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With over six million foreigners flying into the country each year,
has become Asia's primary holiday destination and is a useful and popular first stop on any overland journey through Southeast Asia. The influx of tourist cash has played a significant part in the country's recent development, yet Thailand's cultural integrity remains largely undamaged. In this country of fifty-three million people, over ninety percent are practising Theravada Buddhists, and King Bhumibol is a revered figure across his nation. Tiered temple rooftops and saffron-robed monks dominate every vista, and, though some cities and beach resorts are characterized by high-rises and neon lights, the typical Thai community is the traditional farming village: ninety percent of Thais still earn their living from the land.
Most journeys start in
. Thailand's huge, noisy, polluted capital can be an overwhelming introduction to Southeast Asia, but there are traveller-oriented guesthouses aplenty here, and heaps of spectacular temples to visit. It's also the best place for arranging onward travel and visas for neighbouring countries. A popular side-trip from the city takes in the raft houses of Kanchanaburi, the infamous site of the Bridge over the River Kwai. After Bangkok, most travellers head north, sometimes via the ancient capitals of
, to the enjoyably laid-back city of
, where they organize treks to nearby hilltribe villages. There's tranquil countryside in bucketloads up in the northern highlands around Mae Hong Son and along the Mekong River in Thailand's northeast (Isaan), where you can stay in village guesthouses and hop across the border into Laos. The northeast is the least visited area of Thailand, but holds two fine ancient
at Phimai and Phanom Rung, and the country's most popular national park,
After trekking and rural relaxation, most visitors want to head for the
- and Thailand's eastern and southern coasts are lined with gorgeous white-sand shores, aquamarine seas and kaleidoscopic reefs. The most popular of these are the east coast backpackers' resorts of Ko Samet and Ko Chang, the Gulf Coast islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao, and the Andaman coast idylls of Laem Phra Nang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and Ko Tarutao. The southern island of Phuket and the east coast resort of Pattaya are more expensive, package-tour oriented spots. In the deep south, Thailand merges almost seamlessly with Malaysia, and there are plenty of border crossing points here; the city of
in particular offers convenient long-distance bus and rail links to many Malaysian towns. Getting into Cambodia overland is not so easy, but there are two crossings currently open, Poipet and Trat.
of most of Thailand is governed by three seasons: rainy (roughly June to October), caused by the southwest monsoon; cool (November to February); and hot (March to May). The cool season is the pleasantest time to visit and the most popular. Christmas is peak season, when accommodation gets booked way ahead and prices rise significantly. In the hot season, temperatures can rise to 40A°C. The rainy season hits the Andaman coast (Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi) harder than anywhere else in the country - heavy rainfall usually starts in May and persists at the same level until October. The Gulf coast (Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao) gets hardly any rain between June and September, but is hit by the northeast monsoon, which brings rain between October and January. This area also suffers less from the southwest monsoon, getting a relatively small amount of rain.
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