First introductions are made in Bangkok, a modern behemoth of screaming traffic, gleaming shopping centres and international sensibilities interwoven with devout Buddhism. Chiang Mai, the country's bohemian centre, is where the unique and precise elements of Thai culture become a classroom, for cooking courses and language lessons; while climbing into the mountain ranges around Mae Hong Son you'll find stupa-studded peaks and villages of post-Stone Age cultures. Sliding down the coastal tail are the evergreen limestone islands of Ko Tao and Kho Phi Phi Don, filled with tall palms angling over pearlescent sand. Thailand's beaches are stunning, hedonistic and mythic among residents of northern latitudes.
People come here as miners: first perhaps for the uniquely Western concept of R&R. And while they toast themselves to a bronze hue on the sandy beaches, they find in the daily rhythm of Thailand a tranquillity that isn't confined to vacation time. The northeast is a region better suited for homestays and teaching gigs than quick souvenir snapshots: here, you can dive deep into the Thai psyche, emerging with a tolerance for searingly spicy food and a mastery of this strange tonal language. Welcome to a life-altering experience disguised as a holiday.