One could easily fill up a list of 100 must-see places in Thailand and still find the list too short. But there are some clear winners that, if you visit the Land of Smiles, you need to cross off your list first.
Welcome to our Top 12 of the Best Places to See in Thailand.
Thailand is a place where you can easily spend a few months jumping around different areas to fully explore each one. But if you are time constrained, you can knock off most of these sights within a packed two-week trip across Thailand. However, for a more leisurely trip, we recommend about 3 weeks to visit these sites.
We are not necessarily ranking these from best to worst — so as long as you hit all of these destinations, you’ll have sampled some of Thailand’s best offerings.
#1 Phanom Rung
No, number one is not a beach or a town or an island. It’s a temple. But it is a truly spectacular Hindu shrine unlike any you will find anywhere else in Asia. Phanom Rung sits atop a volcano that has long been extinct, in the northeastern part of Thailand. It’s close to the village of Nang Rong. Built by the Khmer between the 10th and 13th centuries, this temple is a shrine to Shiva, probably the most well-known of the Hindu gods. Shiva’s home is Mount Kailash, located in Tibet, and this temple was built as a representation of this sacred mountain.
Phanom Rung has 15 entryways, and four days a year the sun shines through all 15 doors. When this happens in April, there is a Phanom Rung Festival held at the temple by the local people, but for tourists, it would be an amazing experience. They hold traditional Brahmin ceremonies, and there are non-traditional and very modern sound and light shows. The nearby village of Nang Rong isn’t really a tourist town, but that’s exactly what makes it interesting. You can find a hotel here for a short stay to visit the temple, and no doubt you will find some of the best, most authentic Thai food in the country.
#2 The City of Ayuthaya
Located just 80km north of Bangkok, a visit to this city makes a fantastic day trip away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. Ayuthaya is a city of palaces, temples, and at one time, a population of over one million! This must-see city was founded in 1350 in the Chao Phraya River valley. It is basically an island sitting in the center of where three rivers converge. King U-Thong declared it his capital of the kingdom of Siam. The three palaces and 400 temples are now tourist sites that get a lot of traffic during high season, and for good reason. Ayuthaya is accessible by train and bus, and you can even book private transport. It’s on the river, so you can also get there by boat.
#3 Thai Islands
South of the mainland is Thailand’s main attraction. These stunning islands are as diverse, lush, and beautiful as any in the world. Most people have heard of Phuket, but there are so many other islands that have so much more to offer in terms of rich culture and diversity. The Thai islands rank in the Top 10 diving destinations in the world, and if you prefer snorkeling, these islands won’t disappoint.
There are basically three sets of islands. East of Bangkok you will find Ko Samet and Ko Chang, in the Andaman Sea the two major islands are Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, and in the Gulf of Thailand, the major islands are Koh Pha Ngan and Ko Tao.
As to the best islands to visit in Thailand, this depends entirely on what you are looking for. Jaw-dropping, almost etherial-looking beaches set amongst karst hills, Koh Phi Phi and the Krabi coast (Railay Beach) will have your camera finger falling off with the sheet number of pictures you will take.
For diving and a more laid back island life, Koh Tao. For crazy beach parties that go north of 30,000 people, Koh Phangan and the Full Moon Parties is the place to be. For a bit of everything in between, Phuket, the largest Island in Thailand, is the place to be.
Not all of the islands reach huge tourist numbers like Phuket, making them more desirable in some ways, and more authentically Thai. The islands still maintain local fishing villages and unspoiled beaches and jungles worth exploring. Any of them are worthy of a beach holiday, but they have so much more to offer than sun and sand.
There are dozens (hundreds even) of smaller, less well-known islands (such as Koh Lanta, my personal favorite) you can explore that have limited tourists with locals going about their daily island life. If you truly want a more laid back experience, seek out these islands.
Koh Lanta is one of the best places to sit back, chillax, and enjoy the sunset from one of many viewpoints. Koh Ya Noi and Koh Ya Nai are huge islands with nary a person one them, where locals live as they have been doing for hundreds of years.
The bottom line is there is a perfect island destination for every sort of visitor. You just have to find it.
#4 Khao Sok National Park
This lush, green jungle has everything for the nature lover. Caves, mountains, unusual wildlife, and stunning waterfalls await anyone who is willing to explore. This national park has well-marked dirt trails that you should definitely stick to while exploring. The limestone cliffs add an aura of mystery. Wildlife you might see here includes guar, Malaysian sun bears, and over 200 different species of birds. Some animals like elephants, gibbons, and tigers are less common, but you might get a glimpse of them. This is a wildlife reserve, after all.
It’s located in the Surat Thani province, and anyone who enjoys photographing wildlife should put this at the top of their destination list. The waterfalls and natural pools also make for beautiful photos.
#5 Mae Hong Son
In Mae Hong Son, you are only a few miles from the border of Myanmar. This section of Thailand has some of the most beautiful scenery anywhere in the world. Imagine mountains smothered by clouds and locals in colorful clothing working the rice paddies below. This area is definitely influenced by its proximity to Myanmar, and even the food has a Burmese influence. There are fantastic trekking opportunities here for visiting secluded caves and waterfalls, and also for exploring the local hill-tribe people. I’d recommend taking a guide for visiting the hill-tribes and getting a better understanding of their culture.
Locals here, while fairly used to seeing tourists, are still friendly to foreigners and the town retains the relaxed hill-town vibe, so many villages have in Thailand. There’s no rush to be anywhere in Mae Hong Son.
Thailand’s capital city has to get a mention in the Top 10 list, of course. This is not just a fly in – fly out city. There’s so much to see in Bangkok and so much to do. And eat. Street food in Bangkok is everywhere, and it is delicious and cheap. Even if you don’t know what it is, just order it, and you will love it.
The main attraction in Bangkok is the Grand Palace which was built in the 18th century, but several buildings have been added since then to make this palace and its gardens quite extraordinary. The buildings have a mix of styles as a result of the time it took to build them all. You can also see the famous Emerald Buddha here which was created from a single piece of jade.
Bangkok has so many attractions, restaurants, shows, and an incredible nightlife. This city should be on anyone’s list of places to visit and experience in Thailand.
Located due west of Bangkok, a visit to this region could be a busy day trip or a more relaxed overnight trip. This town is a riverside town with a laid-back vibe and a rich WWII history. You may have heard of the River Kwai, and this is where you will find the inspiration for the 1957 war film The Bridge On the River Kwai. There’s a lot more to visit here than a bridge, though. The surrounding area has mountains and sugar cane fields. There are seven national parks, perfect for trekking in this area and witnessing more of Thailand’s beautiful waterfalls and lakes. Erawan Falls is highly recommended.
A visit to this area wouldn’t be complete without seeing the WWII museums and war cemeteries. The history of this famous bridge, constructed during the Japanese occupation of Thailand, is fascinating and a visit to the bridge is quite emotional, and I thought it was even a bit eerie after visiting the museum. This stunning region of Thailand is a great base for exploring some of the country’s beautiful national parks.
This small peninsula, not far from Krabi, is a rock climber’s paradise and a beach lover’s dream. It is only accessible by boat, which means it is never very crowded. The limestone cliffs attract rock climbers from all over the world. There is accommodation here, but it is stealthily built into the trees in the forest, and there are no high-rise hotels, thankfully.
The beach here, known as Phra Nang Beach, has some unique visitors who come to watch the sunset. These macaque monkeys are everywhere at sunset, and while you shouldn’t try to pet them, they make for interesting companions in the evening.
#9 Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
While this floating market has become quite a tourist attraction, locals seem to ignore all the fuss and photographers and continue on as usual. While tourists float among the vendors, the locals are there to shop for their daily supplies and go about their business quite efficiently while floating in precarious-looking boats that they seem to balance with ease.
Note that this is not a real market but a made-up one for tourists. However, the floating market makes for some of the best pictures and for that alone, it’s worth the 2-hour trip. Just realize it’s a bit of a tourist trap (locals are not going to frequent it to buy stuff).
Damnoen Saduak is about a 1.5-hour drive from Bangkok. I’d recommend hiring a driver and getting a very early start so you can enjoy a breakfast of spring rolls and coconut pancakes as you float down the river watching the market pass by. It rained the day I went, but locals were not deterred. It was bustling with energy, colorful produce and fabrics, and as always, irresistible Thai food.
It rained the day I went, but locals were not deterred. It was bustling with energy, colorful produce and fabrics, and as always, irresistible Thai food.
Note that if you want the local Bangkok version that’s not a tourist trap, consider heading to the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok instead (at the end of the BTS line). It’s one of the world’s largest open markets and absolutely packed with sights (and frequented by locals). Just be prepared to walk, a lot.
#10 Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle is the border area of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos and you can reach it in about 45 minutes from Chiang Rai. These three countries are divided by the Mekong River, but the cultural influences overlap. Years ago, this area was a major producer of opium, but there is none of that to be found here now. It had a major effect on the people here and the royal family of Thailand constructed a museum and monument here to educate people about the history of opium and how it changed this area of the world.
You can also find restaurants serving authentic Thai food, but I do not think there is accommodation. You can stay in the lovely town of Chiang Rai, which is also deserving of a spot in the Top 10 for many reasons, but especially because of the famous Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple. There is nothing that screams “traditional” about this temple.
#11: Chang Mai
Chiang Mai, the second biggest city in Thailand, is the perfect counterpart to Bangkok. While Bangkok is steeped in traffic and chaos, Chiang Mai moves at a more sedate pace where it’s possible to walk down quiet alleyways by yourself.
There’s a solid cultural vibe there, and the surrounding countryside is absolutely packed with things to see and do. Indeed, Chiang Mai is not just a city; it’s a province — one that’s jam-packed with a lot of stuff to do. Trekking, hot springs, village hopping — there’s a more than enough to fill an entire month of travel and then some.
Any visit Thailand proper without stopping in for a few day visit to Chiang Mai is incomplete. You’ll find many tourists who are tired of the chaos of Bangkok prefer to linger in Chiang Mai instead.
For a more funky hippie town in the mountains of Thailand, consider heading to Pai, the place where banana pancakes are as frequent as the yoga retreats, meditation centers, and local arthouses.
Pais is a real winner with the hippie/backpacker crowd, and if you want a more laidback village-feeling area in the mountains, Pai is the place to be.