Choosing from the many great places to visit in Thailand is tough, especially if you only have a short time in the country. There's a reason why Thailand consistently remains one of the most visited countries in the world!
Along with ideal weather, islands, and other lures, Thailand can be a very affordable destination.
Although still busy with traffic, Thailand's northern capital of Chiang Mai has a completely different vibe than Bangkok.
Slightly cooler weather from the green hills and plenty of tourist activities keep visitors coming in growing numbers. A large community of entrepreneurs and artists have chosen to call Chiang Mai home, invariably attracted to that vibe and friendliness felt in the north.
Northern Thailand's many ethnic hill tribe people and Burmese residents have contributed to the local culture and food.
Try to visit Chiang Mai on a weekend to take advantage of the walking street markets; each is held in a separate place on Saturday and Sunday. The nightlife in Chiang Mai isn't nearly as rambunctious as that in Bangkok or the islands, but there are options.
Some Reasons to Visit Chiang Mai:
- Many temples
- Northern Thai, Lanna, and Burmese cultures
- Cheap shopping and night markets
- Cafes with local coffee and good restaurants
- Outdoor and adventure opportunities
The little riverside village of Pai was once a quiet destination for backpackers and "hippies" only a short while ago. Today, Pai is thriving with tourism, but some of the holistic health culture remains. You'll find plenty of places for yoga, tai chi, health retreats, and organic juices.
Surrounded by mountains and green scenery, Pai enjoys fresher air than Chiang Mai (outside of the burning season), and life moves a bit slower than in the big city. Oddly enough, nightlife for backpackers is arguably better in Pai than in Chiang Mai!
Getting to Pai from Chiang Mai takes a little under four hours. The drive has scenic points and potential stops along the way. If you're an experienced enough driver, rent a scooter in Chiang Mai, point it north, and enjoy a beautiful drive to Pai.
Some Reasons to Visit Pai:
- Fresh air and green scenery
- Waterfalls and hot springs
- Friendly Lanna and Northern Thailand culture
- Organic food, juices, yoga retreats, and holistic health options
- Good motorbiking in the area
- Backpacker nightlife
Although technically not an island, Railay feels like one. It's a peninsula surrounded by mountains and only accessible by small boat.
With ridiculously photogenic limestone rock formations, Railay in Krabi is a major rock climbing destination in Southeast Asia. You can even scramble and boulder along one of the beaches. Deep-water soloing is also an option.
Even if you prefer to keep your feet on the ground, the limestone cliffs jutting from blue water provide unforgettable scenery often featured on Thailand postcards and in more than a few movies.
Some Reasons to Visit Railay:
- Rock Climbing and bouldering
- Beautiful scenery
- Numerous beaches and small, hidden coves
Located only a short, two-hour train ride away from Bangkok, Ayutthaya was the ancient capital of Siam for 417 years before it was sacked by Burmese invaders. The capital was later moved to site of modern-day Bangkok.
Initially founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the numerous temple ruins scattered throughout the modern city. Ayutthaya is an amateur archeologist's dream and is probably the closest thing to an Angkor Wat that can be found in Thailand. Sukothai, another ancient capital with ruins, is a great alternative.
Some Reasons to Visit Ayutthaya:
- Archeology and ancient temple ruins
- Thai history and culture
- A famous tree that has grown around a Buddha statue's head
- To get out of Bangkok quickly and find Thai culture
Located only two hours by bus from Bangkok and set on the famous River Kwai, Kanchanaburi is another relatively nearby option for escaping the hustle in Bangkok.
Kanchanaburi is rich with World War II history. It's home to the most famous bridge constructed as part of the "Death Railway" intended to connect Bangkok and Rangoon (now Yangon). The bridge was made famous in the 1957 movie, The Bridge On the River Kwai, inspired by a French novel. Historically, a few things are "off" — but that barely deters visitors who come to see the renowned bridge.
A couple interesting museums and beautiful national parks with swimming under waterfalls make Kanchanaburi a hit with war history buffs and backpackers.
Some Reasons to Visit Kanchanaburi:
- World War II history
- Trains and unique railroad lore
- Erawan National Park and Sai Yok National Park
- Elephant sanctuaries
- A quick escape from Bangkok
Thailand is blessed with gorgeous islands of all sizes and temperaments in both the Andaman Sea (west side) and in the Gulf of Thailand.
While some islands host raging beach parties, others are famous for their serenity. You can choose among large and small, easily accessible or difficult to reach — all affect the personality of the island. Inexpensive diving and snorkeling opportunities abound!
Although islands aren't technically the best place for real cultural interaction — or cheap shopping — they're a requisite addition to any vacation in Thailand. But consider saving the islands for last. Once there, you won't want to go anywhere else!
Some Reasons to Visit the Thai Islands:
- Beaches of all types
- Excellent snorkeling and diving
- Beach parties and nightlife
- Family-friendly beaches
- The Sanctuary health retreat on Koh Phangan
Chiang Rai, located just northeast of Chiang Mai, is an increasingly popular alternative to Chiang Mai for travelers interested in Thai culture with a few less tourists.
Not to say that Chiang Rai isn't busy — it is. But the small-town vibe and temples hold their own appeal. A cultural center, museums, and two famous attractions (the White Temple and Black House) are well worth making the trip north.
Some Reasons to Visit Chiang Rai:
- Peaceful temples
- Waterfalls and a national park
- The White Temple
- The Black House (Baan Dam)
- Night Bazaar, street food, and shopping
Khao Sok National Park
Although neither the largest nor oldest of the national parks in Thailand, Khao Sok is a memorable favorite and great place to visit for many visitors. It's nothing like the popular Doi Inthanon National Park in the north.
Officially declared the 22nd national park in Thailand on December 22, 1980, Khao Sok is a 285-square-mile nature refuge in the south of Thailand. The park is famous for floating bungalows and a picturesque lake.
With a little luck and timing, you may even catch a rare Rafflesia — the heaviest flower on earth — in bloom.
Some Reasons to Visit Khao Sok National Park:
- Rainforest scenery
- Limestone formations and a beautiful lake
- Rafflesia flowers
- Jungle trekking and river canoeing
Mae Hong Son
Located in the very northwest corner of Thailand near the border of Myanmar (Burma), Mae Hong Son is a fairly quiet town mostly still off the tourist radar.
As Pai — located south of Mae Hong Son on Route 1095 — grows more and more popular, Mae Hong Son becomes even more of an appealing alternative for travelers who want to step off the Banana Pancake Trail and see some "authentic" parts of Thailand.
The residents of Mae Hong Son are genuinely happy to show you around their green province. If you're comfortable, motorbiking is the best way to explore the area.
Some Reasons to Visit Mae Hong Son:
- Caves and waterfalls
- Thai, Karen, and Burmese cultures
- Escape masses of tourists farther south
Isaan is a region consisting of 20 provinces in the very northeast of Thailand. It borders Cambodia and Laos.
Although Isaan is the largest region in Thailand, tourism has yet to have as much impact as it has had elsewhere in Thailand. A small community of expats and volunteers call the region home, but for the most part, Isaan remains lightly touristed. Visitors to Isaan can still enjoy meeting locals who are happy to see farang wandering their towns.
Isaan has very close cultural ties to Laos. The local Isaan dialect is actually a derivative of the Lao language rather than Thai, although it is still written using the Thai alphabet.
Isaan is home to delicious dishes that are distinct from other famous Thai cuisine. Food from Isaan is celebrated throughout Thailand as some of the best. Isaan dishes are often enjoyed with sticky rice (khao niaow).
Some Reasons to Visit Isan:
- Friendly people
- Famous food such as som tam (papaya salad) and laap (meat salad)
- Unique culture
- Green countryside