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You’ve seen The Beach. You’ve pictured yourself sipping something sweet out of a coconut while the crystalline waters lap against the limestone karsts. You know Thailand’s a looker; but this place isn’t just about beaches. From thick jungles to mountain vistas, golden temples to jade-coloured lakes, beauty comes in many forms in this part of the world. So, in honour of Contiki trips to Thailand being BACK. ON. here’s my pick of the most beautiful destinations in Thailand.
Doi Inthanon National Park
Around 70km from Chiang Mai you’ll find Doi Inhtanon, a National Park boasting rushing waterfalls, emerald cloud forests and winding hiking trails. Basically, if you’re looking for the biodiverse beauty in Thailand, this is the place to be. The park’s highest peak, Doi Inthanon mountain, forms part of the Himalayan Mountain Range, but the jewels in its crown has to be the showstopping temples, Naphamethinidon and Naphaphonphumisiri, located near the summit.
A few years ago I took my scooter up the snaking mountain passes to catch the sunset from Naphamethinidon. All I could hear was birdsong as the wide golden sky opened above the forest below. In that moment I couldn’t care less about palm trees or full moon parties. Thailand’s northern region is seriously underrated, so make sure you explore as much as you can next time you visit.
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Set along the gorgeous river Kwai, Kanchanaburi has a mournful history. It’s the spot where Japanese forces used Allied prisoners of war – in brutal conditions – to build a railway to Burma. As such, the place is dotted with museums and cemeteries – as well as the ‘Death Railway’ and the famed ‘Bridge over the river Kwae.’
But this place isn’t just for WW2 buffs. From khmer temples to lively riverside resorts, huge waterfalls and dense jungle, it’s also one of the most beautiful destinations in Thailand. Take a trip to Kanchanaburi with us and you’ll stay in our floating raft Special Stay, where you can disconnect from WiFi and enjoy your floating, candlelit rooms as the river glides by. Feeling the heat? Just jump from your room into the river below.
South Thailand’s beaches tend to come with caveats. Basically, they’re stunningly beautiful, but everyone knows they are. So yes, you’ll find other tourists on Railay beach, but it’s worth it for the limestone cliffs (perfect for climbing or hiking), the powdery, pure-white sands, and the transparent waters. Catch the sunset here and you may think, charitably, that something this beautiful is best shared.
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Pai is another slightly touristy destination that’s beautiful enough to make the trip worth it. You may not be a huge fan of the partying or baggy-trousered yoga retreats, but it’s hard not to fall in love with the mountain valley where it rests. A hazy light falls on this part of Thailand, giving the rolling hills a dream-like quality. Elephants roam alongside rice paddies, and every evening you can watch the sunset over glorious mountain vistas. You can see why tree-huggers of all stripes are drawn to this part of the world.
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One of the most spectacular ancient sites in Thailand, Sukhothai is a crumbled, 13th-century holy kingdom, set within the serene countryside. The kingdom was the jewel in the crown of Thailand’s golden age: the birthplace of its art, culture and language. As well as all the ancient wonders to be found here, it’s home to a chilled rural town which is perfect for grabbing a local bite after a day temple hopping.
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Pu Chi Fa
I couldn’t do this Thailand travel list without chucking in a ‘hidden gem,’ even if I risk jeopardising that status. Pu Chi Fa is a bit off the beaten track, which is why you’ll rarely find it in these sorts of lists. But it’s absolutely one of the most beautiful destinations in Thailand; and it’s absolutely worth the trek – a few hours drive from one of Thailand’s most underrated towns: Chiang Rai.
If you do read about Pu Chi Fa, it’s probably in relation to its sunrise – and that’s for good reason. Hazy blues turn violet before the saffron sun sweeps through the clouds, illuminating the valleys of Laos in the distance. It’s a sight you’ll never forget.
Arguably the most sacred temple in Northern Thailand, Doi Suthep is found at the top of a carved, 306-step serpent staircase; a climb said to enrich the spirit. Golden statues gaze peacefully down at the mountain floor, and you can get some thrilling panoramas of your own on Chiang Mai and the surrounding countryside.
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If you’re after mile-long beaches and spotless skies, here’s the place to be. Ko Lanta is one of the more sophisticated Thai Islands – a lot calmer than the infamous Ko Phi Phi. Here, life moves a little bit more slowly: mangroves curl around hidden temples, long-tail boats glide lazily on the crystal-clear waters, and the sunsets are out of this world.
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Khao Sok National Park
If beaches bore you, head to Khao Sok, the ancient jungle packed with adventures. This is the place to head if you want to spot wild elephants, big cats, bears and gibbons – as well as plentiful hidden caves and waterfalls. On top of that, you’ll find more flora here than anywhere else in Thailand. It’s this country’s Amazon, essentially and a must visit if you like your natural beauty a bit on the wild side.
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Chiang Rai is everything I love about Northern Thailand. Calm, cheap and blessed with good looks, great food and warm, welcoming people. It’s packed with some pretty astonishing temples, too. Check out Wat Phra Kaew, a wooden masterpiece set within a dense forest, and Wat Rong Khun, a spectacular carved art installation.
The city itself is charming enough, with Night Bazaars and incredible street food, but if you want to see this province at its best, it’s all about heading into the countryside on two wheels. This place is a cyclists dream, with winding country lanes arcing across vibrant fields and soaring valleys. It really is one of the most beautiful destinations in Thailand.
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Khao Yai National Park
Thailand’s first National Park is an impressive stretch of forests and grasslands, including the catchily titled Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a spectacular UNESCO world heritage site. This place is all about the wildlife, so keep your eyes peeled for macaques, elephants, deer, gibbons, bears and otters.
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Yes, it’s the titular beach from Danny Boyle’s iconic movie. And it’s easy to see why all the characters were so desperate to keep this stunning bay a secret, as it’s now been closed to visitors, to give the bleached coral a chance to recover.
I was fortunate enough to visit before the government were forced to take action, and it was a slightly sad reflection of how tourism is impacting Thailand’s rich natural beauty. Our tiny boat was competing with many others as we reached the shore, and the beach was too crowded to even pose for an iconic snap. That being said, it’s quite something to rest your eyes on water so clear, sand so white and rock formations so epic. Hopefully, once the marine life has recovered the government can allow people to see this natural wonder in a more managed, less harmful way. Until then, we can simply look at photos and sigh.
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The Similan Islands Marine National Park is a stunning collection of spotless beaches and deep turquoise waters. Snorkel spots tend to be packed with day trippers, but it’s worth the journey for the marine life: a spectacular array of coral and fish forming an underwater kaleidoscope of vibrant colours.
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The Grand Palace
Whether you’re hurtling down its streets in a tuk tuk, partying on Kho San Road or exploring its beautiful temples, Bangkok is a city that simply takes your breath away. Take, for example, its Grand Palace. This place is actually a jaw-dropping collection of gilded temples, with grand spires, ornate carvings, epic statues and beautiful grounds. There’s a mixture of traditional architecture and gorgeous columns inspired by the Italian Renaissance, and the wonder you’ll feel as you stroll the golden steps is comparable to the Vatican.
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Bangkok’s Floating Markets
While you’re in Bangkok, why not head to the unique Floating Markets, where you can get a glimpse into the locals’ worlds and support the lively businesses located along the river. Damnoen Saduak is the most famous, having appeared in the James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun, but if you’re looking for something more authentic then I’d recommend heading to Amphawa, with its gorgeous wooden houses and a tiny temple located inside of a tree.
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