Where to go in Thailand
The clash of tradition and modernity is most intense in Bangkok, the first stop on almost any itinerary. Within its historic core you'll find resplendent temples, canal side markets and the opulent indulgence of the eighteenth-century Grand Palace, while in downtown Bangkok lies the hub of the country's sex industry, the famous strip known as Patpong. After touchdown in Bangkok, much of the package-holiday traffic flows east to Pattaya, the country's first and most popular beach resort, but for unpolluted beaches and clear sea you're much better off venturing just a little further afield, to the islands of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, with their superb sand and idyllic beach front bangalows.
Fewer tourists strike north from the east coast into Isaan, in some ways the most traditionally Thai region. Here, a trip through the gently modulating landscapes of the Mekong River valley, which defines Thailand's northeastern extremities, take in archetypal agricultural villages and fascinating array of religious sites, while the southern reaches of Isaan hold some of Thailand's best-kept secrets, the magnificent stone temple complexes of Phimai, Phanom Rung and Khao Phra Viharn, all built by the Khmers of Cambodia almost ten centuries ago.
Closer to the capital, in the southwestern corner of Isaan, Khao Yai National Park encapsulates the phenomenal diversity of Thailand's flora and fauna, which here rang from wild orchids to strangling figs, elephants to horn bills, tigers to macaques.
At the heart of the northern uplands, Chiang Mai is both an attractive historic city and a vibrant cultural centre, with a strong tradition of arts and crafts. It does a burgeoning line in self-improvement courses, from ascetic meditation to the more earthly pleasures of Thai cookery classes, while the overriding enticement of the surrounding region is the prospect of trekking through villages inhabited by a richly mixed population of tribal peoples. Courses and outdoor activities, as well as spas and massages, can by enjoy at Pai, a surprisingly cosmopolitan hill station for backpackers, four hours northwest of Chiang Mai.
With Chiang Mai and the north so firmly planted on the independent tourist trail, the ancient cities of the intervening central plains tend to get short shrift. Yet there is rewarding trekking from the Burmese-border towns of Mae Sot and Umphang, and the elegant ruins of former capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai embody a glorious artistic heritage, displaying Thailand's distinctive ability to absorb influences from quiet different cultures.
Kanchanaburi, stunningly located on the River Kwai in the western reaches of the central plains, tells of a much darker episode in Thailand's past, for it was along the course of this river that the Japanese army built the Thailand-Burma Railway during World War II, at the cost of thousands of POW lives.
Sand and sea are what most Thailand holidays are about, though, and the pick of the coasts are in southern Thailand, where the Samui archipelago off the Gulf coast is one of the highlights. Ko Samui itself has the most sweeping white-sand beaches, and the greatest variety of accommodation and facilities to go with them. Ko Pha Ngan next door is still pure backpacker territory, where you have a stark choice between desolate coves and Hat Rin, Thailand's rave capital. The remotest island, rocky Ko Tao, is acquiring increasing sophistication as Southeast Asia's largest dive-training centre.
Across on the other side of the peninsula, the Andaman coast boasts even more exhilarating scenery and the finest coral reefs in the country, in particular around the spectacular Ko Similan island chain, which ranks as one of the best dive sites in the world.
The largest Andaman coast island, Phuket, is one of Thailand's top tourist destinations and is graced with a dozen fine beaches; many of these have been over-developed with expensive high-rises and throbbing nightlife, but quieter corners can still be found. Ko Phi Phi has also suffered under unregulated construction, but its coral-rich sea remains an untainted azure, and the sheer limestone cliffs that characterize the coastline here, and elsewhere around the harbor town and beaches of nearby Krabi, are breathtakingly beautiful.
The island of Ko Lanta has a more understated charm and is a popular destination for both families and backpackers. Inland attractions generally pale in comparison to the coastal splendors, but the rain forests of Khao Sok National Park are a notable exception.
Further down the Thai peninsula, in the provinces of the deep south the teeming sea life and unfrequented sands of the Trang islands and the Ko Tarutao National Marine Park are the main draws.