Bangkok & environs

It as if all the smells, tastes and sounds of Thailand converge in Bangkok, the country’s capital and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Whether you are browsing at Chatuchak (the world’s largest outdoor market), visiting some of Bangkok’s famous temples (Wat Arun and Wat Phra Kheo), or partaking in the nightlife at Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza you will never be bored in Bangkok.

The city’s expressways, subway and Skytrain systems make it easier to get around these days and Bangkok’s wide selection of fine restaurants make it a food lover’s delight. Whether you want to eat Italian, Chinese, Indian, French, Japanese, Korean, vegetarian, Muslim or even Brazilian, all types of cuisine are readily available in Bangkok, whose proper name is, “Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintra ayuthaya mahadilok popnopparat ratchathani burirom udomratchithaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit”. It’s a mouthful, but ask a Thai student to recite it for you and they will, they must learn it in school.

If you want more of a pro-active vacation the city offers many traditional Thai massage courses (Wat Po is famous for this) many excellent Thai cooking courses (try the Oriental Hotel for a top-notch cooking school), many Thai language courses (try AUA) and a number of places where you can learn about Thai holistic medicine (try the Institute of Thai medicine) . And Bangkok is known as the spa capital of the world, so you can pamper yourself or loved ones with any of the treatments on tap at the city’s top spas.

Bangkok is truly a shopper’s cornucopia: starting at the Emporium on Sukhumvit Road and moving west you’ll find Central Chitlom, Gaysorn and Amarin Plazas, Central World Plaza and Siam Paragon (featuring an IMAX theatre and Siam Ocean World) - all within short Skytrain distance of one another. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better selection of high-class shopping malls in any other city in Southeast Asia.

And if you want to do some bargain shopping try the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, MBK Centre (once called, “a huge open-air market thrown into a seven-story shopping complex”), Narayana Phan (for handicrafts) or the myriad of stores in the Pratunam Market (“the downtown Chatuchak”). And Panthip Plaza on Petchburi Road long has had a reputation for being one of the best IT malls in Southeast Asia.

Bangkok has some of the finest hotels in the world: the Oriental, Shangri-la, Four Seasons Bangkok, the Peninsula, Sukhothai, and the Grand Hyatt Erawan, to name a few. And during low season, you can get some very reasonable rates at these and other fine hotels in Bangkok. Each of the aforementioned hotels has a fine selection of spas and restaurants as well.

Vertigo, the stunning open-air al fresco bar, 61 floors up in the Banyan Tree Hotel on Sathorn Road is a great place to dine, but be careful when the wind kicks up. Sirocco, 65 floors up, at the top of the State Tower at the bottom of Silom Road is another spectacular open-air spot to take a loved one for a romantic evening.

Khao San Road has long been Thailand’s backpacker central, but lately it is starting to become more upmarket and trendy. It’s worth a visit to see the amazing number of nationalities who pass through this multicultural way station every day.

Then if you want to see some Thai boxing, the city’s two main stadiums, Lumpini and Ratchadamnern regularly carry bouts and you can get quite close to the fighters while the bouts are in action.

Film buffs can delight in the number of world-class theatres Bangkok has – there’s a cineplex in every major mall. The movies turn over quick quickly and few cities stage more film festivals than Bangkok does. The city regularly hosts a number of plays, operas, musicals and ballet performance and if you are a historical buff the National Museum, the Vimanmek Teak Museum, the Royal Barges Museum and the Grand Palace will keep you busy.

Bangkok’s Chinatown is a vast labyrinth of small stalls and sois and definitely worth a visit, especially to its Sampeng Lane market. There are many good maps of Bangkok available but the best is Nancy Chandler’s, which gives you detailed instructions of how to get around Chinatown and Chatuchak.

The city has more excellent tailors per capita than any other major metropolis. Shop around, but you are bound to get a good deal on a pair of suits, shirts, trousers, pant suits and dresses before you go.

Jim Thompson’s House is also usually a must visit for anyone travelling to Bangkok. The man who brought Thai silk to the world disappeared without a trace in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967. There are almost as many theories about what happened to him as there are to who killed President John F. Kennedy. The former OSS agent’s house, situated on a canal not far from Siam Centre, remains pretty much as is was the day he left for Malaysia on that fateful trip 40 years ago.

And for those that want to see some crocodiles, the Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm will not disappoint. See trainers stick their heads between the jaws of live crocs, including Thailand’s
biggest, weighing in at 1,114kg. Near the crocodile farm is Muang Boran, or the Ancient City, 109 scaled-down replicas of Thailand’s most famous landmarks. This is a nice place to bicycle around, and the attractions have been more or less laid out to conform to Thailand’s geography.

If you are into snakes: specifically green pit vipers, Russell vipers, king cobras, common cobras, banded kraits and Malaysian pit vipers then a visit to the Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute is a must. Founded in 1923, this Red Cross research institute prepares anti-venom, which is distributed throughout the country. You can watch daily milkings and feedings of the snakes.

About an hour outside of Bangkok sits Ayuthaya Historical Park, a former Thai capital and UNESCO World Heritage site. Renting a bicycle is the best way to see these ancient ruins. Close by is the Bang Pa-In Summer Palace and a fun way to visit Ayuthaya and Bang Pa-In is by going up the Chao Phraya River in a refurbished rice barge. River taxi is also a good way to see Bangkok – as many commuters still take these express boats to work every day and you can rent longboat boats to tour the many canals that shoot off from the main river.

Four hours north of Bangkok lies Lopburi, whose city core is inhabited by hundreds of wild monkeys. Lopburi has even established its own monkey hospital to deal with these primates. This former summer capital of Siam was the favourite of King Narai, who kept his palace, Phra Narai Ratchaniwet there. While you are walking around Lopburi, dodging the monkeys, you can still see the remains of Constantine Phaulkon’s home, Chao Phraya Wichayen. Phaulkon, a close advisor to Narai, was the only foreigner to hold a ministerial position and was executed by Narai’s successor King Phetracha as Narai lay on his deathbed.

Eastern Seaboard

Pattaya is the entertainment and tourist hub of this region. When the new highway is completed it will be possible to make the trip from Bangkok in ninety minutes. U-Tapao Airport services international and domestic flights to Pattaya and you can actually catch a train from Bangkok as well, but the trip is slow. Buses to Pattaya from Bangkok leave from Ekamai and Mochit bus stations and from the bus terminal attached to Suvanabhumi Airport.

Pattaya is really divided into three parts: Naklua (or Pattaya North), Central Pattaya (Party Central) and Jomtien Beach in the south. Naklua is a lot quieter and more family oriented, anything goes in Central Pattaya and Jomtien has always been a weekend retreat for Thais and it is packed on the weekends. More and more condominium developments are springing up, particularly in Jomtien.

Tennis courts, go-kart tracks, fitness centes and Thai-boxing gyms are all available in Pattaya as are elephants rides, motorscooters, monster motorbike, and convertible Jeeps. To keep the adrenaline pumping shooting ranges are available as is scuba diving (there are many shipwrecks in the area), snorkelling, jet-skiing, cable skiing, deep-sea fishing, windsurfing, speed boating, water-skiing, parasailing, and aerial sports such as gliding ultra-lights and flying motor-propelled gliders. The city also has its own Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, bungee jump, open-air zoo (outside of town), tiger zoo, and aquarium.

There are also numerous restaurants, bars, theaters, cabaret shows, night clubs, bowling halls, billiard & snooker clubs, discos, sauna & massage parlors, not to mention the incredible shopping opportunities, which are always available.

Thailand has a great tolerance for ladyboys and transvestites (or katoeys as they are known in Thai), so much so, that the Miss Tiffany contest held in Pattaya every year is the most prestigious event for “queens” throughout the world. Thailand also has some of the foremost authorities on sex-change operations and as many people come to Thailand for a dental holiday, or cosmetic surgery, many are also choosing to get gender operations in the Land of Smiles.

Koh Samet, which is only a short drive from Bangkok, and accessed by the pier at Ban Phe has some of the finest white sand in the country and many Bangkokians chose to make this their weekend getaway because of its accessibility.

Koh Chang, the country’s second largest island is now much more accessible since Bangkok Airways starting flying to Trat. It was the dream of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to turn Koh Chang into a five-star island for the rich and famous, but don’t worry that hasn’t happened yet–it’s still a fun and affordable place to visit. Its sunsets are superb, and the more adventurous may want to explore some of the remote islands in nearby Cambodia.

The lesser-known Koh Si Chang, accessed by boat from the town of Sri Racha, features Hat Tha Wang Palace, the former summer palace of King Rama V. Summiting its Tham Yai Phrik Vipassana Monastery, you can get a great view of the surrounding ocean, which is full of tankers on one side and glorious empty ocean on the other.

Chantaburi is known for its gemstones, as it is the centre for buying rubies and sapphires from across Southeast Asia. The town also has a significant Vietnamese population with their own fascinating history. And if you happen to be in Chonburi in October check out the water buffalo races, great fun for all involved.

This area also has one of the greatest concentrations of good golf courses in the world and as such has been dubbed a “golfer’s paradise”. You can play on a different spectacular course each day, without having to change hotels.

The Thai government has spent a lot of time, money and effort trying to tout the Eastern Seaboard as the “Detroit of the East” and many of the world’s biggest car manufacturers have established factories in this region.

And for those of you enjoying your time in Thailand who want to remain in the country, but need a new visa to do so, the most convenient border run is to Aranyaprathet, about five hours by bus from Bangkok.

The South

Phuket, on the country’s Andaman coast, is Thailand’s wealthiest and largest province and it has made a spectacular recovery from the 26 December 2004 tsunami. Home to some of the most luxurious resorts in the world and its towns such as Patong, Karon and Kata can provide you with almost every type of entertainment imaginable. If you crave a more laid-back vacation beaches further north like Kamala, Surin, Bang Tao, Nai Yang, Nathon and Mai Khao can provide that as well. And Phuket’s golf courses like Blue Canyon and Mission Hills are some of the finest in the land

If you do end up visiting Phuket, try some sea kayaking for a change of pace and the June Bahtra cruise up to James Bond Island is definitely worth the trip. And if you visit the island mid-to-late October make sure you take in the island’s Vegetarian Festival. Devotees somehow manage to pierce their skin with the strangest of metallic objects, and perform other acts of self-mortification that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief. To the south of the island Nai Harn and Rawai Beaches are nice places to spend time and Laem Promthep is a great spot to watch the sun rise and set. There is also a movement afoot to have the old town centre of Phuket Town declared a UNESCO historical site because of its surviving Sino-Portuguese architecture.

Phuket’s Laguna complex is one of the world’s great reclamation projects. On land that had been thoroughly laid to waste by tin mining, now stands five high-end luxury resorts (Banyan Tree Phuket, Laguna Beach Resort, Allamanda Laguna Phuket, Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket and the Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket).

The Racha Islands just off of Ao Chalong in southern Phuket are known for their proximity to big game fish like the billfish, black marlin and sailfish, as well as several varieties of tuna such as the yellowfin, longfin, dogtooth and skipjack. The Racha resort is also a very comfortable place to spend some time and the snorkeling and diving in the area is quite good.

Up near Phang Nga Bay, off the northeast coast of Phuket lies Koh Yao Noi, one of the largest islands in the region, yet still very much untouched by tourism. The Paradise Koh Yai Boutique Beach Resort & Spa is a superb place to take a holiday and you can access this resort from Ao Po pier on Phuket. A great place to go on a mountain bike trek, or a kayaking journey. Remember to bring your camera, because your photographs will be the envy of all your friends.

Lying about 50 kilometres east of Phuket are the Phi Phi Islands. These are usually a must day-trip for anyone spending any significant time on Phuket but as of late people are electing to take more time and spend a few days on these islands. Phi Phi Don and its Ton Sai Bay area were hit hard by the tsunami with much loss of life, but the island has made a strong recovery and the tourist infrastructure is back in place. And the panorama from the viewpoint atop Phi Phi Don overlooking Ao Ton Sai and Ao Lo Dalam is still one of the most photographed in the region.

Further south, Koh Lanta features ten beautifully flat white-sand beaches on the western side of the island. The island is a good spot to get in some great diving, snorkeling and island hopping and a large national park on the southern island is a great spot for trekking and wildlife spotting.

Before the 26 December 2004 tsunami, Khao Lak was seen as the “in” place to build a resort, and many Thais did so. The problem was that many of them built on flat land, near the water’s edge without any kind of natural or man-made barrier between their resort and the sea, so when the tsunami hit, it hit hard.

But despite the trauma it experienced, Khao Lak remains an incredibly beautiful and serene place. This is Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi 30 years ago. Opportunities for adventure sports or eco-tours abound: trekking in Khao Sok and Khao Lak National Parks, river canoeing, kayaking, mountain-biking, and scuba-diving in the nearby Similans and Surins, generally regarded as the most beautiful diving spots in the Andaman Sea.

If you happen to make it to Ranong, a couple hours north of Khao Lak, and a want a true adventure head out to the Mergui Archipelago, which consists of 800 uninhabited islands in Burmese waters. Facilities are few and far between, but these have been called “the world’s last islands in tropical waters, still in pristine conditions.” While in Ranong, make sure you pay a trip to the Raksawarin Hot Springs, located a kilometre outside of town. Boats can be chartered from Saphan Plaa (Fish Bridge) to visit the surrounding islands and the casino at Thahtay Kyun Island.

The karst topography of Krabi Province is breathtaking and a must-see for any traveller to Thailand. Krabi has quickly developed into a world-famous rock-climbing locale. Tourist Krabi is really divided into two different areas: Ao Nang, which you can access by road; and Railay Beach, which you must access by water. The province is also known for its cave temples, many of which make for an interesting day trip, especially Wat Tham Sua (the Tiger Cave Temple), a 1,237 step mountaintop shrine with spectacular views of the surrounding area.

Further south, Kradan Island in Trang province annually stages the world’s largest underwater marriage ceremony every Valentine’s Day. This event is sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Three of Thailand’s most famous islands: Koh Samui, Koh Phangnan and Koh Tao lie on the Gulf of Thailand side. “Discovered” by Western backpackers in the early 1970s as a cheaper alternative to Phuket, Samui changed considerably when Bangkok Airways put in its airport and started frequent flights to the island. Today, you’ll find every kind of tourist imaginable – Eastern and Western alike. Chaweng and Lamai are the island’s most popular beaches, where practically everything is available, but if you want to relax and kick-back Mea Nam and Bophut Beaches offer relaxing alternatives.

Samui is a good jumping off spot to reach Koh Tao and Koh Phangnan. And a boat ride away lies Angthong National Park, comprised of more than 40 islands. This was the inspiration for Alex Garland’s The Beach, later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Koh Tao (Turtle Island) has long been thought of as one of the most beautiful islands in the Samui archipelago. The clarity of the water makes for some of the best snorkelling and diving in Thailand. Many chose to get their diving certification here. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of a giant manta or whale shark, while enjoying some of Thailand’s finest sunsets. Ferries can take you to the island from Koh Samui, Koh Phangnan, or Chumporn on the mainland. Chumporn itself is thought of as jumping off point for the islands, but if you are prepared to do a little exploring, you’ll find it has a number of excellent beaches and pleasant resorts as well.

Koh Phangnan is famous for its full moon party, staged monthly on Had Rin, which has attracted many over the years. So much is said about this party, that many forget that is a truly glorious island to explore and spend time on.

As Thailand is the world’s largest seafood exporter and much of the fish comes from the south, you are bound to experience some of the finest seafood you have ever tasted while travelling down here. And as you get closer and closer to the Malay border, you will no doubt notice the Malay influence on the exquisite curries and foods of the southern region.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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