Almost every country in the world promotes the friendliness of its people, and it's true that you'll find at least a few friendly people wherever you go. Thailand is a cut above most destinations, though, with travelers being welcomed with warmth by almost everyone. You'll notice it from the time you check into your hotel and experience the traditional Thai greeting, a prayer-like gesture called wai, to the good-natured coaxing from a taxi driver trying to get you to use his services.
A reception like this encourages visitors to get out and explore on their own. Most travelers will arrive in Bangkok, one of the most frenetic and exciting cities in the world. While you're planning visits to iconic sites such as the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha and the Temple of the Dawn, take the time to step off the tourist path and experience Bangkok like a native. Hire one of the ubiquitous three-wheeled open-air taxis called tuk tuks and hold on for a thrill ride through Bangkok's notorious traffic. You may breathe in more than your fair share of exhaust, but all your senses will be engaged. Just be sure to set a price before embarking, and hold on if the ride gets bumpy—the lack of shocks in a tuk tuk can wreak havoc on your tail bone.
Another insider way to navigate the city is to take a river taxi. These are very inexpensive since they cater to locals. Just wander down to one of the landings at the Chao Phraya River—the river that splits Bangkok—and buy a ticket. Even if your journey is aimless, it is a fresh-air respite from the city.
What Not to Miss
People in Bangkok never stop eating. Eateries abound, especially open-air restaurants preparing Thai dishes with fragrant spices such as lemongrass, coriander and chilies. I wouldn't recommend eating street food—nine times out of ten you'd emerge unscathed, but who wants to chance being sidelined with a stomach ailment? What you can do is buy a Singah beer or soft drink and relax at a tiny table like a native, watching Bangkok hurry by.
Shopping is best in Bangkok, but phenomenal throughout the country. If shoppers want to do some good with each purchase they make, they should search out traditional items created by the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) project.
OTOP products are handmade by local artisans such as weavers, wood carvers, potters, silversmiths and basket makers. OTOP villages are being developed so that visitors can go to the source and even stay overnight in the artisan communities. At present, there are more than 8,000 products in the OTOP special collections category. These include brass, silver, lacquerware, woodcarvings, pottery and porcelain, leather goods, woven bamboo and rattan baskets, handwoven fabrics, dolls and khon masks and mulberry and pineapple paper products. The main Bangkok OTOP shop is at the Thailand Export Mart Building, sixth floor, Ratchadaphisek Road.
Etiquette to Note
Even though Thai people are renowned for their good nature, they do have some ideas about etiquette that an American could innocently trample upon. Travelers from the U.S. have a tradition of speaking frankly and critically about their leaders: Go to many cocktail parties in the U.S. and you're likely to hear scathing comments about President Bush. But a visitor should be careful to show respect when speaking about the Thai king, queen and all other members of the royal family. In Thailand, they are revered.
A few other points: When sitting across from someone, it's considered rude to cross your legs with your foot pointed towards that person; according to ancient Hindu beliefs, the foot is considered the most unclean part of the body. And since the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, it's rude to touch a Thai person there. When visiting a Buddhist temple, refrain from wearing short shorts or revealing clothing, and when entering a Buddhist chapel, remove your shoes.
When you're sated with Bangkok, there are great options for a change of pace, from seaside resorts like Phuket and Ko Samui, to northern cities like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
One of my fondest memories of a visit to the north was a ride on the back of an elephant through the jungle, lumbering up a tiny creek as the mahout softly sang a Burmese folk song. It was one of those moments you can't plan for—the type of experience that reminds you why you travel.