Updated: Jun 2
Here is our Thailand travel guide condensed into 15 unmissable Thai destinations:
Bangkok 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 Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, is the region’s major resort destination for families, package tourists and novice divers. Its 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.
Ko Tao The furthest inhabited island of the Samui archipelago, Ko Tao, has taken off as a scuba-diving centre, but despite a growing nightlife and restaurant scene, still has the feel of a small, rugged and isolated outcrop. A boat-trip round Ko Tao Satisfying exploration and great snorkelling, especially off the unique causeway beaches of Ko Nang Yuan.
Gulf Coast 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.
Chiang Mai 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 centre 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.
Chiang Rai 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 snorkelling 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 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 snorkellers 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 travellers’ route, offering a number of easy trails, a bit of amateur spelunking and some scenic rafthouse 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 kilometres 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 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, the vast majority of them Muslim, who earn their living from rubber and coconut plantations, fishing and shrimp-farming.
Ko Kood The fourth-largest island in Thailand, forested Ko Kood (also spelt Ko Kut and Ko Kud) is still a wild and largely uncommercialised 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.
Ko Samet Blessed with the softest, squeakiest sand within weekending distance of Bangkok, the tiny Thai island of Ko Samet, which measures just 6km from top to toe, is a favourite escape for Thais, expats 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.
Nan 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 likeable 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.