Thailand


Thailand destinations

about Friendly and fun-loving, cultured and historic, Thailand radiates a golden hue, from its glittering temples and tropical beaches through to the ever-comforting Thai smile.

A Bountiful Table

Adored around the world, Thai cuisine expresses fundamental aspects of Thai culture: it is generous, warm, refreshing and relaxed. Thai dishes rely on fresh, local ingredients – pungent lemongrass, searing chillies and plump seafood. A varied national menu is built around the four fundamental flavours: spicy, sweet, salty and sour. Roving appetites go on eating tours of Bangkok noodle shacks, seafood pavilions in Phuket, and Burmese market stalls in Mae Sot. Cooking classes reveal the simplicity behind the seemingly complicated dishes, and mastering the market is an important survival skill.

Fields & Forests

In between the cluttered cities and towns is the rural heartland, which is a mix of rice paddies, tropical forests and squat villages tied to the agricultural clock. In the north, the forests and fields bump up against toothy blue mountains decorated with silvery waterfalls. In the south, scraggy limestone cliffs poke out of the cultivated landscape like prehistoric skyscrapers. The usually arid northeast emits an emerald hue during the rainy season when tender green rice shoots carpet the landscape.

Sacred Spaces

The celestial world is a close confidant in this Buddhist nation, and religious devotion is colourful and ubiquitous. Gleaming temples and golden Buddhas frame both the rural and the modern landscape. Ancient banyan trees are ceremoniously wrapped in sacred cloth to honour the resident spirits, fortune-bringing shrines decorate humble homes as well as monumental malls, while garland-festooned dashboards ward off traffic accidents. Visitors can join the conversation through meditation retreats in Chiang Mai, religious festivals in northeastern Thailand, underground cave shrines in Kanchanaburi and Phetchaburi, and hilltop temples in northern Thailand.

Sand between Your Toes

With a long coastline (actually, two coastlines) and jungle-topped islands anchored in azure waters, Thailand is a tropical getaway for the hedonist and the hermit, the prince and the pauper. This paradise offers a varied menu: playing in the gentle surf of Ko Lipe, diving with whale sharks off Ko Tao, scaling the sea cliffs of Krabi, kiteboarding in Hua Hin, partying on Ko Phi-Phi, recuperating at a health resort on Ko Samui and feasting on the beach wherever sand meets sea.

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Same same, but different. This Thailish T-shirt philosophy sums up Bangkok, a city where the familiar and the exotic collide like the flavours on a plate of pàt tai.

Full-on Food

Until you’ve eaten on a Bangkok street, noodles mingling with your sweat amid a cloud of exhaust fumes, you haven’t actually eaten Thai food. It can be an intense mix: the base flavours – spicy, sour, sweet and salty – aren’t exactly meat and potatoes. But for adventurous foodies who don't need white tablecloths, there’s probably no better dining destination in the world. And with immigration bringing every regional Thai and international cuisine to the capital, it's also a truly diverse experience. And perhaps best of all, Bangkok has got to be one of the best-value dining destinations in the world.

Fun Folks

The language barrier can seem huge, but it's never prevented anybody from getting along with the Thai people. The capital’s cultural underpinnings are evident in virtually all facets of everyday life, and most enjoyably through its residents' sense of fun (known in Thai as sà·nùk). In Bangkok, anything worth doing should have an element of sà·nùk. Ordering food, changing money and haggling at markets will usually involve a sense of playfulness – a dash of flirtation, perhaps – and a smile. It’s a language that doesn’t require words, and one that's easy to learn.

Urban Exploration

With so much of its daily life conducted on the street, there are few cities in the world that reward exploration as handsomely as Bangkok does. Cap off an extended boat trip with a visit to a hidden market. A stroll off Banglamphu’s beaten track can lead to a conversation with a monk. Get lost in the tiny lanes of Chinatown and stumble upon a Chinese opera performance. Or after dark, let the BTS (Skytrain) escort you to Sukhumvit, where the local nightlife scene reveals a cosmopolitan and dynamic city.

Contrasts

It’s the contradictions that provide the City of Angels with its rich, multifaceted personality. Here, climate-controlled megamalls sit side by side with 200-year-old village homes; gold-spired temples share space with neon-lit strips of sleaze; slow-moving traffic is bypassed by long-tail boats plying the royal river; Buddhist monks dressed in robes shop for the latest smartphones; and streets lined with food carts are overlooked by restaurants perched on top of skyscrapers. And as Bangkok races towards the future, these contrasts will never stop supplying the city with its unique and ever-changing strain of Thai-ness.

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Sights

Worth a Trip: Jouney to Amphawa

Amphawa is only 80km from Bangkok, but if you play your cards right, you can reach the town via a long journey involving trains, boats, a motorcycle ride and a short jaunt in the back of a truck. Why? Because sometimes the journey is just as interesting as the destination.

The adventure begins at Thonburi’s Wong Wian Yai train station. Just past the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle is a fairly ordinary food market that camouflages the unspectacular terminus of this commuter line. Hop on one of the hourly trains (10B, one hour, 5.30am to 8.10pm) to Samut Sakhon.

After 15 minutes on the rattling train, the city density yields to squat villages. From the window you can peek into homes, temples and shops built a carefully considered arm’s length from the passing trains. Further on, palm trees, patchwork rice fields and marshes filled with giant elephant ears and canna lilies line the route, punctuated by whistle-stop stations.

The backwater farms evaporate quickly as you enter Samut Sakhon, popularly known as Mahachai because it straddles the confluence of Mae Nam Tha Chin and Khlong Mahachai. This is a bustling port town, several kilometres upriver from the Gulf of Thailand, and the end of the first rail segment. Before the 17th century it was called Tha Jiin (Chinese Pier) because of the large number of Chinese junks that called here.

After working your way through one of the most hectic fresh markets in the country, you’ll come to a vast harbour clogged with water hyacinths and wooden fishing boats. A few rusty cannons pointing towards the river testify to the existence of the town’s crumbling fort, built to protect the kingdom from sea invaders.

Take the ferry across to Baan Laem (3B to 5B), where you'll jockey for space with school teachers riding motorcycles and people running errands. If the infrequent 5B ferry hasn’t already deposited you there, take a motorcycle taxi (10B) for the 2km ride to Wat Chawng Lom, home to the Jao Mae Kuan Im Shrine, a 9m-high fountain in the shape of the Mahayana Buddhist Goddess of Mercy that is popular with regional tour groups. Beside the shrine is Tha Chalong, a train stop with three daily departures for Samut Songkhram at 8.10am, 12.05pm and 4.40pm (10B, one hour). The train rambles out of the city on tracks that the surrounding forest threatens to engulf, and this little stretch of line genuinely feels a world away from the big smoke of Bangkok.

The jungle doesn’t last long, and any illusion that you’ve entered a parallel universe free of concrete is shattered as you enter Samut Songkhram. And to complete the seismic shift, you’ll emerge directly into a hubbub of hectic market stalls. Between train arrivals and departures these stalls are set up directly on the tracks and must be hurriedly cleared away when the train arrives – it’s quite an amazing scene.

Commonly known as Mae Klong, Samut Songkhram is a tidier version of Samut Sakhon and offers a great deal more as a destination. Owing to flat topography and abundant water sources, the area surrounding the provincial capital is well suited to the steady irrigation needed to grow guava, lychee and grapes. From Mae Klong Market pier (tâh đà·làht mâa glorng), you can charter a boat (1000B) or hop in a sŏrng·tăa·ou (passenger pick-up truck; 8B) near the market for the 10-minute ride to Amphawa.

Feature: Bangkok’s Green Lung

If you've been to any of Bangkok's rooftop bars, you may have noticed the rural-looking zone just southeast of the city centre. Known in English as the Phrapradaeng Peninsula, the conspicuously green finger of land is surrounded on three sides by Mae Nam Chao Phraya, a feature that seems to have shielded it from development.

The Phrapradaeng Peninsula encompasses rural homes, orchards, canals and lots of wet, unruly jungle. Most people visit the peninsula for the Bang Nam Pheung Market, a fun, weekends-only market with an emphasis on food. While there, you can check out the wonderfully dilapidated, 250-year-old Wat Bang Nam Pheung Nok, a Buddhist temple.

For something more active, the area is on the itinerary of many Bangkok bike tours, which take advantage of the peninsula's elevated walkways. Alternatively, there's Si Nakhon Kheun Khan Park, a vast botanical park with a large lake and birdwatching tower.

If you're really enjoying the Phrapradaeng Peninsula, you can extend your stay by overnighting at Bangkok Tree House, near Wat Bang Na Nork.

To get to Phrapradaeng, take the BTS to Bang Na and jump in a taxi for the short ride to the pier at Wat Bang Na Nork via Th Sanphawut. From there, take the river-crossing ferry (4B) followed by a short motorcycle taxi (10B) ride if you're going to Bang Nam Pheung Market.

Sleeping

If your idea of the typical Bangkok hotel was influenced by The Hangover Part II, you’ll be relieved to learn that the city is home to a variety of modern hostels, guesthouses and hotels. To further improve matters, much of Bangkok’s accommodation offers excellent value and competition is so intense that fat discounts are almost always available. And the city is home to so many hotels that, apart from some of the smaller, boutique places, booking ahead isn't generally required.

Amenities

Wi-fi is nearly universal across the spectrum, but air-conditioning and lifts are not.

Budget

The cheapest hostels and guesthouses often share bathrooms and may not even supply a towel. Some remain fan-cooled or, in the case of dorms, will only run the air-con between certain hours. Wi-fi, if available, is typically free at budget places. If on offer, breakfast at most Bangkok hostels and budget hotels is little more than instant coffee and toast.

Midrange

Increasingly, midrange has come to mean a private room with air-con, a fridge, hot water, TV and free wi-fi. It’s not uncommon for a room to boast all of these but lack a view or even windows. Breakfast can range from ‘buffets’ based around toast and oily fried eggs to healthier meals with yoghurt or tropical fruit.

Top End

Top-end hotels in Bangkok supply all the facilities you’d expect at this level. The more thoughtful places have amenities such as en suite, computers and free wi-fi; in other places, it's not uncommon to have to pay a premium for the last of these. In sweaty Bangkok, pools are almost standard, not to mention fitness and business centres, restaurants and bars. Breakfast is often buffet-style.

Eating

Nowhere else is the Thai reverence for food more evident than in Bangkok. To the outsider, the life of a Bangkokian appears to be a string of meals and snacks punctuated by the odd stab at work, not the other way around. If you can adjust your mental clock to this schedule, your visit will be a delicious one indeed.

Drinking & Nightlife

Shame on you if you think Bangkok's only nightlife options include the word ‘go-go’. As in any big international city, the drinking and partying scene in Bangkok ranges from trashy to classy and touches on just about everything in between.

Entertainment

Although Bangkok often seems to cater to the inner philistine in all of us, the city is home to a diverse but low-key art scene. Add to this dance performances, live music and, yes, the infamous go-go bars, and you have a city whose entertainment scene spans from – in local parlance – lo-so (low society) to hi-so (high society).

Shopping

Prime your credit card and shine your baht – shopping is serious business in Bangkok. Hardly a street corner in this city is free from a vendor, hawker or impromptu stall, and it doesn't stop there: Bangkok is also home to one of the world's largest outdoor markets, not to mention some of Southeast Asia's largest malls.

Activities

Seen all the big sights? Eaten enough pàt tai for a lifetime? When you're done taking it all in, consider some of Bangkok's more active pursuits. Massages and spa visits are justifiably a huge draw, but the city is also home to some great guided tours and courses, the latter in subjects ranging from Thai cookery to meditation.

Travel with Children

There aren’t a whole lot of attractions in Bangkok meant to appeal specifically to the little ones, but there’s no lack of locals willing to provide attention. This means kids are welcome almost anywhere and you’ll rarely experience the sort of eye-rolling annoyance often seen in the West.

LGBT Travellers

Thai culture is relatively tolerant of both male and female homosexuality. There is a fairly prominent LGBT scene in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. With regard to dress or mannerism, the LGBT community are generally accepted without comment. However, public displays of affection – whether heterosexual or homosexual – are frowned upon.

It’s worth noting that, perhaps because Thailand is still a relatively conservative place, lesbians generally adhere to rather strict gender roles. Overtly ‘butch’ lesbians, called tom (from ‘tomboy’), typically have short hair, and wear men’s clothing. Femme lesbians refer to themselves as dêe (from ‘lady’). Visiting lesbians who don’t fit into one of these categories may find themselves met with confusion.

Utopia (www.utopia-asia.com) posts lots of Thailand information for LGBT travellers and publishes a gay guidebook to the kingdom.

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The former seat of the Lanna kingdom is a blissfully calm and laid-back place to relax and recharge your batteries. Participate in a vast array of activities on offer, or just stroll around the backstreets, and discover a city that is still firmly Thai in its atmosphere and attitude.

A sprawling modern city has grown up around ancient Chiang Mai (เชียงใหม่), ringed by a tangle of superhighways. Despite this, the historic centre of Chiang Mai still feels overwhelmingly residential, more like a sleepy country town than a bustling capital. If you drive in a straight line in any direction, you'll soon find yourself in the lush green countryside and pristine rainforests dotted with churning waterfalls, serene wát and peaceful country villages – as well as a host of markets and elephant sanctuaries.

Activities

Outdoor escapes are easy in Chiang Mai, with tropical rainforests, looming mountains, rushing rivers, hill-tribe villages, and sanctuaries and camps full of elephants all within an hour's drive of the city. Dozens of operators offer adventure tours, exploring the forested mountains and waterways on foot, or by bike, raft, all-terrain-vehicle and even zipline.

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Sleeping

Make reservations far in advance if visiting during Chinese New Year, Songkran and other holiday periods.

Eating

The city's fabulous night markets, which sprawl around the main city gates and several other locations, offer the best food.

The Chinese-influenced love for pork is exemplified by the northern Thai speciality of sâi òo·a (pork sausage). A good-quality sâi òo·a should be zesty and spicy with subtle flavours of lemongrass, ginger and turmeric. Sample them at any food market.

Drinking & Nightlife

Chiang Mai has three primary areas for watering holes: the old city, the riverside and Th Nimmanhaemin. Almost everyone ends up at either Riverside or Good View on the east bank of Mae Ping at some point in their stay.

Entertainment

There are several dedicated music venues, plus cinemas and moo·ay tai stadiums.

Shopping

Chiang Mai is Thailand's handicraft centre, and an incredible volume and variety of crafts are produced and sold here, from handwoven hill-tribe textiles to woodcarving, basketry and reproduction antiques (frequently sold without that disclaimer). The Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets are Chiang Mai's most entertaining shopping experiences.

Orientation

When travelling in and beyond the old city, directions are often given in relationship to the old city's four cardinal gates.

Pratu Tha Phae (east) Head east from here along Th Tha Phae to reach the riverside, Talat Warorot and the Night Bazaar.

Pratu Chang Pheuak (north) Head north from here along Th Chotana (Th Chang Pheuak) to reach the Chang Pheuak Bus Terminal and Rte 107 to northern Chiang Mai Province.

Pratu Suan Dok (west) Head west from here along Th Suthep to reach Chiang Mai University, Doi Suthep, and the entertainment district of Th Nimmanhaemin.

Pratu Chiang Mai (south) Head southwest from here along Th Wualai for the Saturday Walking Street market and Rte 108 to southern Chiang Mai Province.

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Long before flip-flops, glossy resorts and selfie sticks, Phuket was an island of rubber trees, tin mines and cash-hungry merchants. Luring entrepreneurs from the Arabian Peninsula, China, India and Portugal, Phuket Town (เมืองภูเก็ด) became a colourful blend of cultural influences. Today, the Old Town is a testament to Phuket's history, but it's also the island's hipster heart, attracting artists and musicians in particular, which has led to noticeable gentrification. Century-old hôrng tăa·ou (shophouses) and homes are being restored, vibrant street art is popping up and it can feel like every other building is now a fashionable polished-concrete cafe.

But Phuket Town remains a wonderfully refreshing cultural break from the island's beaches (easily reached by sŏrng·tăa·ou). Wander down streets lined with distinctive Sino-Portuguese architecture, arty coffee shops, experimental galleries, boutique hotels and incense-cloaked Chinese Taoist shrines, before sampling the island's most authentic Phuketian cuisine and Phuket Town's very local bar scene.

Sights

Sino-Portuguese Architecture

Stroll along Ths Thalang, Dibuk, Yaowarat, Ranong, Phang-Nga, Rassada and Krabi for a glimpse of Phuket Town's Sino-Portuguese architectural treasures. The most magnificent examples are the Standard Chartered Bank, Thailand’s oldest foreign bank; the THAI office; and the old post office building, which now houses the Phuket Philatelic Museum. Some of the most colourful buildings line Soi Romanee, once home to brothels, gambling and opium dens.

The best-restored residential properties lie along Ths Thalang, Dibuk and Krabi, including Chinpracha House. The fabulous 1903 Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion has been refurbished into the upscale Blue Elephant restaurant and cooking school.

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Sleeping

Phuket Town is a treasure trove of affordable lodging. The hostel scene has exploded in recent years, and there's now an almost overwhelming number of hostels, guesthouses and boutique hotels dotted around the Old Town. For the best places you'll want to book ahead. There's little top-end accommodation here; go for a characterful boutique hotel instead.

Eating

There’s great food in Phuket Town, both Thai and international, and meals cost a lot less than at the beach. This is the island's top spot for authentic southern-Thai food, especially Phuket's unique Peranakan cuisine, which blends Thai, Chinese and Malay flavours. Restaurants and cafes are dotted all over the Old Town.

Drinking & Nightlife

Phuket Town is where you can party like a local. Bars buzz until late, patronised almost exclusively by Thais and local expats, and the hand-crafted cocktail scene has flourished in recent years. And then there's the booming cafe culture: Phuket Town has some of the island's best coffee shops.

Shopping

There are boho-chic boutiques scattered throughout the Old Town selling jewellery, women’s fashion, fabrics and souvenirs, as well as many whimsical art galleries and antique shops. Phuket Town also hosts several good markets, including the massive Weekend Market and Sunday Walking St.

Self-Guided Tours

- Start Phuket Thaihua Museum - End Memory at On On Hotel - Length 2.5km; two to three hours

Start with the majestic Phuket Thaihua Museum. Dating from 1934, this was the oldest Chinese school in Thailand and exhibits European-Sino-Thai architectural styles and local-life multimedia displays.

Head west along Th Krabi and wander into the gardens overlooking the Th Satun junction, where the early-20th-century Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion has been immaculately restored as one of Phuket's finest Thai restaurants and cooking schools, Blue Elephant.

Immediately west of Blue Elephant, a muralled alley leads to beautifully preserved Chinpracha House, built in 1903 on tin-mining wealth. It's now a private home and museum, owned by the descendants of the original builder.

Stroll north along Th Satun and turn right (east) onto brightly painted Th Dibuk, then right (south) on Th Yaowarat next to the mural of Rama IX (Bhumibol Adulyadej; r 1946–2016), and left (east) on historical Th Thalang, which is packed with rainbow-coloured refurbished shophouses – and makes a great spot for a coffee or snack break.

Just off Th Thalang is gorgeous Soi Romanee, whose vividly restored Sino-Portuguese shophouses turned boutique hotels and coffee shops shimmer under Chinese paper lanterns.

Continue east along Th Thalang, crossing Th Thepkasattri and the canal, then turn right (south) on Th Montri, and you'll spot the old post office, a classic (if flaking) example of Sino-Portuguese architecture now housing the Phuket Philatelic Museum.

Next, it's west along Th Phang-Nga to reach the renovated, yellow-washed Standard Chartered Bank, in typical Sino-Portuguese style. Thailand's first local bank, it's now an erratically open museum showcasing Phuket's Baba culture, but best admired from outside.

Directly opposite is the Thai Police Building, restored in sun-yellow, with its police-cap roof and late-20th-century four-storey clock tower.

Head west again on Th Phang-Nga, passing restaurants within lovely old shophouses, to the smartly revamped Memory at On On Hotel; Phuket's first hotel sprawls behind its gleaming-white Sino-Portuguese facade to terracotta-tiled patios, mosaic-floor halls and imposing wooden staircases.

What to do in Phuket

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