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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThailand is very much a land of contrasting and diverse attractions, even though many first time visitors believe the only things to do here are sunbaking, feasting and partying on one of its infinitely popular islands. Admittedly, these are indeed blissful ways to spend an enjoyable week or month, yet the country of a thousand smiles has so much more to offer anyone who’s even remotely interested in scratching its exotic and relaxing surface.
The most popular and visited of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand offer a wide range of phenomenal attractions, from the natural, to the historical and cultural. The relative ease of transport between major hubs means you could start your adventure in cosmopolitan Bangkok, explore the hillside tribal area near Chiang Mai, discover the off-the-beaten-path wilderness of northeastern Isaan, and end your extensive journey by sailing through the exceptionally divine islands off the southern coastlines. In Thailand, you can do, see and experience as much, or as little, as your heart desires.
If Thailand is starting to sound a little too good to be true, rest assured it most certainly is, in certain respects. This is the land of dodginess and police corruption, of the worst kind of organised crime, a place where for every tourist there are ten scam artists just salivating at a prospective windfall. Thailand is also a place where old Western men come to meet young Asian women. This is the capital of exploited love, exploited tourism, exploited everything. That’s what you get when you are a stunning yet very cheap tropical country. Everyone wants to suck the life out of you.
Yet for the average visitor the negative aspects of the country are readily accepted, or at the very least, easily tolerated. Spend years living here and the country will drive you bonkers; spend just weeks or months discovering Thailand, however, and you’re guaranteed to have a great time. Well, as long as you don't dig too deep, that is.
Brief history of ThailandIndigenous Thais began farming in the region about six thousand years ago, with stone relics having been found from this time, and bronze and iron tools making appearances around the 3,000 and 500 BC respectively. The ancestors of modern Thais are believed to have migrated here from China just before Theravada Buddhism became the prevalent faith in the region.
Thailand was ruled by the (now Cambodian) Khmers for well over 500 years, until the first ever Thai Kingdom, called Sukhothai Kingdom was established in the 1200s. It was eventually annexed by the much larger and more powerful Kingdom of Ayutthaya. The eclectic mix of culture, food, and architecture found in Thailand nowadays perfectly reflects the country’s multi-cultural history.
European traders started arriving en masse during the 18th century and it was then that the country became a hot spot for Asian commerce. Back then the kingdom included Laos, Cambodia, and what is modern-day Malaysia. Although most of Thailand managed to miss full colonization by the West, it did have to concede the above-mentioned regions regions to France and Great Britain, respectively.
Declared a constitutional monarchy (much like Great Britain) for the first time in 1932, Thailand suffered several coupes and domestic revolts between the time it signed a peace treaty with the Allies in 1946, and a new constitution drawn up in 1997. Politically, Thailand is not one of the most stable countries on Earth, and every few years student demonstrations are oppressed violently by government forces. The most recent trouble in the country occurred in 2014 when Bangkok became a temporary no-go zone for foreign tourists.
Regional OverviewThailand is split up into five regions which cover the central, southern and northern parts of the country. Here’s a brief overview of what each has to offer.
Center: Bangkok and PattayaCentral Thailand is arguably the most varied of all the regions and boasts historical landmarks, like those found in the capital, Bangkok and its ancient twin Ayutthaya, as well as verdant, wildlife, rich national parks inland, and a striking coast line both east and west of Bangkok. The infamous town of Pattaya is also near Bangkok on the east side, and the more family friendly and traditional Hua Hin on the west side; both are popular with tourists, Pattaya more so. Central Thailand is its historical and cultural center and if you have only a short time for your visit, this is where you should base yourself. You'll have the best of the city, the countryside and the beaches all within easy reach.
South: Paradise IslandsUndoubtedly the most famous and visited of all the regions of Thailand, the narrow strip of land, flanked by the Andaman Sea on the west and the Gulf of Thailand on the east, is home to what are often referred to as some of the most stunning beaches in the world. If you’ve never heard of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Samui, Ko Lanta or the Surin & Similan Islands, then it’s safe to say you don’t like postcard perfect beaches very much. A visit here ought to change that pronto.
Scuba diving, sailing, snorkeling, relaxing, partying, and beach bumming is what Southern Thailand does best. Throw in a few good temples and smattering of cultural highlights and there’s no reason why even a visit here could not be all encompassing. Serious divers and those looking for a lesser visited hub ought to consider basing themselves in Ko Samui or Ko Lanta, and steering well clear of heavily visited Phuket.
North-west: Authentic Country-sideThis area is mostly known for being home to Thailand’s most famous hill tribes, as well as for boasting the Golden Triangle, the overly-touristy spot where the country shares borders with two of its neighbors: Myanmar and Laos. When it comes to authenticity however, the entire northern region rates highly, with the triangle being the only really commercial hub. Travel here and you can explore tribal villages which barely receive foreign visitors, admire the stunning architectural marvels in Chiang Mai, ancient ruins in Sukhothai (the country’s former capital) and mountainous landscapes brimming with historic temples. The higher altitude of this region grants cooler temps and brilliant chances for multi-day hiking trips.
Northeast: Isaan and Ubon RatchathaniOn the eastern fringe of the northern province is where you’ll find Isaan, a spectacularly unspoilt region of ancient Khmer temples, with none of the crowds you’d normally encounter in Cambodia. Of all the regions of the country, this is the least visited, with many tourists bemoaning the lack of coastline and high mountains. Nevertheless, if you dream of visiting at least one major Thai city with barely a western face around, then spend a few nights in Ubon Ratchathani, or get completely and utterly lost in the myriad of national parks adorning the northern edge of the region.
Rest assured that the fantastic cuisine, warm hospitality and bright smiles so synonymous with Thailand, will be your most ardent companions, no matter where in the country you wish to go.
Iconic Thailand HighlightsThailand certainly has plenty to boast about and the extensive list of landmarks runs the gamut from pristine beaches to historical treasures and marvelous natural havens. Here's our list of the most revered.
BangkokBangkok is a definite must-see and considering it’s the focal entry and exit point of the country for most visitors, it makes visiting very easy. Although you may be inclined to hop in and out as quickly as possible, in order to miss the madness of it, just don’t. This is where you’ll experience some of the most iconic Thai moments of all and where the madness is what adds spice to the fun. Here, you can indulge in the country’s best street food in Chinatown, shop for Thai silk on one of its many floating markets, stand in awe in front of the magnificent Grand Palace or enjoy a super-spicy curry, with a side-serve of people watching, along famous Khao San Road. Between amazing temples, tantalizing night-life and a plethora of famous landmarks, Bangkok boasts enough attractions to keep you busy for days on end, starting with the sightseeing trifecta that is Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun.
Chiang MaiThe best way to describe the northern hub of Chiang Mai, is to say that whatever Bangkok is, Chiang Mai isn’t. It’s not overly congested, not maddening nor is it overrun with people 24 hours a day. It also doesn’t boast any beaches, isn’t as exhilarating as Bangkok and doesn’t offer nearly as many food variations. It’s this very contrast which makes the city the unofficial second capital of Thailand and one of the most enticing ones to visit. If Bangkok rubs you off the wrong way after a few days, Chiang Mai is where you need to head to.
The city’s elevated location means the weather here is never as stifling, so this is the spot to enjoy a most definite chill in the air at year’s end. The town is also brimming with stunning attractions. Firstly, you have the glistening mountain top temple of Doi Suthep, the very vibrant night markets on Chang Klan Road and the superb spas offering a plethora of relaxing massages. For that most iconic moment, however, you’ll need to pack your hiking shoes and discover the breathtaking beauty of the Ob Luang National Park where you can hike through stupendous canyons, past caves and waterfalls by day, and stargaze from your tent by night. For mountain lovers, Chiang Mai is Thailand at its very best.
Chiang RaiAbout a day's drive from Chiang Mai is where you'll find the former capital of the opium trade, a re-invented hub which offers phenomenal chances for multi-day hikes, village homestays and a brilliant chance to get a deeper insight into inland Thailand's most enticing cultures. A great stepping stone if you wish to travel overland to Myanmar or Laos, Chiang Rai is popular with discerning travellers who want to see more of the country, aside the sea and surf. Don't miss a visit to the awe-inspiring temple of Wat Rong Kun; it's absolutely spectacular!
PhuketPhuket is infinitely popular and enjoys a reputation for offering just about everything. Shanty beachside hostels stand alongside opulent 5-star resorts and when you head here, you'll find a near endless plethora of activities on offer. If there was ever a place which screams 'easy!' then Phuket would be it. Daily connecting flights from Bangkok, a wide array of service and comfort levels make this a great option for those who don't want a hint of hard work when on vacation. Yes, it also helps that Phuket is quite stunning too.
Koh Phi PhiWhenever you come across an extremely visited place, it pays to remember that there are usually some very valid reason why it, and not another, has become super popular. So is the case with Ko Phi Phi, arguably the most famous of all Thai islands. Firstly, it should be noted that superlative snorkelling can be enjoyed on many other archipelagos in the country, including the Similan and Surin Islands, however, both of these hubs have off-seasons, where access is actually denied. What makes Koh Phi Phi so immensely attractive is that not only can one snorkel at any time of year, but one can also do so straight off the beach. Avoiding expensive organised tours is a massive incentive for budget travelers and that’s why you’ll comes across hordes of them on this busy, yet still breathtaking, spot of paradise. Best thing about Phi Phi is that it offers a plethora of very iconic Thai experiences, including party nights, sailing trips, massages, street food and much more.
Khao Yai National Park‘Elephant tourism’ is flogged to no end in Thailand, with every tour operator in just about every city in the country, promising a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-repeated, close and personal encounter with the formidable beasts of the forest. Except they’re not. Well, not very unique anyway and not always very ethical either. Visit Thailand and you’ll find about 101 different places where you can ride an elephant, feed an elephant, and even become an experienced mahout in as little as a week. Never mind the fact it should probably take at least two decades.
For a more organic experience, and one which does not require the animal to be prodded to command, spend some time in the magnificent Khao Yai National Park, just north-east of Bangkok. The country’s third largest protected reserve is an optimal and very convenient place to see elephants at their best: WILD! For just a few dollars, you can hire a local guide (recommended) who will take you through the incredibly thick forest floor, help you discover the surreal waterfalls of Heo Suwat and, finally, track down a family of elusive elephants. This is one of only a couple of places in Thailand where elephants still roam free and have had no contact with humans. Not the 'wildest' of NPs to visit in Thailand, but it's conveniently close to Bangkok so it's very popular with short-term tourists.
AyutthayaSouth-west of Bangkok is where you’ll find one of the most outstanding UNESCO heritage sites in the world: the capital city of the ancient Kingdom of Siam . The Old City of Ayutthaya is not only magnificent, but also distinct in architecture to anything you’re likely to see anywhere else. Visit the Ayutthaya Historical Park and you’ll have the splendors of innumerable ruins to admire and much of the country’s history to learn about. A guided, English-speaking tour is highly recommended if you want to make the most of your visit.
Ko TaoIdeal for scuba diving beginners, this little corner of paradise is both cheap and easy to reach. Found floating among the Chumphon Archipelago off the eastern coast of Thailand, Ko Tao is small, intimate and brimming with coral reefs and rocky coves. A plethora of glistening hidden sandy beachese, accessible only by 4WD or boat, make for ideal and solitary escapes
Ko Pha-NganInfamously knows as ‘Full Moon Party Central’, Ko Pha-Ngan is just south of Ko Tao, and along with all-night partying, it also boats Sailrock, the best wall dive in the whole country.
Ko LantaA mellow diver's paradise, Ko Lanta lacks the excitement of Ko Pha-Ngan, but that's precisely its attraction. Spend lazy days on the beach, discover the sleepy village, and enjoy a most relaxing tropical vacation.
Similan Islands National ParkThe National Park which cemented Thailand's spot as one of the best dive sites in the world, the Smilan Islands are a nature lover's paradise and offer the best live-aboard experiences in the country. head here is you want to splash about with manta rays and whale sharks, and if you like to explore the luscious tropical jungles of the island's interior.
Ko SamuiCoconut Island, as Ko Samui was once known, is a perfectly set-up resort island and is both affordable and easy to reach. Unfortunately, the overly commercialized and even sanitized set-up means you can spend days here without ever getting a glimpse of the real Thailand or its enticing culture. Yet for the masses who descend here every here, this seems to be just fine.
Economy & DemographicsThailand is, by far, one of the greatest success stories to emerge from Southeast Asia, at least economically speaking. This is especially true when you consider it has been politically unstable, to say the least, for the last four decades. In a single-generation, Thailand has evolved from third-world scrub to middle-class hub and, if you travel overland from any of its nearby countries, the distinction is incredibly palpable. Roads and infrastructure are great, services and goods widely available everywhere and the level of education quite astonishing. Whenever someone tries to rip you off, at least they do it in fluent English., which is lovely really.
Thailand enjoys quite a good level of state-wide health and it is reported that over 90% of the population has access to basic health care and safe water supplies. Over the last two decades, infant mortality rates have decreased significantly. This is not to say, however that all Thais are well off. The gap between rich and poor is painfully obvious. While 10% of the population lives in superlative comfort, over 80% of the country’s millions live a subsistent, agricultural life. Whether or not one would consider that poor, is up for discussion.
People & CultureThailand is often referred to as the friendliest country on Earth and it is very true that the first thing most people who visit encounter is a bright and radiant smile. Aside being hospitable and warm, Thais are also deeply spiritual, tolerant and, like most Asian cultures, quite passive. The ubiquitous greeting of wai, which is made by pressing your hands together in front of your chest as if in prayer, and accompanied by a smile and slight nod of the head, is still the most beloved aspects of the culture.
Theravada Buddhism is the main driving force of the people, with only about 5% of the population adhering to other faiths or beliefs. Thais strongly believe in the spiritual world and constantly make offerings to little ‘spiritual houses’ you’ll see scattered along footpaths and in front of shops, houses, and apartment buildings. According to their belief this is where spirits live, and if they are kept happy with offerings of food, drinks and certain flowers, they will not cause any havoc in homes and businesses.
It has been widely believed that Thais are quite conservative yet the younger generation seems to be adapting to Western practices quite swiftly. Public displays of affections between partners, something one would have been hard-pressed to see even just 10 years ago, are widely common, especially in larger cities.
Touching someone’s head and showing the soles of your feet are the most common no-nos in Thailand, and luckily something of which most foreigners are aware.
CuisineAlong with Singapore, Thai cuisine could easily be described as the most exciting and varied in all of Southeast Asia. The country offers much to the gastronomically curious traveler, thanks to its varied history, regional culture, and an absolute passion for food. Unlike many other cuisines the world over, Thai grub is not all about simplicity. Quite the opposite. Pride in cooking derives from a chef’s ability to combine many different ingredients, often contrasting, which result in an harmonious and incredibly delectable meal.
The choice of meals on offer will differ depending on where in Thailand you choose to travel. Head to Isaan, for example, and you’ll find some distinctive flavors of Laos and Cambodia, whereas in the south your meals will most likely remind you of Malaysia. In Bangkok, of course, you’ll find it all: local cuisine from every region with a healthy dose of Western food to boot.
Here are some of the dishes you should try:
Gang Keow Wan-Thai green curryA most revered dish, this combines the smooth flavors of Thai green curry, coconut milk, basil, eggplant, and chicken, along with plenty of lemongrass and lime. The soupy dish is best enjoyed with plenty of boiled rice to soak up the runny yumminess.
Panang Gai-Spicy Red CurryA creamier and spicier curry dish, with enough flavor to make your taste buds jump for joy with every mouthful, Panang Gai is ideal for those who prefer a taste explosion.
Tom Yum Goong-Hot & sour shrimp soupYet another spicy dish, this time served with or without coconut milk, and including shrimps, one of Thailand’s most beloved ingredients.
Pad ThaiEasily the most famous and exported of all the Thai dishes, Pad Thai is a household name in almost every multi-cultural country. 1,001 variations can be found, all of them essentially consisting of noodles tossed with tofu, onions, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts, and topped with sugar, fish sauce and chili. Voila’. This is pure Thai perfection and, at about $ 1.00 USD a plate in most places, the most ubiquitous dish devoured by all backpackers.
Banana & Nutella pancakeWe admit that Nutella is not originally a Thai ingredient and if we were to be truthful, we’d also say that Thais are not known for their penchant for banana pancakes either. Yet travel to Thailand and you’ll find this to be the most widely served snack food.
Bangkok is the reputed capital of the infamous Banana Pancake Trail , which is the curious name given to the most defining tourist trail in Southeast Asia. Originally invented to appeal to foreigners, banana and chocolate pancakes and rotis would have to be one of the most iconic Thai snacks you could have. At less than a dollar each, you’ll no doubt have plenty.
If you want to bring home a most memorable souvenir, then make sure you take a Thai cooking class whilst in the country. Knowledge of the food and intricate preparation of meals is one of the most rewarding mementos you could ever hope to have.
Best Time to VisitThe climate in Thailand can be divided into three distinct seasons: hot, a little less hot, and hot and rainy. When planning a visit here, you ought to keep the weather in mind, as some places (a few of which may be on your to-see list) become quite unbearable at certain times of year. You may want to spend a whole week in Bangkok exploring the sights, for example, yet if you visit in May you may find yourself lasting about one full day, before being compelled to hit the coast.
Thailand’s regional contrasts can actually be very convenient, as no matter what month of the year you wish to visit, you’ll find at least one region at its prime.
November to FebruaryThe coolest time of year is ideal to visit the northern regions which although can get quite cold mountain-side (0 ° C), you’ll find blossoming flowers, verdant hills and will have plenty of energy to hike for days on end. This is, generally speaking, the very best time to visit Thailand in general, as beach life is blissful and sightseeing much more comfortable too.
March to MayThe hottest part of the year is a killer in the north; not only due to the intense stifling sea-less heat, but also because this is when farmers invigorate their rice fields with back-burning. Hot and smoky is never a nice mix.
June to OctoberRains galore are the order of the day during these months, and monsoon rains can be a major hindrance to island explorations both in and out of the water. The rains are not relentless and never-ending. Like most other tropical countries, you’ll likely experience intense storms for about two hours every afternoon, although that’s enough to rule out snorkeling and scuba diving as rewarding activities. Having said this, do note that the Gulf of Thailand, on the eastern side of the southern tip, doesn't see nearly as much rain as the Andaman Sea. Eastern hubs like Koh Samui are the best places to head to during this season.
Important FestivalsEvery day you’re in Thailand and not in the office will be reason enough to celebrate, yet attend one of the following famous festivals and you're bound to have a more unforgettable time. Food, music, dancing, and shopping are welcomed inclusions during all these festivals.
SongkranThe festival to end all festivals, this water extravaganza marks the end of Thai New Year and is undoubtedly the most popular of all. The three-day-long water fight takes place in April all over the country and is supposed to symbolize new, ‘clean’ beginnings.
Ubon Ratchathani Candle FestivalThe little-visited northern city of Ubon Ratchathani is awash with visitors every year, around the time of the famous Candle Festival. Visit in August, book a hotel near Candle Park and admire the larger than life candle wax statues and sculptures on display.
Surin Elephant FestivalIf you’ve ever wanted to see elephants play football (or soccer to you Australians), then Surin is the place to visit in November . In this blink and you’ll miss it, north-eastern town, you’ll experience a very colorful event, where elephants are celebrated for being a most inherent part of Thai culture.
Lopbury Monkey Buffet FestivalMost of the time in Thailand, trying to stop monkeys from stealing your food is a prime objective yet if your travel to Lopbury in November, you can partake in a curious event which sees locals put on spectacular buffet meals for the resident monkeys. The Monkey Buffet Festival is not as cultural or historic as the others and has been concocted primarily to attract tourists. It works a treat.
Chinese New YearIn and around Bangkok, where Chinese communities thrive, is where you’ll find the Thai version of this most famous of all Chinese festivals, now part and parcel of Thai culture. One of the most colorful and festive parties of them all, this festival is held sometime in either January or February, depending on the lunar calendar.
Loy KrathongThailand’s festival of lights is the most stunning you’ll experience; a truly beautiful and peaceful celebration of life, and a memorable offering to the water gods. Head to Bangkok in November, and you’ll see oceans of locals amassing on the riverfront, from where they’ll set wonderfully decorated baskets to float downriver, or stunning lanterns to fly up high in the sky. The festival includes fireworks and even larger rafts, and is by far one of the most serene to experience.
SafetyIn order to return home from your Thailand vacation with only good memories, here are a few things to consider.
Renting a ScooterDespite what you may think about the dangers of Thailand, the number one risk you’ll run here, will come compliments of that scooter ride you intend to take. Traffic is madness, scooters usually below safety standards and driving conditions erratic to say the least. If you want to ensure your utmost safety, then leave the scooter riding for your home country. Besides, no matter what the guy at the shop tells you, it’s illegal to ride one unlicensed and, should anything happen, no insurance in the world will cover your medical expenses. Neither will the guy at the shop.
Full Moon PartiesFull moon parties are SO much fun if you’re 20 years old, yet every year they cause more problems to foreigners than anything else. Between the criminal gangs, spiked drinks, bad drugs and injuries (caused by broken glass and beach fires), the Full Moon Party is said to be a great event to attend, for some people.
Dehydration and SunburnDehydration is probably the most common ailment suffered by visitors, so do make a conscious effort to drink up plenty (of water) and you won’t risk ruining your vacation. Don a hat and slap on plenty of sunscreen every single day.
DrugsDrug taking is illegal and is harshly dealt with by local authorities, most especially when it involves foreigners. Stay away or run a big risk of incarceration.
The MonarchDon't speak ill of the king.
Other than these, normal precautions should be taken, yet none which are particularly relevant to Thailand alone.
Transportation & InfrastructureTransport in Thailand is rather chaotic and, like most other aspects of the country, a mixed bag of different options. These are the basics:
Long DistancesOvernight bus trips are popular because they are cheap, and from Bangkok you can easily reach every corner of the country. Yet they are also supremely uncomfortable and not all that safe. Train rides are convenient and with infrastructure to also cover the basic routes, these are a much safer, but slower, option. Consider taking some domestic flights: they are affordable and infinitely more convenient for long distance travels.
Short DistancesRoad conditions in Thailand are much better than in any of its neighboring countries, yet this does not mean they are very good. Drunken and reckless driving abounds, making road travel quite unsafe almost anywhere in the country. An unavoidable necessity if covering short distances, BKS bus rides are your best option for road transport between hubs. Whatever you do, steer clear of VIP buses which are aimed at tourists specifically. They are renowned scams, involving theft of bags, convenient ‘breakdowns’ in front of the driver’s friend’s restaurants and run notoriously late. There’s a very good reason why locals won’t step foot in them.
Around TownsThe cheapest way to get about a town is by tuk-tuk and songthaew. Cheap, found everywhere and amazingly maneuvered through congested traffic, these are fun and certainly safer than jumping on the back of a motorbike taxi.
8 Fun facts about ThailandYou may well know that 90% of Thais are Buddhists, and that Bangkok used to boast twice as many canals as it does nowadays. But here are 8 curious facts about Thailand you may not know:
- Thailand was known as Siam before the start of WWII; Siamese cats are Thai natives.
- Unlike what many believe, Thailand is the largest rice exporter in world, not China.
- The term ‘Siamese twins’ originates from two Thai brothers who lived in the 1800s and were joined at the chest. They gained international notoriety and thus the English term was adopted.
- Bangkok’s official name is: “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit” . Yes, it is the longest place name in history, as stated in the Guinness Book of Records.
- You can be arrested and incarcerated for stepping on a Thai Baht note, as it depicts the face of the King.
- In Thai culture, he who is younger or of lesser social standing, must bow lower than those he greets.
- There is a very particular law in Thailand which forbids people from leaving home without their underwear. You have been warned!
- Thailand fought in both World Wars, and was on the Allied side in the first; and Japanese side in the second.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: May 09, 2015