Thailand is a beautiful and intriguing country and its people are charming and warm, but while the scenery is impressive, there are three other things that lure so many people to the country: shopping, food and massages.
Shoppers from around the world practically swoon over the thought of the shopping opportunities in Thailand. Street markets, small shops and shopping malls, both big and small, sell almost every item imaginable, from the most expensive to the ridiculously cheap. Visitors can even get clothes made to order and delivered to their hotel in 24 hours.
Two of the most popular -- but quite different malls in Bangkok are Siam Paragon and CentralWorld. Siam Paragon caters to the well-heeled luxury shopper who has the funds to splurge on international high-end fashion brands. CentralWorld appeals to young urbanites, families and kids. In addition to an ice-skating rink and 15-screen SF World Cinema, parents will be delighted to find that they can drop their kids off at Genius Planet Zone (kids' zone and learning center), where they will be supervised and entertained while the older set indulge in some retail therapy.
But even the most relentless shopper has to stop and fuel up every now and then. While malls have food courts with myriad food choices, at several of the larger ones diners can choose succulent seafood at the award-winning Laem Cha-Reon Seafood Restaurant.
At three of the city's largest malls -- CentralWorld, Paragon and Paradise Park -- Laem Cha-Reon serves up succulent seafood delicacies in a pleasant setting. The steamed crab is not to be missed, while other tempting delicacies include grilled river prawns in chili, garlic and lime sauce; deep-fried marinated snapper with sweet fish sauce; and spicy small fish (anchovy) salad.
While the restaurants are always packed, serious shoppers can wolf down the delectable seafood without taking much time out from shopping because the service is fast and efficient and dishes arrive at the table in record time. On the other hand, if you want to linger over a beer, that's also an option.
In Chiang Mai the night market is legendary, and shoppers can find anything there from bargain silk scarfs to original works of art. It also has a large area lined with makeshift kitchens that turn out amazing street food. Particularly popular is khao soy, a traditional Northern Thailand curry noodle dish. Just pick your stall, order a bowl of steaming hot noodles, with or without meat, slip across the street to the mini-mart to buy a cold Coke or beer and then sit at one of the nearby tables and watch the passing parade.
For an elegant take on the street-food version, head for Just Khao Soy restaurant. As the name implies, this charming restaurant serves only one dish, khao soy, but there are plenty of variations. Choices include flat or round noodles and traditional vegetarian soup base or one with coconut milk. The broth comes with chicken, beef, pork, seafood or vegetarian and is served up mild, medium, or spicy and topped with crispy noodles. The presentation is lovely, with the steaming bowl of noodles served on a wooden artist's palate surrounded by smaller bowls filled with various condiments, including chili, fish sauce, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime juice and bananas.
Thailand's third big draw is the famous Thai massage, especially welcome after a long flight. Thai massage traditionally involves stretching and deep-tissue massage and is performed on a mat on the floor with the client wearing loose, comfortable clothing. It's probably safe to say that every luxury resort in Thailand has a spa, so I knew there would be no shortage of massage opportunities.
My first Thai massage wasn't at a luxury resort, however, but instead was on the grounds of a historic temple. WATPO Thai Traditional Medical School is located on the grounds of Wat Pho, across the courtyard from the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It started as Thai Traditional Medical and Massage school in 1955, and while its main purpose is to train massage therapists, it offers some treatments, as well.
This is not the place for anyone looking for private treatment rooms with soft music, wonderful smells and deliciously fluffy towels. Mats on raised platforms are cheek to jowl so that if you stretch out your arms you may touch your neighbor, but, considering the ridiculously reasonable cost -- a 60-minute treatment costs less than $20 -- and the quality of the massage, there's no better deal in Thailand.
About an hour's drive from Bangkok, the Arusaya Thai Wellness spa at the Sampran Riverside is situated in a century-old antique Thai house by a lake. Despite the strength of my therapist's hands as she worked to get rid of knots and tension, listening to the rain falling gently on the wooden roof almost lulled me to sleep.
RarinJinda Wellness Spa in Chiang Mai offers lovely surroundings, soothing music and delicious aromas. Sushil Rahul, an alternative medicine specialist, is available to read auras, assess problem areas and suggest ways of improving well-being. I chose a two-hour Thai massage, which was administered by a serene therapist with magic fingers.
Hua Hin, on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand, is a low-key beach town only 125 miles from Bangkok. At the Dusit Thani's Devarana Spa private villas allow for complete privacy and include indoor and outdoor massage areas, a private shower room with built-in steam and a secluded garden.
At the Four Seasons Hotel and Resort on the island of Koh Samui my Thai massage took place in an individual treatment cottage surrounded by a forest of towering palms and tropical foliage. Best of all, my curative massage was followed by a soothing herb-scented soak in my own private outdoor bathtub. What bliss!
WHEN YOU GO
To find out more about Thailand go to www.tourismthailand.org.
I flew Thai Airways out of Los Angeles.
Ellen Clark is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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