Exotic. Gracious. Accessible.
Bangkok is a city of unmatched energy, assaulting your senses with its contrast of traditional and modern cultures. Don’t miss the Grand Palace complex, the center of Thai religious life, or a boat tour of the city's canals. Bangkok’s waterways offer exceptional sightseeing opportunities and an often more interesting and quicker alternative to any road-based transport. Some of the smaller canals wind through dense foliage flanked with stilted houses and small temples.
Only an hour north of Bangkok by car, Ayuthaya was, by all reports, one of the grandest cities of its day; 17th-century foreign visitors hailed it as the most illustrious city they had ever seen. While a modern city now encroaches on the ruins, Ayuthaya’s ghostly architecture and sculpture remain impressive. The recently opened Ayuthaya Historical Study Centre paints a nice portrait of daily life in the old city for both kings and peasants. If time permits, travel by boat along rivers and canals for a lovely glimpse of the outer ruins of this riverine city.
KHAO YAI NATIONAL PARK
A pleasant 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok leads you to the dense forest, rugged mountains and abundant wildlife of Thailand's oldest national park. The park covers 2,172 square km and includes one of the largest intact monsoon forests in mainland Asia. Some 200 to 300 wild elephants inhabit the park, along with sambar deer, barking deer, gaur, wild pigs, Malayan sun bears, and various gibbons and macaques. The park is best seen on foot, crossing narrow suspension bridges and trekking remote trails in search of hidden waterfalls and mysterious caves.
NORTHERN HILL TRIBES
Many ATJ clients report that trekking between the various hill tribe villages of northern Thailand was the most memorable part of their trip. Before you depart on your trek be sure to visit the Hill Tribe Ethnographic Museum (about a half-hour drive from Chiang Mai) for an excellent introduction to the various tribes. Then, don some sturdy hiking boots and prepare to enter this remote and beautiful area peopled by Karen, Akha, Lahu, Lisu and Hmong tribespeople of Tibetan, Burmese and Chinese origin who have migrated and resolved to maintain their traditional ways.
Well known for its superb temples and handicraft shops, cool nights and gentle culture, Chiang Mai has wooed travelers for years. An important cultural and religious center for seven centuries, Chiang Mai was once an independent kingdom whose lands were sought by the Burmese, Thais and Laoatians. Don’t miss Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, situated high on a hill above the city, or a visit to the bustling Night Bazaar to pick up souvenirs of silk, lacquer ware, silver, paper, parasols and celadon pottery.
This area of southern Thailand boasts one of the most stunning landscapes in the country—its beaches and dramatic karst islands are picture perfect. The harbor town of Krabi serves as a convenient jumping-off point for the area. Head to Koh Phi Phi for a blissful beach or take a snorkeling day trip to nearby Chicken Island. Or, to really get away from it all, charter a private sailboat to explore the islands of Pha Nga Bay and access gorgeous beaches and islands inaccessible to other travelers.
Travel expert recommendations
Learn to Care for an Elephant at the Patara Elephant camp (Chiang Mai, Thailand)
This is a very different elephant experience than most tourists have in Thailand. Patara is recognized for putting elephant wellbeing first and teaching visitors about the nuances of caring for these highly intelligent creatures. Start with a briefing on the history of the domestic elephant in Thailand before beginning your mahout (elephant handler) training session. During the course of the day, you will learn about elephant farm management and elephant breeding programs. After your briefing, walk into the jungle to find your elephants in the bush. Learn how to approach and be near elephants and observe their temperament. Then spend some time feeding and taking care of your elephant ending with a bath in the river (for both your elephant and yourself!)
Learn to Cook—Northern Thai Style (Lamphun, Thailand)
Learn to cook traditional Thai country-style cuisine in the village of Lamphun (near Chiang Mai). First visit a nearby market with your hosts to select the freshest ingredients for your afternoon cooking lesson. Then drive through the lush countryside to your hosts’ home village of Lamphun, where your hands-on, private cooking class will commence in their traditional outdoor kitchen. Dishes may include traditional Northern Thai favorites, such as Catfish Mince or Green Papaya Salad. You’ll leave with the recipes, skills and confidence to recreate your favorite dishes back home.
Take a Behind-the-scenes Tour of Old Town Phuket (Phuket, Thailand)
So much more than just a beach destination, Phuket was once major trading center on the route between India and China, frequented by Portuguese, French, Dutch and English traders. Phuket's historic old town offers tantalizing glimpses of this era amid its Thai, Chinese and Muslim shrines, temples, markets, shophouses, cafés and museums. Begin your walking tour with a stroll through the lobby of On On Hotel, the first hotel in Phuket, which opened in 1929. It was recently renovated, but the evocative Sino-Portuguese architecture still exists and its displays of local antiques are interesting to peruse. We will also visit the area around Rassada Market, a hub of activity for the local people bustling with activity and shops.
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that was never colonized by a European country. In the Thai language, the name of the country fittingly means “land of the free.”
Thailand hosts a very unusual annual festival—for monkeys. Once a year, over 600 monkeys are invited to a huge feast in front of Prang Sam Yot temple in Lopburi province. Visitors bring offerings of food and watch as the monkeys gorge themselves on sausages, fresh fruit, ice cream and other treats.
Bangkok is only a nickname for Thailand's capital city. The official name is is one of the longest place names in the world: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit. It means “City of Angels, Great City of Immortals, Magnificent City of the Nine Gems, Seat of the King, City of Royal Palaces, Home of Gods Incarnate, Erected by Visvakarman at Indra’s Behest.”
Cuisine & Recipe
Thai curries perfectly balance heat with salty, tangy and sweet flavors. But the key to making your curry truly pop? You can't rely on curry paste from a jar; it must be homemade. Making Thai curry paste at home is surprisingly simple, you just need a mortar and pestle (or a small food processor in a pinch) and a handful of fresh vegetables and dried spices, available at any well-stocked grocery store or Asian market. Once your curry paste is made, put it to immediate use by whipping up a quick batch of Gaeng Khoa Sapparot (Red Curry with Shrimp and Pineapple) or refrigerate in an airtight container for future uses.
Thai Red Curry Paste
17 to 20 (2- to 3-inch-long) prik haeng (dried hot red chiles), halved and seeds discarded
4 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 fresh lemongrass stalks, 1 or 2 outer leaves discarded (or use reserved bottoms from iced lemongrass tea)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
4 teaspoons finely chopped, peeled, fresh or thawed frozen greater galangal (sometimes called kha)
6 (4-inch-long) fresh or frozen Kaffir lime leaves (sometimes called bai makroot), finely chopped
Cut dried chiles into 1/4-inch pieces with kitchen shears and soak in warm water until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain well in a sieve.
While chiles soak, toast coriander in a dry small heavy skillet over moderate heat, shaking skillet, until fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes, then cool. Thinly slice lower 6 inches of lemongrass stalks and finely chop.
Finely grind coriander and peppercorns with mortar and pestle (or in mini food processor), about 2 minutes, then toss together with lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, cilantro, shallot, garlic, fresh chiles, and soaked dried chiles in a bowl. Pound mixture in 3 batches with mortar and pestle until a fairly smooth paste is formed, 8 to 10 minutes per batch, transferring to cleaned bowl. (If using food processor, add about 1 1/2 tablespoons water per batch.) Return all of curry paste to mortar, then add shrimp paste and salt and pound (or pulse) until combined well, about 1 minute.
Gaeng Khoa Sapparot
(Thai Red Curry with Shrimp and Pineapple)
1 cup, 2-2/3 teaspoons, 7/8 pinches Coconut Milk
2 Tablespoons Red Curry Paste
20 whole Medium White Or Tiger Shrimp, Peeled And Deveined
½ cups Water
1 Tablespoon Fish Sauce
½ Tablespoons Palm Sugar
½ cups Pineapple Cut Into Bite-Sized Pieces
6 leaves Kaffir Lime Leaves, Sliced Thin
Bring half the coconut milk to a boil in a wok. Add curry paste and stir all the time until you see oil come up on the surface.
Add shrimp and cook until shrimp turn pink.
Add remaining coconut milk, water, fish sauce, sugar and pineapple, simmer for 5 minutes.
Add kaffir lime leaves and turn off the heat.
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro roots or stems
5 small shallots, chopped (6 tablespoons)
1/4 cup chopped garlic
15 to 20 (1-inch-long) red prik kii noo (fresh bird's-eye chiles) or serrano chiles, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ga-pi (Thai shrimp paste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Special equipment: a large (2-cup) mortar and pestle (preferably granite) or a mini food processor
The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej
Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej, the only king ever born in the United States, came to the throne of his country in 1946 and held it for more than 70 years. His death this past October was deeply mourned by the Thai people and marked him as the world’s longest-serving monarch.
The King Never Smiles, the first independent biography of Thailand's monarch, tells the unexpected story of Bhumibol's life and sixty-year rule—how a Western-raised boy came to be seen by his people as a living Buddha, and how a king widely seen as beneficent and apolitical could in fact be so deeply political and autocratic. The book details this process and depicts Thailand’s unique constitutional monarch—his life, his thinking, and his ruling philosophy.
Paul M. Handley is a freelance journalist who lived and worked as a foreign correspondent in Asia for more than twenty years, including thirteen in Thailand.