Like the Chatuchuk market, Thailand is pungent, frenetic and fascinating, and a haven for any traveler on a budget: In Thailand, $20 buys a day’s food and a night’s lodging. And few destinations can boast such sheer variety. Bangkok is an intense, steaming metropolis. Sukhothai, Thailand’s first capital, is home to one of the highest concentrations of temple ruins in Southeast Asia. The surreal limestone formations and jungles of Krabi have inspired wild tales. The small island of Ko Pha-Ngan is a beach bum’s paradise, cheap and tropical. In Thailand the people are friendly, the accommodations are respectable and the food will surprise even the most cultivated taste buds.
In many ways, Bangkok is overwhelming. It’s not a city for the faint of anything, and acclimation takes a few days. Those who can’t adjust, quickly hop the first train north to Chiang Mai or the first plane south to Phuket. But as the cultural, economic and religious epicenter of Thailand, Bangkok is not to be dismissed.
For many, acclimation begins on Bangkok’s Ko-San Road. It’s knee-deep in befuddled tourists and boasts the highest concentration of guest houses and travel agencies in the city. Ko-San provides a dose of things to come, a series of inoculations to steel travelers against the realities of the city. The first shot is climate, and its side effects are registered on the dashboard of any car in Thailand. Vehicles here have only two climate settings: “cold” and “colder.” Thailand is hot. It’s on the same latitude as Panama, the Sahara Desert and Hawaii. The average temperature in Bangkok is 90 degrees, year-round. The average humidity is 90 percent.
The next round of shots is sonic. Merchants, guesthouse runners and taxi drivers mount an aural assault, spitting propositions at everyone within range. This is Thai commerce, bold and unbridled. The effect is exhausting and most visitors will seek refuge and nourishment in a restaurant, where the final round of cultural vaccinations is served. Here the pepper is king. American Thai food is notoriously spicy, but the heat behind it all, the tiny Thai pepper or phrik khii nuu, literally “mouse-dropping pepper,” can only reach its full potential in Thai soil. The pepper is put into virtually every dish served in the kingdom. Naam plaa phrik, Thai peppers swimming in thin, salty fish sauce, is on every table. Pad Thai noodles, Thai salad, red and green curry and an infinite variety of noodle and soup dishes are everywhere. Roasted scorpions and deep-fried chicken livers are only slightly harder to find. In Bangkok, food is the only thing that’s more plentiful than smog. Thailand is fertile. Some parts of the country get as much as 60 inches of rain a year and the growing season is continuous. This is a land where fresh-squeezed mandarin orange juice is cheaper than Sunny Delight. Every day, a staggering quantity and selection of fresh produce is hauled in and piled on tables and stalls along the city’s streets. There are oranges, mangoes, pineapples, bananas and coconuts. There are sweet, melon-sized jactfruit armored in spiky green skin, fist-sized mangosteens protected by violet husks, hairy brown rambutans, bumpy green sugar apples and the sweet-tart wax jambu, a nearly perfect impersonation of the bell pepper. All can be purchased for next to nothing. A meal in Thailand can be had for under $3.
Bangkok is paradise for pepper-fueled sightseers and the best way to get to the sights is in a tuk-tuk—a cross between a covered wagon and a Vespa—named for the sound of its compact, powerful two-stroke engine. Each tuk-tuk seats three (six in a pinch) and provides the quickest short-range transportation in the city. Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist and it shows in traffic. Thai drivers—especially tuk-tuk drivers—are calm in the face of chaos, deftly dodging schools of scooters and lumbering trucks.
From Ko-San, a tuk-tuk can slice through Bangkok’s traffic to two of the city’s most visited monuments, Wat Po and the Royal Palace, in just under 10 minutes. Wat Po is the oldest and largest temple complex in the city. It was built in the 16th century and is home to a 150-foot-long golden reclining Buddha. The temple is a maze of multi-colored spires (called chedi) set among gardens filled with statuaries. The place is packed with thousands of gold-plated Buddha statues and hundreds of paintings. Here visitors can be blessed by Buddhist monks, and everyone must remove his or her shoes before entering any building.
King Rama I began building Thailand’s Royal Palace in 1783. Since then it’s been “improved” by half a dozen kings. The end result is a bizarre slurry of architecture: swooping, colorful Thai roofs; Victorian gingerbread trim; Swiss chalets; and even Italian Renaissance-style marble statues, all within spitting distance. There are more than 100 buildings on the 233-acre grounds.
Modern Sukhothai is a node in Thailand’s network of suburbs. Its buildings are monochromatic, its streets dusty and crowded. Seven hundred years ago, however, it was the center of Thai culture, religion and government. It was founded in 1238 by two Thai princes who united the kingdoms and provinces between Laos and Malaysia by preaching cooperation. Old Sukhothai, all 45 square kilometers of it, is now the country’s most-visited historical park. The ancient city was fortified by three walls and two moats. The walls have crumbled and the moats have drained, but the remains of 70 temples and buildings still stand. It’s impossible to see them all on foot. Renting a bicycle is best.
Inside the park, Buddha is everywhere. He stands among temples, lounges under shady glens and looks out across tranquil ponds. One statue, enclosed in a huge echo chamber, has a hollow space behind its navel. Monks climbed into the space to teach Buddhist principles, leading the townspeople to believe that Buddha himself was giving rousing orations about the eightfold path to Nirvana. The practice was later frowned upon and discontinued, but tour guides are still happy to tell the story.
The largest temple in Sukhothai is Wat Mahathat. Built in the 13th century, it has 198 chedi (spires) within its 650-foot-long walls. At one time, the chedi were smooth and the temple walls were extravagantly painted. Now much of the plaster has fallen away, revealing rough bricks, and all but a few paintings have been worn away or stolen.
Across a shallow sea from Krabi is Phuket, one of the most popular and crowded beach resort towns in Thailand. While Phuket is expensive and crowded, Krabi is quiet with miles of hiking trails. From Wat Tham Seua a path leads into one of Krabi’s many national forests, crowded with towering trees supported by wide buttresses. The forest is smothering and silent, one of the few places the harsh equatorial sun cannot touch.
Krabi’s spectacular limestone formations, and those along the Andaman Coast, were featured in the movies The Man with the Golden Gun and The Beach. Many of the forms rise thousands of feet out of the flat green waters of the Andaman Sea.
Hat Rin, on the eastern side, is known for its full-moon parties. Each month roughly 10,000 backpackers and locals gather on the beaches to party. The revelry is fueled by massive stereo systems and copious amounts of alcohol. Thong Sala, to the west, is Hat Rin’s polar opposite. Tell a Thai you’re headed for Thong Sala, and he or she is likely to say, “Oh, to meditate?” In Thong Sala the sun doesn’t just set, it puts on a show, drowning in the placid waters of the gulf. Between Hat Rin and Thong Sala, the island rises to a jumble of forested hills sprinkled with waterfalls.
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While revered and loved, the king has little to do with the everyday operations of the government. The country is governed by an elected parliament and a prime minister. But when there is a dispute, the king is sought out for counsel.