In recent weeks, who hasn’t dreamed of a holiday to get away from it all? We’ve all indulged in a little armchair travel and for many of us the first destination that wanderlust leads to is Thailand. Fantasy trips will do for now but as soon as conditions allow for safe travel again, we know you won’t be the only one booking a ticket to these top 10 destinations in Thailand.
Why is Thailand such a popular tourist destination? The answer to that question is a question: what’s not to like about picture-postcard landscapes, sites steeped in history, mouth-watering delicacies and a genuinely warm welcome wherever you go in the Land of Smiles?
You can visit year-round, but of the country’s three seasons (cool, hot and rainy, known respectively as hot, hottest and hotter) the best time to visit Thailand is during the cool weather of December to February, after the threat of daily downpours has subsided and before the scorching heat returns. Bangkok may be the first stop for most international travellers, but look beyond the capital to discover some of the best places to visit in Thailand.
The biggest of 1400-plus islands in the country is also the most popular destination in Thailand outside of Bangkok. Stroll through Phuket Old Town, and its brightly painted shophouses the origin of which can be traced back to tin mining that made the fortune of the island.
Start in Thalang Road, taking a break in one of the many cafés like Kopitiam, a stylish rendition of an old-school coffee house. The brand new Blue Tree Phuket is a sprawling water park that is ideal whether you’re travelling with family or friends.
If you are looking for the best restaurant in Phuket, head for Pru, where the farm-to-table menu won it the island’s only Michelin star, or Acqua, for an authentic taste of Italy. Exclusive, secluded Trisara pampers its guests, while the villas and residences at Mövenpick Karon Beach are perfect for families. Remember that the most romantic sunsets with uninterrupted views to the horizon are on the west coast beaches like Bang Tao and Surin.
The restored walls and moat of the fortified city are the most visible reminder of the Rose of the North’s past as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. The city centre is dotted with impressive temples like the 80-metre-high Wat Chedi Luang.
A hub for artists, the city also includes galleries, studios galore and the world-class MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum. Just to the west of the walled city, explore the boutiques and cafés of Nimmanheimin, and enjoy the sunset from the rooftop of the Yayee Hotel. Explore the endlessly creative modern Thai cuisine at Blackitch.
Stay at the best hotels in Chiang Mai including the casual chic X2 Chiang Mai Riverside Resort on the banks of the Ping River and 137 Pillars built around a 19th-century heritage teak house. For an easy day trip out of town, head for the ornate temple Wat Doi Suthep or climb Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak.
Located in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui is the country’s second biggest island. If you are looking for things to do in Samui, the answer is some of the best beaches in Thailand.
Peaceful Laem Yai in the west is home to the Four Seasons. Bophut Fisherman’s Village on the north coast features old-fashioned charm, boutiques and quiet cafés that are a far cry from the bustling crowds of backpacker-filled Chawaeng.
With just 22 elegant villas and a clear contender for the title of best hotel in Samui, Cape Fahn occupies a private island off the northeast coast of Samui that is close enough to walk to at low tide. Boats and an amphibious truck are available the rest of the time. Cape Fahn is also the location of Long Dtai, celebrity chef David Thompson’s latest restaurant that pays homage to the variety of seafood and produce and the rich, heady flavours of southern Thai cuisine.
An easy road trip from Bangkok, Khao Yai can be reached by car in about two hours, making it a favourite getaway for locals escaping the capital. Khao Yai is Thailand’s oldest national park and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that protects the varied flora and fauna of the region. Spotting gibbons and elephants is a regular occurrence and birdwatchers will want to pack their binoculars. A night safari in the park is a definite highlight.
Nearby Scenical World is one of Thailand’s best theme parks with a water park, extreme rides and a dedicated kids’ area. The suites and villa of the adjacent Botanica Resort are perfect for a weekend getaway. Some visitors are surprised to learn that Khao Yai also produces excellent wine. Tour the GranMonte winery, dine at their Vin Cotto restaurant and even stay in guest rooms located on the edge of the vineyard.
Koh Chang, along with neighbouring Koh Kood and Koh Mak are the easternmost of Thailand’s islands and some of the best Thai beach destinations. Even Koh Chang’s built-up west coast is low key compared to the busiest beaches of Phuket and Samui and offer the comfort of properties like the Centara Tropicana or Chivapuri. But to really get away from it all push on a little further.
Most of the hotels on neighbouring Koh Mak are on Ao Suan Yai beach, just a stone’s throw from one of the island’s most visited attractions, The Kingdom of Somchai’s Affection, named for a late local artist whose sculptural work could be described as quirky, racy or both.
Finally, the honours of best hotel on Koh Kood, the island furthest from the mainland that offers the most pristine beaches, goes to the eco-conscious, understatedly luxurious Soneva Kiri. Respectful of its environment, the property boasts an observatory, an outdoor cinema, an educational eco den, and dining on a suspended platform in the trees, complete with servers who arrive by zip line.
Kanchanaburi is the location of the famed Bridge over the River Kwai and history buffs flock to see the infamous bridge, the museum and wartime cemeteries. The province is also home to stunning natural sites like Erawan National Park and the popular seven-tiered Erawan Waterfall.
You can travel to Kanchanaburi by train in style. Eastern and Oriental Express offer a dinner service aboard the impossibly elegant dining carriage, all wood panelling and bevelled glass. You can alight to continue your stay or journey back to Bangkok by car.
Alternatively, book a slightly less plush state railway prestige carriage through Inn Train, who will customise all services you require, including decoration, an on-board chef and any stops along the way. This is an excellent alternative for an exclusive family or group outing. If you’re looking for something a little different but still enjoy creature comforts and attentive service, go glamping at the Hintok River Camp.
The ancient capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom dates back to the 13th century. The archaeological site of the Sukhothai Historic Park spread can be visited by car, tuktuk or bike. One of the distinctive features of Sukhothai art is the Buddha sculptures with elongated bodies, like the awe-inspiring seated Buddha in Wat Mahathat.
Other excursions include the mountain peaks of the Ramkhamhaeng National Park and the not-to-be-missed archaeological site of Si Satchanalai, the second princely city of the ancient kingdom. If you fly Bangkok Airways to the old Thai capital of Sukhothai, perks include lounge service regardless of ticket class and the only flights to Sukhothai Airport, owned by the airline. (Low-cost carriers fly to nearby Phitsanulok.) The airline also owns the best hotel in the area, the Sukhothai Heritage Resort, a little away from the city centre, that includes the property’s own organic farm that supplies the hotel and that guests can visit.
Krabi is the perfect base for all manner of water sports including sailing, snorkelling and scuba-diving. It is also an ideal starting point for exploring the iconic islands like Phi Phi (though access to Maya Bay made famous by Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach has been suspended until further notice).
Check out the lesser-known beaches of Poda, Garos and Koh Deng. Tip: request a departure an hour after the other groups to avoid the crowds. Tour the unique ecosystem of the salt and fresh water mangrove in Tha Pom and kayak through the community-based eco-tourism site of Khlong Nong Thale known to locals as the clear water canal.
You can also paddle to see the cave paintings in Thum Pee Hua To or the big-headed ghost grotto. Stay in the charming bungalows of exclusive boutique hotel Le passe-temps, run by a French couple with a sense of style and a real connection to the local community.
Koh Yao Noi
Koh Yao Noi (Small Long Island in Thai) and the even lesser developed Koh Yao Yai (Big Long Island) are perhaps some of the most untouched corners of natural beauty in Thailand, making them one of the best beach destinations in Thailand.
Located between the island of Phuket and Krabi on the mainland, life moves at a slower pace here. The most challenging decision of the day will be to choose between the blissfully peaceful white sandy beaches of Pasai or Tha Khao Bay. Wander out to pick your Phuket lobster for dinner.
Yao Noi Six Senses is where the luxury brand built its reputation for dedication to wellness and sustainability, a philosophy that the resort still doggedly applies today. That means not just a spa treatment, but how you sleep, what you eat and even how you mindfully see the world. A tour around the island isn’t just a selfie op, but an enriching outing that is designed to stay with you long after you leave.
Could Koh Lanta offer the best beaches in Thailand? Here the vibe is less about partying and more about relaxing strolls on the beach that even in high season never feel crowded. Kantiang Bay, Kor Kwang, Khlong Khing and Khlong Nim are among the best beach choices on Lanta.
Dive and snorkel among the exotic pufferfish and pipefish and pristine coral. Lanta Old Town was a trading port where Thai, Chinese and Muslim traders from the Middle East met and that mix of cultures is still part of the town’s fibre today.
Among the island’s first inhabitants are the Chao Le people also known as the sea gipsies who speak a distinct language and have preserved many of their animistic traditions. High on the list of the best hotels in Lanta is the Pimalai Resort and Spa, that prides itself on the exclusivity and seclusion the property offers as well as its green credentials that are respectful of the hotel’s environment. ◼
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© This article was first published online in June 2020 – World Travel Magazine.