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Floating market at Damnoen SaduakBangkok coach companies operate numerous tours to highlights within easy reach. Supremely popular is a trip to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. It's much more 'authentic' than the commercialised klong market of Thonburi. 

It can often work out cheaper and a lot more fun to hire a car with a driver for a day. Talk to one of the taxi drivers in front of your hotel but haggle like mad. You'll be expected to pay for fuel and feed your driver on top of the fee.

Located in Ratchaburi Province, 65 miles southwest of the capital, Damnoen Saduak is the daily scene from dawn till late morning of a great flotilla of sampans, laden with produce. Farm wives barter and sell a huge variety of foodstuffs in this amazing commercial centre.

The journey itself to the Floating Market is a fascinating highlight of the trip. In total contrast to the crowded built- up capital, fertile paddy fields carry two high-yielding rice crops a year. 

Peasant farmers and their wives, wearing conical straw hats, go about their varied tasks: planting, hoeing, reaping, transporting produce.

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In central Thailand, the monsoon rains are expected to arrive in July, but the heaviest rains come in August and September. 

By October, the subsoil of the Bangkok region is well saturated, and some streets are flooded. 

Temperatures don't vary much year-round. Reckon 35 degrees C virtually every day. 

Bird-spotters find rich potential in the region. Thailand as a whole records 850 species of resident and migratory species.

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Where villages sprawl along a river bank, waterfront houses are built on stilts over the stream. Children grow up amphibious, equally at home on land, water or mud. Boatmen in sampans haul nets or wade shoulder-high to set fish traps. 

Buffaloes daydream beneath shady trees, or wallow blissfully up to their eyebrows in liquid mud. Others are tethered to a revolving pole to graze in a circle of pasture.

To most visitors, these Asian scenes are a highly pleasurable part of the Thai experience. Nobody is in a desperate hurry. There's all the time in the world to gossip, and smile. 

Depending on when each paddy is planted out with seedlings, the colour varies with growthEven if cash income is small by western standards, fruit and vegetables grow just as easily as the rice, and it's simple to raise food for a family: chillies and egg-plants, corn and water-melon, cucumber and pumpkins.

Every village home has its own 'spirit house' in a corner of the compound. There are haystacks of rice straw. The more spacious farmhouses are shaded by clumps of trees, and ponds are lively with ducks.

En route to or from Damnoen Saduak, a stop can be made at the temple town of Nakhon Pathom, to view Phra Pathom Chedi, the world's tallest Buddhist monument, 417 feet high. 

On the return to Bangkok from Damnoen Saduak, many tour groups break for lunch and entertainment at the 50-acre Rose Garden, 20 miles from the capital. The lush grounds of this privately owned country resort include an enormous aviary with a fine collection of tropical birds.

Tourist literature leans heavily on glowing descriptions of festival costumes, dances, music, sports and games. On arrival, you usually find that the famous festival was last week. But Rose Garden has the answer. A complete Thai village has been set up with typical farmhouses, barns, windmills, and water-lift devices for irrigation. 

Every afternoon there's a complete programme of music, dancing, kick boxing, cock fighting, martial arts and sword-fighting. The village culture and sport of every region of Thailand are featured. It would take weeks of travel before a visitor could snap all these subjects in their natural setting. 

Every day there's a Buddhist ordination procession, and a girl is married amid the full ritual of a mock wedding. Afterwards, elephants haul teak logs and give rides. 

The infamous Bridge over the River Kwai built at the cost of thousands of war-prisoner lives In another direction is a ten-hour tour to the Bridge over the River Kwai. It's of sombre interest for British and Commonwealth visitors, where 30,000 Allied war prisoners and 100,000 forced labourers from Thailand, Burma and Malaysia worked on the 'Death Railway'. 

The bridge across the river was a key part of the Japanese army project to build a strategic rail link between Thailand and Burma.
Teh nearby Jeath Museum provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the prisoners who worked on the Burma Railway.

Eighty miles northwest of Bangkok, the River Kwai flows through the beautiful mountain and jungle-green setting of Kanchanaburi province. The setting is idyllic, but with a single-track bridge as reminder of the appalling loss of life suffered by the prisoners.

Off in another direction: thirty miles north of Bangkok is the summer palace of Bang Pa In, built mostly last century during the reign of King Rama V. The houses, pavilions and towers are a gorgeous mixture of Thai, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. 

Among the colourful buildings is a replica of the Chinese Imperial Court, prefabricated in China and presented to Rama V by the Thai Chinese community. 

The lake and gardens make a charming picture-postcard view. In the lake centre is a Thai pavilion renowned for its architectural style. Standing on a green lawn is a unique herd of topiary elephants.

Another twenty miles further north by road or river is Siam's ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Luxury boats offer a relaxing view of the Chao Phraya river during a cruise between the ancient and the modern capitals. 

The river-island city of Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand from 1350 to 1767. During that 400-year period, Ayutthaya was rich and powerful, with a line of 33 Siamese kings ruling over Thailand and much of Laos and the Malay peninsula. 

Ideally located at the confluence of three rivers, Ayutthaya became a major international trading centre, visited by merchants from China and Japan, England, Holland, Portugal and France. Travellers said Ayutthaya was larger and more splendid than London or Paris.

The sudden end to the glory came in 1767 with a Burmese invasion that sacked and destroyed the city. Today, the magnificent temple ruins, greatly restored, testify to Ayutthaya's former power as one of Asia's principal commercial and cultural centres.

Another former capital is Potburi, dating from the 9th century as the ancient capital of the Khmer people. Lopburi lost its power in the 13th century but still flourished under Thai rule in the 17th century, when it functioned as a second capital when Ayutthaya was blockaded by the Dutch. 

An imposing royal palace, partly designed by French architects, survives from that period. It includes the Lopburi National Museum.

Further north - beyond reach of day trips from Bangkok - are two other provincial sites which are worth visiting en route to Chiang Mai. 

Riding an elephant is an essential part of a Thai holiday Exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is Phitsanulok on the Nan River. Known as Phi-lok for short, the city makes a good base for exploring the regional highlights. This city of 80,000 inhabitants is famed for the riverside Wat Phra Si that enshrines the bronze Chinarat Buddha. Cast in 1357, it is regarded as Thailand's most precious Buddha image after the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace complex of Bangkok. 

Within easy range of Phi-lok is Sukothai - the first Thai capital from 1238 to 1350. The historic centre has been renovated by UNESCO. Nestling within the original city walls, this rich cultural legacy includes more than 20 major monuments, of which several are dominated by massive stone Buddhas. 

The Sukothai era is known to the Thais as The Dawn of Happiness', when Buddhism, the arts and the economy flourished.


Check out these other Thailand features:

BANGKOK - Visit the capital "City of Angels'

CHIANG MAI - North to "Rose of the North" 

PHUKET - Holiday pearl  of the South

THAI CUISINE- Try that spicy food

THAI ENTERTAINMENT  - Sample the night-time scene

SHOPPING IN THAILAND - The enjoyable search for good quality trditional handicrafts

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

"The Rough Guide to Bangkok" by Paul Gray and Lucy Ridout - A dependable handbook to the Thai capital, also featuring day-trip excursions.

Bangkok (Lonely Planet Best of ... S.) by China Williams - an up-to-date guide for the city.

Bangkok Insight Pocket Guide - a 96-page guide featuring 21 itineraries around Bangkok and including some of the out-of-town excursions.

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