There is a lot to see in the central region. Most visitors arrive in Bangkok, a true treasure house that literally has hundreds of sights. Prime sights are the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and Jim Thompson’s House, but it is just a small fragment of its historical and cultural heritage. The Bangkok Metropolitan Area is less inviting for foreigners, but there are some sights you can see. Samut Prakan has some interesting museums, or you could take a boat ride north to Nonthaburi, or even better, Ko Kret.
There are many day-trips you can undertake from Bangkok. The Summer Palace at Bang Pa-In makes for a nice stop on the way to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya has been the capital of Siam for 400 years and its historical remains should not be missed. There are literally hundreds of structures spread over and around the island, so renting a bicycle or moped is recommended. A short train ride north brings you to Lop Buri, a smaller historical town known for its macaques. Many visitors take in Lop Buri before getting onto the sleeper train to Northern Thailand.
There are endless fields of shrimp farms and rice paddies West of Bangkok, and of course the floating markets. The most popular among foreign visitors is Damnoen Saduak, but the locals prefer to visit Amphawa or Tha Kha. Samut Songkhram makes a good base for getting to the floating markets. A scenic way to get here is with the Mae Khlong Railway, a slow and rustic train that requires a boat transfer at the fishing village of Samut Sakhon. Nakhon Pathom makes a nice half-day visit to the Phra Pathom Chedi, the world’s tallest stupa.
Going west, the terrain becomes more hilly as you get into the River Kwai Valleys. Kanchanaburi is another popular stop on the tourist trail for the bridge over the River Kwai and its World War II Museums. If you have a few days to spend in this area, some of the interesting attractions include the Erawan Falls and Hellfire Pass. A popular activity is to take a train ride over the bridge, just for the heck of it. You could even go all the way to Sangkhlaburi and Three Pagodas Pass, a bus ride of four hours to the border with Myanmar.
If you’re heading for the south, the Northern Gulf Coast has a lot to offer visitors. There are the beach resorts of Hua Hin, Cha-am, and Ban Krut. Phetchaburi has a charming old quarter and is often visited as a day-trip from Bangkok, Hua Hin, or Cha-am. Hua Hin is also home to the waterfalls of the Kaeng Krachan National Park and the natural scenery of the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park. Finally, you could continue the way to the beaches and islands of Southern Thailand.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The canal-side way of life in Amphawa takes place along the waterfront walkways of Amphawa Canal, a small tributary of the Mae Khlong River. Every weekend Thais flock to the Amphawa Floating Market, as big queues emerge along the canal’s bridges and walkways. While commercially developed, the old wooden houses and shopfronts retain some of their original charms.
Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya became the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai. Throughout the centuries, the ideal location between China, India, and the Malay Archipelago made Ayutthaya the trading capital of Asia and even the world. By 1700 Ayutthaya had become the largest city in the world with a total of 1 million inhabitants. Many international merchants set sail for Ayutthaya, from diverse regions as the Arab world, China, India, Japan, Portugal, the Netherlands, and France. Merchants from Europe proclaimed Ayutthaya as the finest city they had ever seen. Dutch and French maps of the city show grandeur with gold-laden palaces, large ceremonies, and a huge float of trading vessels from all over the world. All this came to a quick end when the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1767 and almost completely burnt the city down to the ground.
Popularized as a resort in the early-1920s by King Prajadhipok, Hua Hin is closely associated with the Thai royal family and is a quiet and relaxing seaside resort ideal for family vacations. Until 1934, it was known as Samore Riang, or “rows of rocks.”.The tranquil fishing village was turned into a royal resort and consequently became popular among Siam’s nobility and upper classes. In 1928, Prajadhipok built his Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries) Palace. As of 2007, Klai Kangwon is a full-time residence of the current king and is not open for visitors, although the outer palace grounds are open for walkers and joggers (wear shoes, have sleeved shirts that cover at least your upper arms, and bring your passport).
The 3-mile long beach itself is pretty, more so than Pattaya’s, and the sea is relatively clean. However, most of the beach can completely disappear along certain parts of the coast during high tide. Besides just sunbathing, snorkeling and swimming, visitors can also enjoy golf, spas, caves, peaks, waterfalls, shops, seafood, and nearby national parks. The town is clean, warm, and laid-back, making it ideal for families and couples.
For most visitors, the main sight of interest is the Bridge over the River Kwai (pronounced khwaae as in air), as the start of the infamous World War II Death Railway to Burma (now Myanmar), as well as the many associated museums. There is an increasingly thriving backpacker scene taking advantage of the chilled-out riverside vibe for those that need to get away from Bangkok. Kanchanaburi is also the gateway to the surrounding province of the same name. More foreign visitors are discovering why Thais know it as one of the most beautiful provinces in the country with its easily accessible waterfalls and national parks.
Lopburi is famous for the hundreds of crab-eating macaques that overrun the Old Town, especially in the area around Phra Prang Sam Yod and Phra Kaan Shrine. Keep an eye out for monkeys hanging from trees and wires and sitting on roofs and ledges, and be aware that they have some unpleasant bad habits including defecating on unsuspecting pedestrians from their overhead perches, jumping on people to snatch food and stealing bags that they suspect may contain something edible. Monkeys also have a penchant for stealing eyeglasses, hats, cameras, cigarettes, water bottles, and anything they can rip from a bag or pockets. Some guesthouses lend brooms to tourists to take with them to the locations that are overrun with animals. It is best to take turns shooting photos while others look out for swift-moving opportunistic monkeys. Take care not to get scratched or bit. Should this happen, a prompt visit to a clinic for shots is advisable. It is best not to feed the monkeys. If you feed one, you will become the center of attention for many others, and you will eventually run out of things to distract them with.
The annual Monkey Festival is held the last Saturday and Sunday of November at the Phra Prang Sam Yot shrine. More than 10,000 people come to see the monkeys eat on Sunday from a massive buffet of fresh fruit and vegetables. It is believed that the monkeys bring good luck. As many as 3,000 crab-eating macaque monkeys live in the area. This festival also falls close to the lunar Loi Krathong Festival. Hotels in Old Town sell out completely.
Phetchaburi is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand, mentioned in historical records dating to the 8th century, and having significant standing artifacts dating to the 12th century. There are numerous temples in and around the city center and market area, in addition to the Royal Palace known informally as Khao Wang that dominates the skyline. The city is situated on the River Phet (“diamond” in Thai), which originates in the Kaeng Krachan National Park and flows into the Gulf of Thailand at Baan Laem. Phetchaburi is a predominantly agricultural province, and the city reflects this with a large and thriving traditional market, buzzing with activity from pre-dawn until mid-day, and replete with the aromas of everything. It is very much a working city, with few tourists, nor the infrastructure to support them.