People who’ve been to Thailand often refer to it as a magical place. There’s something about the combination of a relaxed culture, friendly people, beautiful landscapes and tropical weather that does indeed create a magical experience.
I’ve just returned, from what might be considered my third backpacking trip to Thailand, and it was just as amazing as the first. Many who’ve visited end up returning again and again, and whether it’s your first time or your sixtieth (if it’s your first, read this guide on things to know before visiting), the following list of the most popular places to visit in Thailand will still hold their charm.
Planning to spend three weeks in the Land of Smiles? Consider this 3-week Thailand itinerary.
In the Central Region:
The capital and most likely the city you’ll fly into (it’s the largest and most economical airport in the South East Asian territory), is definitely worth a few days visit on either side of your trip. It’s the city of tuk tuks, nightlife, street carts and more! I highly recommend a cruise on the river, a visit to the Chatuchak (or Weekend) Market (click here for a friend’s video of the world’s largest open air market), and a drink at the oh so popular Sky Bar, also known as Sirocco, the blue rooftop bar featured in The Hangover II, where you can watch the city twinkle over the water you just cruised down.
If you’re interested in a party scene with travelers from all over the world (plus some super cheap shopping), check out this complete guide to Khao San Road.
Now an UNESCO World Heritage Sight, Ayutthaya is an ancient City and Capital of what used to be called Siam, now Thailand. Now one can wander amidst the ruins and get a taste of the region’s history, which is said to have endured over 70 wars in its 417-year reign. Several of the ruins have been restored to offer insight into how this city functioned, and the area is still rife with picturesque temples.
3. Erawan National Park
Erawan Falls is a must for any mountain-loving water fanatic (like myself). I didn’t visit Erawan in the entire year I lived in Thailand, but on this last trip I finally did and it was well worth the trip. Located in the Kanchanaburi Province, just a couple hours west of Bangkok, the lush mountains, cooler temperatures and serene River Kwai make it feel like a world away. Erawan National Park is a large 340-square mile expanse, but the seven-tiered waterfall located there is the highlight for sure. A well-trod path will take you to the top, and though each of the tiers has a swimming pool at its base, the lower ones proved to be bigger, with more powerful falls, and quite popular with the locals. Swim in your clothes to respect the culture!
In the Northern Region:
4. Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is without a doubt the jewel of the north. Some would say it’s the jewel of the entire country, and I’d be hesitant to disagree. For a city that’s become so popular with both tourists and expats alike, it refuses to give way to the changes that usually follow. For a city of its size, it’s a miracle the culture and magic have remained in tact, but they have, and you should definitely go see for yourself. The historic city center has a mote surrounding it, making it a perfect place to celebrate two of Thailand’s largest holidays: Loy Krathong (the lantern festival) and Songkran (the new year), where a nationwide water fight ensues.
Travel higher into the mountains along a narrow winding road and when you arrive, Pai will be a breathe of fresh air. It’s a tiny backpacking community nestled along a lazy river, just begging you to relax with massage parlors in every other building, great food (both Western and local) and plenty of hammocks to read in. The vibe is friendly, if a bit too backpacker-y, and definitely worth a few days stay.
In the Southern Region:
Though I’ve never been, Phuket is quite possibly the most visited place in Thailand, next to Bangkok. With its pristine white beaches and crystal water, backed by lush mountains, it allures both beach goers and adventure seekers alike. It’s the country’s largest island, and a haven for both luxury travelers and backpackers.
7. Koh Phi Phi
Have you ever watched The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio? Perhaps he alone made this island one of the most frequented in Thailand, but its not as if it didn’t have good reason to go before that. Though most famous for Koh Phi Phi Don, a stretch of white sand reaching between two islands, and Ton Sai beach, the island has become party central and the serenity of it has made way to beach shacks and bars along every stretch of sand, or so I hear. I have not been.
8. Koh Pha-Ngan
You almost don’t hear about Thailand without also hearing of the famous Full Moon parties, which take place on Koh Pha-Ngan each month. Imagine a long stretch of white sand, lined with square boxes and handwritten signs, selling whiskey and rum in buckets to willing tourists. Behind those boxes are bars. Bars with live music, bars with drinking games, bars selling almost anything you could want to go along with your alcohol. This adult playground offers one of the island’s biggest sand boxes, the ocean, drunken slides and swings. It’s definitely worth a visit, but probably only once.
9. Koh Tao
The name translates to Turtle Island, and it’s a small, mountainous gem with rutted out dirt roads around much of the forested land. It’s perhaps the most popular place to obtain a scuba diving certificate (and probably the cheapest), and you’ll encounter many people on the main side of the island (where the ferry will drop you) who are posted up for a few weeks on extended diving vacations. If you’re not diving, I suggest renting a jeep and heading to the opposite side, where the rough roads will lead you to a variety of coves, each offering its own kind of beached out bliss.
For the climbers out there, Krabi is where you want to go. It’s the epitome of the photos you see, when you see images of Thailand’s karst formations jutting out of the turquoise abyss. It’s a mecca for climbers of all skill levels. Some of the best make their way here, if even for the views, but it’s also the place where I first tied myself into a rope and trusted a stranger with my life in his hands. But Krabi is much more than karst climbing. Even the little city center is quaint, offering a good taste of Thai culture from street markets and temples to everything in between.
So, where are you headed first?