To the north, cities like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai brush against the borders of Myanmar and Laos. Here the land is stitched together with rice paddies, forests and lush, mountainous jungle terrain that feeds down to the banks of the Mekong River as it runs a wild and natural vein all the way south and onwards into Cambodia.
In the south, you’ll find a coastline fringed by exquisite white sand beaches, some with views of emerald-colored islands jutting from the tourmaline waters of the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Malacca Strait to the west.
In the middle, vast, overwhelming Bangkok offers a contrast of cultures and a distinct clash of identities that quickly takes travelers from glassy terraces perched at the apex of the tallest skyscrapers to gritty backstreets packed with stalls selling delicious street food under the watchful gaze of a centuries-old temple.
This is our guide to essential Thailand.
Must visit cities in Thailand
The main event: Bangkok
Arriving in Bangkok is always an experience. The first thing to hit you is the air: warm with the fumes of gasoline and exotic spices. Then it’s the crowds in central Siam and the vast malls overflowing with shoppers. The architecture is an alluring mix of old and new that flows from statuesque towers to the golden stupas of ornate temples.
If it’s your first time in Bangkok, then start with the basics. Work your way around the opulent Grand Palace, the otherworldly Wat Arun and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and then spend some time exploring the bars, restaurants, and clubs along the vibrant Khaosan Road.
Alternatively head to the vast Sukhumvit Road and its collection of smaller ‘soi,’ some filled with backstreet markets and others with nightclubs, bars and some of Bangkok’s trendiest boroughs.
One of Bangkok’s highlights is its vibrant and near unending food scene. Street food in Bangkok is incredible, full of fresh ingredients like garlic, Thai basil, coriander, chilies, and pungent fish sauce. For the best try Phetchaburi Soi 5, which you’ll find snugly hidden between the hypermodern shopping centers of Siam and the Victory Monument.
Alternatively, take a stroll through the streets of China Town or visit one of Bangkok’s growing number of Michelin-starred restaurants for something a little more luxurious.
A weekend in Ayuttaya
Ayutthaya is a stunning city of temples and palaces. Spend at least a day visiting the Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Chaiwatthanaram and Wat Lokkasuthawas, and another in the impressive Bang Pa-In Palace, the former royal palaces that are set on the Chao Phraya river bank.
If you have time to spare then visit the lively Bang Sai province that acts as Ayutthaya’s cultural center, with local folk arts and crafts widely available.
The Kings of the North: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
There are few places in Thailand as stunning and as tranquil as Chiang Mai. The city itself is a surprisingly calm mix of modern cafes, street markets and rustic hostels offering weekend treks into the jungle, while the countryside is a vibrant landscape of stupa-topped temples, acres of lush forest stretching all the way into Myanmar and rivers perfect for adventures by boat and kayak.
Start in the city center with the breathtaking Wat Chedi Luang, and look out for the Three Kings Monument in the middle of the walled city, which pays homage to the 3 kings who founded Chiang Mai.
Spend the evening walking the neon-lit streets of the night market, buying souvenirs and sampling regional northern Thai delicacies such as Khao Soi Curry and Sai Oua sausage. But budget at least a day of your time to see the stunning Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, that sits perched at the very top of the Dot Suthep mountain, with stunning vistas over the entire region.
Chiang Rai is a small, easily manageable city with a wonderfully laidback atmosphere just a few miles away from both Laos and Myanmar.
The food here is excellent, the restaurants relaxed and inviting, the night market is one of the best places in Thailand to try Khao Soi (a curried noodle dish synonymous with northern Thailand) and its a cheaper option for hotels and hostels than neighboring Chiang Mai.
The best sights in Chiang Rai are all scattered in the surrounding countryside, but it’s easy to find a tuk-tuk driver or taxi that will gladly ferry you around for the day.
Start at the otherworldly, all-white modernist temple at Wat Rong Khun and the distinctive Blue Temple and then pay a visit to the Monkey Temple or Wat Tham Pla that is built into a cave and is home to hundreds of monkeys.
Must visit islands in Thailand
On Ko Samui, you’ll find sun-kissed white sand beaches and leaning palms, world-class spas, idyllic waterside villages and some of Thailand’s best water sports.
The best beaches on Ko Samui are Chaweng Beach for its vast collection of nightlife, water sports and accommodation options, Silver Beach for its charming lost in time ambiance just a short distance from plenty of amenities, and tranquil Ban Tai Beach on the northern shores of Ko Samui.
If you’d prefer not to venture too far from Bangkok, then at just 6 hours away by road and boat, Ko Chang is a perfect option for a dreamy few days on a Thai beach.
You’ll find the central hub at White Sand Beach, backdropped by acres of jungle-clad mountains and filled with plenty of nightlife options and restaurants, while a more boutique, high-end experience can be found along the sublime coastline at Long Prao Beach.
Once the retreat of lonely backpackers and loan adventurers, Lonely Beach on the southeastern coast of Ko Chang is now a little more developed, but it still has echoes of its bohemian past in the ramshackle collection of beachside bungalows and beach bars.
This is best for those who like to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds.
Ko Phangan is home to the legendary full moon party on Haad Rin Beach, but away from the parties and the large, all-inclusive resorts, there’s a whole other island of peaceful coves, rustic villages and stunning lengths of paradisiacal beaches that have resisted significant development.
Try Haad Yao on the northwest coast or laidback Bottle Beach on the northernmost tip of the island.