4 places you simply must visit in Thailand

From its luxurious hideaways, to the food, interesting history and non-stop party atmosphere – here’s LIVING’s guide to Thailand

thailand holidays
The land of smiles is an idyllic paradise

There’s something about south east Asia’s most popular holiday destination that manages to capture the heart of every visitor. Perhaps it’s the friendly Thai people, the affordable luxury or its breathtaking tropical landscape? Or maybe it’s because spending lazy days on white sandy beaches surrounded by palm trees and crystal-clear waters never seems to lose its magic there. So much so that it has become known as the ‘Land of Smiles’. Whatever it may be, Thailand holidays are adventurous, idyllic and attracting thousands all year-round. 

There’s no denying it has some of the best beaches in the world – you only have to look at Phi Phi Leh Island near Phuket (and the subject of Danny Boyle’s 2000 film – The Beach) to realise that. But with a fascinating history and diverse culture to boot, from Muay Thai (Thai boxing) to Buddhism, and a bustling nightlife, along with delicious food and captivating wildlife, there are many sides to explore. And it makes every trip different from the next.

And let’s not forget the attractive year-round temperatures; you can expect it to be hot and humid throughout much of the year, making it easy to find sun-drenched beaches at any time. So, when you consider all of this, is there a more enticing place for a holiday? 

And we’re not just speaking from experience, the statistics are proving just how popular this country has become in the last decade or so. Recently, Mastercard released its 2018 index of the most visited cities in the world, Thailand’s capital Bangkok topped the poll with a massive 20 million visitors ahead of London, Paris and Dubai. And, the hugely popular tourist spot of Phuket, which lies just off the west coast of mainland Thailand, came in at number 12, with a whopping 9.2 million visitors. 

Sound appealing? If you are a newbie to Thailand, don’t sweat. Here’s our guide on the must-see places to visit.

1. Bangkok

Whether you’re heading over for business or pleasure, Bangkok is a hive of opportunity and experience, with a growing economy and a 24-hour party culture and some of the most luxurious hotels in the world.

But it’s not all business deals and late-night parties. In fact, in the last couple of years especially, Bangkok (and Thailand as a whole) has become recognised as a hub for fine dining establishments, thanks to a nod from Vogue and having received its first Michelin guide in late 2017.

And, despite being the city that never sleeps, Bangkok also has a number of enticing wellness retreats that are attracting yoga and meditation enthusiasts looking to practice this ancient tradition in a truly spiritual place.

If there is one thing for certain Bangkok is unique and while a stop here is highly recommended for holidaymakers heading to Thailand, drinking snake blood (just like DiCaprio’s character, Richard, in The Beach) is highly optional…

Why go: Thailand’s capital has some of the most fascinating and enthralling sights of the entire country, if not the world. So, it’s difficult to try and fit them all in, but if you’re only there for a day or two, here’s what we’d recommend doing.

What to do: Visit the temples, and there are many to choose from. But the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Dawn and Emerald Buddha are all impressive religious sites. Then there’s Jim Thompson House Museum, the former home of the American who started the Thai Silk Industry after World War II, for a collection of Asian art and displays, The Grand Palace and the ancient city, Muangboran. Head down the Khao San Road at the heart of Bangkok’s backpacking district just for the experience too. If you’re interested in Muay Thai, visit the Rajadamnern Thai Boxing Stadium. Find a vantage point to view the city skyline – you can enjoy panoramic views of the city from Wat Pak Nam. A trip on the city’s canals is also worth doing and if you have time visit the floating markets in nearby Damnoen Saduak. Find the time to enjoy a cocktail in one of the high-end rooftop bars and explore Chinatown if only to sample the street food there.

Where to stay: Located on the exclusive Rajadamri Road, St. Regis Bangkok offers unrivalled access to the city’s finest restaurants and elite shopping areas. Combining timeless elegance and luxury with the cosmopolitan energy of Bangkok, the 176 rooms and 55 suites offer lavish accommodation overlooking the city skyline. The Elemis Spa and panoramic outdoor pool offer total relaxation, and, with three restaurants and four bars, guests can be entirely catered for within the hotel, or look for a local experience with the help of St. Regis’s 24-hour butlers.

Prices start from £224 per night excluding breakfast including breakfast based on two sharing a double room. www.stregisbangkok.com.

Read more: 7 reasons to visit Barbados

2. Chiang Mai

While the beaches and nightlife in Thailand offer a pretty good itinerary, experiencing the Thai culture should be another reason to visit. And we’re not just talking about the relaxed lifestyle and scrummy food either. Buddhism, the main religion in Thailand, provides so many characteristics to explore from temples to practising monks and Buddhist statues.

Heading north, the provinces of Chiang Mai, Nan and Phayao are less attractive to sun worshippers, but it’s here where Thailand’s rich and diverse culture and landscape truly comes alive.

Largely a mountainous area split up by rainforests and valleys and with an abundance of national parks to explore, many would argue that it’s here where you can see the true magic of Thailand come to life.

Why go: The largest city in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai’s historic centre is more like a sleepy country town than a bustling capital, surrounded by lush green countryside, rainforests, waterfalls, and elephant sanctuaries. It’s also the home of the famous lantern festival of Chiang Mai, which sees thousands of lanterns released into the air to get rid of bad spirits promoting a fresh start. It’s held around mid-November and is reason enough to plan a trip to Thailand.

What to do: But, once you are there, there are so many exciting things to explore. True Luxury Travel offers a 12-night ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour moving from Bangkok through to Kanchanaburi and on to Chiang Mai. You’ll explore Thailand’s temples, learn about the history of the ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ and sleep in floating villas before visiting Chiang Mai, a land of misty mountains and colourful hill tribes.

Where to stay: You’ll stay at the Anantara Chiang Mai, overlooking the majestic Mae Ping River. Every room or suite features contemporary decor with teak furnishings, open plan bathrooms and balconies offering incredible views of the river and mountains, and it’s the best spot to explore the city’s night markets. The central location makes the surrounding area easy to explore and there are endless activities such as visiting elephant sanctuaries, local villages or cooking schools.

Price from £3000 per person including 10 nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation plus flights. www.trueluxury.travel/thailand.

Thailand holidays
Rich and diverse culture make it one of the most fascinating places to explore

3. Stay on the west: Phuket

If you are after a beach holiday, then the southern islands both on the east and west of the country are where you need to be venturing. You can avoid heavier rain fall interrupting your lazy beach days by choosing to visit the western islands of Phuket, Krabi and Phi Phi between November and February.

All have their own unique vibe, but there’s a relaxed, friendly and idyllic heart at every one. 

Don’t be resided to the main islands though, even though they are undoubtedly impressive on their own. For many who come back exclaiming Thailand as a paradise, it has been founded on an unexpected boat trip to a remote cove nestled far away from the hordes of the resorts. Phuket is a great beach resort to start your love affair with Thailand.

Why go: The island of Phuket is a culturally rich and beautiful area of Southern Thailand. It’s a picturesque and relaxed island paradise that’s great for families as well as couples. From the bustling Patong beach to the quieter Kata beach and Rawai beach there’s a side to suit all tastes. And with the chance to explore islands like Rach Island, Coral Island and Phi Phi Islands, the location where The Beach film was shot, you will never get bored. 

What to do: If you fancy a change from island hoping during your stay in Phuket, Health and Fitness Travel offers a seven-night wellness break at the Thanyapura Health and Sports Resort. If you feel like you need a recharge, there really is no better place to do it. Boasting the world’s top sports and fitness coaches, you can work on your Muay Thai training, tennis or create your own fitness programme in its state-of-the-art facilities, while receiving  nutritional advice to help you hit your goals.

Where to stay: The Thanyapura is a spacious and inspiring resort. The Retreat Hotel itself is a 23-hectare compound, surrounded by mountains, lush vegetation and expansive forest, allowing you to reconnect with nature. It’s dining options feature a mixture of Asian and Western styles and flavours.

Prices start from £840 per person based on two sharing or £1,060 for singles including breakfast, our Fusion Fitness programme and return private transfers. www.healthandfitnesstravel.com.

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4. Stay on the east: Koh Samui

Enjoy the driest months on the eastern beach resorts of Koh Samui, Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan between March and April. For nightlife, Bangkok probably offers the most eclectic mix of entertainment, but there’s still plenty on the southern islands to keep you enthralled too. The famous Full Moon Parties of Ko Pha Ngan have been running since the 80s, which is basically an all-night party on the beach around the time of the full moon and are massively popular with tourists.

For the best Thailand beaches head to Koh Samui, tucked away in the Gulf of Thailand, which is home to beautiful Chaweng Beach on the east coast. The beach is a tropical paradise, white soft sands are lined with palm trees and lapped by turquoise waters. Headlands on either side of the bay and an off-shore reef provide a tranquil island experience. 

Why go: Koh Samui is one of the most famous islands and probably one of the most visited in Thailand, but don’t let that put you off. Its beauty is unparalleled and with its own airport, it’s one of the easiest islands to get to and explore.

What to do: From the magnificent Namuang Waterfalls, featuring dramatic eater cascades and natural pools to swim in; to the Ang Thong Marine Park, an archipelago consisting of 42 little islands and great for kayaking, climbing and exploring caves; and the beaches of Chaweng, Lipa Noi and Silver beach, there’s ample of activity to keep you going.

Where to stay: Amari Koh Samui, located on a secluded stretch of Chaweng Beach, where guests can relax by a pool just steps away from the warm sand. Each superior and deluxe room at Amari Koh Samui features a private balcony ideal for taking in the idyllic views.

Prices start from £95 for a Superior Garden Wing Room at the Amari Koh Samui. www.amari.com 

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