The 1956 movie “The King and I” was a childhood favourite, where lavish costumes filled the screen telling the story of a stern Welsh governess and King Mongkut of Siam, and the Royal family. Siam was renamed Kingdom of Thailand in 1939 which is argued to mean ‘free man land.’ Today, Thailand is affectionately known by many as ‘the land of 1,000 smiles,’ and has something to offer travellers on any budget, from prince to pauper, where one can enjoy a wide variety of activities and sights – from sand between your toes whilst flanked by lush mountains, to the twenty-four hour vibrant frenzy of its capital.
My first port of call was the chaotic mix of hedonistic pursuits, ornate temples, culinary delights and the lively markets of Bangkok, a city with many personalities that may challenge the sensibilities of some. Using the Hotels Combined App I found great accommodation at the best price by the Riverside, which is quieter than other parts of Bangkok, and boasted a cityscape view from the rooftop that swept my breath away. It’s a good idea to do a bit of research on Bangkok accommodation, and the area you wish to stay before booking, as each offers a different experience, particularly when traffic gets congested and makes travel times longer than anticipated.
Bangkok is known for its shopping, and is equally exciting being explored at night, as during the day. There are plenty of air-conditioned shopping malls in Siam, Sukumvit, Pratunam, and Phrom Phong, but if you’re after a more hands on experience then I suggest heading to the markets, both day and night. The best are Chatuchak weekend market, Pratunam market, Chinatown market, and Patpong night market, flanked by Bangkok’s notorious red light district of the same name. Patpong is full of the chaotic commotion of tourists ogling the seedy nightlife of go-go bars and neon lights, beside stalls with ridiculously inflated prices so remember to barter, and barter hard. Bartering is a given at markets but is not acceptable in convenience stores or department stores. The asking prices are usually inflated by twenty-five to forty percent so it’s a good idea to look around first, then barter a price that both you and the shopkeeper are happy with. A well executed ‘walk away’ can be a very handy tactic if you feel the price is still not fair, but be prepared if the shop owner does not come after you with a better price. Avoid being rude as it will get you nowhere and remember a smile and a jovial spirit will get you far.
For a slightly more relaxed day head to Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, just over an hour drive from Bangkok. It is certainly one of the more vibrant and colourful floating markets, and gives an insight into a bygone era where farmers traded their wares from sampans brimming with fresh goods. The waterways are packed with floating merchants wearing bamboo hats, selling anything from tropical fruit and vegetables, fresh young coconuts, flowers, brothy noodle soups and fried prawns, and are lined with stores selling souvenirs and hats. It’s a good idea to get there early, around 9:30am, as the narrow waterways fill up quickly and before you know it you’re in a long tail boat peak hour traffic jam going nowhere quickly, which is also oddly fun. I preferred the non-motorised long tails and remember to keep your fingers inside the boat.
After having your fill of all that Bangkok has to offer, it’s only a hop-skip-and-a-jump to the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand or the Andaman Sea’s many islands and a slower pace of life. Phuket is the largest and busiest of the islands, and is only an hour by plane. Patong, forty-five minutes from the airport, is like a mini Bangkok with plenty of shopping, restaurants, and bars for the nightlife loving. There are quieter beaches both north and south of Patong that can be accessed using cabs and tuk-tuks. Transport is significantly pricier on Phuket so it’s best to find accommodation close to where you’ll spend most of your time. Phuket has been a popular tourist launch pad to the many smaller limestone islands that dramatically plunge skyward like majestic sentinels, since the 1970’s. Think white sandy beaches, hammocks, coconut trees, cocktails, scuba diving, massages, relaxation….think paradise.
A few little pointers to help along the way:
Private cars will be suggested from Suvarnabhumi airport to your hotel and can be pricey. Taxis are a cheaper alternative at between seven hundred to one thousand Baht, depending on traffic.
Tuk-Tuk’s are three wheeled motorised ‘rickshaws’ and offer a colourful and fun transport option for shorter journeys around the city.
Agree on a price before taking a tuk-tuk, usually fifteen to twenty Baht below the price quoted, and avoid them during peak hour to miss inhaling the fumes of hundreds of cars.
Don’t drink the tap water, not even at hotels, as you run the risk of becoming intimately acquainted with the toilet, maybe for days. Go as far as washing your teeth with bottled water – better safe than sorry.
Street food is cheap and delicious, but remember to wash your hands before eating, and choose a busy vendor with high turn over, or you may end up with food poisoning.
Smile. Thai’s are friendly people and a smile is a great currency. It’s best not to raise your voice or get angry.
Cover up in temples as a sign of respect.
Thailand is mostly safe but keeping your belongings close is a good precaution.