By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated September 26, 2010 12:01 AM
MANILA, Philippines – For a travel destination to be something to crow about, it has to have many things going for it. For one, it has to have infrastructure to accommodate visitors. Two, it has to have people who are hospitable and friendly. Three, it has to have great cuisine. Four, it has to have fantastic sights and events. Five, it has to be safe. And six, it has to offer a wonderful shopping experience. I can say with no reservations that Thailand has all of the above in abundance. And for exotic uniqueness, it even has a King!
I recently visited Thailand as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) whose marketing representative for the Philippines is Dave De Jesus. I was there for a tourism trade show — where buyers and sellers of tour packages meet and connect to do business — with other writers Stefanie Cabal, JJ San Juan, Jackie Oiga and Buddy Recio.
On the first night just a few hours after we arrived on Thai Airways and checked in to the Siam City Hotel, we watched Siam Niramit, an extravaganza in a beautiful cultural complex built just for these events. It was an eye-popping theatrical showcase of Thailand’s history, customs, dance, music, humor and religion presented in all its glory and majesty with marvelous light and sound effects and gimmickry rivaling Las Vegas and Cirque du Soleil. With a cast of close to a hundred (not counting the elephants and goats), it was nothing short of spectacular. I was so impressed by it that I told my travel mates that this show alone was already worth a visit to Bangkok.
The next day was the official welcome day. The trade show had its usual cocktails and entertainment. The day after was when the trade booths and conferences officially began. Thai tourism officials rattled off statistics about the country’s tourism growth rates in the past and their projections for the coming years. They proudly pointed out that Thailand was voted Best Leisure Destination in the Pacific in 2009, and Best City Tourist Destination in 2010 by tour organizations everywhere. Their “Amazing Thailand” branding, as they explained it, seeks to balance monetary and emotional value for tourists. It makes sure that the visitors’ hearts and minds are charmed, and that they are more than satisfied and want to return again. Their aim is to fully captivate tourists with everything the country and people have to offer.
The charm offensive seems to be succeeding very well. It is clear that Thailand’s short- and long-term tourism programs are much better thought out and executed than ours in the Philippines and the rest of the region. They have something to offer almost any kind of tourist: golf, water sports, events, conference settings, weddings and honeymoons, medical tourism, film destinations, etc. I could only sigh as they described the giant leaps in their visitor traffic. We Filipinos have a long way to go.
The awesomely imposing Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya
Lately though, they have been leaning heavily on domestic tourism to offset the negative fallout brought about by occasional eruptions of political instability — quite recently, the recent Thaksin-funded rallies that left the Bangkok Central Business District paralyzed and invited negative travel advisories from foreign governments.
In the next four days, we went shopping around Bangkok, enjoyed its varied local cuisine, got a luxuriously relaxing massage at the Rarin Jinda Wellness Spa Resort and spent an extra two days in Pattaya, a resort town two hours’ drive by car.
Massage is a great tradition in Thailand. It is a well-developed hospitality industry that many visitors enjoy. There are many types of massage — shiatsu, Swedish, Thai, etc., from luxurious ones that cater to tired bodies and (as many tourists know) even erotic ones that offer much more. Even within the trade show, one could get a quick massage to feel re-energized.
I had two massages while I was there. The first massage in Bangkok was the traditional Thai massage where one is stretched, pressed, folded, bent and squeezed, and let me tell you, it was wonderfully refreshing. My second massage was in the Pattaya branch of Rarin Jinda. This time, I tried the hot stone treatment. Frankly, I was not ready for the pleasure it gave me. One and a half hours of pure bliss went by so quickly as the masseuse scrubbed a smooth hot stone on my oily body. That experience seems to have moved my pleasure threshold a few notches higher; I am not sure if I can still enjoy any other type of massage the way I used to. I felt like a new person as I walked out to the lobby.
The people of Thailand — how can you not love them? They are naturally helpful and hospitable, so eager to please foreigners. Every person you meet, from receptionists to waiters to greeters, vendors, sales ladies — everyone welcomes you with the traditional palms-in-prayer position and with a nasal voice, says “Sawasdee” in greeting. Even this jaded traveler got the feeling that the gestures were mostly heartfelt and genuine.
There are also the much-talked-about transvestites of Thailand who are not just tolerated but quite accepted and, sometimes, even admired. We watched the world famous Tiffany show in Pattaya and it was quite entertaining. It had a little bit of can-can, burlesque and Broadway all wrapped up in one big cabaret show. The dolled-up “girls” sashayed, danced and sang onstage, and afterwards, they even greeted the audience and posed for photographs at the lobby. Throughout the performance, I surrendered all doubt and suspended all my disbelief and simply enjoyed the beauty of the “women” parading before me.
Siam Niramit, the theatrical extravaganza is worth going to Bangkok for.
I even heard some women in the audience express their insecurity upon seeing the beautiful transvestites. The success of Tiffany’s and shows of this sort which have been going on for years speak volumes about Thai society’s tolerance of all forms of sexuality.
The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya. It was absolutely breathtaking to see this gigantic wooden palace by the sea that stands majestic but unfinished. Started in 1981 and scheduled to be completed by 2025, this project was conceived and designed by the late Mercedes Benz dealer and Thai millionaire Khun Lek who also built a museum. His children continue the work he began. A team of 250 woodcarvers now works non-stop to make sure every square inch of the palace will have a carving by the time it is finished.
As I gazed at the palace, its massive wooden pillars and ornate sculptures, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the magnitude and breadth of the originator’s vision. Buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities, sacred monkeys, Ganesh figures, and many others were abundantly and artistically present everywhere.
Surely he knew that the seaside is not an ideal place to construct a wooden palace, considering the effect of the salty sea spray on timber. Which suggested to me that constructing and then preserving the palace may be a never-ending job. There is something poetic and ancient about such an effort. I would not be surprised if the Sanctuary by the Sea becomes a world heritage site.
There are a lot of words to describe Thai cuisine and “boring” and “bland” aren’t among them. Thai food runs the gamut of hot to burning hot! It is spicy, rich in taste, texture and aroma. Whether one eats at a market stall, a seaside tourist restaurant, a bus stop, a fast food place or at the Four Seasons Hotel’s Spice Restaurant, the experience is scrumptious, and delivers endless thrills to the palate. There is nothing subtle about Thai food. It screams out loud as if to celebrate the joy of eating. Thai cuisine is simply one of the best in the world.
There is a story that the King himself shared the royal recipe with the public, to more or less standardize the taste of Tom Yum, Pad Thai, takho, and other dishes served in Thai restaurants everywhere.
I have been to Thailand three or four times before this trip for a one- or two-day stay. I have always found it pleasant but this is one trip when, as a traveler, I have fallen in love with the place. There is so much more to see and experience in Thailand than I ever imagined. Whether it is culture, shopping, eating or clubbing (like we did as we enjoyed a unique and literally freezing bar called Minus 5 in Pattaya), there is something for you. Thailand’s charms manage to work their way deep into a visitor’s being.
I must say that I am now smitten and I am craving more.
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For more information, call the Tourism Authority of Thailand at 911-1660 or e-mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.