Bangkok: Bangkok has been Thailand’s capital since 1782. It began as a small trading post at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River in the mid-14th century. Today it is a global city that blends Thai, Chinese, Indian, Buddhist, Muslim and Western cultures. Its most notable landmark is the brilliant Grand Palace, with gilded spires, elaborate halls, pavilions and murals. The chapel of the Emerald Buddha adjoins the palace. The superb 31-inch-high Emerald Buddha, carved from a single block of jade, is one of Thailand’s most revered icons. Temples such as the reclining Buddha and Wat Trimitir dot the cityscape. Bangkok is home to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai: Chiang Mai is the largest city in the north, with more than 300 Buddhist temples, 20 churches and 13 mosques. A long-standing ritual takes place before sunrise each day when residents present food offerings to monks who gather each morning for a procession through the town. Founded in 1296, the city was a strategically important center on an ancient trade route. It was built to succeed Chiang Rai as the capital of the Lanna kingdom. The city, however, was abandoned between 1776 and 1791. Today, Chiang Mai is a dynamic city, weaving together both the rich tapestry of history with its increasingly modern personality. Close by are the celebrated mountain hill tribes and artisan villages like the Akha, who are known for sumptuous costumes with elaborate silver-embellished headdresses; the Yao, recognized for their customarily colorful embroidered outfits; and the Karen, who are noted for their woven attire and profusion of beaded jewelry. Chiang Rai was founded in 1262 and became the capital of the Mangrai Dynasty, but soon lost its status to the new city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai was conquered by then-Burma and remained under its control for several hundred years. In 1432, the small Emerald Buddha, Thailand’s most revered Buddha statue, was found when an earthquake or lightening – depending on the storyteller – cracked open the stupa at Wat Phra Kaeo to reveal the small jade figurine. This is a good base for exploring the area’s historic temples, local museums, lush forests and waterfalls. In the past, this region was a primary supplier of opium. Through efforts of groups such as the Mae Fah Luang Foundation developed under the royal patronage of Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother, farmers and communities are being redirected to sustainable projects beneficial to themselves, society, the environment and cultures of the area.
Hill Tribes of Thailand: Most of Thailand’s minority ethnic groups still live in the remote, high mountainous northern and western regions of the country, including both sides of the border areas between Northern Thailand, Laos and Burma. These hill dwelling communities have traditionally been subsistence farmers who use slash and burn agricultural techniques to farm. In the past, they were also migratory, deserting land once it became depleted of natural resources or when trouble arose. In the 1800s, the people living in the mountain ranges were the largest non-Buddhist group in Thailand. The primary groups included Akha, Lahu, Mein or Tao, Karen and Hmong, along with many other smaller groups.
Hua Hin: Hua Hin has been a beachside resort town for more than 70 years and lures both foreign and Thai visitors. King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) visited this humble fishing village in the early 1920s and thought it would be an ideal escape from Bangkok’s steamy summers. In 1928, the king built a summer palace here, which remains one of the royal residences to this day. Siam’s upper class and nobility followed, building summer homes along the beachfront. A railway line from Bangkok insured the area’s easy access for nearly everyone. In addition to water sports, golf and spas, the area features great parks, serene waterfalls and mysterious caves. One of the most exquisite caves is just 24 miles north of Hua Hin. Phraya Nakhon cave is split into two chambers with a large opening above to allow plenty of sunlight to stream in and cast rays upon a pretty pavilion that was erected to honor a visiting king in the 19th century. The cave trail is nearly 1,500 feet long.
Lampang & Sukhothai: Lampang is a pastoral town with well-preserved temples. It was the center of the ninth-century Hariphunchai Kingdom, and its gold-topped temple is one of the most sacred in northern Thailand. Si Satchanalai was a thriving spiritual center from the 13th to 15th centuries. Its grandeur is evident in the temples’ remnants, which feature detailed carvings of floral designs and poetic human figures. In the 12th century, Sukhothai was capital of the first independent Thai Kingdom. The dynasty flourished for more than 150 years, and its legacy still lingers in the more than 20 remaining shrines. Nearby, an elephant sanctuary rescues orphaned and retired elephants, providing them with a natural home where they can live safely. There are no rides, no performances, just these majestic giants in their natural habitat.
Phuket, Krabi & Phi Phi Islands: Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, has been dubbed Pearl of the Andaman for its golden beaches and turquoise waters. Its historic towns are steeped in Thai, Chinese and Malay culture. The rocky limestone cliffs, powdery beaches, tranquil bays and forests make this a wealthy and popular island with world-class resorts. Seafood lovers can enjoy the island’s famous lobster. Krabi is a southern province on the Andaman coast, and may be the country’s oldest continually inhabited human settlement. Stone tools, ancient beads, pottery and skeletal remains have been discovered in the surrounding cliffs and caves. Krabi may have been home to Homo sapiens since the period 25,000-35,000 BCE. The province includes several coral-fringed islands with well-known dive sites. The largest, Ko Lanta Yai, is the park headquarters and is also home to the Chao Le – sea gypsies who subsist on fishing. Phi Phi Islands feature limestone cliffs, splendid beaches and caves such as Viking Cave, which is filled with natural formations and rock paintings. These islands also have outstanding snorkeling and scuba diving.
Nakorn Ratchasima, Khao Yai, Amphawa, Ayutthaya & Asoke: Commonly called Korat, Nakorn Ratchisima was important to the Khmer kingdom. Nearby Prasat Hin Phimai National Historical Park shows that this area was connected to distant Angkor Wat in Cambodia by a ‘royal’ road dating from the end of the 11th century. This is Thailand’s largest collection of Khmer buildings. Khao Yai National Park was Thailand’s first national park, and some 3,000 species of plants have been identified. Wildlife includes wild elephant, deer, bat, monkey, wild dog, marbled cat, leopard, gaur, dusky langur, the very rare tiger, Malayan sun bear, and more than 180 bird species. Khao Yai has a variety of activities including jungle treks, bird watching, and canoeing. Amphawa District is steeped in history and its waterways allow boats to travel to once-hidden temples and visit traditional wooden homes. Amphawa Floating Market, unlike some of the more visited bazaars, remains an authentic market – and some argue, the best kept secret in Thailand. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ayutthaya was a thriving Siamese Kingdom city from 1350 until 1767, when it was captured by the Burmese. Today, Ayutthaya is known for its spectacular ruins and temples, including Wat Chai Mongkol – which is well known for its large bronze statue of a Reclining Buddha. Asoke Valley is known in Thailand for its yellow blossoms special to the region of Khao Yai. The serene atmosphere and beautiful natural surroundings of Asoke Valley provide the perfect setting for the GranMonte Estate, a state-of-the-art vineyard producing fresh estate-grown produce, and wines using innovative winemaking techniques. The wines of GranMonte Estate are of the highest quality and are the most award-winning wines of Thailand.
Best Time to Go
The best travel times are November through March. The rainy season is generally May to September and April to June can be very hot. In Bangkok, April can be harshly hot and September’s heavy rains can cause flooding. December through March is the best time to experience Thailand’s beaches.
SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT ELEPHANTS: *Elephant-back safaris: Please note that Big Five does not participate in any elephant-back safaris. The decision was made due to the abusive way some of animals are trained and treated. Based on our founding principles, our approach to animal welfare issues, and our sustainable principles, we agree with many others who are against any abusive methods of training or mistreatment. Please note that this decision does not reflect on those properties and parks who do things the right way.
Day 1: Bangkok, Thailand
Thailand’s capital dates to at least to the early 15th century.
Day 2: Bangkok
City sights include the Grand Palace, the sacred Emerald Buddha and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
Day 3: Bangkok / Khao Yai / Bangkok
A unique wine estate, GranMonte Vineyard, is among the newest and most cutting-edge vineyards to emerge in Thailand.
Day 4: Bangkok / River Kwai
The world-famous WWII bridge, an elephant conservation camp and river rafting are features of this region.
Day 5: River Kwai
Erawan Waterfalls National Park features a seven-tiered waterfall that includes a lovely natural pool, perfect for swimming.
Day 6: River Kwai / Bangkok / Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is home to the Thailand’s most famous Night Bazaar that stretches out along the Ping River.
Days 7-9: Chiang Mai
Temple ruins, zipline adventures and the remarkable cultures of Thailand’s fabled hill tribes are explored here.
Day 10: Chiang Mai / Chiang Rai
Tribal communities such as the Akha, the Yao and the Karen preserve their distinctive traditional heritage in the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos converge at a bend in the Mekong River.
Day 11: Chiang Rai
This is a good base for exploring the area’s historic temples, local museums, lush forests and waterfalls.
Day 12: Chiang Rai / Pai
Pai is a small Shan town on the Pai River, noted for scenic beauty and easy access to hill tribe cultures.
Day 13: Pai / Mae Hong Son
Long-tailed boats are the traditional means of travel along the Pai River, home to the village of the Pa-Dong Long Neck Karen Tribe.
Day 14: Mae Hong Son / Chiang Mai
The lovely mountain region is rich in tradition and encompasses the famous Burmese-style temples of Wat Doi Kong Mu, Wat Jong Klang and Wat Jong Kham.
Day 15: Chiang Mai / Bangkok / Depart
Hua Hin (4 days)
Formerly a small fishing village, Hua Hin came to the attention of the king of Thailand in the early 1920s and is now one of Thailand’s oldest resort towns. A short drive north is the beautiful cave of Phraya Nakhon.
Lampang, Phitsanulok & Sukhothai (4 days)
Northern Thailand’s sacred temples and ruins from the 12th to 15th centuries are worthy of exploration.
Nakorn Ratchasima, Khao Yai, Amphawa, Ayutthaya & Asoke Valley (2-3 days)
This fascinating region offers a kaleidoscope of adventures from historic temples, to incredible wildlife, to a stellar winery.
Phuket, Krabi & Phi Islands (4 days)
Limestone cliffs, white-powder beaches and tropical forests combine with luxury resorts, superb cuisine and an extensive roster of outdoor activities to make this a wonderful island escape.
$500-$700 per person per day. Land only, double occupancy.