Picture yourself trekking through thick jungle on an elephant, exploring towering stone temples, or swimming in the crystal blue water of a tropical paradise. With a splash of the exotic and a touch of the historic, Thailand is the ultimate adventure.Once known as the Kingdom of Siam, the country was renamed Thailand in 1939 but has also been known as the Land of Smiles, the Land of the Yellow Robes, and the Land of a Million Elephants.
There are few places in the world where you can meet with such rich culture, kind people, and amazing natural resources. Sounds expensive, right? It doesn’t have to be. After the flight, Thailand is one of the more luxurious ventures you can have without spending your life savings. Here are a few places and some tips that will make your vacation unforgettable.
Bangkok and Nearby Sites
Any visit to Thailand begins with Bangkok, which can be daunting for first-time world travelers. The city, which has been the capital for more than 200 years, seems to be a jungle of streets and buildings that hosts over six million people. However, with adequate preparation and a few maps, you can find your way just fine.
With six national museums and dozens of other museums, Bangkok is definitely the place to learn about the art, culture, and history of Thailand. The Bangkok National Museum and the National Gallery are the most visited and more exquisite museums to begin with. Others include the Royal Barge Museum, Jim Thompson House, and the Royal Elephant Museum.
The Grand Palace, a historical and political site, is a major stop for all tourists and has a number of famous temples near it as well. Buildings on the palace grounds are filled with colorful paintings and art from Thai history.
Wat is the Thai word for temple, and two temples you must visit are located near the palace. Wat Phra Kaew houses the rare jade Buddha statue, and Wat Pho houses one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in Thailand.
If you or your family is more sport oriented, you can catch some muaythai—Thai kickboxing, the national sport of Thailand. Ratchadamnoen Stadium and Lumpini Stadium are the two main venues in Bangkok and can be found on any map.
Another great place only an hour and a half from Bangkok is Ayutthaya, one of Thailand’s old capitals. Stroll over to St. Joseph’s Church, the oldest Christian site in Thailand. First built in 1666, it was destroyed in several wars and rebuilt by the Catholic Church in the 1800s.
Also not far from Bangkok are a number of wildlife and nature parks. South of the major Bangkok area, you can find a crocodile farm and elephant show, snake farm, and several orchid farms for those who are tamer at heart. You can also hit up one of the many floating markets near to these parks.
One of the joys of heading north to Chiang Mai, northern Thailand’s most famous city, is an overnight train ride. On this ride you can watch the sun set across small villages and rice fields and wake up to lush jungle and mountain scenery. Up north, the weather is cooler, the hotels and food are less expensive than Bangkok, and the city hosts a number of festivals.
Up the nearby mountains is Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, one of Thailand’s most famous Buddhist temples. A tuk-tuk or a small passenger truck can take you up the mountain to a large stairway (309 steps) leading to the temple site. You can always take the stairs, but if you want to save your energy, there is a small tram for a mere 30 baht (about $1). This site has historical and mystical heritage, plus a fantastic view of the valley below.
Close to the city are a number of attractions, including small factories and artisan shops. Here you can watch silk production in all its stages—from the silkworm to a finished clothing article. The locals also produce hand crafted and painted umbrellas, wood sculptures, furniture, and other items.
For the wildest ride of your life, travel an hour outside of the city to the Flight of the Gibbon attraction. At this zip line, you’ll harness up and sail through rainforest that’s more than a thousand years old. Connected through a number of bridges and platforms, the total zip line trip is over a mile long.
After your rainforest adventure, head up into the hills to cool off in the nearby waterfalls. Here you can travel to several hill tribe villages and experience a friendly, more rural society. You can also arrange a rafting trip down the Mekong River, head to the famous Chiang Dao Caves, or sign up for classes at the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School.
Magnificent Beaches and Islands
A vacation to Thailand would be incomplete without a stop at one of Thailand’s famous beaches—some of which are rated among the top 10 in the world and provide the backdrop for dozens of movies. While most visitors swim, you can also snorkel, scuba dive, surf, and kayak. Your only problem is that there are over 1,000 miles of coastline to choose from. Here are some of the best places to go.
Among the less crowded beaches are those at Hua Hin. There are a number of hotels and resorts you can stay at, and this is a great place to try kite surfing. You’ll also get a little royal history if you go on a tour of King Rama VII’s beach palace. Constructed out of teakwood and built in 1928, this palace is remarkable in craftsmanship and location—it leads right to the water’s edge.
To see a more extravagant side of Thai style, head to Pattaya, which is southeast of Bangkok. Here you can stay at a number of resorts or hotels ranging in comfort and elegance. One place that most cannot pass up is the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden. The gardens have a traditional Thai village, elephant show, and over 500 acres of beautiful landscape to explore. Just a few minutes away is Koh Larn Island, a coral island perfect for snorkeling and diving; the beach is empty early in the day.
Koh Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh
Koh means “island” in Thai, and the islands are your ticket to a great ocean experience. Large limestone cliffs ascend over the jungles and beaches of these islands. You might recognize the breathtaking scenery from movies or tourism ads. With inshore reefs, underwater rocks, and even a shipwreck, these locations are perhaps the best diving spots in Thailand. To arrange diving trips, find a shop in Phuket or Krabi, or, to simply visit the island, take a ferry from either of these places.
Thailand’s third largest island has recently been upgraded to accommodate world travelers and is rapidly gaining fame as a tropical paradise. The island features all the other usual island activities, plus an aquarium and tiger zoo. Lamai Beach will truly hit the spot with spectacular bonus features such as Thai kickboxing classes, bowling, a gym, go carts, and a miniature golf and regular golf course. It is truly a vacation dreamland.
One of the highlights of Thailand is getting to try some exotic flavors. Try one of the street vendors for famous Thai cuisine, which is made fresh for customers. Somtam, papaya salad, is Thailand’s most traditional dish, but be careful—it has a kick to it. You might also want to try nam tok muu, or waterfall pork, combined with sticky rice. This dish combines succulent, barbecued pork with onions, the sweet taste of lime, fiery chili peppers, and a trace of mint. You’ll never think of pork in the same way again. And how could you miss out on Thai curry? Pick a color—red, yellow, or green are all flavors of delicious curries. You must try massaman curry—a meat-and-potato curry flavored with tamarind, ginger, and coconut milk.
Finally, visiting a tropical country isn’t complete without enjoying the tropical fruit, and in Thailand, there is plenty to choose from. Thailand has several varieties of bananas—but fragrant bananas, also called finger bananas because of their size, are the tastiest. Several other fruits to try are the pomelo, mango, star apple, and mangosteen. Make sure to get a plate of the quintessential Thai dessert—mangoes with sticky rice!
Holidays and Festivals
You may want to plan your trip with a Thai holiday or festival in mind. These holidays add an unforgettable touch to your vacation. Songran is the celebration of the traditional Thai New Year. Beginning on April 13, Songran often appears to be a giant water fight, lasting for three or more days. It is a time filled with parades and parties. The temples and historical sites are always the safest and best places to go to during this holiday.
Other holidays include the King’s Birthday (in May) and Loi Krathong (usually in November), a holiday in which thousands of candles are floated out into rivers, ponds, lakes, and even the sky. You’ll also want to check the specific region you are visiting as many provinces have their own special holidays or festivals.
*To read Four Places You Must See in Thailand, click here.