If you haven’t been to Thailand before a real experience awaits. It’s a country with arguably some of the best food in the world, but you’ll want to savour the culture, immerse yourself in its cities, and relax on its beaches as well. There are so many places to go in Thailand and, following our seventh visit to the country we thought it was time to share some of our favourite things to do in Thailand with you.
The Land of Smiles as it’s known though is a large country, so we’ve decided to focus our Thailand destination guide on the three places we visited most recently. This guide to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket details places first time visitors should see, but for seasoned visitors like ourselves, it will also give you ideas for new things you can do or off the beaten track places to visit.
From the north to the south we enjoy so much of what Thailand has to offer. The warmth and generosity of the locals, the charming culture, a food scene that tantalises the taste buds, and white sandy beaches that lead us into warm, clear seas.
And no greater love does a couple have for a foreign land than to seek it’s blessing for their married life. Such was our love for Thailand that we got married in Phuket.
Our most recent visit saw us on an Abercrombie & Kent Discover Thailand package. As experienced visitors to Thailand we thought we knew a great deal about the country and what to expect. But we were in for a pleasant surprise!
We saw places that we were unaware of, but which enriched our trip enormously. And we found that no matter how much you may think you know a place, there is always something new to learn. So here are a few of ideas of the best places to go in Thailand for newcomers and for those who have visited before.
Places to go in Thailand for first-time visitors and returnees
Take a look at our video and get a taste of Thailand.
Where to go in Bangkok for first timers
Bangkok can be a Marmite city for some, but we love it! The clashing cacophony of its streets, may be a challenge for a long visit, but you just have to experience one of South East Asia’s most buzzing cities, at least for a few days.
The Grand Palace
Simply a must go to attraction – the grandeur and intricate beauty of the Grand Palace can only be truly appreciated by touring the grounds.
Built in 1782, it is not just one large construction, but a series of buildings, each of which has been decoratively adorned. The Palace is divided into two main areas, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Royal Residence.
The Emerald Buddha is considered to be the most sacred Buddhist temples in the whole country.
The whole of the Grand Palace stands as a gleaming testament to the magnificence of traditional Thai architecture. It is certainly worth a visit.
Famed for its giant reclining golden Buddha this is a must see for first-time visitors to Bangkok. At 15 metres tall and 46 metres long, and covered in gold leaf, the Buddha it is certainly impressive. You won’t want to miss the mother-of-pearl feet of the statue, but at five metres long they are difficult to ignore.
Within the grounds of Wat Pho is also a world-renowned school of massage where you can get a great traditional Thai massage very cheaply.
Located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river, Wat Arun (or Temple of the Dawn) is a hugely popular Bangkok attraction.
The 70 metre high spire of Wat Arun is decorated with intricate pieces of colourful glass and porcelain – remnants of the ballast used in a Chinese ship that capsized near the city in the late 1700s.
It is possible to climb the steps of Wat Arun and the views from the top are impressive, but be aware it is quite a steep climb.
The quietest time to visit is early morning, however in the evening when lit up it is also a fabulous sight.
At all temples it is important to respect the religious and cultural traditions and to dress appropriately, which generally requires shoulders and knees to be covered.
Siam Square, MBK & Chatuchak Weekend Market
Bangkok is one of the world’s shopping Meccas. Expect to find all manner of goods from the designer labels of Siam Paragon and Siam Centre to the high street stores, electricals and handicrafts of Mahboonkrong Centre (MBK). MBK is the place too for silks and cheap buys from any number of stalls.
Another unmissable shopping opportunity is Chatuchak Weekend Market. With stalls spreading indoors and out for 109,000-square-metres, it’s one of the largest markets in the world. But it has been helpfully laid out in different sections, depending on what you’re looking for, and mapped out for you, the most famous being by Nancy Chandler.
It is important to note that many designer goods you’ll find being sold cheaply in markets and even some small shops are fakes. Fake goods are common across the country, if you are looking for designer goods, buy from a reputable store and know that if it looks too good to be true it likely is. Also haggling is de rigueur outside of the major stores in Thailand so work on your skills and you could negotiate some serious bargains.
Places to visit in Bangkok for repeat visitors
Get away from Bangkok to explore it’s other side – the Thonburi district on the west side of the Chao Phraya River. It is a lesser-known area and one where the vast majority of tourists don’t go – you may have it all to yourself.
You can walk around the area or SpiceRoads runs cycling tours around the area – taking you to lesser-visited temples, and introducing you to its Portuguese culture (from a time when settlers from Portugal lived there). It’s an interesting district of the city and full of surprises.
We didn’t expect to see the very large amount of canals that crisscross Thonburi, or the sheer number of homes that sit alongside them. You can also take canal tours of Thonburi.
Royal Barges Museum
You can visit the Royal Barges Museum when taking a canal tour, but if you wanted to do it separately you can do so.
The ornate barges, colourfully festooned with gold, reds, blues and glass jewels are used in state ceremonies. There is one 46-metre long boat that is impressively carved from a single piece of teakwood.
Jim Thompson’s House
Lovers of silk and traditional Thai architecture will find Jim Thompson’s House a treasure. The former home of American entrepreneur who was the founder of the world renowned Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company. It consists of six traditional Thai-style houses. Its gift shop is a rare find in attraction shops – full of great silk made goods in traditional Jim Thompson-style prints.
Insects in the Backyard restaurant
Now, don’t knock it until you try it, but what about eating insects and bugs at the ‘Insects in the Backyard’, Thailand’s first arthropod fine dining restaurant. We visited and Sarah bravely tried out some of the menu including male giant water beetle, grasshopper, bamboo caterpillar, green ant larva and queen green ants.
The executive chef Mai Thitiwat told us that he combines French techniques with Thai flavours. The concept for the restaurant is based on the simple principle that bugs are high in protein and low in fat. And with the world’s growing population needing to be fed, insects are the future apparently. Try it for yourself.
Where to stay in Bangkok – we recommend…
There are many great luxury hotels in Bangkok, but we stayed at the exquisite Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River.
Our elegant accommodation came in the form of a large stateroom, with a balcony overlooking the river, and the services of a butler.
Its location was perfect for us to explore the city from and as a place to stay in Bangkok, its old world charm and first-rate service were unsurpassable.
Places to go in Chiang Mai
Whether you’ve been to Thailand’s second city before, or if you’re planning your first visit, these options, will enrich your stay.
Where to go in Chiang Mai for first timers
Bor Sang Handicraft village
Bor Sang is a great landmark of Chiang Mai and one where artisans have been hand-making and painting their world renowned umbrellas for about 100 years.
Visitors are welcome to watch the craftsmen and women assembling and decorating the umbrellas from start to finish. I was there recently and tried my hand at decorating a parasol. The lovely and very talented Noi, patiently taught me what to do. Check out my efforts here…
Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
Located on the mountain of Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Believed, to have been built in the 14th century it is a Buddhist beacon of beauty.
We climbed over 300 steps to reach it, but the exertion was worth it. There is also a tram if you don’t fancy the exercise.
The reward for the climb is, for me at least, the best temple I’ve seen. From the white elephant, to the golden chedi, to various monuments and shrines, it is exceptional. The views from the top looking out over Chiang Mai are worth the visit alone.
The Night Market
Shopaholics beware, the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is open all year round from dusk until midnight and at some 1 km long, there is a lot of shopping to be had.
Everything from clothing, shoes, watches, jewellery to kitchen ware and much much more is available, some of it will be designer goods, a lot of it will be fake designer goods. The prices are always tempting, but don’t forget to haggle. Not matter how cheap it appears to be, the seller will expect you to haggle and it is surprisingly good fun.
Our tip is to fix a price in your head that you are happy to pay and then pitch low and work you way up. If you can’t agree a price then walk away there are plenty more vendors to barter with.
Places to visit in Chiang Mai if you’ve been before
Wildflower Home Foundation
Slightly unexpected, but visiting Wildflower Home Foundation was definitely one of our most memorable travel days anywhere.
The Wildflower Home was founded in 2008 to help women sleeping rough on the streets of Chiang Mai. These young women were often ostracised by their families and communities for being unmarried and pregnant, others had suffered domestic violence, some were even at risk of human trafficking.
The aim of Wildflower Home is to provide pre- and post-natal care to these disadvantaged local women and help them get back into society.
The project is supported by Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy – a non-profit arm of the travel company, and the women at the home offer Thai cookery classes with a focus on the mushrooms they grow there.
Abercrombie & Kent runs cookery classes with Wildflower Home, but if you wish to visit independently you need to contact the home to make an appointment.
Baan Jang Nak
Make time to drop into Baan Jang Nak, which means House With Elephants. It is mixture of a workshop, museum and café. Here you’ll find a treasure trove of exquisitely carved elephants, expertly crafted by internationally renowned artist, Phet Wiriya.
You can also watch craftsman practicing their skills and producing an array of beautiful sculptures and figurines.
As you can also see in the video above, Sarah had a go at carving an elephant on a wooden plaque under the watchful eye of Phet Wiriya. We’d also recommend it as a lunch or coffee stop as the coffee is strong and the food great.
Wat Phra Singh
The old city of Chiang Mai is home to the colourful Wat Phra Singh, it’s one of the city’s most revered temples. Built in a classical and traditional Thai architectural style in 1345, it has been extensively renovated but remains a magnificent complex with gold stupas and bright red interiors where prayers are whispered.
Adjacent to Wat Phra Singh is a school for monks and at the end of the school day you’ll find yourself enthralled by a throng of shaven headed young monks in their orange robes.
Eating Chiang Mai
Thai food is fantastic, from the simplest streetside eatery up, but the food scene in Chiang Mai has taken off in a very big way. We tried three of the city’s restaurants and the food was outstanding in all of them.
The Dining Room restaurant at 137 Pillars Hotel provided quite possibly the best meal I’ve ever had. From flaming but delicately flavoured cocktails through to giant prawns and the best desserts you’ll find in Thailand. The whole meal was a delight.
House of Ginger has a trendy, almost hipster feel to it, but the food isn’t just fashionable. Chef Aree Poontawach has brought a creative array of flavours together to wow diners with divine dishes.
Last but by no means least, Whole Earth restaurant is another must visit for hearty, healthful dishes that fuse Asian flavours in a delightful assault on the tastebuds.
Where to stay in Chiang Mai – we recommend…
Our accommodation in Chiang Mai was the historic 137 Pillars House Hotel.
Boutique in size with with 30 rooms, the most fabulous restaurant, lovely spa and of course a personal butler was on hand for us.
Places to go in Phuket
Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, is also its most popular. But where to go in Phuket on your first visit? Read on…
Sirinat National Park
Located in the northwest of the island, Sirinat National Park, has an abundance of wildlife, mangroves, forests, white sandy beaches and a coral reef offshore. The park has 13 km of scenic coastline and at its Mai Khao Beach you can also see nesting turtles.
The Big Buddha
This is a magnificent 45 m tall white marble statue of the Buddha, it towers over the southern part of Phuket. It is so huge and so prominent that it can be seen from almost anywhere in the south of the island. It sits atop of Khao Nakkerd Hill, one of the highest peaks on Phuket and so the views are astonishing.
Blue Elephant restaurant
Both in food and setting the Blue Elephant offers an evening not to be forgotten. Famed for taking Thai food to London, and the world, food here is of the highest order and the restaurant prides itself on holding true to authentic Thai culinary influences and culture.
The building too is fabulous. It is housed in a mansion that is over 100-years-old and built in a sophisticated Sino-Portuguese style. Dining at the Blue Elephant gave us what we look for in our travels – a real experience.
If you fancy learning how to cook Thai food, the Blue Elephant also has a cooking school.
With over 30 beaches to choose from, Phuket is a haven for those that long for white sandy beaches under a glorious sun-kissed sky. Two of the most popular are the neighbouring beaches of Kata and Karon.
Kata Beach is a very popular beach and is some 1.5km long, which allows you your own space.
Karon beach is the third longest on the island at 3.3km but is busier, especially as is highly regarded by snorkelers.
Places to visit in Phuket if you’ve been before
Whether you’re looking for a quieter escape or one of the best views in Thailand, Phuket has more to offer for people who’ve visited before.
For something a little bit more secluded Kata Noi and Nai Harn are worth a visit.
Kata Noi is a very beautiful beach, just 700m long, it is a lot quieter and has a more relaxed atmosphere than its near neighbours.
Nai Harn, just under 700m long, is a family friendly beach in the south of Phuket. It is becoming increasingly popular, but if you like stand-up paddle boarding or even kitesurfing it could be right for you.
Cape Phromthep for a spectacular sunset
Arguably the best vantage point on Phuket for sunset watchers is at Cape Phromthep. The views are exceptional, but you won’t have it to yourself. It is a very popular destination and each evening hordes descend on it.
For the ultimate sunset view hire a longtail boat for a sail off the coast and enjoy the view of Cape Phromthep from a different perspective, we did it once and I have never witnessed a more outstanding setting sun.
Phuket Trickeye Museum
Try out the Trickeye Museum in Phuket town, it’s a type of interactive 3D experience, where you can fight Mike Tyson, hang on a rope ladder from a helicopter, fly a magic carpet, meet zombies or walk over a broken rickety bridge and so much more.
For sure it will keep the little and not so little kids occupied for a couple of hours.
Where to stay in Phuket – we recommend…
During the Phuket leg of our visit to Thailand we stayed at the beachfront Banyan Tree Phuket in our own private pool villa. The resort is set on Phuket’s Lagoon and is the largest on the island, not that you’d know it given that it the layout of the villas offer plenty of seclusion.
With excellent restaurants, a spa with expertly trained staff, and a long stretch of quiet sandy beach.
Wherever in the country you are and whatever you do, there are so many great places to go in Thailand that you will struggle to fit it all in. That’s why we’re planning trip number eight.
Win a Discover Thailand holiday with Abercrombie & Kent
Hang out like a local as part of A&K’s 12-night Discover Thailand itinerary which includes flights and accommodation. Delve deeper into Bangkok’s temples and bliss out on Phuket’s beaches, with some authentic detours thrown in.
This story is based on research we did as part of a trip to Thailand with Abercrombie & Kent – as always, all thoughts are our own.
Some images have been licenced under Creative Commons 2.0: Mark Fischer, edwin.11, Ninara, Casey Grove and Akarat Akwisarn