Serosurveys conducted prior to 1988 indicated a very low level of HIV-1 infection in Thailand, even among high-risk groups. The Ministry of Health has reported a dramatic increase in HIV-1 infection during the last three years. The geographic and demographic distribution of the epidemic is broad, involving multiple provinces and risk groups. Foci of higher incidence and prevalence have been noted in the urban center of Bangkok and in the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Here we report the results of genetic characterization of 16 HIV-1 isolates from Thailand using a combination of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) typing and DNA sequencing. The complete sequence of gp160 (env) of five isolates, partial env sequence of six additional isolates, and the gag gene of two isolates were determined. Two highly distinct HIV-1 variants were found. One variant resembled those prevalent in North America and Europe; five of the isolates were of this type. The remaining eleven isolates were very similar to one another and represented a variant unlike any previously described. Phylogenetic tree analysis of complete env and gag genes placed the two variants on widely separated branches. Protein sequence comparisons indicate both general and specific features that distinguish the Northern Thailand variant both from the Bangkok variant and from virtually all previously sequenced HIV-1 isolates. A simple PCR test for distinguishing the two variants has been developed for use in epidemiologic surveys.