One of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, Thailand’s reputation for hedonism attracts thousands of backpackers and its natural beauty also attracts an increasing amount of holiday-makers. Thailand is a mystical country which leaves a lifelong impression on anyone who visits. It offers a rich history, smiling locals, some interesting quirks and of course an unforgettable experience. To help you see the best of the country, here is our choice for top ten places to visit in Thailand…
Bangkok is a restless and chaotic metropolis and an essential part of a trip to Thailand. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the culture-shock inducing capital has some incredible places of interest that you would be foolish to miss. Highlights include the impossibly bejewelled Grand Palace, Wat Arun (one of the oldest and best known landmarks in Bangkok) and Wat Po which is home to a giant reclining Buddha. Fun-seekers head for the notorious backpacker’s haven the Khao San road, the bazaars and alleyways of Chinatown and the infamous Patpong Night Market (located in the city’s red light district).
2. The Floating Market
The Floating Market (made famous by the James Bond classic “The Man with the Golden Gun”) is located on the Damnoen Saduak Canal in the region of Bangkok. Although now a major tourist attraction, the market is a photogenic place where visitors can get an idea of what trading was like in Thailand before the modernisation of the city. It’s also a lot of fun. Buying something here means hailing down a narrow long boat piled high with produce – quite an experience in itself! The region is also filled with lush vineyards, orchards and thriving local businesses which are great to view by canal boat on your journey there.
3. Chiang Mai
The spiritual city of Chiang Mai is a much quieter than Bangkok but still an essential visit if you want to see the best of Thailand. Dotted with temples, craft shops, restaurants and more than a handful of excellent Thai massage and cooking schools, the city has a somehow relaxed and tranquil atmosphere. Many travellers often mention Chiang Mai as their favourite Thai city and once visited it’s easy to see why. It’s located high in the north mountainous region of Thailand which makes it a great base for mountain trekking (organised treks can be arranged very easily here with almost every other shop offering them). Although the treks from Chiang Mai are interesting, they are often a well-worn path and many in-the-know backpackers now head for nearby Pai instead. Pai is a chilled-out small town located near the Myanmar border which has become popular with travellers, artists and musicians. Head there for less touristy treks and more ‘rustic’ visits to hill-tribes.
4. San Kamphaeng Hot Springs
San Kamphaeng is a district located 36km from the northern city Chiang Mai. The area is home to the popular and reasonably priced hot springs which are set in a tranquil, 40 acre landscaped park. They are famous for their restorative properties and people come from miles to cure aches and pains and to take a break from the chaos of Bangkok. The deep-source springs reach over 100 degrees centigrade and are naturally high in sulfur. Visit to bath in the mineral-rich waters, camp in the surrounding parkland or to boil some eggs in the hot steaming pools!
5. The East Coast Islands
Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are islands located on the east side of Thailand which are popular with both vacationers and backpackers. Both islands are known for their palm tree lined white sand beaches, clear turquoise waters and laid-back attitudes. Koh Samui is more developed and geared towards holiday-makers and Koh Phangan with its cool cafes and world-famous full moon parties has more of a bohemian feel. Nearby, the rugged island of Koh Tao and the idyllic Koh Nang Yuan (pictured above) are only an inexpensive boat ride away. These two islands are much less touristy due to their more isolated locations and are perfect for those looking for peace and world-class diving.
6. Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is the capital of Thailand’s most northwestern province and its close proximity to the Burmese border gives it a very different feel to the rest of the country. Very quiet and isolated, this mountainous city is filled with Burmese style temples and shrouded in an atmospheric mist. Visitors come here for the unique natural scenery, mountain trekking, craft markets and to see the local hill tribe communities – one of which is the famous Karen long neck tribe. The Thanon Thongchai range between Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand is popular for trekking and highlights include the beautiful six tiered Pha Sua waterfall.
Only an hours train journey from Bangkok, the ancient city of Ayutthaya should be on every visitor’s itinerary. Once a sacred, important Siamese kingdom it existed from 1351 right up until 1767 when it was raided and sacked by an invading army. Today the ancient city lies in crumbling ruins but the remains of the extraordinary and once towering temples are classed as an UNESCO world heritage site and are hauntingly beautiful. To make the most of this site, allow a full day to explore and of course don’t forget to pack your camera.
8. Railay and the Krabi Province
Railay and the surrounding coast of the Krabi province (located in the South of Thailand) is a tropical paradise characterised by towering limestone cliffs, turquoise water and powder white sand. From this area it’s also easy to take a trip to nearby Phang Nga to see the famous ‘James Bond Rock‘. Railay is a beautiful secluded beach – accessible only by boat – which attracts a mixture of in-the-know backpackers, well-heeled tourists and enthusiastic rock climbers. Surrounded by dense vegetation and mountains, the area is also perfect for trekking. There are many beautiful beaches in Thailand but Railay is unique because it’s completely cut off from the daily grind – here visitors kick back and mostly stay a lot longer than originally planned.
9. Koh Phi Phi
The tiny but idyllic west coast island of Koh Phi Phi is seen by many as the ultimate island paradise. Even though the island has now fully recovered from the devastating 2009 tsunami, it has sadly suffered from rapid tourist growth (especially since the release of “The Beach” starring Leo Dicaprio). In spite of this, Koh Phi Phi still manages to retain a relaxed vibe which seems to keep both the backpackers and the vacationers happy. Highlights include climbing a steep viewpoint to watch the sunset and hiring a long tail boat to snorkel in the beautiful surrounding waters.
10. Hin Daeng
Adventurous travellers should head for Hin Daeng, located in the Andaman Sea. Literally meaning the Red Rock, this is one of the top diving spots in Thailand – if not the world. Swim amongst underwater pinnacles, swaying carpets of anemone and red soft coral. It’s also teeming with marine-life including huge shoals of fish, round batfish, manta ray, barracuda and if you’re lucky the odd whale shark or two.
It’s almost impossible to squeeze the best of Thailand into a Top 10 list so we’re also going to give a special mention to the gorgeous beaches of Ko Kood, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Khao Yai National Park, the remote city of Chiang Rai, the luxurious island resort of Phuket, the cultural city of Nakhon Si Thammarat, Kanchanaburi (where the Bridge on the River Kwai was filmed) and the blissful Koh Lanta.
Animal lovers should also include a visit to the beautiful Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary located in North Thailand. Started by Katherine Connor, a former UK traveller (and now National Geographic’s traveller of the year) they provide sanctuary to formally abused elephants and welcome both guests and volunteers. Visit to see some of the happiest elephants in Thailand, we promise you won’t regret it!