Destination Thailand: Bangkok 2011

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When Hangover 2 hit the film screens last year, many people in Bangkok felt a little bit betrayed.

Unlike the original Hangover, which was a celebration of Vegas, Hangover 2 made Bangkok look sordid and menacing.

Even the Buddhist monks were violent, and the trendy rooftop bars were represented only as the hangout of criminals.

Most ludicrous of all was the car chase. Everyone knows you cannot have a car chase in Bangkok. The traffic doesn’t move.

Traffic moves now more than it used to. A railway link from Phai Thai to the cavernous Suvarnabhumi airport was opened last year, taking the stress out of getting that flight home.

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Thai fruit 04 Thai monks 01The rooftop bars are anything but menacing. There are two dozen of them now on the stalks of skyscrapers along the river bank.

Four Points by Sheraton in Sukhumvit one of the most relaxing, as guests sit in couches in the balmy night air.

If you want altitude rather than attitude try Blue Sky on the 24th floor of the Sofitel, the Sirocco in the Lebua hotel, used in Hangover 2, the Red Sky at the Centar Grand and Vertigo at the Banyan tree.

Best of all dine at the Long Table restaurant on the 25th floor in the Sikimyu area.

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To stick to the beaches in Thailand is to miss the best bits. We tend to cluster around a dozen of the 77 provinces in the country, our second most popular long haul destination after Australia but there is much else to see.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are on the trail, but few people go to the north east, although even here a surprising number of Irish have already made their way already.

Which is why I found myself in Phu Phrabat, a tepid explorer rather than an intrepid explorer, my shirt sopping, melting in the heat and humidity after a hike up 1,500 metres into the forest.

In these country hills there is a spiritualism, amazing rock formations with rock painting, Buddhist and Hindu shrines competing with each other in the crevices, and artefacts that spark off every aspect of the imagination.

It is as if a cultural history has been revealed beneath your feet, from stones to Buddhist stupa in a few hundred paces. Rock paintings more than 3,000 years old, the images still easily discernible, animals, humans and mystic symbols, alongside grottoes with shrines and wats.

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The tour guides try to bring the rocks to life, and point out a Rumpelstiltskin room where a local king, Phaya Kong Phan, placed his daughter for safe keeping until she allegedly escaped in a flood. The legends draw on a canon of mythology with which we are not familiar in the west, but take a little time to read the many explanatory books in English and the heroics are as richly embroidered as any from Greece, Rome or our own Celtic tradition.

Every aspect of life here is defined by the Mekong, mighty, beautiful and famously brown in colour.

We dined on a beautiful old-world 11-cabin riverboat the Mekong Sun. The river lapped at the old boat and they gave us a foot massage on deck while the mosquitoes feasted.

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For the best experience walk along the bank of the historic river, simply watching the fishermen float past in their canoes or the commerce boats that were continuing the tradition of centuries. It is an incredibly relaxing experience.

This is Thailand’s poorest and most ignored province. Everything is cheaper than elsewhere in Thailand, few people speak English, there are no offensive or sex ghettoes even in the large towns, and no one is going to offer you tourist tat.

On the road to the park you can observe see people going about their everyday business as they have done for centuries, fishing, weaving silk, and growing rice in the extraordinarily lush fields that extend as far as the eye can see.

It sounds low-key, and it is, but that is where its charm and fascination lie, along with extraordinary

There are no beaches here, which is why people give it a miss. There are those who will come for the geological eccentricities and ancient Khmer architecture, a contrast with what you will find further south.

But the real attraction is the experience of meeting people whose values and livelihoods cause you to challenge your own.

Hangover 2 it definitely is not.

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