Whether it is Bangkok’s bustling markets filled with a rainbowed array of tropical fruits or the vibrant aqua hues of Phi Phi’s serene crystalline waters, one can’t help but be enthralled by Thailand. The country oozes with a certain innocuous and genuine charm, a combination of its quirky modern take on ancient culture and unique natural beauty, fueling every traveler’s curiosity. Affectionately known as the land of smiles, it’s hard not to fall in love with this country and those that inhabit its vastly diverse expanses.
From Bangkok’s famed floating markets, the most popular being Damnoen Saduak, to the giant labyrinth that is the Chatuchak Weekend Market, you’ll lose track of the hours as you spiral through the bustling stalls, sampling everything from Lemongrass essential oil to fresh local produce to clothes and trinkets galore, snacking on your pick of local delicacies along the way, personal favorite being a fresh chilled coconut.
Then there’s the temples; you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t visit at least one, even if to do nothing more than marvel at the ornate splendor of the traditional Siamese architecture. Gilded, bedecked with hand painted ceramics and sparkling gemstones, these bejeweled buildings exude an unparalleled opulence. Wat Traimit houses the 5 tonne Golden Buddha – and located right next to Chinatown, provides the perfect opportunity for an afternoon of exploring. Wat Pho is home to the 46m long Reclining Buddha, Wat Arun – a quick boat trip across the river – is known as the Temple of the Dawn, and finally head to the Grand Palace to catch a glimpse of the solid jade Emerald Buddha, hidden within the lavish grounds of what once was home to the royal family.
Next stop? The islands. Located in the Andaman Sea, equidistant from both Krabi and Phuket – reachable only by ferry or speedboat – lies Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh, known commonly as the Phi Phi Islands (pronounced P P). Garnering increased popularity ever since Leo DiCaprio set foot on the white sand of Maya Bay to film the 2000 classic “The Beach”, tourists now flock to this idyllic haven. Despite frequently popping up on travelers’ radars, it has still somehow managed to retain a charismatic sense of untouchedness. Rugged yet charming, it is everything from the lack of motorcars and roads on the island to its compactness that lends to its appeal; nothing feels feigned and a sense of familiarity falls into place quickly upon arrival.
Head east across the country to the Gulf of Thailand and you’ll find another island archipelago, white sands and blue waters abundant; Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao offer it all. With an airport on the island, Samui is just an hour’s flight from Bangkok, and a convenient gateway to paradise. If you haven’t quite kicked out the inner partier, you’ll want to make sure you plan your trip over the monthly full moon; head to Koh Phangan’s Haad Rin beach for the notorious Full Moon Party, dancing the night away toes in the sand. Koh Tao is a ocean lover’s paradise, said to be Thailand’s scuba hotspot. Slightly less frequented than it’s bigger neighbors, the island has also maintained a more laid back atmosphere, sticking religiously to island time.
Complete your journey through Thailand with a trip north to Chiang Mai, now synonymous amongst visitors with elephants. There’s something mystical, almost magical, about these beautiful giants; humans have been fascinated with the elephant for centuries. So when, after schlepping halfway across the world, we finally have the opportunity to come face to face with this majestic creature, its inevitable that we jump right in… Enter elephant tourism, the commercialization, and subsequent abuse, of these animals. We have a choice whether or not to partake. Recent years have seen a commendable shift in practices and some better options do exist. I visited Elephant Nature Park, a rehabilitation centre for injured elephants. Two other sanctuary type options in Chiang Mai known for their ethical conduct are Elephant Jungle Sanctuary or Patara Elephant Farm. Shrugging our shoulders and saying “I didn’t realize” is easy, if you’re not sure rather opt out.
Thailand never fails to charm, with each return its place in my heart grows. Whether you’ve visited before or are planning your dream trip, it’s a country that deserves to be on your travel bucket list. The contrast of the hustle and bustle with absolute relaxation, cutting edge modernity with ancient relics upon which centuries of beliefs and rituals have been founded will engulf you. Its beauty mystifying, charm intoxicating, Thailand exceeds its reputation as the land of smiles.