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Thailand is a country that stimulates and strains your senses. Everywhere you go, there’s a steady stream of sound, smell and sites that compete for your attention. You can’t passively explore the land of smiles. You’ll be jolted awake from the moment you arrive. It’s exciting and invigorating. But, it can also be exhausting. As you cross moving traffic, dance over cockroach-crawling sidewalks, pass by stray dogs suffering from open wounds, and take in the plastic-saturated waterways, you can only surrender to the glory and provocation that is Thailand.
In the end, there is so much to fall in love with. The food culture fascinates with its plentitude, preparation, and diversity. The best place to eat is on the street next to polluting traffic. As you sit on a curbside plastic stool next to locals, you’ll see motorbike drivers park and order. You’ll see cooks drain their excess cooking liquids into street gutters. You’ll see street kitchens concoct made-to-order dishes bursting with spice and flavor.
Equally impressive are the country’s many temples that glimmer during the day and light up at night. These architectural wonders delight with their color, ornamentation, sculptures, and many presentations of Buddha. Orange-clad monks of all ages walk temple grounds, adding to the mysticism of the sacred spaces that characterize Thai culture. But, the sacred realm isn’t just contained within temples and monasteries. It permeates all elements of life. There isn’t a clear delineation between the sacred and profane. You’ll see trees wrapped in sacred cloth, spirit houses erected on private as well as business properties, and sacred amulets worn as necklaces.
Interestingly (and refreshingly), alcohol doesn’t play a major role in Thai culture, neither in the everyday or during major festivities. When we attended Loy Krathong in Sukhothai and Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, people didn’t sell or consume alcoholic beverages on the street.
The most comfortable and efficient way of getting around. From our experience, cab drivers won’t put on their meter unless you ask them to. Just gesture and point to the meter to ensure that it’s turned on. When communicating your destination, it’s best to show them the address in Thai (not Roman-script letters).
Three-wheeled motorized vehicle. Make sure to negotiate the price with the driver before getting in. It’s worth riding in a Tuk Tuk once (maybe). Tuk Tuks are especially common in Bangkok.
These are modified pick-up trucks with bench seating. They can generally fit 8 to 10 people. They operate like shared taxis. It’s important to know how much certain distances cost, so you don’t overpay. You’ll see a lot of these in Chiang Mai.
Trains are by far the cheapest mode of transit. They’re slower and usually have delays, but they’re reliable. They also bring you closer to Thai life and a cross section of Thai society. Female and male monks, families, and military tangle together in bench-style seating arrangements. Food vendors walk the aisle selling their specialities: everything from hard boiled eggs to green papaya and noodle soups.
Public buses are a super cheap (10-15 THB) way to navigate cities, especially Bangkok. When we weren’t in a hurry, we always opted for a public bus. Note: public buses will only stop at a bus stop if someone waves the bus down. So, keep a look out for your bus (number is clearly written outside) and step (safely) into the road and gesture a wave motion. In each bus, there’s a driver and a bus attendant. When you enter the bus, you’ll pay the bus attendant (they’ll find you).
Official Name: Kingdom of Thailand
Government: Constitutional Monarchy
Regions: Thailand is normally split into 5 regions: North, North-East, Central, East, and South.
Population: 68.86 Million
Currency: Thai Baht (THB)
Tipping Etiquette: Tipping is not a standard practice among Thai people. However, it’s appreciated.
Water Quality: Poor. Only drink bottled water. Also, remember to brush your teeth with bottled water. When ordering an iced drink, make sure the ice is filtered.
Something Interesting: It is against the law to criticize the monarchy.
To put gold leaf on the back of a Buddha statue.
To do good deeds without needing reward or admiration.
Some people describe Bangkok as an “assault on the senses.” We disagree. It’s more like a waking up of the senses. As you explore the capital city, you’ll dip into a continuous stream of movements, sounds and smells that all compete for your attention. The effect is mesmerizing. You can only capture a small percentage of what is unfolding before you. Tuk Tuks, taxis, motorbikes, buses and cats are steadily swarming the city – it never seems to end. You can get lost in it. And, all the while, you’ll be greeted with open smiles and helpful people. Bangkok truly delights.
Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of Bangkok is the food: its plentitude, its taste, its preparation (street kitchens), its take away and motorbike “drive-in” culture. Everywhere you go, you smell the making and eating of food. Everywhere else you go, you see the selling and offering of food (temples). It’s an endless feast that makes you question why you’ve settled for anything less than Thai food in Bangkok.
Taling Chan is in Thonburi, an easy distance from Bangkok. You can independently explore the market and the surrounding canals without an organized tour. The market itself has a genuinely local vibe. It’s not a show market run for foreign tourists. Locals shop, eat and get massages here. At the canal, there are several tied up wooden boats that function as kitchens. There are also several floating docks that serve as dining space. The atmosphere of the market is enriched by the swarming of catfish between the docks and the traditional live music. We wholeheartedly recommend trying the Somtam with mango, which is made on one of the boats. We also recommend getting an open-air foot massage under the trees (200 THB / 6 USD – 1 hour).
After enjoying a meal or two at the market, you can ride along the Klong Bangkok Yai canal in a longtail boat back to Bangkok. We took the boat to China Town (Ratchawongse Pier), which costed 100 THB per person. The canal itself is lined with stilt houses, people fishing, temples, and lush greenery.
Ayuthaya (also spelled Ayutthaya) was the capital of Siam between 1350 and 1767. In its glory days, the island city was one of Asia’s major trading ports. It was also home to over 400 temples. The city fell in 1767 when the invading Burmese army sacked the city, looted its treasures, and enslaved its citizens. That event marked the end of Ayuthaya and the imperial beginning of Bangkok.
The city is sprinkled with temple ruins, both on the Island and around it. The best way to visit the ruins is by cycling between them. We particularly liked visiting the ruins of Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which was built in the 15th century. The temple features three impressive stupas that collectively dwarf the surrounding area. Stupas are Buddhist architectural structures that contain relics, or the possessions of a sacred person. Stray dogs are also particularly fond of the temples. We saw dogs roaming the streets and sleeping on the ruins everywhere.
After visiting Wat Mahathat (also spelled Wat Maha That) – the temple with the sandstone Buddha head tangled within a bodhi tree’s roots – we walked to the nearby Bang Ian Night market for dinner.
Lopburi is the capital city of Lopburi Province, located about 150 km north-east of Bangkok. The main attraction here are the mischievous monkeys that roam the streets, walk the power lines, and climb the city’s ruins. They even manage to sneak into shops, or charm their way in. Some stores display toy crocodiles inside their shops to keep the devious creatures out.
These little assailants are playful and will climb on you. If need be, locals will come to your rescue. The best place to monkey around is Phra Prang Sam Yot. Here, you’ll see impressive Khmer-style shrine towers (prangs), which you can encircle as well as go inside. When we visited, we saw mothers nursing their young, monkeys performing full-body flea-inspections on their companions, and a whole lot of playing and mating. The most shocking and terrifying sight is what the baby macaques put in, or near their mouth: glass bottles, plastic bags, juice boxes.
Why are there so many monkeys in Lopburi? They are believed to be the disciples of the Hindu god Hanuman. Their holy status ensures their safety. You’ll see drivers take special precaution when approaching a crossing monkey.
Traveling by train is a rewarding experience that brings you even closer to Thai life. As you ride in a train, you see a cross-section of Thai society: female and male monks, families, and military. Food saleswomen and salesmen walk the aisle selling their speciality (noodles, soups, sticky rice with meat, hard boiled eggs with a savory sauce, fish, green papaya with a sugar-chili-salt “dip,” iced drinks in plastic baggies and much more). They announce what they’re selling continuously as they make their way from one car to the next. The effect is almost sing-song-like. When a train pulls into a station, new food vendors enter the train. The unwritten rule for disposing of your food waste and garbage is to tie in a plastic bag and place it under your seat.
A few things we learned while traveling by train:
Thailand is blessed with hundreds of islands. The challenge is choosing which ones to visit. The first step is to define your interest. Are you interested in snorkeling, partying, reading, relaxing? Do you like busy places with lots of eating options, or do you prefer more isolated locations with less development?
If you want to party, Koh Phi Phi should be at the top of your list. If you want to snorkel just off of the beach, Koh Lipe is a great option. If you’re seeking something altogether more remote, Koh Phra Thong might be the destination for you. And, if you’re looking for a beautiful island where tourism is light, but there’s a nice selection of eateries, Koh Mook promises just that.
It’s easy to navigate between islands. There’s usually a ferry, or speed boat connection (sometimes both). You should book your connections 1-2 days before departure. Speed boats are bumpier and more expensive than ferries, though they are faster. Before beginning each transit trip, it’s a good idea to communicate with your accommodation to figure out arrival logistics. Depending on the island, your accommodation may need to pick you up from your boat (ferry) with a long-tail boat. Or, they may have a taxi wait for you at the end of a pier.
Yi Peng (lantern festival) is celebrated on the full moon of the twelfth lunar month every year. Yi Peng coincides with Loy Krathong in Chiang Mai, both of which focus on the releasing of hardships and misfortunes in favor of new beginnings. The release is embodied by unleashing lanterns into the night sky and floating krathongs in the Ping River.
As soon as the sky darkens, people begin to float lanterns into the full moon sky. There is a steady stream of flickering lanterns flying up for hours. From a distance, the stream of lights looks magical. It’s the embodiment of dreams and wishes being carried into the universe. But up close, the release is madness. Some lanterns burn up before they take flight. Others float, only to fall into a tree or close to someone’s head. When a lantern is successfully launched, people applaud. And all the while, the traffic never stops. There are continuous lines of motorbikes and cars struggling to wrap around the lantern gawkers. Adding to the chaos is the sound of firecrackers and fireworks. Eventually, the lanterns burn up like falling stars and return to earth.
Along the river bank, locals engage in the making and selling of krathongs (decorated baskets). Thai people buy krathongs, place 5 to 10 THB under the flowers, light them up (candle and incense), and launch them into the river, after making a wish (head touching the krathong). As we watched locals and tourists cast away their past, we also noticed several locals grab already floating krathongs and inspect them for money (which when successful they pocketed). Another part of this ceremonious festival is the releasing of fish into the river. We saw women selling baby turtles, eels, and fish in small plastic bags. Locals open the plastic bag and liberate the tiny animals into the river. And, without any concern for the environment, they also drop the plastic bags into the waterway. The festival’s origin is likely about showing respect to the river and the goddess of the river, Phra Mae Khongkha. So, that was shocking on more than one level.
Wat Pha Lat (also spelled Wat Palat) is a temple in Chiang Mai. Given its almost hidden location in the jungle, Wat Pha Lat sees far less tourism than other temples in the city. We hiked to the temple from Suthep Road (close to the University), but you can also take a songthaew (the red car shared “taxi”) to the end of the road. The “Monk’s Trail” begins close to the red and white television tower (near the Chiang Mai Zoo). It’s a moderate 45 minute hike from the starting point. When you reach the serene environment of the temple, you’ll also have a view of the city. The most striking feature of the temple is the waterfall that gently cascades through the temple grounds. There are also majestic statues and stairways flanked with mystical creatures. Some of these mythical statues are draped in cloth, while others are wearing jewelry.
The hike was made even more beautiful by the the vibrant, colorful, and larger-than-life butterflies. The diversity in color and shape was incredible. But, the wow-factor was their size.
After exploring this jungle oasis, we continued the trail for another 45 minutes to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s a steep climb to the top. And given the nature of the trail, we’d only recommend doing this when it’s dry. This temple crowns the mountaintop and is a major destination for pilgrims as well as tourists. It houses a relic of the Lord Buddha.
There is nothing more painfully sweet than a Thai massage. If you haven’t had one before, brace yourself. Your masseuse will stretch your limbs unsympathetically and apply a herculean amount of pressure to all areas of your body. At times, you might want to scream out.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a great massage. We had an amazing one-hour massage for 150 BAHT ($4.50) and another one for 200 BAHT ($6). But, it can be hit or miss. We suggest doing some research, before heading into a parlour. As a general rule, avoid the places that try to beckon you in.
Most massage parlours are located in open-air pavilions. Typically, there are several mats lined up next to each other in one large space. It’s not a private experience. You’ll likely be getting a massage next to a stranger. But don’t worry, you’re fully clothed.
The best place to eat in Thailand is on the street, or at the local markets. Eat where the locals eat, and you’ll be rewarded with dishes bursting with rich flavor and spice. The restaurants that cater to westerners just don’t cut it. The cooking is muted down for the “western palate,” resulting in mediocre food that’s also four times as expensive as what you’d pay on the street.
Somtam – spicy green papaya salad. The dressing is composed of fish sauce, lime juice, chiles, garlic and sugar. The standard somtam is served with dried shrimp. You can also order it with fermented crab or fish, mixed fruit, mango, or salty egg.
Khao Soi – This is a noodle coconut curry soup from Northern Thailand. You can typically decide if you want the soup with chicken, pork, or eggs. The soup is topped with fried noodles. It’s served with a side of lime slices, raw red onion and a pickled leafy vegetable.
Tom Yum – hot, sour and creamy soup. This flavorful sinus-clearing soup is made with condensed milk, lemongrass, lime leaves and juice, fish sauce and chili. It’s typically serviced with prawns, but you can usually order it with chicken, pork, or other seafood.
Morning Glory – stir-fried water spinach flavored with oyster sauce and chili. This is usually eaten as a side dish.
Pad Kra Pao – minced pork stir fried with basil and chilies. This dish is served over rice.
Panaeng (Phanang) – creamy coconut red curry with lots of lemongrass and lime. You can usually choose between chicken, pork, or prawns.
Roti – Fried dough stuffed with bananas and topped with sugar and condensed milk. You can usually find a street vendor selling roti at a market.
Mango Sticky Rice – fresh mango is served next to sweetened sticky rice. The rice is sweetened by a coconut milk and sugar mixture.
Khanom Jaak – Thai dessert made out of flour, white coconut flesh and palm sugar. It’s wrapped in a palm leaf (or banana leaf) and grilled.
Green Papaya with Chili-Sugar-Salt Dip – we’re not sure what the real name is, but if you see a sliced papaya in a bag, served with a small sack of pink sugar, grab it. When we were traveling by train, everyone around us was buying these fruit snacks. Encouraged by the locals, we bought it and devoured it quickly.
Sweet Rice Cake (Kanom Krok) – Cooked in a Kanom Krok griddle, these mini plump pancakes are delicious.
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