There are lots of candidates to include in a list of the 10 best places to visit in Thailand. Here is my list based on my own preferences and years spent travelling in Thailand.
1st Place: Thong Nai Pan on Koh Phangan
Thong Nai Pan Beach
About: This place is great and it was not difficult to decide on Thong Nai Pan as being the number 1 place to visit in Thailand. Until perhaps the last 5 years not really on the ‘tourist map’ although it is somewhere I and others familiar with Thailand have been coming since the 1990s as the Kingdom’s beach destination of choice.
Two Beaches: Not just one great beach but two, very different in character. The smaller of the two beaches, Thong Nai Pan Noi, as gone upmarket with 4 luxury resorts: Buri Rasa, Anantara Rasananda, Panviman and Santhiya. Thong Nai Pan Yai, the other beach, has retained more of a backpacker destination with some inexpensive beach bungalow resorts such as Dolphin Bungalows.
Thong Nai Pan Viewpoint
Things to Do and See: Either of the two Thong Nai Pan beaches is perfect for swimming and sunbathing or just lying in a hammock. There is a waterfall to visit, Than Prawes. Bear in mind that it is an ‘adventure’ to get there involving climbing over rocks and through the undergrowth but well worth the trek when the river is high, October through to March. There are some places to visit on the Island, but generally it is all beaches, waterfalls and forest. The absence of major tourist attractions though seems not to bother the large numbers of people who come here. After a hard day on the beach there are plenty of places to eat and drink such as the innovative Better than Sex in Thong Nai Pan Noi and the ‘old skool’ Bamboo Bar in Thong Nai Pan Yai.
Beach front room at Buri Rasa
Recommended Thong Nai Pan Hotel: Buri Rasa Resort and Spa is a very pleasant 4 star resort located on the beach front. The hotel has recently been built and features a modern light design. The hotel rooms feel bigger than they are because of the large windows and clever use of colours. The hotel also has a very popular restaurant serving the some of the best food in Thong Nai Pan. It is also relatively inexpensive. For those who can afford to stay here they are assured a comfortable, pleasant and relaxed holiday.
Location of Thong Nai Pan
2nd Place: China Town in Bangkok
Telephone box in China Town
About: Bangkok’s China Town is only slowly becoming a tourist attraction in its own right. Located very near the better known attractions, such as the Grand Palace, China Town in Bangkok (or Yaowarat as the locals call it) has been pretty much overlooked by generations of tourists save for those going to Wat Tramit, the temple where they found a 5,500 kilogram solid gold Buddha statute. This all now changing as the municipal authorities are starting to make it more accessible to tourists by putting up much needed English language street signs and promoting the area more to tourists.
24 Hour City: China Town is both a daytime and night time destination.
Yaowarat Road at Night
In the daytime its all about visiting temples and markets and getting slightly lost in atmospheric side streets. At night the area comes alive with restaurants and late night shopping for gold and imported exotic food products from China.
Things to See and Do: For a real adventure head down to Sampeng Lane, which runs parallel to the Yaowarat Road. This long, thin street features shops and stalls of every variety selling mainly goods for wholesale as well as some interesting and unusual Asian, particularly Chinese, products. There are lots of well priced gold shops here as well. To cool down visit some China Town temples, the famous ones are Wat Tramit with its large gold Buddha and Wat Chakrawat where large crocodile wander around near the temple pond. In addition there are lots of smaller temples you will only find by wandering the side streets, such as Wat Bamphen Chin Phrot on Soi 8 off the Yaowarat Road. By evening time you are likely to be looking for a good dinner. The most popular place to eat is on the Yaowarat Road with its multitude of Thai-Chinese restaurants. For an atmospheric meal we suggest an outside table at the reasonably priced T&K Seafood.
Check Inn China Town
Recommended China Town Hotel: Check Inn China Town is an inexpensive small hotel well located to enjoy China Town at night. The hotel is tucked away in an alley running between the two main roads in China Town, the Yaowarat and Chareon Krung Roads. The rooms are small, as with most China Town hotel, but do they have balconies and kitchenettes. The satellite TV and air-con worked fine here. The hotel has nice roof top patio and they served a decent breakfast for the price. See more information.
Location of China Town in Bangkok
3rd Place: The Grand Palace in Bangkok
Grand Palace in Bangkok
About: The Grand Palace, and the temple within, is Thailand’s most visited tourist attraction. No trip to Thailand is complete without having visited the site at least once. From 1782, with the creation of Thailand (or Siam as it was known then) and the establishment of the current Royal family (the Chakri Dynasty) through to 1932 the Grand Palace was the centre of political and economic power within Thailand.
Getting to the Grand Palace: When the Palace was constructed, the location was right in the economic and administrative centre of Bangkok. Times though have changed and the riverside location of the Grand Palace is now outside the centre of town and off the BTS (Skytrain) and MRT (subway) networks and it is time consuming to get there. The options are to take a taxi or bus, or alternatively (and much more pleasantly) take a Chao Phraya Express Boat to Tha Chang Pier and it is a very short walk from there. You can connect to the Chao Phraya Express Boat service from the BTS (Skytrain) at Spahan Taksin BTS station.
Entrance Fee: 500 THB per person
Opening Hours: 08.30 to 15.30 (every day of the year)
Scams to Avoid: There are always people waiting on the street on the way to the temple. They tell tourists the Grand Palace is shut and take the gullible to see a different temple and their friend or family member’s gem shop. Do not believe them and simply carry on walking. The only time anything closes is occasional days and half days throughout the year when the small building housing the Emerald Buddha is closed for religious observations and festive celebrations, such as the changing of the Emerald Buddha’s decorative coat to mark the changes of the season.
History: Modern day Thailand came about when Ayutthaya was invaded by Cambodians. The local King had to flee and set up in Bangkok after displacing the local King (Taksin) whose palace was on the other side of the Chao Phraya river in Thonburi (West Bangkok). The Chakri Dynasty was born and they decided to build a ‘grand’ palace as a centre of power for the newly unified provinces of Siam. Very soon on entering the palace grounds you will notice that there is a veriety of building in different styles and this because successive Kings from Rama 1 through to King Rama VIII all added to the palace. It takes a whole day to see everything on the site including the temple complex. Lot of gold and ornate gem work in a relatively small area making this one of the most awe inspiring temples in South East Asia.
Room at Sala Arun
Recommended Hotel Near The Grand Palace: Sala Arun. This small hotel (only 7 rooms) is very special. Opened by a group of Thai professionals as part of a project to revitalise the river front area near the grand place, this hotel is a wonderful restoration project of an old Thai river front house. The rooms are nicely done and the restaurant is of a very high but the real selling point is the direct river views across Wat Arun – Temple of the Dawn. Many of the rooms have balconies with views over the river giving guests a ‘grandstand’ view of the busy river below.
Location of The Grand Palace in Bangkok
4th Place: Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand
Stupa at Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai
About: Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, is a sharp contrast to Bangkok. With a population of only 170,000 people it is a lot smaller than Bangkok where 6.5 million people live. Much of Bangkok is new. Most of Chiang Mai city centre is old. Lot of office blocks in Bangkok, and hardly any in Chiang Mai. Its a great place to visit and to live with lots to see and do, with beautiful unspoilt countryside just a short drive out of the city centre.
History: Chiang Mai is one of those places in the world with a long and rich history which is evident in the historic buildings and temples across the city. From 1296 to 1892 Chiang Mai was the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom and they still have their own language, food and culture.
City of Three Parts: There are three main parts to Chiang Mai city. Firstly, there is the Old Town, which a perfect square situated within an ancient wall and a moat. This is the area where you find the temples and the museums. The Old Town is also where the cheaper hotels and guest houses are situated, as well as the more ‘bohemian’ bars and restaurants appealing to a younger crowd of backpackers. Secondly, there is the Riverside area to the East of the Old Town about 1 kilometre down away. This area is popular with tourists with lots of restaurants, markets and the best mid range and luxury hotels. The third area, is to the North East of the Old Town on the way upto the University and Zoo. This is an up and coming area and it is popular with a ‘hip’ set of well to do locals and visitors to Chiang Mai. To experience this new avant-garde take on Chiang Mai try the bars, restaurants and hotels of the Nimmanahaeminda Road.
Things to See and Do: There is plenty to in Chiang Mai city itself, and even more if you include the surrounding area. The most popular thing to do in Chiang Mai is to visit the temples in the Old Town and the famous Doi Suthep temple overlooking the city. The markets are also a big draw for visitors. There is a Night Bazaar in the Riverside area where all kinds of local handicrafts are made and there is a lively selection of food stalls and bars. Every Sunday evening in the Old Town the main street becomes pedestrianised for the large market/party that is ‘Walking Street’. This is great fun. Longer stay visitors come here to participate in some kind of study with courses in everything from Thai language to the ancient Thai martial arts of Muay Boron. For those of you with the energy, and no children in tow, the City has great nightlife with a vibrant local music scene and some uber cool bars and restaurants for the more discerning party goer.
Front entrance of the Porn Ping Tower
Recommended Chiang Mai Hotel: The Porn Ping Tower is a mid range hotel in the lively Night Bazaar area and near the Ping river. This is no chain hotel, it has character and history with several popular local drinking and entertainment venues on the ground floor of the hotel building. As well as these nightclubs, the hotel has a nice swimming pool area, a gym, a restaurant and a roof top bar. From the hotel it is a short walk to the Night Bazaar where there are lots of food stall, restaurants, and bars. Next to that is the popular Chang Klan Road. A 5 minute walk in the other direction takes you to the popular riverside area which features some of the best bars and restaurants in Chiang Mai. See more information.
Location of Chiang Mai
5th Place: Ayutthaya Historical Park, Ayutthaya
Wat Phra Si Sanphet
About: Ayutthaya used to be Thailand’s main city until the 1780s when it was invaded by the Cambodians. Some historians even believe that in the 1700s Ayutthaya was the largest city in the world. We are not sure about that but a visit to the historical park does suggest that this was big and thriving city a few hundred years ago as the remains of the temples from the time cover a large area and are magnificent despite having been mostly destroyed, first by the Cambodians, secondly, by people scavenging for building materials, and lastly by (until recently) neglect. This said, even in a relatively poor condition the temples indicate the existence of long gone but advanced civilisation with close cultural links to the Khmer nation of neighbouring Cambodia.
The Historical Park: Ayutthaya is a modern Thai town and not particularly attractive. Right in the centre of this low rise concrete urban setting is the Historical Park, to which UNESCO awarded world heritage status in 1991. The historical park is free to enter although there is a standard 50 THB entrance fee for each of the temple sites within the park. The three most interesting temples are Wat Maha Tat, Wat Phra Ram and Wat Phra Si Samphet. You can easily walk around the Historical Park in a day as the temples are fairly close together. One word of warning though – it gets really hot midday and there aren’t really any cafes or restaurants inside the Park to rest your weary feet during this time. Consider planning your day with a morning trip and an afternoon trip with lunch and a cool down in the hotel pool in between.
Garden at the Baan Baimai Boutique Room
Recommended Ayutthaya Hotel: Baan Baimai Boutique Room has five nice rooms leading onto a small leafy courtyard. The hotel is family run, its very clean and the people are pleasant. The rooms are big with everything you need including internet, satellite TV, fridge and hot water. It is away from the busy central areas and is a small oasis of calm within the old city of Ayutthaya. No facilities but they will lend you a bicycle to make the short journey to the historical park. See more information.
Location of Ayutthaya Historical Park
6th Place: Wat Arun in Bangkok
Wat Arun seen from the Chao Phraya Express Ferry
About: Wat Arun means ‘Temple of the Dawn’. Wat Arun is located on the opposite of the river from the Grand Place. There is a very cheap ferry which takes you from Tha Chang pier by the Grand Palace across the river to Wat Arun. I like Wat Arun. It is a chilled out place with lots of history and not too many tourists.
Ancient Recycling: The temple has existed since the 1600s, however, the distinctive 70 metre tower (a ‘prang’) was not constructed until the early 1900s. This large prang, with four smaller prang arranged around it, has been decorated in symmetrical patterns made of shards of porcelain and sea shells. Reputedly, the porcelain had been dumped by Chinese merchant ships on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. The porcelain was used as ballast by the merchant ships to keep them upright during the voyage to Thailand and then discarded as the ships were filled with cargo purchased in Bangkok. These ornate prangs are main attraction, however, there is also an interesting Ordination Hall to visit, along with sculptures and murals elsewhere in the temple complex.
Entrance Fee: 50 THB per person
Opening Hours: 07.30 to 17.30 (every day of the year)
Location of Wat Arun
7th Place: Pai in Chiang Mai Province
Yun Lai View Point near Pai
About: Pai is a town about 3 hours drive north of Chiang Mai up into the mountains. Most visitors reach Pai by a minivan from Chiang Mai bus station. Pai itself is a pleasant and small, if very tourist oriented, town. The reason people come here is the great scenery, cooler climate and relaxed atmosphere. Accommodation and food are cheap in Pai and the surrounding area. It is popular with backpackers and a younger generation of Asian visitors, particularly those from China.
Things to See and Do: You really need to hire a bike or a car as to really appreciate Pai as you need to leave the town. To take in the scenery you should go to one of the nearby viewpoints, such as Yun Lai Viewpoint or Wat Pra Tat Mae Yen (The ‘Temple on the Hill’). Other popular destinations include the hot springs, several elephant camps, some waterfalls and the Chinese Village. You can see all of these in a single day on a motorbike or in a car. If you have more time, and transport, there are longer trips you can do to more remote villages where people still live traditional lifestyles.
Bungalow at Pai Village Boutique Resort & Farm
Recommended Pai Hotel: Pai Village Boutique Resort & Farm is a charming resort with bungalows set within a large leafy garden. This hotel is owned and run by a company with several hotels in Thailand, many 4 or 5 star standard. A little cheaper and more basic than the other hotels in the group, this hotel is still very professionally run and has an excellent restaurant which doubles as a Country and Western themed steak house in the evening. Very good food and very entertaining at the same time. See more information.
Location of Pai Village
8th Place: Mae Sa Elephant Camp near Chiang Mai
Show at Mae Sa Elephant Camp
About: Mae Sa Elephant Camp is my favourite elephant camp in Thailand. What I like about it is its location. It is in the hills, in a densely forested area with a small river flowing through the centre of the Camp where the elephants bathe and play. A short trek on an elephant over the hill brings you to a collection of traditional Hill Tribe villages.
Getting There: Mae Sa Elephant Camp is about 20 minutes drive North from Chiang Mai Old Town. Expect to pay around 600 THB for a taxi or songthaew (a converted pick up truck) for the return journey. There is no public transport. Many visitors combine a trip to the Elephant Camp with a visit to Tiger Kingdom and some other smaller attractions which are in the same area. A day tour is normally priced only a little more expensive than the return journey at 800 to 1,000 THB.
Elephant Shows: You can take elephant rides. However, the main attraction is the three times a day show. The elephants perform tricks and display traditional logging skills. The show last around 45 minutes and at the end of the show you get the chance to be photographed with the elephants.
Elephant Welfare: The original elephants which came here in the 1970s which came here no longer had an economic role to play in the logging industry and they had been abandoned. This ethos has continued with a focus on the welfare of the elephants. There are normally 60 to 70 elephants at this camp and each has its own dedicated ‘mahout’ (elephant master) which takes responsibility for all aspects of the individual elephant’s welfare and work at the Camp. The Camp welcomes people to stay and become involved in caring the elephants as a resident volunteer.
Entrance Fee: The show costs 200 THB per person
Show Times: 08.00, 09.40 & 13.30
Location of Mae Sa Elephant Camp
9th Place: The Bridge Over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi
About: Kanchanaburi is a town on the route of the Japanese built ‘Death Railway’ running from near Bangkok through to Nam Tok, which is near the border with Myanmar. The bridge made famous by the film ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’ is located here, as are some several large War Memorials to the European, American and Australian POWs who lost their lives in the construction of the railway and its many bridges.
Getting There: There are two trains a day from Bangkok’s Thonburi train station to Kanchanaburi, and two trains a day for the return journey. To read more about this journey visit Thailand Trains. There are two other options. Firstly, a private taxi from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. The second alternative is a seat on a minivan from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi.
The Bridge Over The River Kwai: The bridge that stands in Kanchanaburi today has been rebuilt. The original, contrary to the story in the film, was partly destroyed by an Allied air strike. The new part is the angular steel trusses in the centre of the bridge, the rest is the original dating back to 1943. It is free to walk across the bridge although many people opt to take the train across. The riverside setting of the bridge is beautiful.
Chung Kai War Cemetary: This cemetery, one of many dedicated to those who lost their lives building the Death Railway is located on the opposite side of the road to Kanchanaburi’s railway train station. The Chung Kai War Cemetery is immaculately maintained. The grave stones of 1,427 Allied POWs are arranged in neat rows within a green and leafy garden. In the centre of the cemetery is large white cross.
Swimming pool at the Good Times Resort
Recommended Kanchanaburi Hotel: The Good Times Resort is a very nice small resort. The rooms are all air-conditioned and have WiFi and satellite TV. In the centre of the resort is a large swimming pool. The resort is on a scenic stretch of river and they built a cover dining area next to the river with decking. It is a pleasant place to eat and inexpensive. The resort is centrally located in the ‘tourist’ part of town. Plenty of restaurants, bars and shops nearby. See more information.
Location of The Bridge Over The River Kwai
10th Place: Patpong Night Market in Bangkok
Entrance to Patpong Night Mrket
About: Patpong Night Market is located in a side street running between the Silom and Surawong Roads called ‘Patpong Road 1’, hence the name of the market. This narrow road, lined with bars featuring semi-clad dancing girls, throbs with activity every night from around 7pm to 10pm with shoppers (mainly foreign) coming to buy fake designer goods.
History: The market started in the early 1990s. The Patpong Road is privately owned by the Patpongpanich family, a Chinese immigrant family which originally came to Thailand in the 1700s during the mass exodus of the indigenous people of Hainan Island. They did well for themselves buying this area in 1946 when it was undeveloped land outside the city. By the late 1960s the area had become popular with US military personnel, and in the 1980s the Patong Road was very much at the centre of Bangkok nightlife, with its infamous ‘Ping Pong’ shows. The popularity of the road as a place to drink and party declined in the 1990s, at which point the ever enterprising Patpongpanich family decided the rent the road itself out plot by plot as night market.
Patpong Night Market is always busy
What is there to Buy? Just about anything which is branded. The two biggest sellers at the market are fake watches and fake t-shirts, followed by items such as sunglasses, children’s football kits, and hand bags. To be fair there are other things for sale here. I have purchased silk bedspreads at a reasonable price at Patpong Market and there are some wood carving and other craft works here. Mostly though you come here to buy fakes, and walk slowly past bars, some of which still advertise the infamous ‘Ping Pong’ shows.
Location of the Patpong Night Market