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Travel Guide: Thailand

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Thailand's famous attractions - Bangkok, beaches, full moon parties - are worth their renown, but don't forget the rest of the country

The first-time visitor to Thailand is liable to suffer from sensory overload. Confronted by a mix of serenity and frenzied movement, ancient tradition and modernity, stunning gardens and overflowing rubbish tips, this jewel of South-East Asia can be a lot to take in. But initial glimpses of Thailand scarcely begin to convey its many flavours. Get out of the
capital Bangkok and travel around the country, through national parks and forest hermitages, from resort islands to the ruins of ancient cities, and you get an inkling of what makes the country unique.

After a 16-hour flight from Europe, new arrivals will probably want to chill out for a while in its full-on but visitor-friendly capital. Arriving in Bangkok is not quite the cultural smack-in-the-mouth it used to be thanks to the new Suvarnabhumi Airport. When the airport express train from Suvarnabhumi to the new City Air Terminal at Makkasan (in Central Bangkok) opens in late 2007, the trip to the city will be seamless; for now, count on a 90-minute trip by Airport Express Bus.

That said, note that parts of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport are already falling apart due to substandard building materials. There is talk of closing the airport while its defects are remedied. If this happens, flights will once again land at the overcrowded Don Muang Airport.

Bangkok's backpacker hub is the legendary Khao San Road, with its wall-to-wall hostels, cheap hotels, bars, cafés and even a Boots. The downside is that Khao San is also notorious for rip-offs and scams, with those buses heading out of the city often of a standard no Thai would accept. Those seeking a more authentic Bangkok experience are advised to choose an alternative place to stay, such as Sukhumvit or the quieter Thonburi precinct on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River.

If you want to be popular with the locals, refer to their city as Krung Thep ('City of Angels') rather than Bangkok. Krung Thep is the official name, an abbreviation of a longer title that sums up the city's sights in a nutshell with references to the Emerald Buddha and the Royal Palace.

If you want to cut loose from the guidebooks, the best idea is to go down to the Chao Phraya River and take a ferry or water taxi along the river, getting off at any place that looks interesting. When you eventually make the break from Bangkok, there are many options for further exploration. Thailand's beaches and islands are justly world-famous. Up country options include visiting the hill-tribes of the north-west, cruising the Mekong near Laos and taking in the little-known Isaan region in the far north-east of the country. •

HEADING UPCOUNTRY
Ayutthaya
The easiest way out of Bangkok is to head north by train. The ancient city of Ayutthaya, the capital of Thailand for more than 400 years up to the 18th century, is just 90 minutes by rail from Bangkok's Hualamphong Station. It makes a great base for exploring further north as well as being a restful and rewarding stop in its own right. If you arrive in Ayutthaya by train, a five-baht ferry ride across the Chao Phya River leads to the commercial centre of the city. If this was all there were to Ayutthaya, you'd go straight home. But 20 minutes' walk west along Naresuan Road
lies the old city, an area of ancient ruins, picturesque lakes and magnificent, still-functioning temples. Naresuan Road has plenty of inexpensive hotels.

Chiang Mai
Also in the north, Chiang Mai makes a perfect hub for exploring the hill country of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma). If you wish, it's possible to fly on the discount airline Tiger Airways direct from Singapore to Chiang Mai, bypassing Bangkok altogether. Chiang Mai is more than 700 years old, predating Bangkok by over five centuries. Buddhist temples and shrines abound throughout the city. To understand more about the hill tribes inhabiting the north, a must-visit is the new Hilltribe Research Institute Museum, in the grounds of Ratchamangkala Park (Suan Lor Gao) on Chotana Road.

Pai and Mai Hong Son
Many visitors to the north choose to stay out of the big city of Chiang Rai. Just recently, the little village of Pai (set between Chiang Mai and the Myanmar border town of Mae Hong Son) has become the Khao San Road of the North, with a host of backpacker guesthouses, internet cafés and restaurants serving dumbed-down Thai food. Pai is also an excellent base for visiting the hilltribes of the border region.

The Isaan region
To the north-west, the Isaan region is one of the most fascinating and little-explored parts of Thailand, an exhilarating mix of Thai, Lao and Cambodian cultures. East of the provincial capital Nakhon Phanom along the Mekong River, Wat Phra That is a huge Lao temple, its 50-metre chedi (spire) capped with over a hundred kilos of 24-carat gold. Further east still, the stunning archaeological site of Ban Chiang and its attached museum are evidence of an ancient proto-Khmer culture going back nearly 6000 years. Some authorities even believe that Ban Chiang ranks as an independent cradle of civilisation, challenging the conventional wisdom of ancient migration from the Middle East to Asia. If so, then Ban Chiang may be just the tip of a very big iceberg, with many more Isaan treasures still waiting to be revealed.

And down south ...
In the south of Thailand, Khao Sok National Park and Wat Suan Mokh, the forest hermitage of the late Buddhist reformer Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, are well worth visiting en route to the many southern beaches.

AFTER THE TSUNAMI
The Khao Lak district on the Andaman Coast was hit harder by the December 2004 tsunami than any other part of Thailand. Only now are the villages of the region starting to recover. The region's tourism industry also took a huge blow. Before the tsunami, over 400 hotels in resorts along the coast catered to visitors from around the world. After the tsunami, just 50 hotels were left standing. Rebuilding in Khao Lak is now proceeding apace, but locals admit candidly that it will be many years before things are back to normal.

For the past two years, foreign aid and volunteers from across the globe have been doing a great job in aiding the rebuilding efforts around Khao Lak, with the Tsunami Volunteer Centre (www.tsunamivolunteer.net) in particular doing sterling work.

The extraordinary Pakarang Boatyard, on the beachfront off the main northern highway, is replacing those boats damaged in the tsunami with new, highly durable longtail boats built by traditional, time-tested methods. Pakarang and a smaller boatyard in Baan Nam Khem have led a revival in boatbuilding skills, which in some villages had nearly been forgotten.

North of Pakarang Boatyard, Baan Nam Khem was the village most devastated by the tsunami. From a population of around 4400, some 2000 people were killed or went missing, and most of the remaining families were rendered homeless. Now, volunteers from the Tsunami Volunteer Centre are assisting in the building of a whole new village centre, on higher ground than that occupied before the tsunami.

But for every resident who survived the tsunami, another is still grieved. On the beachfront, the new Baan Nam Khem Tsunami Memorial Park is a sobering reminder of nature's destructive power. The memorial features a wall on which the names of some of the people who lost their lives in the tsunami are engraved, while a beached ship rests against the opposite wall.

HOW TO FIND THE BEACH
Where's the best sand in Thailand?
It's a difficult call. Some people praise the postcard-perfect beaches of Phi Phi Island (where The Beach was filmed). Others rave about the low-key charms of Ko Tao (Tao Island), just off the bigger and brasher Ko Samui. But old Thailand hands swear by Ko Similan, in the Similan Islands National Marine Park off the Andaman Coast, with rudimentary facilities but great snorkelling and diving, and much frequented by discerning Thais.

Off the west coast of Thailand, Phuket has it all, from glitzy resorts to the seedy bars of Patong Beach. But for those seeking a little quietude, the beaches around Khao Lak on the Andaman Coast of Thailand are a little-known and supremely relaxing getaway. Less than an hour by road north of Phuket's International Airport, Khao Lak could be light years away from Phuket in terms of traditional values. Right on the beach near Khao Lak village, the new Nang Thang Bay Resort offers four-star comforts at bargain-basement prices.

South-east of Bangkok, Ko Chang Island is the biggest island in the Ko Chang National Marine Park, offshore from the town of Trat. Its west coast beaches are now undergoing rapid development, but the holidayscape is decidedly more restrained than on Phuket or Ko Samui. Some say that Ko Chang is a little boring and a long way from anywhere, but this is certain to change as the island's charms become better known.