The Thais compare their land to the shape of an elephant's head, seen in profile, facing the West, with the southern peninsula representing the dangling trunk. Thailand is roughly equidistant from China and India, and centuries of migration from southern China and trade with India brought tremendous influences from each of these Asian nations. Thailand borders Myanmar (Burma) to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Cambodia to the east, and Malaysia to the south. Its southwestern coast stretches along the Andaman Sea, its southern and southeastern coastlines perimeter the Gulf of Thailand, and every coast boasts a myriad of islands. Thailand covers roughly 514,000 square km (198,450 sq. miles) -- about the size of Texas -- and is divided into six major geographic zones.
Bangkok -- Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River -- Thailand's principal waterway -- Bangkok is more or less in the geographical heart of the country on both a north-south and east-west axis. It seems to exert a magnetic attraction on both rural Thais and foreign visitors, as it is home to more than 10% of the Thai population, as well as plenty of expats, who bustle along with the commuter crowd, glad to be based in this crazy metropolis. Its congested streets and infamous gridlock can be frustrating for visitors, though its glittering temples, colorful markets, and carefree inhabitants can be endearing in equal measure.
The Eastern Seaboard -- The coastline east of Bangkok -- sometimes referred to as the Eastern Gulf -- is home to Pattaya, Rayong, and Trat. These are popular weekend destinations among Thai families and expats alike. For the best beaches, however, you'll need to hop on a boat to Ko Samet, Ko Chang, or Ko Kood, all of which offer luxury resorts and superb scuba diving. The region is also home to the country's greatest concentration of sapphire and ruby mines at Chanthaburi (known as Muang Chan). Chanthaburi has been a gem trading center for centuries and its so-called weekend "gem" market is fun, but certainly not for treasure seekers; the standards of the precious stones sold here are infamously low.
The Southern Peninsula -- A long, narrow peninsula protrudes south to the Malaysian border with the Andaman Sea on the west and the Gulf of Thailand to the east. The gulf coastline (from Bangkok to Narathiwat) extends more than 1,000km (621 miles), while the western shoreline (from Ranong to Satun) runs about 500km (311 miles).
Off the Gulf coast, Ko Samui has gone from sleepy hideaway to heaving tourist magnet, while Ko Phangan and Ko Tao are following in its wake. Farther south, the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani are home to a considerable Muslim population. Take extreme care in this region: Violent attacks by insurgents target public markets as well as transport and Buddhist centers. Off the Andaman coast, the islands of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Lanta, as well as the peninsula of Krabi, boast some of the country's most beautiful beaches.
The Central Plains -- Thailand's central plains are an extremely fertile region: Its abundant jasmine rice crops are exported worldwide. The main attractions of the region, however, are the atmospheric ruins at the historic cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, both former capitals of the Kingdom of Siam. To the west of the central plains, Kanchanaburi, on the River Kwai, is the site of the infamous World War II "Death Railway," where an estimated 16,000 Allied prisoners of war and around 100,000 Asians died during its construction for the Japanese. Other significant towns in this region are Lopburi, a favorite haunt of former kings of Siam; Phitsanulok, a major crossroads in the northern plains; and Mae Sot, a remote outpost near the Myanmar border and jumping-off point for a trip to Ti Lor Su Waterfall, in the Umphang Wildlife Reserve.
Northern Thailand -- The north is a mountainous region and coolest from November to February, when conditions are ideal for trekking to visit the region's brightly dressed hill-tribes. This is also elephant country, but now that logging has been banned, there is little for them to do but provide entertainment for tourists in elephant camps. The cool hills in the north are well suited for farming, particularly for strawberries, asparagus, peaches, and litchis. Today, agricultural programs and charities, such as the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, are retraining hill-tribe villagers whose main crop used to be opium poppies. Settlements around Doi Tung have gallantly implemented crop replacement schemes, propagating coffee and macadamia nuts.
The major towns in the north are Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang, and Mae Hong Son. The best way to enjoy the region's scenic beauty is by taking a motorbike or car around the Mae Hong Son Loop; or, for those with less time, a quick trip to the country's highest point in Doi Inthanon National Park, or to the infamous Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, can be superb.
Isan -- The broad and relatively infertile northeast plateau that is Isan is the least developed region in Thailand. Bordered by the Mekong River, it separates the country from neighboring Laos, though the people of Isan share linguistic and cultural similarities with their neighbors. The region's attractions include the remains of a Bronze Age village at Ban Chiang, as well as major Khmer ruins at Phimai and Phnom Rung, near Nakhorn Ratchasima, also known as Khorat. Other than potash mining and subsistence farming, the region has enjoyed little economic development.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.