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The luxe Thailand travel guide to bucket list places to visit

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The luxe Thailand travel guide to bucket list places to visit

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Thailand is a country of sensory delights.

From gilded temples to postcard-perfect beaches, there are many beautiful and exotic places to visit in Thailand. You can do everything from sea canoeing through stalactite-filled caves to caring for elephants to getting blissfully stretched (aka “Thai massage”).

From Bangkok to Koh Samui to Chiang Rai, there are so many beautiful places to visit in Thailand!

Wherever you go in Thailand, there’s the food. Giant fresh shrimp. Fragrant curries. Juicy mangoes bursting with flavor.

And let’s not forget the hotels. With a tradition of gracious guest service, Thailand is renowned for its lovely resorts and hotels.

Here’s our Thailand travel guide to the best places to visit in Thailand for luxury lovers – complete with bucket list things to do and the best places to stay.

(You might want to grab a coffee or glass of wine, because this is somewhat of an epic post, one of the longest on our travel blog. It’s packed with lots of information!)

Places to visit in Thailand

Best time to visit Thailand

It gets very hot in Thailand (as with most Asian countries).

Ideally, you’d avoid the wet and humid season from May to early November.

One of the best places to visit in Thailand is beautiful Phang Nga Bay.

Best time to visit Bangkok, Phuket and northern Thailand:

In general, the best time to visit Thailand, weather-wise, is late November to February. That’s when it’s the coolest and driest.

Having said this, we’ve visited in April, and we survived the heat (but beach activities were our focus then).

Thailand boasts some beautiful beaches!

Best time to visit Koh Samui:

Koh Samui is located in the Gulf of Thailand off the west coast of Thailand. And it has a somewhat different weather pattern than Phuket (which is located southeast in the Andaman Sea) and the rest of the country.

October through December is Koh Samui’s rainy season. (November is Koh Samui’s wettest month.) February to March are nice, sunny and dry. April is also a good month if you like really hot weather. (April is the hottest month.)

Things to know about Thailand

Thailand covers an area of almost 200,000 square miles in southeast Asia.

It has a population of 68 million; almost 10 million people live in Bangkok.

Phuket is a one-hour flight south of Bangkok, while Chiang Mai is 75 minutes’ north of Bangkok by plane.

Language:

English is widely spoken.

Dress:

Wear loose light clothing. For visiting temples, cover your knees and shoulders (i.e., don’t wear shorts, mini-skirts or sleeveless tank tops). Carrying a scarf or wrap is useful.

Money:

The local currency is the Thai baht. $1 USD equals about 30 baht.

Religion:

Most of the people are Buddhist.

Electricity:

All upscale hotels have electrical sockets where you can plug in most devices from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Britain and Europe.

But just in case, it’s wise to travel with a travel adapter. We like this universal travel adapter (available on Amazon). You can get it with 2 additional USB charging ports too.

Boasting the Grand Palace and exotic temples, Bangkok is one of the best places to visit in Thailand.

Where to go in Thailand

The following are the best places to visit in Thailand.

From these destinations, you can branch out to smaller islands down south or off-the-beaten-path villages up north.

1) Bangkok

International flights arrive in Bangkok, so it makes sense to start your trip enjoying a few days here, shaking off jet lag.

If you’ve never visited the go-go capital city of 10 million, be prepared to be mesmerized. It’s fascinating!

We’ve traveled to Thailand several times. Even though we’re sometimes itching to hit the beach, our time in Bangkok is always exciting.

Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha:

Topping the list of things to do in Bangkok is the glittering Grand Palace complex.

Built in 1782, the palace was home for four kings, including Rama IV, whose son was tutored by Anna of “The King and I.”

Its soaring golden spires, inlaid mother-of-pearl frescoes, jewel-encrusted winged sculptures and gold leaf murals all dazzle the eye.

Visiting the Grand Palace is one of the best things to do in Bangkok.

The palace complex contains more than 100 buildings. Among them is Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temple.

It’s home to the dark green statue of the small Emerald Buddha (about 26 inches tall), carved in a seated meditating position.

Visiting the Bangkok Grand Palace

Tip: Go first thing in the morning when it’s cooler and there are fewer people there.

Hours: The palace is usually open from 8:30 am to 3:00 or 3:30 pm (depending on the season).

Cost: Admission costs 500 baht (about $16.50 USD).

More information and website: The Grand Palace, Bangkok

Guided tours of the Grand Palace, Bangkok

Here’s a good guided walking tour that combines the Grand Palace with Wat Pho and Wat Arun (covered next).

Or up your game with this exclusive private tour (half day).

Wat Pho Temple:

A row of gilded Buddhas at Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok catch the eye.

Adjoining the Grand Palace is the Wat Pho Temple.

Wat Pho Temple is also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (or by its official name, Wat Phra Chetuphon).

It houses the giant reclining gilded Buddha statue, which extends 150 feet from head to toe. (Because of its monumental size, this Buddha is actually more impressive than the Emerald Buddha.)

Colorful paintings at Wat Pho Temple in Bangkok

If you’re game, try a traditional Thai massage at the temple’s renowned massage facility. Its school teaches trainee therapists the 2,500-year old practice, considered a medicinal treatment in Thailand.

In baggy cotton pyjamas, you lie down on one of 40 beds (in view of other tourists also getting a massage). Then a therapist expertly pokes, pulls and pushes your limbs until you’re as limber as can be.

The massage feels a little like yoga, but without the work. It’s invigorating, and at times, the stretches test your limits. But it will definitely put the spring back into your step!

Visiting Wat Pho Temple

Hours: The temple is typically open daily from 8:00 am to 6:30 pm.

Cost: Admission costs 200 baht (about $6.50 USD).

Massage: To get a massage, head to the Thai massage school pavilion and add your name to the waiting list (you may have to wait 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how busy it is). The massage cost is about $15 USD for one hour.

Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn):

Located directly across the Chao Phraya River from Wat Pho, the lovely Wat Arun is known locally as Wat Chaeng (and nicknamed the Temple of Dawn).

The soaring spire of this temple is beautifully decorated with tiny pieces of colored glass and Chinese porcelain.

Wat Arun is a beautiful Buddhist temple across the river from Bangkok's Grand Palace.

Wat Arun, Bangkok

Hours: Temple hours are typically 8 am to 6 pm daily.

Cost: Admission costs 50 baht (about $1.50 USD).

Chao Phraya River boat ride:

Another popular Bangkok activity is to ride in a longtail boat along the Chao Phraya River (“River of Kings”) and its web of klongs or canals, which wind through the city.

You might have seen photos of these odd-looking boats? A longtail boat is a skinny wooden boat, powered by a noisy motor at the end of a long pole.

As the canals become narrower, scenes of river life unfold.

Taking a boat ride along the Chao Phraya River and its web of canals is popular in Bangkok.

Wooden huts perch on stilts over the river, tucked between temples and monasteries. Families wash their clothes, orange-robed monks bathe and children swim and play in the coffee-colored waterways.

We hired our own boat and driver for a two-hour Chao Phraya River tour.

Stopping at the Royal Barges National Museum, we gaped at a fleet of magnificent barges with golden prows carved into mythical creatures, each rowed by 50 or more oarsmen during royal ceremonies.

Figurehead on the Garuda Hern Het Barge at the National Museum of Royal Barges (Credit: Mark Fischer, Wikimedia)

Bangkok river tours

There are many different river tours you can take:

Temples and boat ride: This top-rated tour caps off a visit to the major temples with a longtail boat ride.

Bicycling and boating: Maybe you’d like to explore Bangkok by boat and bike on a 5-hour tour with lunch? Then check out this great boat-and-bike tour.

Dinner cruise: Another option is a luxury dinner cruise on the Shangri-La Horizon riverboat (operated by the 5-star Shangri-La Bangkok).

Jim Thompson House:

The Jim Thompson House is a popular tourist attraction in Bangkok.

The Jim Thompson House is another popular Bangkok attraction.

Thompson was an American architect who fell in love with Thailand during WW II and helped gain international recognition for the Thai silk industry. Consisting of six teak buildings, his house (now a museum) features an extensive collection of historical Thai art and antiques.

Jim Thompson House Museum

Hours: The museum is open daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.

Cost: Admission costs 200 baht (about $6.50 USD)

Tours: To see the inside of the museum, you must take one of the guided tours. They’re provided throughout the day in English and other languages.

More information and website: Jim Thompson House

More things to do in Bangkok:

If you’re looking for more fun things to do in Bangkok, take a Thai cooking class, visit a floating market, try dining in the dark in Bangkok (an eye-opening experience), get a “fish massage” and shop, shop, shop!

Best luxury hotels in Bangkok

We’ve stayed at the following three luxury hotels in Bangkok (all highly recommended).

Shangri-La Bangkok

The Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok offers an affordably luxurious stay right on the Chao Praya River, close to the city’s main tourist sites. Its riverfront pool is probably the best pool in Bangkok.

Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

Also set on the “River of Kings,” the legendary Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is renowned for its service and luxury.

Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit

For shopping in the Sukhumvit area, the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit is tops.

See our review:
Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit: A Grand Stay in Bangkok

2) Ancient capital of Ayutthaya

An hour’s drive away from Bangkok is the ancient capital of Ayutthaya.

An hour’s drive away from Bangkok is the ancient capital of Ayutthaya – an easy day trip.

Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya enjoyed 417 years of reigning glory. A major trade centre, it exported elephants to India and Persia (no less than 300 to 400 at a time) and spices to European merchants, importing luxury goods such as wine, glassware, guns and clothes for the court and aristocracy.

Today, Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And what remains are the majestic ruins of more than 500 temples, most of which were built on a small island surrounded by a river moat.

One of the best things to do in Thailand is to bicycle around the ancient temples of Ayutthaya.

Bicycling the Ayutthaya temples:

It’s possible to see Ayutthaya on a bus tour. But not keen on mashing our faces against tinted windows, we opted to do a bicycle tour instead. Cycling in Thailand is a actually a great way for bicycle buffs to see the country – for occasional riders like us, cycling Ayutthaya gives us a taste of this two-wheeling experience.

As our bikes crunched along stony fields, studded with bell-shaped sandstone pagodas, we ogled the crumbling ruins up close.

Buddha head overgrown by trees at Ayutthaya

We also got to see how the local people live as we threaded our way down narrow village lanes, past rickety fruit stands and old women grilling chicken on charcoal braziers.

Several village stalls sell incense sticks and lotus flowers for praying at nearby Buddhist temples. One we passed also displayed green coconuts – our cue to stop. The stall owner hacked off the tops with a machete, and we greedily sucked up the cool sweet coconut juice through straws.

Rice barge cruise and massage:

The morning tour ended with a spicy Thai lunch, while we cruised around Ayutthaya island on a converted teak rice barge.

And, then, bliss for sore muscles not used to pedaling – a two-hour traditional Thai massage (one of the best we’ve ever had).

Visiting Ayutthaya

Our tour: We booked our day tour (5+ miles of easy bicycling) with Ayutthaya Boat & Travel, which has won several tourism awards.

More biking: You might like this more bike-intensive tour (26 miles of bicycling) of Ayutthaya.

Bus-and-boat tour: Or check out this bestselling tour by bus and boat, which includes a scenic river cruise back to Bangkok from Ayutthaya.

3) Phuket

The powdery white beaches of Phuket invite you to relax and soak up the sun.

In contrast to Bangkok, the powdery white beaches of the cosmopolitan island of Phuket (an hour’s flight south) invite you to relax and soak up the sun.

Thailand’s largest island, Phuket has boomed in recent years. A four-lane highway now whisks you from the international airport, past new condo and hotel developments, to your beach resort.

Cosmopolitan in flavor, Phuket has morphed into the Maui of Thailand!

Villages and towns:

Because Phuket is so big, it has a number of different towns and villages.

The main town is bustling Patong. Evenings may find you in Patong town’s lively bars and clubs, shops and spicy Thai food restaurants, or enjoying Thai wrestling shows.

Of course, Thailand serves up delicious Thai Food!

Elsewhere at different villages around Phuket, brightly-coloured parasols covering bamboo tables and chairs signal dinner at local beach shacks. Many an evening, we dined by candlelight, our bare feet in the sand, on fresh-grilled seafood.

The Surin Beach resort area appeals particularly to luxury travelers.

Best beaches in Phuket:

Sand soft and white like flour. Calm water. A gently sloping beach. This is beautiful Pansea Beach.

Only two hotels are located on Pansea Beach – The Surin Phuket and the Amanpuri (covered below). And the beach is like a private beach, because it’s never crowded.

Pansea Beach is one of the best beaches in Phuket.

One of the longest beaches in Phuket, on the northwest coast of Phuket, Bang Tao Beach is also as close to perfect as you can get.

The southern part of the beach is where you find the 4- and 5-star hotels of the Laguna Phuket complex. (Angsana Laguna Phuket, below, is one of them.)

Best places to stay in Phuket

You’ll find many high-end beach resorts in Phuket. We’ve stayed at the following three.

Amanpuri

If it’s tranquility you seek, look no further than the ultra-luxurious Amanpuri (meaning “place of peace”). Set on drop-dead gorgeous Pansea Beach, it has 40 Thai-style villas. The resort’s legendary Aman Spa is sublime!

Angsana Laguna Phuket

The sprawling family-friendly Angsana Laguna Phuket is one of a cluster of 4- and 5-star resorts on Phuket’s Bang Tao Bay. Some rooms have lagoon-front decks where you can slip right into the lagoon pool.

Le Meridien Phuket

On a stunning beach just a couple of miles away from Patong, Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort is a large luxury resort that boasts the largest swimming pool in Phuket.

4) Phang Nga Bay’s dream islands

A longtail boat waits for customers in Phang Nga Bay

If Phuket seems too busy for you, several lesser-known dream islands in Phang Nga Bay offer a true escape – without sacrificing deluxe comforts.

Koh Lanta:

Koh Lanta is one such island, blessed with miles of pristine white-sand beaches (some of the nicest beaches in the world, in fact!) and a national park with hiking trails.

It’s one of the best places to visit in Thailand for a good mix of beaching, island relaxation and attractive resorts.

Snorkeling and diving:

One of the best things to do in Koh Lanta is scuba diving. The waters around Koh Lanta are paradise for divers and snorkelers – coral reefs and undersea caves teem with tropical fish, sea turtles and (harmless) leopard sharks.

Dive sites here in the Andaman Sea are regularly listed among the world’s best.

Scuba diving is popular in the waters around Koh Lanta, Thailand.

On one memorable dive, our boat dropped anchor at the uninhabited limestone islands of Koh Haa.

Highlight? Finning our way through a school of silver barracuda hovering by cathedral-like sea caves and spotting tiny sea horses, fluttering lionfish and giant moray eels.

Sea canoeing:

When visiting Thailand, don't miss sea canoeing in Phang Nga Bay!

Don’t miss sea canoeing in Phang Nga Bay! (Sea canoeing day trips leave from Phuket.)

Made famous by the James Bond flick “The Man With the Golden Gun,” the pea-green bay between Phuket and Krabi is peppered with hundreds of limestone islets rising dramatically out of the sea.

Several islets are shaped like doughnuts, with an open hole in the middle (called a hong).

When the tide is right, you can sea canoe through cave tunnels in karst islands in Phang Nga Bay -- one of the best things to do in Thailand!

When the tide is right, you can canoe through cave tunnels to the inner hong.

Magical!

Discover more in our guide: Sea Canoeing Phang Nga Bay’s Hidden Lagoons

Where to stay in Phang Nga Bay

These two Phang Nga Bay resorts are exceptionally lovely – we had a hard time leaving them!

Pimalai Resort & Spa

Stay at the deluxe Pimalai Resort & Spa (splurge on a private pool villa!) on Koh Lanta, and you can book dive and snorkel trips through its gold-member PADI dive center.

Ritz Carlton Phulay Bay

Near Krabi, the 6-star Phulay Bay, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve boasts ultra-sumptuous villas with enormous beds, private plunge pools, butlers and bespoke activities.

5) Koh Tao

Koh Tao is a laid-back boho island close to Koh Samui (covered next in #6).

It’s known for its snorkeling and scuba diving. All day snorkel tours on “big boats” that motor around the island and visit Koh Nang Yuan are popular.

Discover all you need to know here! Snorkeling Koh Tao, Thailand: Best Spots and Tours

Where to stay in Koh Tao

There are several pleasant places to stay in Koh Tao.

Sensi Paradise Beach Resort

We stayed at the beachfront Sensi Paradise Beach Resort, which has cute wooden bungalows.

Other Koh Tao hotels

We also checked out Charm Churee, Jamahkiri and The Place Luxury Boutique Villas.

See our reviews:
Dig the Hippie-Chic Vibe of These Koh Tao Bungalows!

6) Koh Samui

Half the size of Phuket, Koh Samui is Thailand’s second largest island and the second most popular vacation island (after Phuket).

The interior is lush, mountainous and jungly. And the coastline is fringed with soft sandy beaches.

Things to do in Koh Samui?

Things to do in Koh Samui? Check out the 40-foot golden Big Buddha on the northern coast.

Check out the 40-foot golden Big Buddha on the northern coast.

Also take a day trip to snorkel and kayak around Ang Thong Marine Park with its 40 or so islands.

And visit the fishing village of Bophut with its great seafood restaurants and 19th century wooden homes built by Chinese immigrants.

Koh Samui beaches:

Beach bumming? That’s probably the main reason to go to Koh Samui.

Chaweng Beach is probably the best beach in Koh Samui in terms of natural beauty. It’s the busiest though – party central to be exact!

Lamai Beach is more laidback. Choeng Mon Beach is also lovely with yellowish sand.

Beach bumming is one of the best things to do in Koh Samui.

Best hotels in Koh Samui

We stayed at two Koh Samui luxury hotels in different parts of the island.

The Tongsai Bay

With its own spectacular curve of private beach and gorgeous villas with private pools, The Tongsai Bay nails it as a base for a luxury Koh Samui vacation.

See our review:
Tongsai Bay Review: Why You’ll Love This Luxury Koh Samui Resort

Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa

On the quiet end of Bophut on Koh Samui’s north coast, Zazen Boutique Resort inspires Moorish fantasies with its gloriously decadent beds, Moorish-style lounges and plant-filled open-air bathrooms. This is a great boutique hotel in Koh Samui for couples.

See our review:
Finding Zen at Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa in Koh Samui

7) Chiang Mai

When planning a trip to Thailand, northern Thailand may not immediately jump out at you (especially if this is your first trip). But what this area lacks in beaches, it more than makes up for with its epic adventures and culture.

The sprawling riverside city of Chiang Mai dates back more than 700 years.

It was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which ruled northern Thailand from the 13th to the 18 centuries. It has a fortified old town (Chiang Mai’s cultural heart) with Thai-style teak houses surrounded by a moat, wonderful silk shopping, more than 300 Buddhist temples and a huge night bazaar.

Outside the city, the mountains, hill tribes and elephants are the draw.

Art and culture:

You can hardly toss your sun hat without hitting one of Chiang Mai’s art galleries.

The city’s art scene is booming!

There are many cool art galleries in Chiang Mai.

The not-for-profit Sangdee Gallery features an eclectic mix of Asian and other art. Attached to the gallery is a cool café and bar with live music and DJ sets.

Gallery Seescape rotates thought-provoking exhibits by both local and international artists (the whimsical robot sculptures are fun).

You can hardly hurl your sun hat without hitting one of Chiang Mai’s art galleries – the city’s art scene is booming.

Further out, about a 30-minute taxi ride away from the city, is MAIIAM. This fabulous small contemporary art museum showcases Thai and Southeast Asian contemporary art.

MAIIM is located on the “handicraft highway” (San Kamphaeng Road) between Chiang Mai and San Kamphaeng, so you’ll also want to stop at some of the artisan shops and factories selling pottery, wood carvings, lacquerware and other local handicrafts.

Chiang Mai is one of the best places to visit inailand for lacquerware and other arts and crafts.

Chiang Mai Temples:

There are dozens of amazing temples in Chiang Mai.

Guarded by lion statues, Wat Phra Singh is the most popular Chiang Mai temple. Comprising many buildings, it features Lanna-style roofs (upside-down V-shaped roofs) and ornate gilded exteriors.

Wat Phra Singh is the most popular temple in Chiang Mai.

Soaring 260 feet high, Wat Chedi Luang is probably the second most popular temple in the Old City.

The huge stone structure remains damaged (by earthquake and cannon fire centuries ago), making the site more atmospheric than other temples which have been fully restored.

Also pop into Wat Rajamontean (or Wat Morn Thean), recognized by its ornate dragons at the entrance and large seated Buddha up some steps.

Check out this half-day small group Chiang Mai temple tour, which includes visits to three temples, including Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang.

Monk chats

Many temples offer the opportunity to sit down and talk with Buddhist monks about their lives and perceptions of the world.

Wat Chedi Luang: This temple hosts daily monk chats between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm.

Monk chats are very popular at temples in Chiang Mai.

Hiking in Chiang Mai:

For adventure seekers, the lush hills around Chiang Mai offer the opportunity to step out on some great hikes.

Mae Lai trek:

We ventured out on a guided hike into the Mae Lai Forest, an hour’s drive east of Chiang Mai.

It was November on this particular trip – at the tail end of the rainy season. And we were told to expect leeches. We thus wore thigh-high leech-proof socks over our own socks and pants before lacing up our hiking boots.

While hiking in Chiang Mai, we saw this lime green pit viper.

The trail started out dry and easy in the cool mountains (5,000 feet above sea level), and we were in high spirits as we passed wild tea and coffee plantations, bamboo stands and gushing waterfalls.

A lime green pit viper with red eyes, curled up at the side of the trail, was exciting to spot.

But then we hit muddy sections – and little black leeches started clinging to our socks. The guides, some of whom were barefoot, were happy to flick the blood-suckers off us when we screamed, though they couldn’t care less about themselves.

Still, the experience was a bit overwhelming for us “city” folk. And we were thankful when we returned back to the cocoon of our luxury hotel!

Wat Pha Lat to Wat Doi Suthep:

If trekking in Mai Lai sounds a little too “out there,” we understand the hike to Wat Pha Lat and Wat Doi Suthep is easier to organize – it’s one of the most popular hikes in Chiang Mai.

Near the edge of town, you follow the fairly easy “Monk’s Trail” through the forest to Wat Pha Lat (about a 45 to 50-minute hike). Then you can choose whether to continue hiking up a steeper, more challenging trail to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, where you’ll get great views of Chiang Mai.

Ethical elephant sanctuaries:

Asian elephants once played a vital role in Thailand’s logging industry. But with deforestation, their numbers have dwindled significantly.

Elephant sanctuaries have thus developed as a way to help conserve these gentle giants in their natural habitat and to care for “out-of-work” elephants. They also look after elephants rescued from “performing” for tourists.

There are many elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai.

Elephants require a surprising amount of daily care, and visiting a sanctuary to help care for them is a fun, educational and rewarding experience. Just try and make sure you visit an ethical sanctuary.

Feeding bananas to a baby elephant in Thailand...

We started off our day making friends with our adopted elephants by feeding them bananas and sugar cane.

We then did body checks to make sure the elephants were healthy.

We checked to see if they were dirty and dusty (indicating they’d laid down to sleep), confirmed that the skin around their toenails was wet (a sign they are sweating properly) and even inspected their manure (which should look and smell like moist chopped hay).

Several sanctuaries also offer the opportunity to bathe with the elephants in a river.

Chiang Mai is home to several ethical elephant sanctuaries.

Is bathing elephants ethical?

Some experts say that having people bathe and touch the elephants isn’t natural for them, and that bathing them is done for the benefit of tourists, not for the elephants.

You should do your own research before visiting an elephant sanctuary so you can enjoy, in good conscience, a positive and ethical elephant encounter.

Ziplining in Chiang Mai:

Another excursion in Chiang Mai saw us ziplining above a 1,500-year old rainforest with Flight of the Gibbon. 

Built by New Zealand engineers, this zipline operation is based at the rustic mountain village of Mae Kompong.

It features more than a mile of steel cables that connect sturdy viewing platforms, tree houses and sky bridges built some 400 feet high in the treetops. One cable is almost 1,000 feet long.

Best things to do in Chiang Mai? Go ziplining!

After receiving safety instructions, we donned helmets and buckled up in hanging harnesses to fly along the cables – shrieking too – like crazy apes. (No wonder Chiang Mai has developed a reputation as Thailand’s unofficial “adventure capital”!)

But while the rides were thrilling, what truly takes your breath away is the verdant forest scenery with its deep dramatic valleys and massive mist-shrouded trees.

And you might actually spot gibbons! A family of four wild gibbons (which are apes, not monkeys) live in and around the zipline course.

It also felt good to know that giving back to the community is important for this tour operator.

Flight of the Gibbon replants fruit trees as a food source for declining numbers of primates in the area. They also help support the local villagers, who serve a delicious Thai lunch to visitors afterward as part of the tour price.

Note: In April, 2019, a 25-year-old Canadian tourist fell from the zipline and was killed. The operation closed temporarily for an investigation, but opened again in June, 2019.

Flight of the Gibbon

Tour times: Pick-up times from your Chiang Mai hotel are 6:30 am, 8 am, 9 am and 12:30 pm.

Spot gibbons: Since the gibbons are most active in the mornings, book the 6:30 am tour for your best chance of seeing them.

To book: You can book this adrenalin-fueled zipline adventure with GetYourGuide (one of the world’s top online activity and tour companies)

More information and website: Flight of the Gibbon

Other adventures:

Other Chiang Mai adventures include visiting ethnic hill tribe villages and bamboo rafting (or white water rafting) down the Mae Taeng or Mae Ping Rivers.

Best places to stay in Chiang Mai

Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai

We stayed at the uber-deluxe Four Seasons Chiang Mai. With views of rice fields and mountains, the resort has 64 renovated pavilions (rooms), 35 villas with private pools and a heavenly spa. Located about 30 minutes away from Chiang Mae, it’s perfect if you’re looking to escape and relax.

Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort

Less expensive than the Four Seasons, this lovely boutique hotel on the Ping River has 39 colonial-style rooms, with teak furnishings by local artisans. The Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort is also close to Chiang Mai; it’s a stone’s throw away from the night market and a 20-minute walk from the Old City walls.

8) Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle

To get off-the-beaten-path, head further north again to Chiang Rai. It’s one of the least touristy places to visit in Thailand.

Cradled in the steamy jungle of the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Burma and Laos collide), the somewhat sleepy mountain town boasts the show-stopping White Temple, a fascinating opium museum and two uber-deluxe hotels.

Chiang Rai White Temple:

Almost entirely white, Wat Rong Khun (or the White Temple) is the famously ornate Buddhist temple designed by Thai visual artist-turned-millionaire, Chalermchai Kositpipat.

Totally surreal, the walls inside the temple are painted with pop culture characters like Superman, Hello Kitty and Michael Jackson.

To reach the main temple, you cross a bridge flanked by eerie sculptures of hands reaching upwards.

You feel as if they’re going to grab you and pull you down with them into the pits of hell. The hands represent uncontrolled desire – to be happy, it’s thought you should forsake greed, lust and ravenous cravings.

Funded by Kositpipat, the temple complex is an ongoing work of art, to be completed by 2070.

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple)

Hours: The temple is usually open daily from 6:30 am to 6:00 pm. The hall of paintings inside is open from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm Monday to Friday. (But hours vary, so check with your hotel. Also, the temple closes for an hour mid-day.)

Cost: Admission costs 50 baht (about $1.65 USD).

More information on Facebook: White Temple, Chiang Rai.

Hall of Opium:

The Golden Triangle was once notorious as the place that produced most of the world’s heroin.

To end the northern hill tribes’ dependence on growing poppies for illegal drugs, Thailand’s late Princess Mother Mae Fah Luang planted other cash crops to replace the poppies.

She also built a world-class museum, the Hall of Opium, to educate people about the dangers of drug addiction.

The museum is spellbinding – from its dark entrance tunnel, sculpted with haunting images of drug-addled souls, to its antique opium pipes and recreated 19th century opium den.

The Brits? The CIA? There are no clear villains: Hall of Opium: A Fascinating Look at the Power of Poppies

Best places to stay in Chiang Rai

The two best resorts in Chiang Rai are the Four Seasons Golden Triangle tented resort and Anantara. Both have elephant interaction programs. Because of their secluded locations, they’re all-inclusive.

Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle

For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (where we stayed) is worth the splurge. Bunk down in safari-style luxury tents, with beds swathed in white netting, antique looking bathtubs and outdoor showers.

The main draw, though, is to bond with elephants. Working with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), the resort offers the experience of caring for and riding elephants in a humane way.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort

Less pricey than the Four Seasons, this rustic-deluxe resort has 61 Thai-style rooms (including 21 suites), a world-class spa and an infinity pool overlooking the forested valley. The onsite elephant camp at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort supports some 30 pachyderms, also through the GTAEF. (There’s no elephant riding though at Anantara.)

What to pack for Thailand

1) Cute and comfy sandals | Do your tootsies a favor and check out these fab travel sandals for both men and women that we’ve sussed out! And for the beach, check out these great beach sandals and flip-flops for women.

2) Good camera | You won’t want to miss those great shots of your Thailand holiday. We love our Sony A600 mirrorless camera – it’s small enough to throw in your purse or backpack, but it takes awesome photos!

3) Beach gear | Flattering bathing suit? Big-brimmed sun hat? Good sunglasses? (We’re a fan of Ray-Bans). You’ll need these for the beach and pool.

4) Headscarf | To visit the temples in Thailand, ladies should bring a cool light scarf.

5) Mask and snorkel | If you plan to snorkel, you may want to bring your own mask to ensure it fits well. This wide-view clear mask by Cressi (a top Italian maker) gets great reviews. Or check out this full-face snorkel mask, designed to be the most advanced full-face snorkel mask on the market.

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Here’s a great pin for your Thailand or Travel board!


Photo credits: 8 to 10, 12 to 14, 16, 22, 23, 26, 27, 30, 43 to 46, 48, 49 and 53 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | National Museum of Royal Barges photo Mark Fischer, Wikimedia | Jim Thompson House photo Jim Thompson House Museum | Ziplining and gibbon photos Flight of the Gibbon


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Mette

Wednesday 9th of October 2013

It's nice to see a cultural approach to Thailand. And those caves sound fascinating.

Janice and George

Monday 14th of October 2013

Yes, Thailand is about more than its beaches (though those are quite lovely). We always love spending time in Bangkok first before heading out elsewhere in the country. The city is electric!

Simon Lee

Tuesday 8th of October 2013

Hi George and Janice, Dropping by for the first time. I have been to Krabi once and was really captivated by Phi Phi Island. We joined the tour on a long tail boat and it really gave us a fantastic experience. I am not a scuba diver and don't really like to get into the water, but I spent most of my time in the water when I was in Phi Phi:) Simon Lee

Janice and George

Tuesday 8th of October 2013

Nice to have you drop us a line! The water is so warm and enticing in Phang Nga Bay, that you can't help but enjoy it - whether you dive/snorkel or not! Glad you loved your time on Phi Phi.

Laura

Saturday 28th of September 2013

I love James Bond movies and I wouldn't mind going to all the locations where the movies have been made. So I guess I have to add the pea-green bay between Phuket and Krabi to my list. Thanks for the tip.

Janice and George

Saturday 28th of September 2013

Phang Nga Bay is quite special - hope you get there soon!

Kathryn

Friday 27th of September 2013

Just one of these experiences would be amazing but together they'd be a dream come true!

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