‘Amazing Thailand’. That is the official tagline of the marketing campaign by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
But what makes Thailand amazing?
Is it the amazing beaches, the amazing street shopping experiences, the amazing culture, the amazing food – or all of the above?
Could be, but it depends on how you view Thailand. This South East Asian nation is one of the most visited countries in the world, but different tourists come for different reasons. Many young tourists come for a true backpacking experience. Many from across Asia choose Thailand as their honeymoon destination.
The thing is, Thailand isn’t just beaches and nightlife. To break down all that it has to offer, we’re going to divide Thailand into North, Central, the East and South regions, and describe what makes each region unique. If you are wondering why there is no ‘West Thailand’, well, the shape of the country is such that the western region is prettymuch a part of the centre.
Hill tribes, adventure trekking and elephants
Tourism to the north of Thailand is largely driven by the two large provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The northern provinces are home to many forests, ethnic hill tribes and elephants, and is a different side to Thailand than what is usually advertised.
Chiang Mai is the largest city in north Thailand and known for its pleasant climate and culturally rich heritage. Home to over 300 wats (wat is Thai for Buddhist temple), many of the famous wats can be found in the city center itself. The most famous, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, is perched atop the highest hill in the city. The ride to the top of Doi Suthep hill is a wonderful experience in itself, and besides the temple at the top, different viewpoints along the way offer panoramic views of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai city is most visited during the Loi Krathong Festival, popularly photographed for the mass release of paper lanterns and kathrongs (sliced banana stems decorated with flowers) released down Ping River. Yee Peng Lanna is the event most visitors desire to attend. Held on the grounds of Mae Jo University a few days before the actual day of Loi Krathong, thousands of tourists and locals flood into the grounds to release paper lanterns at the same time, making for a true spectacle you will never forget.
On the outskirts of Chiang Mai are several settlements of various hill tribes. The Karen tribe are the most sought after by tourists, mostly for the women who are famous for their long necks. Their necks were moulded into shape wearing neck rings at a very early age. But don’t be surprised if these settlements look a bit ‘set up’. Many of them are, for the convenience of tourists, but the upside is that the Karen people now earn a living from tourism.
The northern most province of Thailand is Chiang Rai, bordering Myanmar and Laos. The most popular tourist activity in Chiang Rai is a tour of the ‘Golden Triangle’ – a junction on the Mekong River where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. Tours to the Golden Triangle often include a boat ride into Laos (yes, you will set foot on Laos soil for a brief period) and a short cruise along the Mekong River.
One of the more popular ways to explore Chiang Rai is by bicycle tours. In fact, Chiang Rai’s scenic hillsides and vast farmlands make it a great region for mountain biking and guided cycle tours. These tours include stops at popular attractions such as the White Temple, traditional Thai villages and Khun Kon which is the highest waterfall in Chiang Rai.
The national animal of Thailand is the elephant, and many elephant parks, can be found in the northern provinces. But like Kanchanaburi’s infamous Tiger Temple, many of these elephant villages claim to be ‘sanctuaries’ but have been instead accused of abusing elephants for commercial exploitation. From putting on elephant shows, to elephant rides… ensure the establishment you have chosen to visit has a good track record.
Buddhist temples, ancient architectures, capital Bangkok and jungle forests
Of course there’s Bangkok to enjoy, but the central provinces provide a good mix of everything Thailand has to offer. Using Bangkok as a hub, visitors can make several excursions to neighboring destinations, some of which take less than day to explore.
The capital city is in itself is a major tourist draw, thanks to the Grand Palace complex, Wat Pho – Temple of the Reclining Buddha, the Chao Phraya River, the vibrant nightlife and street shopping. Bangkok has enough and more malls, but the various street markets are the real drawcard. The massive Chatuchak Weekend Market – the largest flea market in Asia – offers everything from cheap clothes to boutique offerings, paintings, bags, fakes (lots of it) – and even pet animals which is a bit controversial. It’s an amazing market to get lost in, trust us.
From Bangkok, some of the popular excursions outside of the city limits are day tours to the floating markets and various other historical sites. Damnoen Saduak is the most visited of the floating markets, but if it’s a little too commercial for your liking, Amphawa Floating Market should be the next best option.
An 80 kilometre drive from Bangkok is a market that is like no other. Mae Klong Market is known for two things: fresh seafood and for having a rail track pass through it. We’re pretty sure the rail track came first and the market grew on either side of it, but what visitors will witness here are traders picking up their wares, clearing the tracks as soon as they hear the horn of the train coming through, letting the train pass, before setting their goods back on the tracks once the train has gone past.
An hour’s drive west of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is a province most visited for the Bridge over the River Kwai. Made famous by the movie of the same name, the bridge was built by POWs working for the invading Japanese during World War II. Now the bridge and the area around it is a major tourist draw. A must-visit for classic movie buffs too. A bit further from Kanchanaburi city center is aforementioned Tiger Temple, Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua. Infamous because, one, it’s not really a temple, nor is it a true tiger sanctuary. Secondly, besides having an entry fee, if you wish to have special photos taken with the tigers, you may end up spending thousands of baht for it.
North of Bangkok is the ancient capital city of Ayuthaya. Nowadays, Ayuthaya is considered to be the cultural capital of Thailand thanks to spectacular ruins and intact Buddhist temples that have stood the test of time. The Wat Prasriratthanamahathat – Buddhas’s head found in a tree – is one of those postcard photos one must take before leaving Ayuthaya.
What was once an R & R stop for American army forces during the Vietnam war, Pattaya is now a bustling neon city infamous for its seedy nightlife and swarmed with package tourists. That said, Pattaya does have a few hidden gems, such as the Sanctuary of Truth – a temple made entirely of wood. It’s an on-going work of art filled with sculptures based on traditional Buddhist and Hindu gods and deities. Work began in 1981 and they continue to add more carved sculptures that are sure to impress.
Khao Yai National Park
There are hundreds of national parks in Thailand, but Khao Yai National Park is the largest (on land) and one of the most visited, as it’s a short drive from Bangkok. Here you can walk through lush forests, cool off at waterfalls, see elephants in their natural habitats and enjoy birdwatching.
Best beaches, corals and scuba diving.
Tourism to the south of Thailand is dominated by its beaches and islands. Most beach destinations in the south are extremely commercial, but this also means visitors have plenty of choice when it comes to luxury resorts and exclusive beaches.
The most popular and most commercial is the island of Phuket. The island’s major developments are on the southern edge, with Patong beach being the biggest of it all. High-end resorts, red light district, malls, restaurants serving a variety of cuisines – you have it all in Patong. That is not to say Phuket isn’t beautiful. Drive to the Promthep Cape and rest assured you will be enamoured by the coastal beauty of Phuket and the many other quieter beaches along the way. The Cape is also one of the best sunset spots too.
Beaches popularised by Hollywood
From Phuket, tourists usually partake in many island-hopping tours, such as day trips to James Bond island, Maya Bay and the Phi Phi islands. James Bond island is the nickname given to Khao Phing Kan, where the famous showdown in The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed, with the now iconic limestone rock featured in the background.
Another location popularised by Hollywood is Maya Bay, featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. Despite the maddening crowds, Maya Bay truly is one of the most beautiful beaches you will see in Thailand. It’s a part of the Phi Phi islands, a very popular destination for honeymooners.
These island tours are also available if you opt to vacation in Krabi, or the beachside town of Ao Nang in Krabi province. In fact the Phi Phi islands and Phang Nga Bay where James Bond island is situated are closer to Ao Nang than they are to Phuket. Adjoining Ao Nang but only accessible by boat is Railay, famed for its rugged limestone hills and a popular spot for rock climbers.
Islands in Gulf of Thailand
Away from the Andaman sea, the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in the eastern gulf should tickle your fancy if you want a secluded island experience. Koh Phangan is where the infamous Full Moon parties are held every month, but if that’s a little too noisy for you, the bigger island of Koh Samui strikes the right balance for being a resort island and party town without leaving you burned out. The smallest of the three is Koh Tao, unique for its thin stretches of sand interconnecting smaller islands, making it an island popular among trekkers.
No matter which island destination in South Thailand you are at, each one offers excellent spots for scuba-diving, rich coral reefs and marine life that should satisfy the underwater explorer in you. Most of the above destinations have scuba diving schools offering PADI certifications, many of which are run by expat divers who have made Thailand their home.
Khmer culture, beaches and unexplored rural.
East Thailand showcases Thailand’s village life best, but also has pristine coastal shores that don’t see as many tourists or backpackers. This makes it a less commercial region to explore, and one that isn’t too far from Bangkok.
If Pattaya didn’t impress you with its beaches, head further east to the beach town of Trat or the island of Koh Chang. In fact, from Koh Chang you can hire a boat to enter Cambodia. Koh Chang offers all the coral beauty and white sand beaches you otherwise would have to head down south for.
From here on up, you enter Isaan province. Known as the agricultural backbone of Thailand, Isaan’s major cities include Udon Thani, Khorat, Ubon Ratchathani, and Khon Kaen. The region shares a cultural affinity with Laos and Cambodia, which are across the eastern border of Thailand, and most tourists visit Isaan to explore the Khmer-built temples which is similar to Angkor Wat in Phanom Rung and Meuang Tam. Visitors also stop by to gaze at the vast paddy fields that grow the popular sticky rice among other agricultural produce. Another popular industry is silk, and places like Surin are renowned for it. Tourists can visit silk farms and watch how local women weave intricate silk fabrics. Thai silk also make good gifts to take back home.
Other attractions in East Thailand
If you are looking for a complete change of scenery and wish to get off the popular tourist trail, head to Chachoengsao, 75 km outside of Bangkok. Mostly a rural town, there are some traditional markets and famous temples here, most notably the Wat Sothon – one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world. Also worth seeing is Wat Buraphaphiram in Roi Et, which houses Thailand’s tallest Buddha statue, the Phi Ta Khon mask festival in Loei, and the annual Elephant Festival in Surin.
Thailand, a must visit country of Southeast Asia
Despite rampant commercialisation, Thailand remains a beautiful country popular among tourists from the world over. And it’s not just the geographical beauty that they are drawn to. The very nature of Thai people are the reason why Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles”. The moment you arrive, you are greeted with a smile, folded hands and light bow. It doesn’t take long for a tourist to fall in love with Thailand. Most visitors do, and many of them come back for a second or third visit. Thailand has so much to offer, and compared to its neighbours (namely Malaysia), Thailand is still seen as an economical destination. It’s a fun country to visit.
So what are you waiting for?
Amazing Thailand is just a booking away.