12 Best Places to visit in Thailand for first-timers

So you are planning to visit Thailand, great decision, but which are the best places to visit in Thailand for first-timers? Well, today we share our list of the top 12 spots that are bound to ensure this will not be your only trip to the Kingdom of Thailand.

This page contains affiliate links. Please see our disclosure policy for more details.

Thailand is perhaps the quintessential tropical destination. The mere mention of this far eastern nation conjures images of white-sand beaches, swaying palm trees, and golden temples.

Whilst the beautiful islands of southern Thailand are amongst the most idyllic in the world, the country has a lot more to offer and to explore: amazing temples, delicious street food, floating markets, a plethora of national parks, half-a-dozen world heritage sites, and much, much more.

So if you are wondering,

  • What should you aim to take in on your first Siamese sojourn?
  • Which Thai island or beach should you choose?
  • Which temples and cultural sites should not be missed?

Let’s have a look through some of Thailand’s best places to visit for first-time visitors and see which one fits the bill for you.

1. Bangkok

Chances are the bustling city of Bangkok will be your first port-of-call in Thailand, as most long-haul flights will arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport.

The top site in Bangkok is the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s most visited landmark, and home to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha Bangkok
Grand Palace and Emerald Buddha Bangkok

Within walking distance of the Grand Palace, alongside the Chao Phraya River, you can find two more significant temples, or wats, to explore – Wat Pho, famed for being the home of the reclining Buddha and of Thai massage, and Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn.

Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem Floating Market is also close to the Khao San area.

You should also make time to ride the ferry on the Chao Phraya River, visit one of the city’s incredible malls like Icon Siam, or for bargain hunters the MBK Center.

If you have over 3 days try to visit a floating market.

Bangkok City at night time, Hotel and resident area in the capital of Thailand
Many of the riverside hotels offer spectacular views of the city.

Depending on your travel style, there are 3-4 main areas best suited to first-timers.

Look to stay in or around Sukhumvit or Siam for bars and shopping, Chinatown/ Yaowarat for food, the riverside for luxury hotels with a view, or Khao San Road if you are keen to enjoy the backpacker vibe.

The Sukhumvit area is well connected to the Skytrain (BTS) and the metro (MTS), so it is more convenient to explore the city than Khao San Road or the Riverside.

It is the main shopping district of the city, with giant malls such as MBK, Siam Paragon, and Terminal 21, all easily accessible.

Just around the corner from MBK, you should also plan a visit to Jim Thompson House. This museum is the former home of the American designer and silk dealer, and is a treasure trove of antiques, offering insight into Thailand’s more recent past. 

Just around the corner from MBK, you should also plan a visit to Jim Thompson House.

This museum is the former home of the American designer and silk dealer, and is a treasure trove of antiques, offering insight into Thailand’s more recent past. 

2. Chiang Mai

In northern Thailand close to Burma, Chiang Mai is the kingdom’s second-largest city and a great place to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Lotus flowers in front of Chiang Mai Royal Pavilion
Chiang Mai Royal Pavilion

This mountainous area of the country is a little cooler than the heat and humidity of Bangkok, especially in the evenings.

Whilst here, you can summit Thailand’s highest mountain – Doi Inthanon. This is an easy mountain to reach the top of – no technical climbing is involved, just a hike from the car park within Doi Inthanon National Park.

As Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai is also home to a myriad of temples to visit, with Wat Phra That Doi Suthep being the most famous. It is found on the mountain, Doi Suthep to the west of the city. 

In Chiang Mai’s old town, don’t miss Wat Chedi Luang, the Temple of the Great Stupa, that dates back to 1391.

Chiang Mai is also great for shopping, with the Sunday walking street topping the list. However, there are both shopping malls and excellent night markets to explore too.

The Chiang Mai night markets are also a great place to fall in love with Thai street food.

Chiang Mai Wualai Night Markets
Wualai Walking Street Saturday Night Market

For those looking for a chilled vibe, if you travel northwest from Chiang Mai province, you can find yourself lost in the hippyish Pai, with its hot springs and mountain walks. 

A short domestic flight from Bangkok makes it easy to visit Chiang Mai from the country’s capital city. Alternatively, book the overnight train and snooze your way north.

3. Chiang Rai

A little over fifty kilometers from the Burmese border, you can find Chiang Rai – Thailand’s northernmost major city, to the northeast of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Rai is home to Wat Rong Khun, also known as the “White Temple” by tourists.

This temple was rebuilt in the latter part of the last century by artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, and although not the oldest temple in Thailand, the architecture is stunning.

Wat Rong Khun, also known as the "White Temple designed by artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat,
Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple

Another interesting temple to visit in Chiang Rai is Wat Rong Seur Ten, or Blue Temple. Blue Temple is also a contemporary building, finished in 2016, yet the design is striking with its blue color and gold relief. 

This sculpture marks the marks the border of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar aka the Golden Triangle.
The Golden Triangle marks the border of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.

Whilst in this region of the Land of Smiles, you are in a perfect location to take in the Golden Triangle and visit the Hill Tribes of the region.

At the convergence of three countries – Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. This unique region on the Mekong River makes a great day out from Chiang Rai and is definitely worth a visit. 

Chiang Ria is easily reached by bus from Chiang Mai. The 185km trip takes just under four hours. You can also rent a car or motorbike and take a Thai road trip.

4. Ayutthaya Historical Park

Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, more commonly known as Ayutthaya, sits on an island at the point where the Chao Phraya and Pa Sak rivers converge.

This site of historical and cultural significance is reachable as a day excursion from Bangkok.

A temple at Ayutthaya, Thailand
Spend a day or two exploring Ayutthaya’s temples

Some companies offer this as a river cruise. Alternatively, you can jump in a taxi or travel by minibus too—by road, the journey is a little over an hour.

The ancient city of Ayutthaya was founded in 1351 by King U Thong, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site is steeped in Thai history.

Check out the archaeological ruins and the Bang Pa-In Palace and enjoy this historic island city.

Buddha face in tree truck Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya
Wat Mahathat is one of the most photographed spots in Ayutthaya

Join a day tour from Bangkok or plan a DIY trip using the local trains and renting a bicycle or tuk-tuk driver for the day on arrival at Ayutthaya Train Station.

5. Kanchanaburi

Lying a tad over one hundred kilometers to the west of Bangkok, in central Thailand, is Kanchanaburi.

It is perhaps best known for being the setting for The Bridge on The River Kwai, the 1957 epic war film based on the events of the building of the Burma Railway during the Second World War.

River Kwai Bridge Kanchanaburi
River Kwai Bridge Kanchanaburi

Some people opt to stay here for a night or two, next to the river, so they can explore the history of the war and the nearby Erawan National Park.

Erawan Waterfall, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
Erawan Waterfall, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Erawan National Park is a tranquil area of natural beauty, featuring walking trails and natural waterfalls. It is also home to the seven-level Erawan Waterfalls.

For those who are not afraid of an early start, it is possible to take in Kanchanaburi and Erawan National Park on a day trip from Bangkok. You can make this journey by rail or by road. 

6. Phuket

Thailand’s largest and perhaps most famous island has been a favorite for many a year.

With its international airport, you may be able to get a flight from your home directly to this west-coast island; if not, it’s easy to reach from Bangkok with the aid of a short domestic flight south.

If you want to soak up some sun, hit the shops, and party after dark, head to Patong, at the center of Phuket’s west coast.

The shopping area in back streets around Bangla Walking Street in Patong
The shopping area in back streets around Bangla Walking Street in Patong

For something a little less hectic, have a look at Kata and Karon to the south, or Bang Tao, a little to the north of Patong. 

Whilst in Phuket, a must-see is the giant Big Buddha statue, close to Kata.

Phuket Town, with its Sino-Portuguese architecture, is one of Thailand’s oldest cities.

It is a short distance from the Big Buddha and is a great way to spend an afternoon strolling its streets and sampling authentic Thai cuisine.

 The Old Town Phuket Chino Portuguese Style at soi rommanee talang road., Phuket Town,
The colorful buildings of Soi Rommanee in Phuket Town

There are dozens of day trips to enjoy from your base in Phuket, one of the most popular a visit to the infamous James Bond Island.

For ocean lovers, Phuket offers good scuba diving and snorkeling with plenty of island hopping opportunities. 

7. Ko Samui

On the east side of the country, in the Gulf of Thailand, we can find the stunning islands of Koh Tao, Koh Pha-Ngan, and Koh Samui. Samui, being the largest island in this mini archipelago, is the main tourist island on Thailand’s east coast.

Lamai Beach on the east coast of Koh Samui Island in Surat Thani province
Lamai Beach is on the east coast of Koh Samui Island in Surat Thani Province

Getting here is quickest via short flight with Bangkok Airways from Bangkok, although a night bus-and-ferry is also an option if you are keeping an eye on your budget.

Chaweng Beach in the north-east of Koh Samui is the island’s big draw. This beautiful 3-kilometer crescent of soft, white sand is the major hub of activity on Samui.

It’s close to the airport, and with plenty of beach activities, fantastic restaurants, and shopping opportunities at the edge of the sand, it’s easy to see why tourists flock here en masse. 

Trying to decide between Phuket and Koh Samui? This might help.

8. Koh Lanta Yai

In Krabi Province, this chili-shaped island is the perfect Southeast Asia island for a getaway.

A short domestic flight from Bangkok will see you arrive in Krabi in a little over an hour. From Krabi Airport, travel to Koh Lanta via road, with a short 10-minute car-ferry ride to cross the water.

Koh Lanta Yai
Koh Lanta Yai

Retaining much of its original Thai charm, this idyllic island has been less touched by the mass tourism of its more famous neighbors, Phuket and Phi Phi.

From Lanta, you can explore nearby islands on a day trip, which will also take in the Emerald Cave, a stunning natural formation on Koh Mook. 

For scuba divers, Koh Lanta offers Thailand’s best option for land-based diving with its stunning coral reefs.

The nearby Koh Ha, meaning Five Islands in Thai, is stunning both above and below the surface.

A little farther south, the nearby pinnacles of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang are the big draws here, offering the chance to dive alongside both manta rays and whale sharks. 

For accommodation on Koh Lanta, Long Beach is the most popular, with its excellent choice of bars and restaurants. The beaches to the south, such as Kantiang Bay, offer the perfect place for a relaxing break. 

9. Phi Phi Islands

Even before the release of The Beach in 2000, Phi Phi was a renowned destination on Thailand’s Andaman Coast.

For many years, Koh Phi Phi, in the Andaman Sea between Phuket and Koh Lanta, has been a favorite destination for the party crowd.

Amazing Maya Bay on Phi Phi Islands, Thailand
Amazing Maya Bay on Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

If you are planning on joining in with the nightly parties, then Ton Sai Bay will be the best area to stay. If you are looking for a quieter spot, Long Beach and Laem Tong Beach may be the better choices. 

Phi Phi is also a brilliant spot for scuba diving and snorkeling.

After a dive on the nearby Bida Islands, many boats take in the ‘The Beach’ at Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio and friends filmed the movie.

Snorkeling at Long Beach in the early morning or late afternoon will give you the chance to see some harmless black-tipped reef sharks in the shallows.

You can also hire a long-tail boat to take you the short distance to Monkey Beach – just keep an eye on your bags.

Koh Phi Phi Lookout 1
Koh Phi Phi Lookout 1

If you prefer to stay dry, then a walk up to the viewpoint above Ton Sai Bay will be perfect for those looking for a stunning sunset photo. 

10. Khao Sok National Park

The perfect location for those seeking to immerse themselves in nature and tranquility. For the ultimate peaceful sleep, stay in a floating bungalow on the lake, surrounded by limestone mountains.

Enjoy nature walks through this national park and get some glimpses of some of Thailand’s exotic flora and fauna.

Khao Sok National Park features limestone karsts
Khao Sok National Park features limestone karsts

Located a couple of hours north of Phuket, not far from the coast of southern Thailand, this national park has been a firm favorite amongst first-time visitors to the kingdom who want to stray from the beaten track.

The easiest way to get here from Bangkok is via a short flight to Phuket airport. From the airport in the north of Phuket, you can reach Khao Sok National Park in a couple of hours. 

11. Koh Pha-Ngan

Famed for its Full Moon Parties and chilled vibe, Pha-Ngan lies a short distance to the north of Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand.

The most common way to travel here is via a night bus from Bangkok and then a ferry ride from Chumphon or Donsak.

For the less frugally minded, you can also fly to Koh Samui and then jump on a ferry to Pha-Ngan. 

Swing hang from a coconut tree over beach, Phangan island
Swing hangs from a coconut tree over the beach, Koh Phangan island

But there’s more to Koh Pha-Ngan than the partying. With its chilled hippy-vibe, Pha-Ngan is also a great place simply relaxing on one of its many beaches. 

If you are heading here for the Full Moon Party, then book accommodation near Haad Rin.

The nearby village of Ban Tai is a popular destination for party-goers as it’s a little quieter than Haad Rin itself, and you can escape the party if you want to. 

12. Koh Tao

The northernmost island in the Chumphon Archipelago, Koh Tao, is famed for being one of the world’s cheapest places to learn to scuba dive.

A firm favorite on the backpacker trail, Koh Tao is also a great place to party.

Koh Tao Thailand
Koh Tao Thailand

The stunning topography of the island lends itself well to those searching for a tranquil spot on the beach. The beaches here tend not to get too crowded, as a large part of the island’s visitors are out on dive boats during the daytime.  

The dive sites, although they are not the prettiest or most diverse reefs in Thailand, offer very calm and easy conditions for those looking to earn their first diving certification.

Putting together your Thailand for first-timers Itinerary

Ultimately, which of these locations is the best place to visit in Thailand for first-timers will depend on you.

Regardless of your choices, you will find yourself immersed in Thai culture; spoilt for choice with amazing food; wandering amongst historical ruins; or lazing on stunning beaches on Thai islands.

  • If you want temples and trekking, head to northern Thailand.
  • If you prefer a beach holiday, hit the Thai islands.
  • For a good mix for a first visit spend 1 week in the southern islands, 5 days in the north taking in Chiang Mai, Chiang Ria or Lampang, and a couple of days in Bangkok to eat and shop!

Begin or end your holiday in Bangkok for shopping and delicious street food. Above all, enjoy your stay in Thailand—it’s an amazing and diverse destination, and you will not regret your decision.