SINGAPORE: Thailand in general and Bangkok in particular are well known to tourists from all around the world.
The country has for years been ranked among the world’s top 20 tourist destinations.
Bangkok rings in huge travel dollars among the world’s top five cities for tourism according to annual rankings by Mastercard – in some years, like 2019, even occupying the top position - rivalling Paris, London, Tokyo and Dubai.
FEWER CHINESE TOURISTS
Last year, Thailand welcomed 38.27 million tourists, slightly more than half of the country’s population.
In 2019, projections suggest that number may exceed 40 million for the first time.
That might not sound like a lot but this whopping figure is more than twice the number of visitors to Singapore in 2018, of about 16.9 million.
Chinese made up the largest group of tourists visiting Thailand in 2018, coming in at 10 million.
But the ongoing trade war between China and the US may have some dampening impact on the Chinese economy, and thereby reduce the number of Chinese travellers leaving their country for a bit of a holiday this year.
A recent news report suggests the trade war has had a huge impact on popular beach destinations like Phuket, as the resort town braces for that rare slump.
But this news of emptier-than-usual beaches may be a boon to Singaporean travellers wanting to spend some quality time with family and friends in Thailand, away from the city-state’s hustle-and-bustle, and keen to score a bargain from freshly slashed room rates.
In fact, for Singaporeans, who may have travelled to Bangkok many times over, now is the time to check out “unseen Thailand”.
A GOOD TIME TO GO TO THAILAND
About 1 million Singaporeans visit Thailand each year, no doubt an easy destination to head off to when the country is a mere two-hour flight away from Changi Airport.
This number may dip slightly below 1 million this year, owing to the economic slowdown in Singapore, as people tighten their belts.
Apart from Bangkok, the favourite Thai destination for most Singaporeans, most of whom have travelled to Thailand more than once, include Phuket, Chiang Mai and Pattaya.
Younger travellers tend to be more sophisticated in their search and planning, and prefer to organise their own self-guided adventure. Some can even go solo; others just love roughing it out with a close friend or a loved one.
I would argue that despite news of Thailand being shunned by tourists given the global slowdown, that there remains much treasure to discover off the beaten track.
Have you ever seen elephants ploughing the rice field? You can do that in a rural village called Baan Na Tien in Chiang Mai.
Have you seen monkeys picking coconuts on tall trees on instruction?
You can watch how they are trained if you search for Monkey Training College, in Kanchanadit District, 24km outside of Surat Thani Province - the same southern province that is home to world-famous Koh Samui island.
Thais themselves are incredibly warm people. Numerous rural communities have set up homestays to welcome foreigners and share with them the locals’ unique way of life, traditions and festivals.
I would also argue against heading to Thailand on mass tourism packages, which offer a packed schedule in a very limited time.
Such programmes often focus on Bangkok and a few other well-known places, requiring you to rush from one attraction to another, leaving you with little time to soak in Thailand’s subtle beauty, or appreciate the intricacies of Thai culture, arts and cuisine.
TIME TO ENJOY "SLOW LIFE"
For busy, stressed out Singaporeans, some time away in the rarely visited parts of Thailand will be a precious opportunity to slow down, appreciate nature’s beauty in national parks, caves, beaches, islands, small temples, and explore rustic communities and community workshops.
Just take some time to enjoy a simple home-cooked meal, learn how to make popular Thai desserts like mango sticky rice, or even learn to speak a local dialect.
It’s so heartening to see cheerful children in the village laugh and smile when you teach them a few English words.
Calmness and a clear mind can emerge when you learn meditation. Those who have done it will tell you that they enjoy listening to themselves think, and converse with their hidden inner self.
TAKE SOME TIME TO GO TO BANGKOK
For those who are ready to go, do consider going to Bangkok and staying until Dec 12.
The rare Royal Barge Procession on the Chao Phraya River, near the Temple of the Dawn, featuring several intricate royal barges with hundreds of rowers in traditional costumes will be a sight to behold.
This will be the first ancient ceremony conducted under the current reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
It will be a chance to grab a view of the King and members of the Royal Family, who will travel on marvellous royal barges to a Buddhist ceremony at the Temple of the Dawn.
So there’s much to see in Thailand. Maybe you should make your year-end holiday plans now.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a visiting fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.