At first sight, Thailand looks modernized, almost excessively so, and makes the observer suspect the usual consequences: the loss of identity. But hold your suspicions. There’s one essential factor that makes this country stand out. Through the efforts and genius of its royalty, Thailand had never been colonized by any European nation. Nowadays, its technological level is sufficiently high to guarantee modern amenities and comfort, but the lifestyle and the values supporting it are no less Thai than centuries ago. Thais love a good party, so come and join them. Then sober up, step into the alleyways, and you will see no slums, but the skyscrapers will also fade into the background, giving way to traditional households, artisans’ workshops, monasteries and canals. Travel further afield, and you will discover cave temples (where hermit monks meditate), spirit possession ceremonies, little teakwood towns reminiscent of R. Kipling’s poetry, or relics of ancient history. Finally, go and hike beyond the edge of the asphalt, and witness the beauty of Thailand’s natural wonders. This country has it all.
Thailand hosts a great variety of landscapes and distinctive cultural groups. Most tourists arrive on a one-month visa exemption, which is clearly not enough to encompass all of it. Here is a brief list to help you choose your preferences:
For beach resorts, you may consider Ko Samui, Ko Phi Phi or Ko Chang, but continue to Ko Phangan if you want to party all night long. Alternatively, a few islands, such as Ko Phayam in Ranong province, have exactly the required minimum of modern amenities, but otherwise, remain pristine and free from excessive commercial development. If the mainland suits you just as well, the extreme south is your best choice: Songkhla, for example, is cheap, cosy, has long, beautiful beaches and very few tourists.
Thailand has over 35.000 temples but their architectural style differs from region to region. Head west of Bangkok for the best cave temples, south-east for ruined relics of Angkor Empire, north-east for meditation retreats and hermitages hidden in the forest, or north for majestic teakwood structures. The North also hosts the most unusual architectural experiments, such as Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai or the Silver Temple in Chiang Mai.
Ao Phang-nga, accessible from Krabi, is a good example of marine karst - think limestone pinnacles and semi-submerged caves in the middle of the sea. For the terrestrial karst, Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand is the best choice - the whole area is riddled with caves like a slice of cheese. The northern mountains also contain a large number of waterfalls, but some of the most spectacular ones are in fact in the west - Erawan and other cascades around Kanchanaburi. The tallest waterfall in the country resides there as well - Thi Lo Su, near Tak.
Head to Khao Sok National Park to see rafflesia, the widest flower in the world. There's a good chance of encountering other wildlife there, too, but the best territory to look for large fauna is doubtlessly Khao Yai National Park. Wild elephants are plentiful, deer and boars come right to the headquarters, unafraid of human activity, and there is a reasonable chance to spot big cats as well. More or less the same can be said about Kaeng Krachan National Park, but it's more difficult to navigate.
Tribal cultures are well preserved in the north. The ideal time to visit would be from December to January when Hmong and Akha, two of the biggest hill tribes, have their New Year festivals. One of the benefits of modern technology is that the dates of such festivals are usually announced on Facebook - often by the head shaman conducting them.
History buffs will enjoy retracing the chronicles of this eventful land in the ruined ancient cities of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet.
Bangkok had only become the national capital in 1782 and was a nondescript little town for a few centuries before that. Nowadays, this megalopolis has it all. Countless bars are awaiting those in need of wild parties. In monasteries, foreigners are taught to meditate. Temples and palaces, little canals leading to art cafes and traditional neighbourhoods, food stalls and talisman markets are just some of the less known attractions. There is even a riverine island suitable for a healthy hike. The hub of the country in more than just the administrative centre, Bangkok can be treated as Thailand in a nutshell.
Cover Photo © Mark Levitin
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