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Thailand See And Do

Ayutthaya

For 417 years, this ancient city was the capital of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, whose territory once extended beyond present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Foreign visitors described the three palaces and more than 400 temples along the Chao Phraya River as the most glittering city on Earth. Conquered by the Burmese in 1767, the still impressive remains are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors who make the 45-minute trip from Bangkok can tour the 17th-century Bang Pa In Palace built in 1878 in the English Gothic style as well as more traditional Thai temples like Wat Pananchoeng, constructed in 1324 to shelter a huge sitting Buddha given by the emperor of China. Travelers with the means and time should consider cruising the "River of Kings," aboard the Manohra Song and the even more spacious Manohra Dream, two exquisitely restored teak rice barges. The overnight boat trip departs from the Bangkok Marriott Resort & Spa.

Beaches on Koh Samui
Koh Samui
Thailand

Koh Samui's beaches are the postcard-perfect vision of paradise, with the vividness of the green hills and sea matched only by the brilliant white sand. While the beach and bar parties draw crowds onto Chaweng and Lamai beaches on Koh Samui's east coast, other stretches of white sand remain calm, quiet, and often deserted—at least for now. Pass traditional Thai wooden houses on stilts to access quiet Lipa Beach, just south of Nathon, where soaring palm trees, longtail boats, and local fishermen far outnumber sunbathers along a pristine bay. Head further south to similarly chill scenes at Taling Ngam beach and the white sands of Thong Krut along the southern coast. For those sticking to the northern shores, Choeng Mon beach offers a convenient, surprisingly unpopulated escape from the overdevelopment along nearby Mae Nam and Bophut beaches.

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Beaches on Phuket
Sirinat Marine National Park
Phuket
Thailand
Tel: 66 76 328 226
www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/asp/style1/default.asp?npid=90&lg=2

Arguably the best beach—and certainly the longest—on Phuket is Hat Mai Khao, a five-mile slice of white sand rimmed with pines in Sirinat Marine National Park, on the north end of the island. Despite being relatively close to the airport—it's also known as Airport Beach— it's an ideal place to find a quiet nook with a partner. (There are hotels in the park, but they're built off the water.) Two other nice beaches, Hat Nai Yang and Hat Sai Kaeo, are here, too. Swimming is good in the dry season, but the tides are dangerous when the rains come. Camping is allowed on Nai Yang. Book ahead (reserve@dnp.go.th).

Boat tours around Koh Samui
Koh Samui
Thailand

Private Thai-style boats known as longtails are an ideal way to explore Koh Samui and its surrounding islands. The Five Islands Experience (Five Islands Beach, Taling Ngam; 66-77-415-359; www.thefiveislands.com) leaves from Five Islands Restaurant on Taling Ngam beach, taking in Koh Samui's soaring limestone pinnacles and rare bird-nest harvesting spots. The nests are sold for use in the Chinese delicacy bird's nest soup. You'll stop for snorkeling before returning to Taling Ngam for fresh seafood with coconut and lemongrass.

Boat Trips
Bangkok
Thailand

Whether by public ferry or private water taxi, leisurely cruises down the Chao Phraya River guarantee great views. Better yet, get off the river and explore some of Bangkok's extensive network of khlong, or canals—hence the city's former nickname, the Venice of the East. Long-tailed boats—Thailand's distinctive elongated canoes with giant diesel motors roaring at the stern—depart from Tha Chang Pier by the Grand Palace and from most of the riverside hotels, such as the Mandarin Oriental. There are several boat companies that operate along the river, but the largest is Chao Phraya Express Boat (66-2-623-6143; www.chaophrayaboat.co.th).

Diving + Snorkeling
Andaman Sea
Thailand

Some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world is in the Andaman Sea 60 miles north of Phuket, with a superb diversity of marine life and visibility of up to 100 feet. Two sets of islands, the Similans and Surins, are destination spots because of their plentiful and mostly intact coral formations. The Similans are nine islets rife with hard and soft coral, and divers can expect to see rays, sharks, and sea turtles. The Surin chain is farther north, close to the Myanmar border; the coral sits in shallow water with bounties of colorful fish—which makes it the better choice for snorkelers. There are plenty of dive shops on Phuket, but the mainland piers are a bit closer. Sea Dragon Dive Center in Khao Lak is one of the most reputable operators in the region; running since 1993, it was the only outfit to remain open immediately after the 2004 tsunami, and it helped extensively with reef and beach cleanup (66-76-420-420; www.seadragondivecenter.com). IQ Dive, also on the mainland, runs day trips as well as live-aboard options, including one on a Chinese junk and another on a 120-foot sailboat. IQ can bring you to the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar, which recently opened up its waters to Thailand-based outfitters (66-76-423-614; www.iq-dive.com).

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Elephant Camps near Chiang Mai

For centuries, timber elephants played a crucial role in northern Thailand's economy. The Thai government banned commercial logging in 1989, but the skills of these huge yet graceful animals are still displayed at tourist-oriented elephant camps scattered around the province. Pang Mae Sa, about 15 miles northwest of town, is the closest—and most commercial—operation (66-53-297-060). At Chiang Dao Elephant Training Centre, 35 miles north of Chiang Mai on Highway 107, the mahouts and their charges demonstrate more traditional forest talents (66-53-298-553). You can also clamber atop a howdah, or elephant saddle, for a rumble through the jungle. Tour companies usually include hotel pick-up and round-trip transport in their packages.

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Festivals
Chiang Mai
Thailand

Wear drip-dry clothing for Songkran. The mid-April Thai New Year celebration is a blow-out splash party throughout the kingdom, but Chiang Mai's water festival is less hysterical—and more mindful of history and ritual—than Bangkok's. The celebration kicks off when Wat Phra Singh's sacred Buddha statue is paraded through the streets and sprinkled with lustral water. The following day, the devout also deliver handfuls of sand to build small chedis at various temples, symbolic of the dust they carry away on their bare feet throughout the year. The most magical event, however, is November's Loy Krathong. On the full-moon night, tens of thousands of Thai launch small banana-leaf boats containing candles, flowers, and incense on the Ping River in thanks for the life-giving waters or release paper lanterns into the sky to carry away bad luck.

Fishing Around Koh Samui
Koh Samui
Thailand
Tel: 66 77 415 387
www.fishingthailand.com

Serious fishermen come to Koh Samui to catch Mekong catfish, carp up to 150 pounds, and arapaima. Those species are among the 4,000 fish swimming at the TopCats Freshwater Fishing Resort, the world's first lake to be stocked with nonindigenous Amazonian predator fish. If you'd prefer to stick to the sea (and indigenous species), you can book a deep-sea excursion through the Four Seasons. However, TopCats is the most popular game in town.

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Golden Triangle
Golden Triangle
Thailand

Once notorious for its poppy farmers and drug lords, the Thai-Burma-Laos frontier has largely cleaned up its act. In northernmost Chiang Rai province, a three-hour drive from Chiang Mai, the hill tribes of Doi Tung mountain now cultivate coffee and macadamia nuts for sale at boutique shops across Thailand (66-53-767-015; www.doitung.org). Skip the seedy border crossing of Mae Sai and head instead for sleepy Chiang Sean, a Mekong River port with ruins dating to the sixth century. The "triangle''—actually the confluence of the Mekong and Sop Ruak rivers—is just seven miles upstream, complete with an enormous, surreal Buddha; a lonely Burmese casino; and an excellent and informative museum, the Hall of Opium (66-53-784-444; www.goldentrianglepark.com). Bed down at the spectacular Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, 15 air-conditioned pavilions set in a lush, bird-filled forest inhabited by the resort's private herd of elephants along a quiet bend in the Sop Ruak (66-53-910-200; www.fourseasons.com).

Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaeo
Th. Na Phra Lan
Phra Nakhon
Bangkok
Thailand 10200
Tel: 66 2 623 5500
www.palaces.thai.net

One of Thailand's most impressive sights: 54 acres featuring a collection of palatial buildings, golden stupas, sculpted nine-foot demons, and richly ornamented wats (temples). The architecture spans more than 200 years, and the highlight is undoubtedly the glorious Wat Phra Keo, the most sacred Buddhist sight in Thailand. The Wat is a complex of buildings culminating in the Chapel Royal, home to the venerated Emerald Buddha. As at all Thai temples, you must dress modestly (no bare knees or shoulders, no flip-flops) and remove your shoes before entering. The object of all the prostrations inside the Ubosoth, or Assembly Hall, is a tiny jadeite Buddha. Just two feet tall, the statue is so sacred that the king himself changes its clothing for each new season.

Ticket booth closes daily at 3:30pm; grounds at 4:30 p.m.

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Hill-Tribe Regions near Chiang Mai

Society here has traditionally been organized by altitude, with Buddhist Thai living in permanent lowland settlements and animist ethnic minorities scattered on mountain slopes. Dozens of outfitters, including Maeping Riverside Tours, offer day trips and multiday treks to hill-tribe hamlets (66-53-302-121; www.norththaitour.com). These excursions often include an elephant ride, bamboo raft trip, rock climbing, or a dip in a mountain waterfall. Sadly, some villages near Chiang Mai have become detribalized, with the attendant big-city commercialization and social problems. Before you book, find out the packing list and degree of hiking difficulty, the size of the trekking group, and whether other tourists will visit the same villages on the same day. Avoid any "opium tours" or programs that include the Padaung, or "Long-Neck Karen,'' whose women encase their necks in brass rings. Though indigenous to Burma, the Padaung are frequently exhibited in Thailand in zoo-like conditions. Check with the Tourism Authority of Thailand for a list of licensed operators. Staffed and managed by hill-tribers, the 24-room Lisu Lodge near Chiang Dao is a soft-adventure base for trekking, river rafting, and mountain biking, with more amenities (hot water, Western-style toilets) than many other operations (66-53-278-338; www.asian-oasis.com).

Jim Thompson House
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, th. Rama I Road
Pathumwan
Bangkok
Thailand 10330
Tel: 66 2 216 7368
www.jimthompsonhouse.com

James H.W. Thompson was perhaps the most legendary expat in all of Thailand (rumor has it that letters addressed simply 'Jim Thompson, Bangkok' reached him in a city of over three million). An American adventurer and entrepreneur who came to Bangkok during World War II as a U.S. spy, Thompson later returned to settle down and single-handedly reinvent the Thai silk industry. He not only made the country's silk famous throughout the world, he also collected an amazing array of Asian artifacts including traditional Thai paintings, sculpture, and porcelain dating back as far as 6th century A.D., which he used to decorate the buildings and gardens of this gorgeous, idealized (and subtly Westernized) version of a traditional Thai home on a back khlong. He held court like a latter-day maharaja until 1967, when he disappeared during a trip to the jungles of Malaysia. The main branch of his renowned silk shop still operates in Bangkok to this day.

Kayaking in Ang Thong National Marine Park
Koh Samui
Thailand

Koh Samui's paradisiacal reputation grew out of The Beach, the 2000 Leo DiCaprio movie shot around Ang Thong National Marine Park, an intimate archipelago of mostly uninhabited isles to the west of Koh Samui. Blue Stars Kayaking offers daylong paddles to the park's bays, caves, and deserted beaches. Above water, keep eyes peeled for dolphins and monkeys by the shore.

Longtail Boating in Phuket

More than 40 limestone islands with deserted beaches, underground streams, and caves rise out of Phang Nga Bay amid thick mangrove forests. The two big stops on any boat trip through the area are Tapu, or "James Bond," Island, where The Man With the Golden Gun was filmed; and Koh Panyee, a village built entirely on stilts where you can observe the culture of the so-called "sea gypsies." In order to avoid the tourist hordes, it's best to book a trip that leaves early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Although you can go directly to Yacht Haven Marina and hire a longtail boat for less than $50 to take you to the major sites, it's best to book a more formal tour to ensure that you have English-speaking guides with proper safety training. The best companies are John Gray's Sea Canoe and Asia Marine. We think the trips on the traditional longtail boats are more fun than those on the more luxurious cruisers—the distinctively shaped longtails are fast, small, and ride closer to the water. In order to properly navigate through dark sea caves to the area's famous hongs—caves whose roofs have collapsed—you'll have to hop into a sea kayak. John Gray runs an excellent night tour that explores the hongs by candlelight, as well as overnight kayak-and-camping trips for more seasoned paddlers.

M.R. Kukrit's Historical House
19 Soi Phra Pinit
South Sathorn Road
Bangkok
Thailand 10120
Tel: 66 2 286 8185

Former Thai prime minister Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj lovingly assembled these five traditional teak stilt houses over the course of 20 years. Ceramics, handpainted masks, and Buddha images fill the intimate spaces while serene gardens overflow with tropical plants and flowers plus Kukrit's beloved imported bonsai-style trees. Surrounded by skyscrapers, the traditional compound is less well known than the Jim Thompson House and offers a respite amid the bustling metropolis. Although you can take tours, the grounds are also a great place to just escape the city and linger for a few hours.

Open Saturdays and Sundays and by appointment.

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Museums
Chiang Mai
Thailand

With a large collection of religious antiques and royal artifacts, the Chiang Mai National Museum, located one mile northwest of the old city on Highway 11, makes a pleasant half-day stop (66-53-221-308; www.thailandmuseum.com). Next door is Wat Chet Yod, a temple built in 1477 for a World Buddhist Council. It features an unusual square, seven-spired stupa modeled on the famed temple at Bodh Gaya, India. One mile further north, off Highway 107 in Rama IX Park, the exhibits at the Tribal Museum, including silver-encrusted Akha headdresses and Hmong embroidery, are an excellent introduction to the major hill tribes of the north (66-53-210-872).

National Museum
Th. Na Phra That/Sanam Luang
Phra Nakhon
Bangkok
Thailand 10200
Tel: 66 2 224 1333
www.thailandmuseum.com

Everything you ever wanted to know about Thailand—its history, art, religions, culture, and more—in a complex that includes a former royal residence and chapel. The artifacts here (everything from sacred Buddha images, royal emblems and precious stones, to costumes, weapons and musical instruments) cover Thai history from Neolithic times through the 20th century, and are a treasure trove of artistic (and academic) riches, plus. Make the effort to get up early and get here for the free guided tours in English on Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 9:30 a.m.

Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

Ngan Kin Jeh (Vegetarian Festival)
Phuket Town
Thailand
www.phuketvegetarian.com

For nine days at the start of the ninth lunar month (typically late October or early November) the streets of Phuket fill up with singing and dancing revelers, fireworks light up the skies, and you might assume it's a national holiday. Not quite. It's the annual Vegetarian Festival—which sounds like a vegan rave, but is actually a Taoist version of Lent. Thais of Chinese origin abstain from meat, alcohol, and sex and take part in spiritual trances and self-mutilation—that is, skewering and spearing themselves in the cheeks or the arms and legs. It can seem a bit wild to outsiders, but it's a cultural experience, and there is delicious vegetarian food for sale everywhere.

Pak Klong Talaad (Flower Market)
Thanon Chakkaphet
Maharaj Road
Phra Nakhon
Bangkok
Thailand 10200

The buying and selling frenzy at this market starts around 2 am when boats on the Chao Phraya River begin to dock with a cornucopia of fresh cut flowers, fruits, and vegetables. In order to find the frenzy, follow your nose from Wat Pho along Maharaj Road with the Chao Phraya River on your right-hand side. The bounties of orchids make an excellent photo opportunity but don't forget to stop and smell the lotus flowers, marigolds, zinnias, jasmine, and roses. Be sure to get there early—by late morning, all the blooms will have made their way to the city's hotels, restaurants, flower shops, and funeral parlors.

Prasart Museum
9 Krung Thep Kritha 4A Lane
Krung Thep Kritha Road
Huamark Sub-District
Bangkapi
Bangkok
Thailand 10240
Tel: 66 2 379 3601

This teakwood house is an exact replica of the former queen's house and much of the museum's Thai art and antiques come from the royal collection. Located on the outskirts of Bangkok, visitors wander through authentic Thai pavilions set amid perfectly manicured gardens dotted with Sukhothai-period terra-cotta ceramics. The affable owner lives adjacent to the museum and can often be spotted roaming the grounds of this center, which he opened to educate those interested in Thai antiquities.

Open Thursdays through Sundays 10 am to 3 pm.

Scuba Diving and Snorkeling around Koh Samui
Koh Samui
Thailand

Scuba diving enthusiasts flock to the reefs surrounding Koh Samui, especially around Ang Thong National Marine Park. The preserve's northern islands, like Koh Wao, Hin Nippon Yai, and Lek, have the clearest water and best diving. Twenty documented dive sites cover all levels two-and-a-half hours by boat north of Samui at Koh Tao. The most experienced come to free dive, which means going under without tanks or scuba gear to swim with whales and dolphins. Do it only if you've received some training; Apnea Total (Sairee Beach, Koh Tao, 66-8-7813-2321) runs free-dive classes and excursions.

Songkhran (Thai New Year Celebration)
Phuket
Thailand

On the Thai New Year (April 12-15), the island becomes an enormous outdoor water fight. The fest springs from the tradition of sprinkling water on statues of Buddha, but you're more likely to have a drunken Swede dump a bucket of water on your head or get squirted with a watergun by a seven-year-old Thai kid. Actually, being soaked to the skin anywhere in Patong is a nice refreshment in April's boiling-hot weather. Beware: Some pranksters mix the water with talc, resulting in a white spray that makes for a really bad hair day.

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Spas and Wellness in Koh Samui
Koh Samui
Thailand

Like yin to the island's raging nightlife yang, Koh Samui's spa and wellness offerings are impressive and diverse. Absolute Sanctuary, a retreat in the hills above Choeng Mon Beach, boasts some of the island's best yoga, Pilates, and meditation classes along with the Love Kitchen, a vegetarian café. Offering house calls by appointment, healer Jennifer Thompson educates clients on raw food and performs iridology, an ancient science of reading the iris of the eyes to identify physical and emotional concerns. The American transplant is developing a loyal following that extends far beyond these restorative shores. Down south on Laem Set Beach, Kamalaya Wellness Sanctuary deserves its reputation as the island's most comprehensive spa. The treatment menu lists more than 70 healing therapies, including colonic hydrotherapy, a far infrared sauna that burns up to 600 calories in a 30-minute sweat session, outdoor pedicures overlooking azure waters, and lotus-seed body wraps. For pure pampering, step inside the Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui. Its five double treatment pavilions nestled among the palm fronds are Samui's most romantic spa spots, with intimate steam showers built for two and an outdoor relaxation area with day beds for Thai massage plus a roomy terrazzo bathtub.

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Temples
Chiang Mai
Thailand

The trade caravans that trod for centuries between China and Burma gave Chiang Mai its cosmopolitan flavor. This is exemplified by the unique Lanna architectural style: multiple, overlapping roofs and elaborate teakwood finials on the gables of the viharn, a building that houses important Buddha images. In the old city, Wat Chedi Luang once enshrined the sacred Emerald Buddha now displayed in Bangkok's Wat Phra Kaeo. The chedi (a cone-shaped monument that holds relics) towered more than 300 feet upon completion in 1481; partially destroyed by a 1545 earthquake, it still remained the city's tallest structure for 500 years. But don't expect any fortune tellers or trinket sellers; this noncommercial temple houses a Buddhist university and offers daily "monk chats.'' Don't overlook the all-teak viharn of Wat Phan Tao, just next door. A few hundred yards to the west, Wat Phra Singh's exquisite 14th-century viharn contains the city's most venerated Buddha image. Ten miles west of town, mountaintop Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep provides exceptional vistas, except during March and April, the hazy, hot season. Shorts and halter or tank tops are not considered acceptable dress for entry into any temple compound.

Thanyapura
115/15 Moo 7, Thepkasattri Road
Thalang , Phuket
Thailand 83110
Tel: 66 76 336 000
www.thanyapura.com

If the hotel gym is a bit paltry, even an Ironman will be satisfied at Thanyapura. The 56-acre complex includes an Olympic swimming pool, professional rugby and soccer pitches, a cushioned athletics track, six Plexicushion tennis courts, an air-conditioned fitness center, and studios for yoga, dance, and Pilates. Located in the foothills north of Phuket (about 15 minutes from the airport), the tropically landscaped campus also has facilities for working on your inside as well as your outside. There's a restaurant serving organic food and wine, a small spa, and the Mind Centre, where renowned Buddhist thinkers lead meditation sessions. Visitors can even stay the night here at one of two small boutique hotels, the 77-room Thanyapura Resort and 38-room Thanyapura Retreat.—Cynthia Rosenfeld

Wat Pho
Th. Thai Wang or Soi Chetuphon
Phra Nakhon
Bangkok
Thailand 10200
Tel: 66 2 225 9595
www.watpho.com

Just south of the Grand Palace complex near the Tha Chang pier, this temple, which was also Thailand's first public education center, was originally built by King Rama I in the 18th century, and today covers 20 acres. In one pavilion lies the enormous reclining Buddha (150 feet long and 49 feet high), a golden figure with an enigmatic smile and soles inlaid with mother of pearl. The hallway around this big Buddha is lined by smaller statues, fronted by tiers of candles that burn during Buddhist holidays, and fluttering with little squares of gold leaf stuck on by supplicants. Wat Pho is also home to Thailand's most famous school of massage. Although you may have to wait half a day until a therapist is available, it's worth it: A fantastic 60-minute full-body massage costs less than $8.

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Wildlife Viewing
Doi Inthanon National Park
Thailand
Tel: 66 53 268 550
www.dnp.go.th

Located 60 miles west of Chiang Mai, Doi Inthanon is one of the kingdom's best national parks. It takes its name from Thailand's tallest peak, the 8,415-foot-high centerpiece of the park. Within the preserve's 186 square miles are lush forests of teak, mountain pine, rhododendron, and vanna orchids, which shelter tigers, gibbons, and deer. Numerous self-guided trails will appeal to day hikers; camp sites and cabins are also available and are popular with bird-watchers. Because of the mountain's broad range of altitude, habitats, and climates, more bird species have been recorded here than anywhere else in Thailand (362 different species, including the rare ashy-throated warbler and green-tailed sunbird). Prepare to be profiled: Foreigners pay a 400-baht admission fee (about $12) to all national parks, five times the price charged to Thai citizens. Many Chiang Mai tour companies offer guided day trips and overnight trekking packages inside the park as well. The Chiang Mai Zoo has a decent display of Asian animals, including a pair of giant pandas, scattered in the foothills of Doi Suthep. If you want to see the cuddly pandas, however, it'll cost double the $3 entrance fee (66-53-221-179; www.chiangmaizoo.com).

Wildlife Viewing
Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park
Khuek Khak
Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park
Thailand
Tel: 66 76 420 243
www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/asp/style1/default.asp?npid=47&lg=2

Lam Ru is a park on the Phang Nga mainland that includes both coastal areas and inland forest, with waterfalls, mountains, and many other natural wonders. The many distinct ecosystems throughout its 48 square miles can match any naturalist's fancy: Birders will be a-twitter at the eagles and scarlet minivets; snorkelers might run into anything from moray eels to sea cucumbers; for those keen on reptiles, there are pit vipers to suit all tastes. Tread lightly.

Information may have changed since the date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.