15 Things to Do in Thailand for First-Timers

From gorgeous beaches to 14th century Buddhas, Thailand is packed with activity and adventure for every type of traveler.

things to do in Thailand - Chiang Mai elephants
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Thailand's a dream travel destination, but planning a trip there can feel overwhelming because it's such a big country. Our recommendation? Visit a few different cities for a true taste of the culture and all that Thailand has to offer. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui top our list of must-see places. Bangkok, the capital, is known for its Buddhist temples and authentic food and flower markets. Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand, and it's known for its rainforests and elephant sanctuaries. Lastly, Koh Samui is a tropical island in the Gulf of Thailand with exotic beaches and a vibrant nightlife. Consider these recommendations the start to your travel itinerary, and don't be afraid to veer off-course.

1 Bangkok: Go See the Buddhas
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As one of the oldest and largest temples, Wat Pho in Bangkok features the famous Reclining Buddha, which is more than 150 feet long. This is a must-see for tourists, but good luck capturing the length of the Buddha in photos. He’s too big to capture in a frame, if that’s any indication of the “wow” factor!

After visiting Wat Pho, head to The Grand Palace, but be prepared for crowds. This dazzling gold-and-white Thai landmark was built in 1782 and was home to the Thai king and royal court for 150 years. Once on the grounds, make your way to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew), which contains the famous Emerald Buddha carved out of jade during the 14th century.

Traveler’s tip: When touring Buddhist temples, be sure to wear long pants and cover your shoulders.

2 Bangkok: Tour the Authentic Thai Markets
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Wake up early and take the Chao Phraya Express Boat to Nonthaburi Pier, the northernmost stop. You’ll get to feel like a local by taking part in a typical morning commute. Once you arrive, the Nonthaburi Market is a quick walk along the main road. Here you’ll get to experience one of the most sprawling, authentic markets the area has to offer. Most vendors leave by 9 a.m., so try to get there early.

If you love flowers, you can’t miss Pak Khlong Talat, the city’s 24-hour flower market. You’ll enjoy all the fresh flowers, bright colors, and beautiful arrangements, and if you’re staying a few days, you can even take some flowers back with you to add some cheer to your hotel room.

3 Bangkok: Stay at the Historic Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Mandarin Oriental

Conveniently located right along the Chao Phraya River, this five-star hotel is steeped in history. The Mandarin Oriental was the first luxury hotel built in Thailand, originally opened as The Oriental in 1876, and it would later go on to host Thai royalty and famous guests including Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando.

You can enjoy traditional afternoon tea in the Author's Wing, named after authors like Joseph Conrad and James Michener, who penned books during their stay. Be sure to also stop by The Bamboo Bar, where you can browse their huge cigar and whiskey collection. Lastly, don't check out before spoiling yourself at the world-class Oriental Spa with a healing Thai massage in a serene setting.

4 Bangkok: Eat Like a Local
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There’s affordable, delicious food everywhere you turn in Bangkok. Don’t miss Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s Chinatown, which is teeming with food stalls, fruit sellers, and tons of jewelry vendors. Be prepared to be offered local delicacies like shark fin soup, abalone, fresh crab, smoked duck, or bird's nest soup.

Nam Sing Bird Nest is famous for this traditional Chinese soup harvested from swallow nests, so stop there if you’re looking to try this firsthand, or opt for more tame local dishes like satay, pork noodles, and sticky rice with mango.

Traveler’s tip: Don’t be afraid to try a durian — it's smelly but actually has a soft, creamy inside that’s both sweet and smooth with hints of powdered sugar.

5 Bangkok: Visit the Jim Thompson House
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Stop by the legendary Jim Thompson House and tour the American expat’s unique architectural home. Visitors must take a 30-minute tour of his property (English-speaking guides are available), and you’ll get to learn about the history of Thompson, who helped revitalize the Thai silk trade. You’ll also learn of his mysterious disappearance — he's believed to have vanished while out walking in the Malaysian jungle, never to be seen again.

After the house tour, make a stop in the museum gift shop. It’s full of gorgeous silk bags, scarves, and home furnishings. We guarantee you’ll want to do all your souvenir shopping here, even if you’re just a day or two into your travels.

6 Chiang Mai: Hang With Elephants
Patara Elephant Sanctuary

If you have just one day in Chiang Mai, you should spend the day with elephants. It'll be a truly unique experience, and one you won’t soon forget. Patara Elephant Sanctuary offers the Elephant Owner for a Day experience in which you’ll bathe, feed, and ride elephants, all while learning all about their health, habits, and daily care needs. Starting at $130 per person (the cost of two people riding one elephant), you’ll spend the entire morning or afternoon at the farm.

Patara offers pick-up and drop-off at your hotel, an authentic Thai lunch, and even clothes to wear while riding. Most importantly, Patara prides itself on its practices, so you don’t need to fear supporting an organization that's mistreating the animals. They adopt elephants from circuses and illegal logging camps, and focus on their health, recovery, and natural breeding to increase the elephant population.

7 Chiang Mai: Take a Thai Cooking Class
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Sure, you’ll eat a lot of Thai food during your travels, but it’s worth taking a cooking class so you can bring those learnings back home. Zabb E Lee Thai Cooking School is the number one cooking course in Chiang Mai and has garnered nearly 2,000 rave reviews. Choose from a morning or evening course, which offers 5-hour instruction, and you’ll make four dishes, one curry, and a sticky rice with mango.

You’ll actually visit a local market to select all the freshest ingredients with your instructor, then you’ll get to make (and taste) dishes like fresh Thai spring rolls, papaya salad, pad thai, tom yum kung, green curry, and more. Many reviewers even said this was the best food they had while in Chiang Mai — and the most rewarding because they made it themselves.

8 Chiang Mai: Shop the Saturday Night Market
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If you can schedule your trip to arrive in Chiang Mai on a weekend, do it. The Saturday Night Market is an unforgettable experience. Just ask your tuk tuk (rickshaw taxi) driver to take you to Wua Lai Road, and then aimlessly walk in any direction. You’ll see vendor after vendor selling local goods like lemongrass soap, handcrafted fabric elephant keychains, and Thai pants, and you’ll be offered endless cheap massages. Artists and performers alike also come out to entertain the crowds.

On Sundays, Tha Pae Walking Street offers similar local goods and food options, so if you miss the Saturday market, or just can’t get enough of this unique experience, then bookend your weekend with another night bazaar.

Traveler’s tip: Stop by the food stalls offering authentic local dishes. Just ask for “no spicy” if you can’t handle the heat, because the locals have the habit of adding chili to everything.

9 Chiang Mai: Stay at the Luxurious 137 Pillars House
137 Pillars House

City life can become draining if you don’t have a comfortable hotel to return to every night. Book a room at the beautiful and historic 137 Pillars House, where every suite comes with butler service to ensure a stress-free stay. This property began as headquarters of the East Borneo Trading Company, and it's now a luxurious boutique hotel located in the heart of Chiang Mai.

The rooms have both indoor and outdoor showers, private balconies with daybeds, and views of the expansive tropical gardens. Don’t checkout without getting a proper Thai massage at the spa and savoring a traditional Northern Thai meal of green curry and beef salad in The Dining Room.

Traveler’s tip: Assigned butlers are available by phone. Download What’sApp before your trip so you can text your butler to arrange a car service at night or help with dinner reservations.

10 Chiang Mai: Zip-Line Through the Rainforest
Flight of the Gibbon

If heights don’t terrify you, book a zip lining tour with The Flight of the Gibbon tour group — it’s the longest operating zip line course in Thailand. The name of the course is inspired by the nearby gibbons, or small apes, which you may be lucky enough to spot while you fly high above the treetops.

A zip line tour of the Chiang Mai rainforest even includes lunch and hotel transfer, so you’re in for a day of adventure. Plus, every group is assigned two Sky Rangers who give safety briefings and fit you with harnesses and helmets, so even newbies will feel comfortable.

11 Koh Samui: Dance on Chaweng Beach
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Backpacker haunt Ark Bar is the place to be day or night. It’s located right on Chaweng Beach to offer a front row seat to all the action, so get ready for loud music, nightly fire displays, henna tattoo artists peddling their work, and tons of patrons dancing on the beachfront lounge chairs.

Ark Bar even offers a free barbecue buffet with the purchase of a drink on Wednesdays and Fridays. Budget hotel rooms are available if you don’t want to cab it back afterwards, but be forewarned — the thumping music doesn’t end till after 2 a.m.!

Still want to keep the party going? Head to the nearby Green Mango Club for more dancing. Even the locals recommend this spot as a “must” for tourists who want to enjoy the island nightlife. The club stays open until 5 a.m. and offers one of the biggest dance floors in Koh Samui.

12 Koh Samui: Explore Ang Thong National Marine Park
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For a memorable day trip, head to Ang Thong Marine Park by boat for snorkeling, kayaking, and views of the pristine Emerald Lake. The 100 Degrees East Dive Team is the number-one tour company in Koh Samui, and they arrange day trips to the national park. Their crew arranges transport to and from your hotel and provides lunch and snorkel equipment. You’ll tour natural caves and lagoons, and get a close glimpse of the vibrant marine life.

You may even recognize some of the vistas from the movie The Beach because this is where a few of the scenes were shot.

Traveler’s tip: There will be tons of photo opportunities on this trip, and your guides will happily snap away on your camera or smartphone if you ask them. Just don’t forget to tip them at the end of the trip.

13 Koh Samui: Enjoy Panoramic Views at Six Senses
Kiattipong Panchee

Step onto the Six Senses property, and you're immediately whisked away from the excitement of Chaweng Beach and the surrounding nightlife scene — no fire dancers here. Bamboo surrounds the property, and you have to strain to spot the hideaway villas that guarantee absolute privacy, quiet, and seclusion.

The resort complements the terrain of the island, with villas separated by tiers so that no two neighbors are within ear distance, making this a privacy seeker's dream. Be prepared to be wowed by your expansive villa — most come complete with private pools and breathtaking views of the Gulf of Thailand.

The resort’s esteemed Dining on the Rocks restaurant experience is worth saving for your last night, as it offers the most romantic dinner ambience you'll find on the island and cuisine that highlights local fish and flavor through modern cooking techniques.

Traveler’s tip: Don’t leave without touring the property’s Farm on the Hill — an on-site sustainability initiative that allows guests to experience the resort's eco-friendly practices.

14 Koh Samui: Train Like a Professional Muay Thai Fighter
Lamai Muay Thai Camp

From first timers to seasoned pros, Lamai Muay Thai Camp offers traditional training in the art of Muay Thai boxing. Opt for an individualized one-day practice, or extend your stay to train for up to a month with world-class Thai trainers. The camp adjusts the regime to fit the student, so even if you happen to have an extra day or two to spare in Koh Samui, book an afternoon session at this camp, which overlooks Lamai Beach. You’re sure to work off that fried rice you’ve been eating.

15 Koh Samui: Bum It On a Tropical Beach
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Tourists flock to Thailand for its postcard-worthy tropical beaches. Arrive in Koh Samui, and you’ll find that picture-perfect paradise is REAL, it’s just a matter of finding the best beach for you. Chaweng is the most popular beach, and it's where you’ll find many hotel accommodations and a lively nightlife.

Lamai is the island’s second largest resort area, so there are ample amenities while offering visitors a long stretch of beautiful white beach and crystal waters. Thongtakian Beach is more secluded and offers some of the island’s best snorkeling. Take your pick!

By the time you’ve toured all over Thailand, you’ll be ready for a well-deserved mai tai and a foot massage on the beach.

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