Thailand has always been an exotic and alluring destination, and deservedly so. Nestled in amidst Myanmar, Lao and Cambodia, it is a tropical country that represents the heart and soul of Southeast Asia. Bangkok, the capital, is one of Asia’s biggest tourism and aviation hubs, and the city is set up to cater to everyone- from the intrepid backpacker to those preferring the comforts of luxury 5-star hotels.
As for the ethnic and cultural makeup of Thailand, three quarters of the population are ethnically Thai. Around 15% are Chinese, and approximately 3% are Malay, with the remaining population comprised of hill tribes and ethnic minorities such as the Khmers of neighbouring Cambodia and the Mons of Myanmar. There are noticeable numbers of tourists and expatriates as well, who have clearly not been able to divorce themselves from Thailand’s charm. Recent figures state that the total population of Thailand is over 63 million people, making it quite a populous country in relation to its total land area. The population is ruled over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is held in high regard by the Thai people. He is the longest reigning monarch in Thai history, and indeed, anywhere in the world at the present time.
Archaeologists think that the geographical area of Thailand has been inhabited for 10,000 years. Of course, in such a long period of time there have been many shifts in power between the Southeast Asian kingdoms. Evidence for this can be seen in fascinating remnants and remains scattered throughout the country. From 1238, the Sukhothai Kingdom was established. This was located in the north of Thailand and was the first Thai Empire. Ruins of the old capital, just outside modern-day New Sukhothai, can be found in Sukhothai Historical Park. Much more than just a temple or two, the ruins cover 70 square kilometers! This UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts thousands of tourists each year. Needless to say, 200 years after this Kingdom was formed, it was superseded by the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The ruins of this later kingdom can be found in the city of Ayutthaya. Wat Chaiwatthanaram is a highlight, and a beautiful example of a Khmer-style Buddhist temple. The Ayutthaya kingdom was open to outside trade and accrued much wealth through commerce. Having got wind of this, the Europeans arrived by the 16th century. But unlike its neighbors, Thailand was not totally colonized by the French or any other colonizer. It held its sovereignty throughout the 19th century, due to a combination of good leadership and its fortunate geo-political position, which enabled it to act as a buffer between the French and the British. Thailand used the tension between France and Britain to its own advantage, although it was inevitably forced to concede large areas of its territory eventually.
More recently, the 20th century saw many periods of instability. Thailand became a democracy in the 1980s, but that did not mean automatic plain-sailing. 2008 saw conflict and unrest resurfacing. The political situation in Thailand remains uncertain, and many countries have issued travel advisories in recent months. However, tourism continues, and rightfully so. It is the tourist industry that has contributed to Thailand’s rapid growth in recent decades.Traveling has always involved uncertainty and so long as visitors exercise a bit of common sense they are sure to have an amazing time in this wonderful country, where soldiers and orange-robed Buddhist monks rub shoulders on the streets with no apparent contradiction.
Almost everyone in Thailand is Buddhist, and that is no exaggeration. It is thought that 95% of the population subscribe to Buddhist belief systems, or would consider themselves to be Buddhist, even if they are not strict practitioners. It is this Buddhist cultural heritage, influenced by India and the surrounding nations of Southeast Asia that make Thailand such a special place to visit. Any visitor to Bangkok will be hard-pushed to miss the ‘wats’ (temples), Buddha statues and shrines amidst the seething chaos of traffic jams and general bustle in this sprawling city.
Unmissable sights such as The Grand Palace- built in 1782- contribute to Bangkok’s majestic cultural serenity. Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) are the other main attractions that are on most people’s itinerary. The golden Wat Phra Kaew- also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha- is another temple worth checking out in Bangkok. Sites such as these seem to coexist with the curious commotion that spreads through the rest of the city, with its lively markets, street-side vendors and rickety, brightly-coloured tuc-tucs racing around the streets. Needless to say, it’s all more organised than it might seem, and there are other ways to get around besides the roads. Visitors should be sure to take a ride on the Chao Phraya River Express Boat, or a “long-tail” river taxi, gazing at the wonderful sites along the way. All in all, Bangkok is one of the easiest places in Thailand for the foreign tourist to travel. But don’t worry, this does not in any way detract from the buzz and excitement of the place!
On to other locations, the largest island in Thailand is also one of the country’s most famous tourist destinations. Phuket, in Southern Thailand, on the Indian Ocean coastline, is famous for its beaches and resorts. There are also smaller islands off Phuket, perfect for snorkelling and diving.
Thailand’s northern capital is Chiang Mai. Many visitors come here for culture and history, since this city was once the capital of a large kingdom that was isolated in the undulating foothills of the Himalayas. The central city boasts over 30 temples, built in a variety of Southeast Asian styles- from Sri Lankan to Burmese. There are pagodas and intricate carvings to explore in every direction. Here you can relax in a city with a more rural feel, and perhaps buy some traditional handicrafts to take home for souvenirs or gifts. Surrounded by lush countryside and mountains, there are plenty of excellent trekking opportunities nearby.
If you are looking to try some Thai cuisine, make sure you indulge in lemon and lime, spicy chilli, garlic and fish sauce. These are common ingredients in Thai food, which contribute to the delicious taste of mouth-watering green and red curries, stir fried vegetables, and everything else on offer- whether it’s sweet, sour or salty. And you’ll be sure to encounter some traditional Thai Jasmine rice at some point- probably most days! Interestingly, there is no country in the world that exports quite as much rice as Thailand.
As for accommodation, every imaginable standard of guesthouse and hotel is on offer. Dorm beds cost around 100 Baht and the cheapest guesthouses are around 150 Baht. These usually have a fan and shared squat toilet- also known as a hole in the ground! Better guesthouses, with hot water and free wi-fi would be reasonably priced at anything up to 500 Baht. Tourists who expect room service and a swimming pool should expect to pay around 1000 Baht. Stylish boutiques have become popular and tend to be double this price. Luxury resorts and business hotels that conform to (and even exceed) international standards can be found from 4000 Baht.
During your time in Thailand you might even get a chance to watch Thai Boxing, have a traditional Thai massage or go elephant riding. And there are dense jungles, pristine beaches, unexplored mangroves and sparkling lakes for those who want to venture beyond the tourist trail. Wherever you go, so long as you travel with respect for this beautiful country and its people, you will find that the locals are welcoming, hospitable and friendly. People will be smiling at you as you pass by on roads less travelled, and in such a wonderful destination, you’ll most likely be smiling too!