Thailand, or the Land of Smiles, to give it its well-deserved nickname, is a destination that simply can't be ignored when looking for the ultimate in pleasurable pursuits on a holiday trip. Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, this tropical and exotic paradise has everything you could wish for: endless sunshine, world class beaches, fascinating culture, delicious food, friendly, welcoming people and much more.
Most trips to Thailand start and end in the capital, Bangkok, and there are terrific shopping opportunities in Bangkok’s many department stores located in modern retail districts such as Siam Square and Mahboon Krong. There are also huge markets such as at Chatuchak and Pratunam districts selling a bewildering array of goods at bargain prices. The famous backpackers' area of Khaosan Road also has many stalls selling clothes and other items. Buy anything that will be useful for your trip and buy whatever you want to take home with you when you return to Bangkok.
Thailand has more than its fair share of beautiful and safe beaches. Many, such as Hua Hin and Krabi are on coastal stretches of the mainland and many more are on countless islands dotted around both the eastern and western coasts. If you want beaches teeming with activity, watersports, beach bars and a buzzing rave scene, head south to islands such as Koh Samui or Koh Phangan. If you prefer a quiet retreat to relax among unspoilt nature, there are many islands such as Koh Samet offering just that. Accommodation on the islands includes basic beach huts, guesthouses, hotels and upmarket resorts with all the comforts you could hope for.
The Scenic North
The north of Thailand is famed for spectacular scenery of forests, mountains, caves, rivers and waterfalls. From the northern city of Chiang Mai, you can visit any of them on day trips or arrange to explore them up close with an organised trek lasting a few days with Thai guides. Treks always involve a fair bit of walking through forested trails, but for part of the route, you can expect transport in the form of river rafts, pick up trucks and, last but not least, on the backs of elephants.
Accommodation is basic bamboo hut style in rural villages on the trekking route with meals provided. This region of Thailand is also home to various hilltribes living in mountain villages. Tribes include, the Akha, Lisu, Hmong and Karen. Each tribe has its own unique culture, language and distinctively colourful style of dress. You can arrange to visit some villages that are close to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai for a few hours or even stay in them overnight as part of a trek.
As a devoutly Buddhist country, saffron-robed monks are a common sight, and Thailand has no shortage of temples, all with stunningly beautiful and graceful architecture. The spectacular Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok is the most famous and also the most revered by Thais, but there are temples in every town and city.
Other notable temples include The Temple of the Dawn on the banks of Bangkok's Chao Phraya River with its tall Khmer-style pagoda that you can climb for great views of busy river life, and Doi Suthep Temple, on the mountain of the same name offering great views of Chiang Mai city, 3,000 feet below. Most temples in Thailand are completely free to enter and all visitors are welcome. Respectful dress and behaviour are the only requirements.
Thai restaurants can, of course, be found in towns and cities worldwide, but obviously, nowhere is Thai cuisine more authentic than in Thailand itself. Whether you dine in a classy restaurant or get down with working locals and tuck into food served from a street stall, you’ll enjoy Thai food at its absolute best. The range of dishes available just goes on and on, including tasty fried rice dishes, the noodle-based Phad Thai, green curry, coconut-flavoured desserts that taste as mouth watering as they look and a range of tropical fruits from succulent pineapple and mango to rose apples and mangosteen.
Each region of Thailand has its distinctive local dishes, too, so wherever you go there are delicious dishes waiting for you to try. While you’re there, why not learn some of the secrets of Thai cuisine? Quite a few guesthouses in Bangkok and Chiangmai offer inexpensive courses over a few days where you can learn how to cook Thai dishes and impress friends and family back home.
Thai Culture and Festivals
Thai people certainly know how to celebrate and there are some terrific festivals held annually, both nationally and regionally. Songkran, the traditional Thai new year in mid- April, is the craziest of all as it involves everyone throwing water at anything that moves – including you! Join in and give as good as you get. High-powered, plastic water-rifles are on sale for the occasion, as are waterproof bags for keeping your belongings dry. Loy Krathong, held in November, is a beautiful festival with thousands of candle-lit, incense adorned, flower baskets made from banana leaves floated down every river and waterway in Thailand.
The purpose is to pay tribute to the water spirits for providing a good harvest. Regional festivals include the Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February, which features intricately sculpted flower floats paraded through the city accompanied by dancers and marching bands to Buak Haad Park, where there are floral display contests, beauty contests, food stalls - and a lot of drinking well into the evening.
While the Tourist Authority of Thailand likes to promote the country with the motto “Amazing Thailand”, it could just as easily be called “Affordable Thailand”. Clean and comfortable accommodation is plentiful and far cheaper than in London or any Western city. The same is true for restaurants and bus and train travel, and there are great shopping bargains to be found the length and breadth of the country.
Have you ever been to Thailand? What would you recommend?