Many westerners associate Thailand with The King and I which was filmed when the country was known as "Siam." Approximately the same size as France, this exotic destination is home to some 60 million people of whom over 90 percent are Buddhists.
In Thailand, saffron-robed monks wander the streets as soon as the sun casts its warming rays across the watery rice paddies. Thais are gentle people, the food is exquisite, and there are bargains galore for those who like to shop.
One of the first things to pique my curiosity were the decorative spirit houses which stand outside all buildings whether they be hotels, apartments, shops, or houses on stilts. Looking like elaborate birdhouses adorned with colorful garlands of flowers, incense and candles, these shrines are believed to accommodate the territorial spirits who were displaced by the building.
One of Thailand's biggest drawing cards is its magnificent temples or wats of which there are over 28,000.
Like a city within a city, each wat is surrounded by a high wall which encircles a few or several elaborate buildings. Regardless of size, each temple compound has a bot, a sacred central sanctuary which houses a Buddha figure. Inside the wat, you will often see monks sitting on the floor engrossed in monotone chanting. Sometimes, they bring along an offering—perhaps a boiled pig's head, a chicken, or fresh fruit. Worshippers, eyes closed, kneel before Buddha images and noisily shake containers of numbered bamboo sticks to determine their fortune.
Perhaps the best known temple is Wat Phra Kaeo , which is part of the Grand Palace in the oldest section of Bangkok. Occupying a square mile on the bank of the Chao Phraya River (River of Kings), the area is a hodge-podge of gold-leafed spires called chedis, and ornate buildings inlaid with mother-of-pearl, colored glass and porcelain shards. Of special note is the highly venerated Emerald Buddha image which is carved out of jasper.
On my first morning in Bangkok, I hailed a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motor scooter) which wove in and out the traffic with such speed that I sometimes had to close my eyes. En route, I watched the city come to life: street vendors barbecued chickens, some boiled cauldrons of steaming soup, and others dusted their mountains of water melons.
My destination was the Red Cross Snake Farm where venomous snakes are housed in a grassy area under inverted domes. While leaning over the compound wall to snap a photo of a large python, something wet and slippery glided over my feet. I looked down with horror and was relieved to find that it was only a wet hose being pulled by a gardener. He bowed apologetically, grinning from ear to ear. Sometimes, language isn't necessary.
A popular day trip from Bangkok is a four-hour boat journey to the old capital of Ayutthaya. Life on the river is a world unto itself. Long-tailed motorboats buzz upriver like hornets; straw-hatted farmers ply their produce-laden craft towards floating markets; convoys of teak rice barges are towed between islands of water hyacinth; and passive water buffalo stand shoulder-deep along the muddy banks.
Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was Thailand's capital until 1767 when it was invaded and destroyed by the Burmese. In its heyday, it was greater than London or Paris.
While the city is now in ruins, much has been restored and many of the wats are still visited by worshippers. To the west is Kanchanaburi, known for the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Death Railway, built by prisoners-of-war during WWII.
For a further glimpse into the past, take a six-hour train ride to Phitsanulok, then catch the bus to Sukhothai, Thailand's first capital, which lies 603 km north of Bangkok. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, historians, architects and photographers will be fascinated by this ancient city which was the center of Siamese civilization in the 13th century.
If time permits, spend a few days in northern Thailand. The city of Chiang Mai is a great center for handicrafts. Camera buffs will be enamored with the Umbrella Village where beautiful parasols and fans are hand-painted in delicate colors. Other outlets include silk, lacquer ware, Celadon, silver and teak factories.
Even if you feel you have been 'templed out', make an early morning excursion to the Doi Suthep temple which sits atop a mountain. You can get there by taking the tiny train and walking back down the 360 steps to take advantage of the view over the Chiang Mai Valley.
Those with a sense of adventure should visit the Chiang Dao elephant camp and take a trek to one of the remote hill tribe villages. Sauntering through the jungle on the back of an elephant is truly a primordial experience. The journey is peaceful and relaxing. Apart from the Tarzan-like sounds which emanate from the tropical forest, the only distractions are the muffled sounds of the elephant's heavy footsteps, the snapping of undergrowth and the clacking noise from the wooden bells hanging from their necks.
Travel tips to Thailand: Temple etiquette: you will be expected to take off your shoes before entering a temple, so pack along a pair of socks. When sitting in a temple do not point your feet towards a statue of Buddha.
Author: Caroline M. Jackson