Thailand is a very popular travel destination for good reason: many of its beaches, mountains, and forests are picture-perfect, plus there’s a diverse and interesting culture, tasty food, and a (generally) warm climate.
Whether you have just a week to spend in one place, or are spending several weeks traveling around, here are 10 unmissable sights and experiences to enjoy when touring Thailand.
1. Visit the Dazzling Temples & Palaces of Bangkok
Travelers who have spent time in other predominantly Buddhist countries in Asia will see similarities between Thai temples and those found elsewhere, but there’s also something distinctly Thai about them. In short, it’s the bling. Many of Bangkok’s temples are covered in mirrored mosaics, colorful tiles, and gold foil or paint, and under the blazing Thai sun the effect is dazzling.
Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Saket, and Wat Suthat are among the highlights, as well as the Grand Palace complex, which houses many more temples.
Always dress modestly at Thai temples, in long pants or skirts, and with sleeves that cover your arms at least to the elbow. Behave very respectfully towards statues of Buddha and pictures of the king.
2. Take a Tour of Historic Ayutthaya
Bangkok has been the capital of Thailand since 1782, but the country has had other capitals throughout its long history. One of these was Ayutthaya, capital of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya that dominated the area from the mid-14th until the mid-18th centuries, only falling when it was ransacked by Burmese forces.
Now, the small city a couple of hours’ drive north of Bangkok is an open-air archaeology museum. Attractive temples, stupas, and Buddha statues in various states of ruin are scattered throughout the city, centering around the UNESCO-listed Ayutthaya Historical Park.
Many people visit on a quick trip from Bangkok, but it’s worth a couple of days at least, and cycling between temples is a good way of getting around.
3. Find a Remote Beach - aka Your Own Private Island
Thailand’s beaches are famous, and they’re almost uniformly beautiful, but not all of them are deserted, by any means. Extensive tourist development has, in the opinion of many travelers, taken the shine off some of the more famous beaches, and is also straining local resources.
If you have time, it’s highly worth seeking out a more remote beach experience. Bypass Phuket or Pattaya in favor of other smaller islands off the south-east coast, or even off the far east of Thailand, bordering Cambodia.
Island-hopping by private boat is a great way to do it, but ferries and water taxis will do if you’re on a budget. If swinging peacefully in a hammock sipping on cocktails is more your scene than thumping nightlife, you won’t be disappointed by going to the extra effort to avoid the masses.
4. Watch a Thai Kickboxing Match
Sports enthusiasts shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch a Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, match. Bangkok is one of the best places to do so, either at Rajadamnern or Lumpinee Stadium, but you may be able to find a match elsewhere too.
As well as being fun to watch from an athletic perspective, you’ll get the chance to rub shoulders with ordinary Thais (mostly men!) who gamble with enthusiasm and commitment.
5. Feast on Spicy, Cheap Street Food
From favorites you’ve probably tried at home like Pad Thai and green curry to many other delicacies you’re unlikely to get outside a specific neighborhood, let alone the country, adventurous eaters will be spoiled for choice on the streets of Thailand. Plus, this is the affordable way to eat.
Pick a street food stall that’s busy with locals, as that’s the best way to judge what’s tasty and fresh. If you’d like to ease into the street food experience slowly, find a food court in a local mall.
Thai cuisine uses a lot of fish sauce, and dried shrimps (even in non-fish or shrimp-based dishes), so vegan travelers will need to be cautious.
6. Shop at Bangkok's Enormous Chatuchak Markets
If you’re lucky enough to be in Bangkok on a Saturday or Sunday, don’t miss the enormous Chatuchak Market, in the city’s north. From Thai antiques and curios to vintage jeans, silk scarves to essential oils, religious paraphernalia to pet accessories, it’s all here at the 8000+ stalls. If you can’t buy it here, it probably isn’t available anywhere in Thailand! There’s also food.
Be warned, though, that the market isn’t air-conditioned, and can get very crowded in the afternoon, so go early before the heat of the day.
7. Appreciate Thai Culture & Nature in Chiang Mai
Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, but the city of Chiang Mai is commonly called the capital of northern Thailand. The two cities couldn’t be much more different, and while they’re both worth visiting, many travelers tend to prefer Chiang Mai for its more laid-back vibes and its close proximity to nature (see more below).
In Chiang Mai city itself, there are many cultural sites to explore. Don’t miss the hilltop Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the holiest temples in the country; the ornately mosaiced Wat Phra Singh; and Wat Pha Lat, hidden in the jungle and northern Thailand’s answer to some of the Angkor temples, in neighboring Cambodia.
8. Hike in the Chiang Dao National Park
Thailand may not immediately come to mind as a hiking destination, but in fact, the north of the country is quite mountainous. The highest peak, Doi Inthanon, is 8415 feet (2565 m.) high, and while that’s not very high by Asian standards, the surrounding landscape offers many opportunities for cooler-weather hikes with fabulous views.
A highlight is the Chiang Dao National Park, near Chiang Mai, which has beautiful caves, waterfalls, temples, abundant birdlife, and forested hiking trails of moderate difficulty. It’s best to go with a guide, especially on overnight treks.
9. Hike Thailand’s highest Mountain, Doi Inthanon
Why stop at hiking? If you have the fitness and the ambition, you can climb Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon.
The climb is steep but can be done in just a few hours, and doesn’t need special mountaineering equipment or experience (this isn’t Everest!). It can be cold at the top, due to the altitude, so come prepared. When the weather’s good, the views of the surrounding hills and mountains are impressive.
If you like the idea of ascending Thailand’s highest mountain but aren’t able to climb yourself, you can also drive up, or join a tour.
10. Celebrate the Loi Krathong Festival
Held over a couple of days in November, this spectacular, nationwide festival is definitely one of Thailand’s most beautiful. It’s a festival of light, honoring Buddha with light, and releasing negative thoughts and transgressions. Attractive lanterns, oil lamps, and candles, adorn temples and homes. In some places, floating candles are released down rivers, and in others (especially northern Thailand), floating lanterns are released into the sky. You'll also find fireworks displays in Bangkok.
Naturally, the festival offers many great photo ops, as well as the chance to experience a celebration loved by young and old.
A list of ten barely begins to scratch the surface of all the fantastic things there are to see and do in Thailand, and whatever your interests, you're likely to find many sights and activities to keep you happy.