Thailand is the most popular destination in the world for British gap year holidaymakers, according to ABTA, the travel association.
Buddhism is the country’s main religion – it is practised by 95 per cent of the population.
Kitti’s hog-nosed bat – thought to be the world’s smallest mammal – is found in Thailand. It weighs just two grams.
One of the country’s most unusual festivals is the annual Monkey Buffet, held in front of the Pra Prang Sam Yot temple in Lopburi province. More than 600 monkeys are invited to feast on over two tonnes of grilled sausage, fresh fruit, ice cream and other treats. The locals see it as a thank you to the monkeys which inhabit the village and bring thousands of tourists there each year.
Getting into Thailand
I’m feeling really excited about returning to vibrant Bangkok. I’m rapidly brought back down to earth by the queues at airport immigration. They make Miami airport look like a stroll in the park. It’s a new airport building and the wooden booths have been replaced by metal desks, but the systems don’t seem to have improved at all. Neither does the attitude of the airport officials until I ask the luggage belt supervisor what his name is and then he suddenly becomes highly solicitous.
There are so many placard waving meet and greeters that it takes me another 30 minutes to find the lady waiting for me. My name is thoughtfully obscured by a stack of suitcases on a trolley. Waiting gives me time to observe the great, the good and the decidedly different. One long haired bearded guy has just sashayed past in a tigerskin top, a red velvet skirt and pirate boots.
How to Behave in Thailand
In Thailand your head is considered high and holy and your feet are considered low and dirty. It is considered very rude to raise your feet above someone else's head (especially if they are older than you). Pointing at or touching something with the feet is also considered rude
It is strictly against the law to criticise the monarchy - lèse-majesté.
Is Thailand Safe to Visit?
The FCO warns of incidents of gun violence (rare), robbery, drink spiking, rape and violence (especially at full moon parties). They say that there have been instances where the victims of crime have been identified and threatened with prosecution by the police for damaging Thailand’s reputation. they also say that posting images on social media of people drinking alcohol or wearing inappropriate clothing can result in fines and/or imprisonment , both for the person who uploaded the images and the people in them.
There are very heavy penalties for drugs use/importation
There are very many visitors and I have never experienced any problems.
Is Thailand a Poor Country?
Thailand is relatively wealthy compared to other countries in South East Asia. but ten percent of the population still live below the poverty line.
What to Do in Thailand?
You're spoilt for choice here:
Plenty of islands with stunning beaches - Koh Samui (colonic irrigation!)and Phuket
And north overland - rainforests and historic temples and cities to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the Mekong - gateway to Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam. You can travel by road, train or plane.
Bangkok in a Nutshell
MasterCard says that Thailand's capital of Bangkok is the most visited city in the world, ahead of London. It welcomes 16 million international arrivals a year.
Bangkok is known to Thais as Krung Thep Maha Nakho, but its full ceremonial name is Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.
Bangkok is a very large sprawling city bisected by the Chao Phraya River,Bangkok was once crisscrossed by dozens of canals or “khlongs”, and its buildings stood on stilts, earning it the nickname Venice of the East. Most have now been filled, over the years.
The most atmospheric city life seems to take place on the waters where long tailed boats and water taxis ply constantly up and down (these are quite useful to avoid the congested roads).
The backpacker’s mecca, the Khaosan Road, is crammed with cheap hotels and bars and dubious looking massage parlours. Thai massage is available on every corner. This is where I stay on my early trips. before I head north to Chiang Mai and the Mekong.
Marvelling at the glitzy temples, with their assorted Buddhas. Wat Pho Temple with its enormous reclining Buddha, famous for its training in the Thai style massage, where if you are lucky, someone walks on your back. On the opposite shore, Wat Arun Temple with its steep steps and Khmer-style spire. Further away The Golden Buddha, officially titled Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, a gold statue, with a weight of 5.5 tons, located in the temple of Wat Trait.
The must see (if you’re up to braving the crowds) is the most opulent sight of them all, the Grand Palace (the King’s home) and its sacred Wat Phra Kaew Temple, that contains the tiny Emerald Buddha
A trip out to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – more long tailed boats, chock full of all manner of vegetables, and vendors in their conical straw hats. (A Thai tourist destination that was in decline and has now been revived.)
Shopping for fake designer goods in Patpong, where I stock up om 'Armani' jeans. Fried grasshoppers for supper. There's a famous red light district here, at the heart of Bangkok's sex industry. This one is more international – unfortunately there are quite a few others, catering mainly to Thai tastes
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And some incredible hotels. with amazing service. The Banyan Tree (there are several) is great. I've flown in from Brunei this time. Fifty minutes in the taxi from the airport - that’s not bad for Bangkok and I'm there. The skyline has changed since 2005. There are many more tower blocks and very little Thai script. Nearly all the signs are in English now. My Banyan Tree is in an upmarket hotel area adjacent to an equally upmarket shopping area. And things are definitely looking up. I’ve been upgraded to a suite. So I have a little palace on one of the top floors. There’s three separate rooms and a huge tub. It’s a shame I don’t have time to indulge. I’m off shopping, trying to match the bamboo design steel cutlery I bought in Kho Samui in 2003.- some items have gone AWOL over the years. I have researched on the internet and found a shop in a plaza that stocks Thai cutlery and they have almost identical items to mine. The shopkeeper tells me that my exact design isn’t made any more. ‘Same, same’. I’m pleased to find a decent match and tired so I don’t bargain and he’s pleased too. There’s massage shop in the plaza so I head there next. When in Rome.
I’ve taken a taxi to the plaza as the concierge has ensured a fixed price for me. It’s double the meter rate, but still cheaper than the price he will try and extort from me if I’m left on my own. Or it will be ‘Cheap price only if you visit the tailor shop too’. So I decide to walk back to the hotel and plot a scenic route on Google, across Lumpini Park. It seems, additionally, to cut off a corner The park is chock full of joggers and after navigating them I find myself back in the road where the hotel is located. I can see it on the other side. Except that there is no way of crossing the dual carriageway, which is barricaded in the middle, not to mention packed with vehicles. I ask directions from a kindly Thai jogger who sends me to a zebra crossing up at the next junction. It adds half a mile to the journey. So much for Google.
Dinner in the hotel. Amazing red duck curry and chillie vodka cocktails in the rooftop bar. I shall definitely have to come back.
Koh Samui, Thailand’s second largest island, lies in the Gulf of Thailand, off the east coast of the Kra Isthmus. It's known for its palm-fringed beaches, coconut groves and dense, mountainous rainforest, but I’m not here to see these. I’m embarking on a week-long detox fast, complete with self-administered colonic irrigation. It’s been all the rage in the newspapers and documentaries lately.
The process isn’t too uncomfortable and going without food not too painful either. Too much coffee is involved for my liking. I can’t bear the smell.
We can also rent little electronic zapping machines to ensure the removal of any parasites. This seems to work too well, explaining why I had been getting so skinny lately. Providing any more details would be too much information. Suffice it to say that I must be one of the few people who started to put on weight, before they left a detox spa. I’m not sure that was a result.
This time an overland trip through Thailand to Laos, starting again in Bangkok's Khaosan Road, a another massage on a mattress on the floor that makes me feel as if I've done ten rounds and a facial that involves half a greengrocer's shop on my skin.
First stop is Ayutthaya, a city about 80 kilometres north of Bangkok, once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam. The ruins of the old city (razed to the ground by the Burmese) now form the Ayutthaya Historical Park, an archaeological site that contains palaces, Buddhist temples, with multiple stupas, monasteries and statues. Bang Pa In is the home of the King's Summer Palace - palaces on islands and topiary galore. It’s a picturesque and interesting visit.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Next an overnight train to Chiang Mai, the second city of Thailand in the mountainous north. Founded in 1296, it was once capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom. It's also known as the ‘Rose of the North’. There's a scenic, winding drive up a mountain to Doi Suthep, one of the country's most stunning temple complexes . It involves a 300-step serpent-guarded stairway, leading up to the temples but the climb is rewarding. The chanting of the Buddhist monks is relaxing and hypnotic - I could sit listening all day - and there are sweeping views of the city. A cycle tour of the flatter, old city is also worth the effort; it is crammed with hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples.
Finally, Chiang Rai, the gateway to the mighty Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos. We take a boat along the Mekong to Laos, but before we can embark there are mountains to climb for views and more temples to admire. This is the home of the ornate Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, which turns out to be an wedding cake style art installation.
At the end, returning again to Thailand from Hanoi, a beach sojourn in Krabi. It is an especially sad time. The tsunami had hit the month before. I would have been on the beach at the time if I hadn't re-organised my trip. I considered cancelling, but the spa I had chosen tells me they need the business. There are no other tourists. The people I speak to tell of their panicking as they ran for high ground, their relief to be safe and their sadness at the deaths of so many. The pretty bays and limestone scenery are ravaged, piles of excavated timber on the beaches, sunken boats in the water. The most poignant sight, the posters and photographs tied to the railings, listing all those still missing.
Phuket - Phi Phi and James Bond
A side trip to Phuket, flying to and from Bangkok sandwiched between Myanmar and Cambodia.
My taxi doesn't turn up, so I find myself undertaking a manic 45 minute tuk tuk ride, all the way out to Bangkok Airport, my suitcase lashed to the front: 'English football velly velly good'.
I manage a snorkelling trip on a speed boat into the Andaman Sea to see the fabled limestone scenery, of Phi Phi, Maya, where The Beach was filmed, the lagoons, stilt villages and and another longtail boat journey round James Bond Island. It’s all gorgeous. We feed the fish bananas.
Pole Dancing in Patong
Otherwise, the weather is poor and it’s raining. There's flooding in Patong and the punters in the many bars are sitting on stools a foot underwater. The signs say 'Happy New Year -1996'. There’s nothing to do except hang about and talk to the working girls. They teach me how to pole dance, one or two disappearing quietly into the back every so often 'for dinner', taking along the odd customer who apprehensively wanders into the gloom.
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