Must-See Monday: Top Thailand Destinations

This post on the top Thailand destinations is contributed by Hayden Lambirth, Southeast Asia and Indochina travel extraordinaire:

In 2010 and 2011, I traveled extensively throughout Indochina, the peninsula in Southeast Asia lying East of India and Southwest of China. This peninsula has a rich culture with heavy influences from both China and India, resulting in some of the most unique foods, atmospheres and people I have yet to encounter. I have composed a list of the top ten backpacking destinations that are must sees in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. For this post, we'll be checking out Thailand.

1. Bangkok

Bangkok boasts the 6th largest per-capita GDP amongst Asian cities and is THE economic heart of Thailand. Bangkok, or Krung Thep to the locals, is the perfect combination of exotic and western and a good starting point to ease your way into Thai culture while still being able to hit up the local 7-11 for the cornerstone essentials. Experience the good, the bad, and the weird on the infamous Khaoson Road. This 'backpacker ghetto' is a great place to find inexpensive bare-essential lodging and is a base of operation for transport heading up north to the city of Chang Mai or down south to beachside resorts.

Looking for something a little more adventurous? Get lost in alleyways of Yaowarat, Bangkok's Chinatown (the biggest in the world). Take a step back in time and visit the Grand Palace, the old residence of the Kings of Siam. Looking for an authentic transport experience? Take a longtail boat down one of Bangkok's many canal, or take the extensive bus network and see how the locals get around.

Find Bangkok vacation rentals on Tripping!

2. Railay Beach

Railay Beach is one of the better preserved locations in terms of tourist destinations in southern Thailand. A jutting peninsula cut off from the mainland by treacherous cliffs, it attracts both adventurous backpackers and tourists alike. West Railay is the main beach and has an unobstructed bay placed between jutting limestone jungles on either side. I say unobstructed because this is so rare for most of the beaches in southern Thailand, which are polluted with massive beach chairs and umbrellas lining the coast along with obtrusive boardwalks.

The west side also features some rather large and luxurious resorts as well as a small strip of shops and restaurants. East Railay is covered with dense mangroves and thus not as pricey beachfront locations. It features much cheaper lodging alternatives then West Railay, as well as a nice boardwalk with outdoor restaurants, bamboo bars and the occasional tattoo parlor. East and West Railay are connected through paths connecting resorts or actual trails through the jungle. Regardless of if you take the paths less traveled or not, you will inevitably encounter Gibbons and pesky apes, which actually look more like monkeys in my opinion. Gibbons love to harass and hustle unwary foreigners. Don't let their initial cute demeanor fool you; they like to intimidate, attack, and steal. These pesky critters are well worth braving; there are hidden gems in and around this little peninsula, like the Penis Shrine, created by local fishermen to prey to Pra Nang, or Princess Goddess, before a long voyage. Looking for the luxury accommodation on a backpacker budget? Visit during Monsoon Season around June or July and you are liable to find everything from lodging to food and transport all up to 50% off.

3. Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand and borders Myanmar and Laos, a border region known as the Golden Triangle. There are guided tours of the region where the Ruak and the Mekong merge and even a quick trip across the river for a stop in Laos if you are so inclined. The actual Province of Chiang Rai still has a great amount old South East Asia wonder to offer and is much less developed than other parts of Thailand. Having only become a part of Thailand in 1933, Chiang Rai has a rich Burmese history. There are thousands of Burmese refugees who fled Myanmar, now in the Province of Chiang Rai. This has left many children, particularly young girls, vulnerable to the sex slave trade. Visit a local legend Sompop Jantraka, who is stomping out sex slavery not only in Chiang Rai Province but the whole Greater Mekong Subregion. He runs a non-profit private school in the region and they are always looking for eager volunteers - from re-tiling classrooms, to teaching english or even helping the kids and their parents with some rice farming. I guarantee you will take even more from the experience than these amazing kids and the happy, warm-hearted locals.

10. Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is an ancient walled city located in the heart of Thailand, and only as recently as the 20th century has this city been accessible by anything other than by river or elephant. The city lies over 1,000 feet above sea level in the foothills of the Himalayas and was founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. As soon as you enter the city walls you can feel the distinctly northern Burmese and Lanna Thai influence, from the temples to the food. The temple Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is a must see; located about 9 miles outside the city on a mountain, the trek is well worth the view from the top.

Within Chiang Mai, the night bazaar on Rachadamnoen Road has a huge collection of local art and handmade masterpieces, as well as some amazing street food. Despite its old age, Chiang Mai is very much a modern city and has wonderful accommodations for luxurious tourists and gritty backpackers alike. My personal favourite of Chiang Mai is actual not in the city however, it's about 40 miles north. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for rescued elephants. It is amazing to see how happy these animals are despite having a past of being street performers, circus acts, and beasts of burden, and although you do not get to ride them (which is actually horrible for their backs) bathing them and just hanging out around them is an absolute blast! And the food there is pretty great too. Experience the canopy walk of a lifetime with Flight of the Gibbon with Zipline Adventure Tour. This eco-tour has you ziplining through 1,5000 year-old jungles from platform to platform built in high-up treetops, and yes, there are Gibbons. After your wild experiences have a relaxed day in the city. Take a local Thai cooking class then spend the evening experiencing an authentic northern Thai buffet at Kinnaree Park before sitting back for a Thai performance in the Playhouse Theatre next door.

Ready for your Thai adventure? Be sure to check out vacation rentals in Thailand on Tripping for your local lodging in this beautiful country.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Indochina Destinations Series: Laos and Vietnam to come!

Photo Credits: Photo 1 Fabio Gismondi via Flickr; Photo 2 David Ogden via Flickr; Photo 3 jingmc via Flickr; Photo 4 Viajar, comer y amar via Flickr.