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Things to Do in Thailand

Long holding the title of Southeast Asia’s most popular vacation spot, Thailand is paradise-by-numbers with its tropical islands, lush jungle, and sun-bleached sands. But it’s not just the beaches that bring travelers back time and time again—Thailand’s most enduring asset is its people and their ever-present smiles and unabashed hospitality. The capital of Bangkok, with its bustling streets, colorful night market, beautiful Buddhist temples, and the Grand Palace complex (home to the sacred Temple of the Emerald Buddha), is the obvious starting point. Just outside of the city, the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while the Damnoen Saduak floating market offers a fascinating glimpse into traditional Thai life. In southern Thailand, beach lovers can set sail for Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, where the surrounding islands offer ample opportunities for snorkeling and scuba diving. Over on the Andaman Sea Coast, the sandy beaches and golden temples of Phuket are the precursor to the dramatic landscapes of Phang Nga Bay, James Bond Island, and the Phi Phi islands, where "The Beach" was filmed. Far from the beaches of the south, the sweeping highlands of northern Thailand mark out the borders with Laos and Myanmar. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are the main destinations, where adventurous travelers can try white-water rafting, observe elephants, or join a trekking tour to explore the remote hill tribe villages.
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Nang Yuan Island (Koh Nang Yuan)
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With its golden sands and clear water, Nang Yuan Island (Koh Nang Yuan) is the poster child of southern Thailand. Hike the rocky, forested landscape; swim and snorkel in crystalline water; or just relax in relative quiet. Nang Yuan sees only a fraction of the crowds that flock to its neighbors.

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White Temple (Wat Rong Khun)
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With brilliant white spires, eaves, and bridges that all glitter in the sunshine and reflect in surrounding pools, the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is Chiang Rai’s signature sight. The building’s surroundings and interior are filled with art inspired by everything fromThe Matrix, to Hello Kitty andKung Fu Panda.

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Vana Nava Water Jungle
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Covering 8 acres (3 hectares) of downtown Hua Hin, Vana Nava Water Jungle is one of Thailand’s largest water parks. In addition to around 20 slides and rides, some of which will thrill even adults, the park has a kids’ zone, food options, massage stations, and retail outlets. The adventure area features a ropes course, surf simulator, and climbing wall.

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Grand Palace
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Bangkok’s glittering Grand Palace is one of the most popular attractions in the Thai capital. Built in 1782, this sprawling 54-acre (21.8-hectare) complex served as the royal court and administrative seat of Thailand for 150 years. Today, while it continues to host royal Thai functions, the palace also impresses swathes of visitors with its intricate golden-spired architecture and cultural history.

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Koh Tan (Koh Taen)
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In stark contrast to its famed northerly neighbor, tiny and sleepy Koh Tan tempts visitors with empty beaches and vehicle-less roads just three miles and a 15-minute boat ride south of Koh Samui’s southern tip. Koh Tan (also spelled Koh Taen, Ko Taen, and Ko Tan) is sometimes also called Coral Island for its diversity of colorful hard and soft corals, and it often serves as a popular day-long escape for snorkel or kayak excursions through its clear inshore waters. Though the island doesn’t have quite the aquatic diversity of other more remote locations, it still affords excellent snorkeling, relatively empty beaches and navigable mangrove swamps all very close to a major tourist hub. Longboats make the crossing daily and usually stop at several unique coral spots around the island.

On land, Koh Tan spans only three square miles, and its population barely tops 30 people; their rustic lifestyle with limited electricity affords a glimpse of what much of Thai Island-living was like decades ago. Koh Tan also has a thriving population of monitor lizards, a boardwalk through a mangrove forest, a quaint local temple, a handful of local restaurants and a cluster of bungalow-style accommodations.

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Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
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Khao Sam Roi Yot, which translates roughly to “the mountain with three hundred peaks,” protects the largest wetlands area in Thailand, a freshwater marsh that comprises over a third of the national park’s total area. Outdoor enthusiasts come to the park to explore its beaches, caves and marshlands, where an estimated 300 species of birds make their home for all or part of the year. Other park residents include crab-eating macaque, barking deer, Malayan pangolin, dusky leaf monkey, fishing cats, wild elephants and guar.

Apart from the wildlife, the park’s most popular feature is Phraya Nakhon Cave, arguably one of the most spectacular caves in all of Southeast Asia. Its spectacular chamber houses a stunning gold and green pavilion — a sight that few visitors to Thailand are lucky enough to see for themselves.

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Doi Inthanon National Park
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Rising 8,415 feet (2,565 meters) above sea level, Mt. Doi Inthanon, situated in the center of Doi Inthanon National Park, is Thailand’s tallest mountain. While many visitors strive to see the views from its summit, the surrounding forests, waterfalls, stupas—dome-shaped Buddhist shrines—and trails are just as impressive.

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Kanchanaburi War Cemetery
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Also known as the Don-Rak War Cemetery, the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery commemorates victims of the building of the Burma Railway during World War II.

Located on Saeng Chuto Road, the main road of the city of Kanchanaburi, the cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and contains the graves of Australian, British and Dutch POWs who were forced into labor by the Japanese, who controlled the area at the time of the Burma Railway construction.

A nearby privately funded museum, the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum, contains interactive displays describing the history of the railway and the prisoners who died building it.

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Burma Railway (Death Railway)
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Built by forced laborers under the control of the Japanese Army at the height of World War II, Thailand’s Burma Railway (Death Railway) is a 258 mile (415 kilometer) long railway line designed to connect Thailand and Myanmar. Although its existence serves as a grim landmark of recent history, the Burma Railway remains one of the country’s key historical attractions.

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James Bond Island (Ko Khao Phing Kan)
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A starring role in the 1974 James Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun” put the towering limestone islands of Ko Khao Phing Kan and the 66-foot-tall (20-meter) islet Ko Tapu firmly on Thailand’s tourist trail. While boats are forbidden from getting too close to the islands, opportunities for sightseeing abound in the surrounding area.

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More Things to Do in Thailand

Temple of the Dawn (Wat Arun)

Temple of the Dawn (Wat Arun)

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Easily one of Bangkok’s most visually striking landmarks, the Temple of the Dawn (Wat Arun) towers over the Chao Phraya River. Its colorfully decorated spires are the star features—the temple’s central prang stands 260 feet (79 meters) tall and is intricately decorated with tiny pieces of colored glass and Chinese porcelain.

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Chao Phraya River (Mae Nam Chao Phraya)

Chao Phraya River (Mae Nam Chao Phraya)

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Every great city has a river, and Bangkok’s is the Chao Phraya (Mae Nam Chao Phraya). Alive with traditional long-tail boats, passenger ferries, and cargo boats, the Chao Phraya River is the lifeblood of the city. It winds past both ancient temples and modern high-rises, offering a unique, local perspective on the Thai capital.

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Khao Sok National Park

Khao Sok National Park

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Khao Sok National Park is a secluded pocket of southern Thailand that contains one of the oldest rainforests on the planet. The area is characterized by rugged limestone formations, dense greenery, and turquoise waters. The park also harbors a variety of wildlife, such as sambar deer, sun bears, Malayan tapirs, and 200 species of birds.

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Sanctuary of Truth (Prasat Sut Ja-Tum)

Sanctuary of Truth (Prasat Sut Ja-Tum)

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Thailand’s answer to Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família cathedral, the Sanctuary of Truth (Prasat Sut Ja-Tum) was begun in 1981 and is scheduled for completion around 2050. The wooden structure is a whopping 345 feet tall (105 meters tall), hand-carved by artisans using traditional techniques, and full of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures.

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Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon

Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon

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Wat Yai Chai Mongkol is an ancient Buddhist temple situated to the southeast of Ayutthaya. It was built in 1357 by King U­thong to house returning monks who had gone to study practical Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

In 1592, King Naresuan built the temple’s iconic bell­-shaped chedi after a victory over Burma. This towering chedi can be seen from far and wide and features a platform offering wonderful views of the temple site and city beyond. Wat Yai Chai Mongkol was then destroyed by the Burmese in the mid­-18th century, and was only rebuilt to its former glory in 1957.

The temple’s beautifully­ manicured gardens make this one of Ayutthaya’s most scenic and photogenic temple complexes. Perhaps the biggest attraction for most visitors however is the seven­-meter reclining Buddha located near its entrance, which lays claim to being one of the largest outdoor reclining Buddha statues in Thailand.

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JEATH War Museum

JEATH War Museum

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The JEATH War Museum is a museum in Kanchanaburi dedicated to the story of the men who worked on the Death Railway. JEATH is an acronym for the different nationalities of the POWs that worked on the construction of the bridge between 1942 and 1943 (Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, and Holland).

The museum displays the actual items that were used for the construction of the Death Railway. It also exhibits a large number of photographs taken by prisoners at the time, including graphic images of the harsh conditions that the men lived and worked in. One of the three galleries featuring such photographs is housed within a bamboo hut that’s an exact replica of the shelters that the POWs lived in during this time. There also written accounts,correspondence, interviews, and artwork by the prisoners that were forced to work on the bridge, along with a number of personal effects. In addition, the museum is home to a bomb dropped by the allies to destroy the bridge but that failed to explode.

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Ang Thong National Marine Park

Ang Thong National Marine Park

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The 42 karst islets of Ang Thong National Marine Park (Mu Koh Ang Thong) in southern Thailand comprise a picturesque seascape spanning more than 95 square miles (246 square kilometers). These limestone pinnacles harbor secluded powdery beaches, sheer cliffs, and caves, and are home to myriad birds, monkeys, dolphins, and other wildlife.

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Sukhothai Historical Park (Historic Town of Sukhothai)

Sukhothai Historical Park (Historic Town of Sukhothai)

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Nearly 200 different ruins are strewn across the 27-square-mile (70-square-kilometer) Sukhothai Historical Park (Historic Town of Sukhothai), including towering Buddhas, ornate palaces, and crumbling temples. The UNESCO World Heritage Site—one of Thailand’s most impressive—hints at what the country’s first capital might have looked like in its golden age.

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Phra Nang Beach (Phranang Beach)

Phra Nang Beach (Phranang Beach)

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Phranang Beach is a sweeping curve of pale gold sand that’s backed by limestone cliffs and overlooked by the distinctly-shaped Chicken Island. Phra Nang Cave (Princess Cave) features a one-of-a-kind fertility shrine, while bioluminescent plankton create spectacular night-time effects when conditions are right.

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Bridge on the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

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The iconic Bridge on the River Kwai is part of the world’s collective historical memory. The site of many POW’s deaths during World War II, it is now the site of the JEATH War Museum and is close to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

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Coral Island (Koh Larn)

Coral Island (Koh Larn)

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With crystal clear water, plentiful coral reefs, and beautiful stretches of fine white sand, Thailand’s Coral Island (Koh Larn) is a veritable paradise. Take a day trip to this popular spot—about 4.5 miles (7 km) off the coast of Pattaya—to enjoy beaches and a variety of water sports, including scuba diving and snorkeling.

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Emerald Cave (Tham Morakot)

Emerald Cave (Tham Morakot)

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Emerald Cave (Tham Morakot) takes its name from the water’s vivid green color and is one of the most popular attractions in Thailand’s Trang islands. At first blush the cave looks like only a hole in a limestone cliff—but once you venture inside the dark entrance, a paradisiacal, sunny white beach appears.

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Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho)

Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho)

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One of the oldest, largest and most revered temple complexes in Bangkok, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho) is a must-see for all visitors to the Thai capital. The central attraction of the temple complex is its namesake statue, the gold-leaf-covered reclining Buddha, but don't let it distract you from the site's other treasures, including its 95 pagodas, carved narrative panels, and opulent main altar.

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Phi Phi Islands (Koh Phi Phi)

Phi Phi Islands (Koh Phi Phi)

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From the emerald waters of the Andaman Sea, the jungle-shrouded limestone cliffs of Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands rise majestically, giving way to white-sand beaches and lush green jungles further inland. Longtail boats putter between the islands, collectively known as Koh Phi Phi or Ko Phi Phi, surrounded by turquoise waters and colorful marine life.

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