Thailand has innumerable highlights, from bustling Bangkok to the mountainous north, kinky Pattaya and dazzling islands. Part of the allure is the sheer variety on offer and the ability to immerse oneself in exotic culture and have fun. The biggest problem is perhaps deciding what to do.
The fiery capital, Bangkok, has the top temples and shopping malls, along with quality entertainment and restaurants. The hotels here go all the way up to opulence; it is possible to get a five-star experience for US$100, for example. Of attractions, the Grand Palace is a must, with classic multi-tiered roofs, manicured lawns and the adjoining Emerald Buddha in Wat Phra Kaew.
Cruises along the Chao Phraya River, walks along frenetic Khao San Road and a visit up one of the high towers are also musts. Sukhumvit Road is the lifeblood of the city, containing most of the big hotels, malls, bar areas and the Skytrain. The notorious Pat Pong bar area and night market are off built up Silom Road, while Khao Yai National Park is just a couple of hours away.
Pattaya is a natural holiday retreat for Bangkokians and also for visitors. Just a couple of hours from Bangkok, it is the party capital of the world. The beach isn’t the best, but there are thousands (literally) of bars, cheap eating, good deals on hotels and great shopping.
Phuket Island is classier than Pattaya, with better beaches and rich, undulating countryside. It is also more expensive, though there are still great deals on hotels. Phuket highlights include Patong and Kata beaches in the west, fabulous diving in the Andaman, high quality golf courses, such as Red Mountain, and old Phuket Town.
Krabi is just a few hours by road or water from Phuket and is noted for its more laidback vibe, its tropical beaches and stunning karst seascape. Ao Nang is the main beach, with road-less rock-climbing haven Railay the most beautiful. The Phi Phi islands are accessed from Krabi or from Phuket and are picture postcard beautiful.
The Koh Samui group, lying amid the Thai Gulf, is as beautiful and can be accessed by ferry or plane. Once the haunt of backpackers, it is today typified by high-end resorts that go right down to the beach and stark mountains. Koh Phan Ngan is famed for its monthly full moon parties and is nearby.
Chiang Mai is the capital of the north and the main highlight away from the coast. Overlooked by mile-high Doi Suthep Mountain, it features an old moated town, hundreds of temples, night markets and an enviable winter climate. Chiang Mai is also cheaper than most places and makes a great base for trekking to hill tribe villages.
Ancient Sukhothai and Ayutthaya are musts for lovers of history, Hua Hin for those looking for something different from Phuket, Pattaya and Samui, and Kanchanaburi for visitors looking to cross the bridge on the River Kwai. It also has stunning nature areas, like the Erawan Falls and the dramatic Hellfire Pass.