Ayutthaya (pronounced Eye-U-tee-a), Thailand’s 14th century capital and Rama V’s more modern summer palace are together. Look for the Buddha head that has banyan tree roots entwined around it at Wat Maha That (ruins). Before the Burmese destroyed it in 1767, it had 300 temples.
World War II history buffs or people who have seen the 1957 Academy Award-winning movie, enjoy “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” About 80 miles from Bangkok on the border in Kanchanaburi, it was built by slaves and 7,000 POWs as part of a Japanese supply route. Many died from starvation and disease. They are buried at the adjacent military cemetery. Note: The actual bridge was built in another place. Pierre Boulle, author of the book on which the movie was based, was not aware of its exact location.
A quick flight north brings you to Chiang Rai. The Hill Tribes and the long-necked live in the area. If you want to splurge, opt for the all-inclusive Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. It exudes tranquility and the staff treats you like family. Laos, Myanmar and flocks of flying birds are visible from the hotel‘s windows.
The hotel works with The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). They protect the animals and the mahouts (elephant trainers). No wonder the hotel’s most popular activity is elephant trekking. Not in a howdah (elephant seat) but perched atop the elephant’s neck. It’s a bit challenging, but clinging to the elephant’s ears keeps riders from falling.
The hotel also offers food carving classes. Instructors teach students to create leaves from cucumbers and roses from tomatoes. To conceal my failures from my teacher, I ate them.
A short ride from the hotel, in Sop Ruak lies the real Golden Triangle. Here the Mekong and Nam Ruak rivers border Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Souvenir stalls line one side of the street. On the other side sits a giant golden Buddha. The huge golden filigree walls honor the former queen’s 72nd birthday.
On the road to Chiang Mai, The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is a “must see.” Built to honor the late King Rama IX, this amazing structure looks like no other Buddhist temple. It sits alongside a reflecting pool. Its white color symbolizes heaven. Mirrored accents sparkle in the sun. Upon entering, visitors ascend a bridge over “hell” and enter “heaven.” From the inside, the door resembles a demon’s mouth. A wall mural depicts modern life. It includes 9/11, Elvis, the Minions, and eyes that have Osama Bin Laden in one and George Bush in the other. A golden Buddha sits above it all.
Though Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the golden hilltop temple and the night markets are famous, Chiang Mai has hidden gems. The Sankampaeng Hot Springs is one of them. A souvenir stand sells raw eggs to cook in the springs.
Steam vents that erupt out of the springs fill the air with mist, warmth and the smell of sulfur. Meanwhile, everyone is posing for pictures, picnicking, soaking their feet in the ponds or going to the baths. There is a pond for “fish pedicures” where little creatures nibble away and make feet and calves smooth.
Get an early morning start (6:30 am) in order to see Kruba Srivichai Monument and feed the monks. While kneeling, offer them food and pour holy water into a bowl. They will bless you. The water is then returned to the earth. It is very moving.
Wieng Kum Kam, the former 13th century capital, was discovered by a homeless man in 1984. Accessible by horse cart. Wat That Khao (temple) boasts a Buddha inside another Buddha. Robbers decapitated Buddha heads hoping to find gold inside. Many have been reattached.
The 700-plus-year old White Stupa has a pyramid-shape. External walls contain multitudes of Buddha-encased niches. A solid gold parasol and lightening rod crown it. Women aren’t allowed in many Buddhist temples like this one.
Viewing all these sights can work up an appetite. A favorite local lunch stop, Kao Mao Kao Fang Restaurant, enjoys an amazing tropical setting with waterfalls, a lake, vibrant orchids and gardens. The food is as luscious as the surroundings.
Another delight to the senses, the 240-acre Royal Park Rajapruek is in Chiang Mai’s Mae Hia District. Built to honor the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX), it bursts with the scents of colorful flowers, the scent of orchids and the tinkling sound of waterfalls and fountains. One section has giant insect sculptures. The International Gardens has plots from 30 nations, each reflecting its native heritage, like Canada’s First Nations totem pole.
A long, pink, terracotta path leads to the Lanna-styled royal museum, Ho Kham Royal Pavilion. The patterned landscape, statues and reflecting pool are a jaw-dropping sight from the terrace of the pavilion. The museum houses the king’s treasures.
At Elephant Poo Park, learn how poo becomes paper. A spinner rack of greeting cards is labeled “Precious Movements.” Everyone cannot resist buying something.
After all that sightseeing, set aside a day or two for beach time. Go south. Not to the touristy areas but to Koh Lanta. Set on the side of a mountain with jungles, fountains and waterfalls, Pimalai Resort borders the Andaman Sea. The beach has sugary sand and you probably will be one of the few people on it. Note: Keep the doors closed unless you want to share your room with some monkeys.
If you are like me, you will return to Thailand again and again.
For more information, contact: www.destination-asia.com or visit our website at www.tourismthailand.org