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Nine days in Thailand recommendation for a woman traveling alone

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Depending on how flights are looking, I'm planning on going to Thailand for 9-10 days by myself next week. As a flight attendant in the US, I've traveled a lot but not to this part of the world.
I have not made any accommodations as I'll be traveling standby. Most of the flights arrive in BKK late so I'll probably plan on staying 1 or 2 nights in BKK. What is a recommended area? I'd rather be somewhere residential and safe than smack in the middle of everything. Are taxis reliable and honest from the airport? I'm then thinking of taking a flight to Chang Mai for 4 days or so and then to a quiet beach location for the last few days before heading back to the states. It's not all about the beach but getting a feel for a new/different placeI've travelled via bus all over Turkey but have not been to SE Asia. I'm not afraid of going off the beaten path and would be interested in possibly day tours. I'm avoiding Phuket because I've heard nothing positive about it and I've heard that Koh Samui is not rustic either but beautiful. Being that I'm traveling by myself, I wanted to go somewhere safe and inexpensive. WIth all of the pay cuts that we have taken over the years, I can afford to fly places but can't afford to stay. Thailand seems inexpensive so that's one less thing to worry about.

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