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Thursday, 02 July 2015 12:30

Southeast Asia: A Thailand and Laos Experience

Written by  Marian Goldberg
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asia-seasia-largeSoutheast Asia is “the best bang for your buck,” a travel agent told me at a recent PATA event. It is so true. The nations of Southeast Asia: Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam are each distinctive in their own right, but collectively they offer a tremendous variety of experiences at exceptional value for the dollar carrying traveler. Spas, cuisine, history, adventure, nature, traditional crafts, luxury shopping, river cruising, religion and festivals, traditions and customs, people-to-people interactions, and so much more await curious travelers for far less than in other destinations. In Bali, Indonesia, for example, the cost of a car-and-English-speaking driver for a full day is about 500,000 Rupiah or just $37. That’s about the cost of a one-way, coach-class Heathrow Express train to Central London! No wonder PATA, in its 2014-2018 Visitor Forecast (http://bit.ly/1HgrOXx), projects that the top five fastest growing destinations (in terms of average annual growth rate) in the Asia Pacific region for this period will be: Thailand at 27.5%, Myanmar at 17.7%, Cambodia at 13.2%; Bhutan at 12.9%, and Lao PDR at 11.6%.

THAILAND TOURISM
Even Thailand, despite a 2014 military coup that threatened its tourism industry, still welcomed over 24.8 million travelers last year. Nevertheless, Thailand wants to boost this number and as such has declared 2015 the “Discover Thainess Year.” A key element of this was the launch of their “Discover Thainess” campaign, which they discussed in detail at the Thai Travel Mart (TTM) in Bangkok in June 2015. The seven pillars of this campaign include: (1) Thai Food, (2) Thai Arts (3) Thai Way of Life (promoting closer bonds with the locals), (4) Thai Wellness, (5) Thai Festivals, (6) Thai Wisdom (such as oral folk teachings passed down in families), (7) Thai Fun (allowing visitors to enjoy the ‘easy-going’ character of the people of the “Land of Smiles”).
Focusing on the “distinct character of the Thai people,” the campaign emphasizes the interactive engagement of tourists with lessons in Muay Thai boxing, authentic cooking, Thai massage and traditional dance. In promoting its arts, Thailand is focusing on its unique textile heritage. The Queen of Silk Festival (http://bit.ly/1J5maa0) in August 2015, introduces Thai culture to leading fashion designers, fashion students, bloggers, and fashion media by focusing on the importance of Thai Silk’s community manufacturing element and the use of Thai textiles in international fashion.
Already the campaign is working. Visitation by Americans was up 6.5% for the first quarter of 2015, and I can personally attest that the Discover Thainess program is engaging. I joined a night market culinary adventure organized by Bangkok Food Tours (www.bangkokfoodtours.com). The company is founded by Chinawut Chinaprayoon, who holds a PhD in Technology Innovation from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, but now, he is a culinary tourism guru, doing a lot of work with travel agents. We zoomed around Bangkok in his company’s extra safe Tuk-Tuks, which actually feature metal mesh on the sides to prevent passing motorcyclists from grabbing your bag or purse. We stopped at three restaurants/food stands and a dessert place, and also visited the flower market. I was amazed at how much they can do with fresh eggs and noodles and how everything was not as spicy as I was expecting. They do understand you when you ask for mild! At the flower market, I actually got to make my own mock flower out of a lotus bud by peeling back the numerous, thick petals. I was very pleased that my creation was of high enough quality that the stall owner kept it as his inventory to sell as one of his temple offerings! At the end of the evening we enjoyed a Thai beer, while looking out over the Temple of Dawn from a rooftop bar. On another day, we visited the craftspeople at the Royal Thai Arts Center (www.royalthairtc.com). The wood carving was intricate and exquisite, and I could have watched the carvers work for more than the few minutes we had. However, beyond that, the prices for hand-crafted, tailored-to-your-preferred-color-and-design (carved, inlaid, or plain) wooden furniture, including shipping and insurance, could never be found in the United States.

REGIONAL GEMS
Another aspect of the Discover Thainess program are the “12 Hidden Gems” - areas of the Thai Kingdom, which are off-the-beaten-path, but afford tourists a small town, authentic experience of the true Thailand. These regions include: (1) Lampang or the “The Sleeping Beauty” (where time stands still), (2) Phetchabun or “Bliss in the Mist” (land of mist shrouded mountains of flowers), (3) Nan: “Slow Life Zone” (the most romantic province in Thailand), (4) Buriram or “Dual Diversions” (where ancient Khmer and modern Thai civilizations meet), (5) Loei or “Be Cool” (wisdom of the mountains), (6) Samut Songkhram or “A River Runs Through it” (glory of the rivers), (7) Ratchaburi or The Arts (the age-old arts of Thailand), (8) Trat or Islands of Dreams, (9) Chanthaburi or “The Fruitful Land” (home to all Thai fruits), (10) Trang or “All You Can Eat” (exotic nature and cuisine), (11) Chumphon or “Eternal Beach” (beautiful beaches and crystal clear sea), (12) Nakhon Si Thammarat or “Pure Indulgence” (distinct religion and nature).
I had the opportunity to actually visit Nan (number “3” above) with a small group. Located in the northern part of the Thai Kingdom, just two hours by car from the Laos border, it was a magnificently quiet, peaceful town, with temples, cafes, and the lovely Nan Boutique Hotel (http://tazshotels.com). During the day it was extremely hot. I was struck by all the white - white light, white buildings, and even delicious white coconut milk ice cream. Here too, after nightfall we attended the market - featuring clothing, souvenirs and all manner of food - fish soup with the heads bobbing, grilled squid, curries, noodles, and exotic vegetables and fruits. It was held just outside a performance square, where we watched a free, traditional, costumed musical and dance presentation, while eating the most flavorful little bananas I have ever tasted. However, what impressed me the most was how clean it was. Everyone was picnicking, but no one left any trash!

BEYOND THAILAND
In order to encourage travelers to venture to Nan, which requires an hour flight from Bangkok’s domestic airport (Low cost carriers are available; we took Nok Air: www.nokair.com), TAT is working with Thai tour operators to create itineraries combining Nan and Lao PDR. Our operator was “AF” - Absolutely Fantastic Holidays (www.absolutelyfantasticho
lidays.com), and they had taken care of our Laos visas for us while we were still in Bangkok. Thus, after two nights in Nan, we drove to the Huay Kon International Border, where we picked up a Laos tour guide (who turned out to be a former monk) and not only switched mini-vans but also switched the side of the rode on which we drove. (Thailand drives like the British, but Laos drives “American-style.”) After going through immigration in a little hut-like facility displaying the photo of former Premier of Laos (I guess they like him better than the current ruler), we drove to the edge of the Mekong River. Here the mini-van boarded a precarious “ferry,” which was more like raft with a motor. It did in fact cross the river, but the van got stuck in the mud, so after we jumped from the van, half-a-dozen Laos boys came over with wooden planks to dig the van out. We finally made it and drove on to our accommodations in five-star rooms at the French-owned Pak Beng Lodge
(www.pakbenglodge.com).
The next day we sailed for a relaxing eight hours along the Mekong River. We made stops to visit the famed Ting Tham Poumand Caves and the village of Bang Xang Hai, famous for its whisky making and fabric dyeing. Finally, the boat arrived at the capital Luang Prabang, where we spent two more nights staying at the Villa Santi Hotel (www.villasantihotel.com). Luang Prabang was like an upscale suburb, with trendy shops, nice restaurants, and pious orange-robed monks - whom we fed in a 5am ritual along the town streets. We also took a bicycle tour to the morning market and the world heritage sites including: the National Museum (the former royal family palace), Wat Prathat Pusi and Wat Chiang Thong. Then we flew back to bustling Bangkok, where we made our final shopping spree before leaving for home. It was the perfect combination of big city, small town, and under explored places: a very good tour, thanks to a very good marketing strategy.
For more information on travel to Thailand and combined Thailand-Laos packages, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand: www.tourismthailand.org or call (323) 461 9814 in Los Angeles or (212) 432 0433 in New York.

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