Sleepier than other destinations, Ayutthaya is often unjustly overlooked, but the city is an important historical and cultural destination in Thailand. Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya is Thailand’s second capital (after the city of Sukhothai). Its central location between China, the Malay Archipelago, and India elevated Ayutthaya to trading capital of the Asian continent and even the world during the 18th century. In 1767, however, the Burmese invaded and burned the city nearly to the ground, leaving a shell of what the city once was.
Today, tourists can wander (or bicycle) through the stone ruins of the towers and monasteries that are officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit Wat Phra Si Sanphet with its restored stupas, Viharn Phra Mongkol Bopit with its cast bronze Buddha face, and Wat Phra Mahathat with its famous tree that has grown around a statue of the Buddha. The city is an island that rests on the convergence of the Chao Phraya, Lopburi, and Pa Sak rivers. It is easily accessed by train and by bus, and is only about 50 miles from Bangkok (roughly an hour and 30 minutes).
Thailand’s capital city is far-reaching and diverse, filled with ancient temples and modern architecture that seems to defy science. Covering over 600 square miles and occupied by over eight million people, Bangkok is the largest urban center in the country, though it didn’t always occupy a place of such importance. In the 15th century, it was a small trading post, though the city quickly grew in the 18th century. The Asian investment boom in the ‘80s and ‘90s transformed Bangkok into the economic center it is today.
Visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pra Kaew, both over 150 years old and replete with exquisite detail. Pay a visit to the infamous Emerald Buddha, enshrined at Wat Pra Kaew. Visit Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn, easily recognizable from many photographs of Bangkok’s Old City skyline. Finally, be sure to explore Bangkok’s chaotic Chinatown and take a walk down Khao San Road, which is a tourist haven.
Founded in 1296, Chiang Mai was the seat of the independent Lanna Kingdom (which later became a tributary called the Kingdom of Chiang Mai) until nearly 1560. Today, it is the largest city in northern Thailand, and its Old City brick walls are still intact, squaring off the traditional sights from the rest of the burgeoning city space.
Chiang Mai’s most famous sight is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which rests on the Doi Suthep mountain. The temple, clad in gold, was constructed in 1383 and is the symbol of the city and a must visit. Other famous temples include Wat Chiang Man, the oldest in Chiang Mai that once housed an ancient king. Both Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang, constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries are worth visiting. Chiang Mai’s abundance of markets and walking streets make the city a charming place to visit. Venture up into the hills of the province for trekking or ethical elephant interactions.
Founded in 1262, Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in all of Thailand, though it was conquered and ruled by Burmese authorities until the late 1700s. Located in the plains that border the Mae Kok river, Chiang Rai is moderately hilly, and has pleasant, temperate weather year round.
Visitors will enjoy visiting the famous Night Bazaar in this city, situated in the middle of the downtown area. There, you can search for souvenirs, street food, local wares, and occasionally see performances. Visit the White Temple and the Black House for some context on both Thailand’s older and newer temples. Head to Lion Hill and the Buddha cave that lies within. Chiang Rai is also in close proximity to The Golden Triangle, a lookout spot where you can view three countries at once: Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
Established in the late 1700s as a defensive post against invading Burmese troops, Kanchanaburi is now easily one of the most laid-back, beautiful provinces in Thailand. The province is receiving an influx of tourists looking to relax on the locale’s low-key riverside attractions.
Kanchanaburi is also home to a host of national parks and many gorgeous waterfalls, including Erawan National Park, which is lush with deciduous forests, limestone hills, plains, and streams.
Khao Sok National Park
Take your Thailand trip south and don’t miss Khao Sok National Park, located in the Surat Thani Province. This 285 square mile national park is home to a variety of diverse landscapes,including majestic mountains and the oldest evergreen rainforest on Earth. It is also home to thick jungle, huge limestone cliffs (karst formations), and the Cheow Lan Lake.
Because of its diversity of vegetation (some say that it has more species than the Amazonian rain forest), the park is home to a large number of animals — over 5% of the world’s species. If you go, be sure to bring a telephoto lens to capture the Malayan tapir, Asian elephant, macaque, gibbons, mouse deer, and wild boar, among others. Steer clear of Khao Sok during its wet season (between late April and December), when it is known to receive an average annual 39 inches of rain.
Accessing Khao Sok is not difficult: there are regular flights to the Surat Thani airport from either Bangkok or Chiang Mai, or visitors can also fly into the Phuket airport. The province is accessible by train and bus. The national park is about 450 miles from Bangkok, and would take about 10 hours via ground transportation.
A popular Thai destination island, Kho Tao is located on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. It only covers an area of about eight square miles, but is a hotspot for outdoor recreation-loving tourists, namely those who enjoy scuba diving and snorkeling, as well as activities like hiking, bouldering, and rock climbing. Beach bums flock to Kho Tao’s west coast (Sairee) to enjoy its white sand beaches. Those wishing for relaxation head to the south of the island (Chalok Baan Khao), where the waters are perfect for dive enthusiasts, underwater photographers, and nature lovers.
Travelers can access Kho Tao by ferry (from Surat Thani, Chumphon, Ko Samui, or Ko Pha Ngan) or fly into Chumphon Airport, Ko Samui Airport, or Surat Thani Airport and catch a ferry.
Nestled among Thailand’s picturesque limestone karsts, Krabi (pronounced Gra-bee) Town is a key transport hub and bustling tourist center filled with guesthouses, Western restaurants, and an abundance of free Wi-Fi. Located on the country’s southern Andaman seaboard, Krabi offers one of Thailand’s oldest histories of continued settlement. Archaeological artifacts, cave paintings, and even skeletal remains lead historians to believe the region was home to homo sapiens as early as 35,000 BCE.
Today, Krabi Town offers not only beautiful natural landscapes, but also gorgeous architecture. Make sure to hop on the longtail boat that will carry you out to Khao Kanab Nam, the two karst rocks that form the symbol of Krabi, and climb the stairs to the top. If you’re more in the mood to explore the town’s temples, check out the newer Wat Kew, which some say resembles a shiny wedding cake. Either way, you can’t miss the Tiger Temple, one of the most famous temples in southern Thailand. Don’t let the 1,237-step staircase deter you — the panoramic views offer a beautiful reward for those who make it to the top!
Situated in the southern Buriram province, roughly 35 miles north of the Cambodian border, the Prasat Phanom Rung ruins are quite essentially in the middle of nowhere. But these spectacular Khmer ruins are well worth the trek. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries as part of the Angkor Empire, the historical temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Today, it sits high above the rice paddies below, atop the 402-meter high volcano of Mount Kailash — worry not, it’s dormant!
Make sure to bring lots of water for the ascent of the sandstone staircase that leads to the ruins — the weather will be hot and humid, and the ruins are likely to be crowded; everyone wants to catch a glimpse of the magnificent temple and the spectacular views. As you reach the top, you’ll arrive at a number of small ponds sporting water lilies, making for a visually stunning scene.
Mentioned in historical records that date back to the 8th century, Phetchaburi is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand. The city, located about 75 miles southwest of Bangkok, is the capital of Phetchaburi Province, a predominantly agricultural region. Situated on the River Phet, Phetchaburi offers little infrastructure to support heavy tourist activity. Instead, it is a bustling, working city, with a daily market that hums with activity from dawn until noon.
Temple and palace enthusiasts will have plenty to explore in Phetchaburi, from the tranquil European style of Phra Ram Ratchaniwet to the ancient Buddhist designs of Khao Wang. But the highlight is probably the breathtaking views of the mountains to the west, whose draping jungles conceal wild elephants, leopards, and rare bird species.
Underrated among foreign travelers, Phetchaburi will offer little opportunities to converse in English, but the guesthouses and hostels will make for a smooth and friendly journey around this off-the-beaten-path destination.
Phi Phi Islands
If your idea of a Thai getaway involves stunning beaches, turquoise waters, and postcard-worthy islands, look no further than Phi Phi. This chain of six islands features beautiful bays with sun-speckled shorelines and vivid marine life. Hop on the 90-minute ferry from Phuket or Krabi and watch as the towering cliff faces rise from the sea and give way to the alluring sand and jungle of the islands.
If you’re seeking a popular tourist hub, sail over to Phi Phi Don, a larger island inhabited by hundreds of visitors who bask in the sun along the magnificent shores. If you’d prefer something a little more laid back, opt instead for the uninhabited Phi Phi Leh. Whichever island adventure you choose, count on clearing your schedule, forgetting the hustle and bustle of the mainland, and relaxing with the gentle breeze drifting off the ocean.
Nestled in the balmy Andaman Sea and stretching almost 50 kilometers long, Phuket is Thailand’s largest island. Historically, it served as a major trading route between India and China, and earned much of its wealth from the trade of tin and rubber. Today, it has evolved into a wildly popular tourist destination, making it Thailand’s wealthiest province.
With its pristine shorelines and beautiful bays, Phuket offers a wide array of aquatic activities. Take some time to explore the colorful waters by snorkelling, jet skiing, or canoeing. The more adventurous types can even scuba dive, windsurf, or parasail to enjoy breathtaking views of the tropical paradise. Really want to get your adrenaline pumping? Try your hand at freediving — Phuket is the center of the emerging southeast Asian scene for the extreme sport involving deepwater diving without oxygen.
Due to the towering limestone cliffs that inhibit travel from the mainland, this small peninsula between Krabi and Ao Nang is only accessible by boat. But don’t let that deter you — this blissful slice of paradise is a must-visit, especially for the more adventurous travelers.
Though it offers plenty of opportunities for kayaking, snorkeling, diving, and trekking, Railay is most famous for its spectacular rock climbing. Over 700 bolted sport routes line the craggy limestone rock faces, creating a challenging natural jungle gym for even the most experienced climbers.
Located just 50 miles outside Bangkok along the Mae Klong river, Ratchaburi once served as a civilized kingdom of Suvarnabhumi. It is a province filled with unique geographical features, from the low-lying fertile Mae Klong Basin to the foggy Tanao Si Mountains in the east. It is said that the Great King Asoka of India announced the teachings of Buddha through this land around 325 BCE.
Today, Ratchaburi is a bustling melting pot, home to a wide variety of histories and cultures. Make sure to check out the Khao Chang Phran Bat Cave, which emits a massive flock of over a million bats that form a black line across the sky. The most important highlight of the province, however, is the world-famous Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, where countless vendors sell food and homemade goods from wooden boats afloat on the khlongs (canals). The market displays the historical and continued importance of the river for local commerce.
Header image by Always a Friday Travel.