No wonder the Thais smile more authentically, more gently, more happily, than anyone else. They live in one of God's preferred places on earth. Mysterious fairytale forests of primeval teakwood alternate with romantically rolling hills of luxuriant flora, mighty wild rivers nourish eternal fertile plains and a dramatically choreographed coastline is dotted with hundreds of tropical islands and the climate to go with it. Since the dawn of time, Thailand's exemplary beauty and its location at the crossroads of Southeast Asia have made it a prime goal for tribal migrations. They now make it a destination for vacationers from everywhere. Today's tourist hordes follow the Chinese peasants, Burmese warriors, Portuguese mercenaries, French traders and waves of Mons, Khmers, Vietnamese and malays to get a taste of paradise.
The 'Land of Smiles' is also the 'Land of the Free', since it - unlike its neighbors avoided colonization. The odd political coup notwithstanding, Thailand today is democracy. The true defender of the faith, King Bhumipol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the world's longest reigning monarch, is the revered symbolic and spiritual leader and a tireless instigator of educational, ecological and infrastructural reforms (nothing like 19th-century King Mongkut as portrayed by Yul Brunner in the cheerfully satirical film musical The King and I).
The 'Little Dragon' is spiting plenty of fire these days as its dynamic mixed economy fast approaches First-World standards. In the sprawling, pulsating, free-for-all chaos of Bangkok, the timeless beauty of Old Siam seems far away. And yet, a few miles upstream along the majestic. Chao Phraya river, begins a patchwork landscape of iridescent paddy fields, worked by buffaloes and interlaced by networks of canals, the picturesque klongs which still serve as transport arteries for the amphibious communities of the nation's rice bowl. The red and gold roofs of the Wats the Buddhist monasteries - glisten in the sunlight as material symbols of enlightenment. Rural life centers on the land and the bustling market towns, in poignant contrast to the ruined splendor of the silent, abandoned capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.
Further north, between jungle-clad mountain peaks, lie the lost valleys around Chiang Mai. They are still the home of working elephants and the Hill Tribes whose harvest of forbidden poppies finds its way to the street corners of the decadent West. Of late the parched, sparsely populated Northeast has become one of the country's fastest-developing regions, bordered by Asia's Ol' Man River, the Mekong, and rewarding visitors with Khmer monuments recalling Angkor Wat.
In Thailand the boundaries between religion and myth, fairy tales and reality are blurred into non-existence. Theravada Buddhism pervades daily life, happily coexisting alongside astrology, superstition and animism. A miniature house in the garden and daily food offerings placate resident spirits, while children hawk lucky jasmine garlands at traffic lights. Entwined in an elaborate framework of social and culture traditions, the twin golden precepts governing everyday life are hierarchical respect and conflict-avoidance. The Thais 'proverbial nonchalance greets most faux-pas committed by unwitting foreigners - farangs - with smiling tolerance and the face-saving absolution mai pen rai - 'never mind'. Sanuk, or joie-de-vivre, provides the yardstick by which all activities are measured.
Even the manicured glimpse of Thai culture afforded by the tourist round of floating markets, folklore evenings, masked dancers and souvenir shops conveys an impression of the deep roots of a historic civilization. Spiciest ingredient is the food. Reminiscent of the hot, sweet and sour specialties of Szemchuan. Thai cuisine combines Chinese techniques with Indian and Indonesia flavors. Regional accents range from the sticky rice of the Nort's kantoke dinner to som dtam, an incendiary salad from the Northeast. Muslim and Malay dishes accent the food of the South., while Bangkok's streetside stalls and restaurants reflect the Thai preoccupation with 'les plaisirs de la table'.
* Hue Hin
* Chiang Mai
* Golden Triangle - Chiang Rai
* Koh Samui