Written by Diana Bocco
Nov 19, 2019
The “Land of Smiles” is one of the jewels of Southeast Asia. Thanks to a thriving tourism industry, Thailand is well-developed and provides all kinds of modern comforts—yet it’s also still wild enough to offer off-the-beaten-path adventure and once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences. Whether you are here for the world-class beaches in the south or the mountain villages in the north, Thailand will not disappoint.
Cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai are bustling hives of activity and commerce, but you haven’t really seen the country until you’ve trekked in the mountains or enjoyed some face-time with elephants or the bold monkeys always ready to steal your lunch (or your camera, if you’re not careful). Thailand’s attractions are diverse, and each provides a rewarding and memorable experience in its own way.
For some inspiration when planning your trip, here’s our list of top tourist attractions in Thailand.
1. Railay Beach
Krabi province is home to some of Thailand’s most famous beach destinations—and Railay tops the list as one of the most stunning. Considered by many as one of the best beaches in the country, Railay delivers on promises of white sand, turquoise-blue water, and the feeling that you’ve found a slice of paradise even before your feet touch the sand.
The island can be reached by boat from Krabi town and Ao Nang—and the trip on a long-tail traditional boat is just as magical as what you’ll encounter when you reach the shores.
While the beach might be the main reason to visit the island, Railay is also a rock-climbing hot spot, with karst peaks drawing adventurers both experienced and novice, ready to take on the towering limestone cliffs.
Among the many other active things to do, Railay is well-known for its ocean rafting and kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving—but visitors can also try their hand at cooking classes or indulge in a massage.
There’s also the tourist-friendly Diamond Cave, reached via a beautiful trail with stunning views and ready to accommodate curious visitors looking to do some exploring between stretches of sunbathing.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Krabi Province
2. Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi
The Phi Phi Islands are one of Thailand’s most popular resort areas for a reason—the clear blue waters, the soft sand, the breathtaking views that go on forever.
You can reach Phi Phi Don—the largest of the islands and the only one permanently inhabited—on a rented kayak or by hiring a small wooden boat to take you here.
Perhaps one of the most fun spots on Koh Phi Phi is Monkey Beach, where you’ll come face to face, literally, with plenty of macaques ready to steal your lunch.
Long Beach is another nice spot on the island; while not a secluded place where you can hope for privacy, it’s great for watching the sunset. If you’re lucky and the tide is out, it’s a beautiful walk back towards the main part of the island.
Tour operators offer packages for snorkeling and diving trips to the islands, as well as excursions to the famous Maya Bay, where the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach was filmed. Because Koh Phi Phi draws so many tourists, there are plenty of tour companies arranging tickets to other beach destinations, such as Phuket, Koh Chang, and Koh Lanta.
Phi Phi Don was one of the areas hit hard by the 2004 tsunami—but since then, guesthouses, restaurants, and markets have been rebuilt, and crowds still come in droves to the resort island. There is a small, somber memorial park to honor those who died in the tragedy, but the resort areas are otherwise revived and looking as beautiful as ever.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near the Phi Phi Islands
3. The Grand Palace, Bangkok
The Grand Palace, Bangkok
Even if your plans for Thailand mainly involve frolicking on a beach and eating as much Massaman curry and pad Thai as humanly possible, you’ll probably spend at least a day or two in Bangkok. There are plenty of things to see and do in the capital, but the Grand Palace should definitely be at the top of your list. This is the number one sightseeing attraction in the city, and it’s staggering in both historical significance and craftsmanship.
The grounds are a maze of royal halls, temples, and ancient relics, the most important being Wat Phra Kaeo (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), said to hold a fragment of either hair or bone from the enlightened Buddha himself.
Allow several hours to do the Grand Palace justice, but if you’re up for more walking afterward, you can easily take in some of the city’s other major landmarks nearby. The famous Wat Po and Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn (a great place to watch the sunset), are just a few minutes away.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bangkok: Best Areas & Hotels
4. Sunday Walking Street, Chiang Mai
Sunday Walking Street, Chiang Mai
Every Thailand visitor looks forward to cheap and delicious food—and that’s exactly what they can find in abundance at Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Walking Street. Vendors sell all kinds of treats here: from the popular pad Thai and chicken satay to samosas, fried bananas, sweet roti, and fresh fruit shakes—often for less than $2 a piece.
Once you’ve satisfied your culinary cravings, you can peruse hundreds of stalls selling an array of unique goods such as all-natural soaps, hand-dyed textiles bearing the unique patterns of local hill tribes, incense and essential oils, musical instruments, paintings, wall hangings, and more.
The market gets crowded every week without fail, no matter what time of the year you’re visiting, so brace yourself and try to enjoy being part of the fun chaos. This is one of the must-dos in Chiang Mai, and an essential part of the Thailand experience. If you’re not around for the Sunday market, or just want to get a taste of other market experiences in Chiang Mai, check out the Saturday Night Walking Street or the Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road, a daily event. For something less touristy, head to the daytime Warorot Market, near Mae Ping River.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Places to Stay in Chiang Mai
Thailand’s reputation as a country of beautiful landscapes and friendly people is due largely to the world-renowned southern beaches. Because of this, most people don’t realize that the vast north is also home to entirely different but equally breathtaking landscapes.
Northern Thailand, particularly the western region near the Burmese border, is marked by mountainous jungle terrain that is both rugged and beautiful. Pai, in Mae Hong Son province, is the perfect starting point from which to enjoy the country’s natural beauty, as well as the famed Thai hospitality and cooking.
This small town has developed a reputation as a mecca for hippies and backpackers, though you will see plenty of families traveling in the area as well. There is a small walking street market that comes alive every night, a variety of local and Western foods, and easy access to nearby Buddhist temples, waterfalls, and the impressive Pai canyon.
There is an air of cheerfulness and relaxation as you walk through the tiny town center, a vibe that continues to draw crowds season after season despite its somewhat remote location.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Pai
6. Wild Elephants at Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai National Park
Elephants are revered in Thailand, and statues and paintings of them can be seen everywhere you go, including the royal palaces and many temples. For the ultimate experience, however, nothing beats the chance to see elephants in their natural environment—and Khao Yai National Park provides a great opportunity to do just that.
Here, you’ll run into elephants roaming near rivers, exotic birds of prey, monkeys, and plenty of other tropical creatures that call the park home. The park is also home to many waterfalls, including the 150-meter-tall Haew Narok and the even more famous Haew Suwat, which appeared in the Leonardo DiCaprio’s film, The Beach.
If a one-day stay isn’t enough to take it all in, it’s possible to camp out at the park and get up early enough to watch the sunrise over the lush landscape.
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Khao Yai National Park
7. Sukhothai Old City
Sukhothai Old City
A favorite stop for history buffs and photography enthusiasts, Sukhothai offers many lovely photo ops at a smaller scale than Ayutthaya. Ruins of this old city still stand proud despite enduring centuries of battle and exposure to the elements. Sukhothai’s Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and much has been invested to restore and preserve one of Thailand’s most significant historical sites.
Of the many wats in Sukhothai, Wat Mahathat is the most impressive. Founded some time in the 13th century, the temple was built to enshrine Buddha relics and is surrounded by massive standing Buddha images, stuccoed sculptures, stupas, and more.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Sukhothai
8. Historic City of Ayutthaya
Historic City of Ayutthaya
Ayutthaya offers a magnificent peek into the glory of ancient Thailand, where visitors can wander the haunting but romantic ruins of the former capital.
Ayutthaya was once the most important city in Thailand, and the old palaces and temples stand as a testament to this. Over a hundred wats, chedis (Thai-style stupas), prangs, and thousands of Buddha statues are spread around the park. Some sights—like the temple that houses the 12-meter-long reclining Buddha and the tree roots embracing a Buddha head—are particularly stunning and not to be missed.
Ayutthaya is located only a short bus trip or train ride from Bangkok, making it convenient for a day trip if you’re pressed for time. If you’re on a more leisurely schedule, plan on spending a few days exploring the ancient capital and rent a push-bike to tour both the old city and the new.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ayutthaya
9. Doi Suthep
Perhaps the best-known wat in Chiang Mai sits atop Doi Suthep, a mountain overlooking Thailand’s second-largest city. A favorite destination of devout Buddhist followers and travelers from all over the world, Doi Suthep is a marvel of intricate religious carvings—a visit here means seeing monks praying, witnessing worship rituals, and a chance to gaze out over the ever-growing sprawl of Chiang Mai city.
Just be sure to bring a bottle of water and your walking shoes—you’ll have to climb a steep staircase to reach the top of the hill where the temple is. At the base of the stairs, vendors hawk everything from tasty local treats to goods handmade by villagers from the surrounding mountains. There’s also a shop selling masks, elephant carvings, and home furnishings, so you can do some shopping while recovering from the trek up and down the stairs.
You can combine your trip to Doi Suthep with excursions to Doi Pui, a small Hmong village in the mountains. Although far more touristy than other villages, this will still give you a taste of Hmong culture and a chance to learn more about the hill tribe communities in the region, not to mention purchase some beautiful hand-woven textiles. The Bhubing Palace, open to tourists, is on the way to Doi Pui from Doi Suthep as well.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Places to Stay in Chiang Mai
10. Floating Markets
Thailand’s floating markets offer a unique way to do some shopping and eating while supporting local vendors and getting a closer look into a traditional way of life.
While some of the markets do seem to cater more to the tourist crowds, others make for a nice authentic travel experience that involves getting in a boat and letting your guide take you through canals, where you’ll see traditional houses on stilts and run into sellers offering wares from their own boats. You’ll need to get up early to visit a floating market, as vendors are out in their long wooden boats first thing in the morning with their goods, fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, and tasty dishes.
There are several floating markets near Bangkok, with Amphawa and Damnoen Saduak being among the most popular. You can visit the markets on your own or join a guided tour, which often includes visits to other local attractions and shops.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bangkok: Best Areas & Hotels
- Read More:
- Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Bangkok
11. Climbing at Tonsai Beach
A climber at Tonsai Beach
With its stunning limestone cliffs hugging sandy coastlines and turquoise waters, Thailand attracts plenty of climbers all year long—and while there are many destinations that offer stunning routes, Tonsai Beach has long been considered a climbers’ paradise. One of the great things about climbing here is that you can just as easily climb solo or find a climbing partner or club once you arrive—and if you need a refresher lesson, that won’t be a problem to find here either.
Because the area has many climbing and bouldering schools, the easier routes are often busy, and you might even have to queue to get up to the most popular viewpoints. If you’re an experienced climber—and can get around stalactites, overhangs, and tufa—you’ll fare much better and get the best spots with stunning open views over the bay (almost) all to yourself.
12. Kanchanaburi Bridge
Better known to many as “the bridge over the River Kwai,” the Kanchanaburi bridge is part of the Thai-Burma Railway that never came to be. During WWII, Japanese forces were intent on building a railway link between Thailand and Burma and used Allied prisoners of war (mostly British, Dutch, and Australian citizens) for forced labor. Over 12,000 Allied prisoners ended up dying during the one year the bridge was under construction—and reconstruction, as the bridge was bombed and damaged more than once—leading to it being known as the “Death Railway.”
While the Kanchanaburi bridge remained closed for years after the war ended, it is now again in operation and can be crossed by boarding a slow local train. About 130 kilometers of the original 415-kilometer railway route are in use today, a grave historical reminder of the horrific events that took place here.
Near the bridge, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the final resting place of Allied military personnel from many countries except the United States, which repatriated all remains. The Hellfire Pass Museum and the JEATH War Museum both offer insights on the history of the railway and the effect of the war in Thailand.
13. Waterfalls at Erawan National Park
Erawan National Park has much to offer to visitors, including a number of caves; paths that cut through thick deciduous forests; and fauna that includes wild elephants, gibbons, and great hornbills. But it’s the waterfalls here—and especially the seven-tiered Erawan Falls—that attract the bulk of the visitors.
The falls are named after the white elephant that travels with the Hindu god Indra because the tiers are said to slightly resemble the shape of an elephant’s head.
Each of the seven tiers also has its own name, and reaching them gets harder and harder as you go up—after the fifth tier, visitors need to use slippery ladders while pushing through thick vegetation in order to continue. You might not need to venture that far, though. The first three tiers are actually the most impressive, offering emerald green pools, a small cave, and cool cascading waters. Plenty of curious fish live in the pools, so don’t be surprised to feel them swimming between your feet.
14. Maruekhathaiyawan Palace
Built as the summer residence of King Rama VI, who reigned until 1925, this unique teak palace is stunning in many ways. The king originally ordered its construction following a suggestion by his doctor, who thought an airy seaside climate would help the king’s rheumatoid arthritis.
The palace was then built in Hua Hin, a sleepy seaside town about three hours south of Bangkok. Today, Hua Hin is a popular destination for families and travelers who want to enjoy the beach in a relaxed atmosphere away from the crowds.
Mrigadayavan Palace (Maruekhathaiyawan) was designed to stand completely on stilts, which allows the sea breeze to circulate on all sides and keeps the buildings cool. The palace complex consists of a number of buildings divided into three main groups: the official reception area; the king’s private quarters; and the ladies’ quarters, originally designed for the Queen and an area no other man, besides the king, could enter.
The palace is an exquisite mix of Western standards (which included a modern-for-the-time bathroom and a badminton court) and traditional Thai architecture that can be visited and enjoyed by everybody today.
15. Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok National Park is a unique mix of very diverse ecosystems. Home to rain forest that’s older than the Amazon, the park also contains a limestone mountain range covered in karst formations, many kilometers of trails, and even a river you can explore on canoes or bamboo rafts. The park is home to Malayan sun bears, tigers, and wild elephants—and sightings aren’t rare once you get deep into the evergreen rain forest.
The park is also famous for its eco-luxury camps, where tents come with en-suite bathrooms, deluxe bedding, their own kayak, and some of the best meals you’ll try in Thailand.
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