The Ultimate Thailand Travel Guide

02 Aug 2021

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Thailand is a firm favourite with travellers from around the world. For many, the Land of Smiles is the epitome of a tropical paradise thanks to its beaches, national parks, ancient sites, climate, culture, nightlife, and cuisine, not to mention friendly, welcoming people. Your days can be as hectic or chilled as you like, getting around can be easy or adventurous, and you can choose to splash the cash or take a budget-friendly backpacking break. Here’s our guide to travelling in Thailand. Get started with Thailand travel advice and passport requirements, and find out when the best time to visit Thailand is. Then dive into our top tips for backpacking in Thailand.

MAIN PLACES

Bangkok
Thailand’s bustling capital is among the world's most visited cities, thanks to its sheer variety of attractions and activities. Timeless floating markets contrast plush shopping malls, modern monorail trains outpace spluttering tuk-tuks, and shiny skyscrapers tower over golden temples.

Read more in our Bangkok food guide.

Chiang Mai
Once the capital of an independent kingdom, Chiang Mai is now the de facto capital of Thailand’s north. Less stifling and more laid back than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is home to old city walls and many stunning temples, like Wat Phra Singh, and is surrounded by forest-covered hills that offer plenty of hiking.

Read more in our Chiang Mai's Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep guide.

Phuket
Thailand's largest island offers countless holiday options. There are busy resorts, luxury hotels, white-sand beaches, watersports, temples, rainforest walks, museums, Michelin-rated restaurants, and much more.

Check out things to do in Phuket.

Phetchaburi
This once-important cultural and trading centre is home to the hilltop Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park, which includes King Rama IV's palace, while there are numerous temples and shrines dotted around town, including some set within caves.

Right across the water, you can explore the amazing things to do and see in Pattaya for 2022.

Samui Archipelago
This east-coast group of islands includes popular Koh Samui, laid-back Koh Phangan, the scuba paradise of Koh Tao, and the tiny isles of Ang Thong Marine National Park. Between them, they offer busy resorts, secluded bays, luxury spas, budget beach bungalows, shaded hammocks, coral reefs, and jungle trails.

Plan your island-hopping break: Thailand island hopping: complete itinerary & tips.

Ayutthaya
The former Thai capital, 80 kilometres north of Bangkok, is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably Thailand's answer to Angkor Wat. Towers, monasteries, temples, and palaces stand throughout the city as monuments to Ayutthaya's historical importance.

The former captial of Ayutthaya

Andaman Sea islands
Stretching between the Burmese and Malaysian borders, these islands offer the chance to find that perfect beach, hike through jungles to waterfalls, and go snorkelling, diving, and kayaking. You can choose an island to suit your mood: join the crowds at popular destinations such as Koh Phi Phi or escape to small, lesser-known gems like Koh Tarutao.

 

TOP EXPERIENCES

Go island hopping
Whether you tour the Andaman Sea islands off the west coast, Koh Samui and its neighbours, or the Koh Chang archipelago way out east near the Cambodian border, an island-hopping adventure in Thailand will live long in your memory. Each island offers something different in terms of activities and pace of life, so you can pick and mix your experiences as you travel from jetty to jetty via ferry, speedboat, or longtail boat.

Check out the best islands in Thailand.

Celebrate the Loi Krathong festival of light
This annual event on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar marks the end of the rainy season. People make miniature boats out of banana leaves, fill them with flowers, incense, and a candle, make a wish, and let them float away on the nearest body of water. Tradition has it that if the candle burns long, that person's wish will come true. It's thought the event started in Sukhothai, which is still home to one of the most spectacular celebrations, when the city's ancient ruins are lit up.

Fancy all the hot goss on festivals? 2022 Thailand festivals will get you prepped for your trip.

Loi Krathong festival

Go on an underwater adventure
The small island of Koh Tao, north of Koh Samui, is one of the best scuba destinations in Thailand, and is suitable for beginners and experienced divers. There's an incredible diversity of sea life and underwater features, plus the huge choice of dive operators helps keep prices down. The remote Similan Islands National Park on Thailand's west coast is another place with fantastic marine life. You can travel there from Khao Lak on liveaboard dive trips, many of which visit the even remoter Richelieu Rock, one of the country's scuba highlights.

Ride the Death Railway across the River Kwai
The Burma Railway was built by the Japanese in World War II using Allied prisoners of war and slaves from occupied Southeast Asian countries. Today visitors, including many on pilgrimages to remember lost relatives or comrades, take the 2-hour train journey from Kanchanaburi across the River Kwai bridge and up to Nam Tok. From there, you can get a bus to the notorious Hellfire Pass to see an original stretch of Burma Railway track.

Explore the natural world
Thailand is full of national parks offering stunning scenery, and a rich array of flora and fauna. If you're lucky, you might spot hornbills, parrots, tree snakes, macaques, gibbons, leopards, and elephants, to name a few. Khao Sak National Park, in the south, is home to Cheow Lan Lake and Nam Talu Cave, plus ancient forests and karst landscapes. Khao Yai National Park is a good place for night safaris and guided treks, and is within easy reach of Bangkok, while Kaeng Krachan National Park, near Phetchaburi, is home to rainforest-covered hills and hiking trails.

We've compiled the best and most beautiful waterfalls in Thailand.

Khao Yai national park

Visit a hill tribe
The jungle-covered mountains of northern Thailand are home to a multitude of hill tribes — the H'mong, Akha, and Karen people among them — and most have their own language and culture. Tours lasting from one to several days call in at these communities and are available from Chiang Mai, but do your research and choose a reputable operator that doesn't exploit these tribes. You can also learn more about Thailand's hill tribes at the Highland People Discovery Museum near Chiang Mai.

Find out what else to do while exploring the Golden Triangle, Thailand.

Marvel at Bangkok's Grand Palace
Work began on this vast complex in the 18th century, and today it's one of Thailand's most popular attractions. The site is home to royal, political, religious, and administrative buildings, including the stunning Temple of the Emerald Buddha. A good way to get there is by taking the express boat service along the Chao Phraya River.

More about making the most of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

Grand Palace, Bangkok

Experience a full-moon party
The resort of Haad Rin on Koh Phangan is home to this monthly event, which Rough Guides calls "something like Apocalypse Now without the war". Thousands of people descend on the beach under the full moon and party until well into the next morning, helped along by DJs, drinks stalls, fire jugglers, and pyrotechnics. If you can't get there at the right time, don't worry, the other phases of the moon are marked with half-moon and black-moon parties in the weeks between. 

Now's as good a time as any to read up on safety, laws, and culture in Thailand.

Learn to cook Thai cuisine
Whether you prefer the spicy dishes of the south, or the more herb-laden cuisine of the north, there are cookery schools all over Thailand to teach you culinary skills to take back home with you. Many courses also include a visit to a local market, so you can learn how to select the best fresh produce.

You should also find out what to eat in Thailand: best street food.

Visit the floating markets of Thonburi
To escape nearby Bangkok's busy streets and heat, take a boat tour through the cooler, quieter canals (khlongs) of historic Thonburi, which are lined with old wooden houses and leafy gardens. You can visit the Khlong Lat Mayom floating market and order food that's cooked aboard boats. A good idea is to stop at different stalls to try a variety of things.

And you can read more about the best floating markets in and around Bangkok.

Floating markets are a photographer's delight

Watch some Thai boxing
Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, is a popular martial art and fight nights take place all over the country, including in Phuket, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui. You can even take things a step further; people from around the world head to Thailand's boxing gyms to learn Muay Thai, and some even go on to compete in tournaments alongside local fighters.

Relax with a Thai massage
Whether the soothing antidote to a tiring itinerary, or part of a totally chilled-out holiday, having a Thai massage is an experience you should try at least once during your visit. Traditional Thai massage (nuat thai) is a full-body treatment that combines yoga postures, acupressure, and Indian ayurvedic principles. UNESCO has even recognised nuat thai's importance by adding it to its Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

Kayak through Ao Phang Nga National Park
Plenty of tours depart from Phuket to this stunning national park on the Andaman coast, which is home to countless limestone karst islands. Circumnavigating these spectacular outcrops in a kayak as they tower above you is an awe-inspiring experience. You can even call in at Koh Khao Phing Kan, also known as James Bond Island, as it featured in the film "The Man with the Golden Gun".

BUDGET

Approximate costs, depending on location:
Bangkok-Chiang Mai bus ticket: 750 baht
Bangkok-Krabi low-cost air ticket: 1000 baht
Beach bungalow: 500-1000 baht per night
3-star hotel: 800-1200 baht per night
5-star hotel: 1500-3000 baht per night
Beer in a bar: 70-150 baht
Basic meal: 100-150 baht
Entry to the Grand Palace, Bangkok: 500 baht (entry is free for Thai citizens)

Find out more by reading: how much spending money do I need for Thailand?

Ready to go?

Search our collection of holidays to Thailand.

Nick Elvin contributed to this post.

 

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