WHERE TO GO IN THAILAND
The map below shows some of the top travel destinations. While it can always be fun to go off the beaten track, most people will inevitably end up in many of these places:
This region is more mountainous has cooler temperatures and is more relaxed. With its misty mountains and lush valleys, the region is popular for jungle trekking and for visiting indigenous hill tribes.
The main city Chiang Mai has super low prices and an easygoing atmosphere, making it a great base from which to explore. Three hours north of Chiang Mai is the small town of Pai, a funky backpacker hangout amid a rural landscape with rice fields, hot springs, and waterfalls.
Northwest of Chiang Mai is the Mae Hong Son province, Thailand’s least populous region. For a great road trip, you can rent scooters and ride the Mae Hong Son Loop through these tranquil backwaters of Thailand, starting and ending in Chiang Mai or Pai.
To the northeast, the province of Chiang Rai is also worth checking out. It has good trekking opportunities, amazing mountain views, and it’s a nice stepping stone for onward travel to Laos.
Besides the capital of Bangkok, of special note in Central Thailand are the archaeological sites of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both filled with the crumbled remains of ancient Buddhist temples.
About 120km from Bangkok is the small riverside city of Kanchanaburi, made famous by the railway bridge that was the start of the infamous World War II Death Railway to Burma. It has a small traveler scene, and it is a good base for visiting historical sites, museums about the railway, waterfalls, and Sai Yok National Park.
The south of Thailand is all about the beaches and islands.
The west coast along the Andaman Sea has some of the most developed resorts in Thailand, with Phuket focused mainly on fly-and-flop package holidays. Phuket (and Patong) honestly aren’t great places to be for an independent traveller. Ao Nang beach and Khao Sok National Park make for nicer stops around here, as do the islands of Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe or Koh Kradan. Although, as always in Thailand, places are getting more crowded over the years.
The east coast has fewer islands, but thanks to a shorter monsoon they can be enjoyed almost year-round. Koh Samui has its own airport and is mainly home to upmarket holiday resorts. Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are more popular with backpackers and scuba divers respectively.
TOP PLACES TO VISIT IN THAILAND
Opinions will always differ on the best places to visit in Thailand, but I think the following are some of the must-see highlights that are worth adding to your itinerary.
See Bangkok’s Grand Palace and temples
The palatial grounds in Bangkok were long the nerve center of the Siamese kingdom. The vast complex is full of throne halls, royal residences, and golden Buddhist temples, and nowadays most of the court and temples are open to visitors. The Grand Palace and royal temple of Wat Phra Kaew are typically open from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm. It’s a good idea to go in the morning when there are fewer people there. Later in the day, it can get pretty rammed! The admission fee is 500 Baht.
Just around the corner from the Grand Palace is also Wat Pho, or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, which was once a traditional medicine education center and is the birthplace of the traditional Thai massage. It houses a 46 meters long gilded reclining Buddha statue, and the temple itself features beautifully intricate detailing.
From the riverbank near Wat Pho, you can take a ferry across to the other side, where you can marvel at Wat Arun (also known as the Temple of Dawn). From the top of this tallest temple in Bangkok, you get some great views of the city.
These are some of Bangkok’s prime tourist sights, so don’t expect to be alone! The temples open at 8:00 and this can be a great time to visit, as most tour groups arrive later in the day.
For a great taste of the vibrant hustle-and-bustle of Bangkok, go to the Chinatown district and get lost in its maze of markets and narrow alleys. You’ll see fishmongers chopping fish, welders fixing equipment, and exotic foodstuffs for sale—all amid a sea of Thai and Chinese neon signage.
This beehive of commercial activity is a feast for the eyes and a fantastic place for street photography. Put your map or phone with GPS away and just wander around, and don’t be afraid to explore the little alleys where you can find some of the hidden local markets.
Explore hidden Bangkok
One of the most fun things I did in Bangkok was to take a bicycle tour through some of the less-visited neighborhoods, followed by a longboat tour of rural Bangkok. It’s a side of Bangkok that relatively few get to see. You can find many different bicycle tours here, most of which take you into the outskirts of Bangkok and let you explore local markets and temples.
A bicycle tour is not the only way to get a different perspective; the Withlocals platform provides walking tours run by locals, as well as dining experiences at local Thai homes, which can add a more meaningful twist to your Bangkok visit.
Our detailed guide to Bangkok helps you find the best local neighborhoods to explore! With so many things to do in Bangkok, you could easily spend several days in the capital.
Stay in funky Aree in Bangkok
If you’re a budget traveler in Bangkok for the first time, chances are you’ll end up in Banglamphu (which has the famed backpacker district of Khao San Road) or in the Silom or Phayathai areas. These are all in downtown, putting you right in the middle of Bangkok’s love-it-or-hate-it chaos. All of these are good areas to stay if you want to be close to the action.
Many visitors feel overwhelmed by Bangkok initially, but grow to appreciate it more on subsequent visits. Since Bangkok is such a key travel hub, you are likely to pass through more than once — and if you do, it’s nice to stay in Aree (or Ari) [map] on your second visit.
It’s not quite as close to the sights, but it’s an oasis of calm and a world apart from Khao San. It’s mainly locals, expats, and travelers-in-the-know who hang out here, with just a few top-rated hostels and guesthouses tucked away in its residential streets. Foodies shouldn’t miss the nearby Boat Noodle Alley.
See the ruined capital of Sukhothai
The ancient capital of Sukhothai, once the heart of the Siamese empire, is now a complex of temple ruins that makes for a perfect stop if traveling between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The ancient ruins are spread amongst multiple zones, and those interested in history can easily spend several days here. Even on a shorter visit, it’s worth spending the night so that you can have at least one full day of the site.
The historical park is more compact than Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Bagan in Myanmar, and most easily explored by bicycle.
Stroll Chiang Mai’s night markets
Every evening, the center of Chiang Mai comes alive with a massive street market. You can find anything here ranging from genuinely lovely handicraft souvenirs to Thai bootleg DVDs. The Night Bazaar has a friendly atmosphere and is worth going even if you don’t intend to buy anything, with all manner of restaurants and entertainment clustered around the market streets.
The regular night market takes place every day, though there are two separate night markets on the weekend that tend to have more authentic or higher quality wares. It’s worth timing your stay in Chiang Mai to coincide with the weekend markets. The Saturday evening market is along Wualai Street, while the Sunday Market goes through the old town along Ratchadamonoen Road. For more, check out our travel guide to Chiang Mai, which includes some local and less-known highlights.
Go on a hill tribe trek
Numerous trekking companies organize one- or multi-day treks around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai, passing through green rice paddies and lush jungles, and stopping by some of the hill tribe villages along the way.
The people in these traditional villages live in wooden houses on stilts, and while they have facilities like water tanks and solar panels, they usually still cook over wood fires and live on subsistence farming. Someone in the village will typically prepare a meal for you, which you eat while sitting on the floor. On multi-day treks, you’ll be offered a homestay in one of these villages.
A hill tribe trek is a perfect way to enjoy the landscapes of northern Thailand while gaining a cultural perspective as well. Remember to be respectful and only take pictures of people if they allow.
Chill in hippie getaway Pai
Once a rural backwater, over the years the tiny village of Pai evolved into a key spot on the Thailand travel trail. Accommodation consists mostly of bungalows, hostels, and funky tree house resorts. While it’s been a couple of years since I was last in Pai, people tell me its laidback vibe hasn’t changed, despite more Chinese and Western package tourists making their way here. One of our contributors more recently spent several months there and shares her top tips for staying in Pai.
There’s a great bar scene that’s a bit more down-to-earth than in southern Thailand. Mini day trips to the Mo Paeng and Pam Bok waterfalls, the Pai Canyon, hot springs, and an odd little sight called the Land Crack can keep you busy for several days. It’s best to rent a motorbike so you can explore the area on your own.
See Tham Lod cave
Along the Mae Hong Song loop in northeast Thailand you’ll find a small town called Soppong (also known as Pang Mapha), a beautiful place from where you can explore countless caves and caverns.
Tham Lod is the largest of these caves, which you enter on bamboo rafts and explore just by the flickering light of a gas lamp. You’ll see some prehistoric 1,700-year-old coffins along the way, and if you time your visit well, you can witness hundreds of thousands of swifts leave the jungle and fly into the cave to rest for the night. This is, in a word, epic.
Other smaller caves in the area let you swim through cave rivers, crawl through crevices that just barely fit a person, and gasp at underground waterfalls. Guided treks are available via the Cave Lodge, which is a quiet and rustic base for hikers and spelunkers in the middle of the forest.
Explore Chiang Rai Province
While not undiscovered, the northeast of Thailand isn’t included in most standard itineraries, making it a nice alternative region to check out. Chiang Rai city has a relaxed atmosphere and a couple of attractions, including some unique contemporary Buddhist temples (very different from others you may have already seen).
But the city is best used as a base for exploring the surrounding Chiang Rai province. With its rice fields, forests, and gentle hills, it’s a good region for trekking and cycling. Multiple peaks along the border with Laos offer breathtaking views, with lower areas often shrouded in mist in the early morning. Another highlight is Mae Salong, a charming village surrounded by tea plantations settled on a hilltop north of Chiang Rai.
See the craggy cliffs of Krabi
The province of Krabi is famed for its beached ringed by tall karst cliffs. The most iconic of these is Ao Nang beach and the beaches of Railay (or Rai Leh), a peninsula reached only by longtail boat from Ao Nang. The beach itself has only high-end resorts, but you can still find some medium-budget options towards the back. Since Railay beach is getting increasingly busy, consider perhaps staying in Ao Nang or Krabi (where there are more space and more accommodation) and taking a day-trip to Railay.
The scenery is impressive and worth seeing despite the crowds — be sure to climb up to the lagoon and viewpoint. The area is also world-famous for its rock climbing, with introductory courses and equipment rental available in Railey, Ao Nang or Krabi Town.
Discover Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok is a wildlife reserve in southern Thailand. It’s a spectacular park, featuring lakes with floating bamboo houses, and limestone karst often rising from the jungles. Spending some time here on a 2-day (or longer) excursion is a great way to add some adventure to what will inevitably be a very beaches-and-islands focused part of your trip to the south.
There are several trails from Khao Sok village that you can walk independently, though most of them technically require a guide. Organized tours are a little easier in practice and often include additional activities such as kayaking, bamboo rafting, caving, ziplining, wildlife spotting, or overnighting in the jungle. You can easily book tours from most guesthouses and locations in Krabi.
Relax on Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta might not be as instantly photogenic as other islands; while it has nice beaches, it lacks the craggy cliffs of Krabi or the hillside views of Koh Tao or Ko Phangan. But maybe that’s why Koh Lanta has stayed pleasantly low-key, offering family-friendly resorts along Khlong Khong beach along with a sprinkling of backpacker hostels mainly on Long Beach.
This island is large enough to want to rent a motorbike to see it all, but still small enough to feel like an island. A few caves, a lighthouse, some snorkeling spots, and waterfalls are some of the key sights to check out on Koh Lanta. It’s a great choice for something a bit more chilled out.
Party on Koh Phangan
Koh Phangan is famed for its Full Moon Party, which once began as a psychedelic hippie beach bonfire but since grew into a massively commercialized event attracting tens of thousands of drunken revelers every month. For many, it’s the key reason to visit. But outside of the Full Moon and Half-Moon events, Koh Phangan also happens to be much more than just a party island. There are plenty of things to do on Koh Phangan that aren’t partying!
For secluded beaches with affordable bungalows, you only need to go to the west or northwest parts of the island. Bottle Beach in the north is even downright isolated, blissfully removed from the crowds in the south where the parties take place.
Snorkel & dive on Koh Tao
Koh Tao hosts the largest concentration of scuba diving schools in Asia (and quite possibly the world), with high competition resulting in unbeatable prices. If you ever wanted to become a certified SCUBA diver, it’s one of the most convenient places to do it.
Escape to Koh Chang
Most people go to Thailand’s southern islands, like the ones mentioned above. These are the most well-known and are usually easiest to fit into a route.
But Thailand also has a third island group off to the east, near Cambodia. The Koh Chang Archipelago may be a bit out of the way, but that has also sheltered it somewhat from large-scale development.
Koh Chang, the largest island does get its share of package tourism. It also has a thriving party scene around Lonely Beach. But since not all of the beaches are sandy (some have rocks or pebbles) and since its large interior is mountainous and covered in jungle, it can still feel a little wild! There are plenty of quiet spots, and it’s a great island for hiking.
Siam Bay, Koh Kood
Koh Kood (a.k.a Koh Kut) is very picturesque and unspoiled. It’s mostly the domain of some isolated resorts, but it’s still possible to be an independent traveler on Koh Kood. This very quiet island is best for doing nothing at all.
Ferries to the islands depart from the town of Trat, which is about 5 hours by bus from Bangkok. More than just a transit point, Trat is a nice non-touristy place to stay for a night or two.