Written by Ron Emmons
While global tourism has been growing steadily for more than 50 years, few countries have seen such success as Thailand, which is now Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destination.
When the Tourism Authority of Thailand was formed in 1960, the country was virtually unknown to outsiders, and notched up just 80,000 tourist arrivals in that year. Compare that with 15 million in 2010, and you’ll get some idea just how popular the place has become. So how has the Kingdom of Thailand endeared itself to visitors, and what is it that keeps bringing them back again and again? There are plenty of factors that attract visitors, but the big four would have to be temples, beaches, cuisine, and shopping.
For many people, the perfect holiday means lounging on a gorgeous, deserted beach somewhere, occasionally slipping into the azure waters to cool off. This is where Thailand scores high in the holiday destination stakes; it is blessed with over 3,000km of tropical coastline, facing both the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. As for where to rest your head, take your pick or let your wallet do the talking. Choose from basic backpacker huts for a few dollars a night, comfortable mid-range choices without too many frills, or the whole 5-star show, in which you’ll be pampered like royalty.
The toughest part of a Thai beach holiday is choosing where to go – and this depends very much on your temperament. Looking to party and meet new people? Then head for Patong Beach on Phuket; or Chaweng Beach on Ko Samui. Perhaps you’d like to discover some great dive sites? Ko Similan and Ko Tao won’t disappoint. Or maybe you’d prefer to give other tourists the slip, and settle down on a truly tranquil beach? In which case see our ‘four quiet islands’ on page 52.
Thai food has become so popular around the world that most visitors are already familiar with its reputation for spiciness, textural variety, and attractive presentation. Nevertheless, Thai restaurants outside Thailand often tone down their dishes, believing that foreigners don’t like their food too spicy. One of the great treats of visiting Thailand is to sit down and enjoy authentic Thai cuisine, with its magical blend of spicy, sour, salty, and sweet flavours. Apart from the liberal use of chillies, Thai food uses lots of garlic, ginger, lemongrass, coriander, basil, lime, and fish sauce to infuse dishes with a mouth-watering taste.
The national dish is tom yam, a hot-and-sour soup usually eaten with prawns (kung), though a typical restaurant will also feature a dizzying choice of curries, stir-fries, and spicy salads on its menu. A few of the more popular dishes among foreigners are yam hua plee (banana flower salad) and khao soi (noodles with a mild curry broth).
Thailand is a shopaholic’s paradise, and there are few visitors to the kingdom who could resist the lure of quality merchandise at giveaway prices. Whether it’s a silk bedspread, an embroidered skirt, a silver bowl, or a ceramic vase, most shoppers will find a special souvenir that reminds them of their trip; and with such good prices, many leave the country laden with gifts for friends back home as well. There are several crafts, such as lacquerware, woodcarvings, and hand-woven fabrics, which display the Thais’ artistic flair. Glitzy shopping malls in Bangkok and other urban centres also make a great antidote to sightseeing with their air-conditioned interiors and tempting fashion displays.
With their sparkling decorations, multi-tiered roofs, and soaring spires, Thai temples are a wonder to behold. Even short-stay visitors make a beeline for Wat Phra Kaew (the Emerald Buddha Temple) in Bangkok, which is the country’s one unmissable attraction and provides a good introduction to the key aspects of Thai temples. Within the confines of shady cloisters, a Thai temple courtyard usually contains an east-facing viharn, or assembly hall, and a smaller ordination hall, or ubosot. Other typical temple features are a chedi (or stupa, which looks like an inverted cone), a bo tree, murals, a scripture library, a bell tower, and simple lodgings for the monks.
There are more than 30,000 active temples scattered around the country, which means that opportunities abound for visitors to wander the remote temple compounds without any other tourists around. The glittering glass mosaic work that adorns the gables, eaves, windows, doors, and columns of many temples is simply dazzling, especially when the sun is low in the sky. Look out also for murals on the interior of the viharn and ubosot, which often depict scenes of local culture such as farming and celebrating Songkran, the annual water-splashing festival.
Four quiet islands
It’s getting harder and harder to escape the beach-bound crowds in Thailand, but here are a few quiet islands that haven’t yet been overrun:
Ko Si Chang
Located just north of Pattaya, the beaches aren’t the country’s best, but there’s a cute colonial palace and a laid-back feel.a
Situated just south of Ko Chang in the Eastern Gulf, this gem consists of a jetty, a few bungalows, dense jungle, and a coral reef.
Off the Andaman coast near Ranong, life slows down between May and October when no boats connect to the mainland.
Once used as a prison for political activists, this remote Andaman island is now a secret getaway for beachgoers in the know.
The global fascination with Thai food has led to a profusion of cookery courses in every tourist town, making it possible for visitors to return home and impress friends and relatives with their newfound skills. A typical day’s course starts with a trip to the market to buy supplies and familiarise students with common ingredients. After this, students follow steps in preparation demonstrated by the teacher, and cook a few different dishes. At the end of a session comes the best part: when students get to sample their own creation, giving them a sense of physical and mental satisfaction.
Thai Spa Cuisineby Chiva-Som contains over 50 lavishly illustrated and award-winning recipes from Chef Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat and his team at Chiva-Som’s Taste of Siam restaurant that will help to improve health, achieve weight loss, and alter lifestyles.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
No self-respecting shopper should leave Thailand without paying a Saturday or Sunday visit to this enormous site, also known as J.J. Market, to the north of Bangkok’s centre. Covering a staggering 27 acres and featuring around 15,000 stalls, the market is a maze of narrow alleys in which it is easy to get lost, so pick up a free map as you enter. You can find just about anything here, from furniture to flowers to cute puppies, and you are only limited in what you buy by what you can carry. Though it’s almost impossible to walk round the entire site, it’s worth arriving early to see as much as you can before the heat kicks in, while taking regular refreshment breaks to rest your weary legs.