Oozing pubs, restaurants, go go bars, cabarets, discos and massage parlours Pattaya strives to live up to its reputation as the party capital of Thailand. At night the town rocks, while during the day the beaches are a collage of umbrellas and deckchairs, jet skis skim across the water and parasails rise above the bay. Recently the town has widened its appeal and now boasts many sports facilities, including spectacular golf courses, go cart racing, and bungee jumping, and more family orientated pursuits such as a water park, a crocodile farm, and an aquarium. There are several small islands off the coast of Pattaya and tour boats go out daily to the beaches or for fishing or diving. To the south of Pattaya is Jomtien beach, a little more reserved than the main town, with many hotels and condominium complexes.
From the traditional Siam of the ‘King and I’, modern Thailand seems to have exploded on to the western travel scene in recent years. And for good reason; from the clear blue waters of the Gulf beaches to the mountainous north with its lush orchid-dotted vegetation, virtually every kind of vacation is there. Bangkok, arguably the capital of SE Asia, has an amazing buzz like a vertical oriental market shooting up to the sky. It’s a river city – so try for a waterfront hotel. The islands, such as Koh Samui, that dot the sapphire blue waters of the Gulf offer a vast submarine and beach paradise – ‘the best diving in the world’ it’s said. Now well-known, Phuket is also an Andaman Sea island with tropical jungle often running down to the sea. (Don’t forget or forgo Thailand’s fascinating wildlife.) And try to get to the hugely different North with its mountains and classic Thai cuisine – Chiang Mai is a great centre that even offers cookery classes so your Thai curry ‘take away’ can be the knowledge of how to do it at home.
Take to the glass and concrete maze and ignore the choking traffic. This ‘head-down’ attitude soon pays dividends. Buried in the heart of the city are The Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaeo, Wat Po, The National Museum, and silk magnate Jim Thompson’s eclectic home. Enjoy the peace and quiet because the rest of your stay promises to be frenetic. Bangkok is all about joining in: take to the Klongs, the canals where markets bustle and holler by day, and candlelit festivals light up the faces of saffron-robed monks by night. A long-tail water taxi ride cuts stealthily through the chaos, threading past stilt houses and sampan floating kitchens dishing up the noodle of the day. Join in the ringside frenzy of a Thai boxing match, then chill with a soothing Thai massage.
Smaller, more compact and less frantic than Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city is picturesquely bordered by the ruins of city walls and a moat. The typical brightly decorated layered roofs of temples appear round every corner, as Chiang Mai was an important centre of Buddhism during its time as capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Besides the wats and museums the town, now spilled out of the city walls, has some interesting markets for the sale of handicrafts plus a range of hotels and restaurants. Not far from the city is Wat Doi Suthep, perched on a hill top which gives fine views of Chiang Mai on a clear day, whilst other nearby excursions include the umbrella village of Bo Sang and the handicrafts village of San Kamphaeng. Tour operators organise treks to see local hill tribe villages, and there are botanical gardens, an elephant sanctuary and a zoo if the attractions of the city begin to pale.
Originally just the beach of that name, Khao Lak now usually refers to a stretch of the Andaman coast south of Takua Pa. The beaches and bays, fringed with trees and lapped by clear waters have attracted many upmarket resorts, which jostle side by side with beach bungalows and other low rise accommodation. The pace of life is much gentler and more family orientated than nearby Phuket. The town, stretched out dustily out along the main road is a patchwork of dive shops and restaurants. Day boats and live aboard dive trips (October-April) leave from here to the Similan Islands, Koh Bon and Richelieu Rock for some world class diving sites. Nearby Khao Lak (Lam Ru) National Park and (further) Khao Sok National Park both have dense forest, rocky outcrops and a variety of wildlife and are ideal for walking or bird watching. Local tour operators offer 'eco-tourism' trips offering elephant trekking and rafting.
Blue skies, turquoise seas, long sands and smaller bays fringed with green trees, the beaches of Koh Samui are picture card perfect. Some, such as Chaweng and Lamai beaches on the east coast, are very popular and unlikely to be as sleepy and restful as the postcards suggest, with restaurants, bars, discos and a vibrant nightlife. However Koh Samui does have many other quieter and smaller beaches most with accommodation ranging from beach huts to luxury hotels. Development is confined to the coastline and the interior of the island has some thick tropical forest, hills and waterfalls, good for exploring, and extensive coconut and rubber plantations. Just a boat ride from Koh Samui is Koh Pha Ngan, well known for its sandy beaches with cheap accommodation and full moon parties and a little further is Koh Tao, an island geared heavily towards divers, with excellent clear waters, corals, pinnacles and varied marine life.
Best known for 'sand, sun and sea' there is more to the island of Phuket than the golden beaches, hotels, discos, bars and restaurants. Glimpse the past in Old Phuket town's colonial and Chinese architecture, snatch a glance at a gentler life on the rubber and cashew nut plantations and enjoy the quiet of the rainforest at Khao Phra Taew Forest Park, where there is a small gibbon rehabilitation centre. Alternatively the spectacular limestone stacks of Phang-Nga bay can be explored by long tailed boat or sea kayak. Dive shops abound on Phuket, with fantastic local sites reached on day trips and longer live aboard tours going to the Similan Islands.