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Serene shrines, spectacular skyscrapers and the best street food on the planet are all waiting for you in Bangkok. But outside the capital, there’s island fun on Phuket, or head north for hill tribes and heavenly hikes. Here’s our pick of the most popular places to visit in Thailand, big and small.
Living the Thai life automatically equals living the high life in this Southeast Asian land of plenty. There’s just so much fabulousness to stick on your must-do list. For bigger spenders, Bangkok has some of the most exhilaratingly vertiginous roof bars you’ll ever drink at, while Patong is the place to party.
Wherever you head, rest assured, temples and Buddha statues come as standard. Two weeks won’t do justice but once you’ve Thai’d it, we know you’ll like it, and you’ve got a lifetime to keep coming back.
Neon-frantic and temple-tranquil, the Thai capital is simply unmissable, with stacks of things to see and do however you fancy spending your time. Delivering reams of cultural and historic sights, BKK also flaunts a modern side with muscular skyscrapers and myriad outbreaks of modern architecture, fabulous art galleries, and fascinating museums. When you want to spend, the city is ready to sell: in frenetic markets (among them the floating variety for which the Thai capital is such a hit) as well as mega malls, and the dining scene is a spin, from gourmet restaurants to street food. After dark things are as buzzing, with pulsating nightclubs, live music, cocktail bars, incredible rooftop bars and adrenaline-laced Muay Thai fights. Getting around is easy, thanks to the BTS sky train, MRT subway, numerous buses, taxis, and tuk tuks. Perhaps best of all, you’ll find accommodation to suit you – whatever your bag and your budget.
It’s often dubbed the northern capital, and in its own way, Chiang Mai gives Bangkok a run for its money, with mad whirl of culture and nature. You won’t run out of religious shrines – there are more than 500 temples to admire. Meanwhile, for kids, and adults, too, there’s Chiang Mai Night Zoo. If you want to stretch a leg, try hiking in lush jungles and rafting along boiling-white rivers. At Thailand’s highest point, Doi Inthanon, you’ll get to meet ethnic hill tribes, witness a world of spectacular waterfalls and feed watermelons and bananas to magnificent elephants at an ethical sanctuary. Unlike Bangkok, the nightlife here is low-key, but don’t take that as an indication to stay indoors once the sun goes down. There are plenty of bars to unwind in, and if you’re itching to stock up on brightly coloured Thai pots, bags and shirts to gift the folks back home, the night bazaar has your name written all over it.
Thailand’s largest island and one of the best-loved and most-visited in the country, Phuket has many faces. First-timers often head to the thronging sands of Patong, on the west coast, known for its no-holds-barred nightlife and watersports. Beyond, though, there are beaches to suit everyone. Catch a boat to the scenic Freedom Beach, switch off on Karon Beach, drink in the views from Kathu Beach, and prepare for plenty more. Promthep Cape is the place to head for liquid-lovely sunsets. After dark, the entertainment cranks into life: there a world-class shows and exhilarating Muay Thai fights; food is, without exception, delicious, from the smart restaurants of Phuket Town to the simple, sizzling seafood turned out at street and night markets. Hiking, go karting, ethical elephant encounters, fishing, snorkelling, and jet skiing are just a few activities to try, and Wat Chalong, along with the Big Buddha, are two of the most popular cultural sites. Don’t bypass Phuket Town – the ornate old neoclassical buildings and luridly painted shophouses are beautiful. For fun and giggles, Baan Teelanka (the Upside Down House) and Phuket Trickeye Museum are the biz.
Even if you hate the idea history on holiday, this place will convert you: easily reached from Bangkok, the Unesco-listed Ayutthaya is one of Thailand’s sublime ancient cities. Evocative ruins take you on a journey back in time to Siam’s golden age. Wat Yai Chai Mongkorn is particularly photogenic, with tall stupas that you are permitted to climb, surrounded by rows of Buddha statues swathed in saffron tones. You’ll want to make a date with Wat Mahathat, where the famous stone Buddha head peers out from the infinite roots of a banyan tree growing around it. See, too, Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Si Samphet. The old Dutch and Portuguese areas are well worth a visit and the floating market is a great place to pick up souvenirs. A hired bicycle– or, if you’re an experienced rider, a scooter – is the only way to appreciate Ayutthaya. That said, tuk-tuks amass on every corner.
There are many people from the Shan group, Burma’s biggest ethnic minority, living in this mountainous and remote province in northern Thailand. Understandably so, as Mae Hong Son shares a border with Myanmar. The provincial town sees few international visitors, but that makes it all the more reason to go: for the photogenic nature and architecture, as you travel around the area. One of the main draws is the former hippie-populated town of Pai, a good place to base yourself if you love nature and a laid-back life. There’s plenty to stick on your to-do list, including Pai canyon, hot springs and waterfalls, and hiking and tubing along the river.
Known for its wild parties and hedonistic nightlife, especially around the time of the full moon, many visitors are surprised to find that Koh Phangan is also a nature lover’s dream. For fun and partying, Haad Rin is the place to be. Escape the crowds and discover relatively calm beaches, pristine waterfalls, and lush forests, and you’ll see that there’s much more to the infamous party island than just cocktail buckets and neon body paint. The night market is a great place to fill up on tasty Thai food for cheap and there are many cooking schools where you can learn how to replicate your favourite dishes. Uncover Koh Phangan’s spiritual heart and you’ll find meditation and yoga centres, new-age communities, retreats, workshops, and other ways to find inner balance and peace.
Here’s another of Thailand’s ancient capitals, glittering with glorious ruins in various states of preservation. Sites are spread across the city, so it’s fairly easy to find quiet, atmospheric spots to call your own more or less. The layers of beauty are stupefying: crumbling walls, extensive foundations, impressive chedis and pagodas, Buddha images in all sizes and poses, soaring columns, and the remains of halls and other buildings. There are lotus-filled ponds gleaming in the sunshine and boards provide plenty of information about the grand past all around you. Wat Traphang Ngoen, Wat Mahatat, Wat Si Chum, Wat Sra Si, and Wat Sorasak are just a few sites to add to your list – and if you’ve got time to explore further, remember the name Si Satchanalai Historical Park and you won’t be disappointed.
A popular island in the Thai Gulf, Koh Samui appeals to everyone from families and honeymooners to backpackers and solo adventurers. Beautiful beaches include Chaweng, Lamai and Mae Nam, and you can visit the old fishing village at Bophut. There are several places to shop, as well as plentiful places to eat, drink, and sleep. One of the island’s more unusual spots include a temple with a mummified monk and neighbouring rock formations that look like male and female genitalia! Koh Samui boasts many high-class spas and excellent golf courses too.
The main attractions in this large province in Northeast Thailand are argued over, but nobody disputes the wow factor of Unesco-listed Khao Yai National Park. From glorious waterfalls and all manner of wildlife, to hiking trails for all levels, silencing views and tranquil campsites, it’s one of Thailand’s most admired natural areas. All that, and it’s pretty easy to reach from Bangkok. Elsewhere in the province, Wang Nam Khiao is celebrated for its spectacular scenery and great air quality. The province is also home to one of Thailand’s most striking temples: the fabulous Wat Ban Rai in Khun Thot District. Filled with, and surrounded by, colourful and imaginative artwork, the structure is built like an elephant and sits on its own small artificial island.
Thailand’s self-proclaimed City of Sin may not appeal to everyone, but there’s just so much to see and do you’d be mad to leave it off your journey plans. Sure there’s the notorious Walking Street and numerous go-go bars, but things soon get more salubrious. There’s the beach: OK, not the prettiest in Thailand, but perfectly fine for a few days of sun, sea, and sand, and there are several lovely islands off the coast tailor-made for snorkelling. Ready to sightsee? The huge Sanctuary of Truth, carved entirely from wood, is sensational. There’s Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden, for strolls among the flower beds, statues and water features. And did someone mention wine? Sample local delights at the pretty Silverlake Vineyard.
Off the coast of Phang Nga Province, out in the sparkling waters of the Andaman Sea, the Similan Islands rank among the best places in Thailand for scuba diving and snorkeling. The deep is teeming with intriguing marine life and underwater features. Outings are possible, but if you’re a dive nut, you’ll want to spend a fair few days on a live-aboard vessel to really get down deep. Fishing is also madly popular on the islands, themselves much loved for their dense forests, curious rock formations and picturesque white, sandy beaches. Note that the Similans are generally closed to visitors between mid-May and mid-October.
Often overshadowed by its more popular neighbour, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, in north Thailand, shares a border with Myanmar and Laos. Indeed, you can visit the Golden Triangle, the point where the three countries meet. The province offers excellent hiking and trekking plus what some would say more authentic encounters with local hill tribe ethnic groups. Waterfalls and hot springs are other natural features to enjoy. Brave the stretching suspension bridge at Mae Fah Luang Garden before enjoying the lush gardens. Chiang Rai is home to one of Thailand’s most distinctive temples too — the gleaming White Temple, officially called Wat Rong Khun. Visit the nation’s largest statue, Guan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, for sweeping views, and wander through a collection of traditional Thai buildings at Baan Dam, or the Black House.
What do you want from your island idyll? We’re guessing sandy beaches, lush jungle, cascading waterfalls, lots of wildlife, soaring mountains and activities that get you up close with nature. Yes to all these? Make for Koh Chang, off the coast of Trat. Make a note of these beaches as they’re among the best: Hat Khlong Phrao, Lonely Beach, White Sand Beach, and Kai Bae Beach. Boat trips to neighboring Koh Kut and Koh Mak always go down well and a traditional Thai massage is perhaps the best way to loosen up after an energetic day. Koh Chang being an island, seafood is fresh and delicious, among the wide selection of other dishes for diverse palates. And everyone beds down happily here, since accommodation runs from high-class luxury resorts through to beach bungalows and backpacker dorms.
Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.