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Moving to Thailand?
For many Westerners, Thailand, with its beautiful people, whispering jungles and
enigmatic Buddhist legacy, epitomises exoticism. Inhabited for over 10,000 years,
the country was ruled over by the Mon, Malay and Khmer kingdoms until the tenth
century, when its real history begins with the migration of the Tai-Lao peoples
from their ancestral home in southern China. By 1238 they had become so strong that
they were able to break away from the failing Khmer Empire to establish the Sukhotai
kingdom; this expanded south and west, propagating the Theravada religion as it
went, and becoming the first dominant Tai state in the region. This was superseded
by the Ayutthaya kingdom, which lasted four hundred years from 1357; in its heyday
its capital was one of the wealthiest cities of the East. Now it lies in ruins
A Burmese army invaded in 1765, laying waste to the kingdom; fortunately the Chinese
chose the same moment to invade Burma, and the country escaped subjugation. The
new ruling dynasty built careful relationships with Britain and the Dutch; such
were their diplomatic skills that Thailand remains the only Southeast Asian country
that managed to avoid being colonised by Europeans. The name of the country reflects
this – “thai” means “free”. The events of the twentieth century were to belie this,
however: forty years of military dictatorship only ended in 1973 and since then
the country has struggled to define itself as a democracy. The most recent coup
took place less than three years ago.
Sticky politics notwithstanding, Thailand is a prime holiday destination, welcoming
over 11 million foreign visitors each year. The reasons they come are as diverse
as the country’s attractions, but it all begins with the tropical climate. Any visit
should begin in Bangkok, the steamy, buzzing, heady city that typifies Asian progress:
soaring glass skyscrapers tower over the magnificent temples, while rickshaw drivers
jostle itinerant chefs cooking up noodles in the narrow streets. The National Museum
houses a vast hoard of Thailand’s artistic riches. In the northeastern corner of
the vast Grand Palace complex, Wat Phra Kaeo is the apogee of Thai religious art
and the holiest Buddhist site in the country, home to the Emerald Buddha. For a
more lively experience, Wat Pho is the oldest temple in Bangkok; as well as seeing
the Reclining Buddha there you can get a Thai massage and even go to massage school!
In the north of the country, Chiang Mai is home to a plethora of ancient temples,
the perfect counterpart to the maelstrom of the capital. The Tribal Museum gives
an excellent introduction to the hill-tribes before a trek into the countryside.
Up a nearby mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep offers magnificent views of the city
and its surrounding plain; the dazzling red, green and gold upper terrace is probably
the most harmonious temple architecture in Thailand. West of the city, beautiful
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the north's holiest shrine, perched at the top of Doi
Suthep mountain. Animal lovers will enjoy the Elephant Nature Park, which is basically
a hospital for sick elephants. Chiang Mai also one of the best places to learn Thai
cookery; courses cover everything from shopping for ingredient to preparing the
fragrant pastes that form the basis of the famous Thai curries.
Water lovers should head south of Bangkok, to the islands. This is a great country
to learn scuba diving – Ko Phi Phi is famous for turtles – or go jungle walking.
Khao Sok National Park is carpeted in impenetrable rainforest, home to gaurs, leopard
cats and tigers and up to 155 bird species. Hat Rin, on Ko Pha Nang, is the party
centre of South East Asia, populated by stoners and clubbers and notorious for its
monthly Full Moon Parties. For those who just want to kick back and relax, there
are any number of palm-fringed white sand beaches, lapped by indigo waves, where
little old ladies give massages for miniscule fees. Yes, Thailand has something