This morning we take a short walk to the Chao Praya river where we board a long tail boat for a tour of the local canals. Bangkok was once known as the Venice of the East because of its intricate canal network. We get a glimpse of daily life as we pass locals selling their wares by the river. We will visit what to this day remains the home of the Thai Royal family at the Royal Palace complex followed by Wat Phra Kaew, home to the Emerald Buddha, one of Thailand's most venerated images. Another highlight is Wat Po, the largest temple in Bangkok, housing a 46m long, 15m high gold-plated reclining Buddha. After lunch we transfer to Kanchanaburi, an area made famous by the movie 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. The film is fictional but uses the construction of the Burma Railway in 1942-43 for its historical setting. The Japanese used Allied POW's to build a railway from Thailand to Burma so they could supply their army without the dangers of sending supplies by sea. Thousands of POW's died under appalling conditions during its construction, and the line became known as the 'Death Railway'. We enjoy a boat ride on the beautiful River Kwai before transferring to our hotel on the banks of the river.
Today we take a full day tour to the picturesque Erawan Waterfalls and to Hellfire Pass, so called because POW's were forced to chisel through solid rock, working by firelight on a particularly difficult section of the line resulting in a heavy loss of life. We also visit the J.E.A.T.H war museum, which is a memorial to the POW's who were killed whilst constructing the railway. The afternoon is free to enjoy the falls area and there is a chance to enjoy some swimming or to walk to the top of the falls. Later we return to our resort on the banks of the river.
After breakfast we head to Ayutthaya, the 2nd royal capital of the Kingdom of Siam (approx 4 hours). At its peak the Kingdom encompassed large parts of present day Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Diplomatic and international trade missions found their way to Ayuthaya from countries as far away as Europe. It was not long before Ayuthaya became one of the most important trading centres of the region. The population grew to over 1 million people by the 17th Century, more than any European capital at the same time. Following decades of wars and then a siege that lasted nearly 2 years, Ayuthaya was invaded and destroyed by the Burmese army. Temples were ransacked and statues of gold stolen and carried off to Burma. Following this devastating defeat the Siamese Kingdom relocated its capital to Bangkok. After lunch we transfer to a hotel were we have day rooms to freshen up in before boarding our overnight sleeper train bound for Chiang Mai.
In the early morning the train pulls into Chiang Mai, 'The Rose of the North', known for its temples, markets and the many colourful hilltribes that live in the area. We transfer to our hotel by songtaew (a converted pick up truck used as a means of local transportation). The rest of the morning is free to relax. A walking tour through the old quarter of the city after lunch is followed by a visit to the Tribal Museum (if its open as it is currently closed for renovation) for an insight into the people that we will see on our trek. Then it's a drive to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep the most revered Buddhist shrine in the Chiang Mai region. Perched on the hill overlooking Chiang Mai, it provides us with a fantastic view of the area. Back in Chiang Mai people are working feverishly away to set up the famous 'Chiang Mai Night Bazaar' which is nothing short of a shoppers' paradise. For those not into shopping there are plenty of atmospheric restaurants lined along the Ping River.
Today is a free day for private exploration or relaxation in this historical city. Chiang Mai is a former religious and cultural centre, twice coming under the control of the Burmese, so there is a strong Burmese influence reflected in the architecture of the city which one can explore. One favourite option is to drive to the Lampang Thai Elephant Conservation Centre where the kids will love getting up close and personal with these magnificent beasts. You will see the elephants being bathed followed by a display of the skills that made the elephants an integral part of the former logging industry in Thailand. Since 1988 logging has been banned in the Kingdom following legislation introduced as a result of severe mudslides in the southern province of Surat Thani. After an investigation it was concluded that over-logging of mountainsides was the reason for the slides. As a result thousands of domesticated elephants found themselves and their mahouts unemployed overnight. Nowadays the tourism industry has provided a much-needed way of generating income in order to feed and care for these majestic beasts along with the families of the Mahouts. The centre itself also has a hospital where sick and injured elephants from all over Thailand are brought for care. Another option is a half day at a highly commended Thai Cooking School, where adults and children alike can learn the intricacies of Thai cooking. Under the supervision of an English-speaking Thai chef you have the opportunity to create your own 'gaeng keow wahn' or green coconut curry or spicy Pad Thai. You don't need to be a proficient cook to enjoy this activity but, be warned, you get to eat your creations at the end of the day!
Day 8 - 9
This morning we start a two-day adventure by driving (approx 2 hours) to Doi Inthanon Mountain from where we will start our trek. We visit the market at San Pa Tong market before starting walking. The highlight of our trek is meeting the local people in the various villages, each with their own unique language, customs and dress. Our exact itinerary will vary during the year as we take into account the weather and local conditions, but the terrain is more rural than jungle. Various hilltribes grow rice and other vegetables on the slopes we walk past. A reasonable level of fitness is required, as we expect to be walking about 3-4 hours each day at a leisurely pace taking in the scenery. The ground may be muddy and slippery during the rainy season (around July to October), though the scenery is at its most lush and spectacular to compensate. At night, we sleep in villagers' huts, where we will be sleeping communally on fold-out mattresses on the floors of the wooden/bamboo huts typical of the villages. There are shared squat toilets and basic washing facilities in most villages (i.e. a hose or water pipe). Warmer clothing and a 4 season sleeping bag are needed from November to February as the nights are usually quite cold during this period. You only need to carry a day pack while on trek, whatever you need for the evening will be transported to the village for you. The next morning we will take an elephant ride from the village for about one hour. After that we return to Chiang Mai and a hotel bed.
An early morning flight takes us back to Bangkok. Upon arrival we are transferred to the island of Koh Samet, approximately 4 hours by minivan and then a short 30-minute ferry ride.
Day 11 - 12
Two days are ours to relax and unwind in tropical Koh Samet. Designated a National Marine Park in 1981 Koh Samet is the perfect place to relax and unwind. Due to its size and a ban on the construction of new properties, Koh Samet has been protected from the developers, providing the ideal end to a holiday. Watersports, snorkelling and island visits (all optional) can all be arranged locally with the help of your tour leader. Please be aware that Christmas and New Year periods as well as Thai holidays can see an increase in visitors, resulting in a busier atmosphere.
The morning is free on the beach. In the afternoon, we drag ourselves from the sand and take the journey back to Bangkok.
Free day in Bangkok, evening depart.