Thailand has been catering to travellers for decades. From backpackers traversing the well-trodden ‘Banana Pancake Trail’ to holidaymakers looking to soak up some warm tropical sun on the beaches of Phuket… if there’s one thing we’re sure of, it’s that the ‘Land of Smiles’ has something for everyone.
If you’re looking for an explosion of culture, flavours, and colour, then look no further than Bangkok, notorious for its wild nightlife, street food, and temples. Or for an idyllic escape with pristine beaches, incredible scuba diving, and hiking, head to Koh Pha-Ngan, a true island paradise.
Thailand is as diverse as it is wonderful, but we know it can be tricky to narrow down exactly where to go. Luckily, we’ve done the research and we have the insider knowledge to put together this list of the best places to visit in Thailand. So, in no particular order, here they are:
Bangkok, Thailand’s vibrant capital, makes the list every time. For most people arriving in the country, Bangkok is their exuberant introduction to Thailand. For many, it’s nothing more than a brief stopping point, but we highly recommend sticking around for a few days and embracing the city and all it has to offer!
The city is a haven for street food, and lining its busy streets, you’ll find plastic tables and chairs clustered around hole-in-the-wall kitchens or food carts. These roadside eateries may seem simple, but don’t be fooled by appearances, as you’ll discover mouth-watering Thai dishes, and several (like Pad Thai Fair Ta Lu), are even Michelin Bib Gourmands.
While you’re in Bangkok, a visit to one of its famous temples (known as a ‘wat’ in Thai) is a must. Wat Phra Kaew is the most visited temple in the city and home to the Emerald Buddha believed to be the most important Buddha statue in the country. However, Wat Arun, next to the Chao Phraya River is a personal favourite.
Best for: Backpackers, nightlife, street food
We absolutely adore Chiang Mai and its chilled-out vibes. You’ll find this city in the north of Thailand, surrounded by mountains and dense tropical jungle – this means it can get a little cool at night, but for many, the cooler temperatures are a welcome respite.
Despite it being a city, Chiang Mai feels less hectic than Bangkok, making it the perfect place to spend a few relaxing days (or more!). While you’re there, we recommend heading to Wat Phra Doi Suthep, which is a little outside of the city. The temple dates back to 1383, and from its position high up in the mountain, you’ll have sweeping views of Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside.
Other top things to do in Chiang Mai are heading to a local market to pick up some souvenirs (the Chiang Mai Sunday Market is fantastic), joining a cooking class, and heading to an ethical elephant sanctuary.
Best for: Backpackers, families, temples, markets
Roughly 130 km northwest of Chiang Mai, you’ll find the little town of Pai, close to the Myanmar border. Pai is known for its laid-back vibe, boho bars, and stunning surroundings. It’s incredibly cheap, making it a popular destination for backpackers, who are looking to reconnect with nature by taking in the amazing views, exploring caves and waterfalls, and soaking in hot springs.
Popular viewpoints in the area are the Pai Canyon (a roughly 10-minute hike) and Chedi Phra That Mae Yen, (a temple with a huge Buddha statue overlooking the valley). For those looking to delve into the past, the Tham Lod Caves are a popular day trip and home to ancient coffins, wall paintings, and interesting rock formations.
Make sure to schedule some time at the Sai Ngam Hot Spring 20 km from town, for a warm bath in clear waters surrounded by lush greenery.
Best for: Backpackers, hot springs, nature
Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai National Park is Thailand’s oldest national park, dating back to 1962. It’s the third-largest national park in the country, with roughly 2,168 km² of rainforest, mountains, and grasslands.
It’s possible to visit on a day trip from Bangkok, so if you’re a fan of wildlife (even if you’re on a tight schedule), we’d recommend checking it out.
The park is home to a wide variety of animals, including Asian elephants, Asian black bears, barking deer, gibbons, and more. It’s also a haven for birdlife with oriental-pied hornbills and great hornbills spotted flying over the visitor centre almost every day!
The easiest way to visit the park is to join a tour, however, make sure to double-check what the tour includes, as some of the cheaper tours pass by the waterfalls and viewpoints only, and don’t visit areas of the park known for wildlife sightings.
Best for: Hiking, wildlife, waterfalls
Tourists have been flocking to Phuket for years thanks to its incredible beaches, amazing resorts, and colourful after-hours scene.
With amazing beaches like Freedom, Kata, and Karon, we wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to spend all your time lazing on the sand, but Phuket is also an amazing base for day trips. You could spend your time island hopping, exploring the infamous Maya Bay (the beach from The Beach), or visiting Khao Sok National Park for jungle trekking and kayaking down the Sok River.
When you return, get ready for a wild night out, as Phuket is notorious for nightlife (you’ll find everything from neon-lit streets lined with cheap bars, discos, and pubs, to trendy beach bars and huge nightclubs).
Phuket is also a great choice for families, with a wide variety of family-friendly activities like the Blue Tree Water Park, Splash Jungle Water Park, and Flying Hanuman (a fun-filled zipline course).
Best for: Families, couples, nightlife, beaches
Koh Tao may be overshadowed by its more famous neighbour, Koh Samui, but, if you’re looking for idyllic beaches and a more laid-back party scene, then you’ve found the perfect spot.
This little island may only be 21 km², but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty. Koh Tao is well known in the diving world as a great destination for getting your PADI qualification. It’s not the best place for diving in Thailand (check out the Similan Islands below), but it’s affordable and there’s still plenty to see underwater.
However, we’d recommend choosing your dive school wisely, as the island is home to a few ‘dive factories’ (dive schools known for churning out qualified divers without focusing on customer experience). You can read more about it here.
Other than diving and chilling out on the beach, we’d recommend a day trip to nearby Koh Nang Yuan, a postcard-worthy island with powdery white sand and azure waters.
Best for: Backpackers, learning to dive
Thailand has no shortage of next-level beaches, and Railay Beach is up there as one of the best. Technically on the mainland, Railay is characterised by towering cliffs and thick tropical forests, which make accessing it by road impossible. You can only reach Railay by boat, and once you’re there, get ready to spend your trip walking as there are no cars!
Its tranquil setting has made it a haven for honeymooners and couples looking for a romantic getaway, which can make it a pricey destination. But, you can always make your trip more budget-friendly by visiting in the low season (April to October) or staying in neighbouring Tonsai Beach (not to be confused with Tonsai Bay on Koh Phi Phi) where you can camp or stay in a simple bamboo cottage.
Railay is renowned worldwide as Thailand’s best rock climbing destination, with big cliffs for experienced climbers and smaller rock faces for beginners. When you’re not scaling the rocks, you can hop on an island tour or hike through the jungle to reach Railay View Point.
Best for: Couples, rock climbing, beaches
There’s nowhere better in the country than Ayutthaya to experience ancient Thailand. Ayutthaya, a historic city that dates back to 1350, was Thailand’s prosperous capital under King U-Thong. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with crumbling temple ruins that remind us of Cambodia‘s Angkor Wat.
Ayutthaya is less than two hours from Bangkok (easy to reach via train, taxi, or as part of a tour), making it the perfect day trip. While we think one day is enough to see Ayutthaya’s attractions, if you’d prefer to take it slow, there are plenty of places to stay in the modern city that envelops the old capital.
Some top sights in Ayutthaya include Wat Chaiwatthanaram, a Khmer-style temple which is spectacular during sunset, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, also known as the King’s Temple, and Wat Mahathat, renowned for the stone Buddha peeking out from tree roots.
Best for: History
We already mentioned Khao Sok as one of the fantastic day trips from Phuket, but we’d also recommend it as a stand-alone destination.
This beautiful national park is filled with raw beauty and encompasses some of the oldest rainforests on the planet. The park has made a name for itself thanks to its looming limestone cliffs, emerald green waters, and abundance of wildlife.
The easiest way to visit the Khao Sok is to join a tour, but if you’d rather do it independently, be aware that most of the trails require guides. The most popular trail in the park is the Ton Kloi Waterfall Trail, a 7 km trail where you might encounter langurs, monkeys, and tropical birds (beware of the leeches though!). For something more relaxing, you can spend the day cruising on a local longtail boat on Cheow Lan Lake.
For a really special experience, why not stay overnight in a floating bungalow?
Best for: Wildlife, waterfalls, hiking
While Koh Pha-Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand is renowned for its monthly full moon party, during the rest of the month, its chilled-out vibe is a magnet for yogis, backpackers, and other travellers.
The island is the perfect tropical escape, with gorgeous beaches, waterfalls deep in the jungle, and traditional temples. A typical day on Koh Pha-Ngan looks like a restorative morning yoga session, followed by a dip in Paradise Waterfall, then an afternoon spent relaxing on the beach.
Head to Haad Yao for a popular beach with restaurants, bars, and snorkelling just off the shore, or if you’d prefer somewhere quieter, make your way to Haad Salad Beach.
Best for: Backpackers, couples, yoga, diving, full-moon parties
Koh Lipe is one of my personal favourite islands in Thailand. It’s right on Thailand’s southern border, and you can even get a boat directly from Langkawi in Malaysia.
The island has picture-perfect beaches (think whiter than white sand, crystal clear turquoise waters, and palm trees for days), romantic resorts, and some spectacular diving and snorkelling.
It’s a tiny island that you can easily walk across, and despite its small size, it has all the amenities of bigger Thai islands (diving schools, restaurants, ATMs, etc.).
Koh Lipe is part of Koh Tarutao National Marine Park, and there are plenty of island hopping opportunities to visit neighbouring islands. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can even stay overnight and camp on one of these remote islands.
Best for: Honeymooners, backpackers, diving
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi (a group of six islands in the Andaman Sea) are perhaps the most iconic islands in Thailand. Travellers flock to the islands in droves to see the world-famous Maya Bay with their own eyes, usually as part of a day tour from nearby Krabi or Phuket.
While Maya Bay is truly spectacular (and even more so following its recent string of closures), there’s much more to these islands than the beach graced by good old Leo DiCaprio himself.
We recommend splashing out and hiring a private longtail boat so you can plan your own island-hopping trip and avoid the majority of the crowds during peak hours. Popular spots include Monkey Bay, Viking Cave, and Pileh Lagoon.
Best for: Backpackers, couples, beaches
If you’re an avid diver, then the Similan Islands (a Marine National Park since 1982) are one of the best places to visit in Thailand. These beautiful islands on Thailand’s southern coast are known for their pristine coral reefs, the abundance of marine life, and interesting underwater rock formations.
The diving season is between late October to May, and during this time, it’s not uncommon for visibility to reach up to 30 metres! The kinds of creatures you may encounter range from manta rays, groupers, and triggerfish, to several species of sharks, as well as a variety of soft and hard corals.
There are several ways to experience the stunning dive sites of the Similan Islands. You can stay on three of the nine islands (Koh Miang, Koh Similan, and Koh Tachai), take a day trip from Khao Lak, or stay on a liveaboard.
Best for: Diving
Thailand is an incredibly diverse country filled with picture-perfect destinations. From buzzing cities full of culture, off-the-beaten-path tropical islands, and vast national parks filled with wildlife, there are countless spots to discover.
Hopefully, we’ve inspired you with our list of the best places to visit in Thailand, but, if you’ve got a secret spot that we’ve missed out on, feel free to let us know in the comments below!