“It’s a boy!”
It is not just an announcement heard in maternity homes, but also one of the biggest surprise that people get in one of the most exotic locales on this planet.
There is so much more to Thailand then, well, and it goes beyond the usual hotspots, of Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Krabi, mentioned in tourist literature, the usual playing fields of Asia’s rich & famous.
Most of the tourist packages I have seen are of the 3N/4D, covering one day in Bangkok and couple of days in Phuket/Pattaya. The longest off-the-rack shelf package would be a week-long covering Bangkok/Pattaya/Phuket/Krabi.
The high rate of prostitution prevalent in Thailand, which is also a tourism driver, overshadows quite a few things. Rough estimate put the figure of sex tourism at approx 5 bln USD accounting for 3% of the national income. In simple terms, 10% of tourist dollars are spent on sex. These facts hide some other equally important facts.
Women are well respected in Thailand, with literacy running upwards of 90%, with a woman Prime Minister, and as we walk around the streets, with women running a significant number of businesses. Thailand is a place of contradictions. Another example is the fact that 95% of the population is Buddhist, and at the same time pork is the staple diet, to the extent that chicken is rarely available on the streets. Forget the veg options, for which one has to sit in the boring restaurants.
The skyline of Bangkok, the palaces of the monarchs, and the pristine clear aquatic blue beaches of
Phuket/Krabi are the starting points of Thailand. To understand Thailand, one has to go beyond these places, or to take an extreme position, probably avoid these places.
It’s an exaggerated statement, just to drive home the point. For if one actually does avoid the usual tourist hotspots, one does not lose out much, instead the week spent in experiencing the lesser known aspects would actually leave us much better acquainted with the country and its culture so that on the way back to the Suvarnabhoomi Airport, our memories go beyond the shopping at Indra market, the palaces in Bangkok, scuba diving in Phuket, swimming at the Bond island, boozing on the Pattaya beach, the cabaret shows…etc. And in case your memories of Thailand are limited to these few places, well it’s time to pack your bags and call the taxi for the airport.
Suvarnabhoomi Airport in Bangkok is the only point of entry, (of course we also have the Eastern & Oriental Express option) into the country which is about the size of Spain, and has a long coastline.
Thankfully the country has a very tourist friendly policy with most nationalities (48 countries) not even required to have a visa, while 19 other nationalities (including India) visitors are provided Visa On Arrival. When I travel to Bangkok, being an Indian, and being the great planner that I am, I go straight to the Immigration counter at the airport and procure my visa, which is a very efficient process and takes about 10-15 minutes with minimal questioning. Which in a nutshell means that minimal time is lost in planning, booking and paperwork, so that one can fly out as early as tomorrow.
There are many staying options in Bangkok, but my preferred option is either on Sukhumvit Street or the crowded market area near Indra market. While the former can be compared to somewhat like the
Wodehouse Road ambience, and the latter is somewhat like Delhi-6 environment, and it depends on individual liking.
If one is visiting Bangkok with a plan for heavy shopping; garments, footwear, electronics, then the Indra area is the best with many options of getting Indian food, and also meeting a lot of Hindi/Tamil speaking shopkeepers. In fact Indra market has the look and feel of any mall in Gurgaon.
But Bangkok is essentially a port of entry into the country, and one should keep it that way, just to get oriented to a new country, to shop on the way out, and probably half a day to see the majestic Grand Palace and the Wat Phra Kaew (or the Emerald Buddha). This is a 150 year old palace, and its significance to the Thai culture can be comprehended by mere two facts; firstly, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and secondly, Thailand was never conquered/ruled by any western power, neither Portuguese, nor French, and nor the British. So the King is revered like God, and to top it, the current king is the longest serving monarch in the world. This place is not to be missed if one has to understand why the King (and the King’s color i.e. yellow) is so important in the Thai culture.
The next recommended must visit, from a historical point of view would be the Bridge over the River
Kwai and the cemetery where the soldiers from distant lands, rest in peace, having laid down their lives during the second World War. This is a story which had its impact not just on the country but on mankind itself. The bridge of Death Railway, is located in Kanchanburi about 3 hours drive from Bangkok, and it is very much advisable to checkout of the Bangkok hotel and take up accommodation in Kanchanburi for couple of days.
Besides the Bridge, the cemeteries, the museums, there is the natural beauty of National Parks, like Erawan with its various waterfalls dotting the landscape, each turn telling the story of a POW survivor from the War. A day would be required to experience shopping like never before at the Floating market, with hawkers selling all kinds of stuff from the boats in the river and eating all the delicacies that they cook up.
To get an insight into Thai culture head north, to the New City of Chiang Mai, also affectionately called Rose of the North. Again this place is less of sight-seeing and more of experiencing Thai way of living. The temples, the gardens, the elephant camps, the shopping, everything needs time and the best way is to rent a motor cycle and go around the place mingling with the local population. Enjoy the kao soi, the local staple diet, for a few days, and work out to the tunes of Muay Thai.
The best way to wrap up the tour if one likes to party, is to spend the last night in Pattaya in a hotel along the Pattaya beach, its’ anyway a small town, which is mostly around the beach with a one way road going along the beach. After the cultural overhang, watch the sun set in the Pattaya seas sipping beer in one of the many joints that line the beach, enjoy a nite show at either Tiffany or Alcazar, before ending the day with a night cap. And even if one does not like to party, there is the option of lazing on the beach and watch the entire stretch of the Pattaya beach glow in the setting sun.