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Wildlife Camera » Thailand is easiest of exotics

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Thailand is easiest of exotics

21 November 2009


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Thai floating market

“Thailand is probably the easiest exotic country for visitors.” Years ago, someone wrote that phrase in a guidebook and it has been repeated in every travel book and on every website ever since.

There is a very good reason for trotting it out again and again. Thailand is, indeed, the easiest of all exotic countries for visitors. It is not only exotic. It is tropic, it is the mysterious East, it is friendly, hot and inexpensive. It is one of the few places in the tourist world that can boast not only comfortable beds and edible food but also large doses of the Wow! Factor.

Even the most world-weary of travellers is amazed by the contrast between the big-city blast of Bangkok (try a traffic jam in a flooded street in 100 degree heat in May) and the tranquillity of  the jungle-covered mountains around Chiang Mai, 440 miles to the north, or the superb beaches of Phuket (say poo-KET), 415 miles south. Thailand has a good claim to being the top destination in the tropics and there is something for everyone.

From the moment you fly into Bangkok, the feeling is dramatic. This is not Basingstoke or Bradford with the heating turned up. This is ancient Siam with a top-dressing of Western modernity. Start by touring a few temples, seen at their best on a evening cruise on the Chao Phraya River, and take in a palace or two to get the flavour of the oriental architecture and the history.

One of the memorable trips is a visit to the floating market at Damnoen Saduak (above), about 60 miles from the city, where fruit and vegetables are sold from longboats on the canals. Great photos. A canal in lowland Thailand is a “klong” and it’s one of the Thai words that tourists find themselves using within a few hours of arrival because everything you are going to see is somewhere on the network of klongs.

Any review of the charms of Thailand has to start with the people. The Thais have kept smiling in the face of the modern tourist invasion. And it is a major invasion – about 10 million visitors arrive every year. But even in the most crowded of the must-see places, the local people are delightful and in my experience always ready to help the traveller.

Most countries have tourist brochures which extol the virtues of their natives  — “the most wonderful in the world” – and then follow up with a long series of warnings about thieves, counterfeiters, pimps and pirates. In Thailand, that is not necessary. It is a remarkably safe place to travel. If you can avoid being obviously stupid, such as reading a tourist map and wearing all your bling on a foray into the red-light district of Bangkok, you won’t get into trouble. The worst you are likely to meet is the driver of an unmetered taxi trying to add 50 per cent to the fare.

At a recent travel exhibition, I asked an agent what she is recommending as a long haul destination over the next few months. Her answer: “Same as usual. It’s always Thailand.

“I say that because I know that it is a success with virtually everyone I sell to, from the upmarket temple tourists to the midmarket folk who just want to swim, meet interesting people and have a drink – they are all going to have a great time. It is cheap. It is good fun, things work, transport is good and the hotels are brilliant.”

She added: “I go there myself, every year.”

Organised groups usually start in Bangkok, do the city tours, and then head north for the mountains and Chiang Mai. The attractions are forests, elephants and the hill tribes.

The folk of the mountains are an extraordinary mix, half a dozen peoples with their own languages, traditions and costumes, most of them pushed into the wilds of northern Thailand by comparatively recent wars and upheavals in the surrounding countries. There’s even a remnant of a Chinese army left over from World War II.

The hill folk are often very shy, some even reluctant to come into village markets. So shy, in fact, that the beautifully dressed girl dancers who perform in the folkloric shows at hotels are usually recruits from lowland Thailand, although the silver jewellery and the ornate head-dresses are genuine enough.

Among the great attractions of the Chiang Mai area are the elephant camps where you can see the animals in training for work in the forest, go on gentle shuffling treks through the hills or across the paddy fields, and watch young elephants bathing in the rivers. I particularly enjoyed the Patara elephant farm, but there are half a dozen to choose from. Again, the photo opportunities are superb.

Chiang Mai itself is a fast-growing city of nearly 200,000 people, the gateway to the adventures of the hills, such as white-water rafting, tribal trekking and mountain biking. If your tour organiser gives you a free day here, there are scores of trips which offer soft adventures — about £20 is the typical cost of a half-day outing. The hills are a good deal cooler than the low country, so taking a bit of exercise is not too punishing.

Northern Thailand was an independent nation – the Kingdom of Lanna – for hundreds of years and still retains a charm which is very different from the plains around Bangkok. The culture is so distinct that it has survived the onrush of tourism, which started with backpackers and swiftly developed into a more mainstream tide.

One of the distinctive features is the menu. The food of  the North, which is completely different from the “Thai cuisine” you will find in British restaurants and even unfamiliar to people from Bangkok. Many of the dishes came originally from Laos and Burma.

Rice is the mainstay of the menu in both North and South, but in Chiang Mai expect “sticky rice” or khaaw niow — cooked in a steamer and traditionally eaten in handfuls taken from a communal pot. This is very different from the fragrant boiled rice of Lowland Thailand and is typical of the much more robust food of the North. For the British traveller who is not feeling very experimental, there are plenty of less muscular dishes, although a useful phrase, both North and South, is “mai pet” which means, in effect, go easy on the chilli peppers. The warning word on the menu is “preek”, a level of spiciness which will make your eyes water. Most dishes are sweet, sour and spicy. The fruit is wonderful – try rambutans.

In the resort hotels, there is no need to get involved with Thai food at all, if you don’t like it, and you are never far from chicken and chips if that’s what you fancy. On the other hand, it’s easy to make a gentle start on the local cuisine with khao phad. This is fried rice and comes with shrimp, pork, chicken or various other seafoods and meats as a top dressing. And vegetarians will think they’ve died and gone to Buddhist heaven, with a huge choice of tasty dishes from hotel dining rooms and kerb-side vendors.

As you eat and shop your way south, some of the greatest pleasures of Thailand lie ahead, along the coasts of the Gulf of Thailand (the East) and the Andaman Sea (the West). The islands and beaches are famously beautiful. The resort hotels are five-star tropical, even the ones that claim only three stars. Be prepared to be seduced.

There are plenty of islands and beaches to choose from – more than 580 islands alone, and the beaches are backed by forested hills and fronted by coral reefs. You may have to buy another memory card for your camera. Phuket, Ko Chang, Hua Hin, Cha Am, the Phi Phi islands … all are musts for the traveller who wants to see the beauties of the East. Linger here if you can.

A couple of years ago I met an American walking on the beach at Cha Am. He told me he had stopped by on a backpacking trip and decided to spend the winter. “When did you get here?” I asked. He thought for a moment and said: “It must have been around 1993.”

Money: You can get baht (about 60 to the £1 at the time of writing) from numerous cash machines with your Mastercard or Visa. Rates tend to be better than you’ll get for travel cheques.

Shop: In markets it is usually possible to haggle; shops have fixed prices. Look for temple bells in bronze or silver, carved buffalo bells, opium weights, tribal weaves, red-fringed umbrellas. Markets and night bazaars are great for people watching.

Health: There is little or no malaria in the towns, but there is some dengue fever, also spread by mosquitoes. There is no preventive or cure for dengue fever, so avoid getting bitten by covering up. It is said locally that malarial mosquitoes bite at night and dengue-carrying mosquitoes by day, but how this theory helps I am not sure.

Internet: Hotels have web access and all towns have internet cafes.

Greetings: The Thai greeting is the wai, in which the hands are placed together, palms touching, in front of the body, accompanied by a slight bow. The greeting is returned in the same way, but always wait for the wai. Allow your taxi driver or chambermaid to do it first: they find it embarrassing if you initiate the move.

Go-go nite life:  This hangover from the GI rest-and-recuperation era of the Vietnam War is just as dangerous to health and sanity as ever it was, but it is zoned and you don’t bump into it unless you go looking for it.

Text copyright Willy Newlands (originally published in Group Leisure Magazine); photo: iStockphoto.
 


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