For centuries, Thailand has been a destination of choice attracting travelers from across the globe to explore its diversity, friendliness and charm. Thailand’s wide variety of activities and things to do is always worth being somewhere on your bucket list no matter what you are looking for: beautiful art and culture, a quite nature retreat, crazy nightlife, luxury getaway, or even shopping extravaganza. The nation, with a population of about 68 million, 77 provinces and covering 513,120 square kilometer, is developed into a growing industrial country and a major exporter in the 90’s. Its economy leading factors are manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. Thailand, aka Siam until 1939, has a long and interesting history of more than 700 years during a period of four different dynasties: Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi and the current (constitutional) monarchy Rattanakosin.
Regions in Thailand
Thailand can be divided into six regions, all with their own unique culture, sceneries and attractions; North, Northeast (Isan), Central, East, West and South. Thailand shares borders with Laos and Cambodia in the East and North East. Malaysia can be reached by crossing the southern border and the country shares its longest border of all with Myanmar in the West. Thailand’s eastern coast is at the Gulf of Thailand and is part of the Pacific. On the other side of the southern Kra Peninsula are the blue waters of the Andaman Sea which is part of the Indian Ocean.
Wat Rong Khun - Chiang Rai
The north, which was once a separate independent mountainous kingdom called Lanna, is one the most modest and humble places to live in. The culture and identity of the northern area is reflected from the overall personality of the locals. The language, Kum Muang, is a softer and slower version of the Thai language and is still spoken by millions of people.
From the three seasons in the north, winter is the most popular. Local people from around the country always flock to the north during the winter time (October - February) to stay in the mountains where they enjoy the chilly weather and the cool, clean air. The highlight is always the view of sunrise in the morning when the fog becomes visible right in front of your tent. This fog, called ‘talay mok’ (the sea of mist) by the locals, starts to cover the green mountain tops before descending into the valleys below, softly being penetrated by the first rays of sunlight as it vanishes. This in combination with the singing of the birds, the smell of blooming rhododendrons and the pure oxygen will make this a perfect wakeup place.
Akha Girls - Chiang Mai
The north is also famous for its well-preserved culture and traditions. Various hill tribes still live on the mountain tops and ridges and practice ‘slash and burn’ agriculture on the steep slopes whilst the Thais prefer to live in the valleys below along the major rivers. Exquisite temples, some of them centuries old, can be found around the region from the biggest to the tiniest. Lanna style dancing is also very unique and is still performed at festivals, big restaurants and hotels.
The most popular provinces in the north are Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and they attract most of the visitors whilst the province of Mae Hong Son is Lanna’s best kept secret. The northern food is a must-try, whatever the occasion. The local cuisine is called ‘kantoke’ which translates as a small round table with short legs made from wood. The food is usually a combination of Lanna and Shan ingredients served with glutinous rice. People in northern Thailand traditionally sit on the floor when eating. When the food is ready, it is poured into cups and placed on the kantoke tray. Then it is ready to be served. Northern folk usually sit on a mat and eat on the floor, but luckily they use tables and chairs too nowadays
Khao Yai National Park
Widely referred to as Isan, this is the biggest region in Thailand comprising of 20 provinces and is located on the top right of the map. It shares borders with Cambodia and Laos and it is adjacent to the right bank of the Mekong river over hundreds of kilometers. People in this region mainly have an agricultural background, especially focusing on rice cultivation. The world famous Jasmin rice has its origins in this region.
Isan houses parts of the Khao Yai National Park in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Khao Yai, with its 2.168 square kilometers being the biggest National park of Thailand, covers a vast area of subtropical jungle, grasslands and marches. It is sometimes called ‘The lung of the country’ and is home to various species of birds, mammals and vegetation. It is a popular hiking destination all year round and many resorts, villas and camping grounds can also be found in and around the park.
Apart from the chill spots in Khao Yai, there is a place which the locals claim as to be the coldest point of Thailand during winter, Phu Ruea, in Loei province. This 1.365 meter high mountain top sometimes has a temperature of lower than zero degree celsius. However, during winter time, certain elevated points of Isan (and the North) always reach less than 10 degrees celsius, which attracts hordes of local tourists to experience these shivering temperatures.
Som Tam - Papaya Salad
Following the recent discovery of dinosaur bones and foot prints in many provinces across this region, Isan has a new attraction to offer. The prehistoric museum consist of ancient creatures aged 5-16 million years old, prehistorical flora of 800.000 - 320 million years old, different types of dinosaurs as well as ancient turtles, monkeys and apes.
In the countryside of Isan, the people commonly speak Lao and still follow their local culture and beliefs. Isan tradition is very colorful and also unique. You can find traditional dancing and music in many touristic venues spread out across the region.
Isan food is well-known across the country thanks to its flavor and spiciness. The main dishes, such as som tam (papaya salad), lab moo (minced pork salad), tom sap (hot and sour soup), nam tok moo (grilled pork salad) and pla duk yan (snakehead fish) can be found everywhere in Thailand. Less popular with foreign tourists but a big hit with the locals are dishes like ant egg salads, beetles and various types of bugs.
The central region of Thailand is located in the broad alluvial plain of the Chao Phraya River. It houses the capital Bangkok and other former capital cities such as Ayutthaya and Sukhothai which gave the center of Thailand a lot of antique charm on the history trail. The debris of ancient cities in Sukhothai and Ayutthaya provinces are still available to visit. The walls and remains from several wars stills keep the memories and stories. These ruined cities still attract a lot of tourists, locals and foreigners alike. The central region is also home to Bangkok, the vibrant capital and the country’s most populated city. Bangkok is a place to go all urban: flashy shopping malls, high-rise posh apartment buildings, contemporary art galleries and hidden local markets are tucked away all over the city.
Street Food - Bangkok
The sky train and subway make transportation in this big city convenient and fast, even though there are some other must-try ways of traveling like tuk tuks, long tail boats and motorbike taxis. On Rattanakosin Island, the birthplace of Bangkok, the exquisite Emerald Temple (Wat Phra Keo) and the Grand Palace attract visitors all year round. For hungry ghosts small eateries and street food is abundant and tiny but chic cafes and bars line up in their designated barrios. Bangkok is also the hub for domestic travel by plane, bus and train. Far away from the urban vibe you can also discover the calm and tranquility of local lifestyle and nature in the surrounding provinces. Uthaithani with its old town market, the foggy mountain top of Phu Tub Berk in Petchaboon province or Ancient Siam, the world’s largest outdoor museum in Samut Prakan are just a few to be named.
Nong Nooch Tropical Garden - Chonburi
This region covers seven provinces with a total area of 34,380 square kilometer. The East is connected to the central plains and Bangkok in the west, Isan to the north and it shares a land border with Cambodia. Eastern Thailand has five provinces on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with the resort city of Pattaya the most famous place. There are many interesting places to visit, activities to do and experiences to live in this region. Mountain trekking in Nakhon Nayok, hiking to waterfalls in Sa Keo, bird-watching and camping in Chantaburi are just a few of the many possibilities to choose from. For beach lovers there are idyllic places on the islands of Koh Chang, Koh Samet and Koh Larn which offer a great number of all sorts of water activities. Rayong province is home to one of the world’s most notorious nightlife spots, Pattaya, which got its dubious reputation from American G.I.’s whilst on R&R during the Vietnam War. Today it is more of a family-oriented, high end beach resort with just a handful reminders of these turbulent years from the 60’s and 70’s.
Because of its border to Cambodia, Sakaeo province, is famous for its shocking low-price shopping heaven; At the ‘Talad Rong Kluer’ or Golden Gate Plaza on the Thai-Cambodian border, you can find the cheapest of products ranging from clothes to shoes, bags, beddings and all sorts of electronic appliances. However, cheap prices often come with a risk because there is a mix of first hand and second hand products and a whole bunch of imitation brand names under the same roof. For history lovers and for those who like ancient Khmer architecture, the province also houses the historical site of Sdok Kok Thom, an 11th century Khmer temple. This temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is seen as a prime example of a provincial seat of worship during Angkor’s golden age.
River Kwai - Kanchanaburi
An area of 53,769 square kilometer consisting of five provinces: Kanchanaburi, Tak, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Petchaburi and Ratchaburi. There is a lot of nature to be found in the west of Thailand including the waterfalls of Kanchanaburi and the stunning karts formations of Prachuap Khiri Khan. Kanchanaburi, apart from the beautiful waterfalls, is host to the infamous ‘Death Railway’, a 415 kilometer long railway constructed during WW2. Thousands of allied prisoners of war and Asian coolies worked here under dire circumstances and the constant thread of beatings and executions by their Japanese captors. An estimated 16.000 POW’s and 100.000 Asian laborers died during the construction of this railway. One of the most famous coastal towns in Central Thailand is located southwest of Bangkok in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Hua Hin is popular with locals and foreigners alike as it offers great relaxation and quiet sandy beaches.
James Bond Island - Phang Nga
The paradise for beach goers is located here! Most of the people traveling down south are seeking a beach life getaway. The white sandy beaches, crystal clear ocean and the mild sea-breeze from the Andaman Sea is the all-time crave for beach lovers. The quiet and calm beaches can be found in several places throughout the South such as Koh Payam, Similan Islands, Lipe Island, Tachai Island etc. On the other hand, there are many islands and beaches famous for music, bars and their party atmosphere like Phi Phi Island, Patong Beach, Kata and Karon beach, Samui Island and Koh Phangan. Besides numerous activities that can be found on land, there are plenty of things to be done in the sea, such as diving, snorkeling, kayaking, yachting … Check out the numerous boat companies that offer services like dinner cruises, party boats, daytrips and so on.
Longtail Boats - Phi Phi
Nonetheless, the South also attracts eco-buffs to its beautiful mountains and jungles. Khao Sok, in Surat Thani province, offers a tranquil scenery of lush tropical jungle and is home to one of Thailand’s biggest artificial lakes on which you even can stay overnight. Eco friendly companies are popping up all over the South attracting adventure-minded people and offering bicycle tours, jungle hikes, caving, home-stay experiences etc. The south of Thailand also offers the charming Sino-Portuguese architecture, which can be found in the old towns of Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi, Satun, Ranong and Trang. The historical center of Phuket is now even rivalling these from Georgetown, Melakka and Singapore in terms of atmosphere and entertainment. Local southern food is famous for its rich, hot and spicy taste with lots of herbs and Malay influence. The southern food is now very famous throughout Thailand and people across the country travel a long way to try out the true taste in the original venues. It goes without saying, of course, that the south has also the best seafood Thailand has to offer.