Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand is a country in Southeast Asia with coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the southeast and Malaysia to the south.
With astonishingly great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture, majestic mountains and great beaches, Thailand is a magnet for travellers around the world, and quite rightly so.
Thailand is the country in Southeast Asia most visited by tourists, and for good reason. You can find almost anything here: thick jungle as green as can be, crystal blue waters that feel more like a warm bath than a swim in the ocean, and food that can curl your nose hairs while dancing across your taste buds. Exotic, yet safe; cheap, yet equipped with every modern amenity you need, there is something for every interest and every price bracket, from beach front backpacker bungalows to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential Thai-ness, with a culture and history all its own and a carefree people famed for their smiles and their fun-seeking sanuk lifestyle. Many travellers come to Thailand and extend their stay well beyond their original plans and others never find a reason to leave. Whatever your cup of tea, they know how to make it in Thailand.
1. Bangkok — Thailand's bustling, frenetic capital, known among the Thai as Krung Thep
- Bangkok is a huge city with several district articles containing sightseeing, restaurant, nightlife and accommodation listings — have a look at each of them.
Bangkok, official name Krung Thep Maha Nakhon, is the capital of Thailand and, with a population of over eleven million inhabitants, by far its largest city. Its high-rise buildings, heavy traffic congestion, intense heat and naughty nightlife may not immediately give you the best impression — but don’t let that mislead you. It is one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities with magnificent temples and palaces, authentic canals, busy markets and a vibrant nightlife that has something for everyone.
From the moment you arrive, Bangkok is an invigorating assault on the senses. The heat, the noise, and the smells will leave you reeling if you’re not used to the insanity of Asia’s mega cities. It certainly is not a destination that many people will forget in a hurry.
2. Chiang Mai— de facto capital of Northern Thailand and the heart of Lanna culture
Chiang Mai is the hub of Northern Thailand and the Capital City of the Province of this name. With a population of over 170,000 in the city proper (but more than 1 million in the metropolitan area), it is Thailand’s fifth-largest city. Located on a plain at an elevation of 316 m, surrounded by mountains and lush countryside, it is much greener and quieter than the capital, and has a cosmopolitan air and a significant expat population, factors which have led many from Bangkok to settle permanently in this “Rose of the North”.
Modern-day Chiang Mai has expanded in all directions, but particularly to the east towards the Ping River (Mae Nam Ping), where Chang Klan Rd, the famous Night Bazaar and the bulk of Chiang Mai’s hotels and guest houses are located. Loi Kroh Rd is the centre of the city’s night life. The locals say you’ve not experienced Chiang Mai until you’ve seen the view from Doi Suthep, eaten a bowl of kao soi, and purchased an umbrella from Bo Sang. Of course this is touristic nonsense, but the Kao Soi, Bo Sang umbrellas, and Doi Suthep are important cultural icons for Chiang Mai residents. Ratchiangsaen Rd hosts the main Sunday night walking street market from Tha Phae Gate to the popular Wat Phra Singh.
3. Pattaya — one of the main tourist destinations, known for its nightlife
Pattaya is a seaside resort on the Eastern Gulf Coast of Thailand, about 150 km southeast of Bangkok. Pattaya is mostly famous for its go-go and beer bars, but local authorities have made some efforts to provide more family-friendly attractions and activities. Although the sex industry is still going strong and sex tourism remains the key money earner for Pattaya, the resort also attracts local families and holidaymakers from around the world.
Efforts by local authorities over the past few years have improved the quality of the beaches, but they are still lacklustre by Thailand’s standards, and over-development has long since destroyed some of the natural charms the area once had. However, the plethora of hotels and guest houses, and easy access from the capital and airport, make it a popular weekend getaway. Catering for over five million annual visitors, Pattaya is also able to offer an excellent range of eating options and a wide variety of things to do. Its population is a colourful mix of nationalities and ethnicities from near and far.
4. Phuket — the original Thai paradise island, now very developed, but still with some beautiful beaches
Phuket Island , is Thailand’s largest at 48km in length and 21km at its widest. It’s in Southern Thailand, on the west-facing Andaman Sea coastline, suspended from the southern tip of Phang Nga Province by a pair of short but substantial road bridges.
Phuket nestles in balmy Andaman Sea waters on Thailand’s Indian Ocean coastline 862 kilometres south of Bangkok. Phuket formerly derived its wealth from tin and rubber, and enjoyed a rich and colourful history. The island was on one of the major trading routes between India and China, and was frequently mentioned in foreign trader’s ship logs.
In recent times, though, Phuket’s top earner has been tourism, which has transformed the island into Thailand’s wealthiest province. Expect prices to be a bit higher than on the mainland. The west coast of Phuket was hit severely by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, but almost no evidence of the damage now remains. Phuket enjoys great popularity as a travel destination. Most beaches are on the west coast, with Phuket Town to the southeast and the airport in the north.
5. Krabi Province — beach and watersports hub in the south, includes Ao Nang, Rai Leh, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta
Krabi Province is a popular beach destination at the Andaman Sea in Southern Thailand.
Krabi, a coastal province, abounds with countless natural attractions that never fail to impress tourists. Such attractions include white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, fascinating coral reefs, caves and waterfalls, as well as numerous islands.
The distinguishing feature of both Krabi and neighboring Phang Nga is the massive limestone karsts, rising vertiginously out of the flat rice paddies on land and as islands from the sea. Add in some gorgeous beaches and excellent scuba diving and rock climbing, and it’s little wonder that tourism in the area has been booming.
While less commercialized than neighboring Phuket, Krabi Province cannot be described as undiscovered: it receives two million visitors a year, and the major tourist areas cater extensively to foreigners.
6. Ko Samui — comfortable, nature, and entertainment hippie hangout gone upmarket
Ko Samui is an island located in the Chumphon Archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, some 700 km south of Bangkok and about 80 km from the eastern coastline of Southern Thailand.
An island of natural beauty and variety, Samui is home to about 40,000 full-time inhabitants, 90% of whom are Buddhist. The palm-fringed shoreline and coconut and fruit cultivation of the coastal lowlands rise to a central granite massive, the slopes of which are cloaked in virgin rainforest.
At 247 km² Samui is the second-largest island in Thailand and the largest island in the Chumphon Archipelago of over 80 (mostly uninhabited) islands which form the Ang Thong National Marine Park, a kayaking and snorkelling paradise. At 25 km long and 21 km wide, Samui is big enough for serious exploration by the adventurous and fit, but can be circumnavigated in just a couple of hours by motorbike or car.
7. Chiang Rai — gateway to the Golden Triangle, ethnic minorities and mountain trekking
The metro area has a population of 200,000 and is the main commercial centre serving the Golden Triangle border region of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. It is an excellent base for exploring the region. Chiang Rai is essentially a service city for the surrounding province. Despite its relatively small population, Chiang Rai has respected universities and other civic facilities.
The character is distinctly Northern and is distinct to Chiang Mai to the south in various ways. The food is definitely spicier and the ethnic composition includes a good percentage of hill tribes and Myanmar exiles such as various varieties of Karen tribespeople.
8. Ko Tao — known for its diving and nature, easily reached from Surat Thani or Chumphon by high speed catamaran
Ko Tao, literally Turtle Island, is an island off the Central Gulf Coast of Southern Thailand and forms part of the Chumphon Archipelago.
The island is geared towards diving tourists more than backpackers on a budget and offers both basic through luxury accommodation. There are hardly any currents and a wide selection of dive sites and dive shops, schools and resorts. Ko Tao is a small island of approximately 21 km² and receives over a 100,000 visitors per year.
Peak seasons in Ko Tao are from December to March and July to August. July/August is actually high season due to Northern Hemisphere summer and rain dominating most of the rest of the country. The Gulf of Thailand is on a separate weather system and is usually sunny, however regional instability – such as Typhoons in the South China Sea can provide daily bouts of rain. Monsoon is in Nov-Jan and can be constant rain for days at a time. It is a quite popular destination among Thais also, so it can be nearly fully booked on Thai holidays.
9. Ko Pha Ngan — site of the famous Full Moon Party with miles of quiet coastline
Ko Pha Ngan is an island off the Central Gulf Coast of Southern Thailand forming part of the Chumphon Archipelago. Located halfway between the islands of Ko Samui and Ko Tao it is known as a land of coconut trees and the world (in)famous full moon parties.
10. Kanchanaburi — home of the bridge over the River Kwai and numerous World War II museums
Kanchanaburi is a city located at the confluence of the rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai. It is the Capital City of the Province of this name.
For most visitors the main sight of interest is the Bridge over the River Kwai (pronounced khwaae as in air), as the start of the infamous World War II Death Railway to Burma (now Myanmar), as well as the many associated museums. There is an increasingly thriving backpacker scene taking advantage of the chilled-out riverside vibe for those that need to get away from Bangkok. Kanchanaburi is also the gateway to the surrounding province of the same name. More foreign visitors are discovering why Thais know it as one of the most beautiful provinces in the country with its easily accessible waterfalls and national parks.
Regrettably, there does not appear to be as many tourists now coming here as of 10 years past, maybe because WW 2 was so long ago now, so the City appears to be slowing down compared to ten years previously.