Where to Go in Thailand
For decades, tourists have been flocking to Thailand for its beaches, islands, temples, and unique heritage unaffected by colonialism, yet this ancient kingdom still retains its fascinating traditions, culture, and architecture overwhelmingly dominated by Buddhist beliefs. This strangely-shaped country stretching from the borders of China to Malaysia is so contrasting – from indigenous villages unaffected by rampant modernization to congested cities with malls as brash as any in Europe, sprawling 5-star resorts, and national parks where iconic tigers and elephants roam freely.
Much more than just a transit point, the energetic capital, Bangkok, is certainly one of the most appealing cities in Asia and worth exploring for several days. Spread across hills in the far-flung northwest province, packed with temples, and populated by ethnic tribes, Chiang Mai still maintains its allure. Even further from Bangkok, but less attractive than its similarly-named rival, Chiang Rai is a center for trekking, rafting, and connections across nearby borders.
Although sleazy in parts and with a disappointing main beach, Pattaya remains hugely popular for its nightlife, especially among agitated folk from nearby Bangkok. As well as pristine beaches and uncrowded villages, part of the appeal of Koh Chang island is its distance from Bangkok and lack of an airport. With direct international flights and flashy resorts, the island of Koh Samui is justifiably popular, particularly with families. Dangling off the other coast of the narrow southern peninsula from Samui, Phuket offers an incredible range of attractions, activities, and amenities, including wide beaches, massive malls, and loads of fun for the family.
Stretching north from the causeway to the island of Phuket, Khao Lak offers a more relaxed vibe along its numerous coves, and the adorable island of Koh Lanta further south has a series of glorious beaches which are neither overcrowded with tourists nor overdeveloped with resorts. Lacking the appeal of Lanta following a substantial rebuild after the 2004 tsunami, Koh Phi Phi island is ideal for scuba diving and always busy with day-trippers from Phuket.
Easily accessible from Phuket, Lanta, and Phi Phi, the likable and compact town of Ao Nang faces a stunning stretch of sand from where speedboats head to the even more striking beach and cliffs at Railay. Not far from Ao Nang by public transport is the delightful riverside town and transport hub of Krabi.
The Best Places to Go in Thailand
- Best Luxury Hotels in Thailand
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok • Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel • Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort (Chiang Mai) • Rachamankha (Chiang Mai) • The Heritage Chiang Rai • Avani Pattaya Resort • Mövenpick Siam Hotel Na Jomtien Pattaya • Peninsula Beach Resort (Koh Chang) • The Ritz-Carlton, Koh Samui • Anantara Bophut Koh Samui Resort • Mövenpick Resort & Spa Karon Beach Phuket • Thavorn Palm Beach Resort (Phuket) • Khaolak Laguna Resort • Aonang Princeville Villa Resort & Spa
- Best Luxury Villas in Thailand
Idyllic Samui Resort • Lotus Samui • Belmond Napasai (Samui) • Vana Belle, a Luxury Collection Resort, Koh Samui • Sawasdee Village (Phuket) • Metadee Resort Phuket • The Pavilions Phuket
- Best Boutique Hotels in Thailand
Riva Arun Bangkok • Shanghai Mansion Bangkok • Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel and Spa (Chiang Mai) • Tamarind Village (Chiang Mai) • The Legend Chiang Rai Boutique River Resort & Spa • Wave Hotel (Pattaya) • The Dewa Koh Chang • Six Senses Samui • Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa (Samui) • Mom Tri’s Villa Royale (Phuket) • The Retreat Khaolak Resort • Riviera Boutique House Koh Lanta Krabi Thailand • The Verandah Hotel (Ao Nang) • River Front Krabi Hotel
- Best Family Hotels in Thailand
Banyan Tree Bangkok • Chatrium Residence Sathon Bangkok • Le Méridien Chiang Mai • The Mantrini Chiang Rai • The Bayview Pattaya • Dusit Thani Pattaya • Centara Koh Chang Tropicana Resort • Santiburi Koh Samui • Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort • Pullman Phuket Panwa Beach Resort • Seaview Resort Khao Lak • Phi Phi Cliff Beach Resort
- Best Moderate Hotels in Thailand
The Cube Sathorn Boutique Hotel (Bangkok) • boho Bangkok • The Empress Hotel, Chiang Mai • Fifth Jomtien Pattaya • Jomtien Thani Hotel (Pattaya) • The Erawan Koh Chang • Buri Rasa Village Samui • Amora Beach Resort Phuket • Khaolak Oriental Resort • Lanta Castaway Beach Resort • Gypsy Sea View Resort (Phi Phi) • Bluesotel Krabi (Ao Nang)
- Best Cheap Hotels in Thailand
City Lodge Bangkok • Tints of Blue Residence (Bangkok) • Swiss-Lanna Lodge Chiang Mai • Baanlek Home Stay (Chiang Mai) • Sleepy House Chiang Rai • Alchemy Koh Chang • Lemon House Samui • Summer Breeze Inn Hotel (Phuket) • The Hotel Zealonta (Lanta) • Phi Phi Indigo Hotel • Andaman Legacy Guest House (Krabi)
Where to Travel in Thailand for…
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Sightseeing: Bangkok
Unlike some Asian cities, the Thai capital does offer an extraordinary array of sights, many within walking distance or easily accessible by the admirable public transport system. Some attractions are absolutely world-class, like the Grand Palace, while others are unique to Thailand, such as the floating markets. Also, check out the museums and cultural centers, take a boat trip along the mighty river and maze of canals, or day-trip to other attractions in the nearby countryside, e.g. the ruins of the ancient city, Ayutthaya. Bangkok’s crowds and heat can be unrelenting, so allow plenty of time and consider joining a tour or hiring a guide.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Beaches: Phuket
Phuket’s main beaches such as Patong and Karon are overcrowded and overdeveloped while others are disappointing (e.g. Chalong). Some are, however, comparatively untouched and, occasionally, virtually empty: Mai Khao, Nai Yang, and Nai Thon are secluded within a national park and (mostly) devoid of jet-skis; Nai Harn is an adorable cove flanked by cliffs and ideal for snorkeling and swimming; and Laem Singh is beautifully positioned between the more popular Kamala and Surin beaches. The downside of beach-hopping across Phuket is the dearth of public transport, so visitors are inevitably forced to use unmetered and overpriced tuk-tuks (small trucks) or taxis (private cars).
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Scuba Diving and Snorkeling: Koh Samui
Boasting an incredible array of marine life and coral reefs, the beaches and islands of Thailand are ideal for underwater exploration and are also popular among the inexperienced. Some of the optimum spots for diving and snorkeling in Thailand are near Koh Samui just off the southern peninsula: Koh Tao and Koh Nangyuan islands and the numerous islets across Ang Thong National Marine Park. Scuba diving trips are easy to arrange at any number of international-standard agencies that also offer lessons and rentals, and snorkeling just offshore is possible at Coral Cove and Choeng Mon in Samui.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Outdoor Activities: Phuket
Thailand’s premier tourist destination offers a mind-boggling array of fun activities and water sports (see below), many of them ideal for families. Elephant rides are understandably popular but can be quite cruel, so consider visiting the ethical Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, which offers spine-tingling interactions with the retired and formerly abused. Horse riding is also loads of fun along well-designed and guided trails across beaches and among forests. Also well-liked are bicycle tours, island-hopping by chartered boat to enchanting islands nearby, and hikes along rainforest trails in the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Reserve.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Water Sports: Phuket
At every developed beach region in Phuket are all sorts of activities on or above the water, including parasailing, water-skiing, jet-skiing, and even being towed on a large inflatable ‘banana’ by a speedboat. Boats can be chartered with a skipper/crew for island-hopping and deep-sea fishing, while experienced sailors can also rent their own. Other water sports to try include canoeing among the calm, sapphire waters of Phang Nga Bay and boat trips for scuba diving and snorkeling at remote beaches. Note: be wary of scams when renting jet-skis.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Boat Trips: Bangkok
The center of the Thai capital is nestled within an elbow of the surprisingly wide Chao Phraya River from which a series of remarkable manmade canals radiate. Boat trips are a terrific way to avoid some of the world’s worst traffic; visit the sights (or see them from afar); and experience a slice of city life, particularly the amazing floating markets. Sharing the water with cargo barges, river taxis, and public ferries are various sightseeing cruises such as Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, which offers an inexpensive hop on hop off day-pass, and dinner cruises allowing guests to admire the Grand Palace and magnificently illuminated temples. From most riverside attractions, traditional-style long-tail boats can also be chartered.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Bars: Pattaya
While the beach in the city center is disappointing, the main attraction for many visiting Pattaya – particularly weekenders from Bangkok – is simply what happens after dark. Some streets and many sois (lanes) are implausibly crammed with bars. None are sophisticated; just places where drinks are cheap and foreign men can meet Thai women, often part of the unsavory sex tourism industry similar to Patong (Phuket) and the red-light districts of Bangkok. Less sleazy and potentially safer are the beachside bars at Jomtien, a far more pleasant beach area about 15 minutes by public transport from downtown Pattaya.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Nightlife: Bangkok
As expected in a massive and dynamic city of affluent Thais and expats, the array of things to do after dark is incredible, including cozy bars offering live jazz, Irish pubs seemingly transported from Dublin, and sophisticated cocktail lounges, some on rooftops of lofty high-rise hotels. A performance of extravagantly dressed and exceedingly beautiful ‘ladyboys’ dancing and lip-syncing is a must-see; alternatively, check out the more culturally refined Joe Louis Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre. Other options are the Ratchada Rot Fai (Train) Night Market, an extensive maze of lanes teeming with shops and bars featuring live music; the (in)famous Patpong Night Market packed with ‘girly bars’; and Khao San Road, the backpacker haven ideal for pub crawls. Families may enjoy an English-language movie at a cinema complex in one of the many mega-malls (see below).
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Cultural Classes: Koh Samui
Thailand’s art, religion, sport, and food are major attractions, so numerous cultural classes on these topics are offered to foreign tourists. Particularly popular are fun lessons about Thai cooking, yoga, and massage, and more serious studies of the complicated language and fascinating religion (Buddhism). The younger ones often love learning all about Muay Thai traditional boxing, too. All sorts of classes are held at major tourist regions such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket, but lessons are easier to arrange and reach on the more compact island of Koh Samui just off the east coast of the southern peninsula.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Food and Restaurants: Phuket
The finest place to relish an array of extraordinary cuisines, particularly from across Thailand, is a toss-up between Bangkok and Phuket, but the latter wins because it’s cheaper and easier to get around. Eateries across this major island destination range from seaside bistros with prices to rival Europe to makeshift stalls on the beach selling filling plates of pad thai noodles. Some restaurants feature candlelit tables overlooking the sea, while a few offer classes so that guests can cook gaeng choo chee pla (sour fish curry) and learn the difference between red, yellow, and green Thai curries.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Vibe and Culture: Chiang Mai
With mass tourism spoiling the beaches and islands and unrestrained modernization rampant in the cities, it’s increasingly difficult to experience the ‘real’ Thailand – except in villages where language barriers and poor amenities are problematic for foreign tourists. Long regarded as one of the most attractive cities in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai in northwest Thailand can provide a genuine slice of Thai culture and lifestyle. Surrounded by a moat, the Old City seems to overflow with temples, craft galleries, and monasteries with orange-robed monks, while indigenous people still practice ancient traditions on nearby hills. In the city is the Highland People Discovery Museum and nearby are ruins of several ancient towns.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Massages and Spas: Pattaya
As synonymous with the country as Thai boxing and Thai food, Thai massage is an ancient therapy that includes aspects of yoga and acupuncture. Unlike other types of massages, oils are rarely used; instead, muscles are stretched and pummeled, often to the point of being painful, so perhaps ask for something ‘soft’ or ‘mild’. A Thai massage while visiting Pattaya (near Bangkok) is almost as mandatory as a walk on the beach, but some places are part of the sex tourism industry, i.e. brothels offering a so-called ‘happy ending’. The décor and how the female ‘masseurs’ are dressed will be an obvious indication.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Temples: Chiang Mai
The Old City in the center of Chiang Mai in the remote northwest is jam-packed with temples and monasteries where monks with shaved heads and orange robes dedicate their lives to their faith. Among the most attractively built and beautifully maintained temples in Thailand, the most revered is on a hilltop about 1,000m above the city streets, and many of the approximately 300 other temples are almost hidden along narrow lanes in the Old City. Most temples (less so, monasteries) can be entered as long as visitors dress conservatively and act appropriately. These are wonderfully serene places to escape the crowded streets and often so soothing and uplifting, even to non-believers.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Walking and Cycling: Krabi and Koh Chang
With steep roads and unbelievable traffic in the major cities and beach regions, Thailand is not generally an ideal place to explore using two feet or two wheels, although walking and cycling tours are offered in Bangkok and Phuket. Particularly pleasant for walking is Krabi, a delightful town along the southern peninsula and mostly untouched by mass tourism, where a path stretches alongside the river from eerie mangroves to a huge park. Islands like Koh Lanta and Koh Samui are safe for cycling but are hampered by hilly roads and lack of places to rent bicycles. Cycling is particularly enjoyable between the two major tourist centers of White Sands and Klong Prao on Koh Chang Island near the border with Cambodia. Ask the hotel about rentals.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Malls and Markets: Bangkok
Not surprisingly, the greatest selection of places to spend Thai baht is within the capital. Malls offering a size, range, and quality of shops and department stores to rival anywhere in the US include Central World and Siam Paragon. They also feature games arcades, bowling alleys, and cinema complexes – even an ice-skating rink and aquarium – and many are within walking distance of each other in Siam Square. Also popular among tourists are the inconceivably large food and clothing markets as well as floating markets where buyers, sellers, and tourists drift along in wobbly boats. More comfortable and compact is the upmarket ASIATIQUE The Riverfront shopping and entertainment complex.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Serenity: Koh Chang
One definite appeal of this adorable island is its distance from Bangkok; in fact, Koh Chang island is just as close to the capital of Cambodia and is only accessible by ferry from the Thai mainland. The coastline of ‘Elephant Island’ is dotted with genuine villages rather than clusters of resorts and bars, and the beaches are uncrowded and underdeveloped. Other than cycling (see above), there is little to do except snorkel and snooze, but that is part of the undeniable charm.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Families: Phuket
Many islands and beaches across the country are perennially popular with Thai and foreign families, especially places with direct international/domestic flights. Some islands (e.g. Koh Chang) are too distant and others (e.g. Koh Lanta) offer fewer attractions, but Phuket is absolutely jam-packed with things to entertain the family. The young ones will appreciate the Splash Jungle water park with corkscrew waterslides and wave pool, the engaging and educational aquarium, and garish Phuket FantaSea theme park. On a rainy day, head to The Kids Club Phuket which offers all sorts of slides, swings, rides, and video games, or the gigantic Jungceylon shopping mall. Outdoor fun across Phuket includes elephant rides (see above), island-hopping for snorkeling, cycling tours, and hikes in the wildlife reserve (see above).
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Value: Krabi
Generally, all Thai cities are expensive, especially Bangkok, and prices are also usually high in popular beach regions like Phuket and Koh Phi Phi Island, even more so during peak times (e.g. Australian and Thai school holidays). Transportation costs to remote areas like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai add further to the prices of many goods and services. The inviting riverside town of Krabi along the southern peninsula is likably distant from the overcrowded and overpriced beaches, and many amenities are priced for locals rather than foreigners. Without any resorts and free-spending tourists, the all-round value at Krabi is also appreciated by the sizable backpacker crowd.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Festivals: Chiang Mai
Most Thais fervently adhere to Buddhism and celebrate the numerous festivals with a passion rarely seen elsewhere. These include Visakha Bucha, when the devout visit temples to commemorate the birth and death of Buddha, and Makha Bucha, when candlelit processions are held at temples to celebrate the day Buddha gave a sermon to devotees. Especially enjoyable is Songkran, the Thai New Year and public holiday when water is poured, dumped, and spouted over everyone (so dress appropriately). Watching these and other events is most enlightening and entertaining at the historic and religious city of Chiang Mai in the northwest corner of the country.
- Where to Stay in Thailand for Transport: Bangkok
As expected, the country’s best public transport system is in the capital and largest city. Avoid overcrowded buses regularly stuck in traffic rated among the world’s worst. Instead, use the elevated BTS Skytrain and underground MRT subway systems – still crowded – but at least they’re quick. Taxis are comfortable and metered but they can’t escape the road congestion. More pleasant and often quicker are the public ferries that cross the mighty Chao Phraya River and the river taxis which go anywhere along the water. Bangkok is, of course, also the major hub for planes, trains, and buses across Thailand and beyond.
- Best Place in Thailand for First-Timers: Koh Lanta
The crowds, noise, pollution, and especially traffic in all Thai cities can be overwhelming, even for experienced travelers, and mass tourism can also be confronting for first-time visitors at places like Phuket and Pattaya with their sex workers, annoying salespeople, frequent overcharging, and occasional scams (e.g. jet-ski rentals). In contrast, the delightfully laidback island of Koh Lanta dangling off the west coast of the southern peninsula is distant from Bangkok and not directly accessible by air. There are no major resorts, ‘girly bars’, or traffic, and the only two villages cater more for locals than foreigners.
- Most Romantic Place in Thailand: Ao Nang
Although offering intimate restaurants, sunset cruises, and serene temples, places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket are not ideal for a honeymoon or romantic getaway. For a tranquil, stress-free holiday without the traffic, crowds, and annoying drivers of taxis/boats/tuk-tuks, head to Ao Nang, a compact cluster of tourist amenities facing a stunning beach along the southern peninsula. Not overcrowded or overdeveloped because of its hilly backdrop, Ao Nang has a range of modest and well-priced resorts, many catering nicely for newly-wed couples. The extended beaches are perfect for walking and iconic long-tail boats can be chartered to secluded coves. What’s more, Ao Nang is only a short trip by traditional boat to one of the most sublime beaches on the planet, Railay.
- Safest Area in Thailand: Krabi
Many possible dangers while traveling around Thailand are self-inflicted, e.g. excessive drinking or riding motorbikes recklessly, but physical and sexual assaults are not uncommon in major cities and tourist regions, especially Bangkok and Pattaya. Also, every visitor to Thailand should be aware of potential accidents while traveling on public transport or simply crossing the road. Far from the hard-drinking tourists, sleazy bars, and brothels that attract petty criminals in places like Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket, is Krabi, along the southern peninsula. This charming riverside town still retains a chilled-out vibe popular with backpackers and most amenities are designed for locals rather than tourists.
- Least Safe Area in Thailand: Bangkok
As is often the case, the larger the city, the more chance of getting into trouble – whether from physical assaults (rare) to vehicle accidents (more common). Petty crimes like bag-snatching and pick-pocketing are always possible at Bangkok’s many overcrowded markets and transport terminals – and be especially careful in districts renowned for brothels and ‘girly bars’ where excessive drinking, drugs, and prostitution are rife. Bangkok also has the dubious ‘honor’ of being one of the world’s worst cities for traffic, so be especially careful when crossing the road.
The 12 Best Regions in Thailand for Tourists
Based around a meandering river and connecting manmade canals, Bangkok is one of the world’s most dynamic cities. It’s packed with historic temples, extensive markets, upmarket hotels, and mega-malls, and visitors can also enjoy an abundance of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, much of it accessible by a decent public transport system. Prime areas to stay are: Lumphini – with many luxury hotels, top-class restaurants, and lively nightclubs; Bang Rak – chock-full of amenities and attractions along leafy and quieter-than-normal streets; Silom – a business district during the day and thriving center with bars, sidewalk cafés, and food stalls after dark; the Old Town around the extraordinary Grand Palace; and Khao San – a likable area of budget-priced accommodations and vital amenities for all travelers.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok • Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel • Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok • Shangri-La Hotel, Bangkok • Anantara Riverside Bangkok Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels: AriyasomVilla • Riva Arun Bangkok • Hansar Hotel Bangkok • Shanghai Mansion Bangkok • Hotel Muse Bangkok Langsuan • The Sukothai Bangkok
- Best Family Hotels: Banyan Tree Bangkok • Chatrium Residence Sathon Bangkok • ibis Styles Bangkok Khaosan Viengtai • Shama Lakeview Asoke Bangkok
- Best Moderate Hotels: Dang Derm Hotel • Baan Noppawong • Inn a Day • boho Bangkok • The Cube Sathorn Boutique Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotels: Tara Place • Lub d Bangkok Siam Hostel • Buddy Lodge Hotel • City Lodge Bangkok • Tints of Blue Residence
2. Chiang Mai
About 450 miles northwest of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is literally a breath of fresh air compared to the heavily polluted Thai capital. The undulating hills and valleys in and around this ancient town are populated by indigenous people who still retain unique traditions despite the onslaught of modernization and tourism. The prime attraction is the Old City, packed with amenities, attractions, and adorable boutique hotels. Upmarket high-rise hotels are dotted around the edge of the Old City (e.g. near the Night Bazaar), while larger resorts are spread across hills up to an hour away by shuttle bus. Particularly inviting are the gorgeous colonial-style boutique hotels along Ping River.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Na Nirand Romantic Boutique Resort • Rachamankha • Shangri-La Hotel, Chiang Mai • Anantara Chiang Mai Resort • The Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai
- Best Boutique Hotels: 137 Pillars House • De Naga Chiang Mai • Makkachiva • Ping Nakara Boutique Hotel and Spa • Tamarind Village
- Best Family Hotels: Le Méridien Chiang Mai • Panviman Chiang Mai Spa Resort • Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai • Mövenpick Suriwongse Hotel Chiang Mai
- Best Moderate Hotels: The Empress Hotel, Chiang Mai • DusitD2 Chiang Mai • Yaang Come Village • Gord Chiang Mai • Inndigo Chiangmai
- Best Cheap Hotels: S.K. House 2 • At Home At Chiang Mai • ALEXA Nimman Hostel • Swiss-Lanna Lodge Chiang Mai • Baanlek Home Stay
3. Chiang Rai
Even further north of the similar-sounding Chiang Mai (see above), Chiang Rai is a more modern town sprawling across hills near the border with Laos and Myanmar (Burma). With an easy-going vibe and manageable size, its numerous temples are full of monks and the streets are crowded with tribal people whose customs and lifestyle have changed little since the influx of tourists. The range of international-brand resorts is amazing and most boutique hotels are very appealing. However, because of the town’s isolation and popularity among budget-minded tourists keen on trekking and rafting, accommodations are not generally set up for families.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Le Méridien Chiang Rai Resort, Thailand • The Heritage Chiang Rai • Laluna Hotel and Resort, Chiang Rai • The Imperial River House Resort Chiang Rai • The Riverie by Katathani
- Best Boutique Hotels: Huan Kawin Est.58 Lanna Home & Collection • Mora Boutique Hotel • Baan Warabordee • The Legend Chiang Rai Boutique River Resort & Spa
- Best Family Hotels: Nak Nakara Hotel • Homestay Chiangrai • The Mantrini Chiang Rai
- Best Moderate Hotels: Blue Lagoon Hotel • Huen Chan Thip • Na-Rak-O Resort • La Vie En Rose Hotel • The Rama Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotels: Chian House Guesthouse • Sleepy House Chiang Rai • Kanlaya Place • Baan Nukanong Guesthouse
About 100 miles southeast of Bangkok, Pattaya is renowned more for its rowdy and, often, sleazy nightlife than its city-center beach, which is unappealing and polluted. While most of Pattaya is crass, noisy, overbuilt, and overcrowded, especially with weekenders from the Thai capital, some parts are quieter and more appealing – especially Jomtien, where the beach is attractive and the seaside path ideal for cycling. Other areas to stay far quieter than downtown Pattaya are Buddha Hill and Na-Klua. An overabundance of hotels ensures value for money and the amenities all over are excellent, but remember: Pattaya is not ideal for children and the numerous brothels and ‘girly bars’ attract pickpockets, drunks, and drugs. Few cheap hotels are recommended.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Avani Pattaya Resort • Hilton Pattaya • Royal Cliff Beach Hotel • Royal Wings Suites & Spa • Grande Centre Point Pattaya • Mövenpick Siam Hotel Na Jomtien Pattaya
- Best Boutique Hotels: Hotel Baraquda Pattaya – MGallery • Hotel Mera Mare • Rabbit Resort Pattaya • Wave Hotel • Woodlands Hotel & Resort • [email protected] Design Hotel Pattaya
- Best Family Hotels: The Bayview Pattaya • Dusit Thani Pattaya • Hard Rock Hotel Pattaya • Holiday Inn Pattaya • InterContinental Pattaya Resort
- Best Moderate Hotels: Amari Pattaya • Avalon Beach Resort Pattaya • Cosy Beach Hotel • Fifth Jomtien Pattaya • Jomtien Thani Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotels: Sun & Beach • Mr Mac’s Hotel • Chada Thai House
About halfway between Bangkok and the capital of Cambodia, the jungle interior of this lovable island remains untouched and the coastline is dotted with low-key resorts and simple but comfortable guesthouses. The attractions of ‘Elephant Island’ are hiking, scuba diving, cycling, and a relaxed lifestyle untouched by mass tourism. Most hotels are at White Sands, which also offers a modicum of nightlife, and Klong Prao along a particularly lovely beach. (The road between the two centers is well connected by local transport and flat enough for cycling.) Other beaches offering accommodations and limited facilities are Kai Bo, Bailan Beach (with a backpacker vibe and increasing number of upmarket bungalows), and Bang Bao Bay (still primarily a fishing village).
- Best Luxury Hotels: Barali Beach Resort Koh Chang • Kacha Resort & Spa Koh Chang • Peninsula Beach Resort • Santhiya Tree Koh Chang Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels: The Dewa Koh Chang • The Gallery At Koh Chang • VAYNA Boutique Koh Chang • Chai Chet Resort Ko Chang • Laguna Beach House
- Best Family Hotels: Centara Koh Chang Tropicana Resort • The Emerald Cove Koh Chang • KC Grande Resort & Spa • Marina Sands Resort
- Best Moderate Hotels: The Erawan Koh Chang • Du Talay Hotel Koh Chang • Seabreeze Hotel Resort Kohchang • Baansanook Bungalows & Pool
- Best Cheap Hotels: Alchemy Koh Chang • Rock Inn Bailan • Lemon Guesthouse • Grand Tree • Travellers Rest
6. Koh Samui
Just off the east coast of the southern peninsula, Thailand’s second-largest island rivals Phuket and Bali as the perfect tropical getaway, especially among families. With temples and markets among the malls and resorts as well as some of the world’s most alluring beaches, Samui still manages to maintain some charm. Adding to the appeal are an abundance of water sports, world-class diving and snorkeling, cultural classes, useful public transport, and good value throughout. Accommodations include super-luxurious resorts, family-run guesthouses, and attractive boutique hotels. Around the 30-mile-long coastal road are many bases: Bangrak – with luxury resorts and individual villas, Bo Phut – popular with families and handy to the airport, Maenam – a village with a major boat terminal, Chaweng – the busiest and most developed area, and Lamai – also very popular but remarkably easy-going. Alternatives to Koh Samui, or easy side-trips by ferry, are another two beautiful islands: Koh Phangan (renowned for its Full Moon Parties) and Koh Tao (so quaint, quiet, and undeveloped).
- Best Luxury Hotels: The Ritz-Carlton, Koh Samui • Anantara Bophut Koh Samui Resort • Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui • W Koh Samui • Nikki Beach Resort Koh Samui
- Best Luxury Villas: Idyllic Samui Resort • Lotus Samui • Belmond Napasai • Vana Belle, a Luxury Collection Resort, Koh Samui • The Library
- Best Boutique Hotels: Six Senses Samui • Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa • The Waterfront Boutique Hotel • Poppies Samui • Samui Jasmine Resort
- Best Family Hotels: Peace Resort Samui • Bandara Resort and Spa Samui • Hansar Samui • Santiburi Koh Samui • Sheraton Samui Resort
- Best Moderate Hotels: Bang Po Garden • Buri Rasa Village Samui • Banana Fan Sea Resort • Mercure Koh Samui Beach Resort • Weekender Resort • CoconutsPalm Resort
- Best Cheap Hotels: Choengmon Residence • Eddy’s Place • Lemon House Samui • Bang Po Hut • Chaweng Tara Hotel • Gila’s Garden
Attached by a causeway to the west coast of the southern peninsula, Thailand’s largest island is one of Southeast Asia’s premier tourist destinations and especially popular with families. Pluses are the numerous direct international/domestic flights, range of good-value accommodations, abundance of beaches offering different vibes, outstanding range of restaurants, and seemingly endless array of activities (e.g. water sports) and amenities (e.g. malls). Downsides are the woeful lack of public transport, sex tourism at Patong, and uncontrolled development all over. Visitors should take time to decide a suitable base that includes: Patong (overcrowded and, in parts, unashamedly sleazy), Nai Yang (spacious and near the airport), Bang Tao (spread out with upmarket resorts), Kamala (low-key and not overbuilt), and the twin bays of Kata Yai and Kata Noi. Offering history, charm, and public transport not found elsewhere on the island is the inland capital, Phuket Town.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Kamala Beach Resort (a Sunprime Resort) – Adults Only • Mövenpick Resort & Spa Karon Beach Phuket • Thavorn Palm Beach Resort • Le Méridien Phuket Beach Resort
- Best Luxury Villas: Sawasdee Village • Metadee Resort Phuket • Impiana Resort Patong, Phuket • The Pavilions Phuket
- Best Boutique Hotels: Wabi Sabi Boutique Hotel • Chanalai Romantica Resort – Adults Only • Mom Tri’s Villa Royale • Burasari Phuket • The Chava Resort
- Best Family Hotels: Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort • Pullman Phuket Panwa Beach Resort • Sunwing Bangtao Beach • The Vijitt Resort Phuket • Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket • Novotel Phuket Karon Beach Resort & Spa • Holiday Inn Resort Phuket
- Best Moderate Hotels: Amora Beach Resort Phuket • DoubleTree by Hilton Banthai Beach Resort & Spa • Paripas Patong Resort • La Flora Resort Patong • Andaman Seaview Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotels: OYO 501 At Night Hostel • Summer Breeze Inn Hotel • Grand View Patong • White Sky Boutique
8. Khao Lak
Stretching about 10 miles north of the causeway to Phuket Island is a series of coves with sandy beaches and calm waters collectively known as Khao Lak. Substantially rebuilt after the devastating 2004 tsunami, Khao Lak Town is the center of this area and offers the best transport and amenities (it overlaps with Nang Thong). The only other region with a cluster of tourist facilities (and some budget hotels) is Bang Niang. Most of Khao Lak’s resorts may not be within walking distance of many (or any) shops or cafés, and could be distant from the main road. The nearest airport and major boat terminal is on Phuket, linked to Khao Lak by bus or chartered car with a driver.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Apsara Beachfront Resort and Villa • Khaolak Laguna Resort • La Flora Khao Lak • Ramada Resort By Wyndham Khao Lak • The Sarojin – Khao Lak Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels: Lah-Own Khaolak Resort • MJ Boutique Hotel Khao Lak • The Retreat Khaolak Resort • Thai Mueang Boutique Hotel
- Best Family Hotels: Seaview Resort Khao Lak • The Sands Khao Lak by Katathani • X10 Khaolak Resort • Eden Beach Resort & Spa
- Best Moderate Hotels: Hotel Gahn • Hotel Ruk Cozy Khao Lak • Khaolak Golden Palace • Khaolak Oriental Resort
- Best Cheap Hotels: Baramate Khao Lak • Casacool Hotel • White Cat Hotel • At Home Khaolak
9. Koh Lanta
Further down the west coast of the southern peninsula from Phuket, Koh Lanta is easily accessible by ferry from Phuket and the mainland and far less crowded and developed than Phuket and Koh Samui. Lanta is blessed with glorious bays of white sand and turquoise water along the west coast such as Long Beach (Hat Phra Ae), with clusters of bars and cafés on the sand and easily accessible from Saladan village; Khlong Dao, also walkable from Saladan; Khlong Khong, a low-key area of budget hotels and cafés; and Kantiang, remote and quiet. Another worthwhile option, but usually ignored, is Saladan village, home to the port, useful amenities, and a row of seafood restaurants perched above the water. Accommodations across the island are mostly mid-range bungalows and cheap but comfortable guesthouses, many facing the sea. The usual airport used is at Krabi, 90 minutes by minibus.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Lanta Pura Beach Resort • Layana Resort & Spa – Adults Only • Phra Nang Lanta • Pimalai Resort and Spa
- Best Boutique Hotels: Alama Sea Village Resort • Riviera Boutique House Koh Lanta Krabi Thailand
- Best Family Hotels: Anda Lanta Resort • Crown Lanta Resort & Spa • Lanta Pearl Beach Resort • Royal Lanta Resort & Spa • Twin Bay Resort
- Best Moderate Hotels: The Houben • Lanta Castaway Beach Resort • Phutara Lanta Resort • Sayang Beach Resort • Soontreeya Lanta Boutique Resort
- Best Cheap Hotels: The Lazy Lodge • The Hotel Zealonta • OYO 591 Serene Lanta Resort • [email protected] • Lanta White’s House • The Peace Tara House
10. Koh Phi Phi
Phi Phi is equidistant between Phuket and Lanta islands and easily accessible by boat from both. Substantially wiped out by the tsunami in 2004, the island is now seriously overbuilt, so it lacks the overall appeal of others like Koh Chang and Koh Lanta. Yet, Phi Phi remains hugely popular, especially among day-trippers on organized boat tours from Phuket. The island is generally divided into three areas: (1) a confusing maze of lanes choked with shops, cafés, bars, hotels, and noisy nightclubs near the port; (2) the east and south coasts where the few Thai-owned resorts are mostly only accessible by boat; and (3) nearby islands, with a couple of upmarket resorts. Some visitors may be dismayed that the main beaches on Phi Phi – Ton Sai Bay and Loh Dalum Bay – suffer from extraordinary tides.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Phi Phi Bayview & Premier Resort • PP Charlie Beach Resort • Chaokoh Phi Phi Hotel & Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels: P.P. Palmtree Resort • Phi Phi Nice Beach Hotel Hip • Phi Phi Uphill Cottage • Paradise Pearl Bungalows
- Best Family Hotels: Phi Phi Island Cabana Hotel • Phi Phi Cliff Beach Resort • Phi Phi Villa Resort • PP Princess Resort • PP Mountain Beach Resort
- Best Moderate Hotels: Phi Phi Andaman Beach Resort • Phi Phi Andaman Legacy • Chao Koh Phi-Phi Hotel & Resort • Gypsy Sea View Resort • Phi Phi Viewpoint Resort
- Best Cheap Hotels: Phi Phi Indigo Hotel • Kitty Guesthouse • Phi Phi Inn • Panmanee Hotel
11. Ao Nang
Easy to reach by boat from Phuket, Koh Lanta, and Koh Phi Phi, this gorgeous cove of white sand and angled palms has been spared overdevelopment by the hilly backdrop, although the central area is a little crowded and often noisy with nightclubs. Many newer hotels are spread along the road to Krabi (see below) or face Noppharat Thara beach, a far quieter extension of Ao Nang. What makes Ao Nang even more appealing is its proximity to the delightful riverside town of Krabi by public bus and stunning cliff-side beach at Railay, only accessible by traditional-style long-tail boat. Note: some hotels in Ao Nang confusingly place ‘Krabi’ in their name, which refers to the province and not the town 10 miles away.
- Best Luxury Hotels: Aonang Princeville Villa Resort & Spa • Peace Laguna Resort & Spa • Sea Seeker Krabi Resort • Panan Krabi Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels: The L Resort Krabi • Red Ginger Chic Resort • The Verandah Hotel • AoNang Colors Krabi
- Best Family Hotels: Aonang Villa Resort • Krabi La Playa Resort • Krabi Resort • Pakasai Resort • Kokotel Krabi Ao Nang
- Best Moderate Hotels: Bluesotel Krabi • Alisa Hotel Aonang • Sky Beach • De Loft Hotel • The Aireen Hotel
- Best Cheap Hotels: J. Mansion • Sleeper Hostel • Harvest House • Aonang Goodwill
This enchanting town along the namesake river is much more than just a transit point for flights and boats to Koh Lanta and public buses to Ao Nang. Ignoring the outer suburbs along the highway, the best areas to stay are in downtown, which is packed with modest hotels, pleasant cafés, and other amenities mostly designed and priced for locals, as well as the lovely riverside precinct with very appealing boutique hotels and a path stretching between the eerie mangroves and a large park. Connections to Railay and Phuket by boat are more reliable from Ao Nang, about 20 minutes away by public bus.
- Best Luxury Hotel: Krabi Front Bay Resort
- Best Boutique Hotels: Dee Andaman Krabi Hotel • River Front Krabi Hotel • Krabi River Hotel • Tairada Boutique Hotel • Tharapark View Hotel
- Best Moderate Hotels: Lada Krabi Express • Hop Inn Krabi • Krabi Golden Hill Hotel • Green House Hotel • Krabi Cozy Place • The Sasi House
- Best Cheap Hotels: Alisa Krabi Hotel • Thepparat Lodge Krabi • Inn & Omm Hotel • Andaman Legacy Guest House