Many-a-traveller's first ever taste of the tropics, Thailand smacks you in the face the second you step outside the airport terminal. The crushing humidity and putrid whiff of Asian city air is one you'll grow fond of throughout your travels in the region, but upon emerging from the air-conditioned sanctuary of the airport for the first time, it's like stepping into an oven - an oven in which they're cooking vomit. Within 5 breaths you'll become acclimatised though, and from that point on you'll be riding the roller coaster that is Thailand.
The land of smiles and scams is a full-on Asian assault of cool, beauty, mentalness, sleaze, and pure uninhibited fun. And despite its growing reputation for offering many of the trappings of the developed world at a fraction of the price, you can still haul ass out to the most rural areas and be the only foreigner in a town with no electricity, although admittedly you perhaps won't be the novelty an outsider in such areas once was.
Rainforest, tropical islands, steamy cities, coconut trees, mountains, monsoons, coral reef - Thailand packs a lot into its 198,000 square miles (about the same size as Spain), which when coupled with it's much lower cost of living offers an explanation as to its popularity without having to dig too much deeper for answers. Unsurprisingly, many foreigners make it their home.
Primary pullers of the backpacker crowd are undoubtedly the islands on either side of the country's southern-most stretch, although it's probably fair to say that most folks come and then go away again without perhaps realizing the sheer amount of islands Thailand boasts. The vast majority of travelers confine their island time to a select few of a core of around 10 to 15 main islands dotted on the fringes of both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, leaving the other 500-or-so for next time, presumably.
Ko Pha Ngan's infamous Full Moon Party constitutes probably the single biggest draw of young people to Thailand, in a ruthlessly efficient cycle that ensures a steady stream of trade passes through neighbouring islands in the build-up and the aftermath - clever these Thais - although credit for the Full Moon Party phenomenon really needs to go to the small bunch of European backpackers who threw the original tiny parties at Paradise Bungalows in the days when Ko Pha Ngan was still just 'that other island over there' to tourists on Samui (and there you were thinking it was some kind of Buddhist ritual, eh?). If you go to a Full Moon Party, be sure to keep your wits about you - the parties have a dark underbelly that often sees possessions go missing, and occasionally minds and whole people disappear too. Careful now.
Hints and Tips for Thailand
- Many websites and travel agents talk about 'the' wet season in Thailand, but in reality there are several wet seasons, and they hit different parts of Thailand at different times of year. On the south east coast and islands (Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao), wet season usually lasts from mid October to mid Feb. Over on the west coast and islands (Phuket, Phi Phi and Ko Lanta) it's pretty much the opposite, with the wet season running from April through 'til November. And up in northern and central areas (including Ko Chang and Ko Samet), wet season runs from May to October.
Wet season is actually a really nice time of year to visit an area - especially the northern and central regions - because it doesn't rain constantly. When it does rain though, it's a nice relief because temperatures tend to be higher in wet season. Everyone loves BIG rain.
- Whatever you do - don't diss the King. It doesn't go down at all well.