Shouldering up to the Land of Smiles
|This Way to Asia: A Buddha statue at Thailand's Samui Island (PhotoDisc)|
A journey through Southeast Asia nearly always begins in Thailand, which is a decidedly good thing. A well-oiled tourist infrastructure, exquisite beaches, and arguably the best food on the planet all conspire to form not only the path of least resistance for Asia-bound travelers but also one heck of a reason to stay right there. Thailand is by far the most-visited country in Southeast AsiaÂ—even after the tsunami, some 13.4 million tourists visited in 2005, pumping almost $1.5 billion into the economy.
It has been nearly 18 months since the 2004 tsunami devastated lives, beaches, and hotels, and while Thailand hasn't fully recovered from the blow, signs of the damage are rapidly disappearing. And even as the country struggles to give up the ghost of that tragedy, there's still plenty to see and do here. New destinations, particularly on the spared Gulf of Thailand side, are popping up, while areas in the north remain as popular as ever. And though it has always been a budget traveler's dream, a place where getting "ripped off" means buying sandals for $2 instead of 50 cents, a trip here will be more rewarding if you head when the crowds are fewer.
About twice the size of Wyoming but with 65 million people, Thailand has four natural regions and three distinct seasons: hot and wet, hot and not so wet, and milder with a drop in humidity. The tourist season peaks between February and March, when it's neither too hot nor too wet. Head over in May or June and you'll have classic shoulder-season elements: fewer travelers, discounted rates, and plenty of sunshine with increasing showers the closer you get to the start of the monsoon season in July.
You can expect Thailand to be mostly warm and tropical with slight variations no matter when you go. Though the storms roll in sporadically from July until November, tourists begin to flock back to the country again in August. The mercury starts to slide into the low- to mid-80s from June to October, when the rain picks up. Come November the country can get downright chilly, with temps dropping down to the low 70s with tapering rain. Expect hot and dry temps (well into the 90s with "only" 75 percent humidity) between February and May. The isthmus in the south, the best spot for beaches, is hot and humid pretty much all of the time, with the southwest monsoons kicking in during early summer. In the mountainous north, temperatures can get at or near freezing at night. April is probably one of the worst times to be in Bangkok; I've never sweated so much in my lifeÂ—while sleeping.
Airfares also drop during the shoulder season. A quick search on Orbitz for flights out of LAX to Bangkok in May, the start of the shoulder season, clocked in just over $600 on Eva Airlines. Wait until December and the fares jump nearly 20 percent to $737 with the same company.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication