Bangkok: THE THAI KINGDOM' S CROWN JEWEL

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Physician's Money Digest, June 2006, Volume 13, Issue 6

At a time when much of theworld is homogenized, it'srefreshing to visit Thailandand still experience true Asian culture.Bangkok, the capital, has been theregional melting pot for many racesand religions for centuries. Althoughit's a Buddhist area, Buddhism's acceptanceof others makes its sunnyreception of visitors delightful enoughfor Thailand to be called "The Land of65 Million Smiles."

Peaceful Exploits

It's also the land of over a thousanddifferent species of orchids and over7000 elephants, 140 of them livingcontentedly in the Thai ElephantConservation Center 60 miles north ofBangkok. The preserve is owned andpersonally run by wealthy businessmanKukrit Kharwlamai. "I bought an elephantfor my daughter for her seventhbirthday, and it grew on me," heexplains while looking fondly aroundhis river bank preserve.

A few miles away lies the WorldHeritage Site of Ayuthaya, the nation'scapital for 400 years. Its population was3 million at a time when London had50,000. Nearby lies the Temple ofVictory built in Cambodian style to reflectAyuthaya's triumph over the Cambodiansand later destroyed by the Burmesein 1767. Thailand has always hadtempestuous relationships with its neighbors.In the Bangkok National Museumyou can see the country's history of wardisplayed in dramatic, violent art that isunexpected in a nation whose cultureand religion is so nonconfrontational.

Religion is indeed important to theThai. Each of the country's 77,000 villageshas its own wat or temple, someolder than Europe's greatest cathedrals.Guides will proudly take you to seethem all unless you clarify your wishes.Classic is Wat Panang Choeng with itshuge golden Buddha located 60 milesnorth of Bangkok. You can come backto the capital by busy highways, butmore fascinating is to return by river.You can sail back in restaurant boatslike the Grand Pearl. It has room for200 passengers in air-conditioned comfort.Or you can zigzag along the irrigationcanals in your private long-tailedboat—powered by a truck engine andpiloted by a Thai who thinks he's JamesBond—to arrive at the famous floatingmarket, a photographer's heaven.

Dining and Hospitality

A restaurant always busy for lunchis found north on the Ta Chin River atthe Rose Garden Riverside complex(www.rosegardenriverside.com), whichalso offers a daily cultural show. But fora more extravagant show and dinner,visit the latest attraction in town, SiamNiramit (www.siamniramit.com), abeautifully crafted Las Vegas-styleextravaganza. Many restaurants surroundthe downtown hotel, such as theNarai (www. narai.com) on SilomRoad. You can drop anchor and visitthis great city at the tranquil Pan Pacific(www. panpacific.com) in the busybusiness district on Rama 4 Road, or atThe Oriental (www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok), which is considered oneof the best hotels in Asia. Right on thecolorful Chao Praya River is the world famousOriental spa that can beaccessed by crossing the river on a hotelboat. Such hotels are havens in a citythat bustles with energy.

Thailand's economic prospects arehelping it emerge as a powerhouse inSoutheast Asia. Equally important tovisitors is that it's a friendly far-offplace that welcomes Americans withpressed hands, a bow, and the fabulousever-present smile.

For more information on visiting Thailand,

contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand at 800-THAILAND or visit www.tourismthailand.org.