Thailand Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

Impressive modern buildings stand side by side with magnificent ancient temples, in Thailand, a magical place where the past and present merge seamlessly. The legends surrounding the founding of Thailand’s more than 33,000 temples make up the mysteries of Asia that has for centuries drawn travelers to this enchanted land.
Thailand Travel Guide
Table of Contents

To experience Thailand’s special magic, begin your tour by exploring the many highlights of its capital, Bangkok. Embark on a voyage of discovery of the city’s rich cultural life by visiting the floating markets of Bangkok. Feast on mouthwatering cuisine as you wind down the canals and experience Thailand’s disappearing water culture.

Another must-see place in Thailand is the Grand Palace. The spiritual heart of the Thai kingdom and Thailand’s most sacred site, the Grand palace is a shining example of Thai creativity and craftsmanship. Other worthwhile places of interest in this area include the Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun temples.

Don’t miss out on the Buddhist monasteries of Ayutthaya, one of the most historically and spiritually significant places in Thailand. These ancient monasteries are a testament to the technological prowess, economic vitality and intellectual tradition of this ancient culture. Allow a full day to explore the extraordinary ruins of Ayutthaya.

Wat Rong Khun or the “White Temple” also comes highly recommended for those visiting the Chiang Rai region. Tourists from around the world are particularly attracted by the temple’s ornate sculptures and murals inspired by sci-fi, pop culture and fairytales. Wat Rong Khun is a truly amazing structure that, upon completion, is set to become one of the finest temples in Thailand.

Blessed with a location that makes it the envy of all of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a destination regarded as a must for any trip to the Asian country. Peppered with historical architectural gems, encased by scenic mountains and split by the Ping River, the 300-plus Buddhist temples of Chiang Mai will leave temple lovers astounded.

Thailand has more than its fair share of islands which makes it difficult to pick the best one. There’s an island for every occasion, whether you want to party till dawn, eat the best Thai food or escape for a romantic break. Visit the popular Ko Phi Phi islands, which are truly the stuff castaway fairy tales are made off: rustic beach huts, white sands, and the turquoise sea lapping gently at the shore.

A visit to Thailand is bound to be an unforgettable experience. A delight for the adventurous, a paradise for food lovers and a place for the curious to expand their horizons, Thailand truly has it all. With so much to see, you may be forced to extend your visit or plan a return to Thailand.

1. Grand Palace & Wat Phra Kaew

No visit to Thailand would be complete without a tour of its most famous landmark, the dazzling and spectacular Grand Palace. For centuries, this grand old dame has continued to attract visitors by the thousands, leaving them awed by its beautiful architecture and intricate detail.

Situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the Grand Palace stretches over an area of over 200,000 square meters. Rather than a single structure, it is a complex of many buildings, pavilions and halls set around open lawns, courtyards and gardens.

The palace served as the official residence of the Kings of Siam and later Thailand. The king, his court and royal government were based on the Grand Palace grounds until 1925 when they move to a different palace. However, the impressive interiors of the Grand Palace continue to be used by the present monarch for official events, royal ceremonies, and state functions.

Construction of the palace was begun in 1782 by King Rama I, founder of the Chakri dynasty when he moved his capital to Bangkok from Thon Buri. The palace has since been modified by each subsequent Chakri king, with many buildings and structures added during the reign of Rama V.

The Grand Palace complex is a spiritual and architectural treasure that is twice as dazzling when viewed on a sunny day. Visitors to Bangkok can immerse themselves in the splendor of the Grand Palace and its different buildings. You can admire the palace walls which are adorned with lotus-shaped decorations. These walls enclose the former royal chambers, ministries, servants’ quarters and other halls.

Within the Grand Palace complex is the impressive Wat Phra Kaew or “Temple of the Emerald Buddha”. This is the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand because it houses the small yet famous and greatly revered emerald Buddha statue. Dating back to the 14th century, the Emerald Buddha is meticulously carved out of a single block of Jade and is the most important icon of the Thai people.

The temple balcony has fascinating murals that tell the Ramayana epic in its entirety, along with inscriptions of verses describing the murals. Each balcony gate is guarded by statues of “gate-keeping giants”, which are characters featured in the epic. You can also take a peek at the antique throne and admire the elaborately decorated pagodas, whose beauty adds to the temple’s peaceful ambiance.

Visitors to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew can marvel at the exquisite detail on the façades of their structures. Don’t miss out on the impressive Dusit Hall, perhaps the finest architectural building in this style. Other palace highlights are the Boromabiman Hall and Amarinda Hall, the original residence of King Rama I and the Hall of Justice.

2. Ayutthaya

Located in the valley of the Chao Phraya River in a province of the same name, Ayutthaya was the capital of the Thai kingdom from 1350 to 1767. During this period, Thai culture flourished and the city became a center for international trade. Ayutthaya was ruled by 33 kings from five different dynasties until the Burmese sacked and destroyed it in 1767.

Perhaps ironically, the full name of Ayutthaya is “Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya”, which translates to “A city that cannot be fought and won over in a war.” Ayutthaya is named after the city of Ayodhya in India, the birthplace of Rama, the protagonist in the Hindu epic Ramayana. Around 1700 CE, Ayutthaya was one of the largest cities in the world.

Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 by King U Thong, who came to escape a smallpox outbreak in Lop Buri. The king later proclaimed Ayutthaya the capital of his kingdom. Ayutthaya is today one of the key attractions in Thailand due to its numerous historic ruins comprising massive Buddhist monasteries, reliquary towers and museums that provide a glimpse into the past splendor of this fascinating city.

Notably, the ruins of Ayutthaya showcase the creativity of the former civilization in assimilating numerous foreign influences. The ancient buildings are elegantly decorated with high quality mural paintings and crafts, in an eclectic fusion of traditional styles to create a uniquely rich expression of cosmopolitan culture.

Some of the highlights of Ayutthaya include the Grand Palace, the former residential palace of every monarch, which has many important buildings. Within the Grand Palace compound, visitors can admire Wat Phra Si Sanphet, which is an impressive and important monastery.

Be sure to also visit the Wat Chaiwatthanaram monastery, whose beauty is reflected in its gallery that is crafted in the Khmer architectural style. Other attractions are the Wat Yai Chaimongkhon or Wat Chao Phraya Thai monastery.

An interesting way to travel to Ayutthaya is via long tail boat from Bangkok. But do this only if you have the patience for a long, albeit beautifully scenic trip up river.

3. Mae Hong Son

Situated in north western Thailand, Mae Hong Son is a small town in a province of the same name. Mae Hong Son means the “city of three mists”, a name attributed to the fact that the province is covered in mist the whole year round. The most mountainous region in Thailand, the province of Mae Hong Son is famous for its unique cultures, beautiful scenery and adventure opportunities.

The allure of Mae Hong Son lies in its small-town feeling and unique architecture that is heavily influenced by neighboring Myanmar. Due to its location inside a valley and surrounded by high mountains, Mae Hong Son was for a long time isolated from the rest of the country, which caused its residents to maintain elements of a fascinating lifestyle that has little changed over the centuries.

A good example is the Kayan Lahwi people who reside in remote villages on mountain tops. During a stroll through the market in Mae Hong Son, you are likely to bump into one of the Kayan Lahwi women, who you will recognize from the large brass rings they wear around their necks to elongate them.

The best time to be in Mae Hong Son is in March during the Poy Sang Long Festival. Also known as the “Festival of the Crystal Sons”, this is a rite of passage and ordination ceremony for Shan boys. While here, you can join in the huge celebration that takes over the entire region as Shan boys take monastic vows and are ordained as novice monks.

During the 3-day festival, Shan boys shave their heads and eyebrows, and wear make-up and brightly colored sequined robes. Dressed up like princes in the imitation of Lord Buddha, who was himself previously a prince, the boys are carried around on the shoulders of older male relatives, and not allowed to touch the ground except while inside a temple or at home.

On the last day of the festival, the boys remove their finery, dress in simple saffron robes and enter a monastery for a minimum of a week, while some going in for many years. The Shan people believe that participating in this important Mae Hong Son festival will bring favor to the boy and his parents.

Located in the center of Mae Hong Son are the twin temples of Wat Jong Klang and Wat Jong Kham, the most famous landmarks in Mae Hong Son. Dating back to the early 19th century, the temples are built in Burmese style and feature a look that is distinctively different from the other temples of Thailand. This is because they were built by Burmese artists who were brought over during the mid 19th century.

The temples stand out due to their large wooden prayer halls and roofs edged with lace-like fretwork in white, silver and gold. The ordination halls are the only buildings made in stone. For a spectacular view of the twin temples, visitors should see them lit up at night, from across the Jom Kham Lake.

Inside the Jong Klang is a large Buddha image in Burmese style and a wooden throne. There is also a large prayer hall that contains many paintings on glass depicting the Jataka tales, stories that originate from India and which tell the previous births of the Buddha. Various other paintings depict scenes from daily life during that period. There are also several interesting wooden figures of people and animals.

Wat Phra That Doi Kong Mu is another temple in town, which affords visitors great views of Mae Hong Son, it’s the majestic mountains and dense lush forests. From this temple spot, you can really enjoy the tranquility and scenic natural beauty of the province.

4. Wat Rong Khun

One of the most amazing and stunning temples you will ever see in Thailand, and possibly the world, the Wat Rong Khun is a beautiful example of modern Buddhist art in Thailand. The temple features a very unique design that mixes classic and contemporary styles to make it one of Thailand’s most unique and visually striking man-made attractions.

Popularly known among foreign tourists as the “White Temple”, Wat Rong Khun looks like something out of your wildest dreams. Located on the outskirts of the city of Chiang Rai, this contemporary Buddhist temple was designed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat as a project to renovate the original Wat Rong Khun.

Construction of this modern Wat Rong Khun began in 1997 and is expected to continue until 2070. Kositpipat invested his own money to build the temple in his home village. Knowing there are still many years to go before completing the project, he has even made plans for work to continue in the event of his death. The good news is that the temple is already open to visitors.

Kositpipat’s vision was to build a temple symbolizing heaven, which is why the Wat Rong Khun is a spectacular sight of gleaming white. The temple’s incredibly detailed, all-white exterior represents the purity of Lord Buddha, while the glass reflects his wisdom that shines over the earth and universe.

Before entering the main temple you will walk across a small bridge, in a crossing that symbolizes transition from the cycle of life to the land of the Buddha. The bridge is positioned over a sea of arms reaching out for help from the fiery depths of hell. Buddhist teachings are depicted throughout the temple grounds with demon heads and skulls on traffic cones and whisky bottles.

Rich in symbolism derived from Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the temple has also borrowed from unorthodox sources. If you take a closer look at the thought-provoking temple murals, you will see surreal scenes and unexpected characters on display: Neo from the Matrix and even Kung Fu Panda make an appearance, along with pop-cultural figures from the underworld.

The idea behind the imagery was to drive home the destructive impact that humans have had on earth. Because the murals are still being painted, don’t be surprised if during your visit you get to watch an artist at work.

However, you may need a little patience to use the temple toilets. This is simply because there may be a long queue of other visitors waiting in line, not to use them, but to take photos of them. Located inside an ornate golden building, even the toilets of Wat Rong Khun are a work of art!

5. Chiang Mai

Regarded as the cultural and spiritual capital of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a land of misty mountains and picturesque hills, which is famous for its beautiful Buddhist temples numbering more than three hundred. Founded in 1296, Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna kingdom and is currently the capital of a Thai province of the same name.

Dubbed the “Rose of the North”, Chiang Mai is a beautiful city with a long history, ancient traditions, and whose most interesting attractions are as old as the city itself. In Chiang Mai, the past is not merely the stuff of legend but is a part of everyday life. Everywhere you look you will find a temple – rising majestically into the sky, sitting atop a small mountain, behind a shop or outside your hotel.

The magnificent temples of Chiang Mai showcase a mixture of architectural styles reflecting the diverse heritage of northern Thailand and influences of the various kingdoms that once ruled this region. Elements of Burmese, Lanna Thai, Mon and Sri Lankan architecture can be seen in Chiang Mai’s temples.

The Old City of Chiang Mai retains an antiquated ambiance with tree-lined avenues, an artistic vibe and spectacular temples at every turn. There are 36 temples within the Old City walls and hundreds more in the surrounding countryside. Some are historically significant, while others contain beautiful artworks and are popular with local Buddhists.

Step onto the path of enlightenment by going into Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the most famous of the Chiang Mai temples. Standing on Doi Suthep, a hill to the northwest of the city, the temple was founded in 1383 and over time expanded and made more extravagant with the adding of more holy shrines. Gleaming like a northern star the temple is an impressive embodiment of northern Thai culture.

From the base of the temple, you may climb 309 steps or take a tram. The long climb is worth it as you get to see staircase bordered by the longest water serpent balustrade in Thailand, believed to bring good luck. Once you reach the top of there’s plenty to see: pagodas, ceremonial parasols, shrines and a museum. Notable artifacts include the model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of Hindu god Ganesh.

Walk around and examine the many impressive murals decorating the temple walls. As with most Thai temples, these depict events from the life and teachings of Buddha. Particularly interesting is the statue of Buddha beneath the Tree of Enlightenment that you see to your right as you enter the grounds. Another temple highlight is the bells touched by devout Buddhists to bring good luck.

The temple is a must-see, not only for its importance as pilgrimage center and sacred site for many Thai, but also for the spectacular views it offers of Chiang Mai and the surrounding plains. At the top, a long promenade provides an unforgettable vista of the city spread out below.

Chiang Mai’s famous vibrant Night Bazaar is a great base to explore the city. One of the city’s main night time attractions, the Night Bazaar extends across several city blocks along footpaths, inside temple grounds, buildings and open squares. The Bazaar opens in the afternoon until late at night, on streets closed off to motorized traffic.

You truly haven’t seen this ancient city if you skip a visit to the popular Night Bazaar. An unforgettable part of your Chiang Mai experience, the Bazaar is a colorful mix of hundreds of smart shops and open air stalls that create a lively atmosphere. The crowded streets and sidewalks bustle with shoppers bargaining for local handicrafts, artworks, wood furniture, silk, parasols, silverware, and other wares.

Try to make it to Chiang Mai for the Yi Peng festival held on the full moon in November. Watch as the city comes alive with residents assembling thousands of floating banana-leaf containers, adorned with candles and flowers, and depositing them on the city waterways in worship of the Water Goddess. Residents also decorate their homes and the streets with sky lanterns which they also launch into the air in the belief that they will help rid them of their troubles.

Situated among some of Thailand’s highest mountains, Chiang Mai is also famous for its natural scenic beauty. A favorite with both local and foreign visitors, the scenic mountain terrain is worth exploring, which you can do riding on an elephant. If you have a couple of days to spare, take a brief cooking course in Chiang Mai which is also one of the best places to learn Thai cooking.

6. Talad Nam

Bangkok is famous for its Talad Nams or “floating markets”, which are markets located next to a body of water with vendors selling directly out of their boats. Floating markets are located throughout Bangkok and the surrounding provinces and are very popular to visit during weekends for both locals and foreigners.

Formerly known as the “Venice of the East”, Bangkok once had an extensive network of canals, many of which have since been filled to make way for roads. Once a normal way of life when many Thai people went around by boat, the Talad Nams are today more of a novelty that offer a glimpse into Thailand’s disappearing water culture.

Today, what draws the largest crowds to the floating markets is the food that is cooked and served directly from a boat floating inside the canal. Talad Nams are great spots for sampling Thai cuisine and are particularly famous for their specialty Thai sausages, elephant ear curry and an assortment of potted desserts.

The most popular floating market with locals is the Talad Nam Amphawa. Many Thai people escape here from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok city life to browse around the little stores and feast on the delicacies on offer. Be sure to try out the grilled squid and roasted shrimp at Amphawa. Another Talad Nam to visit is Damnoen Saduak which is popular with tourists especially for its vast array of souvenirs.

Khlong Lat Mayom market is a garden-like oasis full of lush greenery, shaded areas and which offers a more relaxed ambiance. There are many shops and options for having a lovely meal on the edge of the canal. Taling Chan market is famous for its fresh selection of roasted seafood. Grab a seat among tables full of people devouring crab legs, jumbo prawns and roasted snake head fish, a popular delicacy.

Spend a day in Bangkok visiting the various floating markets, which are an absolute paradise for food lovers. While you eat you can also watch the spectacle of stalls looping past the canal side vendors and back through plantation paths. You will be impressed by how well the numerous boats are parked on the canal and how fast they serve delicious food to ravenous customers.

Bangkok’s Talad Nams are also great spots to shop for trinkets and good to simply wander about in. You may navigate the markets on a personal boat tour. For respite, hop into a canal boat and escape the market traffic to some beautiful tree covered canal spots.

7. Wang Boran

Also known as Wang Boran, the Sanctuary of Truth is one of the most beautiful attractions, not only in the Pattaya region where it is located, but in the whole of Thailand. The magnificent temple is an entirely wooden structure with no metal nails whatsoever.

The temple is the vision of a local businessman, Lek Viriyaphant, who is said to have been instructed by a monk to construct the temple in order to give back to the people that helped build his great wealth. Construction of the Sanctuary of Truth began in 1981 and is expected to be completed in 2050, although it is already open to visitors.

Carved purely from teak wood using traditional Thai woodworking techniques, the temple building is truly a structure of outstanding beauty. Thousands of fantastic wooden sculptures adorn both the interior and exterior temple walls.

Standing at over 105 meters tall, the structure has 4 main spires at the top, which hold aloft figures of gods and other celestial creatures. There are also amazing wooden sculptures of celestial bodies flying down the spines of the roof.

An attraction that must not be missed, every inch of this amazing temple is covered in intricate details. During your visit, you may be lucky to observe the carvers meticulously shaping new designs by hand, using only a hammer and chisel. This is a painstaking, time-consuming process, but whose results – you will agree – are well worth the time and effort.

Designed in the ancient Khmer architectural style, the Wang Boran temple borrows from Buddhism, Hinduism and various mythologies of Thailand, Cambodia, as well as India and China. An incarnation of ancient eastern religion, philosophy, culture and history, this is a truly amazing structure that, upon completion, is set to become one of the finest temples in Thailand.

8. Ko Phi Phi

Thailand boasts some of the best islands in South East Asia. Located between Phuket Island and the western Strait of Malacca coast of mainland Thailand, the Phi Phi islands are arguably the most beautiful of the Thai islands. Ko Phi Phi comprises 6 islands, of which the most well known are Phi Phi Don and the Phi Phi Leh. Phi Phi Don is the largest island with many seafood restaurants, bars and cafes, and no cars.

Widely considered among the most beautiful islands in the world, Ko Phi Phi is stunning and its surrounding ocean spectacular. The sheer natural beauty of Phi Phi is what makes it one of the most idyllic locations in the world. With its warm azure waters, soft white sands and secluded beaches surrounded by limestone cliffs, this is the type of place that once there it is very difficult to leave.

The most beautiful spot in the Phi Phi islands is arguably the popular Ao Maya or “Maya Bay” with its breathtaking beaches and tranquil turquoise waters teeming with colorful marine life. The bay boasts a picture postcard look of dramatic cliff rock formations rising out of the water to complement the arcs of pure white sand.

During the day, long tail boats are available to take visitors on tours around the limestone formations. You can also visit the viewing platform located 186 meters above sea level, which allows for the best views and stunning panoramas of the Phi Phi islands.

The Phi Phi islands have something for just about everybody. If you prefer a more laid-back vacation, you can lounge at the beach, sunbathe and relax the days away. And at night, camp beneath the stars in a bamboo beach hut or check out the vibrant night life of the Phi Phi islands, also famous for their full moon parties.

The more adventurous traveler can enjoy world-class diving and snorkeling in the waters around Ko Phi Phi, which offer some of Asia’s best diving attractions. A favorite with divers, the popular Maya Bay has exceptionally clear water and you are likely to see an octopus within minutes of entry.

When you dive or snorkel in Ko Phi Phi you submerge yourself into an amazing fantasy world. Boasting one of the most abundant coral reef systems in the world, the locations and sights in Phi Phi are both astounding and plentiful. You are certain to enjoy the stunning coral just below the surface, and brightly colored fish darting about just inches away from your mask.

The best way to explore the waters is with a sea kayak which you can leave on the beach while you snorkel. To enjoy the most stunning views of the underwater coral and its marine inhabitants, go when the waters are crystal clear. When the season is right, you don’t have to dive deep to enjoy the views, as simply floating on the surface is enough.

The best time to visit the Phi Phi islands is from November to mid-January when the skies are clear, the water calm, and the air least humid. The islands are great for a short stay or even day trip, although you may need more than 24 hours to take in all what they have to offer. In fact, there’s so much here that you might consider extending your trip just to see it all.

9. Wat Pho

Also known as the “Temple of the Reclining Buddha”, Wat Pho is located behind the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. Wat Pho was built as a restoration of an earlier temple on the same site, with construction commencing in 1788 during the reign of King Rama III.

A must-see for any visitor to Bangkok, Wat Pho is one of the city’s largest temple complexes, which is famous for its giant reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf. Measuring 46 meters long and 15 meters high, the Buddha is exquisitely decorated with illustrations characteristic of the deity.

For good luck, visitors may purchase a bowl of coins at the entrance to drop into the 108 bronze bowls lining the length of the walls. The money also goes into helping the monks renovate and preserve the temple.

It is really worth taking a look around the rest of the Wat Pho temple. Visit the 4 chapels that contain 394 gilded images of Buddha, along with golden statues from different parts of Thailand. Exquisite, intricately detailed murals cover the temple walkways, while the courtyards contain intriguing Chinese statues once used as ballasts on ships.

Also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage, the temple is one of the best centers for traditional Thai massage and medicine in the country. If you’re tired from temple-touring, indulge in an invigorating foot, head or shoulder massage. This is a popular leisure activity among the Thai people, which incorporates yoga style poses to relieve stress and improve blood circulation.

10. Wat Arun

An important center for worship for Buddhists and also popular with tourists, Wat Arun is one of the most striking riverside landmarks in Thailand. The beautiful architecture and fine craftsmanship of Wat Arun make it easily one of the most stunning temples of Thailand.

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Named after Aruna, the Indian god of Dawn, Wat Arun or the “Temple of Dawn” sits majestically on the Thon Buri side of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. The temple was built in 1768 during the reign of King Taksin, as a renovation project of a previous temple on the same site. It is an architectural representation of Mount Meru, which is the center of the world in Buddhist cosmology.

Wat Arun features a unique design that is markedly different from the rest of the Thai temples, with its imposing spire which is one of the famous landmarks in Bangkok. Rising to 70 meters, the towering spire is decorated beautifully with small pieces of colored glass and porcelain delicately placed in intricate patterns, which makes it glimmer in sunlight.

At the base of this central tower are sculptures of Chinese soldiers and animals. The towers are supported by statues of monkeys and demons to guard the temple. You may climb the central spire for a panoramic view of the winding Chao Phraya River, the Grand Palace and Wat Pho temple.

Spend at least an hour touring the interior of this temple. In the ordination hall you can view a golden Buddha image, beautifully detailed murals decorating the walls, and a central spire decorated in colorful ceramic porcelain and seashells. Go up to the second terrace to see fascinating statues of Hindu god Indra riding on a 3-headed elephant, and admire the pavilions of green granite.

Ironic to its name, the most spectacular view of this temple is to be had at dusk, not dawn. The glittering monument is at its most magnificent at sunset. Lit up at night, you can view Wat Arun from the east side of the river, and marvel as its spire casts an impressive silhouette against the Thai skyline.

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