A Little Something For Everyone
Article and Photography JANEANE THOMPSON
Smaller in landmass than the state of Texas, the country of Thailand is near bursting with culturally rich activities and once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the tenacious traveler. This peninsula in Southeast Asia crams a variety of landscapes into its small borders. From sprawling urban developments to sparse and sweeping rice fields. Thick wooded mountains reside in the North while a lush tropical rainforest blankets the South and idyllic islands rest along the coast with the lifestyle to match. So many adventures await, in fact, that Thailand is one of those rare vacation destinations that can truly tout something for everyone.
For The Cosmopolitan
Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand, one of the largest in the world for that matter, and is brimming with all the variety that one would expect from such an exotic metro. Embrace your inner foodie and don’t be afraid of taking some time to explore the delicacies available via the street vendors on nearly every corner. As with most large cities around the world, the majority of Bangkok’s citizens know at least a smattering of English while many speak more proper English than most of the Americans you know, so feel free to take some time and ask the vendors about what it is they’re making. Be warned, though, when the Thai describe a flavor to you, take them at their word and know there is no nuance — sweet is sweet and spicy might melt your face off.
As evening falls, rise above the heat of the streets and the press of the crowds and dine at one of Thailand’s multiplying rooftop restaurants. Take in the sweeping view of building names in a foreign alphabet, neon advertisements that flash across screens throughout the city and ancient architecture cropping up amongst the modernity of it all; there’s something about the bird’s-eye-view of Bangkok that truly makes you feel a world away from home.
For the Historian
As you move through Bangkok’s many neighborhoods and districts you will find yourself enchanted when you catch a glimpse of gleaming temples in the spaces between towering skyscrapers and achingly average retail spaces. However, none of these more residential temples compare with the sheer grandeur of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). Make the small investment in a guided tour of these breathtaking structures so as to try and absorb some factual information amongst the haze of intricate tile, reflective gold plating and imaginative mythical guardians.
Just an hour or so away from the gleaming towers of Bangkok sits the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya, a UNESO World Heritage site since 1991. Originally founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom and flourished from the 14th to the 18th century. During that time, the city grew into one of the largest and most cosmopolitan developments in the world until it’s destruction by the Burmese army in 1767 when the city was abandoned and the capital reestablished in modern-day Bangkok. Now a sprawling architectural ruin, Ayutthaya is famous for it’s many headless Buddha’s, decapitated by the Burmese as an insult, eerily lining the walls of nearly every structure and scorch marks that linger from a devastating war that ended almost 250 years ago. To get to this ruined city, arrange for a tour in Bangkok because most itineraries will include transportation in a plush, air-conditioned van.
For the Outdoor Adventurer
Khao Sok National Park is part of the largest stretch of protected rainforest in Southern Thailand. Adjacent to three other national parks and two wildlife sanctuaries Khao Sok is home to a rich biodiversity that includes wild elephants, gaurs, Malayan Sun Bears and leopards. This particular national park also shelters an award-laden eco-tourism company called Elephant Hills. Claiming to be Thailand’s first luxury tented travel camp, Elephant Hills offers a 2-4 day adventure package, which includes time at their socially responsible Elephant Experience. Travelers get to wash, feed and interact with some of Elephant Hill’s 11 Asian Elephants who are enjoying a blissful retirement after Thailand’s government banned their use in 1989 as pack-animals in the logging industry.
Elephant Hills tours also offer trips to a floating Rainforest Camp nestled along the shores of the Khao Sok National Park’s nearly 64 square mile lake and surrounded by towering limestone mountains. Powered by wind and solar energy, the floating camp includes all the comforts the most picky of travelers could desire, including wooden floors, comfortable beds and en suite bathrooms. Here you can relax on your tent’s private dock, take a swim in the emerald waters of Cheow Larn Lake, kayak through its khlongs and channels looking for monkeys and birds and trek through the rainforest before watching the sun set over the jungle. (For more detailed information, visit elephanthills.com)
For the Beach Bum
One could easily write volumes about the hundreds of islands surrounding the peninsula of Thailand, each one so unique in it’s own right that vacationers would need a lifetime exploring them all. Yet, for most of us, a lifetime to find the perfect beach is a bit more than our busy schedules can spare. The island of Koh Samui is considered by many to be the original beach destination in Thailand, but where it once attracted backpackers with it’s rustic accommodations and full-moon parties, Koh Samui’s island culture has evolved and now boasts some of the most luxurious beach resorts and first-class spas in the world. Among them is Bo Phut Resort and Spa, one of the finest small luxury hotels in the world (with the awards to prove it) and an unrivaled spa, which affords the perfect opportunity to partake in the traditional and ancient art of Thai massage. (For more detailed information, visit bophutresort.com)
While the tourism trade has tamed much of the wild, natural landscape of the island, Koh Samui still manages to hold on to it’s authentic past. Steaming street-food stalls, secret Buddhist temples and descendants of the island’s Chinese merchant-settlers can still be found meer minutes away from the more manicured areas. Whether you’re looking for luxury or enlightenment, there is one thing all the Thai islands have in common and one thing that will keep the tourists flocking and that is the unrivaled, idyllic stretches of white sand along calm waters where true vacation-nirvana can be reached.