10 best things to do in Thailand

It’s approaching 20 years since my first visit to Thailand, and on every trip I’ve gone in with a long “to do” list. Because everybody needs an overwhelming holiday checklist, right? OK, perhaps not everybody — but this level of organisation does mean I’ve covered a lot of ground, experiencing the country in my late teens (hi, full moon party); twenties and mid-thirties (hello, life-changing spa retreat). Street food, sand and sea are always a go-to for me, but there’s so much more to do here than burning through historical fiction on the beach scoffing £1 pad thais (although do also make time for this). Whether it’s the first time or the 15th, there are dozens of things you shouldn’t miss.

Main photo: a vendor prepares food at a floating market (Getty Images)

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If you only have . . .

One week Bangkok and beach-hopping in Phuket

Two weeks Bangkok, temples in Chiang Mai and beaches in Koh Lanta

Three weeks Bangkok, temples in Chiang Mai, island hopping and cooking classes in Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao

A tight budget Bangkok and hill tribe homestay in the north and beach-hopping in Krabi

1. Tour Bangkok by night

View of the street and lights of Bangkok, Thailand, from a tuk-tukView of the street and lights of Bangkok, Thailand, from a tuk-tuk
The view from a tuk-tuk of Bangkok at night (Getty Images)

Nothing quite beats the thrill of seeing Bangkok by night. I’m not talking about the backpacker hub of Khaosan Road (although don’t dismiss it, it makes for a fun, eye-opening wander), but the other parts of the city that come alive at night — and there’s no better way to take it all in than whizzing around in a tuk-tuk. On your list? Smoky stalls sizzling with pancakes and noodles, the 24-hour flower market, a glimpse of the glittering Chao Phraya river and an illuminated temple or two. Don’t make the mistake of only sightseeing in the city during the day — in fact, grab a few relaxed hours by the pool during sunlight and conserve your energy for after dark, when the city really starts to impress. 

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This night-time tuk-tuk tour zips around Bangkok’s temples and markets — with plenty of time for food and drink too

G Adventures has a seven-day tour of the country, including Bangkok’s night markets and a cruise of its canals on a traditional klong boat, plus time in Chiang Mai

2. Learn to cook an authentic curry

Ingredients for a Thai green curry pasteIngredients for a Thai green curry paste
After a Thai cookery class you’ll be able to turn this into a green curry paste (Getty Images)

Sorry to say it, but once you’ve tasted a curry in Thailand you’ll quickly realise how substandard your own home-cooked versions have been. Learn how to rustle up an authentic curry from scratch in one of the country’s expert and inexpensive cookery schools, or inquire at restaurants and hotels for something more informal. Whether you commit to an afternoon or a week, you’ll learn about complex flavour combinations and failsafe methods, and come away armed with secret sauces for your pad thais and delicious paste recipes for your curries.

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A one-day Thai cooking course in Phuket will teach you how to make classics such as green curry and mango sticky rice

Intrepid Travel’s Thailand Real Food Adventure is eight days of cooking and eating with locals in Bangkok and Chiang Mai

3. Go beach-hopping 

A in the Emerald Cave at Koh Mook in Trang province, ThailandA in the Emerald Cave at Koh Mook in Trang province, Thailand
Swimming in the Emerald Cave at Koh Mook in Trang province (Getty Images)

Yes, you could fly to Thailand and hole up in your hotel for a week, enjoying its pool and beach. But . . . with 1,430 islands in the country, it’s definitely worth venturing out to some more film-worthy stretches of sand and lagoons you may never have never known existed. You can do this either with day trips on colourful wooden long-tail boats (head to the beach and agree a price if you prefer to wing it), by booking a day tour in advance or by building it into your itinerary with longer stays at some of the bigger islands. If you’re keen to see the beach — the one made famous by the big-screen interpretation of Alex Garland’s novel — then you’ll need to book a trip to Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi.

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This full-day Krabi and Phi Phi Islands tour includes plenty of snorkelling and sunbathing

Not in the Guidebooks’ Exploring, Elephants, and Island Hopping: The Complete Thai Experience is a 12-day trip with time spent hopping between islands in the Trang province

4. Take a beginner’s Muay Thai course

A Muy Thai training session in ThailandA Muy Thai training session in Thailand
In action at a Muay Thai training session (Getty Images)

You’ve tasted the food, snorkelled at the beaches, but now it’s time to master the national sport. Muay Thai, a combat sport that resembles kickboxing, doesn’t have to be as difficult as it looks (for the easiest version of it, try a night at Rajadamnern Stadium watching a match with a few chilled beers). Even better, get involved at a local gym. You’ll be kitted out with boxing gloves and bandages and learn some of the key moves using your fists, knees and even your elbows and shins.

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Take a two-hour beginner’s Muay Thai class in Koh Samui

Wild Frontiers arranges tailor-made tours to Thailand to include activities such as Muay Thai, and 12-day trips include Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket

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5. Hit the markets 

A train rolls through Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, ThailandA train rolls through Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram, Thailand
A train rolls through Maeklong Railway Market (Alamy)

Night markets, street food markets and markets with functioning train lines running through them — that’s what you’ll find at Maeklong Railway Market in Samut Songkhram. Here, vendors lay out their items on the train tracks and when the signal shows a train approaching everything is quickly scooped back out of the way. For something a little less frantic, try the floating markets in Bangkok. Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market has boats laden with fruits, Thai snacks and desserts and is a more authentic experience than Damnoen Saduak.

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You might recognise the Bangkok market right next to the railway tracks — this tour takes you there, as well as to a floating one

Wendy Wu has an 11-night Thailand Highlights group tour taking in the railway market, Pak Khlong Talaat Flower Market in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and more

6. Sleep in a floating raft house 

Raft houses on Cheow Lan lake in Khao Sok National Park, ThailandRaft houses on Cheow Lan lake in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand
Raft houses on Cheow Lan Lake in Khao Sok National Park (Alamy)

Thailand’s beaches tend to steal all the watery glory, which is a shame, given the beauty of some of its lakes. Cheow Lan (easily reachable from Koh Lak, north of Phuket) is a prime example. It’s set in Khao Sak National Park, where limestone mountains, the world’s oldest evergreen rainforest and emerald lakes collide. You can visit for a day for a jungle hike and boat trip, but to really appreciate the serenity, book in for a couple of nights at one of the simple, floating raft houses (or more luxurious bungalows) which bob on the water. You’ll spot wildlife on guided canoe safaris and be lulled to sleep by the lake each night. 

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Sleep in a floating raft house on this two-day trip to Cheow Lan Lake

7. Stay with the northern hill tribes

A Lahu woman weaving in Chiang Rai province, ThailandA Lahu woman weaving in Chiang Rai province, Thailand
A Lahu woman weaving in Chiang Rai province (Alamy)

Witness the daily lives of the northern hill tribes with a several-day stay in their village homes. Facilities are simple but comfortable, with rented roll mats laid out on wooden or bamboo floors. When you’re not spending time with the villagers, seeing them cook in bamboo cups, and working with their animals, you’ll be trekking in the mountains, passing pineapple plantations, rice fields and waterfalls. Again, visit with a reputable operator — Intrepid Travel arranges stays with the Lahu tribal village (approximately 200 people) and Akha tribal village (about 43 families).

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Intrepid Travel has a 15-day Beautiful Northern Thailand trip with multi-day treks through the hill tribe villages, plus time in Bangkok, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai

8. Go scuba diving

A streaked spinefoot, or Java rabbitfish, at Koh Tao, ThailandA streaked spinefoot, or Java rabbitfish, at Koh Tao, Thailand
A streaked spinefoot, or Java rabbitfish, gets close to the camera at Koh Tao (Alamy)

Backpackers flock to Thailand to get their scuba qualifications without having to pay a fortune to do so. Pick up your Padi in Koh Samui or Phuket, then venture out to the smaller island of Koh Tao, which is known for its laid-back, big-hotel-free vibes and excellent dive scene — sea turtles, neon-blue fish and coral come as standard, but the Chumphon Pinnacle dive site is a favourite. Get lucky and you’ll see some blacktip reef sharks. Don’t fret: they are very timid, and you’re safe snorkelling close to them in Shark Bay, or at one of the deeper sites.

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See the waters of Koh Tao underwater with this two-day dive trip from Koh Samui

9. Find your Zen on a temple tour 

Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, in Chiang Rai, ThailandWat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, in Chiang Rai

It’s tempting to stick to the sea-and-sand combination but for something more cultured, head for the temples in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. A tour will zip you around several of them easily, from Wat Rong Khun (or the White Temple), an ornate and startling Buddhist temple, and the serene Wat Phra Kaew temple, which is surrounded by forest. It’s active, so you’ll catch a glimpse of monks who live and study in the grounds. Time for another? Head for the relatively crowd-free Blue Temple, known as Wat Rong Seur Ten.

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This full-day tour takes you around the majestic temples of Chiang Rai

10. Walk with gentle giants

Elephants eat sugar cane in Chiang Mai, ThailandElephants eat sugar cane in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Elephants eat sugar cane in Chiang Mai (Alamy)

See elephants — responsibly — by visiting an elephant sanctuary. There are several dotted across the country, and you’ll know if the organisation is working in an ethical way if they don’t encourage you to touch (or ride) the elephants themselves (if you’re unsure, then book with a company that’s committed to sustainable adventures, such as Intrepid Travel). The Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai is one of the best examples of elephant conservation, and worth the trip north just to pay a visit.

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Intrepid Travel’s three-day Chiang Mai and Elephant Experience visits the ChiangChill sanctuary and allows visitors to observe the everyday life of the elephants

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