If you are visiting Thailand for the first time and still don’t know where to go, I will give you a big picture of Thailand and then you can decide what kind of places you prefer to visit.
1. The North – Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Nan (Mountains, nature, rural & cultural)
The north of Thailand is surrounded by mountains and it’s the only part of Thailand that has a winter season! Winter is Nov – Feb, when it’s very popular for Thai people to escape the heat from other parts of Thailand and enjoy the cool weather in the north. I don’t recommend to visit the north in the dry season from Mar-Apr when there could be agricultural fires that create a lot of smoke. This is a big problem in the north every year. You can be lucky but it would turn your trip to hell if you are not lucky enough!
Chiang Mai is the largest and most developed city in northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is steeped in history and culture; it was a former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na. I’ve been to Chiang Mai 3 times and there are so many things to do and see in Chiang Mai. One of my favourites is Mae Kampong Village, a peaceful village in the middle of mountains. This village reminded me of my childhood. If you are interested in Thai rural lifestyle, you can stay overnight with residents in their homes. The best way to travel to Chiang Mai is by plane. However, it’s quite popular for backpackers to travel from Bangkok by train.
Chiang Rai is located a bit north of Chiang Mai, nearer Laos. There are many beautiful places to visit in Chiang Rai and one of my favourite is Wat Rong Kun, the most beautiful and unique white temple owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a famous Thai visual artist who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors in 1997. If you followed the news of the national cave rescue in Thailand, you may want to visit Tham Luang cave where 12 young members of a Thai soccer team and their coach were trapped for 17 days from 23 June – 10 July 2018. Don’t visit during the wet season!
Mae Hong Son is located on the west of Chiang Mai and is a remote, mountainous province, bordering Burma. Refugee camps of displaced Burmese are located in Mae Hong Son. Mae Hong Son is a mix of culture and people from different backgrounds, e.g. Chinese, Kayan and Shan. Here are my 3 favourite places in Mae Hong Son;
Rak Thai Village, the village was settled by former Kuo Min Tang (Nationalist) fighters from Yunnan Province, China, after the Communist takeover of China. The population is about 800, mainly Chinese-born or Thai-born Chinese and much of the population speaks Mandarin Chinese. The village is beautiful with tea plantations and a beautiful lake in the middle of the village. I did not stay overnight when I visited but I will not miss it next time!
Long neck Karen Villages, Kayan people came to Thailand from Burma, when escaping war and violence in their country. They are famous for their women, who wear golden rings around their necks. From the time when they are 5 to their 21st birthday, each year one ring is added to their collection. At the end, their necks get so long. According to Karen people, the longer the neck the more beautiful the woman who wears them is. There are 3 Long neck Karen villages to visit in Mae Hong Son, one of them is Kayan village of Huay Sua Tao.
Pai was a quiet village inhabited by Shan people whose culture is influenced by Burma. Nowadays is well-known among backpackers for its relaxed atmosphere. The town is full of cheap guesthouses, souvenir shops and restaurants. If you want to go a bit luxury, I recommend you stay at Puri Pai Villa. There are many things to do in Pai, e.g. elephant camps, waterfalls and natural hot springs.
Visiting those 3 places would give you a tour of 3 different cultures and atmosphere.
Nan has become popular for Thai tourists recently as the 3 provinces above are well-known for international tourists, therefore locals try to explore new placesby going to Nan. Nan is a very rural province but is full of culture, many beautiful temples and natural beauty. I’ve been to Nan once a long time ago when I was living in Bangkok. We went hiking to 1,980m high Doi Phu Kha National Park during the rainy season and camped for a night. It was the most scary camping trip of my life as it rained heavily when we camped overnight on the top of the mountain. We had nowhere to hide from the heavy rain, only a tiny tin tent! If you enjoy hiking you also can’t miss the 2,120m high Phu Soi Dao National Park located in Phitsanulok province bordering Laos, which is my home province. I did it 2 times when I was teenager and enjoyed it very much.
2. The Middle; Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Kanchanaburi (modern city, history & nature)
Bangkok is a modern city like many capital cities around the world and Bangkok is the best place to eat and shop in Thailand. I used to live in Bangkok for 8 years when I attended university and some years working. I visit Bangkok occasionally but I don’t think I can go back to live in this busy city anymore. However, it’s good to visit for a short time. After you do all the tourist attractions, e.g. the Grand Palace, Chao Phraya River Boat Tour, Thai boxing, Thai cooking class, etc., you may want to eat, drink, shop and relax. Here are my favourites;
- Eating – If you are looking for an evening out to have western food and a nice bar to chill out after a long day, I would recommend Oskar Bistro in Sukhumvit 11 near BTS Nana. I’ve been there many times and I love the Passion Fruit Mojito! If Oskar Bistro is not what you are looking for then I would recommend Groove@CentralWorld, a selection of 14 international restaurants including Thai. I also recommend to eat at EmQuartier Food Court or Siam Paragon Food Court. These places have the best selection of Thai food. I usually have lunch and dinner there when I’m in the area; it’s simple and quick.
- Drinking & get high! Don’t get me wrong; I mean go to the Moon Bar, a rooftop bar located on the 61st floor at Banyan Tree hotel to have very nice cocktails with the best view of Bangkok at night. This place has been my favourite for many years and I never get bored to come here. There are many nice rooftop bars in Bangkok but I think Moon Bar has the best 360 degree view over Bangkok.
- Shopping – If you are looking for a colourful market at a reasonable price you can’t miss out to visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market. You will find everything here, all kinds of clothes, accessories, bags, shoes, books, house decor, furniture, souvenirs and much more! And many kinds of street food available is here. You should arrive no later than 9 am and, after shopping, have lunch before leaving. In the afternoon it becomes very hot and very busy. If a market is not your type of shopping you can go a bit up market by visiting high-end shopping malls – Siam Paragon, Siam Discovery, IconSiam, Central World and Central Embassy. Those shopping malls are located in the city centre and all near each other. The great thing about those places is you are eating and shopping in air conditioning when the temperature outside is 30+ degrees!
- Exercising – Many people come to Thailand to attend Thai boxing training. And if you’re looking for a jogging park, Lumpini Park could be your place if your boxing stadium is nearby. The park is popular for locals to do exercise in the morning and evening. You can also do aerobic dancing with an open class at 6-7 pm with all Thai people and free of charge.
Ayutthaya was the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). It was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767 (Burmese-Siamese War 1765-1767) and it was the end of Ayutthaya Kingdom. Ayutthaya Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts tourists from around the world. If you want to learn a little bit about Ayutthaya by not getting bored from history books, you can watch the TV series called “Bupphesanniwat” (Love Destiny) that was very popular in Thailand and aired from February to April 2018. If you visiting Bangkok, the present capital of Thailand, then you should not miss a visit to the old capital, Ayuthaya. You can do a day trip to Ayutthaya if you stay in Bangkok.
Kanchanaburi is located on the west of Bangkok and it’s known for the Death Railway, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 during World War II. I’ve been to Kanchanaburi 3 times and enjoyed it every times. A part from the history, Kanchanaburi is also well known as the city of waterfalls, e.g. Erawan Waterfall and Sai Yok Waterfall located in Sai Yok National Park. Another activity popular for Thai people from Bangkok is to stay on a floating house on Kwhae Noi River. I did that and very much enjoyed it. You may need to stay in Kanchanaburi minimum 2 nights if you plan to visit.
3. The South – Suratthani, Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang (sea, sun, sand & islands). The South of Thailand is famous for beautiful beaches, islands and partying. The main destination is Phuket.
Surat Thani lies on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand and the famous islands are Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan, famous for its’ crazy full moon party. Another place you can’t miss to stay less than one night is Khao Sok National Park.
Phang Nga is located just north of Phuket and easy to do a day trip from Phuket, e.g. Phang Nga Marine National Park and Similan Islands. If you don’t want to stay in Phuket, Khao Lak is an option as it has beautiful beaches and less crowded with tourists. You land in Phuket airport and all the hotels in Khao Lak provide a pick up from the airport.
Phuket is the biggest island in Thailand and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Phuket is the most developed city in the south. There is Phuket International Airport and high end facilities that attract visitors from nearby countries like Hong Kong and Singapore to enjoy a weekend in Phuket. Phuket has a lot of beautiful beaches and you can still find some culture here even though half of the island is tourist area but still half of the island is mixed between Thai, Chinese and Muslim. I have been living in Phuket since 2008 and still very much in love with this place.
Krabi is famous for beautiful islands and popular for diving and snorkelling. People who want to escape busier Phuket and who enjoy the sea and islands come to Krabi. The best known are Railay Beach, Phi Phi island and Koh Lanta.
Trang is more lay back than other provinces and more popular for Thai people as we like to escape international tourists. Trang has many beautiful islands, e.g. Koh Lipe and Koh Kradan.
I grew up in the north of Thailand, in a valley surrounded by mountains, a river and a small army camp. I used to pick mushrooms, bamboo shoots and insects in the forest with my parents at the weekend and many times I did not take a shower before going to the school because the water was too cold! When I look back nowadays, my childhood life was perfect. I was never hungry, my parents always provided food. My father was very tough with me and I did not like it but this made me become a stronger person. I’m glad that I was born in the mountain countryside and had an experience that city people would never have. Visiting some villages in the north of Thailand would enable you to see my childhood.
I went to Bangkok and lived there for 8 years for university and work. City life was not easy for me but I had great experience there. Bangkok has much more things to do and see than the other top four spots in Asia-Pacific like Seoul, Tokyo Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Moreover, the cost of traveling in Bangkok is much cheaper than those cities. It was probably one of the reasons that Bangkok was name the world’s most visited city for the 4th years in a row. (2016-2019).
I moved to Phuket, the paradise island in 2008 and I’m still very much in love with this place. One of the reasons that many foreigners choose to retire in Phuket is probably everyday feels like a holiday here! Phuket is my home and will be for the rest of my life.
If you don’t know where to start you can follow my foot steps of life by starting to travel from the north where I grew up in a rural mountain village and later visit Bangkok where I challenged my life in the capital for 8 years and end your holiday by visiting some paradise islands on the south of Thailand and visit me in Phuket! Minimum 10 days of travel would give you a taste of Thailand.
Hope this helps you to plan your wonderful holiday in Thailand.