Thailand's white and turquoise beaches, golden Buddhist temples, bloody history and marketplace culture are loved by both end of the travel budget scale: as well as being one of the places to backpack, Thailand has more than its fair share of luxury resorts. Some visitors just swing though the country on a beeline to the coast, while some take months meandering though; either way this country has three main attractions: Bangkok, the islands and Chiang Mai and the north east, and this itinerary outline explains the basic appeal of each.
Most visitors to Thailand fly into Bangkok: glistening, clean and climate controlled designer shopping only a few hundred metres from markets selling almost everything for almost nothing, in amongst pointed roofed temples and hundred year old villages. Bangkok has a reputation for a lot of different things, but most visitors will want to see the temples, eat and shop in the markets and make time to tour the city in a canal. Unless you're a fan of your local red light district you might want to swap a trip to the seedy, now touristy, red light district in favour of some cheap pampering elsewhere.
Top Bangkok temples include: Wat Phra Kaew: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, who is actually made of jade or jasper, and surrounded by hundreds of multicoloured buildings with gold spires, Golden Mount, the Temple of the Standing Buddha, Wat Traimit: the Temple of the Golden Buddha and Wat Benchamabophit: also called the Marble Temple, made all of white, polished Italian marble and both one of Bangkok's most beautiful and most popular temples. The Grand Palace, the 'phantasmagorically', ornate European building with the Thai style roof made famous by 'The King and I', and home to Thailand's parliament since the 18th Century, and the Vimanmek Mansion Museum, a national museum, the world's largest teak building and a good place to come to see classical Thai dancing, Thai folk dance and martial arts demonstrations, are two of Bangkok's other cultural highlights.
If you can't see Thailand's ancient collection of royal barges in action in a state ceremony on Bangkok's waterways, see them at the Royal Barges Museum before taking your own tour of the city's waterways – this is the way the kings used to do it.
Go shopping, another thing people travel to Bangkok for, at Talat Kao Market for Chinese specialities, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, for a truly unique veggie shopping experience, or for everything else at Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the world's largest markets with around 15,000 stalls. And if you're not a shopper, maybe duck off to see some Muay Thai boxing at Rajadamnern Stadium.
Even this basic list of Bangkok attractions would take at least a week to get though.
Thailand has hundreds of islands, but the two most visited groups are Ko Tao, Ko Samui and co. in the Gulf of Thailand near the Ang Thong Marine Park and Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lipe and co. in the Andaman Sea near Phuket and the Phang Nga Bay, out of which James Bond Island - the one used in 'The Man with the Golden Gun' - sticks like a dagger.
The islands sprinkled round the Gulf of Thailand are fringed with coconut groves and white beaches, and warm, footprint-less, sandy coves; many of them have lush interiors, especially those of the Ang Thong Archipelago, or interesting limestone formations. Ko Samui is probably the most idyllically famous, but Ko Tao is supposed to be the new Ko Samui - more 'The Beach', than 'The Beach' beach, and is popular with divers and those on more modest budgets. Most visitors to these islands come for some resort and relaxation time.
On the other side of Thailand, the Andaman Sea Islands are the ones that look like giant limestone daggers with a sprinkling of bright green alfalfa jungle on top, plunging deep into sandy bottomed, turquoise seas, in dispersed with sandier islands totally ringed with perfect tropical beaches. Hundreds of islands make up this group, loved by divers snorkellers, paddlers, sailors and people who appreciate luxury resorts or just really lovely beaches.
Phuket is the busiest hub, so has some of the heartiest nightlife as well as some spectacular beaches: Katanoi, Surin, and Patong are recommended by World Reviewers. But the Ko Phi Phi islands, used as a location for 'The Beach', are some of the best known and still most beautiful. You can only stay on Ko Phi Phi Don, the larger island; Maya Bay, where 'The Beach' was filmed is on smaller Ko Phi Phi Lee. Ko Lon, Ko Lipe, Ko Lanta and rocky Krabi are quieter islands to base your Andaman island break on, all offering a mix of local hospitality, tropical beach vistas and watersports, and there's the choice to stay on one or hop between depending on time restraints. Wherever you choose to stay it's worth taking a day trip, by either boat or bus, to Phang Nga Bay, and see James Bond island and Koh Pannyi island, which still has its traditional stilt fishing villages built over the water.
For a deeper look into Thailand's golden culture visit the country's north east for the tribal culture and the elephants, opting for a homestay experience, elephant safari or a gentle trekking visit to one of the more remote mountain communities.
Chiang Mai is a city, but it's an old city with many beautiful religious wats, and has a much calmer feel than frenetic Bangkok. More importantly it's a good place from which to explore the more remote treasures of Thailand's North East. Many itineraries won't find time to 'do' this city as well as the cultural, and elephant related, attractions around it, but if time allows there are lovely orchid farms, photogenic waterfalls, gardens and many many ancient temples. Chiang Mai is also famous for its night bazaar, and schools teaching Thai Massage and cooking.
The best time to visit Thailand is between December and February but as far as the weather goes, Thailand is pretty blessed all year round. While there's always the option of being ferried around Thailand in the air conditioned comfort of your tour bus, this is a safe, friendly and relatively easy country to explore on your own via the decent bus and train service between the major cities and smaller towns – especially if you're covering the most visited areas that this itinerary does.
While in Thailand it's a nice idea to give something back through 'making merit', something locals do all the time to help push the karmic balance in their favour.
Hop round, sail or snorkel between, or just recline on, Thailand's islands are an idyllic tropical backdrop.
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