Celebrate Loy Krathong
Late October or early November (depending on the moon) marks this delightful festival, when Thais congregate along the rivers to release handmade floats, or krathongs, symbolically casting away troubles. The small lotus-shaped krathong is made of a cross-section of banana stem decorated with garlands and topped by a candle. In Bangkok, over the Royal Palaces and the Chao Phraya River (near Saphan Taksin BTS), there are magnificent pyrotechnics. In the north, in Chiang Mai, hundreds gather by the Ping River and open spaces to launch khom loy (meter-high paper lanterns) into the heavens. As the night goes on, the sky above the city is filled with thousands of orange stars as these giant lanterns drift ever upward.
A Night at the Patravadi Theatre
In the Bangkok suburb of Thonburi, the doyenne of Bangkok's art and theater scene holds court in a funky little arts center by the river. Patravadi Mejudhon is the woman behind some of the most creative dance performances in Thailand. Her passion for perfection and her unremitting support for classical Thai and contemporary dance have brought this former film and theater star much praise. Her latest venture is Studio 9, a riverside venue offering dinner-dance evenings, just opposite Patravadi Theatre. Studio 9 provides a platform for emerging talent and gives diners a heart-stopping display of undiscovered Thai talent of all ages and artistic genres. Call ahead for information and reservations (tel. 02412-7287), or consult the useful site www.patravaditheatre.com.
Visit a Market
Upcountry or downtown, Thailand's markets are always colorful and, depending on the prevailing heat or your levels of curiosity, are worthy of an early-morning meander. Visiting one is a great chance to see authentic Thai life firsthand. Everything is on sale, from fragrant flower garlands to tropical fruits to the fresh ocean catch of the day -- all piled upon simple trestle tables. Meat or live poultry is also available straight from local farms, as are endless varieties of exotic spices, chilies, curry pastes, and freshly prepared treats. It's a serious, sensory experience, best undertaken as early as possible and on a light stomach.
Take a Ride Along the River
Whether it's just for an hour, or on an overnight trip to Ayutthaya, traveling by boat along Thailand's Chao Phraya River is truly memorable. In Bangkok, you can choose from a cacophonous longtail boat, a small motor launch, or a restored rice barge to float upstream. Some hotels offer dinner shows on restored vessels or sunset cruises on a huge floating discotheque. At several points along the Chao Phraya River, you'll see the concrete jungle of urban Bangkok meet verdant mango and litchi orchards, and you'll see the city's historic quality truly reveal itself. You'll also pass by multicultural communities boasting 200-year-old Portuguese and French churches, Islamic mosques, and elaborate Chinese temples. The city's klongs (canals) are worth exploring at any time of day, but, at sunset, the gilded spires of the palaces and tall prangs (towers) of the city's temples are reminiscent of mythical castles.
The elephant is the symbol of the monarchy in Thailand and is highly respected for its intelligence, grace, and majesty. All elephants deemed "white" belong to the king; only after strict inspections -- to check for albino pigmentation in the animal's ears, toenails, tongue, genitals, and tail -- will an elephant be declared as such. A number of tourism-focused elephant camps have been created in and around Chiang Mai, Lampang, and Chiang Rai. Listed here are some camps respected for their humane environments. Near Lampang, at Tung Kwian, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (tel. 05424-7875) educates and entertains visitors as well as rehabilitates sick or injured elephants. Luxury resorts, such as the Four Seasons' Tented Camp (tel. 05391-0200) and the Anantara Golden Triangle (tel. 05378-4084), both near Chiang Rai, have put together pachyderm-friendly activities for guests, including mahout (elephant handling) classes.
Discover Lanna Architecture
The country's northern towns and cities embrace not just a different pace of life, but also a unique culture, language, and cuisine. Known as the Lanna kingdom ("Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields"), this area was home to five consecutive Lanna periods that bloomed and ebbed from the 12th to the 16th century. Lanna influence can be seen among Chiang Mai's 121 wats (temples), the most stunning of which are Wat Phra Singh and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep (the latter is near the summit of the city's guardian mountain). In tranquil Lampang, a wander around the atmospheric enclaves of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang will transport you centuries back in time. At Lamphun, the rare and delightful stupas of Wat Chamadevi (also known as Wat Kukut) show off the nation's earliest achievements -- dating from 1218 and highlighting relics of the Hariphunchai (Mon) era. But these are just a brief introduction to the spectacular ancient temples of this area.
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