Central Thailand: Best for culture-filled cities
International flights land in Bangkok, but don’t rush to the beach or the mountains. Thailand’s capital is packed with things to see and do.
Lavish Wat Phra Kaew temple houses the sacred Emerald Buddha in a chapel covered with mirror mosaics that glisten like diamonds in the sun. The sparkling spires and brilliantly-coloured gables of the Royal Grand Palace sit next door, surrounded by vast golden stupas and ornamental gardens. Visit the reclining golden Buddha at Wat Pho temple – twice as long as tennis court, and a mere stroll away, on the banks of the swirling Chao Phraya river. And watch the sunset, mai tai cocktail in hand, from one of the myriad rooftop restaurants and bars with sweeping skyline views. Then there are the traditional puppet theatres, the swirling markets of Chinatown, the spas… the list goes on.
When you're done, head north from Bangkok to Thailand’s historic heartland, to wander the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, where buddha faces are tangled in jungle vines, corridors of towering stupas sit reflected in lotus-flower ponds and saffron-robed monks meditate at the feet of 500 year-old statues as tall as office buildings.
2. Northern Thailand: Best for escaping to the mountains
Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai sits at the feet of rainforest-swathed hills in the country’s far north. It’s dotted with beautiful buildings including 800 year-old wooden temples with crumbling chedis and medieval fortified walls that were built when the city was the capital of its own kingdom. Watching over it all and shining gold in the sun is the holy hill of Doi Suthep where pilgrims from all over Thailand come to meditate and make morning offerings to the monks.
Tribal people from the surrounding mountains spill into Chiang Mai to sell their intricately woven rainbow textiles, figurines and jewellery in the city’s markets. You can visit their villages on a day trip or a longer adventure hike, walking through monkey-filled jungle, rafting on rushing mountain rivers and sleeping in bamboo-floored houses with sweeping views over valleys and forests.
Further north, buy silks in the shop-houses of Lamphun, visit the elephant rehabilitation sanctuary in Lampang or kayak through caverns dripping with stalactites in Pai. Walk the steep mountains around sleepy Mae Hong Song, take a boat on the mighty Mekong, and marvel at the marble-covered, White Temple of Chiang Rai, with its astonishing sculpted lake of hands and swirling naga (dragon-serpents).
3. Southern Thailand: Best for unspoilt island adventures
With more than a thousand islands and tens of thousands of talc-soft beaches, you could spend a lifetime exploring Southern Thailand’s twin coasts. Whether you’re looking for a luxurious honeymoon or you’re an adventurer dreaming of jungle hikes, coral reef dives and cliff-face rock climbs, there’s a spot just for you.
Some of Southeast Asia’s best beach hotels are on Koh Samui and Phuket, where villas as big as tennis courts have private swimming pools perched over bays of islands. After beach-time, you can fine-dine, in Michelin-starred restaurants and pamper in some of Southeast Asia’s most luxurious spas.
Koh Pha Ngang island and Krabi were once backpacker secrets. Now they offer all levels of comfort, while keeping a toes-in-the-sand informality. This is where your chic beach shack comes with a traditional palm-thatch roof and a hammock-slung balcony sundeck, and where food is served al fresco, under a spray of stars.
And then there’s the jewel-like Similan islands with their superb diving, and Phang Nga bay with its wild mangroves and pinnacle islands; and the Koh Yao islands where you’ll find a beach just for you; and remote, rustic Koh Tarutao where could island-hop for weeks, and for pennies.
4. Eastern Thailand: Best for going local
Eastern Thailand is the country’s rice bowl, where the blue sky is mirrored in flooded paddy fields that stretch to the horizon and grow lush and green at harvest time in December. This is the place to immerse yourself in local life with homestays in farming villages such as Ban Siam near Ubon Ratchatani or Khok Pia in Khon Kaen.
There are spectacular Khmer temples such as Phimai, a miniature Angkor Wat set on a forested hill; and myriad festivals. Don’t miss the astonishing Elephant Round-up in Surin, with re-enactments of historic battles with war elephants in traditional dress, and a banquet for the beasts in the town’s streets. Rayong holds a spring fruit festival, with stalls packed with durian, star fruit and mangosteens. And in March Buddhists flood into pretty Chanthaburi town before processing to the wild boulder-mountains of Khao Khitchakhut, to pray at a mysterious rock formation, said to be the Buddha’s footprint.
In Trat you can stay with fishing communities and learn about their way of life, before hopping offshore to the low-key Koh Chang islands where rugged mountains are streaked with waterfalls, and pristine white sand beaches fringed with coral reef.
5. Western Thailand: Best for: A journey back in time
Get off the beaten track in Western Thailand. Take the train to the old royal city of Phetchaburi with its hilltop palaces and buddha caves; or the beach in Hua Hin. This has long been the favourite summer retreat of Thai kings, whose ‘Palace of Love and Hope’ sits over a seemingly endless, white strand. Some of the best spa resorts in the country lie here including the multi-award-winning Chiva Som and the architecturally stunning Barai.
Elephants, gibbons and even tigers live wild in the vastness of Kui Buri and Kaeng Krachan national parks, which you can visit easily on a day safari, or a longer hike into the heart of the rainforest.
Don’t miss the floating market at Damnoen Saduak. Spend a few nights on a wooden houseboat on the River Khwae in historic Kanchanaburi, where in World War Two, allied prisoners were forced to build a bridge and a railway line by the Japanese. You can ride the train today through forests and canyons to the border with Burma; and then take a side trip into the hills for the beautiful Erawan Falls which drop through turquoise pools in tiers as white as a bridal veil.
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