16 Things To Do in Thailand
The very first time I set foot in Thailand, I felt right at home. That feeling has stayed with me ever since, as I continue to return to the country over and over again.
In my opinion, Thailand is one of the best all-round destinations in the world. It has beaches, stunning nature, wonderful food and, most importantly, amazing people.
Thailand is nicknamed “the Land of Smiles” for a reason. After your first trip to the country, we suspect you’ll be hooked forever, just like we are.
1. Begin in Bangkok
More than likely, the capitol will be your first port of call in Thailand. Bangkok is a place that people either love or you hate. For me, it was love at first sight. Sure, it’s crowded and busy, but if you look beyond the surface you’ll see it’s a city like no other.
This is a place where new and old co-exist side by side: Just head to Erawan shrine to see a Buddhist shrine surrounded by modern high-rises.
Bangkok’s must-see places include temples, like Wat Traimit (with its Golden Buddha) and Wat Pho (and its massage school). Make sure you also visit the Royal Palace to catch a glimpse of the Jade Buddha and, if shopping is your thing, check out Chatuchak Market, which is held every weekend.
2. Taste Thai Food
Sitting down for a meal is always the highlight of my day in Thailand, whether it’s on a busy Bangkok street or in a beachside restaurant.
Forget the pale curries and the greasy fish cakes of many Thai restaurants back home. True Thai cuisine is fresh, nutritious and full of flavors like ginger, lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves and, more often than not, a good helping of chilies!
Thai favorites include som tam, a spicy papaya salad; tom yum goong, a hot and sour soup with prawns; and the famous pad thai, a dish of stir-fried noodles topped with peanuts. If you wish to recreate Thai flavors at home, just sign up for a cooking class! Chiang Mai is a good place for it.
3. Go Temple Hopping in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is the main city in Northern Thailand– a favorite destination of backpackers, digital nomads and culture-lovers. The city is mellower compared to Bangkok, and it’s one of the best places if you want to go temple-hopping: There are hundreds of temples in and around town.
One really beautiful temple is Doi Suthep. Located a short distance from the city, it can be reached with a short jungle hike.
Chiang Mai is also the jump-off point for hikes and visits to hill tribes, and it has a very distinctive cuisine. One local favorite is khao soi, which features crispy noodles in a curry-flavored soup.
4. Interact with Elephants
These gentle giants once roamed the jungles of Thailand before being captured and trained for the entertainment of tourists. Elephant treks are still offered around Thailand, but it’s a cruel practice that we don’t recommend.
If you want to interact with elephants in a humane way, head to a reputable elephant rescue center such as the Elephant Nature Park, which rescue orphaned, injured and abused animals from the tourism and logging trades.
Volunteering to help wash an elephant is a much more rewarding experience than riding one, and there are numerous opportunities for hands-on elephant encounters that don’t require abusive training regimens.
5. Go Scuba Diving in Koh Lanta
There are hundreds of islands in Thailand. Coming up with a favorite among them is quite difficult.
Koh Lanta is an amazing island destination, offering wonderful beaches and stunning (but often underrated) dive sites. Whale sharks are known to like Koh Lanta, too!
If you want to relax, Koh Lanta is a good option, as it sees only a fraction of the visitors of more famous islands like Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. There are also cultural sights there, like Chinatown in Lanta Old Town.
6. Get Wild in the Jungle
There are still parts of Thailand where the wilderness reigns supreme.
Khao Yai National Park, in the central part of the country, is a great contender for the title of wildest place in Thailand, and it includes tigers among its inhabitants.
Many islands are also covered in jungle once you get away from the beaches: Koh Samui and Koh Phangan both offer excellent jungle treks.
7. Visit the Ruins of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya
Located roughly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Sukhothai was the capitol of a Thai kingdom between the 13th and 16th century.
Now, it’s possible to visit the ruins of the former capitol and imagine their grandeur, marveling at giant Buddha statues and fragments of intricate carvings.
If you’re looking for something closer to Bangkok, but no less spectacular, head to Ayutthaya, another ruined city located an hour away from the capitol.
8. Find an Unspoiled Beach
Sipping a coconut on a Thai beach while watching the sunset is another quintessential Thai experience.
Thailand is remarkably blessed in terms of beaches. Although many have been on the tourist radar for decades, there are still many unspoilt corners.
For a real Castaway-style experience, head to Koh Tarutao or the Similan Islands, two marine parks located in the southern Andaman sea. Another beautiful beach is Railay, near Krabi, which is also a rock-climbing mecca.
9. Explore the White Temple
From afar, Wat Rong Khun (also known as the White Temple), which is located near Chiang Rai, looks halfway between a wedding cake and an ice sculpture.
The temple is pure white, with floating eaves, statues and carvings. Unlike many other Thai temples, it hasn’t been around for centuries: It was finished in 1997 and is now being restored after being damaged in an earthquake two years ago.
Check out the wall paintings to see an eclectic mixture of pop culture (Super Mario, anyone?) and Buddhist icons.
10. Trek in Northern Thailand
Trekking through the hills around Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son is a great way to learn more about the culture and customs of Thailand’s hill tribes (such as the Karen and the Hmong) while exploring jungles and braving rivers.
Be careful to avoid any tour operators offering visits to the “long-neck” or “giraffe” women. More often than not, these ladies have been relocated away from their ancestral villages for the entertainment of tourists.
11. Meditate at a Temple
In Thailand, you’ll come across hundreds of temples. There are small, ramshackle temples in rural villages, more palatial ones in Bangkok, and everything in between.
Large temples will often have beautiful works of ancient art. The atmosphere at smaller temples will often be fascinating: Locals sit and meditate peacefully, and joining them is a great way to relax after braving the kaleidoscope of colors and emotions that Thailand has to offer.
At temples, you’ll often find young monks in their saffron robes. They’ll be glad to have a chat to practice their English and allow you an insight into their lives.
12. Take a Ride in a Tuk tuk
Tuk tuk? Tuk tuk? In Thai cities, you’ll become accustomed to this offer very soon.
Tuk tuks are basically small, pimped-up rickshaws complete with mirrors and flashing lights, often used to travel around cities.
They’re noisier and more uncomfortable than air-conditioned taxis, but they’re great fun!
13. Attend a Muay Thai Competition
Muay Thai, also known as Thai boxing, is Thailand’s national sport. Children are taught it at school from a very young age, and boxing masters assume an almost God-like status.
Don’t miss attending a Muay Thai competition, either at Bangkok’s Lumpini stadium or in smaller towns, to appreciate the importance that this sport has for Thai people.
14. See the Bridge on the River Kwai
You’ve all watched the classic film named after this historic landmark, right?
In Thailand, not far from the town of Kanchanaburi, two hours west of Bangkok, you can see the actual bridge built by British POWs in World War II.
It’s a must-see for history lovers. And even if you aren’t, Kanchanaburi is still a great destination to visit for a few days in order to explore the surrounding nature and enjoy a mellow, small city atmosphere.
15. Photograph the Floating Markets
Among Thailand’s iconic images there are floating markets. Here, canoes laden with fruit, vegetables and textiles jostle for space on crowded canals.
A visit to a floating market is a great experience, especially for photographers. Arrive at the break of dawn to appreciate the market before tourists arrive.
One of the most easily accessible markets from Bangkok is Damnoen Saduak, which is located about an hour from the capitol.
16. Experience the Kindness and Generosity of the Thai People
Didn’t I say that Thailand is the land of smiles? The kindness and generosity of the Thai people will surely capture your heart, and experiences with locals will be among the best travel memories of your life.
Most people involved in tourism will speak at least passable English. But in remote villages you can’t count on that. Don’t worry, though: Smiles and gestures will often suffice! –Margherita Ragg
BIO: Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer and English teacher from Milan, Italy. She’s passionate about wildlife, ecotourism and outdoor activities, and runs The Crowded Planet travel blog with her Australian photographer husband, Nick Burns. Margherita has an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University, and was runner-up to the 2012 Guardian Travel Writer of the Year competition. Follow Margherita on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.