Thailand has so many unique destinations that it could take you years to see them all. From its hundreds of islands, to its metropolitan capital city, Thailand caters to all types of travelers and budgets. On our recent trip to Thailand we spent four weeks exploring national parks, ancient ruins, pristine islands, and modern cities. Here is our list of the top 15 places we think you should not skip out on your next Thai adventure.
Ayutthaya Historical Park
Ayutthaya is a fascinating historical park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. At just a one-hour drive from Bangkok, it makes for an easy and refreshing day trip out of the city. Ayutthaya was the second capital of Siam (Thailand) for 417 years from 1350 to 1767 until its destruction by the Burmese.
In their attack, Burmese forces burned the city to the ground and destroyed sacred shrines, chedis, and Buddha statues. The structures that managed to survive the fire were buried beneath the ground for hundreds of years.
Nowadays, much of Ayutthaya has been unearthed and its ruins form an archaeological park. Visitors can walk around the ruins with relative freedom to see magnificent temples, palaces, and Buddha statues. The park is home to several striking buildings.
Among them are Wat Phra Ram Temple, Wat Chaiwatthanaram monastery, and Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Once you’ve finished touring the grounds, don’t miss the overgrown Buddha head behind Mahathat Temple. This unique relic has become a major tourist attraction and the iconic image of Ayutthaya.
Bangkok’s Grand Palace
After the destruction of Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam was established along the Chao Praya River in Bangkok. The Grand Palace complex was built for the new capital; a 218,000-square-meter walled city comprised of royal residences, throne halls, government offices, Buddhist temples, and priceless works of art.
Visitors should reserve a minimum of three hours to explore the site. Several striking buildings emerge as one walks around the vast complex. The upper terrace (pictured above) features a large golden chedi, a miniature version of Ankor Wat, and the Royal Pantheon that contains statues of past rulers of the Chakri dynasty.
Check out our article: Top 10 Things to See and Do in Bangkok, Thailand
Among the Grand Palace’s other buildings is the exquisite Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha. As with all Buddhist places of worship, proper dress is required and the Grand Palace is the most strictly enforced site in the country. Ladies should cover their shoulders, men must also wear shirts with sleeves, and no short skirts, shorts, or tight pants are permitted. Admission is 400 THB per person. The Grand Palace in Bangkok is one of the must-do things to do in Thailand. To get a great sense of everything there is to see and do, we highly recommend you visit HolidayMe to plan your Thailand adventure.
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Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
Thailand’s markets are exciting, lively and a significant part of the local culture. Experiencing the flurry and sensations of a floating market from a long-tail boat is a memorable way to spend a morning. The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market is about an hour and a half drive from Bangkok. Although it has become quite the tourist attraction, it is a completely functional marketplace with food, souvenirs, clothing, and fresh produce. If you don’t want to visit with a group, your hotel can help hire you a private driver/ taxi to take you both ways (approximately $60 USD but prices can vary). Plan to depart at 6 or 6:30 a.m. and eat breakfast at the market. Vendors sell noodle bowls, coconut pancakes, spring rolls, fresh fruit, and stir fried dishes, which you can eat on the boat as you see the market.
This particular market fills up quickly with tourists by mid-morning, so it is important to arrive early to avoid the boat traffic. The price for a one-hour long boat tour will run you another $60 USD. The tour usually includes several stops at souvenir stalls and a coconut processing plant. If you are not interested in any of these (truthfully, I did not enjoy them) and wish to just go to the market, tell the agent at the dock and work out an arrangement. The boat captains generally don’t speak English. Don’t forget your camera and bring cash for your purchases.
Chiang Mai Sunday Night Walking Street
Chiang Mai is known as the “Rose of the North.” Expats from all over the world are seduced by Chiang Mai’s laid back culture, beautiful Buddhist temples, plentiful restaurants, and spirited nightlife. Even if you don’t plan on moving here, you should definitely check out Chiang Mai’s bustling shopping culture. Every evening, the city hosts its night bazaar – a favorite among bargain shoppers.
You can browse the clothing, street food stalls, DVDs, jewelry, Thai silk, accessories, and shoes along Chang Khlan Road, east of the old side of the walled city. The scene is pretty much the same every night, with locals and tourists turning up for some delicious street food and people watching. But the best night of shopping in Chiang Mai is the Sunday Night Market, or “Walking Street.”
This market is the largest one of the week, and stretches one kilometer down Ratchadamnoen Road. Unlike the regular nightly bazaar, the Sunday market has more arts and crafts for sale. Thais from neighboring villages come to sell their handmade items. Lanterns, wooden boxes, masks, paintings, and string lights are just some of the things you will see. The Sunday Market also brings local musicians and street performers. Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Walking Street last from 4 p.m. to midnight. Remember to bring cash and don’t be afraid to negotiate with the vendors.
Elephant Nature Park
When in Chiang Mai, a day at the Elephant Nature Park is an exciting and unforgettable eco-tour for animal lovers. Elephant Nature Park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused, elderly, and injured Asian Elephants. What began as a personal quest for Sangduen “Lek” Chailert in 1992 has blossomed into one the world’s most respected elephant sanctuaries. Lek and her team of caretakers, vets, groundskeepers, and volunteers are devoted to ensuring that each rescue elephant lives out the rest of its life in peace and health at the Elephant Nature Park. The herd, currently made up of 30 members, is free to wander the park, bathe and feed at their leisure, as well as interact with park guests.
Visitors will learn about the plight of the Asian Elephant in street begging and logging industry, have the opportunity to observe their natural behavior, feed them, and bathe them in the river. All proceeds from admission go towards feeding the elephants (each one consumes nearly 100 pounds of fresh produce each day!) and general upkeep of the park. This is a fantastic day trip to take with the family or a group of friends. After listening to their stories and witnessing their individual personalities, visitors will come away with a newfound respect for the species, and beautiful memories and photographs. For prices and details about day visits to the park, click HERE.
Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai provides the rare opportunity to come eye-to-eye with some of nature’s most impressive predators, tigers! Tiger Kingdom is a short half-hour drive from Chiang Mai’s city center to the town of Mae Rim. The center allows guests to interact with tigers of all ages and sizes (from three months to adults). All the tigers that live here were born in captivity. They are fed twice daily and spend the day playing with their keepers and amongst themselves.
Since they are hand-raised, the tigers do not pose a threat to visitors. To dispel a few myths about Tiger Kingdom: these tigers are NOT drugged, no tranquilizers or sedatives. They are bright-eyed, active, healthy, and could inflict a fare amount of damage to anyone if they so desired. With that said, guests are escorted through the park at all times. A day spent with the tigers in Tiger Kingdom is something you won’t forget. Fifteen minutes at each tiger enclosure will run you about $60 USD.
Bo Sang Umbrella Village
Just a 30-minute drive east of Chiang Mai town is Bo Sang, a viilage that specializes in handmade bamboo parasols, or umbrellas. The “Umbrella Village,” as it is nicknamed, gives visitors the opportunity to see the entire process and purchase whatever designs they like. It is free to watch while the local women cut, sand, arrange, and paint these colorful parasols.
If you do decide to buy, you’ll be saving money by purchasing directly from the source (approximately $55 USD for a large umbrella plus the base and sea shipping). International shipping rates are generally posted in front of the stores and major credit cards are accepted.
Chiang Rai White Temple
Wat Rong Khun, or the “White Temple,” is a visually striking, ornate Buddhist temple located a 20-minute drive south of Chiang Rai. Conceptualized and built by Thai artist, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, the White Temple has become a highlight on many Thailand itineraries.
The White Temple’s design does not match the traditional styles of other Buddhist temples throughout Thailand, and that was the artist’s intention. Chalermchai has created a surreal representation of what he sees are obstacles to the path of enlightenment.
He chose white instead of the typical gold to symbolize the Buddha’s pure nature. His use of mirror fragments in the mosaics represent wisdom. From beginning to end, the White Temple is both a thought provoking art piece and impressive place of worship. Around the temple you will find coffee shops, souvenir stores, and restaurants. Admission to the temple is 30 THB.
Long Neck Hill Tribe Villages
The hill tribe villages of Thailand are known for their colorful dress, handmade crafts, and unique customs. The hill tribes that live in the outskirts of Chiang Rai include the Akha, Lahu, Palong, Lu Mien Yao, and the Karen “Long Neck” people. You can see them all in one place a short drive away from Chiang Rai’s city center. With one admission ticket, visitors can walk through the villages and meet the members of the tribe. The women of the Karen Long Neck Tribe have the most striking appearance – many wear the brass coils wrapped around their necks. These coils can weigh up to 30 pounds!
Visiting the hill tribes can be an awkward experience for many, including myself. You are essentially paying to walk around and take pictures of strangers. Each village will try to sell you their crafts, and although there is no obligation to buy, you will probably feel pressured. It was a strange, exotic, and unique experience but it may not be for everyone. I felt like my ticket supported their community, so I am going to say it was worth it. Plus, the ladies were very willing to pose for photographs.
The Golden Triangle Park is an area about 45 minutes north of Chiang Rai where the Mekong River separates Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. For many years this was a major Opium production region, but the crop has since been eradicated from the area. Stop by the Golden Triangle monument (pictured), then head to the Hall of Opium Museum down the road. The museum was commissioned by the Thai royal family in their efforts to educate the public on the history of the opium industry and its effects on opium users.
It is one of the most elaborate museums in the country and contains several exhibits, film clips, photographs, pipes, tools, and information. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is 300 THB per person. There are several local restaurants along the main road between the monument and the Hall of Opium Museum, most of which have river views.
Khao Yai National Park
At 300 square kilometers, Khao Yai National Park is the third largest national park in Thailand. It is also the country’s oldest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most visitors come for the day or long weekend to get a nice break from busy, noisy Bangkok. Khao Yai is home to several plant and animal species, but the three main attractions of the park are Asian elephants, white-handed gibbons (pictured), and the giant hornbill.
Khao Yai is one of the few remaining places where Asian elephants still roam free, and where the gibbons are protected from poachers. Gibbons are unfortunately susceptible because throughout Thailand because baby gibbons are used to get money from tourists who wish to have their pictures taken with them. Oftentimes poachers will need to kill the babies’ entire families before they can get to them.
Khao Yai has 50 kilometers of hiking trails, most of which require minimal physical fitness, and a two-way paved road running through it, making it easy for self-guided visits. If you wish to learn more about the park’s plants and animals, as well as have a better chance at spotting them, we recommend a half-day tour with a local guide. Green Leaf Tours provides inexpensive, educational tours and the guides are expert animal spotters. Khao Yai boasts a visitor center, restrooms, campgrounds, and a large dining pavilion with local foods. Other park inhabitants include macaques (always roaming around the picnic tables), water monitor lizards, sambar deer, and pythons. Khai Yai is a 2.5-hour drive from Bangkok. There are dozens of hotels and restaurants just outside the park along the main road.
Koh Lanta Island
Koh Lanta is one of the most pristine islands in Thailand, and an especially attractive destination for beach lovers. Compared to the crowded beaches and mass tourism of Phuket and Samui, Koh Lanta offers rustic charm and a laid back atmosphere. Koh Lanta’s finest beaches can be found along its western and southern coasts.
Bamboo Beach (pictured) is particularly serene. Located at the southern end of Koh Lanta, this 500-meter-long beach is ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and lounging. It has crystal-clear water and a beautiful lush forest backdrop. Bamboo Beach has three boutique-style resorts, so it’s never overcrowded. WATCH VIDEO: The Best Stay in Koh Lanta: Lalaanta Hideaway
Other attractions around Koh Lanta include Lanta Old Town and Koh Lanta National Park (also has a beautiful sandy beach). Long Beach is also a popular beach for its swimming, sunbathing, and many restaurants. A word on transportation: When you arrive to Koh Lanta you will notice many tourists on scooters. The locals will tell you they are ideal for getting around the island, but I have to disagree. The island has many steep hills, secluded beaches, and unpaved side roads. If you want to see the main attractions, do yourself a favor and rent a car (approximately $30 USD per day). I saw tourists pushing their scooters up hill on many occasions.
Monkey Temples of Lopburi
For an experience slightly off the beaten tourist trail, spend a morning exploring the temples of Lopburi. The town is located 150 kilometers northeast of Bangkok and is known for its many ancient ruins, most of which are have not been restored. Unlike the historical parks of Ayutthaya and Sukothai, the ruins of Lopburi are more spread out and will require more effort to see them all. The temples draw visitors, however Lopburi’s resident monkeys are the main reason people stop here. The town is literally overrun with hundreds of feisty, rambunctious crab-eating macaques. Most of them are concentrated around the two main temples – Phra Prang Sam Yot and Phra Kaan Shrine (across the street from one another).
The macaques are everywhere! Dangling from the light poles, crossing the street, scaling the temple walls, and constantly on the lookout for scraps of food. The monkeys are fed regularly at Phra Kaan, which is where many like to hang around. Across the street at Phra Prang Sam Yot, the monkeys have more space to play and bully tourists out of their snacks. You can’t leave anything on the ground that you wouldn’t want a monkey to grab. Locals will try to sell you juice and food to feed to the monkeys, but I would not recommend this. If you’ve got food, pandemonium will ensue, and these monkeys are not scared to jump on people’s shoulders or snatch food right out of your hand. The best thing to do is come an admire the monkeys… from a distance. WATCH VIDEO: Exploring the Monkey Temple of Lopburi
Boat Tour of Phang Nga Bay
If you find yourself in Phuket, it would be a shame not to experience the fascinating Phang Nga Bay. Infamous since the release of films such as Roger Moore’s “The Man with the Golden Gun” and Leonardo Di Caprio’s “The Beach,” the bay is known for its unusual limestone rock formations, emerald waters, and ideal year-round swimming conditions.
Phang Nga Bay is located between Phuket and the Malay peninsula of southern Thailand. Sailing around will reveal dramatic limestone islands, lush cliffs, secluded beaches, lagoons, and hidden coves. Most sailing tours include canoeing, snorkeling, swimming, and lunch as part of their itinerary.
We like Captain Mark’s Alternative Tours because they include a stop to the Koh Panyi fishing village for an interesting walking tour and delicious seafood lunch. A day sailing in Phang Nga Bay is an absolute must for anyone’s first Thai Vacation.
Want to discover Phang Nga Bay by high speed boat? Book here!
Sukhothai Historical Park
Located about five hours north of Bangkok, Sukhothai was the first ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam from 1238 to 1438. The Sukhothai Historical Park is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a magnificent place to explore by bicycle, car, or walking tour. Within the park there are several imposing structures. These include Wat Mahatat, the park’s largest temple (pictured), the unusual three-pillared Wat Si Sawai temple, and Pra Achana Buddha at Wat Si Chun. WATCH VIDEO: Where to Stay in Sukhothai, Thailand: Le Charme Hotel
These are by no means the only ones, but these three stand out and are quite impressive. Sukothai Historical Park requires a full day to explore. If you have the time and a rental car, visit the nearby Si Satchanalai Historical Park. This is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you’ll find more temples, Buddha statues, and striking chedis.
Here are the top 10 tours I recommend in Thailand:
- Bangkok: Full-Day Floating Market and Bike Tour
- From Bangkok: Ayutthaya Tour with Return River Cruise
- From Bangkok: Khao Yai National Park Full-Day Tour
- Chiang Mai: Full-Day Elephant Park Visit with Lunch
- Chiang Mai: Half-Day Doi Suthep & Meo Hill Tribe Visit
- 3-Day Guided Golden Triangle Tour and Hill Tribes
- City and Temples in Chiang Rai Half-Day Tour
- From Phuket: Full-Day Andaman Islands Speedboat Tour
- Full-Day Snorkeling Tour to Ko Rok by Speedboat from Koh Lanta
- From Bangkok: Northern Thailand 5-Day Sightseeing Tour
Have you been to Thailand? Leave us a comment below with recommendations about places you must see in Thailand!