Article and photography by Michael Morcos
How could I have missed Thailand for so long? 61st country on my travel list and within days it immediately jumped to one of my top favourites. Two weeks might sound like enough time to see and experience this land, but I found that I have barely started discovering amazing Thailand instead.
This tour would only wet my whistle. I would get glimpses of the immense possibilities that can be had here. In this journey, we would visit the main and well visited destinations: Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Phuket. These places are enough to bring travelers back for a lifetime but there is so much more still to be discovered.
Off and running
Day one, jet-lagged and all we set out to see was a small part of what makes this worldly city so dynamic. The morning heat, humidity and strong rays of the sun where exhausting. So what to do? We would head on a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River, also known as the ‘River of Kings’. To the locals, boat travel is like a taxi ride and these boats with car size out board motors moved with thundering sounds and high speeds! The breeze was surely welcome and the sites were exciting as we would get an amazing seaside view of Bangkok.
Our stops would include two breathtaking temples, the fascinating Royal Barge Museum, the Taling Chan floating market, and a cruise on the quite residential ‘klongs’ (canals).
Temple of Dawn
Shimmering in the daylight and sparkling by night, the Wat Arun is mesmerizing and I stood in the direct sun, speechless and breathless. Aside from the view, the architecture is something to behold, with intricate designs and minute details that could keep a tourist looking around for hours.
The temple is considered one of the most beautiful temples in Thailand, and if not the world. The spire of the temple is one of Bangkok’s most famous landmarks and is 70 metres high and decorated with tiny pieces of coloured glass and porcelain in special patterns. This temple would only be the start of many-many more outstanding sights we would visit in the following weeks.
This museum is unlike any other I have visited. Lots of artwork but no Picasso. Instead, it featured incredible barges made of fine teak wood and covered with gold leaf. This was surely for royalty. On this day all the most important ships were under the roofed dock and like a kid I would inspect them one by one.
The Krabi Prab Muang Marn Barge is a sight to see, with its figurehead of an uncrowned monkey warrior with white body, and the entire thing is decorated with golden lacquer and glass. The Asura Vayuphak Barge also has some details that are outstanding and so opulent. The figurehead, an ogre-faced bird, is amazing, with face, hands and feet in a deep indigo, the front is purple, and the back is green. The hull is black and is quite imposing.
The most well-known floating market that people would see in travel shows was an hour away, but the Bangkok Taling Chan floating market was a great place to visit and see how the locals purchase delicacies. Interacting with the friendly merchants was a delight and they were more than happy to be photographed while going on with their daily routines.
The market cannot be missed, as all the wooden boats moored along the riverbank form an intricate maze filled with odors and sights to whet every appetite. There were huge prawns, blue crabs and fish, as well as some others preparing local favourite Som Tum.
By midday the restaurants are full and most tables in the central area are occupied, but you can take the food with you or patient and wait for a table. Either option is great as you are eating delicious and freshly made food!
An unbelievable temple, the Wat Suhat was so impressive and I was struck by the beauty of the complex and the many statues and artwork that adorned this historic Buddhist shrine. It was originally built to house a huge 25-foot tall Buddha statue, and is surrounded on the outer wall with more than 150 gilded Buddha images.
The statues are coupled with the doors to the cloister in the middle of each of the four walls, which are also gilded with quite colorful scenes from the Ramakien. It was a great visit and the opulence of these landmarks continued.
In contrast to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, Pattaya is better known as a vacation destination. Situated by the sea, it is a popular place for its beaches, entertainment and now its major attractions.
Khao Chi Chan Buddha Mountain
You will see the buses before you see the mountain. That says it all. This mountain is a popular attraction by foreigners. Of all the things I have seen, this one really ranks up there. Surrounded by an exceptional natural beauty, this magnificent monument takes your breath away. Using a laser, the figure of Buddha was drawn onto the side of Khao Chi Chan, then gold was used to fill in the sculpture. Awe inspiring.
Sanctuary of Truth
Like a scene from Game of Thrones, this all wood building captivates you from first glance. As we stood on top of a hill, and while making our way down, we would continuously take pictures. Truly a unique structure, it calls to you to get closer and finally come inside.
The building is 105 meters high, covering a vast area and is filled with contemporary Visionary art based on traditional religious themes. Initiated by Thai businessman Lek Viriyaphan in 1981, his idea was simple – to show that all religions lead to the only one Truth. Decoration in the sanctuary highlights religious philosophies and teaches people to avoid evil intentions and pursue good deeds in their lives
Bang Lamung Street
This street sure has a lot of energy. With scantily dressed ladies and go-go bars it could be mistaken for being seedy, but people of all ages and kinds come here for meals and drinks. We would visit an open air bar with a live band. The Thai players banged out amazing western music and were a delight with a beer or two. With many food options, there is something for everyone. Spicy, salty, seafood and steak – enjoy the meal and stay for the people watching. Walking here is a must for any true world traveler.
Tiffany’s Show Pattaya
This show is a page right of Vegas, but the twist is the performers were all men in drag. This amazing polished and glitzy show was well choreographed, directed, with plenty of song and dance and fun for all. To my amazement, the drag queens would immediately exit the show hall and greet the guests outside for handshakes and photographs. Equally amazing, these boys looked, spoke and acted just like women, and they even have a name – the legendary Lady Boys. These fascinating and artistic performers captivate audiences with their flawless female impersonations. This show offers their audiences an evening of polished entertainment for the whole family.
Our next point of discovery would bring us way up north, a stone’s throw from Laos and Myanmar, here would visit the city known for the amazing White, Black and Blue temples.
Each is a unique location and the temples are a must see, but there are other activities that beckon a visitor as well. The city hosts a Night Bazaar that offers locals and visitors shopping and food by night.
Their Jazz Festival is also becoming a destination for music lovers. For those who like boats, and a riverside that remains mostly undeveloped, tourists can enjoy the beauty of the Mae Kok, by hiring a long-tail boat to take in the scenery along the two riverbanks.
This is no ordinary night market, for kilometers on both sides of a busy street merchants sell just about anything you could carry in a hand bag. To my dismay, I had forgotten all my underwear and socks in the last hotel, but within minutes I replenished my stock to last me the rest of the trip. The best parts of it all were the helpful smiling merchants that made the shopping under the stars so pleasurable and fun.
The Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) brilliantly stood out in the morning sun, with its unique ‘Kanok’ architecture. Although you could not tell, this relatively new construction is already a major draw in Chiang Rai. I was humbled by its grandeur. The white plaster exteriors represent the purity of Buddha with the glass symbolizing his wisdom. The building is actually a contemporary, albeit unconventional, art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple.
Unmistakably, Baan dum (Black House) is more of a museum then a temple and a master piece of the artist Tawan Daschanee. Visitors will marvel at the extravagant artwork, buildings and grounds.
Now it is part art studio, part museum, part home, Baan Dam, is an eclectic mix of traditional northern Thai buildings mixed with some outlandish modern designs in a thought-provoking combination of surreal and the sombre. Though not for everyone, it is worth a visit.
This structure it is a recent temple and has become a hot spot for both locals and tourists.
In contrast to the White and Black temples, filled with shock, awe and some disturbing elements, the Blue Temple is much more of a calm, reflective space. Both the artwork and the structure have a contemporary and modern feel, and its vibrant sapphire blue color has a mesmerizing effect. You can easily spend hours looking at the intricate paintings all over the ceiling and walls.
Golden Triangle and Hall of Opium
We reached the infamous Golden Triangle that is at the cross-roads of Thailand, Burma and Laos. This area is best known for the illicit opium trade and from up on a hill we would get a view of three countries separated by two rivers and a peninsula. I was amazed, I had finally seen the place of what was to me a fictional area.
For a special history lesson, visiting the Hall of Opium Museum takes visitors down the dark road of opium. Inside the space is a combination of multimedia and exhibition aimed at educating people about opium, and offers a pretty unflinching look at the history of the Golden Triangle, the origin of opium, the opium war, the battle against opium and poppy growing, as well as rehabilitation of the people affected.
If this tour of discovery wasn’t not fascinating enough, the city and region of Chiang Mai would prove amongst the best of the best this trip had to offer. Here would visit and befriend Elephants, engage in the morning rituals with two hundred Buddhist monks and visit one of the most spectacular monasteries I have ever had the privilege of visiting.
A half day spent at the Patara Elephant Farm would prove to be not only humbling but also enlightening. As we first reached the camp, we would encounter two young calves; one only days old nursing on her mother. In our time here, we would learn about the behaviours of these gentle giants and the struggles of the staff to protect their natural habitat. We would thoroughly immerse ourselves by feeding them bananas, walk with them to the waterfalls, giving them refreshing baths and finally ride on them bareback. Sadly, the visit ended far too soon and we would have to say goodbye to our new Thai friends.
Daily Alms collection
Waking up at the brake of dawn is not something I usually do, but I was in Thailand and this day we would start by meeting the monks for the daily alms. I was astounded by the sheer numbers. Some two hundred monks, most of them young and dressed in traditional saffron coloured robes would come down from their monasteries, form lines and very quietly accept rice and other foods for their one and only daily meal. Truly another unique spiritual experience!
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Still in the early hours of the morning, with very few tourists, we would almost have this mountain top complex to ourselves. From here, we would have a wonderful panoramic view of the whole city. The historic temples and monastery were magnificent sites to behold. I knew once again I was experiencing some of the best this exotic country had to offer. I was not only a world away from home in distance; I was a world away in culture and philosophy. Too our delight we would join in as a priest held ceremonial prayer and blessed all those in his shrine.
Considered one of the most sacred temples in the country, visitors can walk up the 309 steps as an offering, or take a tram. However you get there, remember to remove your shoes upon entering.
The perfect tea
Being a tea lover, I would look forward to our visit to the Monsoon Tea house. The founder/owner and Swedish expat was on a mission to produce the best possible tea, but that was not the major goal, as he wanted to collect teas from wild trees. Yes, tea is from a tree and not a bush he explained, and Thailand is the origin of these plants and the gift to the world. Most commercial teas come from a plantation where the forest is cut down to make way for endless rows of low lying plants. Instead Monsoon only sells forest grown tea that is in harmony with its surrounding. This whole process means the tea is in limited quantities and comes from far out of the way places. The result: these teas are organic, forest friendly and simply put, the best tea I have ever tasted. So good that they are found in high-end hotels and restaurants. My only discomfort with this whole affair is I only bought two bags to bring home and once finished will have to travel back to Thailand to purchase more.
A busy day in an already charged tour no doubt takes a toll on the body and requires the magical hands of a masseuse to sooth the body and relax the mind. All through this trip I would take every opportunity of getting one and the price was always right. Anywhere from simple leg and shoulder message to full body treatments, I was in the perfect country for this. Having never had a Thai message, I learnt quickly it was not the most relaxing but was somewhat like a wrestling match. The end result is the knots and muscle strains would be worked out and I would have soreness but also felt problems were corrected. Our visit to the Oasis Spa would prove to be one of the best places to rejuvenate tired muscle. My two-hour session was heavenly. Their location, in a beautiful building with modern facilities, sweet smelling perfumed air, water fountains and relaxing hot tea set the stage for a memorable and lasting experience.
The visit to Chiang Mai heightened the senses and I figured the rest of the trip would be to slowly chill out. This is partly true. Phuket is known for just that. Our last few days would bring us some R&R at the wonderful Anantara Layan Phuket Resort, some lively entertainment in the ever popular Patong beach district and an unforgettable catamaran ride through the Andaman Islands.
Life just could not get any better, or so I thought. Then we embarked on a brand new one million dollar luxury catamaran and sailed away through pristine waters. The bright blue sky, hot, humid air cooled by a sea breeze, fresh and delicious sea food, refreshing water sports all with the back drop of the hidden gems in the Andaman Islands made this an epic experience! The scenery was breathtaking, miles upon miles of wonderful rock formations jolting out of the waters, golden secluded beaches. So exotic was this region that they filmed a James Bond movie here and thus we visited the islands by that same name.
Thailand’s tourist infrastructure is well set up and has hotels to meet every budget. Our stays in the many different hotels and regions were amongst some of the best hotels in Thailand. From the amazing and well-appointed high-rises in Bangkok to charming and historic boutique hotels to opulent beach side resorts, we were pampered all the way. See our Thai hotel reviews on pages 58 and 59 of this issue.
If you are a fan of the fast food versions of Thai food, you will be absolutely blown away by the real thing. Usually spicy, always good, Thai cuisine is also always fresh, healthy and diverse. One can always find something new to taste. Rice, noodles and seafood are staples and for food lovers, make sure that you enjoy the national treasures, including Guay Teow (Noodle Soup)
Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup), Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad) and Yam Pla Dook Foo (Fried Catfish with Green Mango Salad). You will never be the same.
Thailand is truly one of a kind! You may find similarities here and there in other countries but nothing can bring them all together like this extremely friendly, culturally rich and diverse mystical land.