Thailand in one week? It's possible!

Thailand is one of the few vacation spots with phenomenal activities and luxury at low cost.

An elephant shows off its talent in Chiang Mai. (photo credit: Menashe Ripel)
An elephant shows off its talent in Chiang Mai.
(photo credit: Menashe Ripel)
Israelis like Thailand. Each year, more of them travel there; in 2010, 120,000 Israelis visited the Kingdom of Siam, up 4 percent from 2009. Soldiers who have just finished their army service account for some 50,000.
But it’s not just newly released soldiers. Today, Thailand is starting to be a key destination for young couples and families with children, who are attracted by a phenomenal array of landscapes and activities – especially in the North of the country, which is wilder and less known than the typical white beaches of the Andaman Sea or Bangkok.
In the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand was never colonized, and thus kept its culture and heritage intact. One of its prize assets is its service and hospitality. “The land of smiles” deserves its name; you’ll meet more smiling people there than anywhere else in the world.
But the kingdom of Siam offers much more than friendly people. For Westerners, it constitutes a total change of scenery. All the senses are engaged: scents, colors, voices – all smell, look and sound different. Even a few days there is enough to change old ways of thinking.
Do a wai, the traditional Thai greeting (palms pressed together, bow and smile) and you’ll be ready to start discovering the kingdom of Siam.
• Chiang Mai, the capital of Lanna
If you want to go off the beaten track, don’t miss a stay in the city of Chiang Mai. “The Rose of the North,” as it is popularly known, is cooler, smaller and less chaotic than Bangkok. This easy-going place, located on the banks of the Ping River, is blessed with stunning natural beauty and is a hub for exploring the North.
Beyond the city, Chiang Mai province spreads over an area of 20,000 sq. km. and offers some of the most picturesque scenery in the whole kingdom: paddy fields, rolling hills, forested mountains, jungles and rivers.
A must-see is the peak of Thailand, Doi Inthanon. By car, it is one hour from the center of Chiang Mai. This highest mountain of the kingdom is also the source of the Ping River, resulting in a landscape of evergreen forests coated with ferns, mosses and orchids.
Good walking shoes, a sun hat and abundant water are indispensable for a one-day trek in the national park. Whatever trail you choose, you’ll have to climb, climb and climb some more. But it’s worth the effort and the sweat, with 21 resting stations and wonderful overlooks that offer fantastic vistas, from the evergreen forests to the grasslands, including the cliff. And at the top lies the amazing feeling of walking in clouds, a natural phenomenon due to the area’s climate conditions.
If you don’t feel like walking for hours, other adventures await you: elephant riding, river rafting, or four-wheel-drive safaris in a natural wonderland. One possibility for those coming with children is the day – or even the night – safari. Buy a sack of carrots and nuts, climb on a tram and travel slowly – and quietly – on a 2.13-km. trail alongside wild animals, some of which you can feed. In addition to enabling rare proximity to lions, black bears, pumas, hyenas or crocodiles, the place is a vocational study center on environmental forestry and wildlife conservation, and provides a camp ground for the younger generation.
For the swashbucklers, a full day at the Flight of the Gibbon jungle adventure tour should be part of the plan. Put on your safety gear and ride a zip-line through 39 stations of high-flying fun. Be ready for exhilarating fear and beautiful scenic sites. Note that the youngest participant was an Israeli boy of two-and-ahalf, and the oldest, an American woman over 80 – so there’s no age limit.
Founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai has, to a large extent, preserved a distinctive culture and is still home to the traditional villages of the region’s hill tribes. Most of them have maintained their own dialects, colorful tribal costumes and cuisine, their lifestyle untouched by the modern world.
You can arrange a stay if you want to experience this way of life firsthand. But don’t forget that Thailand’s climate is particularly wet. Deluxe hotels and resorts with comfortable, air-conditioned rooms are not always superfluous. In keeping with its reputation, Thailand offers a wide range of accommodations from high to very high standards for affordable prices.
• One night in Bangkok… or two
Some 700 km. south of Chiang Mai lies Bangkok, the Thai capital, and its 10 million people – more than 10% of the country’s population. Over the last few decades, the city of 400 glittering Buddhist temples has changed into a modern and dynamic metropolis.
In Bangkok, the first sensation is “hot and huge.” With its wet climate (much wetter than Chiang Mai’s), incessant traffic, numerous multistoried shopping centers and hordes of people, you may feel lost. But take a deep breath and grab a map: There is a lot to see.
One of the first things you should do is take a nice hotel in a central location in case you’d like to return to your room, shower and pamper yourself in the middle of the day. You have more modes of transportation than you need, all very cheap – taxis, of course, recognizable by their flashy colors (another typical touch of Asian taste), but also the famous motorized tuk-tuk, which can seat up to three, moto-taxis, boat taxis, subways, buses and skytrains.
Downtown, you have all the consumer temples you could want, for clothes, shoes, sporting goods and, of course, electronic devices. Just check twice to make sure you’re not buying a cheap knock-off. Restaurants, pubs, coffee shops – Bangkok has succeeded in combining the ancient and modern worlds.
One particular feature you shouldn’t miss is the floating markets. Though they have become more tourist-oriented, they still consist of day-to-day transactions for the locals. Small flat boats jockey with one another, piled high with tropical fruits and vegetables, ready-todrink coconut juice, and food cooked in floating kitchens. Most are paddled by older women, who are always ready to stop and bargain. It’s colorful, exotic and very unusual.
Another prerequisite is the Grand Palace. Established in 1782, the complex hosts the royal residence and throne halls, as well as a number of government offices and the renowned Emerald Buddha Temple. Spanning more than 2 sq. km., it also contains several golden and typical Thai temples and many impressive sculptures.
For children, there’s Siam Ocean World, the biggest aquarium in Southeast Asia, located near the famous Paragon shopping center. It boasts seven zones of marine treasures, where you can meet sharks, rays, jellyfish and penguins.
And for those with a taste for sport, there are the Spice Roads bicycle tours in the suburbs of Bangkok.
• Sea, sun and Koh Samui
Less famous than the internationally known island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea, Koh Samui is located in the Gulf of Thailand, on the eastern side of the country. Formerly called the island of coconuts, Koh Samui has developed rapidly over the last 20 years; until 1940, there were no roads or vehicles on the island. People got around on foot, or by boat, following the coasts.
Today, this lovely piece of land 20 km. long and 16 km. wide has turned into a paradise for sea-lovers. With a sunny climate most of the year, Koh Samui is a perfect location for those who yearn for calm and peace. It lies in the middle of an archipelago of smaller islands that rise against the horizon. Its assets: flat sandy beaches, palm trees, tiny temples and beautiful accommodations – but also the friendly and agreeable inhabitants and the wonderful Thai service, coupled with the feeling of being alone with the sea. You can take a meditation lesson, have a Thai massage, go for a dive or just relax.
The nightlife is quite active, a combination of the Thai atmosphere and the casual attitude of all seaside cities. There are several good restaurants and pubs. Don’t be surprised if you meet some of the area’s famous “ladyboys.”
Compared to a few years ago, Koh Samui is far from being underdeveloped. But still, it’s somewhat off the beaten track, and it remains unspoiled by tourism.
The writer was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, El Al and Bangkok Airways.
A small look at Jewish Thailand
You want to travel to Thailand and eat kosher? It’s possible even to find Hanukka candle lighting in the middle of December in hot Bangkok. The capital of the kingdom of Siam hosts three synagogues, devoted not only to their permanent members, but also to thousands of Jewish visitors from all over the world.
There are approximately 300 Jews in this 95 percent Buddhist country. Most live in Bangkok, but small communities and synagogues exist in Chiang Mai and Koh Samui as well. In Phuket, offices are open during the tourist season in the summer.
“Jewish life in Thailand is very much alive and well-established,” says a member of the Bangkok community.
It took a positive turn in 1993, with the arrival of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor, his wife Nechama Dina and their baby daughter. Sent by the Lubavitch movement, Kantor was the first permanent rabbi of Bangkok and now serves as the country’s chief rabbi.
“The Jewish community asked Chabad in New York to send a rabbi,” he explains. “My wife and I always wanted to be Chabad emissaries, so we answered the call and came here with one-way tickets, intending to be here as long as we could help and build Jewish life in Thailand.”
He was joined in 1995 by Rabbi Nechemya Wilhelm, another Lubavitch emissary. Both actively worked to help develop the two existing synagogues of Bangkok (Ashkenazi and Sephardi) and reinforce Jewish life.
The Sephardi synagogue, Even Chen, was established in 1970 and provides a club and kosher restaurant. The Ashkenazi synagogue, Beit Elisheva, founded in 1979, maintains the national Community Center and a mikve – and after years of governmental refusal, permission has recently been granted for the establishment of a Jewish cemetery.
Both synagogues are under Kantor’s supervision.
The Bangkok Chabad House, Ohr Menachem, established in 1995, is led by Wilhelm. A popular location, it is well-known for its community Seders and holiday celebrations. This Chabad House is visited by one of the largest numbers of Jewish backpackers in the world, especially Israelis.
Today, Bangkok offers a complete range of Jewish education, from kindergarten through high school, as well as a recently opened Orthodox yeshiva. Adult classes on Judaism are available in both Hebrew and English. The town has a few restaurants – one is located at the backpacker hub of Khao San Road – and several markets where kosher foodstuffs, produced locally and imported from Israel and the US, are available.
Kantor praises the close-knit feeling among the small community’s members, which makes up for the inconveniences that result from its size.
Jews have always been welcomed and free to practice their religion in Thailand. The first Jewish presence in Siam was reported in 1601, but it was only in the 1800s that Jews began arriving in Thailand as merchants traveling throughout the East. Then history compelled Jews to escape from Europe, and a handful chose to come to Thailand. In the 1920s, Russian Jews fled Soviet discrimination. In the 1930s, some 120 German Jews came to escape Nazism, but most of them left the kingdom of Siam after World War II. During the war, Jewish families arrived from Syria and Lebanon, and in the 1950s and ’60s, more came from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran to find shelter in the kingdom. Others arrived from America.
The Jewish population began to thrive, and in 1964, the Thailand community was established.
In the 1970s, as the Vietnam War brought an influx of Jewish American soldiers, Israelis started to discover Thailand. Some young families were looking for business opportunities and adventure in the kingdom, which established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 1954. Most of them were – and still are – mainly involved in industry, and in gem and jewelry production.
Today, Thai Jewry consists of a mix of Sephardim from Syria and Lebanon and Ashkenazim from Europe, America and Shanghai. Among the Israelis settled there, only a limited number hold Thai citizenship.
Details and information are available at– N.B.