Thailand rates as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations and there are numerous highlights that attract the 12 million tourists annually. In a three week trip it is possible to see all the main sights and we’ve described each briefly below. If you have never been to Thailand and are not sure where to begin we’ll first briefly run through the most popular places in order of popularity. Otherwise, plan your trip by choosing what to see in which region.
Bangkok is Thailand’s gateway and a proud capital blending modern and ancient, with the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew being the country’s number one attraction. A day tour usually includes the giant reclining Buddha of Wat Po and exotic pagodas of Wat Arun.
Other notable attractions include the all teak Vimanmek Palace and Dusit Throne Hall, as well as Jim Thompson’s House and the impressive collection in the National Museum. Shopping, dining and of course the nightlife also attract people to Bangkok.
Phuket, in the south, is the most popular coastal destination with its excellent tourist infrastructure and lovely west coast beaches. It’s within an hour’s drive of the stunning Krabi coastline, with the dramatic karst backdrops of Railay beach and Ao Nang gracing all travel brochures. Offshore is the unique and world famous Phi Phi islands, while Koh Lanta to the south is a good family getaway island. Also in the area is the magnificent Pha Nga Bay, another remarkable karst seascape.
For a thorough Thailand experience, many venture up north to the mountainous regions surrounding the ancient city of Chiang Mai. Characterised by a laidback atmosphere, pretty moat and numerous temples and ruins, it’s also a good base for trekking and embarking on excursions to the Golden Triangle or adventurous Mae Hong Son Loop. The bohemian backpacker town of Pai is another hit, while Chiang Mai’s great value and fabulous shopping keeps people longer than planned.
Culture vultures will certainly want to get to the ruins of the marvellous ancient capitals of Ayutthaya (an hour from Bangkok) and Sukhothai (lower north) which are both World Heritage sites. Often tours combine it with an overnight excursion to Kanchanburi, made famous by the bridge of the River Kwai. Soft adventure and the tragic story of the the death railways are the two drawcards here. A stopover at the famous floating market makes up this popular itinerary.
Back to the coast and Samui, in the lower Gulf, is another popular destination for those who enjoy the boutique island experience. Backpackers flock to nearby Koh Phan Ngan for the famous full moon parties, while divers make a bee-line to Koh Tao, farther afield, which has some of the best diving and facilities in the region. If you would rather avoid all the crowds and most popular coastal sites, these islands make a good alternative and the Ang Thong Archipelago is almost as picturesque as Phi Phi.
If you need something closer to Bangkok, Hua Hin is a royal favourite and a weekend escape for Bangkokians, two hours away, and less touristy. The hedonists and punters prefer Pattaya on the east side of the Bight of Bangkok – the original tourist resort and more famous now for its naughty nightlife than its beaches. Venture further down the coast and you come upon the small but delightful Koh Samet, another weekend favourite with Thailand’s whitest sand.
Koh Chang is the country’s so-called eco-island, nearer the Cambodian border, a rugged and less touristy alternative. Nature lovers will also appreciate Khao Yai, one of Asia’s biggest national parks, near Bangkok. And finally, although less visited, Isaan is the heartland of the country – a large rural region in the northwest hemmed in by the mighty Mekhong, and a true reflection of the real Thailand.
In addition to beautiful destinations Thailand boasts a number of cultural or unique characteristics that add to the tourism experience. Thai food is perhaps the country’s greatest international hallmark, known for its rich and spicy curries and served from noodleshops to posh restaurants countrywide. Architecture, art, music and dance also draw on impressive legacies, distinctive for their gracefulness as seen in numerous Thai temples and the elegant dance of cultural performances put on by many hotels.
Then there is the unforgettable friendly Thai smile, and famous hospitality. The people of Thailand are naturally welcoming, and harmonious, noted for their passive ‘face saving’ approach to life. The Thai’s natural preference for fun has also made it notoriously famous for its girlie bars and nightlife which some also find an attraction, especially in Bangkok and Pattaya. On flipside many are so beguiled by the Thai character they come back to settle here, often marrying locals.
The country is also noted for several activities which are considered world class here. Diving is ever popular with some excellent reefs and waters on the Andaman coast and around Koh Tao and Koh Chang, supported by very professional dive operations. Climbing the karst cliffs of Krabi is well known, while the northern mountains are excellent for multi-day trekking. The less energetic can ride elephants.
There are also numerous affordable spas in all tourist areas and the Thais are masters at pampering. Shopping is another highlight, with such a wide range of cheap goods ranging from local handicrafts to contemporary goods. Silk, gems and antiques are all notable items from this corner of Asia.
With it’s proud history, famously friendly hospitality, unbeatable scenery, good value for money and unique culture, Thailand has many highlights to offer the visitor.