find food that was neither Japanese nor Chinese in the capital’s bustling centre.
Of course, Thailand wouldn’t be an interesting destination if everything was imported, would it? The locals are quite religious and devoted to Buddhism compared to other nearby countries. As a result, numerous mini shrines, decorated with flowers, tropical fruits and mini elephants appear out of nowhere, next to parking lots and at building entrances. The same holds for large, full-body portraits of the current and former king and other members of the royal family. Giant colourful temples, painted golden and decorated with coloured glass that gives off the impression of valuable stones, capture the attention. The abundance of rivers and water channels at the mainland facilitates the use of boats as a cheap means of transport to sightsee around Bangkok and is the ideal environment for floating markets (however, pay attention to the fact that some floating markets are made from scratch only for foreigners to enjoy). Considering that Thailand is a tropical country, it is abundant with fruits such as mango and pineapple, and one of the most famous sweet delights is mango with sticky rice. It is also abundant with fish and seafood, with almost any dish having the option to be made with shrimps. Because of the hot and humid climate that prevails all year long, the local cuisine focuses on hot soups, both in temperature and spices, which make one sweat out any toxins residing in their body.
After this lengthy introduction, I would like to describe my itinerary [bangkok itinerary]. When visiting Thailand, it is actually difficult to visit all interesting places at once. Therefore, you usually have to decide the scope of your trip; mainland (Bangkok), middle (Ko Samui) or south (Phuket). I chose to use Bangkok as my base, used planned tours and taxi to visit the ancient ruins in Ayutthaya and the elephant rescue centre in Phetchaburi respectively, stayed for a two days in Phattaya and for four in Ko Samet, and returned to Bangkok. By doing this, I managed to observe the modern urban lifestyle in the capital, past history and nature spots in the proximity, the sex capital of the world and a quiet relaxing holiday by the beach, all at once.
Bangkok is vibrant and lively. Full of young people, stylish cafés and a convenient metro/train system, it is the best place to observe Thailand’s young generation. Bangkok has two airports, Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi, the former being home of low-cost airlines and the latter having better access to the city centre. Once I used a local bus and an obscure local train, both of which were extremely cheap and an interesting experience overall. Judging by the looks I received, it is not common for foreigners to use that kind of transportation. The traditional transportation for tourists is the tuk-tuk, 3 or 4 wheeled vehicles with an open air extended cab. However, I don’t have any comments about it, because I avoided it as tuk-tuks tend to be overpriced, and instead I used an online application called Grab, the equivalent of Uber. Bangkok offers a lot of sightseeing spots, the royal palace, a couple of well-known lavish temples, traditional dance and martial art performances, day or night markets, the best street-food at the Chinatown and a huge range of giant malls. Contrary to my expectation, life in the capital was not so cheap; of course compared to Japan or Northern Europe it was quite cheap, but it seemed like the prices were adjusted to the wallets of tourists and the wealthy local upper class.
Ayutthaya is the old capital of the kingdom of Siam, which was burnt almost to the ground during the Burmese–Siamese War (1765–67). Although the city was eventually abandoned due to the extent of the damage, a lot of bell towers and “stupa” structures remain to this day, and the whole area protected as UNESCO cultural heritage. Ayutthaya is the home of numerous temples, which you can recognize by the prefix “Wat” in the name. The Thai construction concept instructed that the palace should be built adjacent to a temple, which happens at the location of Wat Mahathat, although only the floor remains of the palace. Wat Mahathat is also the place where three giant tombs of three great Thai kings are located, all of them in traditional Thai style. On the other hand, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet is still religiously revered due to the Buddha “head in a tree”. This temple has a lot of examples of Khmer architecture. Be warned that taking casual selfies in religious sites is not an easy task in Thailand. It is generally disrespectful to take pictures of Buddha statues, and in case you do, your head should be lower than the Buddha’s head in order to show respect. It doesn’t matter that the temples in Ayutthaya have been abandoned for a couple of centuries already; you are required to sit down when taking pictures with the tree-Buddha head. Next is the royal summer palace Bang-Pa-In which has wonderful gardens with bushes shaped like elephants, a bridge with classical style statues of the Greek muses, a tall observatory tower, a Chinese style building and a floating pavilion. After the sightseeing around Ayutthaya is over, you can rest and shop at the floating market, which is conveniently called Ayothaya. Although this market was not developed organically, but rather was built to cover the needs of the soaring tourist numbers, it is still an enjoyable experience. You can enjoy delicious Phad Thai and generous portions of other local dishes and desserts. One of the attractions of the markets is people dressed up with costumes on boats, re-enacting old legends about the wars with Burma. There are trekking elephants in the vicinity, but I strongly advise against riding an elephant for ethical reasons.
Part II of travelling in Thailand (about elephants, Pattaya and Ko Samet) is here.