With its white sandy beaches, crystal-blue water, and laid-back lifestyle, the Gulf Coast captures the imaginations of travelers worldwide. East of Bangkok lie high-profile Pattaya, along with the islands of Koh Samet and Koh Chang, two longtime escape-from-Bangkok favorites. Popular spots near the capital to the west include Cha-am and Hua Hin, both near the top of a peninsula that stretches south to Malaysia. The very developed island of Koh Samui is about halfway down this strip. On both sides of the gulf, the beaches only get prettier the farther south you go.
You don't have to travel far from Bangkok to find exhilarating beaches. The Eastern Gulf offers several close enough for a weekend getaway. Gaudy Pattaya is a full-on, often salacious party place, though many resorts are secluded from the risqué main town, and families will find suitable situations as well. Farther southeast along the coastline, which extends to Thailand's border with Cambodia, are some swell beach resorts and even better islands. Two islands worth considering, as many Bangkok residents do, are tiny Koh Samet and Thailand's second-largest island, Koh Chang. The latter has seen considerable growth this decade, with classy resorts now dominating the modest budget bungalows of days past.
A bit south of Bangkok along the Western Gulf's narrow peninsula, which Thailand shares with Myanmar, lie Cha-am and Hua Hin. Cha-am has bigger resorts and more stand-alone ones; Hua Hin has both world-class resorts and less fancy accommodations. As with their close-to-Bangkok counterparts on the gulf's eastern side, these two cities can fill up with escapees from the capital on weekends, but they're less busy during the week. Scores of beaches worth exploring can be found farther south. You can reach them all from Surat Thani, which is a one-hour flight or an 11-hour train ride from Bangkok. Northeast of Surat Thani is the very developed island of Koh Samui, popular in part because daily flights from Bangkok make it so easy to access.