Everything to Know About Visiting Thailand Right Now
The beaches are calling—not to mention the mountains, markets, temples, and more.
It’s almost hard to say who missed each other more during the pandemic lockdown: the travelers who ached for Thailand’s gorgeous shores and buzzing cities, or locals like the tuk-tuk driver whose eyes flooded with relief at the first sight of foreigners ready to boost a thirsty economy. Now that restrictions have eased, tourists are once again turning their sights back to a cherished friendship with Thailand. Though you won’t see the droves of crowds the country once hosted, you will see a land recovering in more ways than one. You’ll also still see a few masks—such as on the jeweled yaksha guardian statues, at work to protect its people—but behind them is still the famous Thai smile, crinkling the eyes with kindness.
Here you’ll find shocking cliffs jutting vertically out of the ocean, giant flowers floating on turquoise waters, and temples nestled in jungles on top of mountains, glittering with gold and soaring spires. The country’s street food is just as incredible as the Michelin-starred, with spices cooled by coconut milk and tinged with an acidic hit of lemongrass. Vendors ladle food from steaming vats on wooden boats in floating markets.
Festivals range from lantern lightings at temples to full-on moon raves on remote islands. Baby langur monkeys climb branches to get up in your face, peering at you with an adorable cocked head. Massages—performed everywhere from temples to deserted sandy shores—relieve tension from jungle treks and sore neck muscles from all the grateful bowing. And millions of buddhas (some of them slathered in real gold) watch over it all.
Here’s where to go, what to see, and everything you should eat once you’ve landed in Thailand.
Fill up on mouth-watering markets, luxe hotels, and buzzy nightlife in Bangkok
Ease your wide-awake-at-3 am jetlag in a buzzing city where the nightlife is just as lively as the daytime jaunts. With night markets, the expansive Sunday Chatuchak market, floating markets, and trippy wonderland-like malls like Iconsiam, you have to buy something in Bangkok, whether that’s a deep-fried scorpion, a mini singing bowl, or extremely affordable fashion. Though you’ll see temples squished between skyscrapers on just about every other block, do a temple run along the river to see the big-hitters like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and the Grand Palace.
The street food is incredible pretty much anywhere that has a local crowd, but you may want to risk the line at Jay Fai for her spectacularly cheap, Michelin-star-level dishes like the crab omelet. Another casual Michelin-recognized joint is Somtum Der, serving northern style Isaan cuisine with chicken so crispy, the skin is almost like a hard, candied-apple shell—plus some of the spiciest papaya salad to clear your tear ducts.
For a beautiful sitdown restaurant next to the temples, Supanniga Eating Room serves the owner’s grandmother’s recipes, giving impressive presentations to local Thai dishes. The shaved coconut, shredded orange, dried pork, and peanuts wrapped in a betel leaf fill your mouth with an unexpected, sweet-and-tangy juice balanced by the crunchy ingredients. And the house blend blue tea with mint and butterfly pea (also known as anchan) has no caffeine, meaning you can drink jugs of it to combat the Bangkok heat without getting jittery.
If your starting destination in Thailand is the capital, there’s no better place to spend your first night—and, really, every subsequent night—than Capella Bangkok, where rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony (some with their own jacuzzi) overlook the Chao Phraya River. Considered one of the top five hotels in the world, this boutique resort offers an incredible onsite spa, a restaurant created by three Michelin-starred chef Mauro Colagreco, sunset cocktails, and evening cultural classes in the living room lounge.
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, also along the river, has been an icon in the city for nearly 150 years—and Old World-style The Bamboo Bar is worth a visit for classic cocktails and live jazz and blues. For something design-forward with a vibey nightlife scene, book a room at The Standard, Bangkok Mahanakhon, which sports two sky-high eateries, plus the highest outdoor rooftop bar in the city, Sky Beach. You could also hostel it up along touristy Khaosan Road or try sleeping al fresco at the Bangkok Tree House, but if you have the chance to splurge even one night, this is the city to do it.
Lose yourself in Chiang Mai’s breathtaking natural landscape
If you came to Thailand for temples in jungles, Chiang Mai is what you’re looking for. Essentially the capital of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a haven for arts, boutiques, cooking classes, hill tribes, and mountain treks. The closest and most impressive temples are Doi Suthep and Wat Pha Lat, accessible by taxi or via a 30- to 45-minute hike on the Monk’s Trail (which, as the name suggests, monks use). Doi Inthanon also isn’t too far and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountainscape. Many excursions lay just beyond the city, such as jungle river kayaking or deep, lantern-lit cave tours that you can book through Chiang Mai Mountain Biking & Kayaks.
Check off most of your must-dos at Thai Akha Cooking School, where a chef from the Akha, an indigenous hill tribe of Southeast Asia, will teach you how to prepare 11 traditional Thai and Akha dishes, including a curry of your choosing and mango sticky rice (which is a little too addicting). If you want to taste a sample of four different Thai regions at one restaurant, head to Ging Grai, where standout dishes and drinks include the spicy popcorn, frothy blended tea mocktails, and the owner’s father’s rice vermicelli recipe with pineapple, lemongrass shavings, dried shrimp, and drizzled coconut milk on top. Or go more casual and chase down Anthony Bourdain’s favorite street food from the cowboy hat lady at Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak.
Post up at 137 Pillars House, where you’ll sleep in an individual house made of teak wood that’s done in northern Lanna style, with wood lattice ceilings, balcony railings, and window shutters. The son of Anna Leonowens, the famous tutor to King Mongkut’s 82 children, had the building made and lived here for a time while working for a teak wood company, which used up to 20 elephants to haul the goods. Now Thai-owned, the hotel partners with an ethical elephant rescue sanctuary that guests can visit or donate to and has some of the most sustainable initiatives in the city. The onsite restaurant also offers the most succulent Khao Soi (chicken in a coconut broth topped with crispy noodles) and meats that fall apart with a spoon, as well as cashew and condensed milk ice cream served directly in a coconut, so you can eat the flesh lining the interior of the shell. The hotel also makes its own natural insect repellent, which either works wonders or there are no mosquitos in Thailand.
Splash around Krabi’s serene beaches
Do yourself a favor: Rather than tourist-strewn Phuket, go a quick island-hop away to Krabi. With hot spring waterfalls, jungle-topped cliffs in the ocean, and island beaches, Krabi is what Hollywood aspires toward when going for “paradise.” Boats take you from pretty much any pier on kayaking excursions in mangroves, cave expeditions, snorkeling, or to Koh Phi Phi beach and other nearby islands. You can also do land treks to the Emerald Pools and hot springs or climb 1,260 steep steps to the enormous sitting Buddha on top of a mountain at Tiger Cave Temple, which takes about 30 minutes and a lot of sweat, but is worth it for the incredible views.
Railay Beach and Phra Nang Beach are considered some of the most beautiful in the world (with cliffs famous for rock climbing or, you know, gazing at), so you might as well stay at Rayavadee, smack dab in the middle of both. A boat is required to get there, which the resort arranges along with an airport pickup. Guests stay in their own individual huts, many of which have a private infinity pool within its bamboo gates.
Otherwise, the warm ocean is right there, plus you’ll find a spa, tennis courts, wild macaques and langur monkeys roaming the property, and lizards larger than cats. Of the many beachside restaurants, The Grotto is the most striking, since you can dine in a cave next to the waves. While eating the banana leaf-wrapped sea bass or wagyu beef strips with truffle aioli, you can watch a stupid-pretty sunset while burying your toes in the sand beneath your table.
Explore ancient ruins, majestic temples, and floating markets in Ayutthaya
Before you get templed-out, you really oughta take a trip trip back in time to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ayutthaya, which was once the royal capital of Siam. The capital changed to Bangkok in 1782, and the country’s name changed from Siam to Thailand—meaning “land of the free,” as it was never colonized by Europe—in 1939. But Ayutthaya retains all the ruins, the colorful Bang Pa-in Palace, and around a dozen wats, or temples. Some of the most famous include Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and Wat Mahathat, which dates back to the 1300s and has a stone Buddha head nestled in a banyan tree.
Ayutthaya is located about an hour from Bangkok and can be reached via scenic train ride, while admiring rural fields, a winding river, and country houses along the way (there’s also fresh pineapple and other refreshments on board). Or go a slightly slower—but cheaper—route via public minivan. Some tour guides also offer private day trips from Bangkok, with transportation to and from your hotel and meals included. You could also take a leisurely boat tour between the two cities. Surrounded by a river, Ayutthaya features a floating market, many long tail-boats, and the family-run Thai Boat Museum. Home to colorful quarters and a busy night market, you may want to stick around longer than just one day, though.
Trek back in time to Kanchanaburi’s cascading waterfalls and open-air museums
Waterfalls, floating houses, and a WWII railroad are the main draws in Kanchanaburi, located just two hours from Bangkok. You can find the falls and caves in Erawan National Park, Srinagarindra National Park, and Sai Yok Yai National Park. The highlight may be Erawan, where the waterfall has seven tiers and is stretched out long like a cascading river, with turquoise pools between the levels. You can hike to each tier, surrounded by monkeys. If the wildlife aspect of that last sentence excites you, check out ElephantsWorld, an ethical nonprofit that helps rescued elephants, rather than ride or use them for entertainment.
Within the town of Kanchanaburi, the River Kwai is lovely, with restaurants and hotels lining the banks. But many people go straight to the bridge above the river to walk or ride across on the famous “Death Railway.” The train tracks are a kind of memorial for WWII, since thousands of locals and foreign prisoners of war died to construct it, as part of Japanese battle plans in nearby Burma. You can pay your respects to the fallen at the nearby Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and hear more history about the nighttime torch-lit labor at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. You could also ride the train itself, which teeters above jungles and along cliffs.
Continue delving back in time by visiting the ruins at Prasat Muang Singh. You can also see dragons at Wat Ban Tham, or go up to Wat Tham Sua, then down and back up again on another nearby summit to Wat Tham Khao Noi. Or visit Mallika City, which is a recreated town from the early 1900s, when slavery was abolished in the country. The colorful, open-air museum has floating houses and markets, where you can use old satang coins for your purchases. Speaking of floating, don’t miss out on staying in a floating raft house while in Kanchanaburi, as there are many in this region, including The FloatHouse River Kwai.