The Southeast Asian nation of Thailand shares borders with Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia in the south. It sits in roughly the center of this cultural region and is awash with floodplains, mountainous northern areas, river valleys, rainforest and what are often considered some of the most beautiful tropical islands in the world.
With a tropical and savanna climate, Thailand certainly is famous for its islands. The coastline measures over 3,000 kilometers. Its limestone islands jut out of the impossibly blue seas in the Andaman Sea, whilst in the Gulf of Thailand scuba havens like Koh Tao entice people the world over. With the Mekong on its eastern side, the verdant highlands to the north, and tropical bastions studding its seas, this is a varied slice of Southeast Asia.
With Myanmar on its north and west, and Laos to the east, Northern Thailand is the northernmost part of the country. Part of the Shan Hills, originating further north in Myanmar, extend into Northern Thailand, making this region markedly mountainous.
Chiang Mai, gateway to this northern region, is a charming city featuring ancient city walls and a plethora of Buddhist temples. Not far from the city of Phitsanulok is the crumbling city of Sukhothai, centrepiece of the Sukhothai Kingdom, which lasted from the 13th to the 15th century.
Adventures can be had on a motorcycle through the hilly landscape around the town of Pai, north of Chiang Mai, complete with gleaming rice terraces and fields of flowers. To the east is Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, home to ethnic minorities and hidden villages.
The largest and easternmost region of Thailand, Isaan comprises 20 provinces. The mighty Mekong River – the world’s 12th longest – flows in the east and separates Isaan from Laos, whilst Cambodia lies in the south. It’s a distinct historical and cultural region, with its own language and cuisine – and is firmly off the beaten track.
Isaan is a large region of plateau landscape around half the size of Germany. Here you’ll find the jungle-strewn Phu Phan National Park. It’s known for its bamboo, Asian maple trees, scattered ruins, and even the famous Tang Pee Parn natural stone bridge.
There are Thai tulip fields at Sai Thong National Park, Chaiyaphum province. Elsewhere, Khao Yai National Park is all dense forests, abrupt grasslands like Nong Pak Chee, and famous spots like Pha Diao Dai or “Lonely Cliff”.
The rocky Dangrek Mountains form a natural border with Cambodia; still, crumbling Khmer ruins can be seen at the Hindu temple complex of Phanom Rung nearby.
North of the sprawling capital are the less mountainous plains of Central Thailand: and the historic town of Ayutthaya.
The capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1350-1767), it was famed for its openness towards traders from all over the world, including from Japan and Korea, to India, Persia and even Portugal. Today it abounds with buildings reflecting the splendor of its glory days.
To the west lies a darker history at Kanchanaburi. This is the home of the Death Railway, where in 1943 thousands – from British and Dutch prisoners of war to local laborers – lost their lives forced to build a railway to then-Burma for the Empire of Japan. The famous ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ is located here.
National parks are aplenty. Erawan National Park, one of Thailand’s most famous, is located in the south of the Tenasserim Hills – separating this region from Myanmar – and boasts a seven-tier waterfall, lush jungle and even a population of wild elephants and tigers.
Bangkok & Around
Bangkok is the shiny capital of Thailand and home to 12.6% of the country’s population. It may be easy to think of this region of Thailand as simply skyscrapers and urban sprawl, but there’s more to it than that.
Even within the boundaries of the city itself, there is tranquility. Head to Phu Khao Thong, a city park that’s more than just leafy. This verdant jungle park is an oasis away from the noise of the city and offers up amazing city views, too.
Nearby are the Bangkok Khlongs, where you can take a longtail boat, soak up the rural atmosphere and discover rural communities as well as floating markets. The hustle and bustle of the waterways at Amphawa Floating Market make for an intriguing and colourful afternoon.
Also close by is Bang Khrao, sometimes referred to as the “Green Lung of Bangkok”, a veritable tropical paradise with boardwalks through glowing greenery.
Eastern Thailand borders Cambodia to the east, Isaan to the north, Bangkok to the west and boasts a beautiful coastline facing the Gulf of Thailand. Beautiful islands abound here.
Ko Samet is known for its fine, white sand beaches and makes for a popular weekend getaway for residents of Bangkok. Pattaya, on the coast, is more of a playground, where beachside getaway collides with hedonism for a mix of high-rises, resorts, clubs and bars.
There’s also Mu Ko Chang National Park, with beaches and glittering seas. Wildlife here ranges from soft-shelled turtles and Oceanic whitetip shark, to king cobra and barking deer. Ko Kut, one of its islands, boasts hiking paths leading to jagged rock formations and 500-year-old tree groves.
Ko Chang – giving the national park its name – means ‘Elephant Island’ and is resplendent with beaches, including the stunner that is Hat Khlong Phrao Beach.
The Gulf Coast of southern Thailand, separated from non-peninsular Thailand in the north by the narrow Kra Isthmus, is famous for its tropical island. Most notable of all is the Samui Archipelago, famed for its islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.
Koh Tao, in particular, is still very rugged and is particularly renowned for its astounding scuba diving opportunities. Samui is practically ringed with beaches at every possible moment, whilst Phangan, though beachy, features steep hills in its interior.
Nearby is Ang Thong National Marine Park, an incredible archipelago of 42 island; all but two are uninhabited. Ko Mae Ko, with its unearthly emerald saltwater lake surrounded by walls of limestone linked by a tunnel to the sea, is particularly beautiful.
In Prachuap Khiri Khan province there’s Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park. Here, slotted between limestone hills jutting out the land, are freshwater marshes and the captivating, cathedral-like Phraya Nakhon Cave.
On the opposite side of the peninsular region that makes up Southern Thailand is the Andaman Coast of the country. Facing the Indian Ocean, this part of the country is most famous for Phuket.
The country’s largest island, it features the final reaches of the Phuket Range, a sub-range of the Tenasserim Hills; the limestone on the island formed tooty peaks in the last ice age. On its coast, Phuket boasts beaches and coves. Further south is Krabi and the Phi Phi Islands. Here you can expect postcard-perfect turquoise seas, white beaches, rocks of land that seem to jut suddenly out of the water.
There’s also Khao Sok National Park. This hot and humid inland area features a peak of nearly 1,000 metres above sea level; it’s a jungle environment that creates a habitat for tigers, gaur, as well leopard cats and many species of birds.
The Deep South
A region of Southern Thailand, the country’s Deep South is a historically and culturally Malay Muslim area, composed of Songhkla, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces; all of these are the only Thai provinces with a Muslim majority.
The region borders Malaysia to the south and has been locked in an on-and-off insurgency that has flared up the early 2000s; as of 2019 there are still travel warnings in place.
In Yala province there’s the large and far-flung Bang Lang National Park, in which are located the dramatic Titiwangsa Mountains. Namtok Sai Khao National Park – straddling Yala, Pattani and Songkhla – is a gigantic stretch of forested mountains. The Sai Khao waterfalls here are particularly sought after.
This is also the location of the southern, brackish portion of Songkhla Lake – the largest natural lake in the country. It consists of Melaleuca swamp forests, marshy grasslands, mangroves in its northern portions, and even a small population of Irrawaddy dolphins.