The Kingdom of Thailand draws more visitors than any other country in southeast Asia with its irresistible combination of breathtaking natural beauty, inspiring temples, renowned hospitality, robust cuisine and ruins of fabulous ancient kingdoms.
From the stupa-studded mountains of Mae Hong Son and the verdant limestone islands of the Andaman Sea, to the pulse-pounding dance clubs of Bangkok and the tranquil villages moored along the Mekong River, Thailand offers something for every type of traveller.
Of course Thailand, like other Asian countries, has been influenced by contact with foreign cultures. But the never-changing character of Thai culture has remained dominant, even in modern city life. Often depicted as fun-loving, happy-go-lucky folk (which indeed they often are), the Thais are also proud and strong, and have struggled for centuries to preserve their independence of spirit.
Thailand's rainy season, monsoons, arrive around July and last into November. This is followed by a dry, cool period from November to mid-February, followed by much higher relative temperatures from March to June.
By far the best time to visit is from February to March when the weather is kind and the beaches are at their finest.
The peak seasons are August, November, December, February and March, with secondary peak months in January and July. If your main objective is to avoid crowds and to take advantage of discounted rooms and low-season rates, you should consider travelling during the least crowded months (April, May, June, September and October). On the other hand it's not difficult to leave the crowds behind, even during peak months, if you simply avoid some of the most popular destinations (eg, Chiang Mai and all islands and beaches).
Bangkok has dominated Thailand's urban hierarchy as well as its political, commercial and cultural life since the late 18th century. Although you can shop in air-conditioned comfort in its Western-style malls, the city is a long way from being tamed by commercial homogeneity.
Bangkok's history of haphazard planning means you'll have the best experiences in the most unlikely of places. Just when you start despairing at the predominance of concrete and cars, a waft of incense leads you to a serene temple in an area you'd written off as soulless.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ayuthaya's historic temples are scattered throughout this once magnificent city and along the encircling rivers. Several of the more central ruins – Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Mongkhon Bophit, Wat Na Phra Meru, Wat Thammikarat, Wat Ratburana and Wat Phra Mahathat – can be visited on foot.
You could add more temples and ruins to your itinerary by touring the city on a rented bicycle. An ideal transport combination for visitors who want to see everything would be to hire a bicycle for the central temples and charter a long-tail boat to take a tour of the outlying ruins along the river.
Chiang Mai has a striking mountain backdrop, over 300 temples and a quaint historical aura. It's also a modern, friendly, internationally-flavoured city with much to offer the visitor - food, accommodation and shopping are all top quality and cheap, and the nights are relatively cool.
Chiang Mai's plethora of temples will probably exhaust you before you exhaust them. For variety, try a wander round the night bazaar, acquaint yourself with local culture at the musuems, or practice your Buddhist calm under a palm tree in the city's gardens.
This beautiful island off southeastern Thailand is covered with coconut plantations and circled by (call us clichéd but it's true) palm-fringed beaches. It was once an 'untouched' backpackers' mecca, but is now well on its way to becoming a fully-fledged tourist resort.
The most popular beaches are Hat Chaweng and Hat Lamai: both have good swimming and snorkelling but are getting a little crowded. For more peace and quiet, try Mae Nam, Bo Phut and Big Buddha on the northern coast. The main town on the island is Na Thon.
Nakhon Pathom, west of Bangkok, is regarded as the oldest city in Thailand and is host to the 127m (417ft), orange-tiled Phra Pathom Chedi, the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. The original monument, buried within the massive dome, was erected in the 6th century by Theravada Buddhists.
Tucked away in the countryside to the east of Bangkok, this provincial town is hardly visited by foreign tourists, mainly because it's not on the major road or rail networks out of the capital. It's home to one of the most sacred Buddha images in Thailand - Phra Phuttha Sothon.
Housed in the Wat Sothon Wararam Worawihaan, the origins of the modest 198cm (77in) Buddha are cloaked in mystery but the image is said to be associated with a famous monk with holy powers who supposedly predicted the exact moment of his death. Chachoengsao makes a great day-trip destination.
This one-town island offshore from Chonburi Province on the Gulf of Thailand is practically deserted, making it great fun to explore. Its attractions include a meditation centre with hermit caves, beaches with good snorkelling, a ruined palace, limestone caves and a Chinese temple with sea views.
Most of the friendly population are fisherfolk, mariners, customs officials or workers in aquaculture projects. Camping is permitted anywhere on the island, but if you don't want to tent it, there are numerous hostels and bungalow-style operations.
In northern Tak Province, close to the Burmese border, Mae Sot has a reputation as a frontier town with an outlaw image. It has a thriving black-market trade (guns, narcotics, teak and gems) and is an increasingly important official jade and gem centre.
An interesting mixture of ethnicities have shacked-up here- Burmese Muslims, members of the local Karen hill tribes, Chinese and Indian shopkeepers and poppy-clad Thai army rangers. It's a departure point for the fascinating border markets that trade Burmese handicrafts and foodstuffs.
It may be a bit pricey to get to Thailand by air, but once you're there you can take advantage of bargain-basement flights. Just bear in mind that flights in and out of Thailand are often overbooked so confirm, confirm and reconfirm. Buses are a sterling way to get around - they're fast (often terrifyingly!) air-conditioned and comfy. There are even women-only buses. However, there have been bad reports of the service on buses booked from agencies on Thanon Khao San. If you want to get to Malaysia, there are train services.
The bad news is that it can be quite expensive flying to Bangkok, depending on your point of departure; the good news is that once you're there you can shop around for an inexpensive return ticket. A host of international carriers land at Don Muang, Bangkok's major airport terminal. Flights in and out of Thailand are often overbooked so it's imperative that you reconfirm ongoing flights as soon as you arrive. The departure tax on international flights is waived if you're in the country for less than 12 hours.
Overland travel from Malaysia is popular and there are four border crossings between Thailand and Malaysia, two on the west coast, one in the centre and one on the east coast. It's not possible to buy through-fare tickets for rail journeys between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, unless you ride the luxurious Eastern & Oriental Express, but the trip can be made on express trains via the Thai-Malaysia border at Pedang Besar. The journey usually requires an overnight stop in Butterworth (Malaysia) in order to comfortably make train connections.
There are plenty of crossing points between Thailand and Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia, but very few border crossings are made - officially, at least.
It's legal for non-Thai foreigners to cross the Mekong River by ferry between Thailand and Laos at the following points: Nakhon Phanom (opposite Tha Khaek), Chiang Khong (opposite Huay Xai) and Mukdahan (opposite Savannakhet).