2021 Thailand Vacation Guide
With over six million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand has become Asia’s primary holiday destination and is a useful and popular first stop on any overland journey through Southeast Asia. The influx of tourist cash has played a significant part in the country’s recent development, yet Thailand’s cultural integrity remains largely undamaged. In this country of fifty-three million people, over ninety percent are practicing Theravada Buddhists, and King Bhumibol is a revered figure across his nation. Tiered temple rooftops and saffron-robed monks dominate every vista, and, though some cities and beach resorts are characterized by high-rises and neon lights, the typical Thai community is the traditional farming village: ninety percent of Thais still earn their living from the land.
Most journeys start in Bangkok . Thailand’s huge, noisy, polluted capital can be an overwhelming introduction to Southeast Asia, but there are traveler-oriented guesthouses aplenty here, and heaps of spectacular temples to visit. It’s also the best place for arranging onward travel and visas for neighboring countries. A popular side-trip from the city takes in the raft houses of Kanchanaburi, the infamous site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. After Bangkok, most travelers head north, sometimes via the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai , to the enjoyably laid-back city of Chiang Mai , where they organize treks to nearby hill-tribe villages. There’s tranquil countryside in bucketloads up in the northern highlands around Mae Hong Son and along the Mekong River in Thailand’s northeast (Isaan), where you can stay in village guesthouses and hop across the border into Laos. The northeast is the least visited area of Thailand but holds two fine ancient Khmer ruins at Phimai and Phanom Rung, and the country’s most popular national park, Khao Yai .
After trekking and rural relaxation, most visitors want to head for the beach – and Thailand’s eastern and southern coasts are lined with gorgeous white-sand shores, aquamarine seas, and kaleidoscopic reefs. The most popular of these are the east coast backpackers’ resorts of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, the Gulf Coast islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, and the Andaman coast idylls of Laem Phra Nang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and Ko Tarutao. The southern island of Phuket and the east coast resort of Pattaya are more expensive, package-tour oriented spots. In the deep south, Thailand merges almost seamlessly with Malaysia, and there are plenty of border crossing points here; the city of Hat Yai, in particular, offers convenient long-distance bus and rail links to many Malaysian towns. Getting into Cambodia overland is not so easy, but there are two crossings currently open, Poipet and Trat.
The climate of most of Thailand is governed by three seasons: rainy (roughly June to October), caused by the southwest monsoon; cool (November to February); and hot (March to May). The cool season is the pleasantest time to visit and the most popular. Christmas is a peak season when accommodation gets booked way ahead and prices rise significantly. In the hot season, temperatures can rise to 40°C. The rainy season hits the Andaman coast (Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi) harder than anywhere else in the country – heavy rainfall usually starts in May and persists at the same level until October. The Gulf coast (Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, and Ko Tao) gets hardly any rain between June and September but is hit by the northeast monsoon, which brings rain between October and January. This area also suffers less from the southwest monsoon, getting a relatively small amount of rain.
Best Attractions in Thailand
Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai
There’s much more to Kanchanaburi than the infamous Bridge Over the River Kwai. Highlights include staying in a raft house on the River Kwai and taking the train along the spectacular Death Railway, built by World War II POWs at the cost of countless lives.
Diving and snorkeling trips to Ko Similan
Ko Similan’s underwater scenery is rated amongst the ten finest reefs in the world, and the best place to arrange good value live aboard diving and snorkeling trips to this remote chain of national park islands is Khao Lak.
Trekking from Umpang
Surrounded by mountains and at the end of a rollercoaster road known as the Sky Highway, the tiny village of Umpang is the departure point for interesting and untouristed treks into the Burmese borderlands.
Ko Lanta Yai
Take your pick from a dozen long and lovely beaches on the forested island of Ko Lanta Yai.
Khao Sok National Park
Stay in a treehouse in Khao Sok National Park and wake to the sound of whooping gibbons and the sight of mist-clad cliffs rising from the jungle.
Pirom’s Village Tours
Former social worker Pirom runs a guesthouse in Surin from where he organizes low-key tours to typical villages in his native Isaan, the most traditional and least visited region of Thailand.
Wat Phu Thok
The uniquely atmospheric meditation temple of Wat Phu Thok is set on a steep, wooded outcrop – clamber around for the spectacular views, if nothing else.
The Grand Palace, Bangkok
The Grand Palace is simply the country’s least missable sight, incorporating its holiest and most beautiful temple, Wat Phra Kaeo, and its most important image, the Emerald Buddha.
For Loy Krathong, a nationwide festival held in honor of the water spirits, Thais everywhere float miniature baskets filled with flowers and lighted candles on canals, rivers, ponds, and seashores.
An hour to the north of and providing a sharp contrast to Bangkok, the former capital Ayutthaya now resembles a graveyard of temples, with grand, brooding redbrick ruins rising out of the fields.
Food & Drink
well and cheaply even in the smallest provincial towns. Hygiene is a consideration when eating anywhere in Thailand, but there’s no need to be too cautious: wean your stomach gently by avoiding excessive amounts of chillies and too much fresh fruit in the first few days and by always drinking either bottled or boiled water. You can be pretty sure that any noodle stall or curry shop that’s permanently packed with customers is a safe bet. Broad price categories are given in restaurant listings throughout this section: “inexpensive” means you can get the main course for under B50, “moderate” means B50-100, and “expensive” over B100.
Throughout the country most inexpensive Thai restaurants specialize in one general food type or preparation method – a “noodle shop”, for example, will do fried noodles and noodle soups, plus a basic fried rice, but nothing else; a restaurant displaying whole roast chickens and ducks will offer these sliced or with chillies and sauces served over rice; and “curry shops” serve just that. As often as not, the best and most entertaining places to eat are the local night markets ( talaat yen), where thirty-odd “specialist” pushcart kitchens congregate from about 6pm to 6am on permanent patches in most towns, often close to the fruit and vegetable market or the bus station. Each stall is fronted by tables and stools and you can choose your food from wherever you like.
Festivals in Thailand
The most spectacular religious festivals include Songkhran (usually April 13-15), when the Thai New Year is welcomed in with massive public water fights in the street (most exuberant in Chiang Mai); the Rocket Festival in Yasothon (weekend in mid-May), when painted wooden rockets are paraded and fired to ensure plentiful rains; the Candle Festival in Ubon Ratchathani (July, three days around the full moon), when enormous wax sculptures are paraded to mark the beginning of the annual Buddhist retreat period; the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket and Trang (Oct), when Chinese devotees become vegetarian for a nine-day period and then parade through town performing acts of self-mortification; and Loy Krathong (late Oct or early Nov), when baskets of flowers and lighted candles are floated on rivers, canals and ponds nationwide (best in Sukhothai and Chiang Mai) to celebrate the end of the rainy season. The two main tourist-oriented festivals are the Surin Elephant roundup (third weekend of Nov), when two hundred elephants play team games, and parade in battle dress; and the River Kwai Bridge festival in Kanchanaburi (last week of Nov and first week of Dec), which includes a spectacular son et lumière at the infamous bridge.
Trekking & Diving
the beaches of the south. Trekking is concentrated in the north, but there are smaller, less touristy trekking operations in Kanchanaburi , Sangkhlaburi and Umpang , all of which are worth considering.
The major dive centers are on the east coast in Pattaya, on the Andaman coast at Phuket, Khao Lak, Ao Nang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, and on the Gulf Coast on Ko Tao, Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. You can organize dive expeditions at all these places, rent out equipment and do a certificated diving course (B7500-11,000 for a four-day Open Water course). Phuket dive centers offer the cheapest courses. You can dive all year round in Thailand, as the coasts are subject to different monsoon seasons: the diving seasons are from November to April along the Andaman coast, from January to October on the Gulf coast, and all year round on the east coast. There are currently two decompression chambers in Thailand, one in Sattahip on the east coast near Pattaya, the other on Ao Patong in Phuket.
Northeast Thailand: Isaan
Bordered by Laos and Cambodia on three sides, the tableland of northeast Thailand, known as Isaan , is the least-visited region of the kingdom and the poorest, but also its most traditional. Most northeasterners speak a dialect that’s more comprehensible to residents of Vientiane than Bangkok, and Isaan’s historic allegiances have tied it more closely to Laos and Cambodia than to Thailand. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the all-powerful Khmers covered the northeast in magnificent stone temple complexes, which can still be admired at Phimai and Phanom Rung . The mighty Mekong River forms 750km of the border between Isaan and Laos, and there are five points along with it where foreigners are allowed to cross the border . The river makes a popular backpackers’ trail, not least because of its laid-back waterfront guesthouses in Chiang Khan , Sri Chiang Mai and Nong Khai . Inland scenery is rewarding too, with good hiking trails at the national parks of Khao Yai and Phu Kradung .
East coast of Thailand
Thailand’s east coast is a five-hundred-kilometer string of predominantly dull, grey beaches blotched with expensive, over-packaged family resorts, the largest and most notorious of which is Pattaya . Offshore, however, it’s a different story: the tiny island of Ko Samet attracts backpackers and Bangkokians to its pretty white-sand beaches, while travelers with more time on their hands head east to Ko Chang , a large forested island close to the Cambodian border. It is now legal to cross over the border near here.
North and west of the capital, the unwieldy urban mass of Greater Bangkok peter out into the vast, well-watered central plains , a region that for centuries has grown the bulk of the nation’s food and been a tantalizing temptation for neighboring power-mongers. The riverside town of Kanchanaburi has long attracted visitors to the notorious Bridge over the River Kwai and is now well established as a budget-travelers’ hangout. Few tourists venture further west except to travel on the Death Railway, but the tiny hilltop town of Sangkhlaburi is worth continuing for. On the plains north of Bangkok, the historic heartland of the country, the major sites are the ruined ancient cities of Ayutthaya, Lopburi, and Sukhothai. Mae Sot makes a therapeutic change from ancient history and is the departure point for the rivers and waterfalls of Umpang, a remote border region that’s becoming increasingly popular for trekking and rafting.
Southern Thailand: The Andaman Coast
The landscape along the Andaman coast is lushly tropical and spiked with dramatic limestone crags, best appreciated by staying in the lovely Khao Sok National Park or taking a boat trip around the bizarre Ao Phang Nga Bay. Most people, however, come here for the beaches and the coral reefs: Phuket is Thailand’s largest island and the best place to learn to dive, but it’s package-tour-oriented, so most backpackers head straight for the beaches off Krabi , and the islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta . Unlike the Gulf coast, the Andaman coast is hit by the southwest monsoon from May to October, when the rain and high seas render some of the outer islands inaccessible and litter many beaches with debris; prices drop significantly during this period, however.
Southern Thailand: The Gulf Coast
increasingly upmarket Ko Samui , the laid-back Ko Pha Ngan , site of monthly full-moon parties, and the tiny Ko Tao , which is encircled by some of Thailand’s best dive sites. Other attractions seem minor by comparison, but the typically Thai seaside resort of Hua Hin has a certain charm, and the grand old temples in Nakhon Si Thammarat are worth a detour.
As Thailand drops down to meet Malaysia, the cultures of the two countries begin to merge. Many inhabitants of the deep south are ethnically more akin to the Malaysians: most of the 1,500,000 followers of Islam here speak Yawi, an old Malay dialect, and many yearn for secession from Thailand. There are eight border crossings to Malaysia down here, with the most efficient transport connections to Malaysia starting at the ugly, modern city of Hat Yai . The nearby old town of Songkhla is a more sympathetic spot for sightseeing, but if you’re after coastal attractions, either take a boat trip through the Thale Noi Waterbird Park , or head for the rarely visited beaches of the Trang coast and the spectacular Ko Tarutao islands.
Art & Architecture of Thailand
Aside from pockets of Hindu-inspired statuary and architecture, the vast majority of Thailand’s cultural monuments take their inspiration from Theravada Buddhism, and so it is temples and religious images that constitute the kingdom’s main sights.
The wat or Buddhist temple complex serves both as a community center and a shrine for holy images. The most important wat building is the bot, or “ordination hall”, which is only open to monks, and often only recognizable by the eight sema (boundary stones) surrounding it. Often almost identical to the bot, the viharn (assembly hall) is for the lay congregation, and usually contains the wat’s principal Buddha image. Thirdly, there’s the chedi, a stupa which was originally conceived to enshrine relics of the Buddha but has since become a place to contain the ashes of royalty – and anyone else who can afford it.
In the early days of Buddhism , image-making was considered inadequate to convey the faith’s abstract philosophies, but gradually images of the Buddha were created, construed chiefly as physical embodiments of his teachings rather than as portraits of the man. Of the four postures in which the Buddha is always depicted, the seated Buddha, which represents him in meditation, is the most common in Thailand. The reclining pose symbolizes the Buddha entering Nirvana at his death, while the standing and walking images both represent his descent from Tavatimsa heaven. Hindu images tend to be a lot livelier than Buddhist ones: the most commonly seen in Thailand are Vishnu, the “Preserver” who often appears in his manifestation of Rama, the epitome of ideal manhood and super-hero of the epic story the Ramayana. Shiva (the Destroyer) is commonly represented by a lingam or phallic pillar; he is the father of the elephant-headed boy Ganesh.
In the 1920s, art historians compiled a classification system for Thai art and architecture which was modeled along the lines of the country’s historical periods. The first really significant period is known as the Khmer and Lopburi era (tenth to fourteenth centuries), when the Hindu Khmers of Angkor built hundreds of imposing stone castle-temples, or prasat, across their newly acquired “Thai” territory – blueprints for the even more magnificent Angkor Wat. Almost every surface of these sanctuaries was adorned with intricate carvings of Hindu deities, incarnations, and stories. The very finest of the remaining prasat is at Phimai and Phanom Rung in Thailand’s northeast. During the Khmer period, the former Theravada Buddhist principality of Lopburi produced a distinctive style of broad-faced, muscular Buddha statue, wearing an ornamental headband – a nod to the Khmers’ ideological fusion of earthly and heavenly power.
The Sukhothai period (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) is considered the acme of Thai artistic endeavor, and is particularly famous for its elegantly sinuous Buddha sculptures, instantly recognizable by their slim oval faces and slender curvaceous bodies. Sukhothai-era architects also devised the equally graceful lotus-bud chedi, a slender tower topped with a tapered finial that was to become a hallmark of the era. Examples of Sukhothai art and architecture can be seen across the country, but the finest are found in the old city of Sukhothai itself.
Though essentially Theravada Buddhists, the Ayutthayan kings (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries) also adopted some Hindu and Brahmin beliefs from the Khmers. Their architects retained the concentric layout of Khmer temples, elongated the prang – central tower – into a corncob-shaped tower, and adapted the Sukhothai-style chedi. Like the Lopburi images, early Ayutthayan Buddha statues wear crowns to associate kingship with Buddhahood; as the court became ever more lavish, so these figures became increasingly adorned, with earrings, armlets, anklets and coronets. When Bangkok emerged as Ayutthaya’s successor, the new capital’s founder was determined to revive the old city’s grandeur, and the Ratanakosin (or Bangkok) period (eighteenth century to present) began by aping what the Ayutthayans had done. Since then, neither wat architecture nor religious sculpture has evolved much further.