Thailand is a collage of animated scenes that comprise bustling modern cities crowded with motorbikes and tuk-tuks, Buddhist temples tended by orange-robed monks, hill tribes selling handicrafts, lush landscapes dotted with traditional farming villages, ancient ruins and stunning coastlines peppered with gorgeous beaches and blue lagoons.
Those looking to spend a few weeks exploring tropical islands should head to the picture perfect Thai Islands. If the exciting energy of a capital city is more your style, Bangkok will more than provide an unforgettable experience. For getting to grips with nature and understanding more about the various ethnicities within Thailand, the city of Chiang Mai serves as the perfect jumping off point to the mountainous landscapes of the north. Plan your trip to Southeast Asia most popular travel destination with our list of the best places to visit in Thailand.
As Thailand’s fifth-largest island, Ko Pha Ngan is a mix of rolling hills, lush jungles, and white-sand beaches. Compared to the neighboring island of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan is relatively less developed, although it still offers plenty of activities for travelers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Diving is a popular activity in Ko Pha Ngan. The island is located near some of the best dive sites in the Gulf of Thailand, including the iconic Sail Rock site. Beachgoers are also spoiled for choice, as Ko Pha Ngan is home to over 30 different tropical beaches.
Ko Pha Ngan is famed for hosting the legendary Full Moon Party. Every month on the night of the full moon, Haad Rin Beach transforms into a lively open-air nightclub with live music, potent cocktails, and even fire rope skipping. The event attracts anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 people each month.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ko Phangan
See also: Best Beaches in Ko Phangan
Located in the Sankamphaeng Mountain Range, Khao Yai National Park is the third largest park in Thailand. Despite the high elevation, the park’s landscape is a diverse mix of evergreen rainforests and billowy grasslands.
Khao Yai National Park also has several waterfalls hidden inside the tree-lined forests. At 260-feet tall, powerful Haew Narok is the largest waterfall in the park and a must visit. Although not as high, the picturesque Haew Suwat Waterfall is also worth visiting; it was the setting for the waterfall jump scene in the movie, The Beach.
The abundance of wildlife is one of the main reasons for visiting Khao Yai National Park. Pig-tailed macaques, sambar deer, freshwater crocodiles, and Asian black bears are just a few creatures that can be spotted wandering through the park. It’s also one of the few places in Thailand where you can regularly see bigger mammals like elephants and tigers in the wild.
A small city in northern Thailand, Sukhothai is a popular tourist destination due to the nearby ruins of an ancient city by the same name. Historic Sukhothai was the first capital of Thailand, then Siam, during the 13th century. Many temples, palaces, and monuments from this era can be found in the Sukhothai Historical Park.
The park is divided into multiple zones, with each featuring several excavated temples, chedis, Buddha figures and other monuments with impressive stucco reliefs. Wat Mahathat is considered to be the most impressive temple with its standing Buddha relics and lotus-shaped stupa. In the middle of the park is Wat Si Chum pavilion, which houses a massive 50-foot tall sitting Buddha.
The Sukhothai Historical Park is also dotted with sparkling lakes, sunken moats, and manicured gardens. The on-site Ramkhamhaeng National Museum is a great place to learn more about the park’s history, as it contains different artifacts and objects found in the area. In addition to the historic city, the Sri Satchanalai National Park and Ramkhamhaeng National Park are nearby and well worth a visit for their natural scenery and outdoor recreation.
Although Ko Samui is Thailand’s third largest island, it was largely unknown to travelers until the two intrepid backpackers boarded a coconut boat and landed there in the 1970s. Word soon spread about the islands magnificent beaches, and today Ko Samui is one of the most popular travel destinations in all of Asia. Ko Samui offers a more convenient travel experience than other islands in Thailand too (besides Phuket) as it boasts an international airport.
Compared to its neighboring island Phangan, which is famous for its rollicking “Full Moon Parties” on the beach, Ko Samui is more developed, though it still has a number of quiet and secluded beaches. Even well-developed beaches like the four-mile-long Hat Chaweng have spots where visitors can relax away from the crowds. At the southern end of the beach around a small headland is Little Chaweng, or Chaweng Noi. Offshore are two small islets, one of which can be reached by wading.
Visitors who prefer a more social travel experience won’t be disappointed either. Na Thon, Ko Samui’s transportation hub, if full of lively restaurants and bars. The island is known for its coconut carvings and hand-printed batik clothing. Samui also has several important Buddhist temples worth visiting. Wat Khunaram features mummified remains of revered monks. Constructed in 1972, the Wat Phra Yai temple features a 3 meter (9 foot) high seated Buddha figure known as the “Big Buddha.”
The center of Ko Samui is a mountainous forest region with several stunning waterfalls, including a 20 meter (65 foot) waterfall that tumbles into a pool perfect for swimming. A well-developed road circles the island, making it easy to explore everything this popular travel destination has to offer.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ko Samui
The northernmost city in Thailand, Chiang Rai is the place to go to explore the Golden Triangle, which contains the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. A busy town offering something for everyone, Chiang Rai is often used as a base for exploring the surrounding region. The town itself is quiet during the day, when most of its package tourists are out on day trips, but at night the neon lights flash on and souvenir stalls and restaurants spring into action.
The city is also home to a few museums that exhibit local heritage, culture and art. With its lovely green spaces, trees and flower, Saun Mai Ngam Park is a nice place to relax or attend a flower festival at year’s end. Markets and a night bazaar offer food, handicrafts, souvenirs and free cultural performances. Chiang Rai Beach is popular for picnics and riverboat cruises.
Outside of Chiang Rai, the Gate of Siam is a special place on the Laos border where visitors can enjoy lovely views. Namtok Khun Kon Forest Park offers nature walks and scenic waterfalls. Lion Hill Cave is an interesting cavern surrounded by picturesque scenery, hiking trails and picnic areas. Various tour companies operating from Chiang Rai guide tourists to nearby hill tribes to experience their culture and traditions.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chiang Rai
See also: Top Chiang Rai Attractions
Once just a quiet village in northern Thailand, Pai is now a booming town that is part of the Mae Hong Son Loop stretching between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. Noted for its picturesque valley and relaxed atmosphere, Pai is a favored destination among backpackers and tourists wishing to explore the region.
Due to Pai’s increasing influx of tourists, the city has increased in tourism facilities with numerous guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops and bars. Pai’s Wednesday Market is a popular attraction, which draws crowds from other villages around the Pail Valley.
With Pai’s location in the foothills of the mountains, many tourists use the city as a base for exploring natural attractions, trekking tours and visits to the hill tribes of Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Hmong. Also just outside the city are spas, elephant camps, hot springs and beautiful waterfalls. Additionally, the Pai River offers tubing and whitewater adventures. Other area must-see sites include the Pai Canyon, the WWII Memorial Bridge and a Chinese village where tourists can buy teas and view a Ferris wheel powered by humans.
Sitting on an extinct volcano in northeastern Thailand, Phanom Rung is a Hindu shrine complex regarded for its outstanding architecture. Located near the village of Nang Rong, this temple sanctuary was built by the Khmer culture between the 10th and 13th centuries as a dedication to the Hindu god, Shiva. Constructed of sandstone and laterite, Phanom Rung was built to represent Mount Kailash, the sacred home of Shiva.
The complex faces east, and four times a year the sun shines through all 15 sanctuary doorways. During these events the park extends its hours, and locals celebrate the Phanom Rung Festival around the April alignment, with ancient Brahmin ceremonies and modern sound-and-light shows.
Known for its gorgeous beaches, excellent diving and an abundance of luxurious spas, Phuket is Thailand’s leading tourist destination. Located in Southern Thailand, Phuket is the country’s largest island, connected to the mainland by two bridges.
Of Phuket’s many attractions, the beaches are the main draw with their white sands, blue lagoons and water sports. With resorts, hotels, shops, restaurants and vibrant nightlife, Patong Beach is the most popular beach. Phang Nga Bay is a memorable place to visit with it’s beautiful caves, aquatic grottoes and limestone islands.
Phuket is also a place for ultimate relaxation and pampering with its numerous options that range from massage tents on the beach to world class spas in breathtaking settings. Fun and adventure is to be found everywhere from aquariums and seashell museums to national parks featuring whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, scuba diving, jungle trekking and more.
See also: Best Places to Visit in Phuket
Surrounded by towering limestone mountains and lush tropical forests, Khao Sok National Park contains some of the most spectacular landscapes in Thailand. It dates back 160 million years, making Khao Sok National Park considerably older than the Amazon rainforest.
At the heart of the park is Cheow Lan, a sparkling turquoise lake dotted with floating raft houses and colorful long-tail boats. Most notably, the national park is also home to the largest virgin rainforest in Southern Thailand. Visitors exploring the forest will come across cascading waterfalls, hidden caves, and groves of wild fruit trees. Other activities available include ziplining and kayaking and tubing on the Sok River.
Besides the picturesque scenery, many people visit Khao Sok for diverse wildlife. It’s believed that over five percent of the species on the planet live within the park. It’s common to see small creatures like Malaysian tapirs, wild boars, and pig-tailed macaques, although sightings of larger animals like Asian elephants and tigers are rarer.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Khao Sok National Park
Founded in 1350, the city of Ayuthaya (also spelled Ayutthaya) is located in the Chao Phraya River valley in Central Thailand. It sits on an island surrounded by three rivers connecting it to the Gulf of Siam. King U Thong proclaimed it the capital of his kingdom. Once declared the most magnificent city on earth, the ruins of Ayuthaya are now a major attraction for those visiting Thailand.
As the capital of the Thai Kingdom, Ayuthaya was an impressive site, with three palaces and more than 400 temples. From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the city flourished. By the year 1700, the population reached nearly 1,000,000. Ayuthaya became a center for trade as well as a connecting point between the West and the East.
In 1767, the Burmese attacked and conquered Ayuthaya. The majority of the once magnificent reliquary towers, monasteries, temples and palaces were destroyed during this invasion. However, some structures still stand and tourists are welcome to visit these.
Many of the ancient remains in Ayuthaya lie in the western section of the island, while others are more widespread. One of the most popular sites is Wat Phra Mahathat. Here one will find a sandstone Buddha head entwined with the roots of a Bodhi tree. One of the most important images of the seated Buddha can be found at Wiharn Phra Mongkhon Bophit, and is a highlight for the Buddhists as well as others visiting the site. Thailand’s largest gilded Buddha, known as Phra Buddha Triratana Nayok, is found at Wat Phanan Choeng. It is a nearly 20 feet (6 meter) tall seated Buddha and is one of the most venerated in Thailand.
The modern city is just 80 km (50 miles) north of Bangkok, and is easily reached by train, bus and van. Although many visitors choose a day trip from Bangkok, one may want to lengthen that time to two or three days in order to have time to enjoy the great number of ruins as well as the local charm and excellent food found in Ayuthaya.
See also: Ayutthaya Attractions
Thailand’s second largest island, Ko Chang is located off of the country’s southeastern coast near the Cambodian border. The island has everything that travelers want from a tropical vacation, from long stretches of sandy beaches to unspoiled rainforests. There are plenty of activities to pursue on the island too, including scuba diving, kayaking and jungle trekking.
When it comes to lazing on the beach in luxury, White Sand Beach is one of the most popular places to visit on the island. Located on the island’s northwestern corner, it’s the longest beach on Ko Chang. The central section of the soft sandy beach is lined with resorts and hotels. Hat Tha Nam on Ko Chang’s southwest coast attracts travelers looking for fun on a budget. From rustic bungalows to tree houses, visitors can find accommodations here on the cheap and spend the money that they’ve saved on the bars and restaurants popping up along the shoreline.
Among the many beaches on Ko Chang, Hat Khlong Phao is one of the most striking. Extreme low and high tides make this picturesque beach a beachcomber’s dream. Located at the north end of the beach is Laem Chaiyachet, a rock formation that’s been fitted out with a pier. It’s the perfect spot to watch the sun setting into the Gulf of Thailand.
Around 70 percent of Ko Chang is covered by mountainous forests, and taking hikes to view the island’s waterfalls offers visitors a refreshing break from sunbathing in the sand. A short hike from the beach of Khlong Phrao leads visitors to Namtok Khlong Phlu, the island’s largest waterfall. The falls drop in three cascading tiers. Those who climb to the top tier can reward themselves with a dip in a large pool.
Located in western Thailand and admired for its beautiful scenery and accessibility to national parks and waterfalls, Kanchanaburi is best known for its iron bridge that is linked with the historic Death Railway to Burma in which thousands of Asian laborers and POWS died during its construction under Japanese occupation during WWII.
While Kanchanaburi is a thriving city, the main attractions are associated with WWII, chiefly the iron railroad bridge that was portrayed in the Academy Award winning 1957 film, “Bridge over the River Kwai.”
Several museums and war cemeteries all present information about the city and its bridge during the 1940s Japan occupation. The city is also home to many spas and temples of which the Tiger Temple is the most popular.
Outside of Kanchanaburi are various national parks, including Erawan and Srinakarind National Parks, all offering beautiful scenery, waterfalls, caves and visits to tribal villages.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Kanchanaburi
See also: Top Kanchanaburi Attractions
Railay (or Rai Leh) is a small peninsula in south Thailand that is only accessible by boat due to the high limestone cliffs cutting off mainland access. These cliffs attract rock climbers from all over the world, but the area is also a popular attraction in Thailand due to its beautiful beaches and quiet relaxing atmosphere.
Almost every patch of buildable land fronting in the eastern and western part of the peninsula has been taken over by bungalow resorts, and development is creeping up into the forest behind. But at least there are no high-rise buildings, and much of the construction is hidden among trees or set amid prettily landscaped gardens.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Railay
Located off the southeastern shore of Thailand, the tiny 21 square km (13 square mile) island of Tao remained largely uninhabited until the late 1900s and has only recently been developed as a travel destination. With its white sandy beaches, lush green forests and majestic granite rock formations, it’s no wonder that its bare-amenity bungalows are making room for luxury resorts as more visitors become aware of the island’s natural attractions.
Koh Tao is best known as premier scuba diving and snorkeling location. With many shallow bays, easy currents and gorgeous coral reefs, many visitors come to Koh Tao to learn how to scuba dive or to upgrade their scuba diving certification. There are multiple diving schools in Mae Hat, the island’s main town, as well as in many other places around the island. Koh Tao’s coral reefs are home to a broad variety of marine life, including butterfly fish, batfish, whale sharks and bull sharks.
“Tao” is the Thai word for turtle, and some believe that the island was named for its turtle-like shape. Koh Tao also has several locations where hawksbill and green turtles come to breed every year, although their habitat has been threatened from the island’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination. In recent years, Koh Tao’s diving schools have banded together to help preserve the turtle breeding grounds.
Other popular activities on the island include rock climbing, sailing, mountain biking and game fishing. Mae Hat also has several schools that offer courses in Thai cooking and yoga. Sairee Village is the island’s hot spot and has an assortment of restaurants, bars and clubs.
See also: Best Beaches in Koh Tao
Surrounded by the mountains of northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a flourishing city often used as a base among tourists wishing to explore the lush landscapes, hill tribes and outdoor adventures of the region. Nevertheless, Chiang Mai itself is a large and culturally important city where historical and modern Thai architecture and traditions coexist.
A walk around the historic center bestows views of old city walls and dozens of beautiful ancient temples. However, the most famous of these temples, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, lies outside Chiang Mai on a mountainside overlooking the city. Modern-day Chiang Mai offers handicraft markets, an abundance of massage and spa parlors, botanical gardens and an elephant nature park where visitors can bathe and feed elephants.
Those seeking to experience the beauty, wildlife and adventure of the mountainous region will find a large variety of organized tour companies operating out of Chiang Mai that feature trekking, mountain biking, ziplining, river rafting and visits to local hill tribes.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
See also: Top Chiang Mai Attractions
Thailand’s capital city and by far the largest city in the country, Bangkok, is a buzzing cosmopolis of high rise buildings, magnificent palaces, ancient temples, glittering nightclubs, bustling markets and streets lined with vendors hawking souvenirs and tantalizing foods. While the city is sometimes described as a concrete jungle jam-packed with noisy traffic and air pollution, Bangkok is not without its natural beauty that is seen in its remaining canals, green spaces and flowering tropical plants.
Located in Central Thailand, Bangkok is a sprawling city offering something for everyone. The famous tourist street, Khao San Road, is a good place to begin with its interesting sites and cheap shopping and nightlife. The city is well known for its myriad of temples such as the sacred Wat Phra Kaew, which contains the Emerald Buddha. Zoos, water parks and amusement parks all present family fun. Shopping in Bangkok is sensational with numerous shopping malls and markets, including the not-to-be-missed floating markets. Sporting venues host Thai boxing matches.
From scores of street vendors to market stalls and a variety of restaurants for every budget and taste, Bangkok offers a fantastic dining experience. The city is also well known for its wild nightlife.
Due to the city’s congested traffic, the best transport options around Bangkok are the Skytrain, the metro and tuk-tuks. A memorable way to experience Bangkok is by a boat ride on the canals.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bangkok
See also: Top Bangkok Attractions
Situated off the southeastern coast of Phuket in the Krabi Province is the idyllic Phi Phi Island archipelago. The largest island is Ko Phi Phi Don, a popular vacation destination famed for its sun-soaked beaches, beautiful limestone cliffs and laid-back atmosphere.
Tonsai Bay and Long Beach attract the most tourists, while secluded beaches like Phak Nam Bay offer a tranquil escape away from the crowds. It’s also possible to hike up to Phi Phi Viewpoint, which boasts dramatic 360-degree views over the entire island.
In the middle of the island is the bustling village of Tonsai. Considered the heart of Ko Phi Phi, this charming town is teeming with mouthwatering restaurants and lively beach bars.
One mile south of Phi Phi Don is Koh Phi Phi Leh, a sparkling oasis of crystal clear waters and limestone rocks. At the center of the island is Maya Bay, which served as the stunning backdrop for the movie, The Beach.
See also: Best Beaches in Ko Phi Phi