Growing up in a place heavily influenced by Western culture, the exotic appeal of Thailand was irresistible when I embarked on my first solo trip abroad.

With so many places catered to budget travelers, it’s easy to travel cheaply and still be able to enjoy fascinating places around the country. Of course, all the while enjoying the bliss that is Thai food.

Beaches and temples are among Thailand’s best & must-see sights. Go south, to the islands on the Andaman coast and the Gulf of Thailand to visit the best beaches. Go north, for amazing temples, mountain scenery, and waterfalls.

If you only have a short trip you can find a lot of top tourist spots in Bangkok and Central Thailand that are easy to visit.

Inspire your adventure in Thailand with these must-visit places and top things to do for first-time travelers.

1. Bangkok

Wat Arun (temple) lit up at dusk along Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand

Wat Arun (temple) lit up at dusk along Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Bangkok is jam-packed with interesting things to discover at every corner. The city has many of the country’s grandest and most sacred Buddhist temples, scenic riverside views, rich culture, and unrivaled street food… all enclosed in a modern urban sprawl. Bangkok is a must-visit on any trip to Thailand and Southeast Asia, especially if it is your first time to visit.

How to go & top spots to see

Two airports serve Bangkok. The main gateway is Bangkok-Suvarbahumi International Airport, which is located about an hour east of Bangkok city center. Meanwhile, Don Meuang International Airport is de facto low-cost airline hub located 45-minutes north of the city. Major airlines include Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Jetstar, Nok Air, AirAsia & Lion Air.

From the Philippines, Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines, and Thai Airways serve direct flights from Manila. Travel time is around 3 hours and 30 minutes.

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Top spots & things to do

Tour the Grand Palace — Houses grand royal buildings and temples with exquisite architecture including Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), one of the most sacred sites in all of Thailand.

See beautiful Buddhist temples —  Don’t miss Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Pho (Home to Thailand’s biggest reclining Buddha statue), Wat Benchamabophitr (Marble Temple), Wat Saket (Golden Mount Temple).

Cruise along the Chao Phraya river — the best way to get to & around Bangkok’s popular temples and tourist spots.

Visit rooftop bars and observation decks  — See spectacular views overlooking Bangkok’s cityscape and the Chao Phraya River with a drink in hand.

Take a day trip – Visit floating markets, Ayutthaya, and Pattaya Beach.

Go beyond Bangkok — Book a  flight or road trip to other must-visit places in Thailand.

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Bangkok travel tips

2. Chiang Mai

Buddhist monk walks past Wat Chedi Luang (temple) in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A Buddhist monk walks past Wat Chedi Luang (temple) in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Excited to see temples, waterfalls, mountain views & enjoy cultural experiences? Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand should be at the top of your bucketlist! Chiang Mai is a City of Temples, home to hundreds of beautiful temples and museums in & beyond the Old Walled City. This place is not only a beautiful place to visit, it’s also one of the cheapest travel destinations in Southeast Asia.

How to go & top spots to see

Chiang Mai is around 1 hour north of Bangkok by plane. Chiang Mai International Airport is well connected with other major airports in Thailand and serves direct international flights from many airports in East Asia and a few in Southeast Asia. Land travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes 10 hours by bus or around 12 to 15 hours by train.

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Top spots & things to do

Take a walk or bicycle tour — There are hundreds of beautiful temples found inside & beyond the Old Walled City that can be easily reached on foot. Most of these temples are still functional, so you get to see Buddhist traditions & rituals still being practiced.

See Mae Ya Waterfall — One of Thailand’s most majestic cascades can be found on Doi Inthanon, the country’s highest mountain. The summit of Doi Inthanon can be reached easily by car from Chiang Mai city Center.

Enjoy Northern Thai food — Delicious and cheap! Chiang Mai and provinces in North Thailand are known for their distinctive cuisine.

Go hiking — Enjoy hiking trails in Chiang Mai and nearby provinces.

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Chiang Mai travel tips

3. Ko Phi Phi & Krabi

"The Beach" of Ko Phi Phi Leh (island) in Krabi, Thailand

“The Beach” of Ko Phi Phi Leh (island) in Krabi, Thailand. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Go south & visit Thailand’s World-famous beaches. Krabi is home to the country’s most spectacular island landscapes with picture-perfect beaches surrounded by towering limestone cliffs. A boat trip from Krabi takes you to Ko Phi Phi Leh, the setting of “The Beach,” the iconic backpacking movie starred by Leonardo DiCaprio and based on the novel written by Alex Garland.

How to go & top spots to see

Krabi is 1.5 hours south of Bangkok by plane. Krabi Airport serves direct flights from Bangkok and several airports in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Bus travel from Bangkok to Krabi takes around 10 hours. Direct ferries are also available from Phuket to Krabi Town or Phi Phi Don. Travel time by ferry takes around 2 hours.

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Top spots & things to do

Take an island tour to Ko Phi Phi.

Enjoy rock climbing in Rai Leh.

See spectacular beaches, views, and island tours from Ao Nang and Had Yao.

Go off-beat to nearby islands including Ko Lanta, Ko Jum, Ko Por, and Ko Siboya.

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Krabi travel tipsPhi Phi

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4. Ayutthaya

Buddha head covered by roots at Wat Maha That in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Buddha head covered by roots at Wat Maha That in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Ayutthaya is filled with massive ancient temples ruins that is just one-hour away by land from Bangkok. This ancient city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, served as the second capital of Thailand. Its strategic location between China, India, and the Malay Archipelago made Ayutthaya the trading capital of Asia that once held the title as the largest city in the World. This place is where you can see the iconic sight of the head of Buddha covered by roots, in Wat Mahathat (temple).

How to go

Ayutthaya is around 1.5 to 2 hours north of Bangkok by land. Shuttle and buses frequently depart from Mo Chit (northern) bus station in Bangkok. You can also take the train on the Northern Line of the State Railway of Thailand.

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Ayutthaya travel tips

5. Sukhothai

Moat and temple ruins in Sukhothai Historical Park

Moat and temple ruins in Sukhothai Historical Park. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Go to Sukhothai to see some of the oldest temples ruins in Thailand. The ancient city was the first capital of the Kingdom of Thailand. Sukhothai Historical Park, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to the partially restored 13th- and 14th-century palaces and temples. Find more off-the-beaten-path ancient temple clusters in nearby Kamphaeng Phet and Si Satchanalai.

How to go

Sukhothai is one hour and 15 minutes north of Bangkok by plane. Most travelers arrive by land from either Chiang Mai, which is 4 hours away by bus, or Bangkok, approximately 7 hours away by bus or train.

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Sukhothai travel tips

6. Chiang Rai

White Temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple) in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Chiang Rai, found farther north of Chiang Mai is home to artistic architectural masterpieces that are worth the detour. Here, you can find the bizarre White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and Black Houses (Baan Dam) in addition to other famous sights. If you stay for a few more days, there are a lot of rock climbing and hiking trails, waterfalls, hot springs, and caves in Chiang Rai and nearby provinces. This city is also a must-visit stopover if you plan to cross the Northern Thailand-Laos border, on your way to Luang Prabang.

How to go

Chiang Rai is around 1.5 hours north of Bangkok by plane. Its airport mostly serves flights from Bangkok. Most tourists arrive from Chiang Mai, which is approximately 3 hours away by land.

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Chiang Rai travel tips

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7. Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan, & Ko Samui

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Why go — Head to the east coast of Thailand for amazing underwater views and beach parties. There are a lot of beautiful islands worth a peek on the Gulf of Thailand. Ko Pha Ngan is the most famous, known for epic full moon parties that happen on the second or third week of every month. Meanwhile, Ko Tao is famous for having one of the world’s cheapest and best diving. There are also many beautiful islands to see nearby including Mu Ko Ang Thong group of islands & Ko Samui, a less touristic but similarly developed version of Phuket.

How to go

Samui is around one hour south of Bangkok by plane. Samui Airport serves direct flights from Bangkok and direct international flights from Singapore, Hong kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang. Daily ferries are available from Ko Samui to Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. Travel time by high-speed boat takes 20 minutes and 2 hours, respectively. A cheaper alternative is to arrive at Surat Thani Airport or Chumphon Airport found on the mainland and then continuing the journey by land+ferry connections to your island destination.

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8. Umphang

Thee Lor Su Waterfall in Umphang, Tak, Thailand

Thee Lor Su Waterfall in Umphang, Tak, Thailand. Photo by Marcos Detourist.

Why go — Do you love visiting massive waterfalls? Umphang is home to Thi Lo Su, the country’s grandest cascade! Getting there requires a scenic river cruise & trekking through a pristine rainforest.

How to go

The main gateway to Umphang is Mae Sot in Tak Province. Mae Sot is approximately one hour north of Bangkok by plane. From Mae Sot, continue the journey by land to Umphang. Travel time takes around 4 to 5 hours by jeep or private car.

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Umphang travel tips

Note: Destinations featured above are not listed by rank.

Got places in mind that should be on this list? Share your photos and videos and tag #detourista on Facebook and Instagram.

Don’t stop here

Check out these pages for more inspiration on places to go in Asia: