The clash of tradition and modernity is most intense in Bangkok, which forms the first stop on almost any itinerary. Within its historic core you’ll find resplendent temples, canalside markets and the opulent indulgence of the eighteenth-century Grand Palace. Downtown’s forest of skyscrapers shelters cutting-edge fashion in decor boutiques and some achingly hip bars and clubs.
The pick of the coasts are in the south, where the Samui archipelago off the Gulf coast ranks as one of the best places to go in Thailand. Ko Samui itself has the most sweeping white-sand beaches, and the greatest variety of accommodation and facilities to go with them.
Ko Pha Ngan next door is still largely backpacker territory, where you have a stark choice between desolate coves and Hat Rin, Thailand’s party capital. The remotest island, rocky Ko Tao, is acquiring increasing sophistication as Southeast Asia’s largest dive-training centre.
Tucked away beneath the islands, Nakhon Si Thammarat, the cultural capital of the south, is well worth a short detour from the main routes through the centre of the peninsula – it’s a sophisticated city of grand old temples, delicious cuisine and distinctive handicrafts.
THE ANDAMAN COAST
Across on the other side of the peninsula, the Andaman coast offers even more exhilarating scenery and the finest coral reefs in the country, in particular around the Ko Similan island chain, which ranks among the best dive sites in the world.
The largest Andaman coast island, Phuket, is one of Thailand’s top tourist destinations and graced with a dozen fine beaches, though several have been overdeveloped with a glut of high-rises and tacky nightlife.
Beautiful little Ko Phi Phi is a major party hub, surrounded by the turquoise seas and dramatic limestone cliffs that characterize the coastline throughout Krabi province. Large, forested Ko Lanta is, for the moment at least, a calmer alternative for families, but for genuine jungle you’ll need to head inland, to the rainforests of Khao Sok National Park.
If you’re wondering where to visit in the northern uplands, then start with Chiang Mai. It’s both an attractive historic city and a vibrant cultural centre, with a strong tradition of arts, crafts and festivals. Plenty of outdoor activities and courses, as well as hot springs and massages, can be enjoyed at Pai, a surprisingly cosmopolitan hill station for travellers, four hours northwest of Chiang Mai.
Many colourful festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places in Thailand to see in the Thai New Year – Songkhran – in mid-April, and to celebrate Loy Krathong at the full moon in November, when thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River in lotus-leaf boats.