The best places to visit in Thailand for first-time visitors are an unforgettable combination of historic cities full of temples and Thai street food, and sandy beaches with turquoise seas and palm trees. It is a magical destination in Southeast Asia to enjoy some days on the most beautiful beaches in the world as well as hop on a cultural journey with cooking workshops, temples and historic sights. This blog makes the perfect first-time traveler’s guide to Thailand, introducing you to the best places to visit in Thailand for first timers!
Thailand tips for first timers
If you are considering Thailand as a travel destination, it is worth taking some things into consideration when visiting Thailand for the first time.
#1 Don’t try to visit too many places on your first trip. If you’re researching Thailand and reading blog posts like this about the best places to visit in Thailand for first-timers, you’ll probably get excited about each and every place in the country. Unless you’re planning to spend at least one or two months in Thailand, you’ll have to make a choice. You can’t visit each temple, every single island and all Thai cities in one trip. Pick your favorites and stick with them, so you don’t spend half of your Thailand trip traveling between destinations instead of enjoying them.
#2 Choose between an organised tour or self-guided backpacking trip. Thailand is known as a popular backpacking destination. The country is budget-friendly, there are many great hostels, young backpackers love the famous beach parties and it is easy to meet fellow backpackers as there are simply so many others. Even if full moon parties and hostels are not what you are looking for, traveling around Thailand with a backpack (or suitcase for that matter) is not difficult to arrange by yourself. But an organized trip will bring you to the same highlights in Thailand, though without all the hassle of arranging it yourself. This is the perfect choice if you want a stress-free holiday, if you’re traveling with a family and like to have everything organized, or if you love to let a travel expert pick out the most special and hidden gems.
#3 Get to know the culture. As you’ll probably be visiting many markets and temples and using taxis and tuk-tuks, it is worth the effort to learn about Thai culture. Make sure you dress appropriately at the Thai temples (no shoes and a well-covered body), don’t ever touch a monk if you’re a woman and get comfortable with haggling at markets and souvenir shops. Beware of explicitly agreeing on a fixed price or the use of the taxi meter before starting the trip and don’t say anything insulting about the King and his family.
The highlights Thailand on the map
The best places to visit in Thailand for first timers
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As Thailand’s capital famous for its temples, unique sights and vibrant districts Bangkok is one of the most interesting places in Thailand. Tourists from all over the world come to the capital to take in the nightlife of Khao San Road, the vibrant culture and the beautiful temples. There is probably no other place in Southeast Asia with this many temples: from golden stupas to colorful mosaics to huge Buddhas. You don’t get bored easily in Bangkok.
The highlights of Bangkok you shouldn’t miss? Take a tuk-tuk ride, wander through lively China Town, visit the Grand Palace, enjoy a Thai cooking class, take a boat trip on the Chao Phraya River, try delicious street food, drink cocktails at a sky bar and visit one of the markets. If you want to visit one of the most famous Thai markets, consider a guided day excursion to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
We also highly recommend first-time visitors to soak in the wide variety of temples in Bangkok. Our favorite is the temple Wat Arun on the riverbank. The highlight of this temple is an enormous prang: a white tower with colorful mosaics. You can climb it for a lovely view over the river and the city. You should also visit the main temple Wat Phra Kaew next to the Royal Palace and the Wat Pho directly next to it, known for the largest reclining Buddha. Other highlights are Wat Saket on the Golden Mount, the Wat Benchamabophit of the 5 baht coin, the paintings in Wat Suthat and Wat Traimit in China Town with a Buddha of solid gold.
#2 Chiang Mai
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Chiang Mai is another impressive highlight of Thailand and I have already visited the city twice. This vibrant city in the north has a relaxed atmosphere and beautiful architecture. Chiang Mai is built in a practical way, making it almost impossible to get lost. A square moat surrounds the city, easily recognizable on any Chiang Mai city map. Within this moat is the old town with most of the historic buildings. There are only low-rise buildings and only the many temple tops rise above the rest. There is no motorised traffic, which gives this old centre a totally different vibe from other Asian cities. It may be the second city of Thailand after bustling Bangkok, but here there is tranquility here you won’t find around Bangkok.
Once you leave the old city, the streets are busier. But Chiang Mai is still much unlike Bangkok there as well. And why you would leave the old town? Because there’s so much more than just the ancient monuments. Between the old town and the river to the east, you’ll find many more beautiful temples and some of the best markets. And to the west of the old town are temples as well ánd the best hotspots and coffee bars in town.
The highlights of Chiang Mai are the many temples in and around the city like the well-known Wat Phra Singh, but also the lively markets and the jungle surrounding the city. Chiang Mai is located in the impressive nature of Northern Thailand. There are many possibilities from Chiang Mai to book a tour into the jungle and the mountains: waterfalls, caves, canyons, ziplines, multi-day hikes and the mountain peaks of Doi Inthanon National Park. Do you plan to visit an elephant sanctuary? Then read carefully about those so-called sanctuaries and make sure you visit an ethical place, where the elephants and not the tourists are most important.
#3 Ayutthaya, UNESCO World Heritage Site
recommended by Paul from PaulMarina.com
Ayutthaya is the former capital of Siam, the historical kingdom of Thailand, which was razed down by the Burmese army. Today, Ayutthaya is a complex of temples and ruins located about an hour to the north of Bangkok. The UNESCO World Heritage Site welcomes curious visitors from all over the world.
The former glorious city was an important trading port for the East and the West, strategically located at the confluence of three rivers. For more than 400 years, 33 kings built the prosperous city until it was destroyed in 1767, making it a must-see for all those looking to learn more about Thai culture and history.
Its proximity to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, makes it easy for first-time visitors to get there. The Ayutthaya temple complex is rather large, so it is advised to get around by rickshaw, taxi driver or with a guide. It can get a bit hot during the day but cycling to discover the area is also a great option if done in the morning hours. Elephant rides are also offered, but we would advise against them. We believe that animals are not intended as tourist attractions anyway, but these elephants also are said to be treated very badly.
Some must-see temples include the Wat Phanan Choeng, the oldest and still actively used temple in Ayutthaya. The large gilded Buddha in the teak wood temple dates from the fourteenth century and is breathtakingly beautiful. Wat Mahathat is a temple ruin complex from 1384 and the most popular area for visitors thanks to the iconic Buddha head in the roots. The Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, a bell-shaped temple complex, is an active monastery. Visitors can go up the stairs to get a fabulous view of the area and drop a few bahts into the donation bucket in the shaft. The Wat Phra Si Sanphet is the main temple, know as one of the most photogenic spots in Ayutthaya for its three large stupas.
Most temples are open from 8 am to 6 pm and some temples ask for a small entry fee. Getting a local guide can be helpful to see the best places and to understand the local culture and history.
#4 Koh Samui, popular beach paradise
recommend by Nichola from Family Hotel Expert
Koh Samui is the perfect beach destination for your first visit to Thailand. It is one of the loveliest islands, packed with beautiful beaches, wonderful cultural sights and some fantastic places to eat. Despite it being a much-loved tourist destination, Koh Samui still retains its soul and character. Especially the inland still feels untouched, combining waterfalls, jungle and coconut plantations.
The sandy beaches of Koh Samui are legendary and it’s possible to travel around the island to watch the sunrise and sunset into the sea. The water is beautiful and perfect for paddling right through to scuba diving. To the northeast on a small island you can visit the beautiful 12-meter-high golden Buddha, known as The Big Buddha Temple and officially as Wat Phra Yai. Other cultural highlights include the Secret Buddha Garden, the local markets and the Wat Plai Laem temple.
Koh Samui is the perfect place to try out lots of delicious Thai food too as this island has a great reputation for its dining. There are restaurants dotted all across the island, from street food snacks through to Michelin Star quality eateries. Unlike some areas of Thailand Koh Samui doesn’t feel too over-commercialised. There’s an elephant sanctuary, cookery schools and some great markets to explore on the island.
Some of the best family-friendly resorts in Thailand are based here in Koh Samui and they blend into the landscape beautifully. Chaweng is the most popular town to stay on the island of Koh Samui with most hotel and entertainment options located here. But if alcohol by the bucket is not your reason to visit Koh Samui, we recommend looking for a hotel south of the Chaweng. The Prana Resort is in the lovely Bangrak area and the perfect hotel for visiting Koh Samui. The main resort is set around a beautiful pool and has a bright, airy feel. They also have their own stretch of the beach where you can sit and have dinner or enjoy drinks as the sun sets. If you want to stay closer to the heart of the action then the Centara Reserve Samui is ideal. Set on the quieter side of Chaweng Beach this is a great area for experiencing all the nightlife of this hot spot.
#5 Koh Mook, idyllic fishing island
recommended by Linn from Brainy Backpackers
One of the best places to visit for first-timers in Thailand is the quiet fisherman’s island of Koh Mook, located in the heart of the Andaman Sea. Widely famed for the Emerald Cave, most travelers only visit the cave on a day trip from the nearby Koh Lanta but miss out on the rest of the island. However, there are many things to do in Koh Mook and the chilled vibe is perfect for first-timers in the country.
The beaches in Koh Mook are unbelievable and surprisingly empty which makes it the perfect place to take paradisiacal holiday pictures, but also to relax on the beach in the shade of lazy palm trees. For the adventurous, there are exciting hiking trails taking you through the thick jungle to discover remote beaches. If walking isn’t your jam in the heat, rent a scooter to explore the island, eat local food at a food stall where no one speaks English to get a taste of real mouthwatering Thai food or chat with other travelers at the hotel.
The Emerald Cave is the most-visited highlight of Koh Mook. The best way to discover this gem is to rent a kayak and head there for sunrise before all the tours from nearby islands start flocking the place. You will reach an 80-meter-long cave where you have to kayak through to a magical beach surrounded by steep rock walls on all sides that is only lit up by the sunlight. Remember to bring a waterproof flashlight so that you can see when kayaking through the cave.
There are multiple excellent places to stay in Koh Mook. For luxury, check in at Koh Mook Sivalai Beach Resort where you can relax in the pool and treat yourself to a traditional Thai massage. For a budget alternative, the bungalows at Mookies are simple yet excellent.
#6 Chiang Rai, temple city in Northern Thailand
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Chiang Rai is much overlooked compared to popular Chiang Mai. If you are traveling around Thailand, a day trip to Chiang Rai from Chiang Mai should at the very least be added to your itinerary. If only because of the extravagant and unique temples in and around Chiang Rai. Although the city itself is not particularly spectacular, I chose to stay a few nights in Chiang Rai to explore the temples in a slow pace.
Chiang Rai’s most famous temple is the iconic White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun. The White Temple in Chiang Rai is very different from other temples in this area or even Thailand as it is privately owned. The extravagant white temple building was once bought by a local artist. The temple was in extremely poor condition and the artist devoted his life to rebuilding and restoring it. It cost him a lot of money and a lot of years, though the temple is still not entirely finished. He created one of the most unique temples in Thailand because of its bright white color, symbolizing the Buddhist way to heaven and enlightenment.
Near Chiang Rai you can also find the counterpart of the white temple: the Black Temple, also called Black House or Baan Dam. This is also a work of art, created by the Thai artist Thawan Duchanee. The black temple is beautiful to see, but also somewhat ominous. The temple complex is a green oasis, but the Black House and other structures have some strange and sinister details if you look closely.
One last icon for Chiang Rai is the Blue Temple or Wat Rong Suea Ten. It’s name already suggests the blue color in which the temple was constructed, both outside and indoors. As this temple is also an artist’s project, the Blue Temple offers an interesting mix between modern art and a traditional Thai temple.
Chiang Rai is also a great base to explore this remote corner of Thailand. The jungle is great for trekking around tea plantations and waterfalls. Or book a day trip to the Golden Triangle, once known for its opium cultivation and now for its hill tribes and tea and coffee plantations.
Although Chiang Rai makes a great day trip from Chiang Mai, we suggest staying one or two nights to have enough time to visit all three temples and perhaps explore the area. For travelers from Thailand to Laos, Chiang Rai also makes a great stop over. We took the direct bus connection between Chiang Rai and Luang Prabang.
#7 Pai, hippie village in Northern Thailand
recommended by Giorgy from G-Extreme Travel
Although Pai is a very small town, it is one of the top attractions in Thailand. Visitors this hippie village in the north of the country, located just over 100 kilometers from Chiang Mai and nearby the Myanmar border. It was once considered a quiet market village inhabited by ethnic Tai, but it is now mainly a popular travel destination. So do not expect an authentic local atmosphere, but do look forward to the relaxed vibe and stunning location in the heart of Thai nature, escaping the crazy and stressful cities like Bangkok.
Pai is known for its’ relaxed atmosphere, spas, elephant camps, and several waterfalls located just outside town along with a number of various natural hot springs. It’s a perfect location also for visiting hill tribes like Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Lahu. Or go for a visit to the Shandicun village known also as the Chinese village located on the outskirts of the town. Something else remarkable and absolutely unmissable is the Pai’s Market happening every Wednesday all-around village. One of the best things to do in Pai is explore the area by scooter. You can drive for a day along the beautiful mountain landscapes, waterfalls and rice fields. A short drive from Pai itself is Pai Canyon, the beautiful Yun Lai viewpoint, waterfalls and natural hot springs.
Nowadays, thank mostly to tourism, Pai gained a lot of popularity, known as a hippie village with a relaxed backpacking atmosphere. Since the increase in tourists, Pai is now full of restaurants, souvenir shops, and full of cheap guesthouses. Pai Smilehouse and the UP2U Guesthouse are both beautiful and cozy places to spend your time in Pai surrounded by absolute nature.
#8 Koh Tao, the diving destination of Thailand
by Natali from She’s abroad again
If you are looking for an island with pristine sandy beaches, clear turquoise water and great diving options, that is not overrun by tourists and still feels like a hidden gem, look no further than Koh Tao. This relatively small island in the Gulf of Thailand is part of the Chumphon Archipelago. You can easily reach it by bus and ferry from Bangkok, or fly to Koh Samui and take a ferry.
As one of the few islands in Thailand, Koh Tao is not known for its great beaches. Although the beaches of this island are still beautiful, travelers mainly come to Koh Tao for its diving and snorkelling opportunities. It is the number one destination in Thailand for underwater activities, so there are many on offer. If diving lessons and a PADI certificate are on your bucketlist, this is your chance!
There are not many sights on the island. But where it lacks in attractions, it makes up in stunning nature and a relaxing atmosphere. Koh Nang Yuan is a must-visit for anyone coming to Koh Tao. It offers the postcard-worthy scenery you came to Thailand for. Once you feel like you’ve spent enough time in the sea, you will be glad to know that there are some great hikes leading to stunning viewpoints, such as a hike to John-Suwan or Mango Viewpoint.
Koh Tao is not a big island, but it is not walkable. Moreover, it is hilly with many steep uphill roads. You will have to rely on taxis if you don’t rent a motorbike. Your base will probably be at Sairee Beach, where most of the island’s nightlife is concentrated and you can enjoy one of many fire shows. If you are looking for a hostel close to the Sairee beach, Save Hostel or Indie Hostel are perfectly located and highly rated. For a more intimate, calm atmosphere, Big Tree Boutique Hotel is a great choice.
#9 Koh Phangan, party island with full moon party
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Koh Phangan is a picture-perfect island with beaches, palm trees and turquoise seas, just as you’d describe the perfect tropical island. So it is hardly a surprise to learn that Koh Phangan is one of the most popular islands among backpackers in Thailand. For the young travelers, the party atmosphere with the infamous full moon parties are a major attraction. Other visitors who don’t get excited by beach parties, are drawn to the island for its pristine beaches and beautiful jungle.
The best way to explore Koh Phangan and find the most beautiful beaches is by scooter. You can rent a scooter for a day in many places. Drive to the hilltop viewpoint at Haad Son for great views of the beach, grab some food at the Thong Sala Night Market and especially enjoy the seafood, explore Koh Phangan’s waterfalls, visit the island’s Chinese temple and take in the most beautiful sunsets.
Backpackers looking for a party should base themselves at party spot Haad Rin Beach. This place comes with many cheap hostels and bars. The west side of the island is not known for its party scene, but its quiet surroundings. Angkana Hotel Bungalows would make a great choice.
#10 Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai
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Kanchanaburi is located in the heart of Thailand. Although it is not particularly worth seeing the city itself, the town on the River Kwai makes the perfect base for many great attractions in the area. It is close to the well-known bridge over the River Kwai, beautiful landscapes with waterfalls and stunning temples.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of Thailand’s most famous landmarks. The railway bridge was built during World War II by Japanese prisoners of war who died en masse during the construction of the bridge and the rest of the railway. It is therefore also called the Death Railway. The most infamous section of the railway is Hellfire Pass, where a small memorial has been erected. The story of this railway near Kanchanaburi got its fame through the famous Oscar-winning movie The Bridge On the River Kwai. From Kanchanaburi you can easily cycle to the railway bridge. Trains still run on the Death Railway, so a train ride is also an option.
Another highlight of Kanchanaburi is Erawan National Park, a beautiful parkf filled with tropical jungle. The most beautiful attraction of the park is the Erawan Waterfall. It is a seven-story cascade waterfall, and some of the waterfall levels are suitable for swimming. Travelers who love culture should visit the temples Wat Ban Tam or Wat Tham Sua. Wat Ban Tam is also called the Dragon Head Cave Temple because of the stairs that lead to a wide open dragon head after which you enter a cave temple. Nicknamed the Tiger Cave Temple, Wat Tham Sua is also an impressive large temple complex.
Due to the great attractions in the area, there are many accommodations in Kanachaburi. Most special are the hotels on the River Kwai, or floatels, like the beautiful Boutique Raft Resort or the luxury River Kwai Resotel. Most floatels have no electricity in the evening and are then romantically lit with oil lamps.
#11 Sukothai Historical Park
recommended by Chenny from Knycx Journeying
Ayutthaya may get the most visitors due to its convenient location near Bangkok, but its counterpart Sukkothai in the heart of Thailand is equally worth a visit. Sukhothai is located in the heart of Thailand and this heritage site captures the rich history and culture of the country’s past of being the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
While it’s possible to organize a day trip to Ayutthaya from Bangkok, it is recommended to visit Sukhothai for a few days. Sukhothai is widely-recognized for its deep-rooted cultural impact on the course of the development of Thailand. The name ‘Sukhothai’, in the local language, means ‘dawn of happiness.’ The city was founded in the 13th century and it was a capital city for over 140 years, just as the Kingdom was experiencing unprecedented prosperity. The result was a wealthy city filled with many temples and extravagant buildings. The ruins are still beautiful to see 700 years later and have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1991.
Sukhothai Historic Park is the highlight of the city and it covers an area of 7,000 hectares, preserving a fallen civilization that was once abandoned centuries ago. Immerse yourself in the magical atmosphere of the historic ruins and learn the fascinating stories of the once mighty kingdom in Siam. A great way to explore the area is to hire a bike and visit each sight at your own pace. You can rent bicycles at most hotels, but also at the entrance of the park.
Nearly 200 Temples and religious sites were discovered and restored today, including Wat Mahathat, Wat Chana Songkhram, Wat Pa Mamuang, Wat Chang Lom, Wat Si Chum, Wat Sorasak, and more. Wat Mahathat is one of the most important temples in the cluster, featuring a giant statue of Buddha, a stupa, and buildings that showcase an insight into Mon Haripunchai-Lanna style architecture, and the people’s way of life in the past.
#12 Krabi, paradise region in Southwest Thailand
recommended by Martina from Places Of Juma
Krabi is definitely one of the absolute most beautiful places to visit in Thailand. First-time visitors in particular will have a blast with this magical Thai destination. This beautiful region is located in the south of Thailand on the Andaman Sea and is easily accessible by flight from Bangkok or a bit more arduous with a long bus ride from Bangkok.
On a trip there you can look forward to one of the absolutely most beautiful places in Thailand. It is known for its rugged limestone cliffs, dense green jungle, snow-white sandy beaches, turquoise sea and beautiful offshore islands! The lively resort of Ao Nang or the picturesque Klong Muang are particularly well suited for a vacation.
One of the most beautiful attractions is the peninsula Railay with the world-famous Railay Beach and the even more beautiful Phra Nang Beach. But also the quiet Tonsai Beach in Krabi is worth a trip. Absolutely recommended is a boat trip to the offshore islands such as Koh Hong, Koh Poda and Chicken Island undertake, where there is a chicken head rock.
If you like, you can go kayaking, explore the mangrove forests, go hiking, go to the Emerald Pool, or climb the countless stairs of the Tiger Cave Temple. Another experience is a visit to Elephant Sanctuary Krabi, dedicated to the welfare of former elephants. If you want to visit an island in the region, Koh Lanta is one of the most popular options. The elongated island is packed with tropical beaches, luxury resorts, seafood restaurants and beach bars.
The best time to visit Krabi is during the winter months, from November to April. At this time of year you can expect a dry climate, pleasant temperatures, plenty of sunshine and clear weather. However, some people also come in the rainy season, because then you can find especially cheap accommodation. The town of Ao Nang is the most popular place on the coast to base yourself while exploring Krabi. A great accommodation tip is the Nakamanda Resort & Spa with a direct beach location, beautiful view, large pool and very nice rooms.
#13 Koh Lanta, Krabi’s most beautiful island
recommended by Allison from RenovatingLife.com
One of Thailand’s most beautiful and most underrated islands lies just southeast of Phuket. Accessible by ferry from Phuket, the trek to reach Koh Lanta is well worth it. A must-visit for first-time travelers to Thailand, you can skip the full moon parties, crowded streets of Bangkok, and over-touristy Banana Pancake trail and head straight to Koh Lanta to bask in everything that is amazing about Thailand.
The long, skinny island has many beaches along the west coast, each with their own personalities. The port town in the north where the ferry docks is well-known by Swedish families. The port area offers a lot of commerce, some great restaurants, and a bit more hustle and bustle. As you head south along the west coast, you’ll encounter several different beach areas tailored to different types of travelers. There’s a backpackers’ beach with low-cost hostels and cheap accommodation. Even further south along the west coast, as the beaches get less rocky and more luxurious, you’ll find beachfront villas and apartments for rent with private pools and beachfront perfect for a romantic getaway or family stay. And even further south lies more secluded accommodations, local bars and restaurants, and stunning beaches that offer a taste of authentic Thailand.
Rent a motorbike for a day to explore the wilder east side of the island where you’ll find some delicious fresh seafood restaurants. Volunteer at the local animal shelter and try not to adopt one of the cute cats or dogs to take home with you. Make friends with the waiter and marvel as he remembers you night after night.
From Koh Lanta you can make several day trips to nearby islands like the high-speed boat that visits Koh Phi Phi or a snorkeling trip to a smaller, lesser-known rustic island for a beachside barbecue and snorkeling.