Thailand, known as Siam until 1932, is the only country in Southeast Asia (and one of the few in the world) never to have been colonized by a European power. Its capital, Bangkok, reflects the country's unique status. It has embraced modernity on its own terms as the seat of a beloved monarchy that dates back to the 13th century. In this city, Buddhist temples and gilded palaces coexist with the bustle of one of Asia's major metropolises. The contrast between the golden glow of sunrise along the Chao Phraya River, which runs through the municipality, and the neon lights of downtown can feel intoxicating. There are few places in the world where you can spend the morning visiting a centuries-old stupa, have lunch at one of the world's top Michelin-starred restaurants and then shop for exquisite silk garments. And wherever you explore, you'll be struck by the warm welcome you receive. "The Land of Smiles" may be a cliché and a tourism-marketing slogan, but it's also a fitting nickname for Thailand.
Many of the country's most important historic areas can be found not far from Bangkok. Ayutthaya, the former Thai capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with impressive Buddhist ruins. The 16th-century town of Chachoengsao is known for its many temples, including Wat Saman Rattanaram with its 22-meter-long (72-foot-long) statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. In Pattaya, on the coast, the Pattaya Elephant Village is a sanctuary for Asian elephants.
Whether you travel by boat, bus or tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorized taxi) to explore Bangkok's temples, palaces and markets, be prepared to fall in love with this city that somehow manages to be both chaotic and captivating at the same time.