With its sun-soaked beaches, infamous hospitality, and awe-inspiring temples, it's easy to fall in love with Thailand. We’ve whittled down the top experiences to 25 to help you make the most of your time.
With centuries of history and culture and what feels like an amazing temple on every mountain top and street corner, narrowing down your “must” sightseeing list in Thailand can feel a little intimidating. From visiting remote hill tribes to island-hopping around Krabi to epic festivals and motorcycle trips, this list of the best things to do will offset your FOMO and make sure you leave the Land of Smiles with a cheese-eating grin.
Ride the Mae Hong Son Loop
Thailand’s most famous motorcycle trail winds from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son, via Pai, offering up a spectacular mountain and river scenery along the way. The trip takes anywhere from three days to a couple of weeks, depending on how deeply you want to meander and explore the towns along the route.
INSIDER TIPWear a helmet, have a motorcycle license (or your travel insurance won’t cover you), and be prepared to yield to erratic, often drunk drivers at all times.
Learn to Make Your Favorite Thai Dishes
Thailand is not only insanely beautiful, it’s also insanely delicious, and after spending even a few days here, you will likely want to know how to recreate some of your favorite dishes when you leave. So why not learn a few fundamentals with a side of history of Thai cuisine while you master an authentic green curry, a hot-and-spicy soup, or Pad Thai? Classes often include a market visit and snacks as you go and individual cooking stations. Suwannee Thai in Chiang Rai is well known for its well-run classes, featuring organic ingredients supplied by local farmers, informative visits to the market for supplies, and fun classes that cater to different levels and interests. In Bangkok, take a class at Blue Elephant Cooking School or Oriental Cooking School.
Eat With Your Eyes
You can find street vendors in any town in Thailand with locals crowded around slurping the affordable and delicious eats but Bangkok is especially (and justifiably) famous for its street food scene. By night, Bangkok’s Chinatown sizzles with activity as locals gather around street stalls slurping noodles and devouring curries or sitting at street-side tables enjoying each masterful chef’s specials. It’s overwhelming but so exciting to just stop and point at photos or dishes on the grill as you explore all the flavors and options. Find your favorite sticky rice or spicy som tam vendor as you wander the lively scene, snacking on pan-fried insects and moo ping (pork skewers) as you go. You can’t go wrong just following your belly or nose, but use your eyes, too, to gauge where you should stop: a long line is always a good sign.
Hike, Bird, and Sunrise-Chase at Doi Inthanon
Thailand’s highest peak rises majestically over a national park of staggering beauty, popular with birders, nature lovers, and hikers, day-tripping from Chiang Mai. Known as “the roof of Thailand,” this park is part of the Himalayan mountain range and is named in honor of one of the last kings of Chiang Mai who was ahead of his time in his efforts to preserve the forests in the north of Thailand. The main attractions of the park are the waterfalls, the hiking trails, birding opportunities, and the summit of Doi Inthanon for its spectacular views (especially popular at sunrise and sunset).
INSIDER TIPVisit in late January or early February to catch the brief but spectacular blooming of cherry blossoms.
Get off the Grid at Khao Sok National Park
A nature reserve in southern Thailand, Khao Sok National Park is one of the most spectacular landscapes in Thailand, featuring towering mountain ranges, lush greenery and dense, virgin jungle filled with rare flora and fauna. It is truly a tropical paradise and a must visit. You really won’t want to tackle this on your own, so book a multiple-night tour with a reputable agency or dive operator out of Khao Lak. Settle a while in the heart of the park at Cheow Larn Lake where you can stay in floating raft houses. A local guide will take you on a hike through the rainforest at the edge of the lake, or you can just chill and watch as monkeys play at the water’s edge and birds swoop down from the mountaintops to feed.
INSIDER TIPThe lake is regularly dived by a few operators from Khao Lak and offers a strangely magical and eerie underwater landscape filled with caverns and forests, best suited to experienced divers.
Get a Thai Massage
For most visitors to Thailand, a traditional Thai massage tops the wish list, and rightly so. You wouldn’t go to Italy and not eat pasta, right? Widely available in temples, markets, beaches, jungle hideaways, and luxury resorts, Thai massage treatments combine Indian Ayurvedic principles, assisted stretching and yoga postures, and acupressure. No oils are used and the recipient remains clothed during a treatment which usually takes place on a mat or mattress on the floor. The body is pulled, stretched, and compressed as the therapist uses their hands, elbows, and feet to manipulate the body and apply pressure and work out the travel creaks and kinks. It’s rigorous, uncomfortable, even painful, but somehow still pleasant. You can also just opt for a foot massage. If you are worried about the qualifications or skills of your therapist, plan to get a massage at Bangkok’s Wat Pho, the national headquarters for the preservation and teaching of traditional Thai massage and medicine. Book a massage here (before you wander around the complex) and be prepared: wear loose fitting clothes and expect a communal, open plan pavilion. This is the way most locals experience Thai massage.
INSIDER TIPThe massage needs to be firm for you to get the benefits but if you cannot tolerate it, you can ask for less pressure by saying “bow bow” in Thai.
See Chiang Rai in Black and White
This small northern Thai city is a must for its access to the Golden Triangle and neighbors Laos and Myanmar, as well as its elephant sanctuaries, street markets, night markets, delicious food, and amazing temples. You can’t visit Chiang Rai without visiting its top three temples: the famous White Temple, Wat Rong Khun, a surreal and unique all-white complex; the Black House, Baan Dam, a nice visual counterpoint to the glistening White Temple made up of unique art, architectural styles, and found objects laid out on manicured grounds; and the original home of the emerald Buddha (it now displays a replica) at Wat Phra Kaew, one of Chiang Rai’s oldest and most revered temples.
Visit Chiang Mai, “The Rose of the North”
Northern Thailand’s largest city offers significant temples, trekking trails that lead to the Hill Tribes, elephant sanctuaries, bustling night markets that are a riot of sounds and smells, and cooler temperatures — all against a magical backdrop of misty mountains. You can spend several days here checking out top attractions including, Doi Inthanon National Park which is home to the highest mountain in all of Thailand; Chang Klan Road’s Night Bazaar; Wat Chedi Luang which used to be home to the Emerald Buddha; and the hill tribes in villages like Mae Rim just outside of Chiang Mai. There are hundreds of temples in Chiang Mai so consider a temple tour to hit the highlights.
INSIDER TIPOn the night of the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (usually in November), Chiang Rai’s waterways are ablaze with floating lanterns as the city celebrates the Loi Krathong festival bigger and better than any other city in Thailand. If you are planning to visit during this exquisite display, plan ahead. It is near impossible to get a hotel!
Explore the Ancient City of Ayutthaya
Once an important center of global commerce and diplomacy and one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas, the city of Ayutthaya was attacked and destroyed by the Burmese army in the late 1700s. Today, the Thai- and Khmer-style ruins of Thailand’s second capital are a UNESCO World Heritage site and form Ayutthaya Historical Park. The ruins are some of the most magnificent in all of Thailand and evoke the city’s lost grandeur. All of the most important buildings have been repaired and sometimes reconstructed and the temples are often incredible. Highlights include the photogenic Wat Chaiwattaranaram, which features a large chedi surrounded by pagodas; the Grand Palace with its three enormous chedis in a row; and the famous Wat Phra Mahathat where you will find a Buddha’s head entwined in the roots of a banyan tree.
INSIDER TIPIt’s always hot and humid here, and there are so many temples to see and just so much ground to cover, so if possible, plan to stay a few days to really soak in this incredibly important site.
Explore the Paradise That Is Koh Chang
Mountainous Koh Chang, or Elephant Island, is Thailand’s third largest island and part of Mu Koh Chang National Park and much less visited than beach destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui. In fact, many of Koh Chang’s beaches and villages are only accessible by boat, making them deserted and unspoiled paradises. Jungle trek to the top of one of the mountains, scuba dive the surrounding waters, stay in a luxury resort or a ramshackle hut, or hop on a scooter and zip around the island to discover various waterfalls and a beach that suits your vacation vibe.
Hit the Rooftop Bars
If you like the wind in your hair and fancy cocktails with twinkling city views, then you’ll want to dedicate at least one night to Bangkok’s famous rooftop scene. Drinks are on the pricier side but those epic views and subsequent Instagram envy doesn’t come cheap. Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower is perhaps the city’s most famous rooftop with its breathtaking views of the Chao Phraya river and a cocktail named for the Hangover movie that was filmed here. While here, head upstairs to visit the new millennial-friendly Pink Bar, a romantic champagne bar with glam setting and epic views. Other options include Above Eleven on the 33rd floor of the Fraser Suites Sukhumvit where you’ll find Peuvian-inspired cocktails with its views (which can even be enjoyed from the bathroom); Octave Rooftop Bar offers 3560-degree views of the city skyline and resident DJs; Sirocco’s high demand drinks-with-views which should be reserved in advance; and Vertigo & Moon Bar.
Enjoy a Slice of Pai
One of northern Thailand’s most popular towns and a stop along the famous Mae Hong Son Loop, the charming town of Pai is less off-the-beaten-path than it used to be but it is ensconced in nature and often described as an island in the mountains, which is reason enough to visit. Add a main street that fills with food vendors every night; a WWII Memorial bridge; a system of limestone caves; a white Buddha on a hill; a grand canyon that you can spend hours hiking and exploring; Mo Paeng waterfalls; hot springs; and a longstanding hippy scene, and hey, you might never leave.
Party With Locals at Festivals
In some countries, it’s any excuse for a party; in Thailand, it’s any excuse for a festival. Thailand’s rich traditions and rituals make for incredibly beautiful and moving festivals, and planning a visit around one can make for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. One of the most beautiful is the festival of Loi Krathong or Yi Peng, where thousands of candle-lit paper lanterns are released into the sky and river along with all of the previous year’s ills and misfortunes. Songkran, the Thai New Year, is celebrated with a giant water fight, while the misleadingly-named Vegetarian Festival involves abstinence during the lenten period as well as macabre displays of devotion like walking on coals, extreme body piercing, and acts of self-mutilation. If you’re more the make-love-not-holes-in-your-body type, you might prefer the Trang Underwater Wedding festivities which is exactly what it sounds like for qualified divers-in-love on the days surrounding Valentine’s Day every year.
Thailand’s Andaman Coast offers some of the best snorkeling and dive sites in the world with crystal clear waters, abundant marine life, and spectacular underwater scenery. The Surin Islands, a stretch of islands in the province of Phang Nga, offers some of the most remote and unspoiled diving sites in the world. Divers here will find famous sites such as Richelieu Rock where you will find giant whale sharks, swooping manta rays, and vast, diverse coral, too. Other famous dive sites on the Andaman Coast include world-class sites, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.
INSIDER TIPThe more remote Surin Islands are best explored on overnight dive tours rather than day trips.
Take a Side Trip to Kanchanaburi
While Kanchanaburi is just a couple of hours by train from Bangkok, this historical city offers an abundance of attractions, so you may want to extend your visit beyond a day trip. You could spend an entire day just at Erawan National Park, hiking, visiting caves, and swimming in the famous seven-tiered waterfalls before heading to the nearby Bridge on the River Kwai, popularized by the 1957 movie, yes, you guessed it, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Trivial Pursuit fans will be interested to know that the river’s name was incorrect in the movie and in real life had to be changed from Mae Klong to River Kwai because so many tourists/fans of the movie were looking for it. While the movie was widely lauded it was also considered a completely inaccurate depiction of historical events, including the main fiction that Allied POW’s were forced to build the Burma Railway between Thailand and Burma. The railway was actually built by the Japanese during WWII and at such a great loss of life that it was known as the Death Railway. Hollywood-history aside, the bridge is still impressive and walking over it is kind of the thing to do in Kanchanaburi. Be sure to visit the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum and the Death Railway Museum for some accurate (and interesting) historical context.
With unspoiled beaches, protected marine national parks, and crystal-clear waters filled with a wide diversity of sea life, the remote island paradises of the Similan and Surin Islands in the Andaman Sea off the west coast of Thailand are popular for diving, fishing, and hiking, and are an essential stop on a Thailand itinerary. The Similan Islands are a stretch of nine islands, which combine with the protected islands of Koh Bon and Koh Tachai to make up Mu Ko Similan National Park. The Surin Islands are north of the Similans, and Mu Ko Surin National Park includes the world-famous Richelieu Rock dive site, a horseshoe-shaped reef with warm tropical waters teeming with healthy purple coral reefs and a variety of sea life including, snappers, lionfish, manta rays, and whale sharks.
INSIDER TIPAccommodation options are limited here so you should plan to base yourself in Khao Lok, a series of villages along the mainland coastline, and charter a yacht or book day trips.
Monkey Around in Lopburi
The city of Lopburi in Central Thailand is one of the oldest cities in Thailand and home to an unusually large, and rogue, monkey population that likes to gather around monuments like Phra Prang Sam Yot — or Monkey Temple. The mischievous macaques live in the temple grounds and surrounding streets and while adorable, the cheeky monkeys will steal your food, shoes, and the teeth out of your mouth (okay, slight exaggeration) if you are not paying attention.
Stroll Khao San Road
Sure, it’s touristy and crowded with overpriced souvenirs, but Bangkok’s most famous shopping thoroughfare is still a must visit for its hustle and bustle, lively bars, and delicious street food. It’s backpacker central (and a great place to meet people if you are traveling solo) but there are also bars and clubs that are popular with locals. The pedestrianized street and side streets are lined with vendors selling everything from cheap clothing and jewelry to sculptures and fake IDs. Food options run from traditional Thai food and street food to hamburgers, falafel, and other options for international travelers looking for a break from the spice.
INSIDER TIPBe prepared for the fact that there is also an ugly side to Khao San Road. Amid the cheap booze and bargains, there’s also a seedy prostitution scene/sex tourism industry that is very evident here.
Bangkok’s Famous Temples
There are over 400 temples or wats in Bangkok and unless you have 400 days to spare, you will need a plan. The best course of action is to start with the three most important—and most famous—ones, and then add a few extra options if time permits. Set within the Grand Palace (which will take several hours to explore in itself), Wat Phra Kaew aka the Temple of the Emerald Buddha is home to a 26-inch statue that is widely considered the most important Buddha statue in Thailand. Just a few minutes’ walk away, Wat Pho or the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, with its 141-ft-long gold-leaf Buddha with pearl inlay on his enormous feet is a spectacular sight to behold and another must visit. Finally, almost directly across the river (by riverboat) from the area where you will find the Grand Palace and Wat Pho is Wat Arun, the most iconic temple of Bangkok. After you’ve hit these highlights, you can add in a few other top temples if you have time: Wat Benjamabhopit, Wat Prayoon, and Loha Prasat are all worth seeing.
INSIDER TIPMix up your classic temple experiences with a visit to some of Bangkok’s more unique offerings like David Beckham temple and its neighbor, Donald Duck temple.
Explore the Ancient City of Sukhothai
The ancient city of Sukhothai—meaning “The Dawn of Happiness”—and the surrounding region is a UNESCO World Heritage site and thanks to its sprawling size and out of the way location in the lower north of Thailand, it manages to feel undiscovered and off the beaten path of most visitors. Sukhothai Historical Park covers 27 square miles, with the elaborate Wat Mahathat temple complex as its center. The park includes several smaller temples, as well as the remains of the city wall and moat and its hydraulics system. Explore the impressive 13th-century ruins with Khmer- and Hindu influenced scripture and architecture, relatively unspoiled by time.
Find a Gem in Phetchaburi
Meaning “city of diamonds,” the province of Phetchaburi, southwest of Bangkok, is definitely home to its share of gems. Khao Luang Cave is a perhaps the shiniest, with its collection of buddhas—including the 32-ft reclining buddha—nestled in the beautiful limestone cave’s grooves and chambers, and spotlighted under beams of sunlight breaking through the cave. Phetchaburi’s impressive temples include Wat Yai Suwannaram with its special murals, Phra Nakhon Khiri with its tall white chedi, and the Khmer-style Wat Mahathat.
INSIDER TIPKhao Long Cave is best visited in the morning when the sun reflects off the brass icons.
Visit the Hill Tribes (Respectfully)
Thailand’s hill tribes make their homes in the mountainous regions of the north, having migrated from Laos and Burma/Myanmar. There are seven main hill tribe groups, including the Karen Hmong, Akha, and Paduang tribes, each with their own unique customs, rituals, and language. Avoid the unethical tourist traps which involve paying a hefty entry fee to visit a market where you have to buy crafts and pose with residents (money that does not go back to the community.) Instead, do your research and book an ethical guide from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai to take you to more remote villages where you can stay and interact and observe in a more authentic—-but still respectful—way. Many villages cannot (and should not) be reached and are not open to visitors so it is important to be considerate and careful in choosing your tour operator.
Cruise the Floating Markets
Thailand’s slender canals and waterways were once a popular means of trade and both central and essential to the way of life for people in Thailand. Urbanization brought competition and convenience and today these markets are mostly tourist-oriented but don’t let that stop you visiting. Vendors in straw hats and wooden boats peddle everything from caramelized crickets and samurai swords to herbal potions and silk. There are several markets within easy reach of Bangkok, with Damnoen Saduak (an hour from Bangkok) being the largest, the most popular, and the most trafficked, too. You can book a tour from your hotel or a tour operator and spend the full day—usually starting around 7 am—exploring its colorful, winding canals. If you want a less touristy option, visit the Bang Nam Pheung Floating Market, about six miles from downtown Bangkok in much more rural feeling Bang Kachao. There are fewer boats but also fewer tourists and delicious, organic food options.
Wrap Yourself in Silk
If you treat yourself to one purchase in Thailand, make it silk. Chiang Mai and Silk are synonymous and at several workrooms along San Kamphaeng Road, you can learn how silk is made and buy quality silk clothing and home decor items. In Bangkok, visit the Jim Thompson house museum, the exquisite home of an American businessman and expat whose textile business—The Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company—put Thai silk on the international map. You will find Jim Thompson silk shops throughout Thailand and at the airport, and the silk scarves, shawls, pocket scarves, bags, shirts, and other accessories are quality souvenirs and gifts.
INSIDER TIPVisit the silk weaving community in Baan Khun Nua (walk across the bridge by the Jim Thompson House) to find weavers at work dyeing silk and hand-weaving the cloth. Follow the signs to find a few workshops here where you can buy silk directly, and more affordable than at Jim Thompson.
Go Island-Hopping Around Krabi
The gateway to the Andaman islands, Krabi is the perfect base for soaking in Thailand’s infamously breathtaking beauty. Hire a longtail boat to explore the islands and their white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, limestone cliffs, and incredible coral reefs. The classic four-island-tour can be done in a day and usually includes Koh Poda, Koh Kai, Koh Tup, and Railay Island. Alternately, you can choose a less exhausting/more vacation-y route and plan to land on one island a day, like Koh Hong or Rok Yai, and just chill for a week or longer. Be sure to snorkel around Koh Rok and Koh Ha, visit the Phi Phi islands, and generally avoid James Bond Island.