From temples to markets, these are the best cultural cities to explore in Thailand.
Every day, Thailand is becoming more popular among backpackers who are looking for adventure. Whether it’s because of its perfect summery weather all year round, the amazing and lively nightlife, or the relaxed and laid-back vibe, the “Land of Smiles” has established itself as a destination for adventure, excitement, and fun.
With a bunch of activities to choose from, like diving in their crystal-clear waters with spectacular marine life, climbing and hiking the magnificent and wild mountains in the north, or just relaxing on one of its perfect white sandy beaches, Thailand is the right place for your next adventure.
Let me suggest eight places that can give you some idea of the amazing variety this country has to offer. As with traveling to all countries, I highly recommend learning some of the local language. Just a few words can really go a long way in helping you have a great experience.
The best place to see a bit of everything
Bangkok is the capital and by far the largest city in Thailand. With busy markets and ancient temples right next to huge skyscrapers and an impressive skyline, this hectic metropolis is full of interesting contrasts.
Due to its location in the center of the country and its excellent connections within the whole continent, Bangkok is generally a great place to start your journey from and an excellent place to meet other backpackers looking for adventures. The “Sin City of Asia” is also a place for new and unbelievable experiences, from places like Khao San Road, better known as the backpacker Mecca, ancient temples with thousands of years of history, and crowded markets like Chatuchak or the floating market. Bangkok is a place that can leave you speechless and make you wish to come back.
The best place to explore the natural diversity of Thailand
Located in the Andaman Sea in Southern Thailand, Krabi province consists of tiny islands and small cities, which are connected by boat or buses and are easily reachable by night bus or an hour flight from Bangkok. This area includes some places very well known among backpackers, like Ao Nang, Railay, and Koh Phi Phi, where thousands of people go each year looking for fun.
Among the attractions in this area are the white sandy beaches in Koh Phi Phi (no wonder why “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed in this location), colorful coral reefs – a popular destination for divers with its magnificent marine life – and the massive, breathtaking limestone karst, which attracts climbers from all over the world. No matter what you are looking for, this is the place to let your adventurous spirit explore and live.
Bandon Bay Islands
The best place to celebrate freedom
Better known as Koh Tao, Koh Samui, and Koh Pha Ngan, these three islands located in the Gulf of Thailand enclose the Bandon Bay from its eastern side and belong to the main tourist spots for both Thais and foreigners from all around the world. Although the three islands are just 30-45 boat minutes apart, this area can attract backpackers for weeks or even months.
No matter how much time you have or which islands you visit, you will experience some of the best moments of your life. Whether you go for a diving course in Koh Tao and explore its rich and amazing coral reefs, head to Pha Ngan, where you can rave like crazy in the famous and almost magical Full Moon Party or Samui to watch the most amazing sunset in the country, you will find adventure and excitement wherever you go. With some of the best marine life in the world, incredible nightlife, and magical landscapes, these islands can be described as pure paradise.
The best place to escape
Koh Chang, located in the Trat province in Eastern Thailand, is probably my favorite place in Thailand. It is known for its beautiful and relatively untouched white sandy beaches, as well as its rich wildlife, including snakes, monkeys, elephants, and beautiful coral reefs. Whether you’re looking for adventure or relaxation, Koh Chang is the perfect island for a dream holiday.
With the largest number of protected elephants in the country, Koh Chang, also known as “Elephant Island,” offers the chance to trek through spectacular landscapes and explore beautiful waterfalls while riding on one of these lovely mammals. You can even swim with an elephant in the middle of the jungle, completely isolated from civilization. Koh Chang is also a great place for diving, with some of the most interesting diving spots in the country, where wrecks, coral reefs, and all kinds of fish are just some of the miracles you can explore.
The best place to party
Phuket Island is one of the most popular destinations in Southern Thailand. It is Thailand’s largest island, filled with rich history and great wildlife. With the second biggest airport in the country and a great choice of activities, no wonder why Phuket Island is now considered one of the main hotspots in the country. Swimming, diving, trekking, or partying are some of the activities you can do here.
Head to Phuket Town and explore its fascinating and old colonial architecture. Get a coffee in one of its interesting and old-fashioned cafés, which will make you feel like you are in an old Parisian quarter, or enjoy a crazy night in Patong Beach, where bucket cocktails and cold beers flow throughout the night. Phuket island is a place where you can feel alive and have lots of fun.
The best place to understand Thai cultural heritage
Ayutthaya, a 650-year-old city that was the former capital of the Thai empire, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, making it a great destination for travelers looking to explore the rich and fascinating history of this country. Located just two hours by bus north of Bangkok, Ayutthaya is perfect for a weekend trip while you are staying in the big city.
Once you are there, go to the Tourist Information Office, get a free map of the temples around the city, and start planning your day in one of the lovely western cafes spread all over the city. Since the sights of Ayutthaya are not located in a single spot, you should consider renting a bike to get around the ruins. Alternatively, renting a tuk-tuk is an excellent option if you want to avoid cycling in high temperatures.
The best place to learn Thai history
If you want to dig deeper, you should continue north to the country’s less-visited first capital, Sukhothai, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Located about 300 km north of Bangkok, this city is very easy to reach by night bus and should definitely be considered as a stopover if you are heading from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This city is divided into New and Old Sukhothai. It is convenient to stay in New Sukhothai from where you can easily head to Old Sukhothai’s Historical Park by songthaew (a little truck with two long benches).
Again, once at the park, the best way to get around is by bicycle. As Sukhothai’s ruins and temples are confined to a much smaller area, you get a stronger feeling of traveling back in time and being submerged in an empire from hundreds of years ago. If you can, you should take the time and come here during sunrise or sunset when the beautiful light makes this already astonishing landscape appear even more unreal.
Chiang Mai area
The best place to learn about Thai hospitality
Surrounded by stunning mountains, this lovely city in Northern Thailand is famous for its charming streets, colorful markets, and chilled atmosphere, which attracts lots of travelers and expats who find in this magical town a place where they can stay longer than what they initially planned. With thousands of tourists coming here each month and good connections to the rest of Southeast Asia, “The Rose of the North” is now considered a hotspot for backpackers and an obligatory destination for travelers coming from/going to Laos and China.
During your stay in Chiang Mai, don´t forget to visit Chiang Rai (photo above), where you can see one of the most amazing temple I´ve ever seen. Due to its special location, Chiang Mai is very well known worldwide for elephant treks and outdoor activities, including rafting, motorcycling, mountain biking, and much more. Get lost in its small and colorful streets, try some exotic drinks in Thailand’s hipster city, or plan an outdoor adventure for the weekend; the chances of getting bored in this amazing town are practically zero.
Also, don’t forget to visit the nearby Chiang Rai (photo above), where you can see one of the most amazing temples I´’ve ever seen.