Thailand – the land of smiles – is often associated with young backpackers searching for ‘full moon beach parties’… And while you will find these in abundance in some parts of the country, that is certainly not all this gorgeous destination has to offer.
Thailand is a traveler’s dream, bursting with culture, architecture, history, and nature. Think, opulent royal palaces, ornate temples, ancient ruins, sandy white beaches, wildlife-laden jungles, quiet villages, modern cities, and friendly locals. The food alone is enough to tempt most people to Thailand’s shores!
We’d say there are two very different sides to Thailand – bustling, energetic, and sometimes, a bit seedy, versus chilled, spiritual, and minimal. What side you experience will entirely depend on where you choose to go. If you’re after the backpacker and full moon party experience, you will easily find it, but if you’re after a vacation that allows you to engage with culture and nature, you can absolutely find that too.
Keep reading to learn more about the country and discover our favourite places in Thailand for nature, culture, and relaxation.
Food and drink
Not much beats authentic Thai food – packed with strong flavours, an aromatic edge, and tonnes of spice, comprising curries, salads, and noodle and rice dishes. Our favourites include pineapple fried rice, Geang Keow Wan Gai (Thai green curry), Pad See Ew (Thai stir-fried noodles), Tom Yum Gong (a hot and sour soup), and of course, spring rolls.
If you can’t handle spice, make sure to tell the person making your food – Thai food tends to come spicy, as standard.
Dessert lovers will be satiated too, with traditional treats like mango sticky rice, banana fritters, and rotis with banana and condensed milk. It’s a foodie’s paradise!
Located 55km west of Phang-Nga and 73km from Phuket airport, Khao Lak is an easy-to-access area of Thailand that is renowned for its beauty. Less touristy and much quieter than other Thai beach destinations, Khao Lak is abundant in gorgeous forests, mountains, and beaches. We recommend taking your time to visit as many of Khao Lak’s beaches as possible, making sure not to miss Pak Weep Beach, White Sands Beach, and Memories Beach (loved by surfers for its awesome waves!).
If you enjoy a waterfall, make sure to head to Tong Chong Fa, a secluded spot where you can while away hours swimming and gazing at its beauty. Wildlife-lovers will also want to visit the Royal Thai Navy Third Fleet Turtle Nursery, located just 15 minutes outside of Khao Lak. It has various pools where the turtles are rehabilitated, before being released back into the wild. Magical.
Khao Lak is also the main departure point for trips to the famed Similian Islands, visited by many for their crystal-clear waters, pristine beaches, and incredible snorkelling and diving sites. Most hotels will offer tailor-made day trips to the Similian Islands, but there are also plenty of tour operators available in Khao Lak Town to book through if you want the most competitive prices.
While Khoa Lak is a welcoming and beautiful destination, it has a heart-breaking past. Devastated by the Tsunami of 2004, the local towns have been completely rebuilt in recent years by locals and foreign aid workers. Make sure to visit the International Tsunami Museum, a poignant place that remembers those who lost their lives. The power of the natural disaster is no more evident than just outside the museum, where the waves swept in and dumped a Thai Navy Patrol Boat T-813 – more than 2km inland!
Support the locals by dining in at some of the area’s top restaurants, we recommend Qcumber, Takrai Thai, and Mojo in the Khuk Khak subdistrict. If dining at Mojo, make sure to try the Massaman Curry – full of flavour and hearty veg, you won’t be disappointed. For those of you that enjoy live music, stop by cosy music bar, Acoustic – grab a Mai Thai and a boardgame, and listen to locals covering famous songs from around the world.
If you want to stay in luxury, look no further than Kalima Resort and Villas, a brand-new five-star establishment. This hidden gem sits in a secluded area surrounded by mangrove forests and rubber plantations, boarded by river estuaries. With an onsite spa, a library-lounge, coffee bar, fitness centre, kids club, sports centre, three restaurants, two bars, five pools and its own private beach, Kalima is ideal for families and couples alike.
Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok might really be the crown jewel of Thailand, with the National Park attracting visitors from around the world. Situated on the mainland between Phuket, Krabi, Khao Lak, and Koh Samui, Khao Sok is a must-visit destination if you’re spending any time in southern Thailand (and if you’re not, we recommend taking the detour!).
Khao Sok National Park is a rainforest with an immense biodiversity of native plants and animals, plenty of waterfalls, majestic limestone cliffs, and a spectacular lake (which has to be seen with your own eyes to be truly appreciated). It has the world’s oldest coverage of evergreen trees (more ancient than the Amazon), with scientists estimating that the first trees started growing there a staggering 160 million years ago.
There are plenty of day trips and ecotours into Khao Sok National Park, where you can trek through the rainforest, spot wildlife (like gibbons, elephants, and black giant squirrels), and swim or kayak in the area’s turquoise waters. These tours can be arranged by nearby hotels, or through operators online or in neighbouring Khao Sok Village (locally called Khlong Sok).
One of the best ways to experience the National Park though, is by staying on one of the floating lake house resorts on Cheow Larn Lake. These stays can also be booked through local hotels and tour operators and vary massively depending on your budget and activity preferences. Most include food, drink, and experiences in the price, with some providing basic hut-type accommodation, and others providing luxury chalets. Family run, Praiwan Raft House, is highly recommended, with warm staff, comfortable mid-range lodgings, incredible home-cooked Thai food, and immersive lake tours and jungle treks.
If you have a thing for temples, prepare to be awestruck. The Historic City of Ayutthaya is a World Heritage Site, and for good reason. Founded c. 1350, Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai (in north-central Thailand); flourishing between the 14th and 18th centuries, it grew to be one of the world’s largest and most cosmopolitan urban areas, as well as a centre of global diplomacy and commerce. Sadly, the spectacular city was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century, who, forced inhabitants to abandon Ayutthaya and burnt it to the ground. Luckily, there are many beautiful remains, with fragments characterised by the prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries, hinting at the city’s former splendour.
Stay in one of the neighbouring villages and spend a whole day or two exploring Ayutthaya’s magical ruins, either by foot or by bicycle (ask your hotel about bike hiring and private tours, if you wish). Some of our favourite places to stay include Cattani’s Riverside Home (privately-run villas in gorgeous surroundings, based 4.5 miles from Ayutthaya historical Park), and Phuttal Residence (a hotel with stunning gardens and river views and traditional Thai rooms, just 1.2 miles from Ayutthaya Historical Park). The villages around Ayutthaya Historical Park are fairly quiet, with the main draw being the ruins, however, do explore – there are lovely walks and night markets to visit, as well as authentic Thai restaurants to try.
Koh Phi Phi
If you know anything about Koh Phi Phi, you’re probably thinking, ‘Why are you featuring a party destination in a ‘nature, relaxation and culture’ travel round up?!’. But hear us out. Koh Phi Phi is a sizeable island, with two very different sides. Yes, one side is, er, a bit seedy, with tacky bars, hotels, restaurants, and shops littering the land like rubbish, but the eastern side of the island is quite different. With just a few modest family-run bungalows, and stunning white sand coves, east Phi Phi is the perfect place to escape to for relaxation.
Quiet, coral-laden Hat Rantee is home to lovely beach resort, The Cove, which comprises an assortment of bungalows spread across the beach and up the island’s gentle slope. There isn’t much to do once you’re there, but that’s the beauty of it – spend your time reading on the beach, snorkelling in the bay’s coral reef, kayaking, and sipping freshly-made banana daquiris in the bar. The friendly hotel also offers boat trips and tours to nearby sites, like the famous Pileh Bay, Hat Phak Nam, Viking Cave, Monkey Beach, and Maya Bay (made famous in The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio).
If you do want to experience Phi Phi in all its hedonistic glory, you can join other party-goers by booking a boat taxi through the hotel to take you across to the main party of the island. There, you can dance the night away on soft sand, before returning to the east’s quiet shores by boat.
One thing we will say about Koh Phi Phi, is that the boats never stop. While this is great for getting around, it does mean that ear plugs are required for sleeping if your accommodation has thin walls and is situated on a beach!
Other must-visit Thai destinations:
- Chiang Mai – a wonderfully laid-back city nestled in Northern Thailand’s splendid mountains.
- Railay – a beach destination off the coast of Krabi, with dramatic limestone karsts.
- Sukhothai – a Historical Park packed with the remains of World Heritage-Listed Archaeological sites.
- The Northern Hill Tribes – trek through gorgeous jungle and visit Hill Tribe villages to learn more about the history and culture of the remarkable people.
- Koh Lanta – with spacious beaches and a remarkable elephant sanctuary, Following Giants.