Despite its modernity, Thailand is still a country that offers colorful Buddhist temples, chanting monks, spicy cuisine, elephants and world-class scuba diving. That fact that 11 million foreigners visit Thailand every year stands as testimony to the country's continuing exotic appeal, as many are returning visitors in search of a new facet of the country's charms. Even though it is well-traveled and one of Asia's central tourist destinations, Thailand's culture remains vibrant and intact, and the country offers plenty of exotic vacation options.
The capital of Thailand, Bangkok is so stuffed with exotic sights that you can spend a busy week there and still not see everything. Nine of the "38 Things Not to Miss" from "The Rough Guide to Thailand" are either in Bangkok or available as a guided day trip from the city. Frommer's said of the city that "exploring Bangkok should be seen as a highlight of any trip to Thailand." Just one day in Bangkok could include visiting the Grand Palace and enormous Reclining Buddha statue at Wat Pho, enjoying a Thai relaxing herbal compress Thai massage after a hot day in the sun, taking in a muay thai boxing match at Rajdamnoen or Lumphini Stadium that night, and eating dinner in a five-star restaurant.
For exotic adventure, Ko Tao offers one of the best scuba diving areas in Thailand due to what "The Rough Guide to Thailand" called the island's "kaleidoscopic array of coral species and other marine life" and the chance "to encounter whale sharks, barracudas, leather-back turtles and pilot whales." Home to roughly 50 dive operators, Ko Tao is the largest center for scuba diving in Southeast Asia, making it ideal both for seasoned divers and those wishing to learn.
However, a vacation to Ko Tao is not for everyone. Electricity on the island is limited, so even the higher-end hotels with air conditioning are somewhat rustic. More typical of Ko Tao's accommodations is a simple plywood shack with a mosquito net, foam mattress, electric fan and a small beachfront deck with a hammock. Those looking for more luxury should base themselves on the neighboring island of Ko Phangan, as dive operators there make regular trips to Ko Tao's dive sites as well.
If your idea of a good vacation includes learning something while you travel, Chiang Mai is the place to go. Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai offers Thai cooking courses that made No. 3 on Lonely Planet's "Our Top Picks For Thailand," instruction on Buddhism and meditation, muay thai boxing training, language courses and Thai massage training. Outside the city is an elephant conservation center where you can learn something about riding and caring for elephants. This city offers several opportunities to take home exotic skills.
Chiang Mai itself is a lovely setting for an exercise in Thai-style "learning is fun." Decorated with trees and more than 300 temples, Chiang Mai has a very slow pace of life compared to other major Southeast Asian cities and especially compared to Bangkok.