Thailand, one of the most visited countries in Southeast Asia, has a charm that draws people from all corners of the globe. The food is famous worldwide and the country conjures images of mystical temples, jungles and stunning beaches. But even with its relatively small size, there is plenty to do and see, making it difficult to narrow down which places to explore. This post shares the nine areas we visited during our peak season month in Thailand, and includes plenty of pictures to inspire your own trip.
Good For: Couples / families looking for a beach vacation and scuba divers in search of unspoiled reef. This island is touristy and on the costly side for Southeast Asia, but is fairly clean and there are plenty of places to stay away from the party scene. This area is easily explored on a rented scooter. Most restaurants are tourist focused and have prices to match. There are world class dive spots a couple of hours off the coast and numerous dive shops available.
- Scuba Diving in Ko Ha and Hin Daeng – These areas are two or more hours off the coast, far from civilization. Despite their popularity, the reefs are very healthy and have incredible colors and diverse sea life. It is even possible to see whale sharks and giant ocean manta rays at times. We had several great dives with the very professional Andaman Dive Adventures.
- Sunsets – The island faces the Andaman Sea off of the West Coast, creating some incredible sunsets. There are many areas along the beach for viewing, and plenty of seaside restaurants.
Good For: Travelers wanting a real Thailand visit away from the backpacker partygoer scene. The town is local and unpretentious and feels a world away from the atmospheres at the nearby Ao Nang Beach. This is one of the best places for authentic street food with differing night markets open throughout week. There is easy access to nearby Railay Beach and offshore islands plus some impressive cave temples in the limestone cliff surroundings.
- Night Food Markets – There are several markets around town which operate on a rotating basis throughout the week. These are frequented mostly by locals and have a huge variety of foods, drinks and snacks. We found some of the best street food in Thailand here.
- Tiger Cave Temple (Wat Tham Suea) – The temple is located a little outside of town with a huge Buddha on the tip of a mountain. The base temples are accessible by car or scooter but the Buddha statue at the top is only reachable on foot by climbing a very steep 1,237 steps past dozens of thieving monkeys. There is also a isolated section around the back of the complex called “ladder to monks resort” where monks study and have built homes into the caved walls.
Railay Beach and Outlying Islands
Good For: Travelers wanting iconic Thai beaches, emerald waters and limestone outcroppings. These areas are extremely famous and touristed and crowds can get pretty intense. Railay is accessible only by boat as the surrounding cliffs make road construction impossible. It is best enjoyed early morning before the masses descend on the area and fill every open spot in the sand. Kayaks are available for rent and are a perfect way to explore the rocky waters offshore. The islands are accessible by private boat or island hopping trips. The scenery is stunning and offers good snorkeling, but expect to share the beaches with hundreds of your closest friends.
- Sea Kayaking and Snorkeling – Kayaks are available for rent on Railay Beach, and we found the steep price to be negotiable. Most group tours which visit the islands include snorkeling stops and equipment, although the best way to find good spots and avoid the crowds would be to hire a private boat. These are widely available from Krabi or Ao Nang Beach, and can be negotiated and purchased on the spot without need for advanced booking.
- Early Morning Beach Serenity – Railay Beach can get packed with tourists, so an early arrival will buy an hour or two of peace before the sunburnt Western crowds arrive. Taking the first boat of the day is best, although boats only depart once 8-10 people have arrived so timing is not guaranteed.
Good For: Travelers looking for beautiful Buddhist temples and a taste of Thai culture. The city is said to have around 300 temples so there is no shortage of uncrowded options. There are also plenty of expats and food choices are accordingly diverse. Chiang Mai (and Northern Thailand in general) has lower costs than the South. You can read more about the best parts of Chiang Mai here.
- Cooking Classes – What better way to enjoy this country’s amazing cuisine than bringing the recipes home? Classes are widely available throughout Chiang Mai and many cities in Thailand, most of which include door to door transport. You can read about our experience with a Cooking Class in Chiang Mai here.
- Temples With Monk Chat – There are many amazing temples around the city, but some of the larger ones have dedicated areas for visitors to interact with the local monks. This helps them learn English but also gives tourists the opportunity to learn about the life of a Buddhist monk. This is a very fun and rewarding experience and you will likely be one of few foreigners in attendance. Wat Chedi Luang is one of several in town with Monk Chat, and the only one with wide availability throughout each day.
Good For: Anyone looking for a change of scenery. The town is set amongst the hills of Northern Thailand and offers a much different atmosphere than neighboring Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. The town is relaxed with a hippy vibe and has plenty of expats and charming cafes. The town is accessible primarily overland on the notoriously windy but scenic road from Chiang Mai and the only way out of town is back the way you came. While Pai does not have a plethora of actual sites, it is a great place to drive through rural countryside and see rice paddies and waterfalls or simply relax in the (relatively) cooler mountain air. There are also many high quality and diverse restaurants and plenty of street food. One of our favorite spots was Pen’s Kitchen, which serves super delicious and reasonably priced local fare.
- Land Split – A farmer had his farm split apart many years back, rendering the land unplantable. He decided to find another purpose and turn the area into an attraction. While the land split itself is not that amazing, it is a really special place to visit. Upon arrival, you can walk the grounds and will be given several foods grown and produced locally (banana chips, hibiscus wine, peanuts, fruit, jam, sweet potatoes, etc.), which are all free. You simply donate what you feel the visit was worth when you are done eating and enjoying the conveniently placed hammocks. Plus, they have a fun downhill wooden boxcar constructed with flip-flop brakes.
- Pai Canyon – An interesting land feature where erosion has left raised dirt trails snaking around a canyon area. This makes a nice hiking area and pretty spot for enjoying the sunset.
Good For: Those looking to extend their visit in the North in a similar but smaller version of Chiang Mai. We did not feel that the city was an essential stop in our Thailand trip, but it does house the famous White Temple, which is definitely worth a visit if in town. If you find yourself short on things to do in Chiang Rai, you can always visit a fun cat cafe.
- White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) – An artistic complex in the style of a Buddhist temple but with a dark artsy feel. This is a really interesting and very popular place to visit, so an early arrival is recommended. Of note, despite the appearance, this temple was constructed in the 1990’s and is more an art gallery than temple.
- Clock Tower at Night – Located in the center of the city, the Clock Tower is built in a similar style to the White Temple. At night, it is brightly lit and flanked with lights, making a beautiful landmark.
Good For: Travelers wanting to escape the cities and crowded beaches for a taste of the jungle. The park is located only a couple of hours outside of Bangkok and has lots of trails to explore and wildlife to view. You can read a complete account of our guided Khao Yai jungle safari here.
- Jungle Safari – The jungle in Khao Yai can be visited with or without a guide. There are trails for hiking and plenty of famous waterfalls, but the highlights are the dense and diverse plant and animal life found throughout the park.
- Bat Cave (Khao Lak Chang) – Located just outside of the park limits, the cave is a daily spectacle. During sunset, millions of bats emerge in line to feed in the surrounding hills. Eagles circle the cave and attack the bats as they emerge, making the line twist and turn as the creatures evade in formation. The air is filled with the whoosh of wings and chirps of echo location for over 30 minutes.
Good For: Anyone wanting the full on city, food, and shopping experience. This is a big, crowded and bustling city. We found it relatively difficult to get around with costly public transport by Southeast Asian standards. While we wouldn’t recommend spending much time here, it is worth a quick stop simply to see some of the most amazing temples in Thailand.
- The Grand Palace – An incredible example of classic Thai architecture. The Palace houses many buildings and a stunning temple, all adorned with roof spires and trimmed with golden and colorful tiles.
- Wat Pho – Located adjacent the Grand Palace, this is an expansive temple with numerous ornate buildings and a gigantic 46 meter reclining gold leaf covered Buddha statue.
Good For: Beachgoers preferring a less crowded island getaway. This area is relaxed and clean with warm waters and beautiful sunsets. Apparently the warmth of the waters has damaged some of the surrounding reef, so diving is not as pristine as other areas. While there are none of the iconic limestone outcroppings found in the southern tail, the lack of crowds and partying backpackers make this a much more peaceful destination. Watch out for the taxi mafia, which has a monopoly on island transport. We really enjoyed staying at Sea View Resort and Spa, a secluded beachfront property with amazing views and lush green jungle surroundings.
- Beach Relaxation and Ocean Sunsets – The quieter nature of this island makes it one of the better islands to unwind. It is tough to go wrong with a colorful sunset over the water after a peaceful day.
- Water Activities – Go for a swim, grab a kayak and a snorkel. The water is calm and clear with many fish and other sea creatures. Shallow coral reefs, although basic, are just a few meters from the coastline and there are several small islands within proximity from Kai Bae Beach to explore.
Does this make you want to visit Thailand? We certainly hope so, but don’t forget your sunscreen and bug spray! If you have questions about our transportation logistics through the country, feel free to contact us. You can read detailed information on our border crossings from Malaysia into Thailand at Satun and Thailand into Cambodia at PoiPet here.
You can read other posts from our visit to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia. And take a look at our Adventure Gallery where you can see our pictures from all around the world. Also check out other posts from our adventures including our trek through Nepal, camper van-cation around Tasmania and misadventures in India. They are sure to inspire your lust for travel!
Do you have an interest in long term travel? Check out our Trip Planning posts, where you can learn how to prepare for a lengthy trip, see how to never check your bags on planes, find out about travel security and make sense of travel insurance, amongst others.