Tracing the coastline east of Bangkok along the Gulf of Thailand, there are three major tourist destinations, each with a distinct character. One important advantage of heading to places along the east coast is their proximity to the capital and Suvarnabhumi International Airport. The closest is Pattaya, one of the oldest resort developments in the country, which is working hard to shed its bad reputation as a center for sex tourism, not to mention the cagey underworld that goes with it. The town is repositioning itself as a family vacation spot, with an array of top-quality, self-contained resorts, a wide choice of restaurants, and numerous outdoor and water activities.
The main Pattaya beach is still overcoming the effects of unregulated construction, during which heavy industrial and human pollutants leaked into the bay, but there's now a sewage treatment plant nearby. The beach is a long, thin strip of coarse sand, and offshore motorboats buzz like hornets. Nearby Jomtien, just south of town, is quieter and more appealing but still suffers from pollution. For those who want to swim in the sea, it's best to rent a boat and go to the outlying islands, where the water is cleaner and a range of water-friendly sports is available.
Continuing east from Pattaya, Ko Samet, in Rayong Province, is a small island with heaps of bungalows, both basic and luxurious, and beautiful beaches. It is a low-luxe, laid-back retreat reachable by a short ferry ride from the mainland in the town of Ban Phe (via Rayong). Though isolated, Samet is popular with foreigners on a budget and gets very crowded on weekends when Thai yuppies from Bangkok visit.
Ko Chang, the last holiday stop before Cambodia, has grown rapidly during the past decade. It now boasts sprawling luxury resorts as well as a host of midrange and budget options. But in terms of tourist numbers and accessibility, this -- Thailand's second-largest island -- is still behind both Phuket and Ko Samui. By road, Ko Chang is 5 hours east of Bangkok; Bangkok Airways offers 55-minute flights from the capital to nearby Trat, making it a much more manageable trip.