Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in Southeast Asia, and for a reason. You can find almost anything here: crystal blue beaches, thick jungle, great food, cheap beach front bungalows and some of the best luxury hotels in the world. There is something for every interest and every budget.
As the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized, it is also studded with incredible cultural and historical sites, including ruins that stretch back hundreds of years. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential identity with its own unique culture and history and a carefree people famed for their smiles.
The only trouble with planning a trip to Thailand is narrowing things down to a few sights. It helps to start with the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand, which include:
Made up of nine primary islands and two far-flung ones, the Similan Islands archipelago is one of the most popular diving destinations in the country. Situated off the coast of the Phang Nga Province in southern Thailand, the waters surrounding the islands boast gorgeous coral reefs and underwater rock formations that take on many unique shapes. Experienced divers particularly enjoy hot spots like East of Eden and Elephant Head Rock.
The infamous Full Moon Party is an all-night beach party that takes place in Haad Rin on the island of Koh Phangan. It has grown from an improvised wooden disco for about 20-30 people in 1985 to a major event that draws a crowd of about 20,000-30,000 every single month. If you’re not on Ko Pha Ngan during the full moon, don’t worry: there are other parties to be had, including Half Moon, Black Moon and Shiva Moon party.
The two-hour train journey along the notorious Thailand–Burma Death Railway from Kanchanaburi, via the Bridge over the River Kwai, to Nam Tok is one of Thailand’s most scenic and most popular train rides. Though the views are lovely, it’s the history that makes the ride so special. During WWII, the Japanese built the railroad to connect Yangon, the then-capital of Burma, with Bangkok, enlisting POWs and Asian laborers in a horrifying and deadly race to the finish. Today, only a portion of the original rail line is in operation.
Also known as Ayutthaya Historical Park, this popular tourist attraction contains the ruins of the second capital of Siam, which was founded around 1350. By 1700 Ayutthaya had become one of the largest cities in the world with a total of 1 million inhabitants. In 1767 the city was destroyed by the Burmese army, resulting in the collapse of the kingdom. Fortunately, renovations that began in the late 1960s restored the once-vibrant city to much of its former glory, allowing visitors to experience the eclectic array of architectural styles that can be found amid its grid-like patterns of moats, roads and canals.
Located in the Trat Province of eastern Thailand, this exquisite national park is made up of more than 50 islands. Without a doubt, Ko Chang is the most notable of the bunch and is famous for its steep peaks, lush jungles and relaxed atmosphere. White Sand Beach is where people from around the world congregate to have a great time. The islands also feature white sand beaches, premium snorkeling and diving sites and many waterfalls. From fishing to dining to kayaking, there’s something for everyone here in Kog Chang. Though still far quieter than islands like Phuket or Ko Samui, it’s probably better to go now than later.
Northern Thailand is home to several interesting and colorful ethnic minorities, known as the hill tribes. Most of the hill tribes have migrated into the region during the past 100 years from the Asian interior and have largely preserved their traditional ways. It is possible to go on a trekking tour and visit one of the numerous villages where they are happy to receive tourists. Since most are rural and poor, any economically uplifting opportunities are welcomed.
Also known as Rai Leh, this popular rock-climbing destination is located in the Krabi Province on the coast of the Andaman Sea. Accessible only by boat, Railay boasts a variety of exciting attractions. Its more than 700 bolted rock-climbing routes are a major draw. However, there are also several stunning beaches, and visitors can also explore a series of caves. Accommodation on Railay ranges from inexpensive bungalows popular with backpackers and climbers, to the renowned jet-set resort of Rayavadee.
As the official residence of the kings of Siam — and, later, Thailand — since 1782, the Grand Palace is perhaps the most famous attraction in the bustling city of Bangkok. Situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the walled-in complex contains a compelling series of pavilions, halls, wats and other buildings interspersed with vast lawns, lavish gardens and stately courtyards. Of the many sights here, Wat Phra Kaew, or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, is probably the most memorable.
Located just over 95 km (60 miles) from the island of Phuket, Phang Nga Bay is one of the top tourist attractions in Thailand and one of most scenic areas in the country. It consists of beautiful caves, aquatic grottoes and limestone islands. The most famous island in the bay is a sea stack called Ko Ping Kan (more commonly known as James Bond Island) which was featured in the James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun”. A popular way of visiting Phang Nga Bay is by sea kayak as they are the only way to get inside the grottoes and sea caves.
Phi Phi is a beautiful archipelago located in the Krabi Province not too far from Phuket. Ko Phi Phi Don is the only island in the group with permanent inhabitants while the smaller Ko Phi Phi Leh is famous as the filming location for the 2000 movie “The Beach”. Travelers go here enjoy the beaches and to participate in a variety of water recreation activities, such as snorkeling, scuba diving and kayaking. As a result of the masses of tourists, Ko Phi Phi is becoming less and less attractive but for now it is still a very beautiful place to visit.