Thailand is renowned for its delectable cuisine and majestic temples, but the variety of experiences the country offers amazes first-time visitors. The capital city of Bangkok is cosmopolitan and a shopper’s paradise. Chiang Mai in the north features ancient history and outdoor adventure. Thailand’s beaches span two coasts with pristine waters where you can scuba dive or receive beach-side massages. When it comes to accommodations Thailand provides you with plenty of choices. When you’re charting your trip to Thailand you’ll find that this popular destination has a superb range of hotels to suit all styles and budgets, from backpacker lodges with rooms for just a few dollars a night to Thai mansions offering world-class amenities with rates to match.
Given a week to explore Thailand, you might spend two days in Bangkok followed by four days either discovering the culture and natural beauty of the north or unwinding on the islands in the south, before returning to Bangkok to shop for souvenirs. Thailand’s many corners are well served by more than 20 domestic airports and several different airlines, including Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, and Thai Air Asia. Trains provide the most comfortable, enjoyable method of traveling around the country. The State Railway of Thailand operates four main train routes and a handful of auxiliary spurs that serve smaller towns. With the exception of chaotic Bangkok, Thailand is also an excellent country to tour with a rented car or motorcycle.
Bangkok & Around
On your first day, head straight to the magnificent Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew—the Temple of the Emerald Buddha—in the heart of Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya river.
Nearby, the National Museum and National Gallery of Art are fine places to take in some ancient culture before hopping on a tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorcycle with driver) to Wat Pho to see the Reclining Buddha and receive a traditional Thai massage. A long-tail boat ride around Thon Buri’s canals, where you’ll glimpse traditional Thai life, should be followed by a visit to Wat Arun, with its spectacular view over the city. Finish your day with dinner at a riverside restaurant.
Day two in Bangkok could include a morning trip to Damnoern Saduak floating market; a tour of Jim Thompson’s house, a beautiful old-style teak structure filled with ancient artwork; or shopping at Chatuchak weekend market or one of Bangkok’s may other markets. A more relaxing day might consist of a cooking class or spa treatments. In the evening, consider going to Bangkok’s Chinatown, a popular tourist attraction and a food haven for new generation gourmands who flock there after sunset to explore the vibrant street-side cuisine.
With more time, take a day trip to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, founded in 1351. It’s about 55 miles (90 km) north of Bangkok and can be visited via car, boat, or train.
Chiang Mai & the Mountains
Those interested in culture and the outdoors should journey to Chiang Mai, about an hour north of Bangkok by plane. The capital of the historic Lanna kingdom and home to 700-year-old temples, Chiang Mai is also a popular jumping-off point for mountain treks into hill-tribe country. Even if you’re not into hiking, day trips to nearby hill tribes are enlightening experiences, as are visits to elephant sanctuaries, such as the Elephant Nature Park. A major region for handicrafts, Chiang Mai has a number of workshops along San Kamphaeng Road.
From Chiang Mai, you can experience more trekking, hill tribes, and spectacularly remote mountain scenery in Chiang Rai, hub of the Golden Triangle.
If you prefer sand and sun, Thailand has two coasts with breathtaking islands amid aquamarine waters. Phuket, the west coast’s most popular island, about an hour south by plane from Bangkok, has beaches ranging from isolated coves harbouring private resorts to crowded Patong Beach, where water activities and nightlife abound. Phuket features world-class spas, and it is a center for diving, fishing, and sailing.
Nearby Krabi Province has quieter islands more suited to relaxation. Whichever base you prefer, a day trip to Phan Gna Bay, with its spectacular limestone pillars plunging into the turquoise sea, is a must. Hundreds of small islands, including James Bond Island, are best explored via kayak, and Ko Phi Phi is a popular destination for snorkelers and divers. Serious divers will want to spend several days on a live-aboard dive boat to the Similan Islands.
On the east coast, along the Gulf of Thailand, most visitors head to Ko Samui, also about an hour flight south from Bangkok. Unlike Phuket, Samui features only one golf course, but you can fill several days with a scuba certification course. If you are already certified or your primary intention is learning to dive, Ko Tao, a two-hour boat ride from Samui, is the top spot. Alternatively, you can plan excellent day trips, such as a snorkeling trip to Ko Tao’s neighbouring Ko Nang Yuan or a kayaking trip around Ang Thong Marine Park. People who are looking to get away from it all can head to Ko Phan Ngan’s spa and wellness retreats.
Off the Beaten Path
Those looking to get off the beaten path should explore the northeastern provinces— what’s called Issan—for ancient Khmer temples and rural life centered on agriculture. Udon Thani, about an hour flight north of Bangkok is a good base. Nature enthusiasts should consider Khao Sok National Park or Khao Yai National Park, both sanctuaries for indigenous birds and wildlife—including elephants! The ancient capital of Sukhotani, a 35-minute flight north from Bangkok, has stunning ruins. The Loy Krathong festival here in November is said to be spectacular.
What to Bring
Thailand is a perpetually hot country where jackets and sweaters are rarely needed (except in frigid air-conditioned interiors). Coats, ties, and dressy dresses may be necessary in a few exclusive restaurants in Bangkok but are otherwise little more than an additional packing burden.
Clothes should be a light cotton or other natural fiber. Bring the fewest possible items of clothing and expand your wardrobe in Thailand, where the clothing selection is excellent and of international quality. Comfortable walking shoes are essential, and sandals are a necessity when visiting temples, where shoes must be removed prior to entry.
Other items to consider are a small medical kit, sewing kit, mini-umbrella, insect repellent, drug prescriptions, and photocopies (digital copies are also a good idea) of essential documents.