Where to Go for Your First Trip to Thailand

Tropical beaches, captivating temples, excellent cuisine, impressive historical ruins, vibrant urban life, charming hill tribes… Whatever you are looking for, you'll very likely find it in Thailand, one of the most popular destinations in Asia. The "Land of Smiles" boasts a great many fantastic places to visit, and here are eight of the best I highly recommend adding to your travel bucket list, from the capital city of Bangkok in the south to the country's northernmost town of Chiang Rai.

The Thai capital has been a top international destination for years, attracting around 21.5 million visitors per year. It's even considered to be one of the greatest cities in the world. It's not hard to see why: the people here are some of the world's most friendly; Thai food is world-class; the city is brimming with culture and dynamic nightlife, let alone the glittering temples, soaring skyscrapers, colorful markets, interesting museums, and glitzy mega malls. Yes, it's a city that requires endless exploration.

Bangkok's most visited attraction is the Grand Palace, a former royal residence dating back to the 18th century. Today, it is mainly used for ceremonial occasions, such as the Royal Plowing Ceremony. Surrounded by white exterior walls, the palace complex encompasses about 218,400 square meters / 2,351,000 square feet, which still don't seem big enough to accommodate the huge number of visitors. It's best to visit early, right after it opens (8:30 am - 3:30 pm, daily), which can help you avoid the blistering heat, particularly if you visit between March and May, and enjoy relatively quiet exploration before the crowds swarm in. Visitors are required to follow a dress code, so make sure you dress in long skirts/trousers and sleeved shirts.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

Also within the grounds of the Grand Palace is Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. There are many other interesting sights surrounding Grand Palace, such as Wat Pho which houses the impressive 46-meter / 151 feet long reclining Buddha, and Wat Mahathat, one of the city's oldest temples.

Apart from temples, Bangkok is known for its colorful markets. Chatuchak Weekend Market, for instance, is among the world's largest open-air markets, selling everything from antiques to electronics, pets, food and drinks, clothing and books. At Damnoen Saduak, the city's best-known floating market, you'll be amazed at its narrow wooden boats loaded with fresh fruit, vegetables, and snacks. To see Bangkok from a different light, you might like to take a long tail boat ride on the city's meandering river and canals. This is a cool way to explore the city and observe local life.

Smaller but more relaxed than Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a sleepy country town surrounded by beautiful mountains. For around 700 years, it served as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom that ruled northern Thailand, and even today it is regarded as the cultural hub of Thailand.

The city boasts over 300 wats (temples) and seems to have one on every street. If you only have time for one temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is northern Thailand's most important temple, is the one you should visit. The wat, sitting high on Mount Suthep (‎elevation: 1,050 m / 3,445 ft, offers a bird's eye view of the town and makes a peaceful place to spend an hour or two. If you're feeling energetic, you can reach the wat by walking up a 306 step staircase flanked by naga (serpents), or instead take the funicular-style cable car. If you have more time, don't miss Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Sinh, and other fascinating temples.

No visitors to Chiang Mai should miss an elephant experience. Many sanctuaries here offer a chance to have a close interaction with these giant creatures, such as feeding, bathing, and walking with them through the scenic forest.

Elephant bathing in Chiang MaiElephant bathing in Chiang Mai

Apart from elephant encounters, Chiang Mai is a popular spot to learn the art of Thai cuisine. The city has a range of cooking classes that allow you to learn how to create famous Thai dishes, including vegan and vegetarian options. Once you master the skill, you can recreate the dishes for your loved ones when you return home.

Phuket, Thailand's largest island and most popular beach destination, is just an hour's flight from Bangkok. The island is blessed with sandy, palm and casuarinafringed beaches, aquamarine waters, and stunning limestone cliffs. With plenty of amazing activities to do, it's unlikely that you'll feel bored here. Relax on the soft, sandy beach or go scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, kiteboarding, island-hopping, etc, if you wish.

Phuket IslandAzure seawater in Phuket

There are beaches for every taste, such as the upmarket Surin and Ao Bang Thao in the northwest, the mellow, jungled Rawai in far south Phuket, and in the west, Patong which is known for its energetic nightlife and is popular with first-timers.

Although beaches are the biggest draw here, don't leave Phuket without visiting the island's astonishing cultural sites, such as Wat Chalong, the Big Buddha, Baan Teelanka (the Upside Down House) and Phuket Trickeye Museum, and many beautiful old temples and mansions.

Just about 80 kilometers / 50 miles north of Bangkok is the historic city of Ayutthaya, once the capital of the Kingdom of Siam and now protected by UNESCO. Visitors can take a journey back to the kingdom's golden age by discovering ruins of the ancient city at the Ayutthaya Historical Park, including palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries, and statues.

One of the highlights of an Ayutthaya tour is Wat Mahathat (Temple of the Great Relic) where you can find the famous stone head image entwined in the roots of a tree. Wat Ratchaburana that has a fine prang (Khmer-style spire), and Wat Phra Si Sanphet are also must-sees.

Wat MahathatThe stone head at Wat Mahathat

It's worth a side trip to Bang Pa-In Royal Palace, which is known as the Summer Palace where the Thai kings resided. Beautifully decorated buildings dot the palace's 19-hectare / 46-acre gardens. Expect to admire buildings of different architectural styles: classic Thai, Chinese, and neoclassical European. The Phra Thinang Aisawan Thiphya-Art, the most iconic sight inside the palace, is a Thai style pavilion that seems to float on water; The intricate Chinese-style Phra Thinang Wehart Chamrun contains ornamented titled floors, a throne, and an altar; The neo-classical Phra Thinang Warophat Phiman is a one-story mansion whose interior is decorated with oil paintings depicting events of Thai history and scenes from Thai literature.

Located in the west of Thailand bordering Myanmar, Kanchanaburi is well-known for its wartime attractions, including the notorious Death Railway, memorials and museums.

During World War Two, Japanese forces subjected forced laborers and Allied Prisoners of Wars (POWs) to the construction of a railway now known as the Death Railway or the Siam; Burma Railway from Thailand to Burma (Myanmar). Tens of thousands lost their lives during the construction. The French novelist Pierre Boulle made this shocking story known to the world through writing Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï (The Bridge over the River Kwai). The book became famous worldwide and was later adapted for an Oscar-winning film bearing the same name.

The Bridge over the River KwaiThe Bridge over the River Kwai

Today, you can gain a better understanding of that part of history by visiting related sites dedicated to the event, including the Bridge over the River Kwai, Don Rak War Cemetery, Krasae Cave, and Hellfire Pass Museum.

When you see monkeys roam freely on streets or around temple ruins in Thailand, you are probably in Lopburi, nicknamed the Monkey City where sightings of these furry creatures are not uncommon.

Three hours' drive or two hours' train journey from Bangkok, Lopburi is one of Thailand's oldest cities, with ruins such as palaces and temples from the Khmer and Ayutthaya empires. The most popular of these is Phra Prang Sam Yot, a 13th-century temple built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII who also built the famous Bayon at Angkor in Cambodia. Yet it is not the temple's religious significance but the monkey that allures tourists the most. Phra Prang Sam Yot is home to over a thousand monkeys, which is why the temple is called the Monkey Temple. Each November, Lopuri celebrates the Monkey Festival or Monkey Banquet during which monkeys are invited to feast on towers of fruit and vegetables among the temple ruins.

Believed to be the first of Thailand's three historic capitals (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok), Sukhothai (literally "the Dawn of Happiness") is one of the country's most popular destinations, especially for travelers interested in Thai history. It was the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom that flourished from the mid-13th century to the 14th century, a period regarded as the golden age of Thai civilization. The city was abandoned in the late 15th century after the Sukhothai Kingdom was conquered by the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The awe-inspiring ruins of Sukhothai (now known as Sukhothai Historical Park) and its neighboring ancient towns of Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet have been collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sukhothai Historical ParkSukhothai Historical Park

In Sukhothai Historical Park, you can marvel at towering columns and spires of centuries-old temples and shrines, crumbling walls, Buddha images in different sizes and poses, lotus-filled ponds and other remains of this once great city. As the ruins are spread over a large area, you'll find it easy to find a quiet spot for a moment of solitude.

Quieter than its more popular neighbor of Chiang Mai, the small city of Chiang Rai is a hidden gem in the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai which borders Myanmar and Laos. It is famous for its laid back vibe, distinctive temples, and fabulous food. It is also an excellent base for exploring the more remote corners of the province.

A highlight of Chiang Rai is the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), a masterpiece of the famous Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. This striking, all-white temple, covered in glass tiles, is one of the most recognizable temples in Thailand. Inside, you'll find eye-catching murals filled with pop culture figures such as Spiderman, Superman, Harry Potter, and Michael Jackson. Surely, you wouldn't want to miss the Black House (Baan Dam), a unique complex designed by local artist Thawan Duchanee. It consists of about 40 wooden buildings of various architectural styles and many of the artist's works are housed inside.

Wat Rong KhunWat Rong Khun

Another must do is to take a trip to the Golden Triangle, the meeting point of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The area was infamous for opium production and trade. There are opium museums dedicated to educating people about the history of opium, illegal trade and the impacts of drug abuse. For a frontier feel, head to Mae Sai Border Market located along the border with Myanmar.

While these are the most popular Thailand destinations, we can recommend many others based on your interests. Let us know your preferences and tastes, and we'll create a personalized Thailand itinerary for you at no cost.

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