Thailand has something for everyone; it's a great place to explore, learn, or connect with a decidedly rewarding local culture. In this laid-back country, though, planned itineraries do well to give way to spontaneity. Most trips begin in Bangkok -- the country's capital and commercial center -- and travelers' itineraries tend to include some beach time mixed in with a bit of history and adventure.
If at all possible, plan your trip around a passion or interest. Like Thai food. Start at the Blue Elephant cooking school in Bangkok, or try the rural-based Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in the north, to learn how to prepare food the Thai way. Or simply discover local specialties by exploring the country's markets and many upmarket Thai restaurants. Interested in massage? Upscale Chiva-Som Academy, in Bangkok, teaches the art of this fascinating ancient tradition. If adventure is more your thing, head to Chiang Mai for some white-water rafting, or watch wildlife in Khao Yai National Park, north of Bangkok, or Khao Sok, in the south.
Curious about Thailand's long history and architecture? Bangkok's many temples and museums will enchant. Want to get enlightened or learn about Buddhism? Consider taking a meditation course; the "Middle Way" is not as easy as you may think. Try the House of Dhamma, in Bangkok; Wat Ram Poeng, near Chiang Mai; Wat Suan Mokkh, near Surat Thani; or Wat Khao Tham, on beautiful Koh Pha Ngan. These are just a few of the many special activities possible in Thailand. Find what suits you and go for it.
When flying directly to Thailand from the U.S. or Europe, watch out for jet lag; it takes some time to adjust to the abrupt climatic and culinary changes. It is best to go easy at the start. Arrival in frenetic Bangkok, with its intense traffic, heat, and humidity, can be a bit overwhelming -- it all takes some time to get used to, and if you're doing a 1-week tour, you might just be settling in and starting to enjoy things by the time you leave. So do yourself a favor and factor in some rest days, even if it's just 1 or 2, at the beginning of your trip.
Multiple-week stays allow more opportunities to both explore the hills up north and lie on a white sandy beach. With shorter itineraries, you might want to limit yourself to Bangkok, plus a short visit to rural northern reaches near Chiang Mai, or a few days on one of the beaches in the south. Weather plays an important part in planning, too. The cool, dry season -- November to February -- is the best time to go, but this is also high season, which pushes up prices and makes bookings difficult. For these months, the north is much cooler than the rest of the country, while the monsoon season (June-Oct) brings heavy rain and floods almost everywhere. The best time to visit Phuket and areas on the Andaman coast is from November to April. For Ko Samui and other beach destinations on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand, the optimal time to visit is from February to October (the result of opposing monsoonal systems).
You also might want to plan your trip around a Thai holiday, such as Songkran, the Thai New Year. The celebration officially lasts 3 days, but often goes on for a week, depending on the region, climaxing on April 13. Loy Krathong, celebrated at the full moon in October or November, is another magical holiday throughout Thailand (though the best celebrations are in the north at Sukhothai or Chiang Mai); during this holiday, small banana-stem floats are floated on rivers and paper lanterns are released into the sky to absolve the previous year's sins.
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.