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Thailand features some of the worlds best white sand beaches, but is also a great destination for backpackers, and those looking to explore other cultures. Read our in-depth Thailand holidays travel guide for much more information.
The Kingdom of Thailand, is a country in Southeast Asia. To its east lie Laos and Cambodia; to its south, the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia; and to its west, the Andaman Sea and Myanmar. Its capital and largest city is Bangkok.
Over the last decade or so, the self-styled Land of Smiles has grown from being mainly a backpacker preserve to become one of Asia's most popular tourist and business playgrounds. From its thrilling capital, Bangkok, through to the epic white sands of some of the world's most beautiful beaches, Thailand manages to cater for many diverse tastes. The difference is today that the elephant treks through the jungle and days spent on palm fringed beaches end more often than not in a sumptuous hotel or spa resort rather than a 'dollar-a-night' beach hut.
Phuket was one of the regions hit by the tsunami in December 2004. Kamala and Patong beaches suffered the worst damage but the clean up process has been excellent. The island of Phuket in the southwest corner of the country is one of several resorts on the Indian Ocean. Phuket is now threatening to outstrip Pattaya as the number one beach resort in Thailand. The main town of Patong has a reputation for sex and sleaze, but many of the resort hotels that are dotted around the bountiful beaches of the island are superb. The island is also large enough to accommodate backpacker beach-hut developments alongside the slick luxury hotels. Diving is popular, though visibility can be a problem.
Over the last decade or so Ko Samui, once a backpacker's haven, has developed into a more sophisticated beach resort, complete with an airport that offers regular flights to and from Bangkok and Krabi. Ko Samui is Thailand's third-largest island, and although tourism is now the main industry, its lingering rustic charm is summed up by the fact that coconut farming is still a major industry. Chaweng Beach is the island's largest beach and has a number of good hotels as well as groups of bungalows and bars that are ideal for the budget traveller.
Ko Phangan is still relatively undeveloped and is mainly visited by the more adventurous traveller looking to get away from fast food outlets and chain hotels. Each month it hosts all-night full moon beach parties at Had Rin with up to 10,000 revellers frolicking in the moonlit surf in a nefarious festival that attracts everyone from backpackers to the Bangkok young professional set. Ko Tao, which translates as 'Turtle Island', is another less-developed island, but it is becoming increasingly popular as a scuba-diving destination. Ban Mae Hat is the only real town, and it is given over to cheap hotels and dive operators. The diving around Ko Tao is excellent with clean water and good visibility.
Boasting a tropical climate that has consistent high temperatures year round Thailand weather falls into three main seasons; a hot and dry springtime, a wet season from June to October and dry cooler weather which lasts from November to February. Daytime temperatures rarely drop below 30c at any time of the year and indeed can reach a sweltering 35c during spring.
Through the city of Bangkok flows the Chao Phraya River, on the banks of which can be found some of the best hotels. It is also where visitors will find the Grand Palace which, covering a huge area is one of the major sites. Here also is Wat Phra Kaeo, a temple complex which houses the Emerald Buddha. This Buddha statue is not covered in emeralds, as the name suggests, but is made of translucent green jade. Upriver from the Grand Palace are the Royal Barges. These richly ornamented barges are still used today for special processions on the Chao Phraya. Within the city limits is a wealth of over 300 Buddhist temple and shrines. Most famous are Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple), Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and Wat Trimit (Temple of the Golden Buddha). One of the largest temple complexes in the country is Wat Pho. Altogether, there are over 30 individual temples scattered here, of which the Temple of the Reclining Buddha is the largest. The Buddha's statue is enormous, an amazing (156ft) long and (49ft) high. The gardens surrounding the temples offer an escape from the hectic pace of the big city. The temple also houses the national school for traditional Thai massage. The Floating Market is an interesting place to visit, although it has become more of a tourist attraction than a genuine market for Thais.
In the far north of Thailand's second-largest city and a centre for excursions to the region's ancient and beautiful temples, the teak forests and their working elephants, caves and waterfalls, and journeys to visit the northern hill tribes. The main attractions are the Doi Suthep temple and elephant trekking. Doi Suthep is one of the most famous temples in northern Thailand. Perched high on a hilltop, it offers fine views over the city on clear days. The trip up can either be made via a funicular or a grand staircase with 400 steps. The banisters alone are worth a visit: a giant green-and-red glazed serpent winds its way down to end in a magnificent dragon's head. Elephant trekking in the surrounding countryside has become a big tourist buck earner in the last decade, but visitors should beware that some 'authentic' trips turn out to be just the opposite.
There are many small villages in the area surrounding the city where local handicrafts are produced. In the Mae Sa Valley, there is an elephant training school and, nearby, an orchid farm; longer trips can be made to the Doi Inthanon National Park and to Chiang Rai, from where the Mekong River and the Golden Triangle can be reached. Another interesting route to take is the road to Mae-Hong-Son near the border with Myanmar. It is a good base from which to go trekking or motorcycle touring. On the way round the Mae-Hong-Son loop, it is possible to stop at the small town of Pai, a relaxed and friendly place.
The province of Kanchanaburi is a stunning oasis of jungle-clad hills and sweeping waterways. The town of Kanchanaburi, with its modern hotels and tourist facilities, is the original site of the famous Bridge, Over the River Kwai, a place where thousands of allied prisoners of war and Thai forced labourers died at the hands of the Japanese. The train trip, whether on the normal scheduled service or the dedicated tourist services, runs along the 'Death Railway' and across the post-war bridge and is a popular activity to do.
In the northeast, about three hours by road from Bangkok, is the Khao Yai National Park & Wildlife Reserve. The most popular of the country's national parks, it has been developed into a modest resort. As well as the attractions of the wildlife and jungle, the park can be used as a base to visit the many ancient and historical sites in the northeast of Thailand. There are also some excellent Khmer sites in the northeast, including Lopburi, Phanom Rung and Pimai. The northeast also provides its own special festival celebrations, the most exciting being the elephant roundup at Surin each November.
The Central Plains, located between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, form the prosperous heart of the country, a rich environment that has seen the rise and fall of great cities and kingdoms. Phitsanulok makes a convenient base for excursions into the area. The town is also the site of the Wat Phra Si Rattana Mahathat. This important monastery houses the well-known Phra Buddha Chinnarat, reputedly one of the most beautiful Buddha images in Thailand. From Phitsanulok, one can visit the ancient city kingdoms of Kamphaeng Phet and Sukhothai. UNESCO included Sukhothai and its environs on its list of World Heritage Sites. It covers a huge area and includes palaces, temples and pavilions as well as lakes, ponds and canals.
Upriver is the old capital of Ayutthaya and the old summer palace at Bang Pa-In. Within its confines are striking structures such as a classic Thai pavilion, a neoclassical palace, a Chinese-style pagoda and a Buddhist temple that resembles a Gothic church. East of Bangkok lies the Ancient City, a vast private park with models, some full sized, some reduced, of most of Thailand's historic monuments and the temple ruins of the Khmer Empire, situated near the Cambodian border. Also just outside the city is the Rose Garden Country Resort with daily performances of Thai music, dance, games and ceremonies.
Other sights include Lak Muang (the city stone), the Erawan Shrine, where local offerings are made daily, and the National Museum. Housed in the Suan Pakkard Palace is a collection of precious antiques. Also interesting is the former home of the American silk-dealer Jim Thompson who vanished without a trace in 1967. Today, the house is a craft museum with a shop selling high-quality silks at reasonable prices. Bangkok's burgeoning nightlife is also a major attraction. The ubiquitous 'girlie bars' of Patpong are notorious, though these days they are tourist friendly, and, beyond these dens, there are new designer bars and slick modern nightclubs, as well as some of the best restaurants in Asia.
Bangkok offers a wide range of entertainment venues, from nightclubs, pubs, bars, cinemas and restaurants (many of which are open air), to massage parlours, pool halls and cocktail lounges. The nightlife is concentrated in two districts of Bangkok - Patpong (between Silom and Surawong roads) and Soi Cowboy (Sukhumvit Road) and every night both areas are thronged with people. Bangkok’s sex industry is as blatant and booming as ever. Many venues are open all day and late into the night, although bars and clubs are supposed to close at 0200. Sometimes there is an admission fee but this usually includes one or two drinks. The dress code is very relaxed, although a few of the nightclubs do enforce smarter dress. There are no casinos in Thailand as gambling is illegal.
The shopping experience itself is a pleasure in its own right as one explores from upscale shopping malls and department stores to high streets and back streets and bustling markets. Shopping opportunities await visitors, and bargains abound throughout the Country in traditional handicrafts, textiles, gems, jewellery and antiques, as well as more contemporary items. But it isn’t only the variety of creatively designed and meticulously crafted products that so captivates the traveller.
Thai food has become in recent years one of the world's favourite cuisines. When we speak of "Thai food ", we are in fact talking of four very distinct regions in the country, each with their own culinary traditions. We are speaking too of the dishes created in the royal courts and palaces of Old Siam, that have been passed down through many generations of chefs, and finally into public domain.
Good food also comes up from the street level, and many of Thailand's most popular dishes can be found at the smallest food stalls and restaurants. And there is the influence of China, India, Malaysia and other neighbouring countries. So all these different factors come together under the label "Thai food", and you will find them in varying degrees at any Thai restaurant you care to visit, anywhere in the world.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the cuisine is its use of herbs and spices. With regard to the spices, some Thai dishes are very hot, but by no means all of them. The herbs have another function, in addition to providing flavour, in that they all have to varying degrees various medical and therapeutic benefits.
Thailand is blessed with many varieties of plants, herbs and spices which ensure s balanced diet. Today, visitors can both relish classic Thai menus and the benefits of a natural diet, and study the art of Thai cooking at several specialist schools in Bangkok and major beach resorts.
There's a Thai proverb which says, "When you enter a country where everyone winks, wink back." As with any foreign country, your life teaching English in Thailand will be a lot easier and you will make a lot more friends if you show respect for local customs and make the effort to adapt to them.
Thailand is officially a Buddhist country and some 95% of Thais are Buddhists. In many ways Thai Buddhism is a very laissez-faire religion, but if you are not a Buddhist there are some things you should be aware of. Always remove your shoes and dress smartly when entering a temple. Never allow your feet to point towards an image of the Buddha.
You will rapidly notice that, no matter who they are, all Thais put a great deal of effort into being well dressed and well groomed. If you want to fit in, you will need to do the same. To Thai eyes, if you wear the casual dress beloved of Western holiday-makers, you look like you’ve crawled out of an old laundry basket.