Thais commonly use the word sanuk when talking about their Southeast Asian kingdom, which means “fun.” Yes, within Thailand’s tropical terrain lies a sensory sojourn for travelers: the eye candy of ornate gilded palaces, rich coral reefs and many varieties of wild orchid; the hypnotic rhythms of Buddhist mantras; the palate-pleasing platters of spicy cuisine; the tactile allure of rustling Thai silk; and the aromatic odyssey of bustling bazaars.
Before You Go: Need-to-know info
Entry requirements: Passport that’s valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket
Flight time: About 20 hours from NYC, 19 hours from L.A., about 23 hours from Dallas
When to Go: Thailand at its best
Best weather: November to February is the “dry and cool” season, though the rest of the year can be just as fair. Be prepared for hot, humid weather any time of year, though there are three recognizable seasons in northern Thailand: hot from March to June; rainy from July to October; and cooler from November to February. (Southern Thailand has just two: rainy and hot.)
Best prices: April to June or September to October, but exact dates vary by hotel.
What to Do
Get to Bangkok: Just as New York City doesn’t define the total American experience, Bangkok isn’t representative of all of Thailand. This is a huge metropolis: Neon billboards and high-rises flank humble temples, and the traffic — consisting of cars and rickshaws — is nearly always congested. The paradox is exactly what makes the city interesting. Check out Chinatown, a ramble of lanes near Yaowarat and Charoen Krung roads, browse the shops on Charoen Krung for kitschy souvenirs, dare to peek into one of the “dance” clubs in Patpong — Bangkok’s notorious red-light district — and definitely do not miss the Grand Palace.
Hike the hills: Strap on those hiking shoes for ventures into northwestern Thailand and the infamous opium-growing Golden Triangle, where Thailand borders Myanmar and Laos. Chiang Mai, “the rose of the North,” about an hour’s flight from Bangkok, is the gateway to this mountainous region. From here you can explore the city’s countless wats (temples), including the awe-inspiring mountaintop Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, take a pachyderm pleasure ride, drift down the Mae Taeng River on a bamboo raft, explore the stunning Doi Inthanon National Park, and trek to remote villages inhabited by colorful hill tribes (some of whose lifestyles have barely changed over the centuries, while others now kowtow to the tourist dollar).
Hit the sand: Spin the compass south toward the narrow peninsula of southern Thailand for picturesque beaches, a rich diversity of coral life, and exotic seascapes punctuated by towering and dramatic limestone stacks jutting out of the water. Skip Pattaya (way too touristy), but do head for Phuket and Ko Samui, both island beauties easily reached by air from Bangkok. Phuket is Thailand’s largest and poshest island — with ample dive and sailing facilities plus striking scenery make it a hot destination. Ko Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand is blanketed with coconut palms and rimmed with white sand and aquamarine waters. Beside lazing around, water sports, principally sail boarding and diving (Ang Thong Marine National Park is nearby), will occupy your days.