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Thailand Travel Guide

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2153859-vector-map-of-laos-country-colored-by-national-flagFor those of you who have read ‘The Dream Retirement’, you will know that during my early twenties I took off travelling to broaden my mind and find my purpose. Many of the articles you’ll read on this site are based on my experiences during this period, especially this, my travel guide to Thailand.

Over the years Thailand has become the backpacker’s Mecca, with over 16 million travellers jetting in each year. In fact, Thailand is Asia’s number 1 destination but this doesn’t really surprise me; a country of sublime beauty and rich natural heritage, juxtaposed against modern Western influences, Thailand really does have something for everyone: Backpackers and luxury seekers alike! Whether you want to visit a Buddhist temple, immerse yourself in the quaint tradition of an ancient fishing village or indulge in the exquisite cuisine of this South Asian hotspot, Thailand is a must for your Bucket List

Bangkok

Like millions before me, I began my Thai adventure in Bangkok. Even if you’ve never visited this eclectic capital before, I’m sure that you that you have a few preconceived notions about this big, bold city! But don’t let the stories of debauchery put you off; Bangkok is actually a beautiful place, full of stunningly decorated temples and some of the best food I’ve tasted anywhere in the world. There is of course a huge nightlife scene too, but I promise you that there is so much, much more to Bangkok.

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew

thailand-bangkok-wat-phra-kaeoIf you visit Bangkok, you must go and see the golden spectacle that is ‘The Grand Palace’. The craftsmanship is breath-taking and ‘The Grand Palace’ is undoubtedly the city’s most famous landmark.

Built in 1782 – and for 150 years the home of the Thai King, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government – the Grand Palace of Bangkok is a grand old dame indeed, that continues to have visitors in awe with its beautiful architecture and intricate detail, all of which is a proud salute to the creativity and craftsmanship of the Thai people. Years ago, The Grand Palace played home to the Thai war ministry, state departments and even the mint. Today, the complex remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom.

Located within the grounds of The Grand Palace, you will find ‘Wat Phra Kaew’, or ‘The Temple of the Emerald Buddha’. This temple is regarded as the most important in Thailand and places home to a carved, jade statue that dates back to the 15th Century. No one is actually allowed near enough to touch the statue. The only exception to this is the king, who performs the sacred ritual of the ‘changing of the cloak’- A seasonal cloak, changed three times a year to correspond to the summer, winter, and rainy season covers the statue and thought to bring good fortune to the country.

If you do visit, please be aware that a strict dress code applies to both The Grand Palace and ‘The Temple of the Emerald Buddha’. Visitors must be properly dressed before being allowed entry to the temple. Men must wear long trousers and shirts with sleeves. If you’re wearing sandals or flip-flops you must wear socks (in other words, no bare feet.) Women must be similarly dressed.

Thailand-041Khao San Road

When you’re in Bangkok you may want to take a peek into the nightlife, and why not while you’re there? If you want to experience the wilder side of the city, and taste a great selection of street food (barbequed insects!) visit Khoa San Road. With travellers from every corner of the modern world heading here, and something to cater for most tastes, this is a crazy street with lots of life. Be warned, this destination is not for everyone and if you prefer traditional culture, you may want to give this one a miss.

The Floating Markets

Once you’ve had your fill of the incredible temples, amazing cuisine and infamous nightlife, you may want to see what else Bangkok has to offer. For me, a must see is the floating markets. Bangkok is home to some of the most unusual and interesting markets in the world, and many of them are found on the water rather than on solid ground. There are plenty to choose from, some further afield than others, but here are the 4 that are considered to be the best:

Amphawa

If you ask the locals where the best floating market in the city is, they will almost certainly mention Amphawa. This market is only open on the weekends, and it is a bustling and vibrant place to visit. Both sides of the river are lined with stalls and vendors, but it is the floating vendors in the water that really make the place unique. Shoppers can call out to the boats as they float by if they want to buy something and it’s incredible to watch locals make dishes like grilled squid right from their boats and then sell them to passers-by on the banks of the river.

Damnoen Saduak

damnoen-saduak-floating-market-546268_640Of all the floating markets in Bangkok, Damnoen Saduak is the largest and the most popular with tourists. For this reason, many travellers avoid it entirely and stick with the markets more commonly frequented by locals. However, avoiding Damnoen Saduak would definitely be a mistake. Although it is quite commercial, it still remains one of the most incredible destinations in the region. Plus, it is one of the few markets where visitors can actually navigate the various stalls on their own boat. You can hire a boat on your own, but many travellers opt to join in with a small tour of five to six people instead. You can buy souvenirs or traditional foods along the way, and there is no better way to spend a morning than by navigating the waterways of the Damnoen Saduak floating market.

Taling Chan

If you are looking for a place to buy souvenirs, then Taling Chan is probably not the right floating market for you. However, if you want to pick up some fresh produce, flowers or delicious traditional seafood dishes, then this is the perfect spot. Although there are plenty of smaller boats floating around, many of the vendors tie up their boats to the shoreline and offer items to shoppers as they pass by. There are several tables and restaurants along the banks, which is where you can sit and enjoy a meal after purchasing it. This is a more local place in the city, and it is a great chance to get a glimpse into the everyday life of Bangkok residents.

Khlong Lat Mayom

On a hot day, the best floating market to explore in Bangkok is undoubtedly Khlong Lat Mayom. The banks of the canals here are lined with traditional thatched roofs, and boat owners tie up their floating stalls under the shade for the day. The area is forested rather than urban, and Khlong Lat Mayom is a lot more relaxed that other floating markets. You can buy produce, cooked foods and local arts and crafts here.

Chiang Mai Province

Once you’ve had your fill of the buzz of Bangkok, I’d highly recommend venturing further afield and exploring as many of Thailand’s mainland and islands as you can fit into your trip!

For me, I chose to travel north to the Chiang Mai Province, which can only be described as a sanctuary after the hustle and bustle of Bangkok life. Even the city of Chiang Mai is a laidback, cultural hub, full of art, history and architecture. It’s a refreshing mix of old and new and also incredibly traveller friendly. It’s also a great base for Thai cooking courses and Thai Massage courses.

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The province, set amid mist shrouded mountains, is beautiful and ideal for getting in touch with the natural spectacles of Thailand.  Here you can explore a more authentic Thai experience by trekking through the jungle and visiting traditional Thai habitations cut off from the modern. You can do this on foot or, like me, astride a baby elephant.

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Kanchanaburi

Set in the west of Thailand, the provincial town of Kanchanaburi is an ideal base from which to explore Thailand’s ‘Wild West’. Today the town is busy and alive but the WWII memorials and museums are a reminder of darker times.

I’m sure that many of you will have seen films and read books such as ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’. If so, then you may already know that in 1942 Japanese forces used Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and conscripted Southeast Asian labourers to build a rail route to Myanmar, which incorporated the still standing bridge at Kanchanaburi.

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Sadly over half of the prisoners forced to build the bridge died from starvation, maltreatment or accidents. There’s now a memorial at Kanchanaburi, along with two museums to tell the sad tale of how this monument was created.

For me it was important to pay my respects by visiting Kanchanaburi, but the province itself also boasts an incredibly serene and beautiful landscape; filled with waterfalls and tranquil lagoons to explore, it’s a nature lovers dream.

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Island Hopping

Once you’ve soaked in the cultural, architecture and history of mainland Thailand, you will probably want a few days to stretch out and relax on one of Thailand’s many tropical beaches. And if relaxation is your prime concern, you will bowled over with choice.

As a rule, the islands of Thailand can be found in the east and in the west. Both areas have some real gems to uncover and with literally hundreds of islands to choose from, I wanted to share my top picks to help you with your decision.

 

The East Coast Islands

Koh Pha-Ngan

It’s a sad reality that Koh Pha-Ngan is only synonymous with the ‘Full Moon Party’ it hosts for one week each year. This intense celebration has become the ultimate party for many backpacker’s, where they can completely and utterly live the hedonistic lifestyle. In my early twenties, that’s why I visited the island, but now, as a family man who enjoys the less raucous side of life, I can see that Koh Pha-Ngan has more to offer.

The setting (but not where it was filmed) of the popular book and film ‘The Beach’ Koh Pha-Ngan is home to some seriously stunning beaches, which are unfortunately piled high with travellers.

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The real highlight of Koh Pha-Ngan is reserved for the explorers; the vast, mostly untouched inland jungle and secluded bays, where you can string up a hammock and watch the sun-set in total peace, are waiting to be discovered!

Koh Tao

The diving island! The smallest of the East-Coast trio, Koh Tao, in my mind, offers the best diving in Thailand and certainly the place that is most geared up for it. This is where I learnt to dive, and you can expect so see some beautiful coral, lots of reef fish, and the odd shark too if you are lucky! It also offers the perfect balance of tranquil beaches with an upmarket twist.

Koh Samui

Koh Samui has often been described as the more ‘groomed’ of the east-coast islands, as it has been gearing itself up for tourism industry for many years. The island has taken on a slightly more ‘upmarket’ persona, offering fine-dine restaurants, luxurious spas and high-end hotels. But you can still catch a glimpse of the traditional side of the island if you take a walk off the beaten track.

The West Coast Islands

Koh Phi Phi

The stunning Koh Phi Phi is actually made up of two islands: Koh Phi Phi Don and Koh Phi Phi Leh, plus some smaller islands too.  The Koh Phi Phi Don is the larger inhabited island, with stunning coves and beaches; Koh Phi Phi Leh is where the film ‘The Beach’ was filmed, and so is visited by many tourists every day. It is also where the best west-coast diving can be found, and the home to the caves where they source birds nest soup. From here you can also explore James Bond Island, the set for The Man with the Golden Gun.

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But oh, how beauty can be a burden. Koh Phi-Phi Don’s stunning looks have become its own demise and everyone wants a piece of her! This is Thailand’s Shangri-La: a hedonistic paradise where tourists cavort in azure seas and snap pictures of long-tails puttering between craggy cliffs. With its flashy, curvy, blonde beaches and bodacious jungles, it’s no wonder that Phi-Phi has become the darling of the Andaman coast. Unfortunately, nothing can withstand this glamorous pace forever, and unless limits are set, Phi-Phi is in for an ecological crash.

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My advice is to go out there and explore; the area is jam-packed with stunning islands, so why not find your own slice of paradise?

 


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