To use a cliché, Bangkok is a city people love or hate. It can be noisy and jammed with traffic, but it's worth a few days to see the markets and people and do some shopping and sightseeing. The city is also starting to build some surprisingly beautiful shopping malls and the skytrain is speedy. There are also some nice electronics markets with semi-legit products.
|2. The Grand Palace
The Bangkok Grand Palace was started in 1782 and added to over time. Gorgeous. But it is sacred ground and so you need a sarong. It's Thailand—walk ten feet and you'll find one. You need at least an afternoon to see it as it can be overwhelming. Ignore taxi drivers who tell you it's closed and they have a 'special tour.' It doesn't close.
|3. Khao San Road
Khao San Road is a westerner's hangout filled with cheesy clubs, shops, pirate software, and restaurants. It's not a place to spend long, but come to see the spectacle and to get some clothes made or shop. There are also some admittedly good places to eat. Like Pad Thai, it's not authentic but it's still part of the Thailand experience.
Unless you want that sort of thing, avoid Pattaya with its girlie clubs and head a little south to Jomtien, a very pleasant (so far) little beach town. Both are about two hours southeast of Bangkok and doable in a bus or a charted taxi. Jomtien's near the Sriracha zoo, a good afternoon diversion.
|5. Ko Samet
Ko Samet is even more secluded than Jomtien as it's accessible by boat. Once you're there it might be too quiet, but the night-time fish barbeques on the beach are outstanding and it's a great place to chill with a book for a few days.
Phuket (uh, that's Poo-ket) is a small peninsula in southwest Thailand. There's parks, beaches, and nightlife. Where do I sign up? Heading south, there are three main towns: Karon, Phuket, and Kata. I liked Karon the best for its hotels and restaurants, and Kata for its great beach. Phuket is where the nightspots and (surprise, surprise) girlie clubs are. The towns are close enough together to make day trips based on your interests. For me, the best place in Thailand for a vacation.
|7. Phang Nga Park
Phang Nga National Park, within Phuket, has day tours, usually leaving from Phuket in the morning, which take you through a Buddha cave and then paddle you through some beautiful cave waters. It's a fun trip and it's low-impact. The water is smooth—you aren't white river-rafting.
|8. Ko Panyi
Phang Nga National Park includes a small floating village, Ko Panyi. It's an interesting stopoff to see people living on a sort of man-made island, and there are some crafts and goods. It's not Vietnam and I found the 'locals' pretty easygoing.
|9. Ko Phi Phi
Yes, every place in Thailand must have a slightly dirty-sounding name, but Ko Phi Phi is a wonderfully quiet, green, and tiny island southwest of, uh, Phuket. The beaches are nice but it's mostly a place to walk around and do some light shopping or lounging by a pool. There are no cars. It's quiet at night. My essential Thai vacation would include here and Phuket.
|10. Rai Leh
Next to Krabi, teeny Rai Leh sits in a beautiful blue inlet. The scenery is stunning and the sunsets are gorgeous. The little inlet is expensive, but the northern beach (West Hat) and the plain East Hat beach are more reasonable. I preferred West Hat, although you have to charter a boat to take you between beaches unless you want to clamber like a mountain goat across the rocks.