When people think of Thailand, they often think of relaxing on a pristine beach with a refreshing cold drink in their hand.

Although Thailand is indeed blessed when it comes to diversions of the sandy persuasion, this country of more than 513 sq km (198 sq miles) also boasts virgin forestland, picturesque mountains, lively nightlife, raucous markets and of course, cities with their own unique histories and cultures. Unlike what many would believe, Thailand is a multifaceted destination, appealing to everyone from the hedonistic foodie to the ascetic seeking enlightenment (and everyone in between).

Fly-and-flop aficionados will of course head to a tropical island, as do most first-timers to the country, dazzled by the variety of destinations peppering Thailand’s waters. Likewise, culture vultures are most suited to big cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, while nature enthusiasts will be best served by combing through the emerald-green mountains of the kingdom’s north and northeast or the jungles along Myanmar’s border. With decent railway infrastructure, buses, ferries, cars for hire and many airports, it's easy to get around: you just need to choose the places to visit in Thailand that best match your interests.

People walk along a busy street lined with shops selling handicrafts, clothes and snacks for tourists
Get your fill of street food and people-watching among backpackers in Bangkok © Kritsaroot Udkwae / Shutterstock

1. Bangkok

Best city for food and nightlife

Many travelers to Thailand land in Bangkok only to immediately transfer to another destination. Although that is all well and good, they may be missing out on a city that, in spite of welcoming more tourists than any other city in the world in 2023, remains strangely underrated. After all, Bangkok is the perfect launching pad for day trips to the surrounding region, with floating markets and beaches to the south and popular national parks to the north. That makes it a great place to stay for a couple of days at least before heading to another part of Thailand.

With over 10 million residents, Bangkok is a sprawling megacity. But all it really takes to navigate Bangkok is a little advance preparation. The city’s more than 320,000 restaurants serve a wide range of cuisines from Thai to Ethiopian to Latvian, and its more than 500,000 street food vendors ensure that food is available anywhere in Bangkok 24 hours a day. In Bangkok, or Krung Thep Mahanakorn (the “City of Angels”), the world is your oyster … or chicken satay skewer, or bowl of soup noodles.

Bangkok's bars and clubs offer a surprisingly wide range of styles and drinks. Of the establishments on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, four are in Bangkok. The city also has a penchant for speakeasy-type places, as well as Japanese-style bars (Japanese being one of Bangkok’s biggest expat communities). If a drink is what you’re after, you will not go thirsty – spring for Q&A Bar’s Pinkish, a twist on the Negroni with rhubarb and grapefruit gin, the potent Old Fashioned jazzed up with turmeric at Vesper, or go classic with a good, crisp martini at Bamboo Bar.

Planning tip: Bangkok’s bars and clubs are not permitted to be open all night – in fact, most close at the relatively early time of 1am.

2. Chiang Mai

Best City for Temples

The former capital of the Northern Lanna empire, the Chiang Mai area boasts more than 300 temples. Some, like Doi Suthep, are famous for their stunning viewpoints; others, like Wat Suan Dok, serve as the burial grounds for the ashes of Chiang Mai’s former royal family. The charmingly weatherbeaten Wat Chedi Luang, founded in 1385, enjoys a convenient location smack dab in the middle of the Old Town, while Wat Phra Singh, home of the Lion Buddha, dazzles in the sunlight with its golden stupas. 

But there is plenty to see besides temples. Northern Thai cuisine is unlike any other in Thailand, inspired as it is by Chinese elements and nearly 200 years under Burmese rule. Northern Thais also dress and dance in a distinctive manner, as well as speak their own dialect, called kum mueang. Its many outdoor markets, such as Talat Warorot and Talat Jing Jai, sell food, clothing and knick-knacks that make perfect souvenirs.

Planning tip: Chiang Mai is a great base from which to explore the surrounding mountains, caves and waterfalls, all of which could take at least three days of your trip. From late February to early April, Chiang Mai is usually inundated with smoke from farmers burning land in the mountains to plant their crops. Opt for the Thai “winter” of November to January or the rainy season.

Two pre-teen children in a yellow kayak along a tropical palm-tree lined coastline
Phuket has top beaches and is packed with culture © anekoho / Shutterstock

3. Phuket

Best island for a blend of cultures

Although it is the biggest island in Thailand, Phuket hosts an entirely different culture from the rest of the country: a mix of Hokkien Chinese, Thai and Malaysian elements. Hokkien-style fried noodles, o-aew (a jelly made from plant seeds), o-tao (an oyster omelet topped with pork rinds) and moo hong (braised pork belly stew) are all dishes that originated in Phuket and are difficult to find even in the rest of Thailand. Little wonder, then, why Phuket is one of Thailand’s most-visited destinations.

Phuket’s architecture is also unique – evidence of its past when it was ruled by the Portuguese. Sino-Portuguese shophouses, with their distinctive colors, tiles and fusion of both Western and Eastern styles, line the streets of the Old Town and are reminiscent of the shophouses in Penang and Singapore. With its top-tier beaches and Old Town culture, Phuket is perfect for both first-timers and couples and can easily take up a week of your visit.

Planning tip: September to October is Phuket’s rainy season, so try to avoid the island during this time. There are plenty of other great destinations beyond Phuket to consider visiting too.

4. The far north

Best region for hiking

Known as the Golden Triangle, the apex of Thailand’s far north – where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet – has served as a destination for die-hard nature lovers for decades. Be it via motorcycle, mountain bike or simply walking, exploring this area yields not only striking natural beauty but also the chance to visit both Laos and Myanmar (if only, typically, for a short period of time). Once known as a major production spot for opium, the Golden Triangle is now where visitors come to cruise along the Mekong against a spectacular background, camp in moderate (for Thailand) weather, or visit an elephant camp (or all three!)

Sleepy Chiang Rai, the former capital of the Lanna dynasty, is only 9km (6 miles) south of the Golden Triangle, making it an ideal spot from which to trawl through the surrounding area. This city holds its own attractions as well, including the world-famous Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple, and is worth exploring for a day in itself.

Planning tip: It's a 1.5-hour trip from Chiang Rai to the Golden Triangle. Aside from renting a car, you can hire a taxi or take a bus, which should cost around 950 or 400 baht, respectively.

Two tourists buy produce from a vendor whose stall is a boat on a canal
Damnoen Saduak, Thailand's well-known floating market, is southwest of Bangkok © Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

5. The Upper Gulf

Best region for floating markets

The region south of Bangkok is easily reached from the capital, taking up a mere hour or so of driving (depending on traffic). Here is where you will find Thailand’s most famous floating markets, including Damnoen Saduak (at its busiest in the early morning) and Amphawa (more popular with locals and with a more nightlife-y vibe).

The famous Maeklong Railway Market can also be found here, where vendors pull up part of their stalls to allow a train to (slowly) pass six times a day. In Bang Kachao, called "the green lung of Bangkok" for its proximity to the capital, you can hire a bicycle to roll through the wilderness on concrete passageways, passing over canals hiding monitor lizards and reaching the island’s own floating market, Talat Nam Bang Nam Phueng. You can even take a day trip from Bangkok to the beach for sea breezes and fresh seafood (Pattaya is only 2 hours away by car or bus, after all).

Planning tip: Besides driving, you can take a taxi, bus and train to sites such as Damnoen Saduak and Ampawa, where you can also stay overnight along the water.

6. Khao Yai National Park

Best for wildlife

A 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok, Khao Yai has been a popular weekend retreat for nature-loving Bangkokians for decades. As a result, the area around the national park – Thailand’s third largest – is generously studded with houses, hotels, restaurants, shops and even amusement parks. Not surprisingly, it is an ideal place to bring the whole family.

The top attraction, of course, is the 2166 sq km (836 sq miles) that comprise Thailand’s most-visited national park. Blessed with a wealth of hiking trails for everyone from a beginner to an experienced trekker, cooling waterfalls and an impressive range of wildlife, including monkeys, leopards, bears and elephants, Khao Yai can provide hours of entertainment for people of any age. Park rangers can be hired to help spot animals by guiding visitors to the places where you're most likely to see them, or to direct them to the best viewpoints or waterfalls nearby.

Planning tip: You should hire a guide ahead of time if you are going wildlife spotting. A park ranger can be found through the park’s website.

A boat floats by a small island covered in green undergrowth
Ko Samui is a gateway to Ang Thong National Park in the Gulf of Thailand © MaRabelo / Getty Images

7. Ko Samui

Best island for water sports

If you were to picture the ideal tropical island with soft beaches and turquoise water, chances are you would be picturing Ko Samui. Although not as popular as Phuket, Thailand’s second-largest island still lures more than 2 million visitors a year, making it one of the most-visited islands in the country.

Besides its many charming beaches, Samui also hosts Ang Thong National Park, an archipelago of islands perfect for snorkeling and sea kayaking, Na Muang waterfalls for casual swimming, snorkelers' favorite Silver Beach, and countless spots for scuba diving. On-land attractions are also abundant, including fishing villages, golf courses and a surprising number of wellness retreats.

Planning tip: Samui has a surprisingly long “dry” season from December to August when chances of rain are minimal.

8. Ayutthaya and Sukhothai

Best destinations for history buffs

The historic city of Ayutthaya served as Siam’s capital from the 14th to 18th centuries before it was ransacked by the Burmese. The remnants of that city have since been established as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perfect fodder for scrambling and exploring. Bike rentals on the edge of the historical park turn Ayutthaya into an even easier place to navigate, making for a pleasant morning of culture/exercise under a canopy of green leaves.

Sukhothai, Siam’s first capital, was built on a smaller scale and also allows bike rentals, making it an ideal hands-on history lesson for families with smaller children. Also a World Heritage site, Sukhothai’s towers and Buddha statues are less visited than its younger sister down south, making it more pleasant for people who prefer to avoid large crowds.

Planning tip: Ayutthaya can be accessed by river boat, which takes up to an hour from Bangkok (less time than driving there). Get to Sukhothai by plane, train and bus or car. 

This article was first published September 2021 and updated December 2023

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