There’s a strong smell of incense in the air as we enter the temple, the tiny sticks stand straight as soldiers in a bowl of sand; coins, flowers and fresh fruit adding to their favour. Monks sit in orange robes praying into the mics as they gently rock back and forth, tattoos visible on their bare arms. The moon has moved a call to prayer and the community gathers in unison. I’m invited forward to receive a blessing and without hesitation drop to my knees, lower my head and welcome the holy water sprinkled by lotus flower onto me, while words I don’t understand, are said. I feel completely at home.
In Thailand by invitation of the Tourism Authority of Thailand to discover a greener side to this popular tourist destination. One that features Buddhist temples, spectacular islands, white beaches, a rich history and unique culture, not to mention delicious Thai food and healing massages. Here where there is a serenity and kindness to the people who go out of their way to serve and welcome you. Infrastructure impresses and much value is placed on the tourism industry with hotels, resorts and transport – as well as safety, well placed. Yet somehow in conversations about Thailand, the focus too often turns to the crazy nightlife of Phuket and holiday snaps showing interaction with exotic animals.
My visit would take a different course. After my arrival in Bangkok and a night’s rest, I would be visiting the Trat region, encountering local communities, followed by some time on Koh Chang where health and well-being would matter most. I would also be taking a rather different look at the vibrant capital, partly by bicycle. I was about to be introduced to this land of a thousand smiles, with at least as many to cross my face in the days to come.
The art of health and wellness is deeply ingrained in the Thai culture and a day at the Chong Changtune eco-museum will bring this to life while teaching you about the Chong people. On offer is a Thai massage, herbal compress ball treatment and Spa de Chong, a herbal steam treatment taken in a woven chicken hoop invented by Samnao, one of the ladies in the community. It’s hot in there, with only your head sticking out hoping for fresh air. A morning can be spent indulging in treatments on site, before taking Salenger bikes (side-cars) down to the river for a White Mud Spa which you enjoy with the children. Here the community leaders have founded an eco-tourism business based on health, drawing from the knowledge of previous generations to bring an authentic Thai experience to the visitors of today.
In further search of communities offering sustainable eco-tourism, we spend a day in the Huai Raeng farming district. In this tranquil forested area, a respect and gentle coexistence with the environment in evident. Taking a cruise on the Huai Raeng river lined with rattan palms we see how they harvest the leaves and catch prawns for consumption in little traps set upstream. We make betel palm leaf wraps, a traditional lunch pack with rice, salty eggs, walnuts, onion, pineapple. We are shown coconut oil and mangosteen soap-making and taste palm fruit which is juicy and a little like litchi in texture and flavour. The palms along the river have many uses including soft leaves for rolling cigarettes and thicker leaves for making dams. A day filled with rich experiences. In this area we stay at the Toscana Hotel in Trat.
All this eating and learning calls for time out and we took just that, crossing by ferry to Koh Chang Island – meaning island of the elephants – to spend a night at The Spa Khochang Resort. With rooms tucked up in thick palm and coconut trees, it’s very peaceful there and sleep is accompanied by the rustle of wind in the trees and croaking frogs in the steam below. Mornings bring birdsong with the option of a Thai healing massage, meditation and yoga. This is a wellness retreat, one that offers very affordable cleansing, detox, juicing, raw food diets and yoga packages. Activities from the spa include trips to the beach, walks in the mangrove forests and a lighthouse visit. There’s also very good shopping in the village if you need a change of scenery on any of the days.
From here I returned to Bangkok and this vibrant city that never sleeps. The Chao Phraya River runs through the alluvial plains now developed into various regions, each branching off into their independent lives and offerings. Traffic is crazy, yet public transport ranging from The Skytrain (BTS) and underground (MRT) rail systems to river taxis and express boats can easily be used to explore the many historic sites and attractions. Taxis are also reasonably cheap and you’d do well to take a Tuk-tuk, at least once.
Of the must-see attractions, is the Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha Temple where on a 60 acres property in the heart of the city, in 1782 the first King of Thailand started construction of these incredible temples and palaces with their intricate detail, mosaic, Buddhas, turrets and bells. The mythical animals command your attention and you’ll be marvelled by the beauty. Allow plenty of time and don’t get tricked. There are often ‘guides’ on the street here trying to con you into paying for entrance or a tour, there is no reason, find the entrance that is ALWAYS open and walk yourself around.
Cycling the City
For me a great delight was taking a half-day 25km city tour with Spice Roads Cycle Tours, crossing the Chao Phraya River and weaving our way through the Bang Kra Jao green zone known as the Bangkok lung. This amazing wilderness can only be reached by boat as no bridges span this part of the river and incredibly it has been left untouched by developers. Its like taking a journey back in time to a peaceful place with lush vegetation, a maze of tiny waterways, small villages, temples and real tropical jungle. If it wasn’t for Bangkok’s skyline, you would think you’d left the city Actually, Spice Roads offer numerous cycle tours around the city and the country.
The Kingdom of Ayutthaya
Take a day trip to visit the Wihan Phira Mongkhon Bophit Tempel at Ayutthaya, the first capital of Thailand and holder of the status for 417 years. An incredible depiction of how life was and insight into the much loved royal family. The bronze Buddha inside offers serenity and blessings and the groups of school children visiting a look at the future. We walked the ruins of Wat Phira Si Samphet with its ancient turrets, stairs, towers and walls. Took a long boat down the river and walked around the grounds of the Kings Summer Palace with it’s detailed buildings and topiary filled landscaped gardens and the surrounding village is well-developed with some good markets to shop at.
In Bangkok I stayed at the wonderful Amari Watergate Bangkok where the service was impeccable, the staff warm and incredibly helpful, the position excellent, especially for shopping and their green sustainability policies, inspiring given their location in the beat of the city. It’s easy to see why it’s the most popular hotel for South African’s visiting Bangkok. That and their Breeze Spa and rooftop pool and bar.
Returned and rather loved up by the destination and theme, I much look forward to returning in October where my trip will focus more on the coastal areas and I’ll manage some beach time. For now though, the varied shades of green sit well with the inevitable blue beauty of this extraordinary country.
Thailand Travel Tips
- There are no direct flights from South Africa to Bangkok. I flew from Cape Town on Singapore Airlines, with a convenient switch in Singapore. Other options include Cathay Pacific and Emirates, who both offer excellent value. Internal flights can be booked with Bangkok Air.
- South Africans do not need visas to visit Thailand.
- The currency is the Thai Baht and it makes our shaky SA Rand look pretty good. Most credit cards are welcome in the cities, although more remotely and while shopping at the markets, cash is essential.
- Best time to travel to Thailand? High Season is November to March, although the months of May to August, known as the rainy season, are a good option for excellent discounts. Also, the rain comes and goes, but it’s warm and doesn’t detract at all. Unless the sole purpose of your visit is as asunseeker.
- In the more remote areas not a lot of English is spoken and you may find you need a guide, or a language app to offer the basics.
- As always I picked up a local Simcard on arrival, 1GB of data and some airtime cost about R300 and lasted me 12 days. It really is the most cost effective way to stay in touch. Although there is good wifi almost everywhere.
- For more info on things to do in Thailand have a look at the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Amazing Thailand South Africa who do excellent work bringing the various aspects of the destination to life.
- Many of these villages mentioned are not that easily accessible without the help of somebody on the ground and I recommend Local Alike, a Thai-based social enterprise that assists with developing authentic eco-tourism while offering support to the communities for this.
Just about every Thai person has a nickname like ‘Pin’, ‘Bee’ or ‘Lek’ given to them by their parents. Old tradition has it that evil spirits are on the lookout for newborn children to snatch and using a nickname confuses them and keeps the child safe. They’re mostly endearing and will make it easier to remember names.
One last thing, a favourite Thai drink I want you to try. A double shot of coffee, sweetened with a shot of condensed milk, over a glass of ice with frothed foam to top it off. Delicious. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Delicious!
I travelled by invitation of Lesley Simpson Communications and was generously hosted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in association with 7 Greens Thailand, who advocate for sustainable ecotourism. Together they planned a brilliant itinerary that offered insight into a lesser known region and perspective of the country. One my hope is more people will get to know. After all community-based tourism seeks to uplift local communities while providing a rich, cultural experience for travellers, it’s a win-win for all.