You’ll almost certainly fly into Bangkok, a bizarre and fascinating juxtaposition of breathtaking golden temples against a teeming hodgepodge of modern buildings. Our tour group whizzed through Bangkok in two days, but I recommend giving it at least four. I saw the Royal Grand Palace, the world’s largest Golden Buddha, the Reclining Buddha, the Emerald Buddha, various other Buddhas, and the temple of-Wat Phrathat Dui Suthe. Unfortunately, we moved along so quickly I’m not entirely sure which was which, except for the Reclining Buddha, a golden statue about the size of a commuter jet. Our maniacally chirpy local guide also dragged us to two jewelry factories, something you should avoid at all costs. At each of them, we watched a desperately dull film about jewelry-making followed by a leisurely tour of the showroom floor in the company of very persistent salespeople.
Food-wise, Bangkok is fantastic, especially if you like it spicy. Usually, I avoid restaurants with badly-translated plastic menus containing photos of the food, but not in Bangkok. Some of the best food I ate was in such places while some of the most mediocre (and expensive) food was in establishments with leather-bound menus and inviting outdoor patios.
Chiang Mai is a lot smaller and quite a bit more charming than Bangkok. Its bustling streets are fun to explore and its many temples are well worth a visit (my favorite was Wat Chedi Luang, which is surrounded by enormous carved elephants). Best of all, Chiang Mai has a fantastic outdoor market selling just about everything imaginable for reasonable (and negotiable) prices. Make sure you catch a meal at the market’s wonderful food court while you’re there.
Our group stopped for a cooking lesson at the Chiang Mai Organic Farm Thai Cooking School, which was my favorite part of the trip. We took a tour of the farm, and then settled in to cook spring rolls, Tom Yan Kung soup, green curry chicken, stir-fried basil chicken, and bananas in coconut milk, and it was all wonderful. Afterward, we sat in the afternoon sunshine and ate like kings.
We took the overnight train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but if you’ll take my advice, you’ll take one of the many cheap flights instead. Our second-class seats unfolded into bunk beds open to the aisle except for inadequate curtains which let in several inches of brilliant florescent light. Periodically, a uniformed man with a bullhorn bellowed his way through the car and all night long people shouted into their cell phones. To top off the misery, our first train inexplicably took twenty hours instead of the advertised fourteen. On the return journey, the train derailed and took twenty-four hours. Trust me. Fly.
After Chiang Mai, we went to a jungle lodge in the hills of Chiang Dao for a couple of days of hiking, elephant riding, and white-water rafting. If you head into the hills, bring a fleece (it gets surprisingly cold at night), and research what your lodge does and does not provide. Our tour guide assured us that our lodge provided cots, bed linens, soap and towels. Unfortunately, it didn’t. The lodge owner couldn’t obtain any towels or soap for us, but he managed to dig up some musty old blankets for us to sleep in. We huddled up in them as best we could on the hard floors of the huts, cursing our tour guide through chattering teeth.
No trip to Thailand is complete without some time at the beach. Thailand is reputedly full of quiet, pristine beaches, but unfortunately our group went to Phuket. True, Phuket’s beach is beautiful, but the town is packed to bursting with tourists and its streets are lined with shops whose aggressive proprietors forcibly try to drag you in to buy their overpriced merchandise. Fortunately, Phuket is a fantastic hub for day trips. I went sea-kayaking through fabulous grottoes and sailed to a fascinating fishing village, Koh Pannyi, which is built entirely on platforms over the sea. I also took a boat trip to Koh Tapu Island, known as "James Bond Island" because The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed there. It’s gorgeous, with jagged cliffs and pillars of rock soaring out of the water. Back at the hotel, I got a Thai massage and left Phuket feeling fabulous, ready for one last night in Bangkok before the flight home.
Unfortunately, for our last night our tour group leader had chosen a filthy hotel cooled only by the fluttering wings of countless vicious mosquitoes. After examining the suspicious brown blotches on my mattress, I chose to sleep at the airport instead. Luckily, the airport boasts an all-night restaurant with tasty food, soft lighting, and long, comfy leather couches. If you ever want to sleep at an airport, the Bangkok airport is a great choice.
About the Author:
Gayton Gomez is a graduate of Yale Law School, but prefers traveling and writing to practicing law. She’s been to 29 countries on six continents. Sooner or later, she’ll get to Antarctica.