The Thai capital, Bangkok and the nearby provinces surround the base of the Chao Phraya river delta as it empties out into the Gulf of Thailand. In a snapshot this region illustrates the stark differences between modern-day consumer-culture Thailand and the traditional societies of yesteryear.
For many, Bangkok, or Krungthep to most Thais (or Krungthep mahanakhon amonratanakosin mahintara ayuthaya mahadilok, popnopharat ratchathani burirom ubonratchaniwet mahasathan amonpiman avatansathit sakkathattiya witsanukamprasit to those who like to refer to places by their full name) represents all that is good and bad about an Asian metropolis. Loved or loathed, it's a city with everything for some and nothing for others, and also a city that almost every visitor to Thailand finds themselves in at some stage.
The city is anything but charming on first impressions, but spend some time there and peel back the skin a little, and you may well grow to enjoy the taste of this fascinating city. Dirty and polluted (though the air pollution is nowhere near as bad as some of the Chinese mega-cities), the traffic remains appalling despite a steadily growing metro system. Glistening skyscrapers darken wooden slums and squats, whose occupants continue to resist the development behemoth, while sparkling new Mercedes' dodge food carts being pushed along the slow lanes. Bangkok is a city of haves and have-nots on a scale like no other in Thailand.
The majority of backpackers dive straight into Khao San Road for their lodging and entertainment needs. A backpacker ghetto of Disneyesque proportions, Khao San's hippy-style markets and budget bars might make you forget that you're in Thailand -- at least until a tuk tuk rips past. It's very convenient to the old city of Ko Rattanakosin, which holds many of the city's historic attractions.
Though the Bangkok metropolitan area is a sprawling affair that's home to some 20 million people, a number of distinct districts make it a little easier to navigate. The business district is centred around Silom and Sathorn roads. The heart of the city's shopping is around Siam Square, and many upmarket hotels line Bangkok's expat district of Sukhumvit Road. At the other end of the spectrum, Chinatown plays host to Bangkok's vibrant Chinese and Indian communities. Further north, Victory Monument retains a youthful energy and is often overlooked by foreign travellers.
Beyond Bangkok's considerable urban sprawl, the surrounding provinces display a far more sedate pace of life amid abundant waterways, fruit groves, floating markets and old stilted homes. While many a traveller would skip them over, those with the time should try to allow for at least a short stop-over or day trip.
The one-time Siamese capital of Ayutthaya, in particular, is worth at least an overnight stay. Burmese invaders left little standing in the late 1760s -- even melting the gold off the temples to cart home as booty -- but what remains is a well-maintained, atmospheric historical park.
Between Ayutthaya and Bangkok lies Nonthaburi, best known for hosting one of Thailand's most notorious prisons, the Bangkok Hilton, and an interesting Mon enclave on the riverine island of Ko Kret. Head west from here into Nakhon Pathom to explore Thailand's tallest chedi along with a host of more offbeat attractions.
Southwest of Bangkok, along the Mae Khlong River and its many tributaries, old-style Thai towns like Ratchaburi and Amphawa put many of Thailand's best floating markets within easy reach. To the east lies Chachoengsao, another low-key town where you can wander through temples and munch on Thai sweets alongside the Bang Pakong River.