With sixteen million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand is Asia’s primary travel destination and offers a host of places to visit. Yet despite this vast influx of visitors, Thailand’s cultural integrity remains largely undamaged – a country that adroitly avoided colonization has been able to absorb Western influences while maintaining its own rich heritage. Though the high-rises and neon lights occupy the foreground of the tourist picture, the typical Thai community is still the farming village, and you need not venture far to encounter a more traditional scene of fishing communities, rubber plantations and Buddhist temples. Around forty percent of Thais earn their living from the land, based around the staple rice, which forms the foundation of the country’s unique and famously sophisticated cuisine.
Tourism has been just one factor in the country’s development which, since the deep-seated uncertainties surrounding the Vietnam War faded, has been free, for the most part, to proceed at death-defying pace. For a time in the 1980s and early 1990s, Thailand boasted the fastest-expanding economy in the world. Politics in Thailand, however, has not been able to keep pace. Since World War II, coups d’état have been as common a method of changing government as general elections; the malnourished democratic system – when the armed forces allow it to operate – is characterized by corruption and cronyism.
The clash of tradition and modernity is most intense in Bangkok, 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
Moving further into the inner city downtown, you find a forest of skyscrapers shelters cutting-edge fashion and decor boutiques and some achingly hip bars and clubs. After touchdown in Bangkok, much of the package-holiday traffic flows east to Pattaya, the country’s seediest resort, but for prettier beaches you’re better off venturing just a little further, to the islands of Ko Samet and the Ko Chang archipelago, with their squeaky white sand and shorefront bungalows.
At the heart of the northern uplands, Chiang Mai is both an attractive historic city and a vibrant cultural centre, with a strong tradition of arts, crafts and festivals. It does a burgeoning line in self-improvement courses – from ascetic meditation to the more earthly pleasures of Thai cookery classes – while the overriding enticement of the surrounding region is the prospect of trekking through villages inhabited by a richly mixed population of tribal peoples. Plenty of outdoor activities and courses, as well as hot springs and massages, can be enjoyed at Pai, a surprisingly cosmopolitan hill station for travelers, four hours northwest of Chiang Mai.
Further down the Thai peninsula, in the provinces of the Deep South, the teeming sea life and unfrequented sands of the Trang islands and Ko Tarutao National Marine Park are the main draws. There’s now the intriguing possibility of island-hopping your way down through them – in fact, all the way from Phuket to Penang in Malaysia – without setting foot on the mainland .