For the first-time traveler to Thailand, it’s easy to imagine that all the smiling faces are for show, a deliberate gesture that you would see from anyone in the hospitality industry across the globe.

But then you begin exploring on your own … through the green Lumphini Park of Bangkok or among the ancient temples of Chiang Mai or the white sand beaches of Phuket. Then it becomes clear to you: everyone smiles here. Everyone is welcoming in the most authentic and genuine sense. This comes as no surprise, considering that 94% of Thai people are Buddhists, a non-restrictive and all-embracing religion. Thailand, you see, is the travel jackpot – a perfect blend of exotic culture, captivating history, intense natural beauty, and sincere openness.

Bangkok: Modern & Ancient Splendor

Bangkok is Thailand’s bustling and electrifying capital. Thais call it Krung Threp, or City of Angels. The more western name by which we know it translates into “riverside village of wild olives.” No matter what you call it, it’s sure to mesmerize you with its floating markets teeming with longboats, its ornate architecture and tropical gardens, and its glittering temples. It’s also a culturally diverse city, where paper dragons adorn the windows of Chinatown and the fragrance of curry wafts through the streets of Little India.

The city’s largest and oldest temple is Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Within these hallowed halls, its namesake golden-hued deity is massive, stretching 150 feet long. The soles of its feet are intricately etched in mother-of-pearl. It is an extravagant show of spiritualism—and an echo of the nearby temple complex of the Grand Palace. Home to monarchs until 1925 and the fairytale setting of The King & I, today the Grand Palace serves a ceremonial function and is open for enraptured travelers to explore. Its Emerald Buddha in the Royal Temple is considerably more petite than the Reclining Buddha, standing only 26 inches, yet it is the most revered statue in the nation.

Explore Ancient and Modern History Just Outside Bangkok

Statues such as the Reclining Buddha and the Emerald Buddha serve as spiritual touchstones for the Thai people. There’s another destination cherished by locals as the spiritual birthplace of Bangkok: the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. The golden era of Thai history unfolded among what are now temple ruins and incredibly preserved streets. This was once a powerhouse of Southeast Asia. Its palaces, monasteries, and temples inspired French King Louis XIV to compare the burgeoning metropolis to European capitals. It fell to the Burmese in 1767, after which the capital was moved to the riverside site of present-day Bangkok.

Just outside Bangkok in Kanchanburi province, a dark chapter in Thailand’s history is memorialized at the Bridge over the River Kwai & War Museum. In 1942, here in the tranquil countryside, the Japanese forced POWs to construct a 255-mile railway across Thailand in the blazing heat. More than 7,000 conscripted workers died. The bridge was the frequent target of Allied bombing and gained notoriety as the subject of the 1957 Alec Guinness movie by English director David Lean.

Chiang Rai & Chiang Mai: Lush Oases and Rich Cultures

In central Thailand, a vast archaeological site tells ancient stories of Thailand’s founding. In fact, Sukhothai is to Thailand as Giza is to Egypt. Before Ayutthaya, this was Thailand’s first capital through the 13th and 14th centuries and its artistic and architectural remains are astounding. Part of what makes this city so fascinating are the philosophies under which its kings ruled. Unlike the ruthless Khmer and Burmese rulers of neighboring countries, Sukhothai’s leaders respected the wishes of the people. Cultural and religious freedom set the tone for this flourishing civilization. The UNESCO World Heritage Site enjoys a lush setting among leafy hills and peaceful lotus ponds.

Outside Sukhothai, vast rice fields, gently sloping hills, lush jungles, and authentic teak houses and villages point north. Here, you get a sense of Thailand’s love for its natural resources. About 25% of the country is covered by natural forest; these vast expanses of untouched wilderness harbor an untold variety of wildlife. By some accounts, more than 1,000 mammal species are here, including monkeys, elephants, tigers, civet cats, and even bears. About 900 bird species either live here or migrate through. Perhaps most remarkably, the wild orchid, Thailand’s national flower, grows in 1,000 varieties.

Established in 1262, Chiang Rai is one of the oldest cities in Thailand. This is the heart of Thailand’s northern Lanna Kingdom, the “Golden Triangle” historically shaped by its proximity to the borders of Burma (today’s Myanmar) and Laos. Gate 1 travelers have the chance to visit these countries, ascending a mountain in Myanmar for views of the stunning countryside and embarking a serene cruise to the small Laotian island of Don Sao. Thailand’s renowned hill tribes eke out a living in the hills around Chiang Rai, too. An optional tour ventures into the jungle to introduce you to the fascinating and welcoming Akha, Long Neck, and Salong tribes.

The capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai, hugs the banks of the Ping River among green hills. Elegant temples, cultural emporiums and long leisurely strolls await you in this graceful city surrounded by a canal. Chiang Mai is mostly known for its crafts culture, which you can dive into at the shops along Sankampang Street. Silk, lacquer, silver, wood, and bronze are all transformed into intricate artwork here and you’re sure to come across a demonstration or two by craftspeople who keep their traditions alive. Outside the city, another remarkable Thai tradition is kept alive: the deep relationship between elephants and their mahouts, or trainers. The Thai elephant is central to local culture and identity here, and a visit to an elephant camp promises to showcase the gentle giant’s prowess and talents on an optional tour.

Thailand’s Seaside Resorts

If the cultural heart of Thailand lies in the central and northern parts of the country, then a beach-going, laid-back spirit lounges around in the south. But it’s not all sun, sand, and surf. In Pattaya on the Gulf of Thailand’s East Coast, break up your beach time with forays into a lively city and with a visit to one of the largest Floating Markets in the world.  On the island of Phuket, a traditional way of life lingers among infinite blue horizons and breathtaking natural beauty, as you’ll see when you browse the local Thai village, admire the Sino-Portuguese architecture, and witness serene monks making their rounds for alms. Without question, it is the perfect island paradise for relaxation and doing nothing at all. But if you do want to explore, you can join our optional tours to the magnificent Phi Phi Islands, home to prime snorkeling spots, and Monkey Island, home to a curious group of primates. Or, you can explore the mangrove jungles and towering limestone peaks around Phang Nga Bay and Lawa Island.

The Pleasures of Thai Cuisine

Thailand’s light, fresh cuisine competes with grand temples and lush beauty as a top reason to visit Thailand. Thai cuisine is one of the most aromatic you’ll experience. Five basic flavors give depth to local cooking here: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy. Coconut, curries, peanuts and peanut sauces, and light fish sauce are all standard ingredients, varying in spiciness by region. Ginger, garlic, and chilies add flavor. Dishes in the northeast region of Thailand, might carry the warmer spiciness of many Laotian dishes, whereas recipes in the south are more mild, typical of neighboring Malaysia. Many dishes are prepared in a wok as stir fries—with chicken, beef, or pork; crisp vegetables; and rice or noodles incorporated into the recipe or served on the side.

The real beauty of Thai food is its seeming simplicity. Everyday cooks with the right ingredients can quite easily prepare some of the nation’s most popular dishes. However, like Thailand itself, many distinct and unique elements often underlie the simplest dish, creating one harmonious whole.

Thais might start their day in much the same way they end it, simply because there are just a few dishes intended solely for breakfast. Rice porridge or soup, an omelet with chili sauce, or deep-fried bread topped with chocolate are among them. Lunch and dinner are often served family-style, with several dishes shared. Side dishes might include any variation of fried rice or noodles. In Chiang Mai, you’re likely to see khao soi on the menu, a curried noodle soup with coconut milk and wheat noodle garnish. Pad thai, perhaps the most ubiquitous dish in Thailand—rice noodles with fish sauce, tamarind, chopped peanuts, egg, and vegetables or meat—has been ranked #5 on a CNN list of the world’s 50 most delicious foods.

Explore Southeast Asia Beyond Thailand, at a Terrific Value

With Thailand’s central location in Southeast Asia, it’s hard to resist visiting more of this captivating region while you’re here. Gate 1 Travel makes doing so easy, as many of our Thailand itineraries include explorations of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Imagine uncovering the secrets of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the largest ancient temple complex in the world … cruising among the towering limestone islands of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, one of the world’s most breathtaking natural wonders … experiencing the unspoiled charms of Luang Prabang in Laos, a city frozen in time … or marveling at the more than 2,000 pagodas, stupas, and temples that dot the golden plains of Bagan, Myanmar.

With Gate 1 Travel, your possibilities in Southeast Asia really are endless. And our value is matchless. Feature for feature, you won’t find a program that beats our price and quality.

Come discover Thailand—and beyond!—for yourself.

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