Bound for Southeast Asia? There's no better place to start than Thailand.
Exotic and modern, with infrastructure that works and friendliness a constant, Thailand appeals to both first-time and veteran travelers.
This is a country where visitors should linger longer. Though Its dense air network makes Bangkok a perfect stop for those bound for other regional destinations, just spending a few days in Bangkok or on Thailand's beaches isn't enough to get the full flavor of the country.
First-timers will want to experience the city's most famous attractions. These include the Grand Palace and the home of Wat Phra Kaeo, the legendary Emerald Buddha, also the 151-foot-long gold-leaf-covered reclining Buddha statue (Wat Pho); Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), the soaring riverside Buddhist temple decorated with broken crockery; and the Royal Barges Museum.
Everyone should also ride the Chao Phraya River and a take a narrow wooden powered dragon boat through the dense network of klongs (canals), where thousands live on, or directly above, the waters.
Bangkok is famous for shopping, but instead of shopping malls primarily filled with international goods, here's it possible to wander among the many street-side shops purveying fashion, antiques and souvenirs.
The elegant silk-focused Jim Thompson stores -- including a main center and locations within major hotels -- are worth a stop, and his former home is now a museum. A weekend ride on Skytrain (the air-conditioned, elevated metro) leads to the Chatuchak market, Thailand's largest, featuring more than 6,000 stalls. The unusual pet section includes Siamese fighting fish, live coral in filtered water tanks, florescent and iridescent sea creatures and fearsome lizards. Also here are antiques, artifacts, textiles, fresh seafood and a colorful array of fresh vegetables. It's important to arrive early at Chatuchak to avoid the heat and crowds, both of which increase as the day wears on.
Another intriguing stop (which will require a taxi) is the Prasart Museum, a private architectural and decorative-art collection that requires advance reservations for weekend visits. The creation of a Thai real estate mogul, Prasart features works he's acquired during the past half-century -- temples, pavilions, libraries, altars, lintels and all manner of decorative arts that include woodcarvings, furniture, sculpture, Buddha statues and jewelry. Much is housed in traditionally designed buildings he erected to showcase his treasures.
Then there's Ayutthaya, Thailand's second capital. Founded around 1350, it thrived for centuries until Burmese invaders sacked it in 1767. Roughly an hour's drive north of Bangkok, it is most easily reached via day trips that leave from many hotels. These usually feature a morning bus trip to the site, lunch and a leisurely afternoon Chao Phraya River return to Bangkok. Highlights include the brick remnants of stupas, many of which were broken open by invaders who incorrectly thought vast gold hordes were hidden inside.
Other must-sees include the 14th-century Wat Phra Mahathat; palaces and pavilions built by traders who returned to the city after the conquering Burmese left soon after their 1767 invasion; and the treasure-packed Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. On display there are remnants from Ayutthaya's glory days that include copious gold artifacts and a jewel-encrusted sword and scabbard.
In the north, Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, and the extraordinary remnants of Sukhothai -- the nation's first capital -- provide multiple reasons to visit. Chiang Mai's lineage is particularly intriguing since today's city is actually a "do-over." Initially located less than three miles from modern-day Chiang Mai, it debuted in 1296, three years after rulers realized the original site was perpetually flooded.
Brick remnants of the old town started to be discovered some 30 years ago. Today, it's possible to view uncovered temples and other structures that have been buried in mud for nearly seven centuries. A comfortable touring option is to hire a horse-drawn carriage at the site.
Another major draw is 801-year-old Wat Doi Saket, some 10 miles from the city. Crowds flock here for spectacular views of the valley below its photogenic sunsets and to pray before a giant Buddha and seven smaller Buddhas.
Back in town there's the wildly popular Night Bazaar. Antiques -- not all of them genuine-- clothing, fabrics from nearby tribes and leather products abound.
For a fascinating step back in time, there's Sukhothai, 216 miles to the south. Established in the 13th century, this was the first Thai kingdom. Indeed, according to UNESCO, which has designated it a protected historic site, its founders, originally from China, were "thai" -- which translates as "free men" --settlers in a Khmer-controlled region who ultimately revolted and founded their own kingdom.
The city's golden age was between 1350 and 1450. Then commerce thrived, thanks to trading via extensive river connections that southbound reached the Gulf of Thailand and northbound extended to what today is Myanmar and China.
Now divided into two sections, structural highlights include Wat Mahathat, including a royal temple and cemetery, and the two stupas of Sra Si Wat, gorgeously reflected in a giant reservoir.
In the separate historic city of Si Satchanalai, foundations and superstructures of more than a hundred buildings include the Chedi Chet Thao, also known as the "temple with seven points." All of this is about eight miles from the modern city of Sukhothai (population 37,000), where ancient fortifications can still be seen.
North from Chiang Mai toward the Myanmar border are many towns, including Palong and Norlar, where the Thai government works actively to encourage local villagers to raise vegetables and fruits instead of opium. A strong argument is that while opium is a once-a-year crop, growers of legitimate produce can have two harvests, such as rice and corn during the rainy season and strawberries when conditions are dry.
The government buys some of the produce farmers cannot sell in these communities, so children here attend schools, locals make fabrics and there are many other signs of generally rising standards of living.
Also fascinating is the Royal Angkhang Station Project in Doi Ang Khang. Here locals raise magnificent flowers and bonsai gardens and tend to fruit, vegetable and herb gardens found in temperate climates. These, in turn, draw crowds of Thais, many from tropical southern regions who spend hours looking at blooms and produce that are quite different from those near their homes.
Comfortable accommodations and tasty dining are available at the Angkhang Nature Resort. This is an opportunity to mix with Thais who are experiencing the wonders of their own country. Temperatures can seriously dip at night, however, and many of the otherwise comfortable rooms lack heating.
Nevertheless, with adequate extra layers, a visit to this site is definitely worth the trip.
WHEN YOU GO
Thailand Tourism: www.thaitourism.org
In Chiang Mai I stayed at 137 Pillars House. It is one of the city's finest -- elegant, spacious and a superbly run property: www.137pillarshouse.com.
Angkhang Nature Resort: www.mosaic-collection.com/angkhang
Several hotels are conveniently located near the river in Bangkok: Shangri-La Hotel (just steps from the Skytrain and with its own Chao Phraya dock and fine Thai dining): www.shangri-la.com/bangkok.
Banyan Tree Hotel (contemporary property in Bangkok's embassy district with the superb rooftop Vertigo restaurant): www.banyantree.com/en/bangkok.
Metropolitan Hotel (trendy lodging choice that's home to nahm, widely regarded as Bangkok's finest Thai eatery): www.comohotels.com.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel (the grand dame of Bangkok lodging that also boasts the waterside Sala Rim Naam Thai restaurant): www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.
The Prasart Museum has no website. It is located at 9 Krung Thep Kreetha Soi 4A, telephone inside the country 02-379-3601.
Robert Selwitz 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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Bound for Southeast Asia? There's no better place to start than Thailand.