Thailand was among the first foreign destinations approved by Beijing for mainlanders to visit. Since then, inbound arrivals have risen in leaps and bounds, and this year could see the number of mainland visitors top 1 million for the first time. That would put China not far behind Japan, the No 1 source of holidaymakers in Thailand. Bangkok is the first stop for Chinese package tours, which typically last for six days and offer a mix of cultural sightseeing, beach excursions and lots of feasting. On any given day, dozens of silver minivans and brightly painted buses can be seen whisking them on the rounds of the city's tourist sites. Armed with this information, I began researching a story on the boom in Chinese tourism. I wanted to know how first-time visitors - some on their first foreign trip - saw Thailand and the wider world. Together with my Putonghua-speaking wife, I set out to track down tourists and hear their stories. Taking the pulse of Chinese tour groups isn't easy, though. We began by asking Bangkok tour operators if we could join them for a day, and ran into a brick wall. Foreign journalists were not welcome, they told us. Don't bother calling back. Why were the tour companies so evasive? Perhaps they had something to hide. Chinese holidaymakers are often subjected to rip-offs by tour guides, who insist on all-day shopping trips. They strong-arm tourists into buying overpriced trinkets or worthless gems - a classic scam. Tourism officials concede that some companies are guilty of this practice, often stemming from heavy discounting of their tour packages. The margins are so low that companies rely on kickbacks from shopping trips to make a profit. Clearly that's not good for repeat business, so Thailand has tried to crack down by blacklisting dodgy companies. Instead, we set out to find mainland tourists on their daily excursions. At a Chinese medicine shop the frosty staff refused to tell us when the next tour bus was coming, and treated my wife like a renegade province. All the Thai workers had shed their soft, polite manners for the brusque style of a Beijing party cadre. Finally, we turned to a standby option: the Grand Palace. As the No1 tourist attraction in Bangkok, it's a magnet for package tours. So we bore down on a group of Chinese and found some willing to talk. Thailand, they said, is popular with Chinese tourists. Well, we knew that: then they praised the sightseeing and shopping, and many were thrilled to be going to the beach. They talked about the blur of a six-day tour. If it's Monday, it must be the Grand Palace.