Thailand is so much more than a travel destination — visiting is a bona fide rite of passage. From hostel-hopping backpackers to well-heeled five-star hotel aficionados, there’s something for everyone in “The Land of Smiles.”
My most recent trip to Thailand was in early 2022, when the country implemented strict entry requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I was one of a few hundred thousand tourists who were allowed into the country, and it felt like I had many of the typically crowded attractions all to myself.
The beauty of Thailand is that it will show you different sides of itself no matter how many times you visit. From the idyllic white-sand beaches and palm-fringed islands in the south to the misty hillsides and temple-peppered mountains of the north, the rattle and hum under neon lights of nonstop Bangkok, and the ruins of ancient cities surrounded by jungle, Thailand never disappoints.
So, what are the best places to visit in Thailand? I reached out to a Thailand travel expert and threw in a bit of my own first-person experience to help you narrow down this ever-growing list.
For most travelers, an adventure in Thailand will likely kick off in the nonstop, energetic capital city, Bangkok. A dizzying destination and one of my favorite international cities, Bangkok is full-on sensory overload — but in the best way. Dig into sizzling street food; meander back alleys and bustling thoroughfares in search of small markets, shops, and hidden temples; cruise along the Chao Phraya River, and grab a cocktail at the dozens of sky-high rooftop bars.
Tip: Book a room at the Capella Bangkok or Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok — two iconic luxury hotels with stunning locations perched on the Chao Phraya River.
Second to Bangkok on most visitors’ lists is the northern city of Chiang Mai. Many travelers even prefer Chiang Mai to Bangkok for its relatively slower pace of life. The spectacular city is bursting with temples (Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a must) and humming with restaurants and bars.
“I would say for anybody, whether it’s their first time or a repeat trip to Thailand, if you have been there or you haven’t, [you have to visit] Chiang Mai,” said Grant Ekelund, Travel + Leisure A-List advisor and senior travel consultant and Asia specialist at InsideAsia. “It’s such a neat city. It’s one of those destinations that has something for everyone … Are you a foodie? Do you want to hike? See cool temples? Have amazing trekking opportunities? It can all be done [here], and it slots into any itinerary perfectly.”
Koh Phi Phi
Thailand has more than 1,400 islands scattered around its coastline, but few are as famous or iconic as the Phi Phi Islands in the Andaman Sea. Comprising two islands — Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh — Koh Phi Phi is known for its natural beauty, excellent diving, and raucous party scene. For the latter, Phi Phi Don is the most famous. Phi Phi Leh, meanwhile, is uninhabited and beloved by those looking to disappear into nature. It was blasted into the public eye about two decades ago, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character went in search of an island paradise in the film “The Beach,” which is set in real-life Maya Bay.
While we’re on the topic of Koh Phi Phi, we’d be remiss not to mention Krabi province as a whole. Located in southern Thailand, bordering the Andaman Sea, Krabi is home to many of the beautiful beaches and islands that make Thailand famous.
“I’ve been booking many [trips to] Krabi lately,” said Ekelund. “It ticks a lot of boxes for people. You’ve got the beauty, cool cliffs, and interesting geology. It has a beach, but it’s for people who don’t want to simply park it on the sand for 10 days. Krabi offers activities and more.” Some highlights include the beach town of Ao Nang, as well as islands like Phuket, Koh Lanta, Koh Yao Yai, Koh Lipe, Railay Beach, and several national parks.
Koh Yao Noi
My first trip to Thailand was to the small island of Koh Yao Noi back in 2013. One of the most beautiful islands in Phang Nga Bay, Koh Yao Noi is flecked off the coast of its sibling island, Koh Yao Yai. Sandy beaches and small fishing villages comprise most of the land here, along with the luxe Six Senses Yao Noi resort tucked along the eastern coast. The property’s infinity pool is legendary for its explosive sunrise views that blur the distinction between the sky and sea.
Many Thai cities have the ability to make visitors feel like they’re stepping back in time. But few create the illusion as vividly as Ayutthaya. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam, the ruins of Ayutthaya are breathtaking and hauntingly beautiful. It’s only an hour from Bangkok, making it an easy day trip or a great overnight excursion.
Sukhothai is another beautiful ancient city. “Sukhothai is for people who like history. I was taken by how beautiful the area is and how extensive the ruins are,” said Ekelund. “We cycled around the ruins with a guide and got a great sense of the history. Sukhothai is much more rural and harder to reach, meaning it has fewer tourists. You also don’t have a city built up around it.”
Mae Hong Son Loop
Of all the places I’ve visited in Thailand, none stick with me as much as the Mae Hong Son Loop. This 300-mile route is most often tackled by travelers on the back of motorbikes looking to brave the mountain switchbacks that descend into the thick jungle and pass from small village to small village. It’s not a journey to be taken lightly — motorbike experience is strongly recommended — but those who make the trip are rewarded with spectacular scenery and access to remote communities.
Khao Yai National Park
Thailand has more than 100 national parks. The oldest is Khao Yai National Park, which also happens to be the country’s third-largest. Within the park lies a web of hiking trails, secret waterfalls, and herds of elephants.
“Khao Yai has a lot of bat caves, too, which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced,” said Ekelund. “I stood there for 30 minutes while an unending stream of bats flew over my head. It was all so beautiful. It’s a beautiful park with waterfalls, trekking, and hiking. Plus, it’s just a couple of hours [by car] from Bangkok.”
Approximately two hours southeast of Chiang Mai is the city of Lampang. Much like many large cities in Thailand, Lampang has its fair share of temples, street food, and markets. But unlike the others, it feels like a place where time has stood still. Just listen for the sound of clip-clopping horse carts, still used for transportation, and you’ll understand what I mean. Because of Lampang’s integral role in the teak trade, many migrants from Myanmar made this northern city home, and you’ll find teak mansions and Burmese-style temples everywhere.
Chiang Rai, a northern Thai city, is often glossed over as most visitors opt to stop in Chiang Mai instead. “I am always struck by how chill Chiang Rai is,” said Ekelund. “It’s a relaxing place to be and has cool stuff to do. It’s a great city to walk through the neighborhoods and see people living their daily lives. I enjoyed the mountains, nearby villages, and opportunities for cultural exchange.”
No list of best places to visit in Thailand would be complete without Phuket. While Phuket has a reputation for being crowded with resort after resort, the truth is it’s for a reason — the island is a beautiful place to be. Thailand’s largest and most easily accessible island brings visitors in by the millions each year for its wide array of hotels, white-sand beaches, parties in Patong, colorful snorkeling, and eclectic culinary scene.
Thailand’s second most popular island sits off the country’s eastern coast in the Gulf of Thailand. Koh Samui is wreathed in bone-white sandy beaches, peppered with temples, veined with hiking trails, and splashed with fabulous resorts and energetic beach towns and villages.
“It’s hard to beat Koh Samui. It’s just beautiful,” said Ekelund. “If you want easy access without a full resort stay, I recommend Anantara Bophut. You can walk to Fisherman’s Village, and you won’t feel like you’re ‘stuck’ at a resort. If you want a full resort experience, I like Banyan Tree Samui for its private beach and spectacular rooms.”
The tiny island of Koh Tao, located in the Gulf of Thailand and not too far from Koh Samui, is one of the country’s best locations for diving and snorkeling. In fact, most avid divers will tell you that Koh Tao is their destination of choice in Thailand. The palm-fringed island is best known for its abundance of sea turtles.
Shrouded in thick jungle and sliced by miles of track belonging to what was once known as the “Death Railway,” Kanchanaburi has a dark and tragic history. The infamous train route, which crosses the River Kwai, was built from 1940 to 1943 by prisoners of war taken by the Japanese in World War II. Today, only a small section of the rail route is open and takes travelers on a journey through the mountain cliffs and bamboo forests of Kanchanaburi. “If you’re into history, beautiful vistas, trains, and wildlife, you can get all of that in Kanchanaburi. It’s a place not many tourists go, either, so it has a lot to offer,” said Ekelund.
Trang is the province directly south of Krabi, which means it has the same beautiful stretch of Andaman Sea coastline, except with a fraction of the crowds. There’s no shortage of islands to explore around Trang, like Koh Kradan and Koh Muk. Koh Muk’s crown jewel is the secret Emerald Cave, which can be entered via a dark tunnel that leads to a protected beach surrounded by towering limestone cliffs.
Located in the province of Phang Nga, Khao Lak can be thought of as Phuket’s much quieter cousin. Less than two hours from Phuket International Airport, Khao Lak is home to miles of sprawling, empty beaches, plus it offers easy access to beautiful national parks.
“I’ve been hyping Khao Lak quite a bit for people who want something quieter,” said Ekelund. “You have easy access to the Phuket International Airport, but it’s much more chill than the other Andaman Islands. It has beautiful beaches, good infrastructure, a great spot for dining, and it’s not hard to get to.”
Whether or not you drive the Mae Hong Son Loop, you’ll want to stop in Pai when visiting northern Thailand. Once a sleepy community of expats, Pai has morphed into a must-visit backpacker destination. Visitors will find funky cafes and coffee shops, endless bars, guest houses, hostels, and a dispensary or two, particularly now that cannabis is no longer considered a narcotic in the country.
Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
South of Bangkok, the province of Prachuap Khiri Khan is best known for the glamorous, frenetic beach town of Hua Hin. The province runs down the skinny arm of the country, bordering the Gulf of Thailand on one side and Myanmar on the other. Here’s where you’ll find Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, Thailand’s first marine national park. The park’s top attractions include a series of spectacular caves and a sprawling freshwater marsh. Visitors can enjoy the park’s beaches, islands, walking trails, and thick mangrove forests. It’s just an hour from Hua Hin and about 3.5 hours from Bangkok.
This long, skinny island, also in the province of Krabi, flies under the radar, but it’s one of my favorite places in the country. Koh Lanta is home to beautiful beaches, great restaurants, and the Mu Ko Lanta National Park, an amazing spot for diving and seeing undeveloped beaches.