Thailand is a country of sensory delights.
From its gilded temples and rich culture to its postcard-perfect beaches, there’s much to discover in the Land of Smiles. You can do everything from sea canoeing through stalactite-filled caves to caring for elephants to getting blissfully stretched (aka “Thai massage”).
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 most beautiful and exotic 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.
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).
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.
English is widely spoken.
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.
The local currency is the Thai baht. $1 USD equals about 30 baht.
Most of the people are Buddhist.
All upscale hotels have electrical sockets where you can plug in most devices from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Britain and Europe.
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.
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.
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.
Wat Pho Temple:
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.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
Jim Thompson House:
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.
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).
2) 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.
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.
As our bikes crunched along stony fields, studded with bell-shaped sandstone pagodas, we ogled the crumbling ruins up close.
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).
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.
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.
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.
4) Phang Nga Bay’s dream islands
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 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:
The waters around Koh Lanta are also paradise for scuba 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.
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.
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 canoe through cave tunnels to the inner hong.
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!
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.
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?
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.
Best hotels in Koh Samui
We stayed at two Koh Samui luxury hotels in different parts of the island.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
8) Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle
To get off-the-beaten-path, head further north again to Chiang Rai.
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.
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.
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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