Top 10 things no traveller should miss on a trip to this vibrant South-East Asian nation:
1. The Grand Palace
This beautiful gold-tipped series of buildings is over 200 years old, and perhaps Bangkok’s most famous destination. Yes, it can feel like a tourist trap, but the complex’s history and grandeur is palpable: since 1782, it has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand).
While you’re there, don’t miss the Emerald Buddha and nearby Wat Pho, which is home to the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand.
Another must see is Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, which is stunning from a distance and intriguing close up, with its mosaic detailing, as you climb to the top.
Make sure you follow our 7 etiquette tips for travelling in Thailand, to ensure you don’t offend local customs. At night, the Grand Palace is illuminated, and although you’ll likely still encounter the crowds, it’s a very romantic experience.
2. The Golden Triangle
The point where the Mekong River meets the Ruak River is known locally as Sop Ruak, but to the rest of the world it’s the Golden Triangle: the point at which Burma/Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet.
Stand on the Thailand river bank, and you can look across to Burma/Myanmar and Laos, or hire a boat for a closer look. You’ll find market stalls, Buddha and elephant statues, and plenty of signage to confirm that, yes, this is the Golden Triangle.
This used to be a prolific opium-growing area; the exhibitions at the Hall of Opium, in Golden Triangle Park, offer a good introduction to the local history and effects of the industry, as well as the potency of the drug.
If you fancy venturing further from the beaten track, see our guide to alternative itineraries in Thailand – and discover a side to the country that few other travellers get to see.
3. An Elephant Experience
The elephant is Thailand’s national symbol and a revered animal, and there are plenty of ways to encounter or work with the animals all over the country.
Unfortunately, animal cruelty is a real problem in some elephant ‘sanctuaries’ – for instance, avoid any centre that makes the elephants perform tricks.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good ele experiences out there too. The Elephant Nature Park rehabilitates rescue elephants, and your visit helps their work. To combine your elephant experience with luxury accommodation, try the award-winning Elephant Hills; a comfortable tented camp, with opportunities to interact with the animals.
4. Island Hopping
Thailand has over 5,000 miles of coastline just waiting to be explored. Travel by long-tail boat and discover as many beaches and islands as possible. See Phang Nga Bay and the limestone rocks that are so famously photographed off Thailand’s west coast, or island hop in the Andaman Sea off of Phuket and Krabi. Here’s you’ll discover white-sand beaches and abundant snorkelling on Ko Phi Phi Lee and Ko Phi Phi Don. Want to capture some fantastic shots while you’re snorkelling? See our expert guide to underwater photography.
The calm sea and clear conditions are perfect for kayaking, too.
It’s a great way to explore the islands without the masses on tourist boats or passenger ferries, and take the experience at your own pace. The coastlines of Koh Phan Ngan, Koh Tao and Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand are particularly picturesque.
5. Hill Tribe Villages
Akha, Lisu, Hmong and Karen tribes are found across the north of Thailand. Take a break from the tourist trail, and spend a day or a few nights with a local family to learn and experience their way of life. Choose your tour guide wisely – ensure that they operate in an ethical and sustainable manner.
Visitors are very welcome to join in local celebrations, and most festivals and events offer a unique insight into local customs and traditions. Must see events include Loi Krathong in November, Songkran/Thai New Year water festival in April, and the Naga Fireballs in October – a natural phenomenon that occurs just once a year.
7. Floating Markets
It’s the iconic photo shot: the floating market, with rickety wooden boats piled high with colourful local produce. Pick a market, and arrive early to avoid crowds and bag the best bargains. Don’t forget your camera – these markets are very colourful.
Damnoen Saduak, Ratchaburi: The most famous of the floating markets, located 100km south-west of Bangkok en route to Hua Hin/Cha-am.
Amphawa Floating Market, Samut Songkhram: Open in the afternoons and situated next to a temple.
Taling Chan Weekend Floating Market, Bangkok: Only recently discovered by tourists, this market is entirely authentic and frequented by locals. Try a range of Thai fruits including custard apples, yellow longan and the pungent durian.
Kanchanaburi province, an area of lush forest and a haven for backpackers, has a dark past. Here, you’ll also find the start of the infamous Death Railway (which links to Burma/Myanmar), and the bridge over the River Kwai. Both are haunting relics from WWII, constructed by prisoners of war. It’s a chilling spot, but essential on any Thailand itinerary.
Close by, you’ll find the Tiger Temple, which has been the focus of some damning animal welfare reports.
Consult other travellers for advice, and follow your conscience before booking.
9. Ancient Ruins and National Parks
Thailand boasts diverse landscapes, and its national parks are renowned for their beauty and scale. You’ll also find UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and superb hiking and biking trails in plenty of spots.
Our favourite national parks include: Doi Inthanon National Park (home to Thailand’s highest peak); Khao Yai National Park (considered to be one of Asia’s largest monsoon forests and a UNESCO World Heritage Site); Sai Yok National Park (with several waterfalls, caves and rare animals to discover); Khao Sok National Park (considered the finest in southern Thailand).
Other natural highlights include:
Phimai Historical Park: With 12th-century Khmer ruins.
Phanom Rung Historical Park: Home to Ancient Khmer ruins, dating from the 12th century, constructed of sandstone.
Khao Sai Dao Waterfall: Visitors can explore a wildlife sanctuary, as well as an astonishing 16-level waterfall that flows year round.
Erawan Waterfall: It boasts seven tiers of waterfalls, each feeding freshwater pools you can swim in.
Thilosu Waterfall: Considered by many to be the most beautiful waterfall in South-East Asia.
10. Shop ’til you drop!
From street stalls to bustling markets, you can shop at every turn in Thailand.
In Bangkok, try any of the following markets: Chatuchak (JJ Mall); Weekend Market (Sat/Sun), all day; Asiatique Night Market (riverside), open 4pm – midnight, seven days a week.
In Northern Thailand, stroll the streets of Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, daily from 6pm; Wualai Walking Street Saturday Market, from 2pm.
There are a variety of shops and local markets throughout the north and north-east that specialise in local handicrafts, wooden carvings, silverware, silks, pottery and furniture. Korat and Khao Yao in Nakhon Ratchasima has a popular night market, too.
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