Thailand is promising safety and happiness for foreign visitors, in a bid to reverse a steep decline in tourist numbers. The first six months of this year saw a fall of more than 10%, compared to the same period in 2013. The drop has been particularly severe since the military coup on May 22, with visitor numbers in June down by nearly 25%.
Various factors have been blamed for the decline in arrivals, including the military take-over; the months of anti-government protests in Bangkok which proceeded it; an ill-advised night-time curfew; several deadly terrorist attacks in the restive south; and a spate of plane disasters round the world.
Despite all this bad news, overall Thailand remains a superb country to go on holiday. In the main tourist areas you as safe as you ever have been, while the military presence there is next to invisible. The junta has set out a timetable for a return to democracy, and lifted the curfew in mid-June. So what are the main reasons for visiting Thailand?
One of Thailand’s key selling points is the warmth of the welcome given to visitors, and not just by people working in the tourism industry. Learn a few words of Thai and you will be rewarded with even more smiles than normal. Although the vast majority of friendliness is genuine, beware the scam artists who prey on visitors.
Now that the post-coup curfew has been lifted, night-time entertainment is once again coming back to life. Live music, chilled-out bars, trendy clubs, all-night beach parties, whatever your preference, it’s there for you. And despite the media attention lavished on the sleazier side of Thailand’s nightlife, it is easy to avoid.
Thailand has a long and rich history, as shown by its wealth of built heritage. The earliest ruins, dating back to the 8th century, display a strong Khmer influence, but by the time Sukhothai was established in 12th century, a distinct Thai aesthetic was developing. This process continued well into the 20th century, even resulting in a unique take on Art Deco.
Unlike all its South East Asian neighbours, Thailand was never colonised by a European power. This is an enduring source of national pride, and has helped sustain a vibrant culture, based on the twin pillars of the monarchy and Buddhism. Thais are generally easy-going people, but insults to these two revered institutions are not tolerated.
Food, glorious, food
Thai cuisine has a deserved reputation as one of the tastiest in the world, and where better to experience the real thing? The core theme running through Thai food is a balance between flavours – salty, sweet, spicy and sour – as well as between textures. Probably the best, and cheapest, way to sample authentic cooking is at a night market.
Millions of tourists head to Thailand’s beaches every year, and for good reason: nobody does sun, sea and sand better. Whether you stay in a simple wooden hut, or a luxurious resort, there is nothing like a Thai beach holiday to escape the trials and tribulations of normal life.
The drop in tourist arrivals means you get much more bang for your baht, particularly in terms of shopping. When it comes to retail therapy the Thai capital is the obvious starting point, with with ever-growing selection of modern shopping centres. But it is outside the malls where you will find the most original items.
The City of Angels is the archetypal Asian metropolis, a heady combination of the old and the new. As well as major tourist attractions, such as the Grand Palace, it is remarkably easy to escape the crowds, and explore traditional neighbourhoods. Bangkok boasts a huge range of accommodation, from basic guesthouses to five-star luxury.
Bangkok is not just valued for its own attractions, it is also a superb base for exploring neighbouring countries, most notably Laos, Cambodia and Burma (Myanmar). Independent travellers from around the world flock to the area centred on Khao San Road, before embarking on their next adventure.
Thailand has probably the most comprehensive public transport system in South East Asia. From the extensive rail network, to converted pick-up trucks known as songthaews, it is almost always possible get to where you want, without busting your budget. Language can be an issue in remoter areas, but you will invariably find someone who can point you in the right direction.