With stunning tropical beaches and islands, historic and archaeological sites, a dynamic capital city, inherent spa heritage, sublime cuisine, fascinating Buddhist culture and much more, little wonder Thailand is one of the world’s favorite travel destinations. Add into the mix well-developed tourism infrastructures, unparalleled service levels and legendary Thai hospitality and this alluring ‘Land of Smiles’ draws millions of visitors back time after time.
Your only challenge will be whittling down a list of things to do in Thailand, as there are countless attractions and things to experience. To get you started, here’s our wish list of ten best things to do in Thailand.
Thailand is one of the world’s favorite shopping destinations and undisputed shoppers paradise, where retail therapy is one of the major activities. Have your credit cards at the ready for the incredible range of exotic Thai products: the best-known being high quality silk – a tailored silk dress or suit, plus accessories is a must-do on any visit – but other shopping notables cover hill tribe textiles and handicrafts, home décor, hand-made jewelry, ceramics, carved woods, spa products – even Thai orchids!
Additionally, Thailand provides an incredible array of shopping experiences, from high-end silk boutiques and glitzy malls to handicraft stores and bustling day and night markets. Bangkok is arguably Thailand’s shopping epicenter, combining the best of the West with Oriental flair. The 24/7 shopping options are staggering: Bangkok boasts some of the world’s largest and upscale shopping malls, including opulent Siam Paragon and travel-inspired Terminal21, plenty of night markets across the city and day markets such as include iconic floating varieties and one of the world’s largest outdoor markets, wildly popular Chatuchak Weekend Market.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is Thailand’s undisputed national sport and a popular spectator sport both here and increasingly, overseas. Often referred to as ‘The Art of Eight Limbs’ Thailand’s famous boxing sport originated as an ancient Thai martial art, developed for use in military hand-to-hand combat. Muay Thai fighters use their fists, elbows, knees and feet to transform their bodies into full-blown, lethal weapons upon entering the ring.
While in Thailand, try and attend at least one thrilling Muay Thai fight; the best place to do so is in the capital, Bangkok, which has several boxing arenas with fights held most days. The two most famous arenas are New Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, arguably the most popular for its highly-charged electric atmosphere and chance to watch some of Muay Thai’s most celebrated fighters and the more centrally located Rajadamnern Boxing Stadium, Thailand’s first Muay Thai stadium, where you can also watch female fighters.
Mouthwatering Thai cuisine ranks as one of the world’s most prolific and best-loved and after sampling it all on your travels, surely the next step is to learn how to cook your favorite dishes while in Thailand, in order to recreate those distinctive big bold flavors back home. Fortunately, there are heaps of Thai cookery classes and schools geared to tourists, not just in Bangkok, but regionally in all the tourist hotspots, including Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Phuket.
From half-day to several days, or even weeks, master traditional Thai culinary techniques, ingredients and recipes – from piquant curries and stir-fries to tropical desserts –at hands-on classes instructed by English-speaking Thai chefs. You’ll most likely get a guided tour of a local market, with advice on what ingredients to purchase and what items can be substituted at home plus a sit-down lunch to sample your dishes.
Alternatively, join a fruit carving workshop, learning intricate techniques used in traditional Thai dishes and table decorations exclusively for royalty. A highly respected culinary skill for centuries, fruit carving is now considered old-school and a dying art form.
If you’re in Thailand from the 13th to 15th April be prepared to get a soaking, but in the most fun way imaginable! This is when Songkran is celebrated, officially the Thai Buddhist New Year and symbolic for new beginnings. A hugely important festival for Thai people – and the nation’s largest celebrations – Songkran is deeply rooted in centuries-old traditions.
There are religious ceremonies, including street processions and at temples, holy water is sprinkled over everyone and Buddhist statues are washed in a spiritual cleansing ritual, believed to get rid of bad luck and sins of previous years and starting the New Year afresh.
Nowadays, Songkran, also known as ‘Thailand Water Festival,’ has evolved as the nation’s best-known festival with three days of wild and watery mayhem across the country – Bangkok and Chiang Mai boasting the biggest celebrations. Everyone, from young to old, exuberantly takes to the streets armed with water pistols, super soakers, buckets and hoses, for alternative ‘blessings’ and no one is exempt from a drenching.
These communal water fights bring entire cities almost to a standstill, with many businesses closing for the entire duration. Visitors are most welcome to join in the biggest water fight on the planet– a great way to cool off in Thailand’s hottest period!
Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River is one of Thailand’s major waterways and flowing through the very heart of the city, is its lifeblood and of vital importance to locals, as the main source of transportation, or even, income. Also known as the ‘River of Kings,’ scenic Chao Phraya is also closely intertwined with Bangkok’s centuries-old regal history and numerous historic buildings and key landmarks are located along its riverbanks.
Highlights cover Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Grand Palace, Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and Wichai Prasit Fort, alongside modern-day icons that include top luxury hotels and striking bridges. With the above in mind and Bangkok’s notorious traffic, at some point you’ll end-up traveling along the bustling Chao Phraya River – one of the best ways to experience Bangkok.
Various options to explore this fascinating waterway cover local river express boats, tourist sightseeing cruises, or longtail boats doubling as personalized water taxis, but a ‘must-do’ however is an evening dinner cruise. There are many operators to choose from and a variety of luxurious vessels, including restored antique rice barges, but most combine a popular formula of authentic Thai cuisine dinner, traditional dance performance and cruising past Bangkok’s most celebrated sights, prettily illuminated at night-time.
Elephants are Thailand’s national symbol and highly-revered; you’ll see their image everywhere from ancient royal palaces and temples to souvenir cushion covers. As such, many visitors come to Thailand hoping to interact with elephants, which fortunately, is a dream easily realized and a wonderful day out, especially for families.
It is best however to support ethically-run establishments, where you can interact with these gentle giants in a low-key and responsible manner – preparing food for the elephant and helping them bathe in rivers are popular activities. In the northern city of Chiang Mai, there are some excellent, pioneering elephant sanctuaries.
Nestled in a verdant valley surrounded by mountains, Elephant Nature Park has rescued dozens of elephants since it launched in the 1990s, while Elephant Jungle Sanctuary effectively acts as a retirement and care home in a lovely natural setting for elephants previously employed in the logging or tourism industries. Alternatively, head to World Heritage-listed Khao Yai National Park, just three hours’ drive from Bangkok, the home of a large population of Asian elephants, which can be seen wild in their natural environment.
Nowhere is the Thai reverence for food more evident than in pulsating Bangkok, one of the world’s finest culinary epicenters and arguably, Asia’s food capital. The capital is best known, however, for its fantastic street food, regarded by many as the world’s most delicious. Street food culture is omnipresent 24/7, with locals constantly eating out on the street.
No visit to the Thai capital is complete without trying some tasty and cheap Thai street food and local snacks – anything from pad Thai noodles, chicken rice and skewered grilled pork to mango sticky rice. Head to one of the estimated 500,000-plus street food stalls in the city, or any shophouse eatery. Although for novices this may seem overwhelming, it’s actually an exciting scene to navigate and a memorable local experience.
Alternatively, join one of Bangkok’s excellent street food tours, or visit the more tourist-friendly food stalls at night markets. Among the recommended local neighborhoods to chow down, Chinatown is universally acknowledged as dishing-up Bangkok’s most authentic street food – including tasty Chinese delicacies – from its countless street-side food stalls.
As Thailand is home to a centuries-old spa heritage and world-class spas and retreats that have garnered global awards for decades, no trip here is complete without a spot of relaxation and rejuvenation. Restoring mind, body and spirit balance is easily accomplished, with the ubiquitous supply of massage parlors, chic salons and gorgeous spas ensconced in luxury resorts. Treatments are relatively great value compared to back home, along with well-trained therapists, gracious Thai hospitality and invariably, beautiful surrounds.
Thailand is renowned for its superior massages, however the must-do signature treatment is Thai Massage. Dating back two millennium, this unique form of massage, now a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, is based on Buddhist philosophy and combines acupressure, Indian Ayurvedic principles and assisted yoga postures.
The massage therapist stretches and pulls the body and works on pressure points using their thumbs, elbows, and knees. Unusually, no oils or lotions are used and the recipient wears loose-fitting cotton pajamas lying on a firm floor mattress. The whole experience leaves you feeling invigorated yet deeply relaxed, with a general sense of well-being!
Leisurely cruising amongst some of the world’s most beautiful islands and anchoring off idyllic beaches sounds the stuff of daydreams. However, pure escapism can easily be arranged in Thailand and anyone can indulge! Fortunately, this Kingdom is blessed with an unfair tally of gorgeous tropical islands, many clustered together in the sparkling Andaman Sea, set off the mainland’s southwest coast.
Here, the calm, protected conditions and shallow waters makes this area ideal for boating in season. Set sail from tourist hotspots Krabi and Phuket Island to the dazzling surrounding islands, picture-perfect scenery and transparent waters teeming with multi-colored fish. Escape the tourist boats and ferries and book a private day tour on a traditional longtail boat, speedboat, or chartered yacht, exploring at your own pace.
Don’t miss the stunning karst seascape of Phang Nga Bay, a serene nature wonderland of around 40 limestone islets and stunningly beautiful Koh Phi Phi Islands, a mini-archipelago revealing some of Southeast Asia’s loveliest white sand beaches. To escape the crowds however, cruise further afield to more tranquil islands, such as Koh Chang and Koh Lanta.
With crystal-clear water, fantastic marine life and coral reefs set off tropical islands, Thailand boasts some of Southeast Asia’s best scuba diving. Much of the finest diving sites are located in the Andaman Sea and tourist island Phuket is most favored by diving enthusiasts as launchpad to the outlying superior diving spots.
Ever-popular Koh Phi Phi archipelago provides plenty of dive sites suitable for all levels and opportunities to spot leopard sharks, manta rays and colorful corals, while beautiful Koh Lanta boasts two world-class dive sites, the stunning Hin Daeng (Red Rock) and Hin Muang (Purple Rock) – the latter, famed for its exquisite violet coral.
Heading northwards to the untouched and remote Similan Islands, divers however will find a fantastical underwater playground ranked amongst the planet’s top ten dive destinations. This extraordinary mini-archipelago boasts some of the world’s most spectacular coral growths and greatest profusion of reef fish in Thai waters. Sites like Koh Bon Island are home to incredible manta rays, multi-colored soft corals and underwater stone pinnacles. Northwards, the even more isolated Surin Islands boast amazing hard and soft coral diversity and fish species rarely seen in other Thai dive destinations.
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