There are many different facets to Thailand if you steer away from the beach resorts for a few days, travel editor Winsor Dobbin discovers.
Most visitors to Thailand head straight for the beach. Whether it be the sands of Phuket, the fun of Koh Samui, the sleaze of Pattaya or the laidback charm of Hua Hin, their aim is to spend as much time as possible enjoying the sun.
But there are many sides to Thailand, including the big city hustle and bustle of Bangkok, which is well worth a couple of days of exploration, and the country charm of towns like Kanchanaburi, where life moves at a slower pace.
Here you can ride on a long tail boat along the River Kwai, visit fascinating local night markets, tour elaborate country temples and chat with local designers who create jewellery from onyx and other local stones that sell for a quarter of the price here that they would fetch in Bangkok.
The small town is well off the radar of most visitors to Thailand, yet offers a fascinating combination of rural charm and dark history.
Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control during World War II. Asian labourers and Allied prisoners of war were forced into building the infamous Burma Railway, including the bridge and Hellfire Pass, around an hour’s drive away. Almost half of the prisoners working on the project died from disease, maltreatment or starvation.
Kanchanaburi province is around three hours from Bangkok. It has a past that impacted many Australians, whose descendants are drawn to visiting the bridge, taking a drive out to Hellfire Pass and touring the local war cemeteries and museums. (Its location at the edge of a mountain range keeps it much cooler than the other provinces of central Thailand.)
Local attractions include taking rustic local trains through remote countryside; Wat Tham Phu Wa, a temple which features a series of grotto shrines within a large limestone cave system, and several elephant sanctuaries. Thankfully, a temple at which visitors could pose with drugged tigers was recently closed down. There are also waterfalls and national parks.
In both the Felix River Kwai Resort, and the region as a whole, you get a sense of the real Thailand. The food is not dumbed down for visitors and many of the locals have barely a word of English. At the lively Kanchanaburi night markets, pointing can be a very effective means of communication.
The capital and by far the biggest city in Thailand, Bangkok sits in the delta of the Chao Phraya River and has a population of over 8 million people, with over 14 million in the conurbation. It is one of the great gourmet capitals of the world.
The city has boomed over the past two decades becoming a major drawcard for tourists from around the globe, including Australia.
Because Thailand is such a large country, with diverse culinary influences, even street food styles can vary dependent on where the vendor is from.
Thai food is generally aromatic, spicy and complex and often dozens of ingredients are involved. There are Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese influences at play and rice, chilli and fish sauce are ubiquitous and coconut milk common. Dishes are usually served all at the same time, and contrary to what many believe, Thais do not generally use chopsticks.
Street food can feature many dishes that westerners are familiar with, including tom yam goong soup, pad Thai, som tam (spicy green papaya salad), various curries and simple choices like fried rice and noodle dishes.
Hawkers often make stir-fries and curries to order; although others have dishes simmering, ready to be eaten. Just point at what you like the look of, be it sun-dried seafood, crispy pork belly, skewered meats, Thai fish cakes, or Chinese-style pork buns. Freshly sliced fruit, served with sticky rice, is popular as a dessert.
My favourite affordable restaurants in Bangkok include the quirky Cabbages and Condoms, and Suk 11 in the leafy gardens of a popular hostel.
There is also Suda, something of a Bangkok icon and popular both with local workers, who appreciate the snappy service, and visitors keen to try ‘authentic’ dishes on a budget.
Turn up the price-meter and you have the likes of superstar chef David Thompson’s much-awarded Nahm for modern Thai cuisine, and – a real surprise – fabulous and authentic Italian food at Attico, on the 28th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel.
Attico is a great space with tempting displays of cured meats, artisan cheeses and signature home-baked breads, along with an open kitchen – and the food is outstanding.
While Bangkok is a foodie paradise there are myriad other attractions.
Among the many highlights is the weekend market at Chatuchak Park in Bangkok, one of the world’s most famous street markets – and also one of the largest.
You’ll find everything here from handmade shoes to banana smoothies; Thai country and western singers, antiques and artworks – all just a short metro ride from downtown Bangkok
Most visitors will want to do a ferry ride on the Chao Praya River and visit the Wat Phra Kaew Buddhist temple and Grand Palace, the big Buddhas of Wat Pho, and Jim Thompson House, home of a famous silk entrepreneur. Some will watch a Muay Thai boxing card.
There is shopping galore, whether you favour one of the many street markets or shopping malls populated by global brands.
Be aware, however, that Bangkok traffic can be an abomination, particularly when it rains, and that there can be long queues in sweltering temperatures to get into the major attractions. The Skytrain and the subway system are, however, easy to use but patience is definitely key to enjoying the Thai capital.
Need to know
Qantas operates daily A330 services from Sydney to Bangkok with connections from all Australian capital cities. www.qantas.com.
For more information try the Tourism Authority of Thailand website: www.tourismthailand.org.
Where to stay
Movenpick Hotel Sukhumvit 15 is a brilliantly situated hotel with comfortable rooms, great staff and a rooftop pool and bar. Right in the centre of the action in the Sukhumvit district, it is walking distance to both Asoke and Nana BTS stations as well as Sukhumvit MRT.
The hotel is a few hundred metres down Sukhumvit Soi 15, but that means you have convenience plus peace and quiet. And the hotel has free TukTuk taxis 24 hours a day to whisk you to either the corner of Sukhumvit Road or Terminal 21 shopping centre.
There are 297 rooms and suites with a choice of garden courtyard and city views; fast and free wifi access and modern bathrooms with walk-in rain shower. All rooms have complimentary tea and coffee making facilities.
Mövenpick Hotel Sukhumvit 15 Bangkok, 47 Sukhumvit 15, Sukhumvit Road, Klong Toei Nuea, Wattana, 10110 Bangkok. +66 2 119 3100.
Felix River Kwai Resort is a delightful older-style resort on the banks of the River Kwai, which has 255 rooms and suites, all with private balconies, as well as a Log Cabin retreat for celebrity visitors. The very spacious rooms start online from around $90 a night. You can walk across the bridge to town.
There are two large and very clean swimming pools, expansive gardens, and a walkway along the river, streams running through the gardens that are home to some huge carp and two tennis courts. The food here is spicy and authentic – and on weekends there are dinner cruises along the river.
Felix River Kwai Resort Kanchanaburi, 9/1, Thamakham 12 Alley, Tha Ma Kham, Muang, Kanchanaburi 71000, Thailand. +66 34 551 000. www.felixriverkwai.co.th.