Heading to Thailand for the first time and wondering where to visit and what to do? It can be quite daunting trying to narrow down your destination and activity options in Thailand, as it’s such a diverse country, with so many stunning places to choose from. We’ve been several times and have seen a lot of Thailand, from the misty mountain temples in the north to the chilled out island beaches in the south. Here we’ve collated a few of the best experiences we think you shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting South East Asia’s most popular country for the first time.
5 unmissable things to do in Thailand
Climb up to a hill temple
Most travellers head straight for Chiang Mai, a popular cultural and religious city in the mountainous north of Thailand. Whilst Chiang Mai is well worth a visit, for it’s numerous temples, cooking schools and relaxed traveller vibe, we recommend continuing a bit further to Chiang Dao, a picturesque village surrounded by limestone peaks, including the third highest in Thailand.
Wat Tham Pha Plong is a delightful temple nestled in a cave half way up a mountain, and surrounded by lush forest. There are over 500 steps to the top, but the climb is worth the effort, and the monks have erected humorous signs along the way, telling visitors to persevere and not to grumble. The views from the top are nothing short of stunning, and due to the remote location it is one of the most peaceful places we’ve been to in the country. It is possible to stay and do meditation here, but don’t expect to get much sleep as the monks rise very early to begin the days teaching.
Tip: There are also caves, hot springs and numerous hiking trails in the Chiang Dao area, making this a great place to spend a few days.
Sleep in a floating raft house on Cheow Lan Lake
Without doubt our favourite experience in Thailand so far, sleeping in a floating bamboo raft house on Cheow Lan Lake simply shouldn’t be missed. The vast lake is a stunning place to visit, with its karst limestone cliffs and rainforests full of wildlife. There’s something rather special about waking up on in your own private raft house, listening to gibbons calling to each other through the morning mists, whilst contemplating what the day ahead has in store.
You can jump off the raft for a swim in the lake before breakfast (the water is some of the clearest you’ll ever see), and then spend the days kayaking, hiking, rafting and exploring caves out in the national park.
Tip: most travellers spend 1 night on the raft houses, and combine the experience with other things to do in Khao Sok National Park. We wished we’d spent a little longer (2 nights would have been great), because few places in Thailand are as beautiful or as serene as here.
Check out the Grand Palace in Bangkok
There are so many things to do in Bangkok that you could easily spend a week in the city and still not have seen everything. The majority of visitors allow themselves a day or two here at the beginning or end of their trip, but we recommend at least 3 nights to really get a flavour of what Bangkok is all about. If you only have time to do one thing, make sure you visit the spectacular Grand Palace. It dates back to 1782 and was the royal residence of Thai Kings until 1925. Today it is still used for ceremonial purposes as well as being one of Thailand’s top attractions. The most famous part of the sprawling complex is perhaps the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, home to the country’s most sacred Buddhist sculpture (which is actually carved out of jade rather than emerald!). The Grand Palace a vast and hot complex without much shade, so take plenty of water and allow yourself several hours to see it all.
Tip: Take a sarong or long pants to cover up, otherwise you won’t be allowed to enter. Garments can be hired but you have to wait until there are some available, which might be a while if it’s busy. If you have time, check out Wat Pho which isn’t far from the Grand Palace. The large temple complex at Wat Pho is home to the famous giant reclining Buddha, and also a great place to get a massage, which you may need after all your sightseeing! Definitely our favourite temple in Bangkok.
Enjoy fine dining in the sky
Thailand is a world leader when it comes to roof top dining, and there are several hotels and restaurants in Bangkok where you can eat dinner looking down on this magnificent city. We love dining high up in the sky, with superb views of the glittering cityscape and often excellent food. Most restaurants offer quite a refined experience, which is perfect for special occasions. Thai indulgence at it’s finest.
Tip: It’s worth booking a table in advance as rooftop restaurants are understandably very popular places in Bangkok. Make sure you ask for a table by the edge of the roof for the best views.
Stay on an island in a beach hut
When it comes to islands, Thailand has everything you could possibly ever want. From laid back hippy hang outs and full moon beach parties, to quiet local islands and some of the world’s best diving, you really can take your pick. Whichever island you choose however, make sure you sample a bit of beach hut life whilst you’re there. It really is what Thailand is famous for!
Our favourite island for chilling out, meeting the locals and getting away from it all is Koh Yao Yai. It’s a large island in the Andaman Sea, so relatively easy to get to from Phuket, but feels a million miles away from the bustle of the mainland. Here it’s about kicking off your sandals and walking barefoot along deserted sandy beaches, stopping to chat with the local fishermen and exchanging a few baht for some of their freshly caught whitebait which is drying out in the sun. By day visitors can go snorkelling or explore mangroves and rubber plantations, whilst evenings are spent enjoying bowls of Thai massaman curry at beach restaurants, and watching the sun set over the distant islands.
Whatever you choose to do in Thailand, and wherever you decide to go, you’ll have the time of your life! Whether it’s exploring the city culture, visiting mountain temples in the jungle, or snorkelling in the emerald waters off a remote tropical island, Thailand has it all. It’s one of the few countries we’ve returned to on our travels, and we can’t wait until our next adventure in the land of smiles.