For those who have not been to Asia, I always recommend a trip to this vast continent and warn that in our provincialism too often do we in the US lump Asia and Asian people together as if going to India was the same as visiting Tokyo or that the Buddhist culture and history in China were the same as in Laos–but, like the US–but on steroids, Asia is not one thing or one place or one people. Instead, for travelers, it offers a vast array of opportunities to visit, engulf oneself in culture, food, sights, history, language, visuals and life. So, I would never presume to write an article about “visiting Asia” just as I tried to convey in the Africa month that it was an impossibility to treat a visit to one part of Africa as a visit which informs of the whole of the continent.
But, one has to start somewhere (though, admittedly, I started in the most amazing packed of places, Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat and the many hundreds of temples are visited in Cambodia) so I wanted to start where I would recommend a first time Asian visitor to start–in Thailand. Why Thailand? Because the infrastructure is in place for a first time visitor who likely does not speak Thai (or Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Malay etc.) to relax into a trip which allows a real immersion into the culture without a backpack, map and compass. It is also one of the friendliest of people in the world and, frankly, no one cooks better in the world (even my Italian Grandfather–sorry Grandpa Frank). A visit to Thailand allows for an “easy” immersion into culture, religion, philosophy, gourmet living, history, language–if you really try, of the Thai people. Like the Italians (I couldn’t diss my Grandfather and not speak up a bit for his heritage), the Thai people are those in Asia that, to me, seem to live each moment of life in the present–joyously and vibrantly. And the feeling is easy to catch and “ride” while traveling throughout Thailand. So, Sawadee (Welcome) to Thailand!
It starts in Bangkok–one of my favorite frenetic cities in the world (though there is and will always be New York!). I love the place–even just walking around but also spending some time on the river (Chao Phraya) just taking the people ferry up and downriver. The food, sights and smells are both exotic and comforting. Yes, it is filled with frenetic traffic (though improved by the order of the King issued when I first visited in 1995 and the Order worked! and also by the skyrail metro system) and there is air pollution (though, again, much less than when I first visited in 1995) and cracked sidewalks and the air is always hot and sticky BUT the disorder or even chaos is all part of the experience. The streets are full but the crowd is not pushy–people walk, amble even, but give space which is not so in several other frenetic world capitals (from Tokyo to Times Square). There is shopping (a critical part of the Thai culture seems to be about shopping) and phenomenal eating (a critical part of the Thai culture is definitely about eating) everywhere. In fact, it would be hard to pick a best restaurant or even several to recommend–I would ask at the hotel and be adventurous. Take taxis or the odd little tuk-tuks all over in search of your perfect Thai meal.
Where to stay in Bangkok–again, there are many great options but for me the timeless best is the Hotel Sukhothai (www.sukhothai.com). It is a phenomenal hotel (especially if you can afford to upgrade to one of the spectacularly delightful Garden Suites–and this isn’t the highest upgrade by far but these are my personal favorite rooms in Asia). For an in city hotel on an incredibly busy, wide and unattractive boulevard, the hotel brings one immediately to bliss. One enters from the busy boulevard and drives down a long narrow street and then suddenly there are lotus ponds and a striking hotel that is at once historic in its dimensions and modernly stylish in its verve. The hotel footprint is based upon the great ruins of Sukhothai–one of the great kingdoms from hundreds of years ago and a place of ruins today that can be visited–albeit not that easily due to its being almost in the dead center of the country (a serious investment of time must be given for such a visit–and, honestly, I have not done so–being satisfied combining a stay at the splendid hotel and mixed with a trip to Ayutthaya (great ruins of another ancient kingdom approachable from Bangkok by vehicle–though a 3 hour journey each way–but if one has time, it is a greatly worthwhile visit). The hotel’s rooms are all wow-producing and the garden suites have what may be the largest bathrooms I have ever seen in a hotel. I cannot recommend this hotel enough (I have stayed 6 times already and each time I venture to another hotel in Bangkok, I quickly realize the error of my ways). Strongly also recommended is a meal at Celadon which is one of the hotel’s restaurants and its principal Thai restaurant located among lotus ponds. Probably one of the finest green curry with chicken imaginable (and pairs nicely with a pinot noir or even a Syrah/Shiraz).
In Bangkok, go ahead and set up a tour. I am generally anti-tours (and buses in particular) but Bangkok is too vast and too unique to trust to a guide book and shoe leather. That said, I like hiring a private guide and going on a mix of a walking, taxi, tuk tuk, water taxi/people ferry, klong (canals) boat day tour. Ideally, one needs a couple of such days in Bangkok to cover the must do’s (Wat Pho, Wat Arun, the Grand Palace, Wat Traitmit–for the Golden Buddha and so many more). Three days is ideal for two days of walking
tours, some shopping and possibly a trip to Ayutthaya (four nights). A couple of notes: the new international airport is quite far (about an hour even with no traffic and that day/night really doesn’t happen) so plan plenty of time. Eating is delightful and give that some time too. Thai people graze eating little bits of lots of things and will frown (inwardly) if one rushes the dining experience (or in any way acts loutish). Thai people believe in joy, treating others well (i.e. the Golden Rule) and in balance. If you go to Thailand and don’t meet Thai people and talk about life, the trip is not complete.
And, remember, Thailand is far more than Bangkok so plan to go elsewhere–will blog on those ideas too in the future (but a hint–the Rayavadee Resort in Krabi–an option to Phuket or addition to it–is my favorite beach resort in the world–about a one hour flight south of Bangkok on the Andaman Sea side of the peninsula). Some further hints about Bangkok: have lunch at Sala Rim Naan affiliated with but across the river from the famed Oriental Hotel (catch the water taxi from the hotel across the Chao Phraya)–it is a buffet but that word doesn’t do justice with the brilliance of the meal and try Sorn Daeng, a phenomenal restaurant near the Democracy Monument–phonetically: pet, ma ma, kap means–I like my food hot and spicy–and they will happily oblige you there!; have dinner at Benjarong and/or Sala Thip (affiliated with the Shangri La Hotel–a spectacular red curry) and/or the Seafood Market (interesting concept–its a modern market where you buy fresh fish and vegetables etc. and then they cook it–cute and not too touristy). Go to Bed with some new Thai friends (the Supperclub and nightclub that looks like a spaceship that is–a great fun look at youthful Bangkok). If you are gay, there is little discrimination in Thailand and everyone will make you welcome. That said, the nightclub and bar scene is always changing and I recommend checking out www.utopia-asia.com as a great informational website–and they will book hotels and tours too–in fact, I have engaged their guides for the daytime walking tours that I recommend above on several occasions and find their guides to be fantastic and smart. Gay or straight, this website provides a great option for hiring walking tour guides in Bangkok.
Sawadee, Bangkok–a very welcome and welcoming place. Look for availability at the Sukhothai Hotel below on Tablet.