THAILAND - PHUKET, BANGKOK
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With 16 million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand is Asia’s primary travel destination and offers a host of places to visit. Travel to Thailand and you’ll find that despite this vast influx of visitors, its cultural integrity remains largely undamaged. Thailand is a country that cleverly avoided colonization has been able to absorb Western influences while maintaining its own rich heritage.
Deciding where to go in Thailand depends on two things: what you want to do, and when you want to go. The varying areas of the country, from North to South offer visitors a selection of sights, activities, and experiences. In this travel guide on the best places to visit in Thailand, we unearth where to enjoy the country’s range of activities, from world-class diving to carousing at lively festivals.
Best time to visit Thailand
The weather in Thailand is split into three seasons: rainy (roughly May-Oct) cool (Nov–Feb) and hot (March-May).
The rains usually build momentum between June and August, hitting their peak in September and October. The cool season is when traveling in Thailand is most pleasant, though temperatures can still reach a sticky 30°C. In the hot season, you’re best at hitting the beach.
So, the best time to go to Thailand in the cool seasons: more manageable temperatures and less rain, it offers waterfalls in full spate and the best of the upland flowers in bloom. Bear in mind, however, that it’s also the busiest season.
Best places to visit in Thailand
Here is our Thailand travel guide condensed into 15 unmissable Thai destinations:
You could spend a year in Thailand's capital and still not tick off all the boxes. There are a few absolute must-sees though. Start with Wat Pho, a lively and lavish temple, encompassing the awesome Reclining Buddha. Move onto the Grand Palace, which encompasses the country’s holiest and most beautiful temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. Then the markets…
Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, is the region’s major resort destination for families, package tourists, and novice divers. It's dining, shopping, and entertainment facilities are second to none. Phuket Town offers handsome Sino-Portuguese architecture and some of the most interesting sleeping, eating, and drinking options on the island.
The furthest inhabited island of the Samui archipelago, Ko Tao, has taken off as a scuba-diving center, but despite a growing nightlife and restaurant scene, still has the feel of a small, rugged, and isolated outcrop. A boat trip around Ko Tao Satisfying exploration and great snorkeling, especially of the unique causeway beaches of Ko Nang Yuan.
Southern Thailand’s gently undulating Gulf coast is famed above all for the Samui archipelago, three small, idyllic islands lying off the most prominent hump of the coastline. A lazy stay in a beachfront bungalow is so seductive a prospect that most people overlook the attractions of the mainland. Added to that you’ll find scenery dominated by forested mountains that rise abruptly behind the coastal strip, and a sprinkling of fascinating historic sights.
Old-town temples, the best of Thai crafts, cookery courses, and fine restaurants – the north’s sophisticated capital is a great place to hang out. The capital and transport center of the north, it's also a great place just to hang out or prepare for a journey into the hills. For many tourists, this means joining a trek to visit one or more of the hill tribes, who comprise one-tenth of the north’s population.
In the last few years, Chiang Rai has acquired several genuine sights of interest, notably the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park, a beautiful storehouse of Lanna art. There’s now also a good choice of guesthouses and upmarket riverside hotels in which to lay your head, and from here you can set up a wide range of trekking, day trips, and other outdoor activities in the surrounding countryside.
Ko Pha Ngan
In recent years, backpackers have tended to move over to Ko Samui’s fun-loving little sibling, which still has a comparatively simple atmosphere. The most popular activities on Ko Pha Ngan are round-island boat trips, from Hat Rin and Hat Yao, and trips to Ang Thong National Marine Park. Other activities include learning to cook Thai food, bicycle tours, yoga, meditation, and kiteboarding.
Ko Lanta Yai
The “island of long beaches”, Ko Lanta has an atmospheric old town, offers an appealing choice of places to stay. There’s good snorkeling and diving nearby, plus caves to explore, kayaking, and other water sports. The island is especially popular with families, in part because of the local laws that have so far prevented jet-skis, beachfront parasols, and girlie bars from turning it into another Phuket, though resort facilities are expanding fast.
Ko Samui is easily one of the most naturally beautiful Thai islands, with its long white-sand beaches and arching fringes of palm trees. Samui has over a dozen scuba-diving companies, offering trips for divers and snorkelers and courses throughout the year. Also, on offer are plenty of spas, as well as meditation retreats, island tours, ziplines, kiteboarding, and cooking classes.
Khao Yai National Park
The stunning jungle-clad karsts of Khao Sok National Park are well worth heading inland for. Located about halfway between the southern peninsula’s two coasts and easily accessible from Khao Lak, Phuket, and Surat Thani, the park has become a popular stop on the traveler's route, offering several easy trails, a bit of amateur spelunking, and some scenic raft house accommodation on Cheow Lan Lake.
Ao Phang Nga
Protected from the ravages of the Andaman Sea by Phuket, Ao Phang Nga has a seascape both bizarre and beautiful. Covering some four hundred square kilometers of coast between Phuket and Krabi, the mangrove-edged bay is spiked with limestone karst formations up to 300m in height, jungle-clad and craggily profiled. This is Thailand’s own version of Vietnam’s world-famous Ha Long Bay, reminiscent too of Guilin’s scenery in China, and much of it is now preserved as a national park.
Ko Yao Noi
Located in an idyllic spot in Phang Nga bay, almost equidistant from Phuket, Phang Nga, and Krabi, the island of Ko Yao Noi enjoys magnificent maritime views from almost every angle and makes a refreshingly tranquil getaway. Measuring about 12km at its longest point, it’s home to some four thousand islanders, most of them Muslim, who earn their living from rubber and coconut plantations, fishing, and shrimp farming.
The fourth-largest island in Thailand, forested Ko Kood (also spelt Ko Kut and Ko Kud) is still a wild and largely uncommercialized island. Though it’s known for its sparkling white sand and exceptionally clear turquoise water, particularly along the west coast, Ko Kood is as much a nature-lover’s destination as a beach-bum’s. Swathes of its shoreline are fringed by scrub and mangrove rather than broad sandy beaches, and those parts of the island not still covered in virgin tropical rainforest are filled with palm groves and rubber plantations.
Blessed with the softest, squeakiest sand within a weekending distance of Bangkok, the tiny Thai island of Ko Samet, which measures just 6km from top to toe, is a favorite escape for Thais, ex-pats, and tourists. Its fourteen small but dazzlingly white beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, lapped by pale blue water and in places still shaded by coconut palms and occasional white-flowered cajeput (Samet) trees, which gave the island its name and which are used to build boats.
Ringed by high mountains, the small but prosperous provincial capital of Nan, 225km northeast of Lampang, rests on the grassy west bank of the river. Few Western visitors make it out this far, but it’s a likable place with a thriving handicrafts tradition, a good museum, and some superb temple murals at Wat Phumin, as well as at Wat Nong Bua out in the countryside. The town comes alive for the Lanna boat races, usually held in late October or early November.
Food and drink in Thailand
Thai food is one of the biggest reasons for the country’s popularity with tourists. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the country’s big culinary centers, offering the cream of gourmet Thai restaurants and the best international cuisines. The rest of the country is by no means a gastronomic wasteland, however, and you can eat well and cheaply in even the smallest provincial towns, many of which offer the additional attraction of regional specialties.
In fact, visit Thailand and you’ll find that you could eat more than adequately without ever entering a restaurant, as itinerant food vendors hawking hot and cold snacks materialize in even the most remote spots, as well as on trains and buses – and night markets often serve customers from dusk till dawn.
Hygiene is a consideration when eating anywhere in Thailand but being too cautious means, you will end up spending a lot of money and missing out on some real local treats. Wean your stomach gently by avoiding excessive amounts of chilies and too much fresh fruit in the first few days.
You can be pretty sure that any noodle stall or curry shop that’s permanently packed with customers is a safe bet. Furthermore, because most Thai dishes can be cooked in under five minutes, you will rarely have to contend with stuff that has been left to smolder and stew.
Activities in Thailand
Many traveler's itineraries take in a few days’ trekking in the hills and a stint of snorkeling or diving off the beaches of the south. Trekking is concentrated in the north, but there are smaller, less touristy trekking operations in Kanchanaburi, Sangkhlaburi, and Umphang. There are also plenty of national parks to explore and opportunities for rock climbing and kayaking.
Diving in Thailand
Clear, warm waters (averaging 28°C), prolific marine life, and affordable prices make Thailand a very rewarding place for diving and snorkeling.
Most islands and beach resorts have at least one dive center that organizes trips. Thailand’s premier diving destinations are generally considered to be Ko Similan, Ko Surin, Richelieu Rock and Hin Muang, and Hin Daeng – all of them off the Andaman coast.
Thailand’s main dive resorts
Ko Pha Ngan
Ko Phi Phi
Snorkeling in Thailand
Boatmen and tour agents on most beaches offer snorkeling trips to nearby reefs and many dive operators welcome snorkelers to tag along for discounts of thirty percent or more; not all diving destinations are rewarding for snorkelers though, so check the relevant account in this book first.
Trekking in Thailand
Trekking in the mountains of north Thailand differs from trekking in most other parts of the world in that the emphasis is not primarily on the scenery but on the region’s inhabitants. While some of the villages are near enough to the main road to be reached on a day-trip from a major town, to get to the other, more traditional villages usually entail joining a guided party for a few days.
For most visitors, however, these hardships are outweighed by the experience of encountering people of such different cultures, traveling through the tropical countryside. Here’s our take on some of Thailand’s best trekking routes.
The limestone karsts that pepper southern Thailand’s Andaman coast make ideal playgrounds for rock-climbers, and the sport has really taken off here in the past fifteen years. Most climbing is centered around East Railay and Ton Sai beaches on Laem Phra Nang in Krabi province, where there are dozens of routes within easy walking distance of tourist bungalows, restaurants, and beaches.
Sea kayaking and whitewater rafting
Sea kayaking is also centered around Thailand’s Andaman coast, where the limestone outcrops, sea caves, hongs (hidden lagoons), mangrove swamps, and picturesque shorelines of Ao Phang Nga, in particular, make for rewarding paddling.
Entertainment and sport in Thailand
Bangkok is the best place to catch authentic performances of classical Thai dance, though more easily digestible tourist-oriented shows are staged in some of the big tourist centers as well as in Bangkok. The country’s two main Thai boxing stadia are also in the capital, but you’ll come across local matches in the provinces too.
Spas and traditional massage in Thailand
With their focus on indulgent self-pampering, spas are usually associated with high-spending tourists, but the treatments on offer at Thailand’s five-star hotels are often little different from those used by traditional medical practitioners, who have long held that massage and herbs are the best way to restore physical and mental well-being. Thai massage (nuad boran) is based on the principle that many physical and emotional problems are caused by the blocking of vital energy channels within the body.
Top National Parks in Thailand
Spectacular archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand generally visited on a day trip from Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan.
Waterfalls, hill tribes, orchids, around four hundred bird species, and the country’s highest peak.
An exceptionally pretty, seven-tiered waterfall that extends deep into the forest. Hugely popular as a day trip from Kanchanaburi.
Khao Sam Roi Yot
Coastal flats on the Gulf coast are known for their rich birdlife plus an extensive stalactite-filled cave system.
Southern Thailand’s most visited park has rainforest trails and caves plus a flooded river system with eerie outcrops and raft-house accommodation.
Thailand’s most popular national park, three hours from Bangkok, features half a dozen upland trails plus organized treks and night safaris.
A remote group of Andaman Sea islands with famously fabulous reefs and fine above-water scenery. Mostly visited by dive boat but limited national park accommodation is provided.
National marine park archipelago of beautiful coastal waters in the Andaman Sea, though much of its coral became severely bleached in 2010. Good snorkeling and national park campsites.
Beautiful and wildly varied land- and seascapes on the main 26km-long island and fifty other smaller islands on its western side.
Dramatic and strange 1300m-high plateau, probably best avoided at weekends.
Festivals in Thailand
Nearly all Thai festivals have a religious aspect. The most theatrical are generally Brahmin (Hindu) in origin, honoring elemental spirits and deities with ancient rites and ceremonial costumed parades. Buddhist celebrations usually revolve around the local temple, and while merit-making is a significant feature, a light-hearted atmosphere prevails, as the wat grounds are swamped with food and trinket vendors and makeshift stages are set up to show likay folk theatre, singing stars, and beauty contests. Many of the secular festivals (like the elephant roundups and the Bridge over the River Kwai spectacle) are outdoor local culture shows, geared specifically towards Thai and farang tourists.