Backpacking in Thailand is a wonderful way of seeing the ancient country of Siam, where you can experience everything from old temples to the most modern of nightclubs.
I have to admit my first experience with Thailand wasn't the country itself. Nope, it was the story of Anna Leonowens. You might not have heard of her, but it was her diary that inspired the movie Anna And The King.
Except, Thailand wasn't Thailand back then--it was Siam. Wouldn't that be like right church, wrong pew kind of thing? Nevermind.
Chances are you're backpacking journey will begin in Bangkok, since this is where most international flights arrive. Not us. We're kicking it off on the island of Phuket.
What? Who says we gotta be like everyone else? You can get to Phuket quite easily from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur either by bus or train. Phuket is a wonderful beach destination, where you'll be happy to spend all your Baht (Thai money) right here. Good thing it's got a 30 Baht to 1 US Dollar ratio. And considering its hot all year round (average temps high 80s/low 90s all year round) the beach is a welcome sight.
It's also great for festivals, like the Vegetarian Festival at the end of September. For 9-days everyone gives up eating meat for an all-out vegetarian affair. Don't laugh--there isn't any meat in any of the drinks at the island's nightclubs, so at least you don't have to give those up.
Just make sure you're presentable when you arrive at the Thalong National Museum, OK?
Bus and train service in Thailand is easy and inexpensive, so that's how we'll make it Koh Phangan. Here's a few tips for surviving the monthly Full Moon Party that takes place on the beach. 1) never take all your valuables with you; 2) try not to have too much to drink--you'll want your wits about you; and 3) follow rules #1 and 2, and you'll have an excellent time dancing the night away on the sandy beach.
Not your thing? Don't worry about it--Koh Phangan's got traditional sightseeing including a 14-meter high tree, scenic areas like Khao Ra and the Phaens Waterfall; but also a chance to see Muay Thai kickboxing up close & personal.
And with some hotels only costing an average of $30 a night--you can afford to do it all.
Now we've made our way to Bangkok, the capital and largest city in Thailand. Bangkok's been called the City of Angels, but hey--so is Los Angeles. Ain't no confusing the two--this one's got a hot, humid climate and where the monsoons bring all sorts of rain from December to March.
In between rain drops, come see the Venice of the East (yeah, it's been called that too); and where kings have been interred at Wat Phra Si Sanphet, or the Grand Palace and Royal Barge Museum.
Every year on the Queen's Birthday (August 12th) there are lots of celebrations; same goes for the Bangkok Songkran Festival--which is the Thai New Year.
Just about 85km to the north (and again, easily accessible by bus) is Ayutthaya--which is actually another island. A bike or tuk-tuk (a 3 wheel motorized contraption) is the best way to experience Ayutthaya.
But the best thing to see is the Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO site that's part of the original city founded by a 14th century King. One of the most famous temples in the park is Wat Chaiwatthanaram--that has a 35 meter high tower. Plus, it was the site of many a royal religious ceremony.
As you backpack around Thailand you'll see that these are but just a few places to see. Just remember if someone gives you a "wai" (a hands together greeting) give 'em one back--it's a respectful greeting. The only time you shouldn't is if a kid gives you one.
Also remember you're not in the West anymore, they do things a bit different (read up on Anna Leonowens). If you've got a problem with something, please don't shout. Public displays of affection, that's a no-no too. Also be respectful of the many monks you'll see on your trip--no touching. And for as hot as it is, please cover up some (that excludes the beaches, by the way).
I often wonder if Ms. Leonowens was around today what she'd think of her Siam. It's a good guess to say that this forward-thinking lady would be glad to try backpacking around herself.