Known by the sobriquet “Land of Smiles,” no nation better lives up to that name. From the uber-friendly locals to the contrast between ancient art and culture to the vibrant, at times seedy modernity, Thailand will elate you and change you. Bangkok The first place most tourists head to is the Grand Palace and surrounds — and for good reason. The Palace and numerous Wats deserve some time for exploration. Be sure to be dressed appropriately or you could be denied entrance.
I think shop ’til you drop was first coined in Bangkok. The cacophony of color and noise is mesmerizing. I loved the outdoor (not for children!) Patpong market, Suan Lum night market, Silum and Sukhumvit Roads, the Floating Market, and the crazy Mahbonrong shopping center. Shopping is as much a cultural as consumer experience and bargaining is a must! I brought along an extra suitcase, which was easily filled with treasures. I’ve have never done so much shopping in such a condensed time, and I have to admit, at one point I was overtaken by my own child-like overstimulation episode.
Driving through the traffic-jammed streets is not recommended. The Skytrain transit is excellent, inexpensive, and easy to use. And do take a tuk-tuk ride through the city! A tuk-tuk is a brightly-colored small, three-wheeled, noisy, open-sided vehicle. The drivers dash in and out of city traffic. It’s great fun for short rides, but not during rush hour.
A short drive from Bangkok are the ruins of Ayutthaya. This magnificent site was the seat of the Southeast Asia empire from 1350 until the bloody overtake by Burma in 1767. This day trip to see the architecture and hear the history should be near the top of any trip to Bangkok.
I stayed at the Bangkok Marriott Resort and Spa and loved it. It’s located on th banks of the Chao Praya River, just across from the city proper. The Marriott has their own large shuttle that goes back and forth throughout the day and night. You are close to the action, but in a quiet, beautiful retreat. The best of both worlds.
There is just one thing I don’t recommend, contrary to popular sentiment — a Thai message. Can you say T-O-R-T-U-R-E?
Phuket is a great place to set up base for adventures in southern Thailand. From here, you can easily get to the Patong nightlife (not for kids!), sail out to the amazing Phi Phi Islands, go white water rafting, elephant trekking, hike through the jungle, or go on a guided sea kayak tour in Phangnga Bay.
Sea kayaking on Phangnga Bay was one of the highlights of the trip. The myriad limestone “islands” that jut out of the jewel-green sea are surreal. This was the backdrop for the James bond film Man with the Golden Gun. Along the way you can stop to swim in the warm waters of a deserted beach, see monkeys at the edge of the formations, and weave in and out of caves, some of which you’ll have to lie flat in your kayak to pass through. Our guide brought his sweet little daughter along (it was a school holiday, and no daycare), which I absolutely loved! It made the tour so much more personal — even though her English was limited, signs, gestures, and laughter are universal.
A sail to Phi Phi took us to the remote cove where the Leonardo DeCaprio film The Beach was filmed. I couldn’t get enough of the deep blue-green of the water juxtaposed against the craggy rock cliffs; it’s hard to believe this most stunning of beaches was devastated by the tsunami of 2004 We had a nice buffet lunch on Phi Phi Don, the sister island before heading back and sailing through a thunder storm and rough waters — not the best scenario for someone prone to motion-sickness.
I stayed at the JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa on Mai Khao Beach, very luxurious with excellent service, and even had anadorable baby elephant that strolled the beach with its young owner. My very large, zen-like suite had a wall of windows with ocean views beyond exquisite Japanese-style gardens Like a lot of JW Marriotts, this one is a little remote, so if you like being in the middle of the action, you’d probably want to head further south. I also must mention, the Pad Thai at the Marriott is the best I’ve ever had, much different than how it is prepared back in the U.S. — more savory, less sweet. I ordered it several times!