Thailand is lucky. It has the looks, the temperament and the attractions to capture the world's imagination for an exotic escape. It is mysterious and confounding but approachable and inviting. Hospitality is a genuine art, crafted by a culture that takes pride in putting people at ease. The best months to visit are November–February, but if you want to beat the crowds, go April–October.

As a holiday destination, it's renowned for its beaches, its shopping and its sizzly, spicy food. We've selected the top 5 for each of these to help start forming your plans, as well as some practical information to make your first time in Thailand only the first of many.

Top 5 beaches

Ko Phi-Phi Don: Behold the prettiest tropical island you've ever seen.

Ko Pha-Ngan: Master the art of hammock-hanging.

Ko Samui: Devote yourself to great beaches, sleepy fishing villages and seaside yoga.

Phuket: Bullseye for high energy, international resorts.

Ko Samet: Escape the capital for a beach retreat.

Top 5 shopping spots

Bangkok: From markets to malls, you can shop all day long.

Chiang Mai: This handicraft centre has both homespun and chic buys.

Surin: Craft villages practise silk weaving and silversmithing.

Ko Kret: See pottery in situ on this river island near Bangkok.

Nong Khai: The riverside market sells souvenirs and grilled fish; people-watching is free.

Best places to eat - and cook

Bangkok: A culinary superstar with noodles, haute cuisine and immigrant fare.

Chiang Mai: Learn how to chop and wok through Thai cooking.

Hua Hin: Combine two great Thai specialities – seafood and night markets – into one.

Phuket: Sample southern fare, seafood and fusion.

Nakhon Ratchasima: Sôm·đam (papaya salad), gài yâhng (grilled chicken) and kôw nĕe·o (sticky rice) fuel Thailand's muscles.

Before you go

One month before: Start shopping for airline fares, planning an itinerary, booking accommodation and arranging domestic train and plane tickets.

One week before: Book your Thai cooking course and dive trip. Start watching the web for Thailand news.

One day before: Confirm your flight, find a hearty book for the plane ride and bid adieu to hohum home life.

Accommodation - what your money will get you

1700Baht or less per day: Mid-range hotels or guesthouses (Thailand's most common option; some are simple rooms in a family's home), meals at local restaurants or markets, and daily transport hire.

3400B to 6800B: Boutique hotels, international restaurants and organised tours.

More than 6800B: Top-end hotels, private tour guides and extensive shopping sprees.

Explore more!

Discover Bangkok's Chatuchak Market

Find the last archipelago in Thailand

What to expect at the Songkran Water Festival

Eat up at Phuket's Vegetarian Festival

Discover Thailand's unexplored north

10 ways to eat out, Thai-style

Thailand's Andaman Coast

Get planning with the full-colour Discover Thailand guide

Explore related stories