Wanderings pay off with insider’s view, knowledge of the country

New Orleans native and Thailand expert Joe Cummings has lived full time in Chiang Mai since 1997, but he has been writing guidebooks on Thailand for Lonely Planet and Insight Guides since 1981.
Cummings talked to Drew Lim-sky for a special report for USA TODAY about $3 massages, the scent of jasmine and chowing down on somtam by the side of the road.

Q: Where are Thailand’s best beaches?
A: The Koh Tarutao and Ko Phe-tra archipelagoes, both national marine parks (TourismThai-land.org).

Q: If money is no object, what’s the best resort?
A: Trisara in Phuket is seventh heaven. Every villa has a private pool and sea view – every feature you could ever want in a vacation villa is there. The food is incomparable, the staff unobtrusive (011-66-76-310-100; www.trisara.com).

Q: How much are those famously cheap massages?
A: A traditional Thai massage in a legitimate local massage place is about ($3.98) an hour.
On a popular international tourist beach it’s more like ($10.61) an hour – still reasonable. At a backpacker beach, it is more like ($6.63) per hour.
In an upscale international spa at a Hyatt or Sheraton in Bangkok/ Phuket, rates are around $50 to $60 an hour. In those places, it’s never real Thai massage though, more like a fusion of Swedish and Thai.

Asian Elephant

Ride: Joe Cummings and a friend on an Asian elephant.

Q: What is the most overrated place in Thailand?
A: Chiang Rai town. It’s painted in the media as a more pristine, more cultural alternative to Chiang Mai, when in fact it’s a rather boring, drab city with very little going in terms of culture (although there are a handful of very good artists living there).

Q: Have you been on many elephant treks? Are they treated well?
A: I’ve been on a few, and so far have never seen an elephant mistreated.
It’s a difficult issue, as Thailand has developed beyond the point where domesticated elephants or their offspring can simply be turned loose in the wild.

There is still a small but healthy population of wild elephants in Thailand.

Thai Dancers

Watching a moving experience: Thai dancers in Lanna dress perform the “Fon leb,” a Thai dance with extended, golden fingernails in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Q: What’s the best way to see the hill tribes of the North in a way that isn’t exploitive?
A: To trek on your own after studying up on hill tribe customs.

Q: What is the best hotel in Bangkok?
A: The Conrad Bangkok is casual and hip, super comfortable, with great service – the staff keeps a record of everyone’s name and preferences – and the best location of any hotel in the city (011-66-2-690-9999; conradbangkok.com).

Q: In 2001, the prime minister’s office began a “social order” campaign, cracking down on the famously risque nightlife hi Bangkok. Has this had an impact on the city’s infamous sex trade?
A: They moved it from the club out onto the streets with the 1 a.m. closing of bars. Previously, the city was open 24 hours a day.
Foreign tourist involvement with the sex trade in Bangkok is minute in proportion to the local market. An estimated 95% of all clients are Thai.

Thai Market

On the menu: A Thai market offers shoppers a selection of vegetables. Thai food is eaten with a fork in the left hand, a tablespoon in your right.