There's much to do in Thailand beyond Bangkok and Phuket


Koh Samui beachIt never rains but pours for some destinations, and one of those, Thailand, suffered more than most countries in 2009. The combined effects of the global financial crisis, political instability and swine flu deterred many visitors from heading to this usually popular Asian destination.

However, the outlook for 2010 appears much brighter thanks to many excellent promotional deals and to increased airline capacity that will be arriving shortly.

The two most popular Thai destinations are still Bangkok and Phuket, but more visitors are discovering (or rediscovering) other parts of the country, such as Chiang Rai and beach resorts Pattaya, Koh Samui, Krabi, Hua Hin and the Phi Phi Islands.

The opening of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport, located 20 miles east of Bangkok's city center, has made the resort beach at Pattaya, one of the first resorts along the southeastern Thailand coast, more readily accessible.

In its heyday during the Vietnam War, the once-quiet fishing village was transformed into a sleazy, sex-obsessed "Sin City." Nowadays, Pattaya is trying to project a more family-friendly atmosphere, but it still remains slightly seedy.

The main action is found along Hat Pattaya, or Pattaya Beach, which is backed by shops, restaurants and go-go bars. Travelers should catch a boat out to nearby islands, such as Ko Lan, for a leisurely day on one of the many beaches.

South of Bangkok, on the western side of the Gulf of Thailand, are the beautiful islands of Ko Samui, Ko Tao and Ko Pha-Ngan as well as the amazing rocky islets comprising Ang Thong Marine National Park. Ko Samui, the largest of the islands, offers everything from high-end resorts, such as the Anantara, to backpacker accommodations; long, sandy beaches; golf courses; massage facilities; temples and wonderful street-food stalls. Ko Tao, meanwhile, is a scuba diver's paradise.

Between Bangkok and Ko Samui, the resort town of Hua Hin is famous as a place of relaxation for the rich, famous and wannabe trendies. It has some of the best golf courses in Thailand.

Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

The northern province of Chiang Rai is bordered by Myanmar and Laos, and the influences of all three countries as well as Tibet and China can be detected in many ways.

The city of Chiang Rai is a bustling place of over half a million people. Its main function for travelers is as a base for trips to visit local hill tribes, for embarking on elephant treks and to tour the famous Golden Triangle area, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the Mekong River.

The Golden Triangle lies about 12 miles from Chiang Rai. There are two opium-related museums here: the House of Opium and the Hall of Opium. Both chronicle the Golden Triangle's infamous drug trade.

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