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Siam: The Kingdom of Thailand

Thailand, previously known as Siam, has been populated for over 4,500 years, ever since the dawn of civilization in Asia. 

In 1939 the name Siam was changed to Thailand. Thailand means, “Land of the Free.” The name is especially significant since Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been occupied by a foreign government and has only for a short time, been dominated by any outside power.

In May I was invited to Thailand to participate in a conference hosted by the Royal Thai Police. Because of business commitments, my time was spent in and around Bangkok, so I had little time to see many of the more remote areas of the country.  I did not have the opportunity to visit any actual farming operations. I did, however, visit several farmers markets which provided an excellent insight into Thailand’s agricultural capabilities.

The country of Thailand has an overall population of 66 million and is about the size of the State of Texas. The official language is Thai, however English is widely spoken and understood throughout the country. 

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, somewhat like Great Britain. The King of Thailand is titled the Head of State and Head of the Armed Forces. The current king, King Rama IX, is the world’s longest serving head of state. The king appears to be well liked as was evidenced by many giant billboards and posters seen around the city which proclaimed, “Long Live the King!” 

The day-to-day operations of government are conducted by the Prime Minister. Though the monarchy itself is hereditary, there are national elections for the House of Representatives and from those representatives a prime minister is selected, and then officially appointed by the king.

Thailand has a large coastline and shares borders with Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.  Generally the weather is hot and humid as the country is located in the tropics. 

The official currency is the Thai Baht, and the current exchange rate is about 30 Baht to the U.S. dollar. Thailand uses the metric system, and the electric system is based on 220 volts like Great Britain. 

Automobiles are operated on the left side of the highway that is the opposite of the U.S. This is especially important to remember when crossing the busy streets, since as an American who expects automobiles to be on the right side of the road we look left when crossing. With the speeding vehicles and cars driving on the left, this can be deadly.

Automobiles and trucks are not the only vehicles on the roadway as it was also common to see vendors pushing carts, motor scooters and tuk tuks. 

A tuk tuk is a three-wheel motorcycle, and in one form or another is very common throughout Asia. They have a small engine and often serve as a taxi service transporting several persons at a time. It is said the name tuk tuk came from the sound the old two-stroke engines made on the original vehicles. Now due to pollution concerns and fuel economy, almost all tuk tuks have 4-stroke engines. They can be very fun or very frightening to ride in depending upon the driver, the traffic and your state of mind.

Though Thailand and the U.S. have had a positive relationship for over 138 years, Thailand decided to initially side with Japan during WWII. They later expressed regret over that decision, and the U.S. was able to forgive and forget.  That “forgive and forget” attitude almost took a strange turn because of a movie released in 1957. 

During WWII the Japanese used Allied prisoners of war in Thailand to build a railway bridge connecting Thailand to Burma. Many Americans had never heard of this atrocity until in 1957 the movie, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” based on a 1952 French novel, was released.  The movie told of the criminal acts committed by the Japanese against the allied POWs while building that railway bridge. 

The movie eventually won seven academy awards and was later selected for preservation in the U.S. Library of Congress for its cultural and historical significance. The site of the original bridge is a much visited tourist attraction. During a previous trip to Thailand I was able to visit there as it is several hours by car from Bangkok.

In 1954 Thailand became a U.S. treaty ally. The Thai government assisted the U.S. during the Korean War by sending troops to help in the fight and later assisted by sending troops to fight alongside the U.S. in Vietnam. 

Today Thailand and the U.S. cooperate on a wide range of activities to include, trade, security and military operations.

Tourism continues to grow in Thailand and serves as a very significant economic force. In 2012 over 22 million international guests visited Thailand. Many of the tourists during this period were from China and Japan. Tourists from America amounted to about one half as many as from Japan. 

Thailand is presently seeing a rapid increase in tourists from Russia. According to a study by the World Tourism and Travel Council, in 2012 tourism supported over 2 million jobs in Thailand.

My journey to Thailand, like most others, began with my drive to the Raleigh/Durham airport. Once there I boarded a flight to New York where I changed to my Cathay Pacific Airlines flight onward to Hong Kong. 

The flight to Hong Kong (one of the longest non-stop commercial flights in the world) was scheduled to last over 16 hours. I got lucky, and the flight only took 15 hours and 37 minutes. 

Once in Hong Kong I had time for some dinner and a shower, then caught my flight to Bangkok arriving there about 32 hours after I departed Hudson Heritage Farms.

During travel to Thailand, you cross the International Dateline and gain a day. When its 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon here in Virginia, it’s already 1 a.m. on Sunday morning in Thailand. 

The best thing about arriving in Bangkok at one in the morning was there was little traffic between the airport and the hotel. I was happily checked into my room by 2 a.m. where I crawled into the first bed I had slept in since departing the farm on Friday morning.

After some much needed sleep, I awoke to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok (Thailand’s capital) with a population of over 7 million. If you include the surrounding metropolitan area, the population increases to over 12 million.  

Even with all these people bunched together in a relatively small area, Bangkok still lives up to Thailand’s nickname as the, “Land of Smiles.” Everyone you meet seems to smile and exudes a pleasant personality. 

Possibly this “harmony over social conflict” is a result of Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand and is practiced by over 95 percent of the population. Throughout the city on almost every corner, you will find a Buddhist temple. 

The Wat Traimit Temple  in Bangkok is the home of the world’s largest solid gold statue. The 9.8 feet tall golden statue of Buddha weighs 5.5 tons, and the gold in the statue is valued at $250 million dollars, U.S.

Bangkok has been named the hottest city in the world. Though not the hottest city in the world every day, it has a consistency like no other. During the majority of the time I was there, the daily high temperature was regularly over 100 degrees. On one of the days during my visit, thermometers on banks and stores registered 106 degrees. 

Due to the high humidity created by the large river and many canals running through the city, I found myself showering and changing clothes several times a day just to try and feel refreshed.

The two biggest attractions (at least for me) to be found in Bangkok were the food and the shopping. Thai food often combines both sweet and hot flavors and is truly a treat for the senses. 

Many Americans find the food too spicy for their tastes; however, for me, the spicier the better especially when it can be washed down with a cold Singha beer, one of Thailand’s most famous brands. 

Street food is everywhere as the Thai people seem to eat and snack all day long. In the early morning I would see the people going to work, and they would visit the street vendors for a serving of rice (wrapped in banana leaves), along with some fish, chicken or pork. The meat was often skewered on a stick and could be seen cooking at roadside on a small charcoal grill. 

The meats on a stick were known locally as satay. Along with the rice and meat, people would add some fresh fruit to their purchase and carry it all off to consume later during their lunch break. 

On my way to my morning meetings, I would often visit a vendor for fresh pineapple and a container of fresh squeezed orange juice. The two items together could be had for under a dollar. Fresh fruit markets were on every corner, and the fruits were like none you ever see here in Virginia. 

There was Durian, which looks like a giant prickly grapefruit. When you cut it, there is a terrible odor, and many hotels won’t allow you to eat it in your room.  

Dragonfruit, which was kind of round but with petals on the outside, comes from a cactus plant and has a soft sweet flesh inside. 

Mangosteens (very uncommon in most of the world) have a purple shell which is broken apart to access the white fleshy sections inside, which are delicious. 

Then there was the Rambutan which had a very spiky, almost hairy, exterior with a firm almost clear inside. 

All of them are tasty and often could be enjoyed in fruit smoothies or by themselves.

I had several free days when my conference was over, so I enrolled in a local cooking school for a day. At the Baipai Cooking School, I began my class by attending the largest farmers market in Bangkok. At the market, I saw vendors making fresh coconut milk and coconut cream. Fresh vegetables and fruits were in abundance as well as fish and other creatures of the sea. 

One vendor sold slices of pork belly which had been cured and fried. It was unbelievably tasty, but then when is fried pork not great? 

After purchasing the ingredients for the meals to be cooked at school, I headed off to learn how to cook in the authentic Thai fashion. My classmates and I learned to make three entrees, and after cooking each one, we would take a break and enjoy our creations. I found it a wonderful way to spend a day and learn about Thai culture. Of course none of us went away hungry.

Shopping is a true art in Thailand, and Bangkok is a shopping mecca. The country is famous for its silk and cotton cloth. Thai gold is 22 karat, and many beautiful pieces of jewelry can be found. 

They are well known for their custom tailoring of clothing. Whether it be a man’s suit or a beautiful party dress for the ladies, local tailors can make them almost overnight.  

Beautiful art and ancient antiquities along with woodcarvings and custom serving ware can be seen in shops and stands everywhere. 

Bangkok had all the fancy designer stores like Hermes, Jimmy Choo and Gucci. They also had jewelry stores selling Rolex watches and the like. But in the night markets, they had all the “genuine” fake items sold in the fancy stores during the day. 

Rolex watches were available for $35 and designer handbags for $25. Of course, these are off limits as “knock-offs” cannot be legally brought into the U.S.A. Actually they are also illegal to sell in Thailand; however, it seemed the authorities often looked the other way. 

Fortunately there were plenty of souvenirs to purchase, and shopping was downright fun as you had to haggle over everything. Prices usually started about two or three times what you could actually buy things for. 

Souvenir T-shirts would start out at $7 each, and when it was all said and done, you could get two for $5.

Besides “night markets,” which were normally open from about 6 p.m. until midnight, there were floating markets to visit. 

One of Thailand’s major rivers, the Chao Phraya, flows right through the middle of Bangkok on its way to the Gulf of Thailand. Because of the river and the many canals that intersect it, the city of Bangkok is often known as the, “Venice of Asia.”

The river and its canals not only provide a means of transportation, they support hundreds of small boats which come into the city every morning to sell their products such as fruits, flowers or other foods. By catching a tour boat from the hotel dock, it was easy to visit one of the many floating markets. 

On Saturday and Sunday, there is the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is truly the mother of all markets in Bangkok and actually all of Thailand. The weekend market is a giant outdoor market with over 5,000 vendors. It is billed as the largest weekend market in the world. 

Literally anything could be purchased at this huge market. There was clothing, electronics, furniture and even pets such as snakes, birds or puppies. 

Interspersed with the vendors were food stalls and beer gardens. The weekend market was a destination into itself as was evidenced by the thousands of other people who were shopping there as well.

After a hard day of shopping for all those gifts to take to the friends back home, a little self-indulgence was in order, so I was off to find a Thai massage. 

Traditional Thai massage likely had its beginning as part of traditional medicine systems influenced by China, India and Southeast Asia. It’s a system of massage in conjunction with stretching and yoga-like positioning. No oils are used, and the recipient wears loose fitting clothing usually lying on a low mat or the floor itself. Often there will be many patients lying side by side in the same room, as it is a social event, and people often converse with one another versus the quiet meditative style of some other types of massage. 

At one massage parlor near my hotel, a full hour massage was 120 Baht which equates to $4 U.S. Needless to say, my goal was to get at least one massage a day.

Though both Bangkok specifically and Thailand generally have a lot to offer for the legitimate tourist, I would be remiss if I did not mention the darker side of Thailand. 

Since I was there to attend a policing conference, I was briefed on all the illicit activities that are common in the local area. As a tourist in Thailand, you will definitely see both drug abuse and prostitution. 

Thailand has a very serious drug abuse problem. The drug of choice by literally millions in Thailand is Yaba. Yaba is a relatively inexpensive tablet consisting of 90 percent caffeine and 10 percent methamphetamine manufactured by the Myanmar army. 

Myanmar (also known as Burma) shares a border with Thailand, and since the army actually manufactures the illegal drug, it’s very difficult to eliminate. Drug trafficking is very serious in Thailand, and if convicted, the death penalty may well be the result.

Thailand, as well as other economically deprived countries in Southeast Asia, also has problems with trafficking in humans. Trafficking in humans often is for the purpose of prostitution. Though prostitution is illegal in Thailand, it still exists in many forms, and many people travel to Thailand to seek out such activities. 

Of course along with prostitution comes associated problems such as disease and abuse of human rights. Unfortunately, these problems are also common throughout Thailand. 

Overall Thailand is a safe country to visit especially if you are there for legitimate tourism and not illicit activities. 

Thailand is a beautiful country very unique in its culture and history, and I would highly recommend a visit if you desire to experience the culture of Southeast Asia. 

The fantastic food and Thailand’s unique history, combined with the friendly people, make it a “must see” for those with a desire to experience what the world has to offer.

I hope you enjoy my tales of travel as much as I enjoy sharing them with you. My next story will be about one of Thailand’s neighboring countries, Cambodia. 

For my visit to Cambodia I was joined by two new traveling partners, one of which is my neighbor from the Elmo community.