Majestic mountains, palm fringed beaches, Buddhist temples, happy herds of elephants, fabulous food and lively nightlife… yes, Thailand is, without a doubt, one of the peak experiences in travel. Here we select our favourite things to and places to see in the land of smiles.
Bangkok may be a famous party city, but it boasts more than its fair share of culture. Start the day by checking out Bangkok’s wats, or Buddhist temples. Probably the most visited is Wat Phra Kaew This compound boasts intricately decorated temples, giant gold stupas, and the Emerald Buddha – Thailand’s most holy image. After you’ve got the sightseeing out if the way, it’s time to go shopping. If you’re in town at the weekend, don’t miss Chatuchak Weekend Market where more than 5000 stalls will be vying for your attention. Everything and anything is for sale, from clothes and trinkets, to live snakes. When night falls, pop over to Patpong – Asia’s seedy underbelly. Sure the place is packed with middle-aged men ogling bikini-clad pole dancers. But it also attracts curious tourists keen to snatch a few stolen glances of planet Patpong after buying dozens of bootleg DVDs at the night market. Finish off your evening on the legendary Khao San Road – made household-name famous by Alex Garland’s bestselling novel The Beach – where the rowdy strip of backpacker bars parties on until dawn.
In the country’s far north, Chiang Mai – aka the ‘rose of the north’ – is a compact, (reasonably) laid-back city and a good base for exploring the surrounding jungle, organising treks, visiting hill tribes and outlying regions, or organising a trip into Laos for a boat trip down the Mekong.
In the city itself, most travellers come for the temples – the province is home to no fewer than 300 wats. Wat Phra Singh – housing the Lion Buddha – and Wat Chedi Luang are both worth a look. However to see the region’s most treasured temple – Wat Phra That Doi Suthep – you’ll have to hire a red ‘sawngthaew’ (pick–up truck taxi) for an afternoon. The temple dates to the 14th century and is purported to house the Buddha’s shoulder bone, carried to the site by a white elephant. It is reached via a monumental 304-step staircase flanked by a restored monastery. When you’re tired of temples, make a beeline for Doi Suthep-Pui National Park – elephant trekking, hiking and river rafting are just a few of the options on offer. In the evening, life revolves around the famous night market. This buzzing bazaar is home to a multitude of stalls, selling cheap clothes, as well as good quality handicrafts.
Koh Chang is Thailand’s second biggest island and it’s five hours’ drive and a half-hour ferry ride from Bangkok.Yet just a decade ago, when Phuket (the country’s largest island) was exploding as a world-famous tourist destination, Koh Chang still had no electricity or phones. Most of Koh Chang’s interior, along with the other 41 islets in the archipelago, is now part of the Mu Koh Chang National Park, so the brash development that plagued other Thai resorts has been relatively subdued here. Some complain that Koh Chang is changing quickly, but even at the larger tourist resorts the beaches are pristine and can appear to be spectacularly remote. At Klong Prao, you drive to the end of a dirt track where a boatman waits to paddle you across the mangrove-lined channels to a great swathe of white sand and swaying palms. The water is perpetually warm, and even at night the air is balmy. Many of the restaurants and hotels along these canals offer romantic after-dinner boat rides through the mangroves, where cicadas chirp, frogs croak, and the trees flicker with fireflies.
Koh Pha Ngan
Haad Rin, the beach on the far south of Koh Pha Ngan, is notorious for having the wildest, most debauched full moon parties in Thailand. Long-standing traditions for a night out here include tripping out on magic mushroom shakes (not that we’d recommend it), drinking buckets (yes, actual buckets) of Sang Som rum with Thailand’s lethal Red Bull, painting faces with fluorescent squiggles, jumping through burning skipping ropes and watching fire poi … in no particular order, but always followed by a rave on the beach that lasts until the sun comes up.
What else? If you’re feeling a little toxic after a few days of partying here, give the boozing a break and make the most of all the sports. There are two Muay Thai boxing schools on the island where you can sign up for lessons (kobramuaythai.com) or you can join in games of beach football, table tennis or volleyball at sundown on most of the bigger beaches.
The Similan Islands
Practically every list of the world’s top diving locations rates the Similan Islands near the top, and that’s because they have some of the most jaw-dropping underwater sights. The archipelago of nine islands is a National Marine Park with calm, clear waters (up to 30m visibility) that are just ideal for underwater explorations.
The west coast is famous for its huge granite boulders that peek above the water’s surface and drop up to 50m underwater, creating tunnels and swim-throughs for divers to investigate. Keep an eye out for the clown triggerfish and the whitetip reef sharks here, along with rare oriental sweetlips and harlequin sweetlips (both psychedelic-looking creatures).
On the east coast of the island there are lush coral gardens with sea anemones and a wide variety of reef fish, and if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of ghost pipefish, sea moths, frogfish and ribbon eels. Of the many famous dive sites here, Elephant Head, East of Eden and Christmas Point are three of the most popular.