With 16 million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand is Asia’s primary travel destination and offers a host of places to visit. Travel to Thailand and you’ll find that despite this vast influx of visitors, it’s cultural integrity remains largely undamaged. Thailand is a country that cleverly avoided colonisation has been able to absorb Western influences while maintaining its own rich heritage.
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Though the high-rises and neon lights occupy the foreground of the tourist picture, the typical Thai community is still the farming village, and you need not venture far to encounter a more traditional scene of fishing communities, rubber plantations and Buddhist temples.
Around 40% of Thais earn their living from the land, based around the staple rice, which forms the foundation of the country’s unique and famously sophisticated cuisine.
Tourism has been just one factor in the country’s development which, since the deep-seated uncertainties surrounding the Vietnam War faded, has been free, for the most part, to proceed at death-defying pace – for a time in the 1980s and early 1990s, Thailand boasted the fastest-expanding economy in the world.
Through all the changes of the last sixty years, the much-revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol has lent a measure of stability.
Furthermore, some 85 percent of the population are still practising Theravada Buddhists, a unifying faith that colours all aspects of daily life – from the tiered temple rooftops that dominate every skyline, to the omnipresent saffron-robed monks and the packed calendar of festivals.
Deciding where to go in Thailand depends on two things: what you want to do, and when you want to go. The varying areas of the country, from North to South offer visitors a selection of sights, activities and experiences. In this travel guide on the best places to visit in Thailand, we unearth where to enjoy the country’s range of activities, from world-class diving to carousing at lively festivals. Once that’s decided, you’ll need to check the best time to visit.
The clash of tradition and modernity is most intense in Bangkok, which forms the first stop on almost any itinerary. Within its historic core you’ll find resplendent temples, canalside markets and the opulent indulgence of the eighteenth-century Grand Palace. Downtown’s forest of skyscrapers shelters cutting-edge fashion in decor boutiques and some achingly hip bars and clubs.
Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you’re not careful you could end up watching DVDs all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major sights in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, lively and grandiose Wat Pho and National Museum.
Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the “Marble Temple”), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson’s House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.
If you’re wondering where to visit in the northern uplands, then start with Chiang Mai. It’s both an attractive historic city and a vibrant cultural centre, with a strong tradition of arts, crafts and festivals.
Self-improvement courses are a strong suit – from ascetic meditation to Thai cookery classes – while the overriding enticement of the surrounding region is the prospect of trekking through villages inhabited by a richly mixed population of tribal peoples.
Plenty of outdoor activities and courses, as well as hot springs and massages, can be enjoyed at Pai, a surprisingly cosmopolitan hill station for travellers, four hours northwest of Chiang Mai.
Many colourful festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places in Thailand to see in the Thai New Year – Songkhran – in mid-April, and to celebrate Loy Krathong at the full moon in November, when thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River in lotus-leaf boats.
Beyond the city limits, a number of other day-trips can be made, such as to the ancient temples of Lamphun – and, of course, Chiang Mai is the main centre for hill-tribe trekking, as well as all sorts of other outdoor activities.
The pick of the coasts are in the south, where the Samui archipelago off the Gulf coast ranks as one of the best places to go in Thailand. Ko Samui itself has the most sweeping white-sand beaches, and the greatest variety of accommodation and facilities to go with them.
Ko Pha Ngan next door is still largely backpacker territory, where you have a stark choice between desolate coves and Hat Rin, Thailand’s party capital. The remotest island, rocky Ko Tao, is acquiring increasing sophistication as Southeast Asia’s largest dive-training centre.
Tucked away beneath the islands, Nakhon Si Thammarat, the cultural capital of the south, is well worth a short detour from the main routes through the centre of the peninsula – it’s a sophisticated city of grand old temples, delicious cuisine and distinctive handicrafts.
With Chiang Mai and the north so firmly planted on the independent tourist trail, the intervening central plains tend to get short shrift. Yet there is rewarding trekking around Umphang, near the Burmese border, and the elegant ruins of former capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai embody a glorious artistic heritage, displaying Thailand’s distinctive ability to absorb influences from quite different cultures.
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Even if you’re just passing through, you can’t miss the star attraction of Nakhon Pathom: the enormous stupa Phra Pathom Chedi dominates the skyline.
To get an idea of what shopping in Bangkok used to be like before all the canals were tarmacked over, many people take an early-morning trip to the floating market (talat khlong) at Damnoen Saduak. Sixty kilometres south of Nakhon Pathom and just over a hundred kilometres from Bangkok.
Across on the other side of the peninsula, the Andaman coast offers even more exhilarating scenery and the finest coral reefs in the country, in particular around the Ko Similan island chain, which ranks among the best dive sites in the world.
The largest Andaman coast island, Phuket, is one of Thailand’s top tourist destinations and graced with a dozen fine beaches, though several have been overdeveloped with a glut of high-rises and tacky nightlife.
Beautiful little Ko Phi Phi is a major party hub, surrounded by the turquoise seas and dramatic limestone cliffs that characterize the coastline throughout Krabi province. Large, forested Ko Lanta is, for the moment at least, a calmer alternative for families, but for genuine jungle you’ll need to head inland, to the rainforests of Khao Sok National Park.
Further down the Thai peninsula, in the provinces of the deep south, the teeming sea life and unfrequented sands of the Trang islands and Ko Tarutao National Marine Park make this one of Thailand’s top places to go. There’s now the intriguing possibility of island-hopping your way down through them – in fact, all the way from Phuket to Penang in Malaysia – without setting foot on the mainland.
The greatest interest in the deep south is currently all over on the beautiful west coast, where sheer limestone outcrops, pristine sands and fish-laden coral stretch down to the Malaysian border.
Along Trang’s mainland coast, there’s a 30km stretch of attractive beaches, dotted with mangroves and impressive caves that can be explored by sea canoe, but the real draw down here is the offshore islands, which offer gorgeous panoramas and beaches, great snorkelling and at least a modicum of comfort in their small clusters of resorts.
Another regular in lists of the best places to go in Thailand, Khao Yai National Park – the country’s first national park – encapsulates the phenomenal diversity of Thailand’s flora and fauna. It’s one of the very few national parks to maintain a network of hiking trails that visitors can explore by themselves, passing dramatic waterfalls, orchids and an abundance of wildlife.
Spanning five distinct forest types and rising to a height of 1,351m, the park sustains over 300 bird and twenty large land-mammal species – hence its UNESCO accreditation as a World Heritage Site.
Rangers discourage visitors from exploring the outer, non-waymarked reaches unguided, partly for environmental reasons, but also because of trigger-happy sandalwood poachers. Sandalwood trees are indigenous to Khao Yai, and though oil collection does not usually kill the tree, it does weaken it. Guides can point out trees that have been cut in this way along the trails.
Few tourists visit Isaan, the poorest and in some ways the most traditionally Thai region. Here, a trip through the gently modulating landscapes of the Mekong River valley, which defines Thailand’s northeastern extremities.
It takes in archetypal agricultural villages and a fascinating array of religious sites, while the southern reaches of Isaan hold some of Thailand’s best-kept secrets – the magnificent stone temple complexes of Phimai, Phanom Rung and Khao Phra Viharn, all built by the Khmers of Cambodia almost ten centuries ago.
We may have already mentioned the Andaman Coast, but Phuket is worth looking at in greater detail. Thailand’s largest island and a province in its own right, Phuket is the wealthiest province in Thailand, with tourism driving the economy.
Some tourist developments have scarred much of the island, however, many of the beaches are still strikingly handsome, resort facilities are second to none, and the offshore snorkelling and diving are exceptional.
If you’re after a peaceful spot, aim for the 17km-long national park beach of Hat Mai Khao, its more developed neighbour Hat Nai Yang, or one of the smaller alternatives at Hat Nai Thon or Hat Kamala.
Despite over a million visitors a year, Ko Samui remains a top places to go in Thailand. Back-packers to bougie fortnighters come to this part of southern Thailand for the beautiful beaches. At 15km across and down, Samui is generally large enough to cope with this diversity and the paradisal sands and clear blue seas have kept their good looks.
The island’s most appealing strand, Chaweng, has seen the heaviest, most crowded development and is now the most expensive place to stay, though it does offer by far the best amenities and nightlife. Its slightly smaller neighbour, Lamai, lags a little behind in terms of looks and top-end development, but retains large pockets of backpacker bungalow resorts.
The other favourite for backpackers is Maenam, which, though less attractive again, is markedly quiet, with plenty of room to breathe between the beach and the round-island road.
The weather in Thailand is split into three seasons: rainy (roughly May–Oct) cool (Nov–Feb) and hot (March–May).
The rains usually builds momentum between June and August, hitting its peak in September and October. The cool season is when travelling in Thailand is most pleasant, though temperatures can still reach a sticky 30°C. In the hot season, you’re best of hitting the beach.
So, the best time to go to Thailand is the cool seasons: more manageable temperatures and less rain, it offers waterfalls in full spate and the best of the upland flowers in bloom. Bear in mind, however, that it’s also the busiest season.
Thailand currently has seven main international airports: Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang), Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Krabi, Phuket and Ko Samui. The vast majority of people travelling to Thailand fly into Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Air fares to Thailand generally depend on the season, with the highest being approximately mid-November to mid-February, when the weather is best, and in July and August to coincide with school holidays. You will need to book several months in advance to get reasonably priced tickets during these peak periods.
The cheapest way of getting to most regional Thai airports is usually to buy a flight to Bangkok and then a separate domestic ticket. However, there are dozens of potentially useful, mostly seasonal, international routes into Phuket, including direct flights with several airlines from Australia.
Most international flights into Chiang Mai, Krabi, Ko Samui and Don Muang are from Malaysia, Singapore and China (including Hong Kong and Macau). Krabi also handles seasonal, mostly charter flights from Scandinavia, while Korean Airlines from Seoul is a popular route for North American visitors into Chiang Mai Airport, which has links with Myanmar and Laos too.
Travel in Thailand is largely cheap, easy and efficient – though not always speedy. For instance, long-distance journeys on land can be arduous, especially if a tight budget means you’re sat in the unforgiving second-class seats and there’s no air con.
That said, the many transport options available makes getting around Thailand a whole lot easier than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Buses are speedy, inexpensive and frequent, and can be quite luxurious.
Trains are slower, but safer and, there’s more chance to sleep during an overnight trip. It’s also worth nothing that if you’re travelling by day you’re more likely to follow a scenic route by rail than by road.
Songthaews (literally “two rows”) – open-ended vans with as many people squashed into the back as possible – supplement the bus network, especially in rural areas. Slightly more comfortable are share-taxis and air-conditioned mini-buses which connect many of the major towns and cities.
Discover more domestic transport options and how to get around Thailand.
Here is our Thailand travel guide condensed into 15 unmissable Thai destinations:
We’ve curated a series of itineraries that span Thailand, from running the rapids in the northern mountains to lazy beach stays in the Andaman archipelagos.
So, whether you want to come closer to superlative nature, satisfy your appetite for Thailand’s varied and colourful cuisine, or keep things low-key on a paradise island, this lineup of Thailand travel guides will see you navigate this incredible country with ease.
For the simplest double room while travelling in Thailand, prices start at a bargain B150 in the outlying regions, around B200 in Bangkok, and B400 in the pricier resorts. Tourist centres invariably offer a tempting range of more upmarket choices but in these areas rates fluctuate according to demand.
Most of Thailand’s budget accommodation is in guesthouses and bungalows. These are small, traveller-friendly hotels whose services nearly always include an inexpensive restaurant, wi-fi and safe storage for valuables and left luggage, and often a tour desk.
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Thailand travel sales reps and other people travelling for business rather than pleasure rarely use guest-houses, opting instead for budget hotels, which offer rooms for around B150–600. Usually run by Chinese-Thais, these functional three- or four-storey places are found in every sizeable town, often near the bus station or central market.
The rest of the accommodation picture is all about tourist hotels, which, like anywhere in the world, come in all sizes and qualities and are often best booked via online discount accommodation booking services such as local outfit sawadee.com. One way or another, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead in popular tourist areas during peak season.
As guesthouses have become increasingly hotel-like and commercial in their facilities and approach, many tourists looking for old-style local hospitality are choosing homestay accommodation instead. Homestays give an unparalleled insight into typical Thai (usually rural) life and can often be incorporated into a programme that includes experiencing village activities.
Thai food is one of the biggest reasons for the country’s popularity with tourists. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the country’s big culinary centres, offering the cream of gourmet Thai restaurants and the best international cuisines. The rest of the country is by no means a gastronomic wasteland, however, and you can eat well and cheaply in even the smallest provincial towns, many of which offer the additional attraction of regional specialities.
In fact, visit Thailand and you’ll find that you could eat more than adequately without ever entering a restaurant, as itinerant food vendors hawking hot and cold snacks materialise in even the most remote spots, as well as on trains and buses – and night markets often serve customers from dusk till dawn.
Hygiene is a consideration when eating anywhere in Thailand, but being too cautious means you’ll end up spending a lot of money and missing out on some real local treats. Wean your stomach gently by avoiding excessive amounts of chillies and too much fresh fruit in the first few days.
You can be pretty sure that any noodle stall or curry shop that’s permanently packed with customers is a safe bet. Furthermore, because most Thai dishes can be cooked in under five minutes, you’ll rarely have to contend with stuff that’s been left to smoulder and stew.
Many travellers’ itineraries take in a few days’ trekking in the hills and a stint snorkelling or diving off the beaches of the south. Trekking is concentrated in the north, but there are smaller, less touristy trekking operations in Kanchanaburi, Sangkhlaburi and Umphang. There are also plenty of national parks to explore and opportunities for rock climbing and kayaking.
Clear, warm waters (averaging 28°C), prolific marine life and affordable prices make Thailand a very rewarding place for diving and snorkelling.
Most islands and beach resorts have at least one dive centre that organises trips. Thailand’s premier diving destinations are generally considered to be Ko Similan, Ko Surin, Richelieu Rock and Hin Muang and Hin Daeng – all of them off the Andaman coast.
Boatmen and tour agents on most beaches offer snorkelling trips to nearby reefs and many dive operators welcome snorkelers to tag along for discounts of thirty percent or more; not all diving destinations are rewarding for snorkelers though, so check the relevant account in this book first.
Trekking in the mountains of north Thailand differs from trekking in most other parts of the world in that the emphasis is not primarily on the scenery but on the region’s inhabitants. While some of the villages are near enough to a main road to be reached on a day-trip from a major town, to get to the other, more traditional villages usually entails joining a guided party for a few days.
For most visitors, however, these hardships are outweighed by the experience of encountering people of such different cultures, travelling through tropical countryside. Here’s our take on some of Thailand’s best trekking routes.
The limestone karsts that pepper southern Thailand’s Andaman coast make ideal playgrounds for rock-climbers, and the sport has really taken off here in the past fifteen years. Most climbing is centred round East Railay and Ton Sai beaches on Laem Phra Nang in Krabi province, where there are dozens of routes within easy walking distance of tourist bungalows, restaurants and beaches.
Sea kayaking is also centred around Thailand’s Andaman coast, where the limestone outcrops, sea caves, hongs (hidden lagoons), mangrove swamps and picturesque shorelines of Ao Phang Nga in particular make for rewarding paddling.
Bangkok is the best place to catch authentic performances of classical Thai dance, though more easily digestible tourist-oriented shows are staged in some of the big tourist centres as well as in Bangkok. The country’s two main Thai boxing stadia are also in the capital, but you’ll come across local matches in the provinces too.
With their focus on indulgent self-pampering, spas are usually associated with high-spending tourists, but the treatments on offer at Thailand’s five-star hotels are often little different from those used by traditional medical practitioners, who have long held that massage and herbs are the best way to restore physical and mental well-being.
Thai massage (nuad boran) is based on the principle that many physical and emotional problems are caused by the blocking of vital energy channels within the body.
Nearly all Thai festivals have a religious aspect. The most theatrical are generally Brahmin (Hindu) in origin, honouring elemental spirits and deities with ancient rites and ceremonial costumed parades.
Buddhist celebrations usually revolve round the local temple, and while merit-making is a significant feature, a light-hearted atmosphere prevails, as the wat grounds are swamped with food and trinket vendors and makeshift stages are set up to show likay folk theatre, singing stars and beauty contests.
Many of the secular festivals (like the elephant roundups and the Bridge over the River Kwai spectacle) are outdoor local culture shows, geared specifically towards Thai and farang tourists. Here’s what you need to know on when to go.
From costs and climate to tipping to taxes, this Thailand travel guide has all the advice you’ll need to stay safe and happy.
Visiting Thailand for most Western passport holders (that includes citizens of the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) is simple as they’re allowed to enter the country for short stays without having to apply for a visa.
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Visa requirements for extended trips in Thailand are subject to frequent change, so you should always consult before departure a Thai embassy or consulate, a reliable travel agent, or the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website at wmfa.go.th.