Thailand: Bright lights, islands and highlands
I first visited Thailand way back in 1995, when travelling wasn't the booming and trendy industry that it's now become. Thailand was still fairly off limits to most people other than a newly flourishing backpacker crowd. However, since the mid 1990s, this beautiful country has kept drawing me back and I've now done 5 visits over the last 20+ years. So just what is the big draw to this bustling Southeast Asian country? There isn't one single big draw that gets the crowds of travellers in. I'd say it's biggest strength is it's friendliness, simplicity of lifestyle and also variety.
Admittedly, on my first visit in 1995 I was actually slightly under-whelmed by Thailand. I didn't properly explore it until my later trips there. in 1995 I'd just been to trekking up to Everest in the Himalayas. After seeing such breath-taking scenery amongst the worlds most gargantuan peaks, then landing in Bangkok, I found it to be a culture shock. Nonetheless, Bangkok did provide something of a paradox for me. I loved the contrast between the modern and the old. Back in 1995, Thailand was emerging as one of Asia's tiger economies and in something of a building boom. By the time of my last visit in 2012, I'd witness incredible changes on the skyline of one of Asia's and indeed the world's most hectic cities.
This photo is from the top of the Golden Mount Temple, which has a central position providing one of the best 360' vantage points in the whole of Bangkok, a city of 8 million people, roughly the size of London. This particular view has changed little over the years as it is relatively close to the Chao Phraya River in Central Bangkok. I recommend this visit as one of your first however, as it will give you your bearings for the remainder of your wanderings around the city. Plus you get a little insight into Buddhist culture for the first time.
Please sure to spend half a day visiting the immense Grand Palace grounds near to the main river. Here you will be blown away by the intricate architecture and labyrinth of buildings which belong to the well respected royal family. Don't disrespect the royals in Thailand, as they are held in such high esteem by the local people. The palace buildings go back to the late 1700s. On your visit, find the famous Emerald Buddha that the Thais fought over with their Laos neighbours. Who'd have thought a 2 foot high Buddha could cause so much tension?
I recommend you cross over the Chao Phraya River on a small boat and visit the Wat Arun (the above photo) If you climb the steep steps to halfway up this Khmer styled Wat, you will be given a superb panoramic view back across the sprawling city towards the Grand Palace and also the Golden Mount temple (see the photo below). I just love the multi coloured architecture on view.
Finally, I would take a canal boat towards the east of the city where the alleyways of old give way to the double decker highways of the newer part of the city. If you get a lift to the top of the Baiyoke Tower at twilight, you will get a stirring view of twinkly lights which give Bangkok it's reputation as a fun 24 hour entertainment city.
The above view from the Baiyoke Tower back west towards the Chao Phraya River is a fine way to end your daylight hours, before embarking on the nightlife. On my first ever trip to Bangkok, I found myself staying on the famous Khao San Road, which so many backpackers stayed on back in the day. It suited my needs as a novice backpacker but on my return to Thailand I have since visited it out of nostalgia only, having a bit of laugh at the stalls full of western souvenirs and the pubs blaring out music and films. However, it's not the real Thailand, it's just there for the tourists. Bangkok has far more places of more local charm worth visiting.
In terms of hotels, you are really spoilt for choice in Bangkok as their is anything from $5 hostels to $500 top of the range hotels and everything in between. I still prefer to stay near the old centre however, just to see the sites. If you want to get out the city for a breather and see a smaller more quaint culture, then get a bus out to the town of Damnoen Saduak where you can sample the famous floating markets. It is ever so slightly 'gimicky' and you suspect it's set up for the tourists, but I still recommend it for a look at something more rural, with canal boats loaded up with freshly cooked food, plus colourful fruit and vegetables.
On my 5 visits to Thailand I have actually only ventured south to the islands on two occasions. I was in need of just total relaxation each time so I went down to Koh Samui, at a time when it was far less developed than it is today. I found a quiet end at North Chaweng Beach in the days before mass tourism had reached it, and rented a beach bungalow for just $5USD per night. It was all I needed for a week or so of total chill out, after trekking in Nepal.
Chaweng Beach was relatively unspoiled when I went in 1995 but to my surprise by the time of my second visit in 2002, larger hotels had started to take over the area, along with the likes of well known burger and coffee bar chains. It was slightly saddening but when word gets out there's a nice beach to enjoy, it doesn't take long for the word to spread. This cues nicely onto my usual film links which I like to often do on here!
Have you ever watched the film The Beach starring Leonardo di Caprio, and directed by Britain's own Danny Boyle? If you haven't then please do watch it as a dark view of the Asian backpacking world. The book on which the film was based written by Alex Garland was a best seller at the turn of the Millennium. Leonardo's character, Richard gets wind of a Utopian island out in the Gulf of Thailand and heads on out.. the rest you should see or read for yourself.
Nonetheless, The Beach film has been heavily criticised as the actual beach where it was filmed down in Ko Phi Phi has been inundated by tourists ever since, to the point where authorities have had to shut the place down due to the environmental strain of mass numbers going there. I haven't actually been there myself, and might never go there in the event that I would be adding to the very strain which I have just outlined.
During my stay on Ko Samui I hired a moped and took a pleasant spin around the island for the day. Along the way you get to see this huge Golden Buddha at the north end of the island. I continued on round the island and also took a nice wander into some rainforest and also headed up to a huge waterfall called Na Muang Falls.
If you're feeling like a little more adventure I can recommend a hike up into the Samui highlands, in which you follow a river up a track deep into lush rainforests. Few people ventured up there and you can cool off by swimming in a river every so often.
One thing you can safely say about Thailand is that is a very fertile country which ever end you visit both north to south. If I go back there, I will be sure to visit the slightly quieter islands of Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan. These islands are a lot more popular than when I first visited Thailand two decades ago, but still way less commercial than Phuket and Krabbe on the southwest side of Thailand.
The above photo of me by a Thai train was from my last visit in 2012. I took this sleeper train from Bangkok overnight to the impressive ancient city of Chiang Mai. I have been to this city three times now. One reason was to visit a close lifelong friend of mine, Andy, who has made this his home during the last 15 years. He teaches in one of Thailand's most prestigious schools. He has certainly chose an incredible place to settle down. Chiang Mai is an incredible place and ranks highly as one of the best places on the planet for a high quality of life. The name 'Chiang Mai' itself means 'Walled City'. It dates way back to the days of the Southern Silk road which passed this way. Even though the city is sprawling today, the centre still keeps the charm of a smaller city. Venture into one of the many Wats and witness a Buddhist ceremony taking place (as in the photo below).
This photo of me back in 2009 is by the back of Chedi Luang, one of the hundreds of well kept Wats in the centre of the walled city. You need at least a day to see the best of the sites and I can highly recommend the night markets on an evening too. Don't lash out paying loads in the touristy restaurants, try the street food, its delicious and so long as it's well cooked, you won't get sick. The good thing is, you can actually watch it get cooked while you wait! Be daring and try the insect stall!
I'd say the highlight of my stay in Chiang Mai was actually the motorbike rides I went on into the countryside. It was handy that my friend Andy was able to show me the around the beautiful countryside on a couple of my visits. However, I did brave it on one occasion whilst Andy was busy working. I took a huge solo motorbike trip to the summit of Doi Inthanon, Thailand's highest mountain at 8000ft. If you are good with directions and plan it in advance it is one hell of an experience with some beautiful waterfalls to see along the way (see photo below).
These falls are called Mae Klong and are located approximately halfway to the summit of Doi Inthanon. I absolutely loved the freedom of travelling around Northern Thailand by motorcycle. Once you are out of the bustling city, the roads feel comparatively safe and the road surfaces pretty good.
On my last trip to Thailand, Andy took me on another fantastic wild motorcycle adventure which showed me a beauty that I had not fully anticipated in Thailand. The rural side of this country known as 'Land of the Free' made me believe in its name. It costs just around $5 to rent a motorcycle for the day and once you master the gear changes and traffic, you really do have a freedom to explore the gorgeous country lanes through the paddy fields and hills.
So there you have it folks! What's stopping you from visiting Thailand? It's probably the friendliest and easiest country in all of Asia to go exploring on your own or with a friend or partner. In fact, I'd go a step further and say this destination is family friendly too, and I met several families on my travels there with younger children. If you have yet to go to Asia then I would say Thailand is a highly enjoyable and easy first country to try. There really is something for everyone here! Do it!
If you wish to see more photographs of my trips to Thailand, please click this link here.
Next week follow me on my travels through Thailand's lesser known neighbour - Laos!