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Thailand's popularity has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and for good reasons. Ancient ruins, gleaming Buddhist temples, tropical beaches, and an array of adventurous activities are plentiful and value-priced.
Food, transportation, entertainment, and lodging are all a terrific deal by western standards. Unlike some bargain destinations however, Thailand's tourism industry is quite advanced and the hassles are few. The internal air, bus, and train networks are comfortable and efficient. Still, the most expensive possible train seat (an air-conditioned double cabin) from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is only $44 and a flight is around $80. A long-distance air-conditioned bus ride will seldom top fifteen dollars.
The country's service is internationally renowned: lists of the top-10 hotels in the world typically include three or four from Bangkok and attentive service is a priority ingrained at establishments of every price level.
Thailand's cuisine is one of the world's most distinctive, with lemongrass, coconut milk, peanuts, and fiery chilies creating an oral kaleidoscope of flavors. People who love spicy food can go wild here, but contrary to popular belief, the majority of dishes are not spicy at all. If you want to liven up a dish you can usually find chilies on the table, for a condiment.
Where the locals eat, a meal will seldom set you back more than two bucks and the food is usually more authentic than the "westernized" tourist spots. Prices go up according to location and atmosphere; even in Thailand, a fine dining experience in a five-star hotel can hit the $100 mark for two, but that's way out of proportion to the norm.
Sightseeing & Shopping
The sightseeing possibilities in old Siam (as it was once known) are nearly endless. In Bangkok alone there are over 400 wats (Buddhist temples) dotted around the city and elsewhere the country's 800 years of architectural history are well preserved, especially in the former Siamese capitals of Sukothai and Ayutthaya. Geographically, there are mountains, jungles, and islands to explore and the beaches are fantastic.
The country is also a shopper's paradise, with great buys on silk, clothing, woven bags, lacquerware, silver jewelry, and handicrafts. If you know what you're doing, it's also a good place to buy gems.
Bargaining is essential--if you pay the first price quoted, you've paid too much. Think of it as a game and don't lose your cool: confrontation is taboo in the "Land of Smiles".
Night life is often of the sleazy sort--Bangkok and Pattaya are packed with massage parlors, strip joints, and thinly disguised brothels--but there are plenty of alternatives, ranging from loud and frenetic bars to classy supper clubs.
This sprawling hive of activity is exasperating and beautiful all at once. Growing like a disease, it's strangled by what is probably the world's worst traffic and the resulting pollution is hard to take for long. Once inside a serene temple, the Grand Palace, or a tantalizing restaurant, however, the negative images quickly fade.
There are seemingly a million things to see here and fortunately, many of the most interesting are on the river taxi routes. Though some people feel an instant need to escape the congestion and noise, it would be a shame not to spend at least a few days here. Besides, this is by far the best place in the country to shop, eat, and go out at night.
Chiang Mai, located in the north, is a world away from Bangkok. It's the second largest city, but with a population of less than a quarter million, it's only a tiny fraction of the size. Even so, it's nicknamed the "Temple City" because it has almost as many wats as the capital.
If you don't mind detouring to a few "factories" that are also shops, a driver will take you on a tour of the most interesting temples for just a few dollars.
Many hill-tribe treks originate here and there are a lot of other interesting side trips from the area. Up here, the air is a little cooler, the people are friendlier, and the city itself is easy to navigate.
Ko Samui and Krabi
Most beach package tours head to either Pattaya or Phuket, but both areas are overdeveloped and overrated. For scenic beauty and a lack of ugly high-rises, head to the island of Ko Samui off the east coast or Krabi on the west coast.
Ko Samui is a large island ringed with picturesque beaches and coconut palms, with plenty of screaming bargains in the lodging and restaurant departments. Watersports, fishing trips, and the usual sun and fun are plentiful.
Krabi comprises a fantastic coastline of dramatic cliffs, ancient caves, and strangely-shaped islands. (The James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was shot nearby.) Snorkeling and diving are quite good in the area and there are dozens of interesting islands to explore by boat.