This week, I'm packing my bags for a ten-day trip to Thailand. Travelling in October, just before the November to February high season, prices are still relatively low and the biggest crowds should be yet to descend – something that's worth factoring-in when you're visiting one of the world's most popular tourist destinations.
Although Thailand is best known for its sandy beaches and idyllic southern islands, I'm curious to find out what else the country has to offer. Culture, history and nature will be core elements of my trip, and I hope to experience some adventurous hiking, away from the most obvious tourist trails.
With so much to see and do, prior research is important, as is seeking the advice of friends and specialists who have visited before. Even so, there's a bewildering amount of sights and activities to choose between. And if you're planning to travel about, Thailand's awkward shape doesn't help matters: you'll most likely have to retrace your steps at some point, with Bangkok in the centre, two large expanses of landlocked terrain to the north, and a long tail snaking south to the beaches.
North, South or Central?
The North and South of Thailand offer very different experiences, and the Central area is appealing in its own right. With Bangkok in the centre, most visitors spend at least a day here, before heading North or South. Domestic flights make it relatively quick and easy to travel around but choosing where to focus your travels will depend on how much time you have, and how many domestic flights you're prepared to take.
The hill tribes and cultural capital of Chiang Mai are major pulls in the North. Nature and culture abound here, and there's lots to experience, from heart-stopping canyons near Pai to the historical park at Sukkhothai, as well as white-water rafting in Um Phang, and the country's highest peak of Doi Inathon.
Bangkok, Ayutthaya (Siam's ancient ruined capital) and the Death Railway in Kanchanaburi are key sites, and this region also boasts national parks and jagged peaks. South of Bangkok, you've also got beaches like Hua Hin and islands like Koh Samet to escape to.
Thailand's southern tail is the place to head for idyllic beaches and islands. In the west, the Andaman Coast is home to Phuket, Krabi and the Simian Islands, while the most famous islands in the Gulf of Thailand (east) include Koh Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and the diving hub of Ko Tao.
When to go
Weather is likely to have an impact on when and where you visit. As a rough guide, much of Thailand in hot and humid from March to May; monsoon rains affect many places between May and October; and November to February tends to be the coolest (and most popular) period.
However, there's no hard and fast rule. Some years can be rainier than others, and each region experiences different variations of the three seasons – for example, the northeast can get unbearably hot, and the Andaman coast (west coast) often receives the heaviest rains.
Visiting in October, the weather will be more settled in the North and Centre, so these regions will be the focus of my itinerary.
A ten-day trip: History, nature and culture
Whenever I visit somewhere for the first time, I like to find out a little about its history before I plan my itinerary. The only country in Southeast Asia that wasn't colonised by Europeans, Thailand's is particularly interesting: from ancient kingdoms and the founding of the Chakri Dynasty (Thailand's ruling royal house), to military coups, student demonstrations, Japanese occupation and the rise of its booming tourism industry, Thailand has a fascinating past.
Siam's early kingdoms were vastly different to the Thailand we know today. Known back then as Siam, the country was divided into separate territories. The most powerful of these, the Sukhothai Kingdom, declared independence in 1248 and, in 1376, was succeeded by Ayutthaya – a kingdom so wealthy it was the envy of Europe. After 400 years at the top, Ayutthaya was invaded by the Burmese and was burnt to the ground in 1767.
Destroyed almost 250 years ago, the Unesco-listed ruins of Ayutthaya are top of my list. Conveniently, they're an easy daytrip from Bangkok (around an hour by train), so I can visit on a daytrip after flying directly into Bangkok from London.
Too far from Bangkok to visit on a daytrip, the ruins of Sukhothai lie four hours north of Ayutthaya. The quickest way to get here from the capital is via a 90-minute domestic flight. Otherwise, it's a 6-7 hour bus ride from Bangkok, or 5-6 hours from Chiang Mai.
Bangkok and the Death Railway
Bangkok became the capital of Siam in 1782 – just a few years after the fall of Ayutthaya. Spending at least one night here is a right of passage for first-time visitors, with everything from temples and shrines to skyscrapers, shopping malls and floating markets to tick off. Bangkok also makes a good base for daytrips to other parts of Central Thailand, including the Death Railway near Kanchanaburi (around 2.5 hrs by bus from Bangkok, or 3hrs by scenic train ride).
Constructed in WWII by Asian labourers and Allied prisoners of war, this Thailand-Burma railroad was built under command of the Japanese. Thousands of men worked and died while building this route through the jungle. A harrowing yet important part of Thailand's history, it's another place on my priority list.
A flight or overnight train-ride north of Bangkok is the province and city of Chiang Mai. The former capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which once rivalled Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai escaped attack and, as a result, boasts some of Thailand's richest cultural relics – this definitely earns it a place on my priority list.
Known for its laid-back vibe, I'm looking forward to experiencing the night markets, meeting the local Monks and touring the city sights on a guided tour.
Like most first-time visitors, trekking to Thailand's hill tribes is high on my list. Most guided trekking tours are based around Chiang Mai province, and there are lots of options for easy treks in both Chiang Mai and neighbouring Chiang Rai province.
But I'm keen to get away from the most obvious tourist trails, experience something different and do some serious trekking. With less-travelled terrain and remote minority groups, Nan province sounds like it should fit this bill: nestled against the Lao border, this mountainous region is heavily forested and sparsely populated; perfect for two or three days of serious trekking.
Getting here involves taking a flight from Bangkok (1.5 hrs) or a bus (10-11 hrs). You can also fly to/from here from Chiang Mai (45 mins) or travel by bus (6hrs)
Thailand boasts more than 127 national parks, along with protected patches of jungle that are home to elephants, tapirs, wild tigers and more. Of these, Khao Yai National Park is the easiest to reach from Bangkok. Southwest of the capital, and a little harder to get to, is Kaeng Krachan National Park – one of the best jungles in Thailand for birdlife.
For the country's lushest, most pristine forest, however, you'll need to head south to Khao Sok National Park – not far from Phuket, this is one of the oldest rainforests on earth, with biodiversity that rivals the Amazon. My October trip should be perfectly timed to experience the best of the park's lush monsoon vegetation, although travelling here will mean a domestic flight from Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
What about the beaches?
Sadly, with only ten days for my Thailand trip, I'll have to miss out on Thailand's legendary islands and beaches this time. Instead, I'm eyeing-up the following for a return trip:
Ko Tao island
This jungle-topped island is the Gulf of Thailand's scuba and free-diving. Smaller and less visited than nearby Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan, it sounds like an ideal blend of adventure and relaxation with enough nightlife to let your hair down at the end of the day.
Famous for its limestone karsts, the beaches on the tip of the Krabi Peninsula are famously good for all levels of rock climber, even for beginners, like me – the idea of climbing up a rocky pinnacle then diving off into the turquoise sea below sounds surreal. Even better, the powdery white sands sound like the perfect place to relax afterwards.
A marine national park of eleven granite islands, the Similans are fringed by coral reefs. One of the best scuba diving destinations in Thailand, I'd love to spend some time on a liveaboard here, diving each day with turtles, mantra rays, whale sharks and more.