Beaches, bargains, palaces, and stunning temples. Thailand has much to offer anyone, from the burned-out corporate executive in search of ultraluxurious respite to the intrepid backpacker hoping to explore beyond the beaten track. What brings visitors back here time and time again is undoubtedly the warmth of the Thai people, their laid-back attitude, the kingdom's at-times incomprehensible yet beguiling customs, feverish festivals, and amazing culinary adventures. For many, Thailand's most notable draws are its opulent royal palaces, ancient ruins, and ornate temples housing skillfully crafted figures of Buddha, a revered symbol that underscores a fervent and widespread devotion. In madcap Bangkok, you'll find an ultramodern cityscape muscling in on quiet canal and riverside communities. Mercantile hubs, such as historic Chinatown, consist of scores of labyrinthine alleys crammed with narrow shophouses, markets, and diners, all evoking a heady mix of sights, sounds, and smells. Beyond Bangkok, rice paddies carpet endless flat plains in a landscape dotted by tiny villages and mountains. White sandy beaches and acres of coconut palms and rubber plantations lace the southern and eastern gulf provinces. Wherever you go, expect contradictions and oxymorons: Witness all-permeating Buddhist pacifism coexisting with popular pugilism in Muay Thai boxing. Inscrutable Thailand will incessantly intrigue and confound the curious traveler.
There is also adventure of all kinds here: extreme sports on land and sea, trekking to hill-tribe villages, and abseiling down sheer limestone cliffs. The country's infrastructure allows travel by bus, train, car, boat, or even hot-air balloon, as well as via a network of budget airlines serving many regional cities. Gorgeous tropical islands play host to low-end guesthouses or stylish and contemporary five-star resorts. Regional cuisines differ greatly and offer a breadth of flavors in varying blends of sweet, sour, and salty variations -- not always ignited by fiery spice. In this chapter, I list the best restaurants and hotels, as well as give hints on where to find what you're looking for in this dazzling kingdom.
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