Belinda Craigie discovered that Thailand remains a peaceful, intriguing and rewarding place to visit.
I’m standing on a wooden bridge while canoes lazily float beneath my feet. Lush coconut trees are on all sides and I can hear insects, birds and other creatures in the distance. My appetite is beyond sated – a constant of this trip, as shortly after a sizeable hotel breakfast I am once again being treated to fresh, local Thai food. I’m at the Tha Kha markets in Thailand’s Samut Songkhram province in the Amphawa district, about 1.5 hours southwest of Bangkok. The floating aspect is quite literal – Thai women wearing large straw hats sit within canoe-like boats and cook specialty foods that cost between A50c and A$1. The 33-degree sun beating down on my skin is welcomed after a muggy few days in Bangkok – it’s October so the rainy season is only just coming to a close, giving way to the cooler but more desirable winter months, where temperatures will still remain between 25 and 30+ degrees Celsius.
Back to Tha Kha, children play in the cloudy brown water at the markets or chase one another around seemingly without a care in the world. It’s a familiar state that I’ve noticed in my encounters with Thai people so far – their penchant for carefree happiness, no matter their circumstance. It’s an infectious happiness – I feel admittedly a lot calmer than usual. Perhaps that’s the effects of the 90-minute signature massage I received at TRIA wellness spa in Bangkok. My masseuse Kan incorporated massage movements from Swedish, Thai, Indian, Abhyanga, Shiatsu, acupressure, and lymphatic drainage leaving me in a heightened state of bliss for the remainder of my time in Bangkok.
My first time to Thailand, I had been advised by friends that I would be well looked after by the Thai way of hospitality, advice that was realised from the moment I set foot in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. Thailand Elite, an exclusive club that exists as part of TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) and provides paying members with services to make the most out of their visit, was on hand to greet me at the gate. A seamless transition ensued, from being collected in golf buggies and taken through immigration in a priority lane, to waiting in the Thailand Elite arrivals lounge, where I sipped on tea while my bags were collected from the carousel. Touted as “an entire country at your service”, Thailand Elite exists for members to gain access to business connections, special privileges (including extended visas and priority immigration services) and admission to some of the most luxurious resorts, golf clubs and spas in the country. Membership validity lasts for 20 years and costs about THB 2,000,000 (about A$70,214) with an annual fee of THB 20,000 (about A$702), and a range of membership options available.
But you don’t have to be a member of the Thailand Elite to experience the famed hospitality that Thailand has to offer. It is highly likely that your hotel, restaurant, guide and even your driver will go out of their way to ensure you always have a smile on your face. My guide, Kitti, becomes an undeniable highlight of my Thailand jaunt, his constant happiness and enthusiasm is infectious and I quickly find myself captivated by the Thai way of life.
While many tourists come to Thailand for a resort-style holiday, there is really a lot more to be seen and experienced in the varied landscapes that make up the country. For one, you’ll notice that Thai people devote themselves unequivocally to their religion and their King – as indicated symbolically on the blue (the King), white (religion) and red (Thai people) stripes that make up the national flag. Approximately 95 per cent of the nation’s residents are Buddhist in faith, reflected in the myriad temples and pagodas that dot the landscape. I visit several during my short time in Bangkok, including The Grand Palace, a mecca of golden towers and home to the famous temple of the Emerald Buddha; Wat Pho, containing a very large reclining Buddha; and Sukhothai Traimut, where you can see an 18 carat, solid gold Buddha image that weights approximately 5.5 tons and is the largest in the world.
From their delectable cuisine with all its variety; to the way in which they celebrate and respect their religion and history; and how they treat one another – the Thai way of life is quite magnificent to witness and be (albeit briefly) a part of.
Just out of the city, the Amphawa district, around an hour’s drive from Bangkok (depending of course on the unpredictable Bangkok traffic) is where I visit the Klong Klone Mangrove Forest Conservation Project and am taken in a boat to a bamboo KraTeng (hut) built over water in the Gulf of Thailand. The boat ride in itself is an experience – monkeys run along the riverbanks, with some daring to swim alongside us to get a hold of one of the prized bananas that we’re throwing out like a lolly scramble. Once at the KraTeng, I’m told this will be our lunch spot. Despite my initial hesitation at climbing a seemingly flimsy (but actually very sturdy) bamboo hut, this is quickly dispelled as soon as I take in my surroundings. I can’t help but think about my co-workers eating lunch at their desks as I bask in the sunshine and take in the expanse of ocean and tree-lined coastline I had come from, while sipping on Tom Yum and digging into Thai curry and freshly-caught prawns. Make sure you take a bathroom break first though – functioning toilets are a rarity outside of the city (and often even inside the city). Amphawa is also a great place to witness fireflies, where you can take a canal boat ride after dark and visit the night markets.
Further down the coast is Hua Hin, a beachside destination and a regular holiday spot for the King of Thailand. Pay a visit to Maruekatayawan Palace in Cha-Am, the former holiday villa of King Vajiravudh, comprised of sixteen teak buildings raised by concrete pillars and joined by a series of walkways. The grounds and Palace are immaculately kept and you get a sense of historical royal Thai luxury, dating back to 1923. Another popular royal attraction in Hua Hin is the magnificently kept and still-functioning train station, featuring a special platform reserved for the King. Hua Hin plays host to Thailand’s popular night markets, where you get quality, locally made artworks, crafts, fashion and everything in between. If you manage to wake up early the following day, head down to the beach to witness people providing food for the local monks to take back to the temple as part of their daily meal allowance. I am invited by the InterContinental in Hua Hin to take part in handing over the food while a monk says a prayer to me – a poignant experience.
On my way back to the airport, I reflect on what I’ve learnt in Thailand. It’s undeniable that when it comes to enjoying the simple things in life, the Thai are masters. From their delectable cuisine with all its variety; to the way in which they celebrate and respect their religion and history; and how they treat one another – the Thai way of life is quite magnificent to witness and be (albeit briefly) a part of.