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Thailand presents land of contrasts to travelers

A visit to Thailand is a memorable, almost mind-bending, experience because of the contrasts that it presents to the traveler. On one hand are the ancient temples and cultures that go back hundreds of years; on the other hand is Bangkok with ultra-modern architecture and go-go atmosphere of over 8 million citizens. 

The common thread that binds all this together is the Thai people. Whether located high in the hills, deep in the jungles, in hinterland villages or on the bustling city sidewalks, they are invariably courteous, helpful and tolerant of one another and of visitors. All of these attributes, mixed with a sense of humor and curiosity, make a visit to this country very pleasant.

The infrastructure in Thailand is impressive. From arrival at Bangkok's International Airport, it is apparent that they have made a real commitment to quality. The highway system is modern  from four-lane super highways on arterials to paved one-lane roads far back in the countryside. One curiosity is that the kingdom owns half of the electrical grid as a way of funding the government. This part of the infrastructure seems outdated in that there are enormous bundles of wire strung along overhead poles.

Speaking of the kingdom, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy headed by a hereditary king. His role in the society is a prominent one and he is revered and honored by the people. King Rama IX, when he died at age 88 in October 2016, had reigned for over 70 years. A year of mourning was declared and his son was named his successor. It was striking to see the ubiquitous memorial banners, memorial pictures and signage erected to honor the dead king. Virtually all buildings  and certainly all the government buildings  were draped with black and white funeral bunting; portraits of the king were mounted onto buildings and were several stories high; his framed portrait, fringed with funeral bunting, was in every business establishment, restaurant and hotel. 

His appeal to the people, and what caused them to revere him so, was that he spent his reign trying to help them improve their lives through access to quality medical care, improved agriculture, reduction of drug operations and increased employment through international trade. His major accomplishments included establishment of a medical infrastructure that serves the people as well as attracts patients from around the world because it is highly capable and quite cheap. We met several Australians who were there for medical and dental work because they could fly to Thailand, enjoy a vacation, have the medical procedure done and still save money over what it cost in Australia. 

The king took a personal leadership position in refocusing agricultural output away from the traditional crops of opium and marijuana (especially in the north around the Golden Triangle) and toward more diversified crops. In this he had successes, but the flow of these drugs from Laos and Myanmar continues. 

He also led efforts to ensure that his nation developed industries so that it benefited from the economic boom of Asia. This has resulted in Thailand becoming the second most prosperous nation in Southeast Asia. His funeral, and the end of the mourning period, occurred on the anniversary of his death. His son, King Rama X, has already ascended to the throne. The people wait with interest to see what kind of ruler he will be. He has big shoes to fill.

Thailand is a large and varied country. The travelers' choices include ultra-modern Bangkok, countless historical temples, the beaches, the rural areas which include jungles, mountains and almost every other type of geography and culture in between. Our choice was to skip the beaches and see as many UNESCO World Heritage sites as possible, visit with and experience as many different peoples and cultures as we could and take a short excursion to Laos and Myanmar. 

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