Travel: Chaos fringed by calm: Bangkok bustles, but the jungle still sleeps. Simon Calder visits Thailand

THE best I could hope for was to be only gently fleeced by a con-artist and to contract merely a mild dose of the runs; the worst case was to fall victim to armed thugs, and to catch some or all of cholera, hepatitis and rabies.

That was how the Third World seemed to me seven years ago, as I gritted my teeth, tightened my moneybelt and nursed an arm bulging with inoculations. Thailand looked terrifying.

Which, of course, it wasn't. Instead of villains, I found a graceful and gracious people, remarkably tolerant of the often loutish behaviour of tourists. They live in a country which meets every traveller's needs: high culture, grand scenery and beaches so perfect they test the efficacy of the word 'idyllic'.

Yet, the most frequent question asked by new arrivals to Thailand's capital is not 'Where's the tourist office?' or 'Which sight shall we see first?', but 'When's the first flight home?' Bangkok is growing fast, and makes no concession to the wide-eyed newcomer. Six million people, most of them driving their cars at the same time, inhabit a swampy slab of land wholly unsuited to being a capital city.

The assiduous ticker-off of sights will have his or her work cut out in the Thai capital. Bangkok could be renamed 'Temples'R'Us', given the huge number of wats (Buddhist shrines). The dutiful visitor will see the three most important temples - in terms of history and culture - plus the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Personally, having slogged around all of the above, I would strongly recommend that you skip everything but one temple, which (a) contains the finest Buddha you are ever likely to see, and (b) is jolly handy for the train station.

Wat Traimit is the temple of the Golden Buddha. Despite its location, enveloped in deafening traffic noise, this 10ft figure is worth battling through three lanes of murderous motorists to visit - not least because it is one of the most valuable objects you are ever likely to see. It is made from five tons of solid gold, and worth a shade less than pounds 50m.

Your cultural dues paid, you can now start having fun. Take a tuk-tuk - an absurd motorised three-wheeled taxi - across town to Jim Thompson's house. Mr Thompson was an American adventurer who became involved in the silk trade and settled in Bangkok. He spent much of his fortune in assembling a mansion from traditional Thai architectural styles. Thompson is no longer in residence: he was lost in the highlands of Malaysia in 1967.

Snaking through the city, the Chao Phraya river is one place where you can escape the traffic. Twenty pence buys the freedom of the river all the way through the city on one of the River Express boats. One of the Bangkok thrills is boarding this beast as it bobs around: the boatmen wouldn't dream of anything so cissy as tying up while passengers gamely attempt to hop on and off. Few experiences would be so appalling as falling into the oil- smeared sludge which passes for a river.

If you can plan your trip right, take a southbound boat and leap ashore at the Oriental hotel. Find the riverside bar, and order a (stupendously overpriced) beer. This is an outright tourist trap, air-conditioned and sanitised. Great, isn't it?

Three hours north-west of Bangkok, the train rumbles over an ungainly metal bridge. Dozens of cameras are aimed at the structure. A few of them focus on the plate which shows the country of manufacture as Japan. Here, near the town of Kanchanaburi, thousands of Allied prisoners of war died building the bridge over the River Kwai. In 1942-43, the Japanese brought 60,000 PoWs from Singapore and set them to work alongside 200,000 Asian labourers. A quarter of the workforce perished, one for each sleeper along the track.

The graves of 6,982 Allied soldiers occupy a quiet corner of Kanchanaburi. Painfully graphic details of their suffering are depicted in the Jeath Museum, a collection of bamboo huts on the banks of the tranquil river. 'Jeath' is the acronym for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland, a loose selection of the nationalities who worked on the railway.

Kanchanaburi rests in a tranquil valley amid stately scenery, and is home to some intensely friendly people. After witnessing the horror of the Jeath Museum, my faith in humanity was restored by a bunch of labourers working at the riverside. They politely insisted I shared their bottle of Mekong whisky. This small kindness was all the more poignant for the scale of inhumanity that had been perpetrated here. -

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Non- stop flights - on British Airways, Qantas and Thai - are relatively expensive, but the Travel Bug (061-721 4000) has excellent deals on Eva Air ( pounds 418 return) and China Airlines ( pounds 414).

RED TAPE: British travellers need no visa for stays of less than 15 days. For longer stays, contact the Thai Embassy, 29 Queen's Gate, London SW7 (071- 589 0173).

INFORMATION: The Rough Guide to Thailand ( pounds 8.99) is a companionable introduction to the country. In the capital, I used the Lonely Planet Bangkok ( pounds 4.95). The Tourism Authority of Thailand, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1 (071-499 7679).

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz