Thailand - Asia's primary destination

by M. Ellis

Over six million foreigners fly into Thailand each year. It has become Asia's primary holiday destination and is well located, serviced and popular as a first stop on any overland journey through Southeast Asia.

Tourist money has played a significant part in the country's recent development. Yet amazingly Thailand's cultural integrity remains largely undamaged. In this country of fifty-three million people, over 90% are practicing Theravada Buddhists. King Bhumibol is a revered figure across his nation. Temple rooftops and saffron-robed monks dominate the entire country. Though some cities and beach resorts are have been westernized by high-rises and neon lights, the typical Thai community is the traditional farming villager. Still true to this day, ninety percent of Thais still earn their living from the land.

Most journeys start in Bangkok . It can be an overwhelming introduction to Southeast Asia, as Bangkok is characterized with its chaos, noise and pollution, but there are traveller-oriented guesthouses in droves here, and many 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, via the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai . They head to the enjoyable ad laid-back city of Chiang Mai. There, very often, treks are organised to the nearby hilltribe villages.

If tranquility is what you are after, you will find it in the countryside up in the northern highlands around Mae Hong Son and along the Mekong River in Thailand's northeast (Isaan). There you can stay in village guesthouses or even family shacks if you are lucky, then hop across the border into Laos. In northeast you will find two fine ancient Khmer ruins at Phimai and Phanom Rung, they are certainly worth a visit and give you something to boast about, as the are much less frequented by tourists. There is also Thailands most popular national park, Khao Yai .

After trekking, cycling, white water rafting or going for an elephant ride, as well as the rural relaxation experience, most visitors head for the beach - and Thailand's eastern and southern coasts are lined with magnificent white-sand shores, aquamarine seas and kaleidoscopic reefs. The most popular beaches in Thailand with its foreign visitors are the east coast backpackers' resorts of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, the Andaman coast of Laem Phra Nang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and Ko Tarutao and the Gulf Coast islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao,. The southern island of Phuket as well as the east coast resort of Pattaya are more expensive, package-tour oriented areas. In the furthest part south, Thailand merges seamlessly with Malaysia. There are plenty of border crossing points there and the city of Hat Yai offers travellers long-distance bus and rail links to many Malaysian towns. Crossing over to Cambodia overland, alas, is not so easy, however, 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 certainly the best time to visit, with Christam being the peak season for Thailand. 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 and usually heavy rains persist from May to October. On the other hand, The Gulf coast (Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao) hardly sees any rain between June and September, but is hit heavily by the northeast monsoon, brings torrential rain between October and January.

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