Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the world, and one which conjures images of pristine beaches, world-famous street food and golden temples.
But this is also a country far more diverse than you would perceive at first glance. Northwestern Thailand is home to the country’s Lanna heritage and various hill tribes, each possessing their own language and unique culture. Head to northeast Thailand, and you’ll find yourself in the province of Isaan, again with its own distinctive culture which shares a lot of similarities with neighbouring Laos.
Central Thailand, where Bangkok is located, is the heartland of mainstream Thai culture. And Southern Thailand? Playing host to the country’s well-known beaches and tropical islands, this is the most touristed region of Thailand after Bangkok, and also the homeland of Thai Islam. Muslims account for 4% of the population – the second largest religious group after Buddhism, which accounts for nearly 95% of Thais – and they’re largely based here in the south.
The one thing to bear in mind, wherever you are in the country, is that the Thai monarchy is regarded as sacrosanct. Whilst Thai culture is relatively open-minded and liberal on many counts, you must not insult (or joke about) the royal family on your visit; doing so can actually land you in prison.
So, whether it’s your first time in Thailand or you’re back for more, here are the seven places you must visit, from north to south.
Central Thailand: Bangkok
Most popular sight: Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha)
Top recommendation: Koh Kret Island
Nowhere divides opinion quite like Bangkok. Spiritual, vibrant, chaotic and maddening, Bangkok is rich with contrasts and contradictions (but you would never call it boring). Built on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, your first impressions may well be of a city of skyscrapers and frenetic energy. But between the cracks of this concrete jungle, Old Bangkok persists; a city of serene golden temples, monks in saffron robes and quiet alleys lined with traditional houses.
Bangkok’s top sights undoubtedly include its temples (called wat in Thai). Wat Phra Kaew houses the Emerald Buddha, the most sacred site in Thailand. Equally famous, Wat Pho houses a giant golden statue of the Reclining Buddha, and its walls are exquisitely adorned with traditional mosaics. If you’re looking for a different kind of cultural insight, head to Jim Thompson House, a beautiful wooden house that once belonged to the American businessman who revitalised the Thai silk industry.
But my personal recommendation is to visit the lesser-known Koh Kret Island. This small island is accessible by riverboat, and is home to a community of artisans and merchants. You’ll find rustic temples scattered throughout the island, with street food stalls selling coconut juice in clay pots and fresh tod man (crispy fried fishcakes served with cucumber).
Most popular sight: Khmer temple ruins
Top recommendation: Lopburi Monkey Festival (November)
Located at just a two-hour drive from Bangkok, Lopburi is one of Thailand’s oldest cities. In the 10th century, it was invaded by the Khmers from the Angkor Empire, who expanded into Thailand from present-day Cambodia.
Many of the temples that you’ll see here date from this period, including the famous Praeng Khaek, a Hindu shrine built in the 10th century. The city was later absorbed into the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 1300s, accounting for the noticeable similarities between these two ancient cities.
Today, Lopburi is possibly most famous for its cheeky inhabitants: the macaque monkeys. Known as Thailand’s Monkey City, Lopburi is home to thousands of monkeys, who have made themselves comfortable in the ancient ruins. Be warned: these monkeys will be watching you from the moment you arrive, waiting for the opportune moment to snatch your food.
If you’re looking for a truly unique cultural experience, head to Lopburi in November for the world famous Monkey Banquet. You’ll find a sumptuous feast laid out in the streets, with platters of fruit and dessert arranged in beautiful displays (until the monkeys run amok). There’s no other festival like it in the world, and it may well be the best thing you see in Thailand.
Most popular sight: The royal city ruins
Top recommendation: Grilled king river prawns
Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was home to a medieval city founded in 1350. From the 14th to 18th centuries, it was the capital city of Siam (the old name for Thailand), flourishing into one of the world’s wealthiest and most cosmopolitan cities. It was razed to the ground by invading Burmese forces in the 1760s, and what remains today are a series of temples, monasteries, walkways and Buddha statues that hint at a lost kingdom.
In its long tenure as the Siamese capital, Ayutthaya saw the innovation of many recipes (with roots that reflect the city’s cosmopolitan past) that have since become staples of Thai cuisine, from the Portuguese-inspired foi thong to the Indian-inspired roti sai mai.
Its rich culinary past, combined with its location on the river, means that Ayutthaya is abundant with regional delicacies. The city is particularly famous for its huge king river prawns, which are served sliced open to reveal the tender meat, before being grilled and garnished with a fresh chilli sauce.
One of the best things to do here is take a historical food tour of the city, in which you’ll hear the stories of a past kingdom come to life. There are various tours to choose from, with some taking you through Ayutthaya’s floating markets or teaching you how to make your own version of traditional desserts.
North Thailand: Chiang Mai
Most popular sight: Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (temple)
Top recommendation: Bo Sang Village (artisan crafts)
If you’re looking for a more relaxing experience, swap Bangkok for the picturesque charm of Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as a royal city, serving as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom until 1558, when it passed into Burmese hands. As a result of this long history at the Burmese frontier, Chiang Mai is steeped in a sense of history that makes for compelling sightseeing.
As is customary in Thai cities, you’ll find a plethora of temples at your fingertips. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is the most famous of them all. This temple boasts a style that is distinctly Thai, with intricate golden patterns peeking out beneath curved, red roofs. You’ll have to climb over 300 steps up the hillside to reach it, with the walkway guarded by a pair of giant naga (mythological serpents). This is one of Thailand’s most sacred places, and the steep climb to the top (during which you make merit, in the Buddhist sense) is worth every step.
Another temple worth visiting is Wat Pha Lat, Chiang Mai’s ‘hidden temple’. Originally a resting place for pilgrims headed up the hill to Doi Suthep, this modest shrine along the ‘monk’s trail’ is shrouded by rainforest, creating a mystical and ethereal atmosphere.
For an authentic food experience, head down to Talat Warorot, where you’ll encounter the vibrant energy of a typical Thai market. Expect stalls selling everything from deep fried banana and crispy coconut pancakes to regional products such as sai ua (northern-style sausage).
Venture a little east from the Old City and you’ll find yourself in Bor Sang, a small craft village whose speciality resides in umbrella-making. Here, you’ll see local artisans painting and crafting beautiful umbrellas from sa paper (made from the bark of the mulberry tree) and cotton. The result is a visual feast of colour and vibrancy, unlike anything you’ll have seen elsewhere.
Most popular sight: Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple)
Top recommendation: Baan Dam Museum
Chiang Rai is one of Thailand’s northernmost cities, wedged between the borders of Laos and Myanmar. Founded in 1262, it was the capital of the Mangrai Dynasty for centuries, before being invaded by Burmese forces. Like neighbouring Chiang Mai, it retains a strong Lanna identity, owing to the Indian-influenced kingdom that ruled in Northern Thailand from the 13th to the 18th centuries, at the same time that the Ayutthaya Kingdom was in power further south.
However, unlike Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai has a provincial charm with a relaxed ambience (a quality that its sister city has lost to over-tourism) and a strong modern arts scene. Its temples are worth visiting alone, offering a contemporary take on Theravada Buddhism. Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, is the most famous of them, a Lanna-style wat with an ethereal, icy effect. In its spare, unconventional beauty, it’s been compared to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. You’ll also find an array of artworks and sculptures here to peruse.
Wat Rong Suea Ten, the Blue Temple, is equally striking. Its interiors are painted in an electric shade of cobalt blue, housing a white marble Buddha at its heart. This results in a blend of styles that is both ancient and modern, sacred yet bold.
And if you’re looking to explore Chiang Rai’s contemporary arts further, head to Baan Dam Museum – the Black House. Here, you’ll find nearly 40 black wooden houses built in a traditional Northern style, home to a vast collection of paintings, sculptures and rare historical artefacts from all over Thailand.
South Thailand: Krabi Province
Most popular sight: Phi Phi Islands
Top recommendation: Rock-climbing in Ton Sai Beach
For a sun-soaked beach escape with a rugged twist, head south to the province of Krabi. Overlooking the Andaman Sea, this stretch of coastline is blessed with pristine beaches, tropical waters and craggy limestone cliffs.
Due to its location near the Malaysian border, you’ll find the Muslim communities of the south centred around this area. The Andaman coast is also home to the indigenous Chao Leh community, a seafaring people who have their own culture, language and animist belief system.
Whether or not you’ve travelled in Thailand (or seen The Beach), you’ve probably heard of the famous Phi Phi Islands. A small group of islands with strikingly turquoise waters and mysterious lagoons, you’ll see why many movies have been filmed here. This is the perfect place for tropical beach escapism, from sunbathing on the white-sand beaches to snorkelling with tropical fish.
But the real attraction here is rock-climbing. Thanks to its rugged cliffs and breathtaking scenery, Krabi and the Phi Phi Islands are a mecca for climbers around the world. Ton Sai Beach on Phi Phi Don is one of the most popular climbing sites, where you’ll find courses and tours accommodating for all levels of experience.
Surat Thani & Koh Samui
Most popular sight: Beach living in Koh Samui
Top recommendation: Explore Surat Thani’s night market
Surat Thani is a city overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, located a nine-hour drive (and one-hour flight) south of Bangkok. For centuries, it was a seat of power in the Srivijaya Kingdom, which spread through the Malay Peninsula and Indonesian archipelago between the 3rd and 13th centuries.
Today, the city has a humble reputation as a typical Thai working-class city, meaning that you’ll see local life unfolding around you in an authentic way. Between vibrant Chinese temples and a night market selling a range of street food, there’s plenty to intrigue you in this lesser-explored city.
However, Surat Thani is certainly better known as a transit city, through which many travellers pass on their way to its surrounding islands. Koh Samui is Thailand’s second largest island, located at a two-hour ferry ride away from the city.
White sand beaches, tropical sea, swaying palms and lush rainforest; Koh Samui is the very image of southern Thailand, and it doesn’t disappoint. Scattered with temples, night markets, cafes and bars, you’ll find plenty to explore here beyond its beautiful beaches. With a strong tourism infrastructure, there are a range of luxurious hotels to choose from here, making it a perfect destination for an indulgent beach escape.
We run three trips to Thailand, all of which can be found here.