Wednesday 24 July 2019

Thailand: Boy, it is worth a visit this bucket list country

Eugene Masterson has visited some 50 countries, but Thailand was definitely worth the wait...

Foodie paradise: Wat Arun temple on the Thonburi west bank of the Chao Phraya River.
Foodie paradise: Wat Arun temple on the Thonburi west bank of the Chao Phraya River.
A Floating Market in Thailand. Photo: Deposit
Eugene in Thailand
Eugene in Bangkok

Eugene Masterson

Thailand has long held an attraction for many Irish tourists, whether backpackers, honeymooners or sunseekers keen on adventure and sightseeing.

Having visited about 50 countries to date, Thailand has been for the past few years top of my bucket list as the country I most yearned to visit – and boy was it worth it.

To get a great flavour of this magnificent destination it’s probably best to spend a few days firstly in Bangkok, before going exploring elsewhere.

Most Irish holidaymakers flock to the likes of Koh Samui or Phuket, but for my trip I will eventually head to lovely Koh Chang island in the east of the country, but more about that later.

Bangkok is the nation’s capital and with an urban population of some 12 million people it’s certainly a bustling and heaving place.

The Centara Watergate Pavillion was my base for three nights in the city. This homely four star hotel – which has a relaxing spa centre – is located near the main shopping district, which includes street bazaars as well as giant malls. Prices depend what you’re looking for, ranging from expensive imports to knock-off contraband which you’ll find everywhere.

Temperature is hot all year round, ranging from a low of 22 c/72f in December to 35c/95f in April, with a rainy season in September.

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Eugene in Bangkok

My first morning in the city was an early start for a half day tour of the city by bicycle with Spice Roads tours.

You will be provided with a safety helmet as you take off on your leisurely excursion around a myriad number of backstreets and laneways to explore ‘Old Bangkok’ and Chinatown (which is a busier part of the city and best suited to experienced cyclists).

Included on the trip are a number of boat journeys as ferries criss cross the Chao Phraya river to get you to where you want to go.

Being so early in the morning it was lovely to see schoolchildren congregate in their yards in various places and line-out in their uniforms to sing the country’s national anthem as the Thai flag was raised.

Among Bangkok’s well-known sights are the Grand Palace and major Buddhist temples, including Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and the most famous of them all, Wat Warun. It is known in English as the Temple of the Dawn and construction on what is now probably the most pictured structure in Bangkok was begun at the end of the 18th century. It is a sacred place for Buddhists and there are many ornate statues adorning its exterior, while you can also climb to the centre of the temple itself for a stunning view of the river and surrounding cityscape.

Several temples house huge golden statues of giant buddhas (especially Wat Traimit) and you will see monks in traditional habits either at prayer or wandering around. You can get to pray with a monk and have your picture taken with one if you make a small offering to their temple.

It’s not on the tour, but back near the city centre another sight worth visiting is to join the crowds burning incense and making offerings at the Erawan Shrine, where a unique blend of Buddhist and Hindu traditions are on display. You can get your picture taken (for a small fee) with an array of colourful female Thai dancers.

Bangkok by night is something else and one way of seeing is an evening food tour (and with Thai food being among my favourites this is a must), where with Expique tours you are brought around various street cafes and onsite restaurants by the legendary transport of tuk-tuk, which is a cart-like taxi.

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A Floating Market in Thailand. Photo: Deposit

You get to sample a selection of items, ranging from one of the city’s most famous pork satays (Moo Satay) to fresh spicy chili dips (Nam Prik), noodles and ending with desserts in Chinatown.

Khao San Road is in the middle of Bangkok’s infamous backpacker district, a neighbourhood jam-packed with guesthouses, food vendors, clothing stalls, and travellers from every corner of the globe.

It’s quite a crazy place, filled with noisy bars and some of the street vendors offer extraordinary dishes, including fried scorpions and tarantulas!

Something I’ve always wants to see was a proper Mauy Thai fight in its home territory so it was off to the historic Rajadamnern stadium. Nightly bouts are held in this central arena, which can be pricey enough to see the skilled fighters in action, with tickets ranging from E28 in the gods to E56 ringside ones (it’s also interesting to see the offsite gambling going on among punters, who enjoy local beers as they cheer on their favourites).

After three days in Bangkok it’s time to head on the road to Koh Chang. I decided to go initially go overland by around five hours (to see the countryside) and fly back to Bangkok (about an hour). Either way involves taking a 20 minute ferry to eventually get to the island.

The ferry ride to the island of Koh Chang is calm and quick and it’s then about a 15 minute drive to the idyllic Centara Tropicana resort, which is set among lush tropical gardens and has a beautiful golden beach. It’s here you can get to chill out, enjoy the sea or pool and sip a cocktail as you watch the magnificent sunsets.

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Eugene in Thailand

The next day we were whisked off to White Sand Beach, where a day’s adventure of island hopping began.

This included several stop-offs, where you get to snorkel in pristine clear sea waters, enjoy rambling around castaway-type islands and enjoy a bbq lunch on-board.

Koh Chang may be quite isolated, but it boasts some lovely restaurants and bars, while the Lonely Beach area attracts revellers who party into the early hours.

After a few days of bliss in this version of paradise it’s time to call end to my time in Koh Chang and make my way by ferry back across the sea and an hour flight to Bangkok before connecting with my Etihad flight via Abu Dhabi back to Ireland.

One thing’s for sure though, while this may have been my first time to Thailand, but it certainly won’t be my last as this wonderful country is full of intriguing attractions and friendly people which live up to its reputation as one of the world’s top tourist destinations.

How to do it

Dublin based Sunway (01 231-1800; sunway.ie) offers trips to Thailand, featuring the combo one here to Bangkok and Koh Chang, for €1,399 per person (subject to availability, price based on May 2019 departure and correct at time of publication).

This include International Return flights and Taxes from Dublin on Etihad Airways;  domestic flights Bangkok to Trat on Bangkok Airways; private transfers throughout; ferry transfer in Koh Chang; hotels on a B&B basis - 3 nights Bangkok, 5 nights Koh Chang.

Etihad (etihad.com) offers daily flights to Thailand from Dublin via their hub in Abu Dhabi (flight time is around eight hours from Dublin to Abu Dhabi and six hours from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok). The airline offers an amazing upgrade with flatbeds, silver service and access to their VIP lounges.

For further info on Thailand check out tourismthailand.org.

This feature originally ran in The Sunday World.

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