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Travel

The Warmth of Thailand
Text Ross Hunter
Photos kind courtesy of Matt & Jo Loader and Jim Marples

Sunshine is the best cure for winter. Thailandís sunshine is guaranteed and even better, combined with wonderful culture and scenery. It is not one but a whole set of tropical paradises: one visit is not enough, and you will always want to go again. Whatever the reason for going to Thailand you will come home - if you do! - with a wider set of experiences than you expected. Before we explore, think three things: warmth, color and tolerance.

Warmth is the key word: not just the glorious, searing, seeping, gasping heat of the tropics, a wonderful thought in the middle of our winter, but even more memorable is the welcome of the Thais. It is impossible to recall Siam (the traditional name) without a host of delicate, demure and inviting smiles dazzling the mindís eye. There is a gentle sincerity and wish to help that defines the country. That Thailand is rich in color is a pale sepia understatement. Feeling good as a photographer is easy; dancing light and bright subjects sharpen the senses. In northern latitudes, we need gold to catch and bounce scant light through the grey, but in Asia it slings the sun itself towards us. With so many competing pressures, Thailandís tolerance is a wonder. Enjoy doing whatever you want, and as long as you respect others on their pathways, as they will let you follow yours.

Where to?

Bangkok

Warmth is the key word: not just the glorious, searing, seeping, gasping heat of the tropics, a wonderful thought in the middle of our winter, but even more memorable is the welcome of the Thais. It is impossible to recall Siam (the traditional name) without a host of delicate, demure and inviting smiles dazzling the mindís eye. There is a gentle sincerity and wish to help that defines the country. That Thailand is rich in color is a pale sepia understatement. Feeling good as a photographer is easy; dancing light and bright subjects sharpen the senses. In northern latitudes, we need gold to catch and bounce scant light through the grey, but in Asia it slings the sun itself towards us. With so many competing pressures, Thailandís tolerance is a wonder. Enjoy doing whatever you want, and as long as you respect others on their pathways, as they will let you follow yours.

The capital is an exploding city, bursting at the seams with life and energy. Bangkok literally buzzes, and its dynamism is irresistible. True, this comes with traffic congestion and a sometimes sticky atmosphere, but the cure is to get out of the car, away from the air-conditioning and live! The main roads are gridlocked, so walking is faster than driving. The side streets have the most exuberant markets, worth a visit in their own right. Buy what the locals buy, be it clothing, food, spices or gifts. What their origin is and how reliable your purchases are for you to question. Expect to barter of course, and enjoy it. Do expect to pay a bit more than the locals, which is fair, but donít start haggling unless you intend to buy. Shopped out? Every other entrance is a cafe, bar or restaurant, and the food is brilliant. Keep trying all those exotic new fruits (but leave me the mangoes, please!) Just one word of chilli warning: small is not beautiful Ė they are the most dangerous ones.

The top-ranked joy of Bangkok is swapping the gleeful chaos of the city for utter peace and tranquillity in minutes. Stroll into one of the many temples or palaces and all the cares and cacophonies of the world will melt away. Even the air goes still, stirred only by the faint tingling of the rows of bells under the eaves. You will slow down, and time means nothing. From the colors and poetry of the roofs, with their patterned tiles and swept-up and carved gables, via the majesty of the stupas and gardens to the perfect serenity of the Buddhas, every spot is a haven of peace, with its own transcendent beauty. Wonderful as photos are, they cannot compete with the shimmering heat, presence and community of being there.

Five favourites in the Bangkok:

  • A cruise around the canals Ďklongsí with their floating flower markets
  • The Golden Buddha in the Royal Palace and the huge reclining Buddha, with patterned feet
  • A mad ride in a Ďtuk-tukí three wheeler taxi
  • A gentle ride on an elephant at the orchid farm
  • An evening bartering for gifts in Patpongís street market
  • Bangkok by night from the rooftop restaurant of the Banyan Tree Hotel

Around Siam

The coast has the right resort for everyone, and the photos do not lie; the sea really is turquoise and the beaches bleached white. Take a boat trip, or better still, a cruise up the coast. There is a whole country behind the littoral. Actually more, for if it were possible to tire of Thailandís variety, hop over the border to Laos, and old colonial Vientiane, with its French legacy, or Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, the most complete and stupendous ancient Buddhist temple complex. Next time! The old capital, at Ayuthaya, is perhaps too popular, being only a couple of hours from Bangkok, but it is Thailand in microcosm, and so full of history, requiring some reading up before you go. Moscow bookshops have good guides.

Chiang Mai and beyond

Spend as long as you can in the north. Chiang Mai mixes people and cultures from all over the region -China is surprisingly near - and the undulating landscapes and gentler climate make it a favourite. To visit the hill tribes up towards the Golden Triangle is to contact a timeless culture, but one which will not last much longer, due to pressures from the outside (like us!) There is much more to appreciate than the (in)famous opium cultivation. The villagers are some of the greenest people on earth, proudly self-sufficient and able to do wondrous things with bamboo and local dyestuffs. Every tribe has its own colour scheme, traditions and territories. They all dream of the day when they can resume trading and mixing with their cousins in suffering Burma: a reminder that problems still spoil lives in lovely places. The jungle around is a roofless greenhouse, teeming with nature in the raw where we are but brave guests, and not for the faint-hearted as your guide may be armed only with a home made musket: if he fires it at armís length, it is because he does not quite trust it either. Life lived close to the edge.

Unforgettable memories waiting for you

  • Sunrise over the hills and padi fields Ė anywhere in the countryside
  • Colorful fish dancing around the corals just off Phuket
  • Sunset over the Andaman Sea
  • Playing cricket on ĎThe Beachí beach
  • Eye-watering variety of exotic fruits on the market
  • The villages, costumes and people of the hill tribes
  • Thai smiles

Thailandís bazaars, temples, beaches, restaurants, playgrounds, jungles, elephants, ruins, caves, seas, crafts, silks and most of all wonderful people all await you.

Quick questions

When? Tomorrow! Failing that, go in our winter, Thailandís dry season; after April, expect a soaking with your roasting.

How? By air to Bangkokís brand new airport, east of the city. It is only 4 hours ahead of Moscow time. When there, fly if you must, but the train is really travelling. Long distance buses are Ďexcitingí.

Tips

Dress nicely Ė you will be treated better; show respect in the temples & palaces
Learn ten words of Thai Ė be amazed how much it will be appreciated
Greetings, with palms pressed together: sawadi-kha (to a woman), sawadi-khrap (to a man)
Thank you: khap-koon-kha (f), khap-koon-khrap (m).
Shopping: the best bargains are for silk, silver jewellery, handicrafts and DVDs (at your own risk!)
Use the big hotelsí water-taxis to cross the river and get the best views
Go scuba diving, but donít pull faces at the funny fish, or your mask will leak
Thai dancing: beautiful and graceful to watch Ė not quite as easy to join in
Donít come home without a bunch of orchids.







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