BANGKOK, Thailand — One of the first things that strikes you about Thai people is a likeness to their favorite flower, the orchid: beauty, grace, color and a delicacy that all add up to a blossom unlike any other in its appeal to the eye and sense of the exotic.
Whatever personal concerns the carefree Thais have are dispelled quite handily with the autumn Loi Krathong Festival, a colorful ceremony during which young and old arrange flowers and lighted candles on lotus leaves, then launch them under a full moon on the canals, ponds, lakes and swimming pools to honor water spirits and float away the past year's sins.
Bangkok is not a pretty city, being more like a museum of shabby exterior design and coloring that happens to be crammed with beautiful things. The senses can be sent reeling by the array of palaces, pavilions, statues, pagodas, marvelous hotels, colorful shops and more than 300 Buddhist temples.
Bangkok's people have never been colonized or subjugated by foreigners, so Thais can accept visitors comfortably, helping them daily in numerous ways without the resentments of a master-servant relationship. It's a city where the thermometer seldom dips below the mid-90s.
Here to there: United, Singapore, Japan, Philippine, Korean and China airlines get you to Bangkok, all with stops. Take a cab for the 40-minute ride into town from the airport for about $8.
How long/how much? Three days for Bangkok, but certainly plan on another one or two for visiting the ruins of Ayutthaya, Thailand's ancient capital to the north, and perhaps another to the floating flower and produce markets of Damnoen Saduak 50 miles southwest. Lodging costs are moderate, dining very inexpensive.
A few fast facts: Thailand's baht recently exchanged at 26 to the dollar, about 4 cents each. June through October has plenty of rain, March through May is very hot and humid, making your best time for a visit November through February. Many people here speak English. Get around town in a tuk-tuk, a three-wheel, motorized contraption that is elaborately decorated and goes for about 75 cents per half-hour. There's a $5 departure tax when you leave the country.
Getting settled in: Hotel Windsor (Soi 20 Sukhumvit Road; $50 to $65 double) was an American officers' club used for R&R during the Vietnam War, still very friendly to U.S. visitors. Rooms large and comfortable, pool, lobby bar, nightclub, restaurant and cafe. This one is set back from the street in a very busy neighborhood.
Ra Jah (18 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 4; $45 double) is built around a central pool-patio area, contemporary rooms, long busy lobby, Chinese restaurant, 24-hour coffee shop. Ra Jah is connected to a shopping mall where you'll find that "Rolex" you covet for $15.
Erawan (494 Rajdamri Road; $63) is the most central of these three, an older first-class hotel with traditional Thai architecture outside, a contemporary mixwithin. Handsome pool and pond with lily pads, bright and cheerful breakfast room and dining terrace overlooking it all. Rooms are large and bright.
Regional food and drink: To those who haven't already discovered the joys of Thai food, get ready for a revelation. It's hot and spicy, more so if you go heavy on the sauces, and flavorings that appear most often are coriander, lemon grass, ginger and chilis. Lots of rice to cut down on the heat, with beer the best accompaniment, but the iced coffee and tea are quite good. Don't plan on leisurely courses as almost everything you order arrives at the same time.
A staple for us is mee krob (it and other dishes are spelled differently on every menu), crispy rice noodles that may have meat or seafood cooked with it. Another favorite is Thai-style satay, beef or pork cooked on a skewer and served with peanut sauce.
Tam yam soup is a hot and sour combination of seafood, lemon grass and curry paste, a mix that gets as hot as you could hope for at times. Kho pod sapparod combines rice with chicken or shrimp, baked and served in a pineapple shell. Colorful and delicious.
Moderate-cost dining: Dachanee restaurant (Prachatipathai Road) is near Sataan Wan Chart Bridge, a small and simple place that locals claim has the most authentic Thai food. Our lunch included soup, marvelous Thai pancakes called kanom buang, plus fried rice with Chinese sausage, chicken and egg. Three of us ate very well there for about $5.
D'Jit Pochana (1082 Paholyotin Road), between the airport and town near the Hyatt Hotel, is a large and very handsome place with lots of greenery, Japanese lanterns and pink roses on tables. A huge menu, all translated into English, gives you an unlimited choice of Thai specialties. Try the marvelous hormok pla shawn, fish mixed with curry paste and steamed in a banana leaf or whole coconut. The mee grob was also very good.