Historical and cultural attractions
Bangkok is at the beginning of many visitors’ itineraries, and although it is a modern city, it has a rich cultural heritage. Most visitors at least visit the Grand Palace, a group of highly decorated buildings and monuments. Here is Wat Phra Kaew, the holiest Buddhist temple in Thailand and home to the Emerald Buddha. Other cultural attractions include Wat Pho, Wat Arun and Jim Thompson’s house, but this is only a fraction of the sights you could visit.
The ancient capitals of Siam, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, are great for anyone interested in Thailand’s history. The latter could be combined with a visit to Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Khmer architecture is found mainly in Isaan, with the historical remains of Phimai and Phanom Rung being the most significant.
The northern provinces are home to unique hill tribes, often visited on trekking tours. The six main hill tribes of Thailand are the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong, Mien and Lisu, each with their own language and culture. Chiang Mai is a good starting point for organising these treks and has some cultural sites of its own to offer, such as Wat Doi Suthep.
For those interested in more recent history, there are many curiosities in Kanchanaburi related to the Second World War. The bridge over the River Kwai, made famous by the film of the same name, is the most famous, but the museums nearby are even more moving. The “Dead Railway” (tang rod fai sai morana) is the railway built by captured Allied soldiers during World War II. This railway offers beautiful views along its route.
Beaches and islands
Thailand’s beaches and islands attract millions of visitors from all over the world every year. Hua Hin is Thailand’s oldest seaside resort, made famous by King Rama VII in the 1920s as an ideal getaway from Bangkok. Things have changed considerably since then. Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui only became famous in the 1970s and are now by far the most developed seaside resorts.
Krabi province has some beautiful places, including Ao Nang, Rai Leh and the long golden beaches of Ko Lanta. Ko Phi Phi, known as a true island paradise, has seen massive development since the release of the film The Beach in 2000. Ko Pha Ngan offers the best of both worlds, with both well-developed beaches and empty beaches nearby. It is also home to the famous “Full Moon Party”.
Ko Chang is a bit like Ko Samuius used to be. It has a bit of a backpacker side, but is quite casual and there is accommodation in all price ranges. If you’re looking for pristine beaches, Ko Kut is very sparsely populated but also difficult to explore. Ko Samet is the closest island beach to Bangkok, but its northern beaches are quite developed and hotels are almost fully booked on weekends and holidays.
Although not as beautiful as Malaysia or Indonesia, Thailand has its share of tropical forest. Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s first national park, is the closest to Bangkok. Wild tigers and elephants are becoming increasingly rare here, but the macaques, gibbons, deer and bird species are not to be missed. The jungle expanse of Khao Sok National Park is probably even more impressive, and you can spend the night in the middle of the jungle.
There are waterfalls everywhere in Thailand. The Heo Suwat Waterfalls in Khao Yai National Park and the seven-tiered Erawan Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi are among the most visited, but the Thee Lor Sue Waterfalls in Umphang and the eleven-tiered Pa La-u Waterfalls in Kaeng Krachan National Park are equally exciting. Finally, the gravity-defying limestone formations of Phang Nga Bay should not be missed by anyone staying in the area.
- Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai in 3 days – 3 days tour through Northern Thailand, still unknown
- The Mae Hong Son Loop – the popular route through the mountains of Mae Hong Son province
- A day in Bangkok – if you only have one day and want to get an overview of the city
- Rattanakosin Tour – a quick tour of Bangkok’s famous historic district.
- Samoeng Loop – a popular 100km loop for cyclists and motorcyclists through the mountains, starting and ending in Chiang Mai.
- Yaowarat and Phahurat Tour – a day trip through this multicultural district
A Thai temple is called a “wat”. Generally, a temple is not a single building, but a group of buildings, shrines and monuments surrounded by a wall. There are thousands of temples in Thailand, and almost every town or village has at least one. The word “wat” (วัด) literally means school, and the temple has been the only place where formal education has taken place for centuries. A typical Buddhist wat consists of the following structures:
- Bot – The most sacred prayer room, usually only accessible to monks. Its architecture is similar to that of the viharn, but it is usually more ornate and has eight corner pillars to ward off evil. It is also known as the “ordination room” because this is where the monks take their vows.
- Viharn – Normally the busiest 1 Wat room, this is where the main image of the Buddha is located in the temple and people come to make offerings. It is open to all.
- Chedi or Stupa – A tall bell-shaped structure that usually houses relics of the Buddha.
- Prang – A finger-shaped arrow of Khmer and Ayutthayan origin that serves the same religious purpose as a chedi.
- Mondop – An open, square building with four arches and a pyramid-shaped roof. It is often used for the veneration of religious texts or objects.
- Sala – Open-sided pavilion used for relaxation and as a meeting place (and often serves as shelter from the rain).
- Chofah – Bird-shaped ornaments on temple roofs. They are said to represent the Garuda, a mythical creature that is half bird and half man.