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Sunset at Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn Photograph by Zoe Roos )
A green glass statue of Buddha Photograph by Zoe Roos )
A monk climbs the 309 steps to Wat Phra That Temple Photograph by Zoe Roos )
A female monk prepares flowers for offerings at temple Photograph by Zoe Roos )
Elephants play under a waterfall at the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary Photograph by Zoe Roos )
A shrine to the former prince of in Bangkok Chang Mai sits in the jungle atop the highest mountain in Thailand Photograph by Zoe Roos )
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From the palaces to the pad Thai, a trip to the Kingdom of Thailand is an adventure unlike any other. As the country makes its place in an ever-changing world, Thailand has embraced the old with the new, preserving its royal splendor while striving to evolve. Today, tourism drives a large segment of the economy, so for us visitors Thailand has rolled out the welcome mat and the invitation is certainly worth accepting.
Bangkok, Thailand's capital city, is a major metropolis. Disregard any thoughts you might have about Bangkok still resembling something out of The King and I; the streets are crammed with people, cars, markets, and tourists. But in between the skyscrapers (many of which have rooftop bars – a nice idea if you are looking for a panoramic picture, but maybe not the best idea if you have a fear of heights or hope to have more than one cocktail) the glory of Thailand's long royal history shines through.
Palaces and temples can be found everywhere – buildings dripping in gold, jewels, and ornate decoration. One of the more famous is the Grand Palace, located in the heart of the city. The palace has more than 100 buildings including Wat Phra Kaew, home to the Emerald Buddha, the most revered Buddha image in all of Thailand. Be warned that when you visit the Grand Palace, no matter what time of day you go, you are likely going to be there at the same time as every other tourist in Thailand but don't let it deter you – a visit to the palace is worth the crowds.
A river runs through the city and a boat is a good way to hop from market to market or palace to palace (or just to avoid all the car traffic). One of the more impressive sights along the river is Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn. As the name suggests, when the sun hits the temple at first light or at sunset, the pearly surface of the temple begins to shimmer and glow.
Outside of the main city is the former capital of the Thai Kingdom, Ayutthaya. The city was destroyed by the Burmese army in the mid-1700s but large sections of the city have been restored or preserved and is now considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. It's here, at the former royal Temple Wat Mahathat, that you can see a stone Buddha head entwined in tree roots.
Thailand is famous for its markets and the area in and around Bangkok boasts plenty of them. One of the more famous is known as the floating market. Hundreds of boats squeeze through a narrow channel as locals sell every type of food imaginable. Another market to see is the Maeklong Railway Market but this stop might not be for someone with an acute sense of smell. The market is set up along and on a railroad track and the goods for sale are very fresh – the vegetables and the meat (no greater way to know your fish is fresh than to see its head chopped off right in front of you). What makes this market unique though is the choreographed dance that happens six times a day when the train comes through. Merchants quickly move their goods just a mere two feet off the tracks and pull in their awnings when the warning whistle sings. Once the train passes, everyone moves back and business carries on as if a massive metal engine didn't just come lumbering through.
If you came to Thailand to see the beauty of the country though, Bangkok is not the place to stay for long. In the north is the second largest city, Chiang Mai. Nestled in the mountains and jungle, visitors can hike up to the tallest peak in Thailand and explore a vast array of wildlife. The city itself is significantly smaller than Bangkok and not throttled by tourists but there are still plenty of markets and temples to explore, particularly in the Old City in the center of Chiang Mai. The street food scene is quite the adventure – visitors can try everything from bugs (I was too afraid to ask what kind), to exotic fruits, to traditional local dishes including pad Thai; there is a lot of pad Thai
The northern part of the country is also home to Thailand's most famous and revered resident – the elephant. In the past few decades the country has taken massive steps to protect and revitalize the elephant population, evidence by the numerous elephant jungle sanctuaries. At the Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, visitors have the chance to feed, play, and bath the elephants.
Despite their enormous size, elephants are kind, intelligent, and playful animals. Contrary to what their physical features might suggest, elephants cannot see or hear very well so they are constantly sniffing you with their trunks to say hello or just to see if you have any food in your pockets (elephants eat constantly). Watching the gentle giants lumbering around, eating, playing in the mud, and protecting their children is a sight to behold.
There is plenty to do and see in Thailand but once you arrive it is clear there is one key feature that explains why so many visitors decide to become full-time residents – the people. The Thai people are proud, gracious, hard working, and extraordinarily kind. They lead lives that are simple and sometimes difficult, but the Thai people have a remarkable sense of balance. Maybe the balance stems from Buddhism or their history or the land itself but whatever the reason, the Thai peoples' acceptance of life's ups and downs and their understanding of their place in the bigger picture sets the Thai people apart from the rest.
When and How to travel
Obviously its not a quick hop to get to Thailand. The plane (or more likely planes) ride takes well over 14 hours and adjusting to the time change once you cross the date line can take a few days.
As with many countries in south East Asia, Thailand is extremely hot during the summer or dry season, which runs from March to July. Avoid April – the hottest month of the year - at all cost and July through October is monsoon season so unless you love humidity and fancy the idea of swimming from one place to the next, best to avoid those months too. October through February is the ideal time to visit. Temperatures range from 70 to 80 during the day – essentially the ideal escape from a New England winter.
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