10 best places to visit in Thailand on your next trip

I am often asked why I keep going back to Thailand — it’s become an annual January tradition as I escape the drizzle and dreariness of a British winter. For me, it’s a country that wraps up everything I could want from a break into one package. For starters, it’s affordable — but with plenty of luxury options if you’re feeling flush. In the north you can pootle down rivers on bamboo rafts and see elephants washing themselves; you can hike in the mountains and stay with local villagers, or go wine tasting at vineyards (yes, vineyards, in Thailand). There’s endless sightseeing and history if that’s your thing; incredible food, which is surely everybody’s thing; and some of the world’s best beaches (with 1,430 islands, there are thousands of stretches of sand to choose from). I’ve visited as a backpacker, then around 15 times after that, and soon I’ll head there on my first trip with my own young family. There’s always more to see here, but if you start with a combination of the below, you’re onto a good thing. A very good thing. Here’s the pick of the best places to visit in Thailand.

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If you only have . . .

One week Bangkok and Koh Samui

Two weeks Bangkok, Hua Hin, Koh Lanta

Three weeks Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Golden Triangle, Phuket

A tight budget Bangkok and Koh Phangan

1. Bangkok

Enjoying street food at a Bangkok night market

Enjoying street food at a Bangkok night market

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Some visit for the temples, others for the food, and for many it’s just a stop-off on the way to other parts of the country. To skip past Bangkok is a big mistake, though. This frenetic city is big on fun and full-on flavour (from some of the world’s best street food to incredible Michelin-star dining, with tasting menus that cost a fraction of what they do in Europe). There are backpacker hangouts, fancy rooftop and riverside bars, temples, floating markets where flowers, fruit and veg are sold from longtail boats, and a great hotel scene — go for something with a pool for that post-sightseeing cool off.

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With its pool, excellent rooftop bar, huge breakfast buffet and an excellent gym, the Kimpton Maa-Lai hotel is one of the best in Bangkok

Not in the Guidebooks has an 11-day Off the Beaten Track tour of Thailand, including Bangkok and beaches

Best hotels in Bangkok

2. Koh Lanta

Ko Lanta’s beaches are crowd-free

Ko Lanta’s beaches are crowd-free

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It takes a tiny bit more effort to reach Koh Lanta than Koh Samui or Phuket but your reward is fewer tourists and a vibe that feels like Thailand 30 years ago. Chilled fairy light-lit bars, zero jet skis and long beaches make this 15 mile-long island ideal for families and quiet-seeking couples looking to stay put for a couple of weeks. Keen to venture out? Lanta Marine National Park has great snorkelling and two of Thailand’s best dive sites — Hin Daeng and Hin Muang — are nearby.

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One of the only luxe hotels on the island (and in my opinion, one of the best in the country) is Pimalai. It’s located on a glorious golden-sand beach, and villas are dotted across a jungle-covered hillside

Explore! has a 14-night Thai island-hopping trip, with several days on Koh Lanta

3. Koh Phangan

Visitors enjoy the Ko Phangan sunshine

Visitors enjoy the Ko Phangan sunshine

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Don’t dismiss Koh Phangan as a no-go just because of the wild full-moon parties on Haad Rin beach. This hilly, jungly island has some peaceful hangouts, like the palm-fringed Haad Khom beach to the north, and the peaceful, restaurant-filled village of Chalok Lam. Minibuses will transport you wherever you want to go, so even if neon paint and whisky buckets aren’t for you, then watching fire jugglers on a moon-bathed beach may well be.

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Jute rugs, white bed linen and open-air rooms make Coconut Beach Bungalows a great choice for grown-up travellers on a budget. It’s family-run, with a great little restaurant, a friendly dog (and staff) and located on a quieter beach on the island

G Adventures has an eight-day tour taking in Koh Tao and two nights on Koh Phangan

4. Hua Hin

Hua Hin station, said to be the prettiest in Thailand

Hua Hin station, said to be the prettiest in Thailand

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Hua Hin’s handy location — 125 miles southwest of Bangkok — helped it grow from a sleepy fishing village into a popular beach destination for Thai royalty. The country’s railway line helped broaden its appeal (its station is said to be the prettiest in the country). A hundred years on and it’s still a popular getaway and worthy of its well-heeled crowds, with its long golden beaches, an excellent night market and hotels from some of the world’s coolest brands.

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Guests return time and time again to the cluster of beachside cottages at Aleenta Hua Hin. It’s a little way from the city centre but ideal if you’re looking for a quiet retreat (with no TVs, either)

Intrepid Travel has a 12-day family-friendly tour of Thailand, including overnight trains, visits to elephant sanctuaries and time on the palm-fringed sands of Hua Hin

5. Koh Samui

Ang Thong National Marine Park

Ang Thong National Marine Park

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Yes, Koh Samui has seen some speedy development, but the result is an island jammed with some of the country’s most luxurious hotels, although there are plenty of budget options. If your priorities are sunbathing, spas and good food (there’s even a great vegan scene), then hole up here for a week. For something more taxing, venture out to see the limestone towers and crystal-clear snorkelling spots of the Ang Thong National Marine Park, or rent a car for some beach-hopping on the south coast. This is also your jumping off point for other islands — try Koh Tao for diving and smaller family run hotels.

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For a private island experience (without having to book out the entire island) book into Cape Fahn. Every room has its own pool, although there are three more on the island if you prefer, and its restaurant is featured in Michelin’s Koh Samui guide

G Adventures’ eight-day Explore Southern Thailand trip has two days in Koh Samui, with time at Ang Thong

Five of the best backpacking routes in southeast Asia

6. Chiang Mai

Buddhist monks collecting alms in Chiang Mai

Buddhist monks collecting alms in Chiang Mai

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Smaller, more relaxed and, dare I say it, cooler than Bangkok (helped by a younger population that includes 60,000 students), Chiang Mai blends the buzz of a city with the beauty of its surroundings — think hill-forest hiking and temple-topped mountains. Start off slow, with a boat trip on the Ping River, stock up on handicrafts in the night bazaar and relax with a good-value massage (or book a hotel with a spa — there are dozens of excellent options). While you’re here, use the city as a jumping-off point for treks in the north and day visits to the temple-packed sister city of Chiang Rai.

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Find tranquillity at 137 Pillars House, a teak building constructed in the 1880s and restored into a serene space of suites, swimming pools and gardens, plus an excellent spa

Exodus Adventure Travels has a ten-day Treasures of Northern Thailand tour including Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi and Bangkok

7. Phuket

Surin beach in Phuket

Surin beach in Phuket

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If you were to skip Bangkok entirely (and thanks to Phuket’s international airport, you can), you may not feel like you’re missing out on that much after a week or two here. Yes, this is a place for beaches, not skyscraper city buzz, but there’s plenty to keep you entertained — excellent restaurants, markets, cookery schools, shrines, elephant sanctuaries, island-hopping options and a seemingly never-ending stream of luxurious hotels. For craft shops and budget beds, try staying in Phuket Town. Or, if you don’t plan on venturing out much, Mai Khao beach’s location close to the airport means you’ll be horizontal on your lounger in under an hour. For something quieter — and family-friendly — head north up the coast to Koh Lak, or inland for the rainforest of Khao Sok National Park. For an island experience without much effort, jump on a boat across the Andaman to Koh Yao Yai or Koh Yao Noi.

Make it happen

Flush foodies descend on Trisara Phuket, dining at the counter of its Michelin-star restaurant, Pru, and Michelin green star restaurant, Jampa. If it’s a little pricey to sleep here, then splash the cash for a special meal

Cosmos has a 14-day Tantalising Thailand tour, finishing up with three days soaking up the sun in Phuket

Best hotels in Phuket

8. Golden Triangle

A giant Buddha at Sop Ruak in the Golden Triangle

A giant Buddha at Sop Ruak in the Golden Triangle

ALAMY

Elephant sanctuaries, coffee plantations and slow, meandering rivers draw people to this forest-dense region in northern Thailand, on the border with Laos and Myanmar. There’s plenty to do here, from the Hall of Opium museum, which tracks the region’s turbulent history, to bike rides through the countryside, and from long-tail boat cruises along the Mekong to trips to mountain communities. Slow the pace and allow a few days.

Make it happen

Anantara and Four Seasons are your most luxe options here (with elephants on site), but Buakham Rim Khong is a more affordable option in Chiang Rai, with Mekong river views and food stalls just seconds away

Trailfinders has a 13-day Absolute Luxury trip with time in Bangkok, the Golden Triangle and Phuket

trailfinders.com

9. Khao Yai National Park

Haew Suwat Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park

Haew Suwat Waterfall in Khao Yai National Park

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“Great wine” may not be the first words that come to mind on a visit to Thailand, but there are some excellent tasting vineyards to visit in the Unesco-listed site of Khao Yai National Park, around a two-hour drive from Bangkok. It’s not the only reason to head here: serene hikes and horse rides, waterfalls (including the one from The Beach), and wildlife including elephants, owls and bears. If you’re craving greenery, factor in a few days here.

Make it happen

Explore the area from one of the seriously chic safari-style tents at Marasca Khao Yai. Kids — and big kids — will love the luxe “glamper van”, plus playground, bike rental and veg picking

Tailor-made tours with Wild Frontiers can take in Khao Yai National Park, cities and islands. The Classic Thailand itinerary is a good place to start

10. Kanchanaburi

A longtail boat on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi

A longtail boat on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi

ALAMY

The ominous-sounding “Death Railway” is what draws some people to this laid-back town. Built during the Second World War, the line crosses the Death Railway Bridge, and the nearby Jeath War Museum honours the prisoners of war who died building this Thai-Burma railway. Others come for more lighthearted fun, like sleeping in a floating glamping tent on the River Kwai, or cruising downstream on a bamboo raft, before a wander around the town.

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Chez Bure is a pretty homestay option with a great location, just a ten-minute walk from the bridge

Intrepid Travel has a 12-day hike, bike and kayak trip taking in Kanchanaburi, the River Kwai, Chiang Mai and the northern hill tribes

Best family hotels in Thailand
Best hotels in Thailand
Best beaches in Thailand

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