Thailand highlights FAQ

You've only got a limited amount of time, so where best to spend it?
Thailand highlights FAQ

What should I see and do in Bangkok ?

There is a lot to do in Bangkok for the visitor, but the top attraction is indisputably the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew (Emerald Buddha Temple) compound. Many people also visit the nearby Wat Pho afterwards, the highlight here being the 46m long Reclining Buddha statue.

After these, it depends on your interests as to what is best to see. If you like temples, consider going to:

  • Wat Arun, particularly looking at it from across the river at sunset.
  • Wat Traimit with it's solid gold Buddha image weighing 5 tonnes.
  • Wat Benchamabophit, the 'Marble Temple'.
  • Wat Saket and the walk up the Golden Mount for good views of the city.
  • Wat Ratchanada and the multi-tiered Loha Prasat.
  • The important Wat Mahathat with it's extensive amulet market in the grounds.

There are literally hundreds more temples in Bangkok than those listed here, but most are unlikely to be of any great interest to the average visitor. Trips on Bangkok's canals and the Chao Phraya river are also popular, regular 'river taxi' services operate and are very cheap - a 90 minute boat trip can be only 10B. Hiring a boat and driver and exploring the canals (klong in Thai) yourself can be done for about 400B an hour, and is good for a glimpse of Bangkok life as it was in the past.

If you have an interest in Thai arts and architecture, you'll probably enjoy a visit to Vimanmek Palace, Suan Pakkard Palace, the National Museum, and/or Jim Thompson's house.

Bangkok is a good place for shopping too, with cheap prices and both street markets and large air-conditioned department stores are everywhere throughout the city. The huge Chatuchak weekend market is worthwhile visiting if you are in Bangkok on a weekend, just about anything can be bought here. Bangkok's Chinatown is also worth strolling around even if you don't plan to buy anything.

Trips a little outside of Bangkok are also popular, and these include visits to Floating Markets, the Crocodile Farm, Ancient City, waterparks etc...

The ruins of the former capital at Ayuthaya are just a couple of hours by coach from Bangkok. This is another worthwhile day trip if you've got the time, though there is enough to see to justify spending more time there.

How much time should I spend in Bangkok ?

This really depends on your interests, but probably about 3 days is a good idea if you are on two week holiday in Thailand. This allows enough time to see the main attractions and do some shopping there. If you like it and have more time, a week or more could be spent there quite easily without getting bored.

What are the highlights of the rest of Thailand ?

Thailand has many beautiful beaches in the south of the country that are very popular with visitors. Pattaya and Phuket are the most popular, and both are very commercialized. Phuket has perhaps Thailand's best beaches, while the beach in Pattaya is average at best but for most visitors this is compensated for by the nightlife scene.

Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi and are about as developed as Phuket and almost as popular. A bit less developed but with beaches that are just as nice are islands such as Ko Pha-Ngan, Ko Tao, Krabi, Ko Samet, Ko Lanta and Ko Chang. It's still pretty easy to find deserted beaches by wandering off the beaten track in some of the Southern provinces, such as Trang.

The north of Thailand is better for more cultural and historical sights. Chiang Mai is popular for it's temples, shopping and nearby activities (hilltribe trekking, elephant rides, rafting etc...). Other northern towns, such as Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son, are similar but smaller and a little less developed.

Sukhothai historical park (and nearby Sri Satchanalai) is Thailand's nearest equivalent to Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Indonesia's Borobudor. This is a very large site with many impressive temples, and is definitely worth stopping off at on a trip between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Ayuthaya, just a couple of hours north of Bangkok, is similar but most people seem to rate Sukhothai as the better of the two.

Thailand's northeast Isaan province is the poorest part of the country and is rarely visited by tourists. This is a bit of a shame, since the prices are cheaper and the people friendlier here than perhaps anywhere else in Thailand. Nong Khai at the top of Isaan is the most touristy, mostly because of its the main border crossing into Laos but also for it's relaxed atmosphere and attractive location on the Mekong river. The historical temple ruins are the main tourist attractions in this area and are some of the country's best, such as Phanom Rung and Phimai.

The most visited National Parks are Erawan National Park in Kanchanaburi, Khao Yai in Nakhon Ratchasima and Doi Inthanon in Chiang Mai. Khao Yai is the best for animal spotting, while Erawan and Doi Inthanon both have impressive waterfalls. Others that are quite easy to get to and worth seeing are Khao Sok (near Phuket), Khao Sam Roi Yot / Kaeng Krachan (near Hua Hin) and Khao Luang (near Surat Thani).

What beaches and islands are the best ones to go to


Pattaya and Phuket are the most developed beach resorts in Thailand, and both receive millions of tourists every year. Phuket has some very nice beaches, but every year it is getting more and more crowded and is very expensive compared to almost anywhere else in Thailand. Pattaya is much cheaper, but has a mediocre beach and dirty water. Most visitors here come for the bars, discos and prostitutes for which Pattaya is internationally famous/infamous. Phuket's Patong beach seems to be rapidly developing into a mini Pattaya. Due to the amount of tourists there, both have developed into very good areas for all kind of watersports.

Ko Samui is another international beach resort, but is still quieter than Phuket - this is probably the best place for a family beach holiday. Chaweng is the best and most developed beach, and there is plenty of nightlife though not on the scale of Patong beach on Phuket. North of here is the backpacker dominated Ko Pha-Ngan, which is mostly pretty quiet and with only cheap bungalows for accommodation. Hat Rin beach is the exception, with plenty of bars and restaurants and the monthly Full Moon party. Further north still is Ko Tao, which is popular with tourists but still remains quite quiet. This is a very scuba diving orientated island, and it's not really worth going if you're not planning on diving or snorkeling.

Ko Phi Phi - where 'The Beach' movie was filmed - is also noisy and very developed. Though it is a beautiful island, a lot of people seem to come away disappointed with the high prices and the pollution that there is. It is another very good place for scuba diving and snorkeling, though.

The beaches in Krabi province (Rai Leh and Ao Phra Nang) are very nice and are becoming almost as developed as Ko Phi Phi - a lot of backpackers stop here and at Ko Lanta 30km to the south.

Finding a completely deserted beach is still easily possible, just head off the tourist track in any of the Southern provinces though Krabi and Trang are probably the best ones. The problem with this is that you will likely need to speak some Thai to get there, and it will mean no accommodation, no way of getting about, no restaurants, no way of getting money etc... Better are the relatively undeveloped places, such as Ko Tarutao, Ko Chang and some islands and beaches off Trang and Krabi. Ko Chang, near the Cambodian border, is probably the best but in all it's possible to escape the few other tourists with just a bit of exploring, and yet not be anywhere too remote.

What are good beaches near Bangkok ?

The main options for this are Pattaya, Hua Hin, Cha-am, Ko Samet and, to a lesser extent, Ko Chang.

Pattaya is a very developed beach resort only a couple of hours from Bangkok, but the beach itself is only average at best by Thai standards. Come here for a vibrant nightlife scene, but it's best to look elsewhere for decent beaches.

Ko Samet has very nice beaches, but gets very busy and much more expensive at weekends, Thai public holidays and during the tourist high season - book ahead if you can. The main beach, Diamond beach, caters mainly to rich Thai tourists and is very developed. The beach has also been a bit spoiled by the dirt and pollution that this has caused. Other beaches are much quieter, cheaper and more remote. Facilities can be basic, and generally accommodation and food are overpriced all over the islands. On the plus side some of the beaches are very beautiful, right up amongst Thailand's best. Ko Samet is a national park and, in line with national policy, charges an entrance fee of 200B per person for foreigners, 20B for Thais.

Hua hin is pretty low-key and with only a so-so beach. The accommodation here is good value, and it's a very good place for seafood. Horse rides are popular on the beach, and it can be a bit of hassle to get the owners to leave you alone if you don't want one. There's not much else to do round here, and most of the tourists are either Thai or elderly Europeans. Nearby Prachuap Khiri Khan and Cha-am are mainly beach resort for Thai tourists with foreigners relatively thin on the ground - they're cheap, but with only mediocre beaches and not to much to do. Depending on your attitude, they can be a nice getaway from Bangkok or they can be downright boring.

Ko Chang is probably the best choice, as the beaches and scenery are both very good, not overdeveloped and not overpriced like Ko Samet. The biggest problem is that it's not so easy to reach in a quick break from Bangkok, being a trip of several hours.

Is going trekking a good idea ? Where ?

Chiang Mai is still the most popular place for going hilltribe trekking in Thailand, with other northern towns like Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son are other possible start points - they are less traveled and also slightly cheaper.

Many of the tours promise that you won't see any other tourists during your trek, and though this may be true the villages you go to will still be very tourist orientated. This is especially true if you are visiting on short, one day treks or on longer treks that promise to go to several different villages. Treks that take in rafting and elephant riding also seriously restrict the routes and so the number of villages that can be reached, try and do these on a separate trip if possible.

What really makes or breaks a trek is the guide you have - speak to the other people who have just finished a trek for the best recommendations, as things can change quickly.

Don't expect the hilltribes to be necessarily living a primitive lifestyle, particularly in the more touristed villages. Pickup trucks, motorbikes, stereos etc... can all be found quite commonly. The Hmong and Lisu seem to be the most prosperous, and the Akha and Lahu the least (and most traditional).

Some people love the treks, others find they are just effectively visiting human zoos. It's worth going if you think you'll enjoy it, but don't expect to see too much of a 'traditional' lifestyle.


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