Thailand is quickly becoming the #1 must-see spot in Asia as more and more people become aware of it's awesomeness from whispered about Full Moon parties to Hollywood's portrayal in pop culture with movies like the Hangover 2. From idyllic beaches to bustling cities sporting exotic markets and a vibrant nightlife, the lifestyle is a 180-degrees from the western world.
If you're planning a trip out east, make sure you add these five things to your Thailand bucket list.
The Buzz of Bangkok
The nerve center of Thailand, Bangkok is one of the most populated and fascinating cities in the world. A mixture of intricate traditional architecture and a modern, cosmopolitan feel, it's buzzing old-meets-new vibe is intoxicating. Many of the top things to do in Thailand are in Bangkok itself: the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho), the Grand Palace, Wat Arun and more. These wats --religious sanctuaries -- command a feeling of awe and respect for their incredible design along with the culture and religion, in general. If you can, try to set up a meeting with a resident monk to get a deeper understanding of the life of Buddha. There are fantastic markets and vendors that offer beautiful clothing, delicious (and spicy) food, and an experience unlike any other. A particularly interesting market is the floating market in the Damnoen Saduak neighborhood. Bangkok also offers a bustling Chinatown that shimmers at night through its commotion.
One of the best things to do in Thailand is scale its beautiful mountains. During my trip to the country, we went on a trek through northern Thai hills and mountains, and ended up at a quaint and mysterious village, equipped with a foggy morning, mosquito nets and an unexpected Oasis-singing guitar player. If you can, catch a ride on a bamboo raft while you're in the wilderness.
Your Animal Instincts
A popular thing to do in Thailand and throughout much of Southeast Asia is riding elephants. Feeling that lumbering, slow step is something you have to experience at least once to indulge your inner animal lover. You can buy a few bananas at a roadside stand and go for a straightforward ride down across bridges overlooking fog-coated mountains, or you can spend the day caring for these gentle giants at Patara Elephant Farm.
Chiang Mai is the northern equivalent of Bangkok, and rightfully so. Tucked in the beautiful Thai mountain ranges, Chiang Mai offers many attractions, from a bustling downtown to quiet religious areas. Wat Chedi Luang is a historic, towering Buddhist temple that retained its Thai beauty despite being affected by an earthquake in 1545. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a religious temple that is reached by climbing a beautiful but steep 309 steps. It's worth the climb, because the wat offers the beautiful Emerald Buddha and other pagodas, statues and shrines. Chiang Mai offers fantastic markets just like Bangkok, and has a great zoo. If your elephant ride left you wanting more, go to Chiang Mai's Mae Sa Elephant Camp, where the domestication of the mammals is sure to wow any guest.
Visitors are often attracted to the big cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket, but it's the countryside where you get a real taste of how the locals live. I volunteered at a small village outside of Chiang Mai, and it was a life-changing experience visiting orphanages and interacting with the villagers. Whether it is taking an eco-tour through the rice fields or renting a car to take a few days to wander off the beaten path, you'll see a whole other side to life. Don't be afraid to trek around the country, but be sure to bring bug spray and an open mind.