Fifteen years ago only a few intrepid travellers were aware of the wonders of Thailand. Last year over twelve million visitors came to enjoy this amazing country. With people who actually do smile all the time, and mean it, beaches that are invariably powdery white, waters that range from turquoise to a limpid blue, a mean average temperature of 280 , and one of the finest cuisines in the world, it is easy to understand the attraction. Nor should the safety factor be overlooked, either. With a population that is 98% Buddhist, religious conflict is virtually nil in this country of gentle, courteous people.
Bangkok is Noisy but the Chao Phraya River is Tranquil
No one would call present day Bangkok a paradise, but this modern metropolis was once known as the Venice of the East, a city built on canals which meandered through the capital and out into the countryside. Most of these have now been filled in, but the magnificent Chao Praya River with its traffic of tugs, rice barges, and house-boats, still runs through its centre, lined by stunning hotels like the Oriental, Peninsula, and Sheraton Towers.
Hire a boat and a boatman from your hotel’s landing stage for a visit to the temples and palaces, most of which are on the river, and you need never step into Bangkok’s noisy streets. It’s a relaxing way to see the City of Angels (Bangkok’s former name): sunrise over the Temple of Dawn, viewed from the boat, is an incredible sight.
Beaches and Islands – Where to find the best
If its beaches you’re after, there’s the peace and tranquillity of the resorts on the Andaman Sea where you can cruise around the extraordinary 40-odd limestone karsts thrusting out of the sea in this totally surreal landscape (recognisable from The Man with the Golden Gun which was filmed here), picnic on a sandbank or deserted island, or head off into the Marine National Park for some of the finest diving in the world. If you choose to stay in a hotel, the most exclusive has not one, but three beaches surrounding it as well as an infinity pool.
The best known of Thailand’s islands is, of course, Phuket, whose coastline hides bays of the sort of shimmering sands lapped by turquoise seas you see in publicity pictures – Karon, Kata, Nai Harn, Pansea, Bang Tao and the National Park beach of Mai Khao. Pick any one of these and you’ll find exclusive, world class hotels to cosset and pamper you. If you want brash and noisy, then head for Patong Bay, easy to reach for an evenings entertainment.
Phuket is subject to monsoons but when it is raining there, the weather is fine in Ko Samuii (and vice versa) an island fast moving from backpackers hideaway to an upmarket resort with a laid-back atmosphere.
On the mainland, the resorts of Hua-Hin (where the Thai royal family have their summer palace) and Cha’am, attracts the more mature traveller for its great shopping and good restaurants. And don’t dismiss Pattaya, known mostly for its girlie-bars, nightclubs, and massage parlours: it has one of the world’s great hotels right on the edge of town which many people check into and leave without once setting foot outside it, their entire vacation having been spent luxuriating in one of the Royal Suites.
Go North and visit the Hill Tribes
Even great beaches can bore after days of perfect weather, and this is a good excuse to visit the hill tribes and enjoy the northern culture of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son. Home to some of the most colourful tribal people in the world, the Akha, Meo, Leo, Hmong, Karen, Lisu and the long-necked Paduang, the velvety green mountains hiding rare orchids and other flora, is a startling contrast to the south of the country. There are opportunities to join elephant rides into the jungle or to trek to remote villages to meet the hill tribe people. For a more hands-on activity you can hire a 4WD (with or without driver) so that you can navigate the steep mountain roads and tracks, drift up the Pai River from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai on a bamboo raft, visit the border town of Mai Sai and cross into Myanmar (Burma) for a few hours, then visit the strange town of Theod Thai to talk with the remnants of Chiang Kai Chek’s Nationalist Army that settled here after escaping from China.
Thailand is not just another country, it’s another way of life, guaranteed to de-stress even the most overworked executive. After all, a country that has but one word for both work and pleasure, sanuk, has to be something special.