Temples and beaches
Thailand offers many quintessential Southeast Asian travel experiences: spectacular nature, a rich culture and history, a friendly population and a cuisine as rich in colour and appearance as in taste. For many travellers, Thailand is a first foray into Southeast Asia and that first trip becomes one of a series.
Tourism has been developing seriously in the kingdom since the 1970s. Today, there’s both a very well trodden trail and a very well developed travel infrastructure to take any pain out of travel here. Relatively easy to get around, and, by regional standards, quite affordable, the country attracts a vast number of tourists from all corners of the globe—you’re just as likely to be sharing a beach bar with an Australian as an Austrian, or indeed a Singaporean.
Our Thailand travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each and every one of your trips to Thailand, beginning with some simple guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country.
The big questions every first-time traveller has:
Thailand packs a solid punch when it comes to offering appealing attractions, but when it comes to the absolute must-sees in Thailand, a few spots really shouldn’t be missed. Choose from scores of tropical islands, multiple sites of fascinating ruins, trekking destinations in the north and, for those seeking an intense megalopolis experience, the nation’s capital Bangkok never disappoints.
Bangkok: Set astride the majestic Chao Phraya River, Bangkok represents all that is good and bad about an Asian mega-city. It’s a city with something, somewhere for everyone, whether it be delicious street food, offbeat nightclubs, serene yoga classes or colourful market shopping.
Chiang Mai: This is Thailand’s northern capital, and with its smaller size and population, Chiang Mai has a lot to offer travellers. The centre of town is packed with glittering temples, excellent restaurants and expansive shopping markets, all of which are easily taken in on foot.
Historic ruins: Three destinations between Bangkok and Chiang Mai are home to important historic ruins dating back as far as the 13th century. Both Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were former capitals and are the two most popularly visited. Kamphaeng Phet will appeal to those looking to get a little further off the beaten trail.
Islands: With so much variety, we’re wary of nominating absolute faves, but these four very different islands are difficult to beat. Ko Pha Ngan is a highlight for its amazing variety of beaches and affordable accommodation, Ko Jum boasts a bo-ho laidback vibe, Ko Bulon Lae shows how tourism can exist in harmony with the tranquil rhythm of the islanders and Ko Kut offers a more upmarket and serene option—and the beaches are gorgeous.
Kanchanaburi: A short hop from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is home to pristine national parks, cavernous caves, majestic rivers, lakes, waterfalls and temples. For many though, this takes a backseat to the area’s World War II history.
Pai: Once a sleepy and somewhat remote Shan town, Pai, while still a bit of an effort to reach, is these days well and truly on the traveller’s map of northern Thailand. If you’re a young backpacker on a first trip to Thailand, it can be a great scene.
Nong Khai: Overlooking the Mekong River within earshot of Laos, Nong Khai boasts magnificent landscapes, waterfalls and forest temples nestled into its surrounds. Add in a good mix of affordable accommodation, yummy food and one quirky yet awe-inspiring sculpture park and you have an appealing destination.
Hua Hin: A vast white-sand beach, thriving art scene, tacky tourist sights, early 20th century architecture, seedy bars, scenic hills and golf courses, hastily developed streets, aggressive touts, inflated prices, family-friendly resorts and lots of European retirees: Love it or hate it, Hua Hin has a character all its own.
Krabi: A mash-up of funky bars, Western restaurants and old-school markets slinging fiery curries somehow come together to form a fun and intriguing town, better known as Krabi.
Sangkhlaburi: When travellers dream of Thailand, they may picture jungles, sparkling temples and the exotic charm of rural villages—Sangkhlaburi is home to all this and its seclusion only adds to its mystique.
Chiang Dao: Dao means star in Thai—and the mountain in Chiang Dao is so high it’s supposed to be on the same level as the stars themselves.
Sangkhom: Tucked along a pretty stretch of the Mekong River, the tiny village of Sangkhom is one of those little-known, remote places that can turn out to be a highlight for those willing to sidestep the well-trodden track. In other words, we love Sangkhom!
Prachuap Khiri Khan: Make time to visit and you will be amply rewarded with a low-key, local atmosphere that has just enough of a developed tourist infrastructure and plenty of largely tasteful accommodation to make your stay comfortable. The seafood is great, too.
Nakhon Si Thammarat: Set to a historical backdrop of Buddhist kings and bustling trade, modern Nakhon Si Thammarat is a fast-paced cultural and commercial centre. If you’re after a taste of unadulterated Southern Thailand and you don’t mind sliding off the tourist trail, head here.
Thailand is no slouch when it comes to sea and sand, with four main clusters of islands, plus dozens more individual islands to choose from. (We cover more than 30 Thai islands on Travelfish.)
Southern Andaman islands: The lovely Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai are striking antidotes to boisterous and overtouristed yet spectacular Ko Phi Phi. Further south you’ll find laidback Ko Jum and family-friendly Ko Lanta, followed by a whole string of smaller islands, which taper off at Ko Tarutao, Ko Bulon Lae and Ko Lipe, just before the waves become Malaysian.
National Parks: While they’re not all world class, Thailand does have a rich network of national parks, including enormous Khao Yai National Park in the northeast and Kaeng Krachan National Park in the south. Other crowd-pleasing spots include Khao Sok National Park and Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, both of which are in the south. In the northeast, Pha Taem National Park points towards early evidence of human habitation in the area.National Marine Parks: With such a beautiful, island-sprinkled coastline, Thailand has plenty to offer the aquatic nature lover. If you’ve ever seen The Man with the Golden Gun you’ll recognise Ao Phang Nga National Marine Park and further south you’ll reach Mu Ko Lanta National Park. Further south still is Mu Ko Phetra National Park then last stop before Malaysia is former political prison Ko Tarutao National Park, a highlight for many travellers. Over on the Gulf side, the 42 islands of Ang Thong National Marine Park are deservedly popular.
Khmer ruins: Those with an interest in Thailand’s Khmer period often strike into the northeast, where highlights include the spectacular ruins at Phanom Rung and Phimai, though plenty of other sites can be visited as well. Be sure to explore the fiery, addictive cuisine of Isaan while you're in this region.
Rivers: While Thailand is famous for its beaches and islands, there’s something special about lazing away a few days by swirling river waters, too. The Mekong delineates much of the Thai-Lao border and prime river-hangout towns include Chiang Khong, Chiang Kha, Sangkhom, Nong Khai, That Phanom, Mukdahan and Khong Chiam. Other rivers worth experiencing are Kok River in the north and the Chao Phraya, which weaves straight through the Thai capital.
For many, an active Thai holiday might mean anything requiring more than a 20-metre stroll from the hammock to the ocean. But for those looking to do more than re-read Lord of the Rings in a hammock, Thailand isn’t at all shabby when it comes to fun things to do.
Trekking: In northern Thailand, trekking is hugely popular, with Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Pai all trekking centres. The trips are often combined with bamboo rafting and visiting or staying in a minority village.
Courses and personal improvement: Every Thai town has at least one wat (temple) so there is no shortage to visit and some choose to stay at or do meditation courses within. Language courses are also popular, especially in Chiang Mai, and then there is yoga, fasting and detox retreats, often in idyllic locations, for those taking a more holistic approach to their travels.
Festivals: Thailand celebrates an impressive array of festivals, with the water festival of Songkran (Thai new year) in mid-April the biggest of all. Others, including the Rocket Festival and Phi Ta Khon in the northeast of the country and nationwide Loi Krathong, can offer remarkable (and colourful) insight into life in Thailand.
Between November and May, Thailand’s north sees mostly dry, cooler weather, warming to scorching hot in April. May to November is dominated by the southwest monsoon, characterised by heavy rain interspersed with dry and sunny stretches.
The South has two seasons, and the weather changes depending on which side of the peninsula you are on. The west coast sees the southwest monsoon bring rain and often heavy storms from April to October, while on the east coast, most rain falls between September and December. The rest of the year on each side is warm and dry.
So when is the best time to visit? From a weather point of view, December to February generally offers the best conditions—the north won’t be blisteringly hot and you’ll find great weather on some of Thailand’s islands.
With this great weather though comes big crowds and peak season prices. Those who don’t mind a bit of rain in return for thinner crowds prefer the shoulder season in November and March. Of course it also depends on where you are going—when the rain is pouring on Ko Chang, it is shining on Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan.
How long have you got?! For a first-time visitor looking to see just a bit of Bangkok, and say Kanchanaburi or Ko Samet, a week would suffice to give a taste of what the country has to offer. Thailand though really deserves two weeks for a first-time trip we reckon.
If you’re planning on travelling around a bit, rather than just staying on one island, four weeks is a popular stretch as it fits within a visa-free stay and allows for a couple of weeks in the north and a couple of weeks in the south.
If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Thailand’s visa rules. They change often and some rules are enforced haphazardly, complicating what should be a simple process.
Your budget will depend very much on your style of travelling. If you’re comfortable in simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, you can still survive on around 600 baht per day—less if you’re especially frugal and travelling as a couple. Watch out for fancypants dorms which are often way over-priced for the standard when compared to what you could pay for an air-con private room in a normal guesthouse.
Most independent travellers tend to spend a little more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to around a more comfortable 1,000 to 1,500 baht per day.
If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Thailand does offer terrific value for accommodation around the 3,000 to 6,000 baht mark, with food and entertainment costs potentially rising accordingly. Likewise, you can also spend tens of thousands of baht a night for truly luxurious settings—think private pool villas and so on—flying everywhere and fine dining the whole way along.
Probably the most famed Thailand-set novel is Alex Garland’s The Beach, which was re-released by Penguin in 2016 to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of its publishing. Garland seeks to explore the question of whether Western travellers effectively ruin the very thing they set out to find — you can pretty easily guess the answer, but the book is a page-turner while it teases the analysis out.
Bangkok Found by Alex Kerr pierces deeply into the art, culture and people of Thailand in a book that reads more like an inspiring travel narrative than a research project. A chapter on polite behaviour, titled "Walking Softly," should be required reading for all visitors to Thailand.
For a nuanced examination of traditional Thai values, 1954-published Many Lives by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj is a compelling read, exploring the lives, and deaths, of 11 people in early 20th-century Thailand. The stories unravel a web of unwritten laws that still keep Thai society tangled together, for better or worse, today.
A lighter exploration of life in Thailand in the 1960s from the perspective of an outsider is Mai Pen Rai Means Nevermind by Carol Hollinger. This memoir is now something of a history book too, recounting the period Hollinger spent in Bangkok first as a housewife, then as a teacher at the American University and finally Chulalongkorn University.
A more recent look at the lives of Thais (and those visiting Thailand) is Sightseeing by Chicago-born, Thai-raised Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a series of short stories (and one novella), published in 2004. It’s an illuminating view behind the curtain in a country that strains to put its best foot forward for visiting foreigners.
The 2014 Man Booker winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan is a deep, dark and important read, set mostly in a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma Death Railway. If you plan to visit Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi in Thailand, you really should read this beforehand.
Sadly Thailand has more than its fair share of scams. Gem scams, especially in Bangkok, persist. Petty theft, snatch and grabs and other crimes of opportunity are not uncommon in heavily touristed areas.
Violent crime specifically aimed at foreign travellers remains rare, but does happen. Use your common sense, stay under control and, if a situation becomes uncomfortable, leave or seek assistance immediately.
Thailand’s road toll is extremely high. Drink driving is endemic, especially over public holiday periods, when hundreds of people die on the roads. Bus accidents are frequent. Always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a bike. Do not ride a motorbike if you don’t know how. Public boats are frequently overloaded and speed boats are often overloaded and driven erratically or dangerously. Public boats sink frequently, often with insufficient life jackets. If the boat looks overloaded to you, or the weather dangerous, do not get on board. There will be another.
Don’t ride (or drive) stoned or drunk. Drug laws in Thailand are very strong, but enforced haphazardly. Just because the tuk tuk driver who sold you a bag of pot didn’t get arrested doesn’t mean you won’t be.
If you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Thailand?
Thailand is run by a military junta. It took power in a military coup, kicking out a popularly elected government. Under the junta’s rule many public and press freedoms have been significantly curtailed. Thailand maintains extremely harsh and severe lèse-majesté laws, ostensibly to protect the reputation of the Thai royal family. Thais falling foul of this law have been jailed. Public political discourse is generally not a great idea, especially after drinking 15 large Singha beers.
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