Highlights

 

A popular Thai refrain has it that ‘he who sees Bangkok will always return to the City of Angels.’

This tenet could just as easily apply to the country as a whole. Thailand has long held an enviable place as one of the world’s favourite tourist destinations and it is testament to the exoticism, fascination and pure Asian charm that the majority of visitors who come to ‘the land of smiles’ are lured back time and again. Thailand is unique in the region as the only country that has never been occupied by a European colonial power. As a result, its wealth of history has remained ‘undilutedly Thai’ and there is a traditional culture that is hard to match. Yet the infrastructure and public transport system is well-developed and lends itself well to package tourism (or independent travel) to all corners of the country. Travelling overland around Thailand can be time-consuming but, with Thais as travelling companions and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of landscapes to travel through, it is never boring. It is no coincidence that the first stock phrase that travellers pick up in Thailand is mai mee pun hah – no problem!



Bangkok continues to live up to its reputation as one of the most exciting cities in the world but it also makes the perfect launching pad for those in search of the spirit of the Far East. Thailand’s rural north-eastern region sees less tourism than other parts of the country and, for many, remains the most ‘authentically Thai’ but Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle area offer enough adventure for even the most demanding explorer. With 1,700 miles of coastline on two separate oceans (the South China Sea and Indian Ocean) Thailand offers a tropical paradise to suit every taste and budget. Even as the tourist cast-net spreads farther there remain scores of uninhabited jungle islands, deserted beaches and pristine reefs in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Whether you are looking for action and adventure, a chic desert island escape, or pure Far Eastern magic, ‘the land of smiles’ has them all in sufficient abundance to keep you coming back for more.


Top Thailand RTW experiences:

Beach – With 1,700 miles of coastline in two blissfully tropical (and usually tranquil) seas Thailand has the perfect beach to match your tastes. Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui are all-time favourites with the party crowd. Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Lanta are the rising stars but tiny Ko Phi-Phi manages to retain a reputation as a beautiful and laid-back tropical backwater. ‘PP’ as it is affectionately called is small enough so that you can walk from end to end in about 2 hours – over a rainforest ridge that is seemingly worlds away from the busy beach. At the far northern tip of the island is the wonderful stretch of white sand and turquoise water around Cape Lamtong, and one of the last settlements of Chao Ley (‘Sea Gypsies’).

Trekking
 – Chiang Mai is the usual departure point for Thailand’s ‘northern wilderness’ and many visitors combine a beach/island holiday with a trek to visit the hilltribes or to see the famed Golden Triangle. During the high season more accessible valleys can become overrun with tour groups but a knowledgeable and reliable guide can help to assure a level of ‘exclusivity.’ The highlands remain relatively cool (at times nights can be downright chilly) and are ideal for trekking. The Akha hilltribe are perhaps the proudest and most traditional (although the poorest) and a night spent in one of their villages – protected by carved guardians, with genitalia of sufficient size to frighten even the spirits – is a highlight of many visits to Thailand.

Temples – Bangkok’s magnificent Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) are the most iconographic temple complexes in Thailand. Wat Phra Kaew is the site of more than 100 holy buildings and few visitors leave without spending a day exploring the ancient royal and religious neighbourhood that makes up this part of Bangkok. It is said that Thailand has a temple for every face in this land of smiles and, while this might be a slight exaggeration, no matter where you travel you are sure to come across more than a few Buddhas, stupas, prangs (Khmer-style towers) and wats. For something very different in the way of temple visits head to Wat Pa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno Forest Monastery (www.tigertemple.org) which is also a home for orphaned tigers.

City – Once spurned as a sweltering, noisy, over-populated Asian metropolis Bangkok has now taken a place as a thriving and attractive business and leisure capital. The key to a relaxing visit is to avoid the congested roads wherever possible and travel instead by river or along the web of canals. Bangkok’s greatest appeal to western travellers lies perhaps in the reluctance of this modern city to shed its character as the religious and royal heartland of the country. Despite being one of the world’s most exciting cities, with an almost incomparable nightlife, it is a staunchly traditional city. There are countless temples and every workplace (even down to the seediest haunts of the red-light districts) is equipped with a shrine to which workers will always bow at the start of their working day/night.

Elephants – Elephants have always held an immensely important place in Thai tradition. The biggest event on the pachyderm calendar is the re-enactment of the great wild elephant roundup, which takes place in Surin (near the Cambodia border) in November. It features up to 300 immaculately turned out elephants. The highlight is the choreographed battle scene with dozens of fighting elephants saddled with spear-studded howdahs. Kanchanaburi – of ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ fame – is the centre for elephant treks and if you want to know more about the well-being and the problems that these gentle giants face in modern day Thailand visit the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre (www.thaielephant.org) near Chiang Mai.

Diving – Similan Islands Marine National Park (www.dnp.go.th) is probably the jewel in Thailand’s submarine crown. The park is made up of nine islands about 50 miles off Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, and is renowned as one of the premier dive-sites on the planet. The coral reefs are among the world’s best but there are also astounding sea mountains and drop-offs, home to everything from the humble sea-cucumber to the awesome whale shark. There are no dive facilities in the park itself but day-trips and multi-day live-aboard expeditions can be arranged with reputable dive-operators on the mainland (or on Phuket).

Shopping
 – Approach the unavoidable bouts of haggling with a smile and good humour and you will realise that Bangkok is a shopper’s dream. With almost a dozen huge malls and super-stores (like MBK, Central World Plaza and Central Chitlom), Bangkok can satisfy the tastes of even the most demanding shopaholic. The Chatuchack Weekend Market though remains the great granddaddy of all markets. You could spend all Saturday exploring and still come across ‘unexplored territory’ on Sunday! For something different take a dawn trip to Damnoen Saduak floating market (about 40 mins from Bangkok). Souvenir stalls are plentiful but take a closer look at the stock and the clientele and it becomes clear that this remains a working local market and a real Thai icon.

Cookery 
– Cooking courses have appeared in pretty much every part of Thailand that boast both hungry tourists and lemongrass. Chiang Mai might well be the capital for courses though (from massage, to Thai language, to kick-boxing). Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School (www.thaicookeryschool.com) is the oldest and most established but there are more than a dozen independent cooking schools in Chiang Mai – and many more guesthouses offering this facility. The best courses will often include visits to the local market and even orchards so that you also learn how to choose the best raw material for your culinary masterpieces.

Eco 
– Thailand’s dense population (coupled with decades of refugee arrivals from across the borders) has put great pressure on natural resources. An estimated 28% of the country’s natural forest cover still remains, but logging of natural forest has been banned since 1989 and the government hopes to reforest back to 50% by the middle of this century. Many sensitive tour operators with an eye to sustainable tourism in this beautiful country are working for the benefit of the rural people, wildlife and environment as a whole.

When to go – You can visit Thailand throughout the year: In the south, the climate differs between the eastern and western coasts. The West Coast is more favourable during our winter months and diving and snorkelling here will be at its best during this period. The weather on the East Coast is good for most of the year, with the lowest rainfall in January and February and the highest in November. The two rainy seasons are centred around May and September.

Time difference – GMT +7 hours

International dialling code – 00 66

Language – Basic English is widely spoken around the most touristed areas. An attempt to learn at least the very basics of marketplace Thai can be an immense help…and is always appreciated by the smiling, chatty people you are sure to meet.

Health – A certificate as proof of vaccination for yellow fever is required for visitors who have been in a yellow fever zone within 6 months of entering Thailand. Up to date advice should be sought prior to leaving but other vaccinations recommended by WHO are diphtheria, tetanus, Hep A and B and typhoid. Malaria prophylaxis is also advisable for extended or remote expeditions (though cities and most tourist areas are safe).  

Getting around – You can get internal flights are part of your RTW. As well several no-frills airlines based in Bangkok (now connect almost all parts of Thailand with regular inexpensive flights. Many travellers take advantage of ‘VIP’ night buses (acres of leg-room compensate for the frequently frigid aircom) for long-distance journeys between Bangkok and either the far north or the southern ports (around 10 – 12 hours). Bus or train travel can be figured at about 50p per hour’s travelling time. In the cities the ubiquitous taxis are cheap (if the driver refuses to use the – frequently ‘broken’ – metre haggle hard on his asking price). Three-wheeled tuk-tuks are fun but are often more expensive than taxis…possibly because with kamikaze tuk-tuk drivers at the controls they are able to zip through the rush-hour traffic so much quicker. For short journeys in the rural towns songthaew (‘pickup buses’), moped taxis and cycle rickshaws are often the way to go.

 

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Sea Gypsies

 


 

At twenty-three years old Lin is already a widow with two children to support.“My husband’s work was dangerous and we always new that there was a possibility that he might not come back – it happens here often enough.” She shrugs, with typical Oriental resignation. Traditionally known as the ‘Sea Gypsies’, the Moken people once lived almost their whole lives on their boats. But almost all their boats were destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and these days they are confined to several dilapidated shantytowns on a few relatively remote islands in Thai and Burmese waters. Without their boats the great schools of fish that congregate in the rich tropical waters of the Burma Bank became inaccessible. The Moken have always been known as legendary swimmers and free-divers however and Lin’s husband was just one of many young men on Koh Noi island who was tempted by work as a diver. Indian fishing boats in particular often make the long voyage from their home-waters just to recruit gangs of Moken divers who are willing to run the risks in the dangerous but lucrative quest for pearls and, more commonly, sea cucumbers.

 

Lin’s husband was the second man in this little hamlet of three hundred to die of the bends in the first quarter of this year. In January a fourteen year-old boy died while diving for sea cucumbers. Although backpackers and divers visit the Thai islands off the coast of Ranong, Koh Noi seems to be far removed from the tourist trail. Koh Chang, just a couple of hours away by local motorboat, is a particularly sleepy and restful island with a few rented bungalows that see sporadic, if relatively lackadaisical, bursts of party activity around full moon. Even on Koh Chang though few people are aware of the existence of Sea Gypsies in the area. I arrived on Koh Chang following a vague rumour that there was a Moken island somewhere in the area. It took me two attempts to swim out against the current to reach the only fishing boat that lay in the bay. Standing dripping in the bow, struggling with my woefully inadequate marketplace Thai and drawing numbers in the sand on the deck, I managed to haggle Petr the Thai fisherman into shuttling me to the Sea Gypsy island.


Petr had only visited Koh Noi once before and I crossed my fingers as the little skiff puttered out into the maze of islands that dot this part of the Indian Ocean. We seemed to be motoring for so long that I began to think that we must have crossed the border and that I had surely already entered illegally into Burmese waters. In fact among this tangle of islands, reefs and rocky outcrops, few local people place much importance on just where the border lies. Many Sea Gypsies have yet to be accepted officially as citizens of either Thailand or Burma and they cross at will over national boundaries without giving it much thought.

As our voyage progressed the droning of the engine and the gentle sun soothed me so that Petr had to shake me awake when we arrived at Koh Noi. At first sight the village was sadly lacking in boats. A couple of skeletal prahus lay rotting in the shallows, their struts rearing from the mud like the ribs of stranded whale carcases. The people lived in rough, stilted huts cobbled together from bamboo or driftwood. The land on which the village is built is rented from a mainlander but the villagers own no extra terrain that could be converted to orchards or crops.

Judging from the heaps of garbage strewn throughout their village it seemed that the Moken people had traded their old diet of fresh fish and their legendary knowledge of wild fruit and traditional herbal medicines for a diet of instant noodles and Chang beer. As is often the case in South East Asian villages a separate shack had been set aside as what was grandly described as a ‘guesthouse.’ The ‘bed’ was just a rattan mat laid out on the floorboards and the ‘shower’ was a rusty bucket but I was grateful for the offer and the hut itself was infinitely more sturdy than most of the villagers’ homes.

Missionaries from several organisations have tried to get a grip on the Moken of Koh Noi with only limited success. Sunan Thuanthong has been more dogged than most (and less self-serving than a great many). He has lived in a little shack on Koh Noi for the past 16 years and has worked hard to help the people. It is in great part through his labours that they are on the verge of winning the identity papers that would guarantee the community official Thai citizenship and thus offer them access to medical services, schooling and some chance of paid work that could provide an alternative to their dangerous diving.

As the island’s self-proclaimed spiritual leader, Sunan had to rush off to oversee the funeral of Lin’s husband. Six hours of traditional mourning would probably lead to the two or three days of drinking, dancing and carousing that was needed to lay the ghosts of the young man to rest.

“I’ve tried to convince them that a day of drinking is already more than enough,” the preacher said morosely, “but I’m not sure they agree.”

As the night wore on the drinking led to fighting. Once or twice even knives and sticks were brought into action but the fighters were always overpowered before they caused serious injury. I had been in more local tribal villages in Asia than I could count and had always been astounded by a level of fellowship and mutual respect that is rarely seen in the west. Although I was accepted and respected as a guest the Moken of Koh Noi seemed to be as close to the edge of social collapse as any community I have ever seen.

The Moken were traditionally the most knowledgeable and independent of the several nomadic groups that are still known – with perhaps misplaced Western romanticism – as the ‘Sea Gypsies.’ It was said, for example, that they harvested more than eighty different plants for medicinal use. Little of their hereditary store of knowledge has been passed down though and the people that I spoke to on Koh Noi seemed surprised to learn that their people ever had a reputation for any sort of wisdom whatsoever. Their unique brand of Buddhism is also fast disappearing.

“We had several visits from missionaries in the weeks after the tsunami,” says Sunan Thuanthong. “Three hundred years ago missionaries were converting ‘rice Christians’ out of starving peasants…Inflation might have caught up but today it can still be done with a bible and a boat.” It seems that the disaster heralded something of a boom period for missionary societies working in the Thai islands. The Bible Society proudly claims that, on Phuket, hundreds of Urak Lawoi Sea Gypsies became Christians after the tsunami.


‘Over the last few years, as people up and down Thailand’s coastline have been rebuilding homes, infrastructures and lives, a remarkable change has taken place among this minority group that has in the past been very resistant to the Christian message,’ reads a report on the society’s website, ‘…what has happened since the tsunami is amazing – God has been at work building his Church.’

Ali Pramongkit is headman of the thirty-six families who live in a ramshackle shantytown on the northern end of the backpacker paradise-island of Koh Phi Phi. His people are Chao Ley (literally ‘people of the sea’) and there are only four families of Moken. Here too Ali claims that twenty people were converted to Christianity with the offer of boats. The Sea Gypsies of Koh Phi Phi are more fortunate than many of their compatriots and at least here they are able to make a living by ferrying tourists around the island.

“In Phi Phi town there are few families who did not lose loved ones in the tsunami,” says Ali. “Nobody knows for sure how many people died on the island but they say around two thousand. Not a single person died in our village.” It was the tourists and the mainlanders who went out to explore the naked reef who were the first victims. Thousands of years have taught the Sea Gypsies that, while they could count on the ocean for food and security, they should never trust it unreservedly. Among Sea Gypsy communities all over the islands the story is the same; at the first hint of strange activity in the sea the people instantly took to whatever high ground they could reach. On Koh Phi Phi they were also able to warn farang (foreigners) to follow them.

There can be precious little good news to come out of what is now known as the most horrific disasters ever witnessed by modern man. As Ali points out though it was a poignant reminder that at least some of the Sea Gypsy’s legendary knowledge has been passed down…and that even today it can prove to be a key to their survival.

 

FOOTNOTE: The islanders of ‘Koh Noi’ are currently fighting to be integrated into Thai society. The process is a long and arduous one and rather than risk complicating the matter still further the names not only of the islanders but also of the island itself have been changed.

 

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