The 13 best things to do in Thailand

Here's how to experience the best of Thailand © Tetra images / Getty Images

Southeast Asia’s most popular holiday destination, Thailand continues to dazzle travelers with its glittering temples, tropical beaches, and mouth-watering food.

Add blockbuster natural scenery, vibrant villages, a cosmopolitan capital and buckets of culture, and it’s easy to see how the Land of Smiles has turned many a first-timer into a repeat visitor. From the best island-hopping experiences to having safe and sustainable wildlife encounters, here are the top things to do in Thailand.

Discover the world's most intriguing experiences with our weekly newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

1. Tour the best of Bangkok

Between its golden temples, buzzy markets and famous culinary scene alone, there’s plenty to love about Bangkok. While you could tailor an entire trip to touring the city’s glitzy rooftop bars, take time to seek out the fascinating museums, hidden khlong (canals), and underground arts scene. From thought-provoking street art to the best meal you’ve ever had, there’s a memorable attraction around every corner in this iconic city.

Planning Tip: Thanks to the Thai capital’s elevated Skytrain, it’s easy to zip between attractions without losing your bearings. 

2. Explore the ruins of ancient cities

An easy day trip from Bangkok, the ruins of Ayuthaya – the former capital of the Kingdom of Siam – offer a glimpse into its glorious past. Perched atop an extinct volcano in the nation’s central north, the 13th-century ruins of Sukhothai, Thailand’s most impressive and significant Khmer historical site, is another must-see.

Planning Tip: Hire a bike to explore the 70 sites within a 3-mile (5km) radius of the main complex.

3. Go island-hopping, diving and snorkeling

With more than 1400 Thai islands to choose from, where’s a traveler to begin? Home to the popular holiday idyls of Ko Lanta and the Phi Phi islands, to more off-the-beaten track tropical escapes such as the Trang archipelago and the scuba paradise of the Similan Islands, the Andaman coast is a good place to start. 

Planning Tip: If you’re visiting Thailand during the Andaman region’s rainy season from May to September, simply head to Gulf islands such as Ko Tao, Ko Samui, and the famed party island of Ko Pha-Ngan, where weather conditions are ideal from around February to September.

4. Embrace responsible elephant tourism

Asian elephants have played an important role in Thai culture for centuries, and in good news for Thailand’s elephants, and visitors who come to see them, many of Thailand’s elephant attractions have acted on global calls to cease offering activities that are harmful for elephants and dangerous for tourists. 

A small but growing number of operators including ChangChill near Chiang Mai and Following Giants in Ko Lanta have even transitioned to observation-only experiences, where elephants can be admired doing what they do best: simply being elephants.

Planning Tip: You might also be lucky enough to spot wild elephants in Khao Yai National Park, just a few hours from Bangkok.

A close-up of hands preparing food at a long table
Chiang Mai is the perfect place to go to cookery school © Anna Ewa Bieniek / Shutterstock

5. Eat out or go to cooking school in Chiang Mai

The cultural capital of the north, Chiang Mai is packed with temples, and enjoys a fantastic dining scene where you can sample northern Thai specialties like the fragrant curry dish known as kôw soy (or khao soi), or learn how to make them yourself at local cooking schools.

As well as being a popular hub for digital nomads, Chiang Mai’s scenic countryside is dotted with traditional handicraft outlets, elephant sanctuaries, jungle hiking opportunities, minority villages, and more.

6. Visit the ethnically diverse hills of Chiang Rai

Sharing its border with Myanmar to the west and Laos to the east, Chiang Rai is one of Thailand’s most ethnically diverse provinces. The nation’s northernmost corner is also arguably its most beautiful. Admire Chiang Rai’s dramatic mountains, seek out its serene temples, visit its hill tribe villages responsibly, and stay a while in the atmospheric villages, some of which hug the mighty Mekong River.

Female tourist exploring a lush lake surrounded by jungle and limestone cliffs in Khao Sok National Park
Take a boat out on the stunning Cheow Lan lake in Khao Sok National Park ©
Sam Spicer / Getty Images

7. Hike the trails or chill by the lake in Khao Sok National Park

If you only have time to visit one of Thailand’s spectacular national parks, make it Khao Sok. This ancient rainforest hugging the midsection of southern Thailand is laced with sweaty hiking trails that reward you with postcard-perfect views of limestone formations fringing the emerald waters of Chiaw Lan Lake. You can also go tubing, kayaking and rafting, and sleep in a floating hut.

8. Soak up the romance of Railay

Soaring limestone karsts rise up behind sugar-white beaches lapped by turquoise water in Railay, easily one of Thailand’s most genetically blessed seaside destinations. Come to lounge on beautiful beaches, explore scenic caves, and test your rock-climbing skills. Home to a number of resorts, Railay is also a popular romantic escape for couples.

Planning Tip: There are none of Thailand’s typical traffic hassles here because visitors come and go by longtail boat.

Fishing village of the Koh Panyee settlement built on stilts in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
Organize a home stay at a traditional fishing village like this one in Phang Nga Bay © Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock

9. Have an authentic homestay experience with a local family

Craving an authentic cultural experience? Offering an opportunity to connect with Thai people on a deeper and more authentic level than the average village tour, community-based ecotourism (CBET) is a great place to start. 

Hosted across the country, from the mountain towns of Chiang Mai Province to the Muslim fishing villages of Phang-Nga Province, CBET experiences usually take the form of a homestay combined with eco-conscious activities ranging from cooking classes to mangrove planting.

Planning Tip: Sites such as Homestay.com can help you find local hosts. 

10. Choose your own adventure in Kanchanaburi

The provincial capital’s WWII memorials are a mandatory stop before heading deeper into the spectacular wilderness areas of Kanchanaburi Province, where rivers ooze between jagged limestone peaks rising out of the verdant jungle. From kayaking to jungle treks, there are plenty of activities to choose from in this popular adventure center.

Planning Tip: For the best experience, looks to spend the nights in lavish riverside resorts, tree-top bungalows or traditional village homestays.

A woman receiving a Thai massage at a spa for healing and relaxation
Embrace the Thai tradition of massage for wellness, healing and relaxation © Prasit photo / Getty Images

11. Book a traditional Thai massage

Have you even been to Thailand if you haven’t had a traditional Thai massage? Combining acupressure, Ayurvedic principles and assisted yoga postures, this quintessentially Thai style of massage has been linked to health benefits ranging from boosting energy to busting stress. Costing as little as 250 baht (US$7.50) for a one-hour massage at a simple salon, they’re also great value.

Planning Tip: Support local enterprise by visiting massage parlors that provide employment opportunities for vulnerable locals, such as blind therapists and former prisoners. 

12. Venture beyond the resorts of Phuket

Home to some of Thailand’s best resorts – at every budget – the Andaman holiday haven of Phuket is also blessed with some of Thailand’s loveliest beaches. But there’s plenty more to discover beyond your sun lounger. 

Less than 30 minutes’ drive west from the hedonistic hub of Patong, Phuket Town’s colorful heritage buildings house excellent restaurants, boutiques and museums. And in the island’s northeast, you can visit a wildlife sanctuary working to rehabilitate gibbons rescued from the pet trade, and take a refreshing dip in a waterfall nearby.

13. Join the backpacker scene in Pai

In search of Thailand’s ultimate backpacker scene? These days, many travelers will tell you it lies at the end of an ultra-scenic, winding bus ride from Chiang Mai into the lush mountains of Mae Hong Son Province. Set in a picturesque valley and surrounded by waterfalls, Pai draws backpackers as much for its natural adventures as for its laid-back vibe, cool cafes, and late-night parties.

Planning Tip: There are yoga options galore here. Pai is also a popular hangout for solo travelers.

This article was first published on August 24, 2021 and updated on August 15, 2022

Buy Beautiful World Mini

Cover of Lonely Planet's Beautiful World
Cover of Lonely Planet's Beautiful WorldLonely Planet's Beautiful World Mini

Journey to the planet's most magnificent places with this thought-provoking portrait of our world. See it as you've never seen it before and renew your relationship with the place we call home.

Buy Lonely Planet’s Beautiful World Mini

Places from this story

Recent stories

Food and Drink

What to eat and drink in Morocco

6 min readPublished about 4 hours ago
Preparing fresh Moroccan tea
Activities

The 10 best things to do in Hawaii

6 min readPublished about 14 hours ago
Hiking couple walking on Kilauea Iki crater trail on Big Island.
Hiking

The best hikes in Chile through extraordinary landscapes

6 min readPublished about 19 hours ago
A female hiker on a trail at Torres del Paine National Park.

Related content