Google's fascinating and at times controversial Street View online map service was launched Thailand recently in association with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, allowing web travellers to explore Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai on the ground via panoramic imagery taken by the web giant's specially designed cars and Google Trike, a three wheeled bicycle mounted with cameras to capture the Kingdom's most famous attractions and bustling streets in all their colourful glory.
Thailand is only the second country in Southeast Asia to be viewable on Street View, Singapore being the first, and media reports suggested the company chose to launch in the Land of Smiles after last year's floods, so that people could see for themselves how quickly the country bounced back from the disaster, while also planning their next holiday in advance.
A trip though Bangkok on Street View is definitely a lot more relaxed than negotiating Thailand's heaving capital by car or on foot. Diving into the metropolis online also means you can establish your visitor game plan in advance, choosing areas to explore, setting up convenient meeting points for friends and family and deciding which sights to add to your itinerary. The images join together to offer a seamless virtual journey, and with a little practice you soon master the zoom and rotate functions, flying trough the traffic jams to get a good look at the streetscape.
Just as it is in reality, getting oriented is not always easy on a virtual Bangkok tour, although it is significantly less confusing in the beach areas on Phuket, because you can use the sea as a constant landmark. In built up areas, patience is definitely a pre-requisite, especially for those looking to do some serious exploration from which to make notes or familiarise themselves with a particular area. It's also worth noting that Street View means what it says — you only see the sights form the road, so you won't be sneaking into the Grand Palace without a ticket or stepping down to beach for a paddle in the ocean — although you do get pretty close to the soft white sands on Phuket and Google has also confirmed plans to gather more images of Thailand's most famous historical and cultural sights, so the sensory experience will become more rich and intriguing over time, giving visitors a taste of the heritage splendour that awaits when they visit in the flesh.
Unless you are already familiar with certain streets in a particular location, the best way to take advantage of the Street View imagery on a pre-visit to Thailand is to enter a specific landmark in the search box, then drag the little yellow Pegman on the zoom bar as close as you can to the red marker on the map. If you place him too far away, you may find yourself down a side street or "soi" wondering where the temple you were heading for has disappeared to. The next thing to do is spin around to take in the full 360 degree view before you head off with the pointer in the wrong direction. It's worth noting specific reference points at this stage so you have a starting point from which to head off and back to on your visual adventure.
Unlike many other places in the world, Thailand's streets are an attraction in themselves, so the journey is definitely as enthralling as reaching your chosen destination, not least because you can stop and look at the street stalls, try to decipher the colourful signs and advertising boards, or attempt to figure out what all the strange looking shops are actually selling. The zoom function lets you take a closer look at the delicacies on offer on the roadside food wagons, while on larger stretches of straight road like Bangkok's popular Sukhumvit or Phuket's main island highway, you can have a lot of fun simply placing the cursor as far down the street as your mouse will let you, then clicking to cover great distances at lighting speed, which is not something many people get to do in the Thai capital very often, neither during rush hour on the Andaman Isle for that matter.
For visitors to Thailand that already know roughly where they are staying and want to have a sneak peak of the area, Street View is undoubtedly a useful tool. A good number of restaurants, bars, shops and attractions are already registered with the service, making it easy to check out the exterior of places on your holiday hit-list as a reference for your eventual visit. Privacy is ensured for the subjects in the images, with details such as faces and car license plates blurred, but viewers still get a very real sense of a typical street scene.
Of course, for those who's holiday in Thailand is over, a nostalgic journey back to your favourite spots on the map is also an appealing way to pass a few minutes back home or even to show friends or colleagues that might be thinking of following in your wandering footsteps. Street View has already reportedly boosted tourist numbers in some countries, as it can help holidaymakers choose between one location and another before they book a flight. The only possible downside could be that as the imagery becomes more extensive and sophisticated, some people may become content to simply travel the world from their laptop.