For those who haven’t yet ventured to Southeast Asia’s “Land of Smiles,” the prospect of planning a trip is understandably intimidating: Thailand is larger than the state of California and has 76 very different provinces, each with a distinct personality. So where do you even begin?
That’s where I come in. Here’s a simplified explanation of the country’s four main regions—and what to do once you get there.
A few things worth noting before we dive in!
✔️I’d recommend planning a trip that is between 7-9 days
✔️I’d recommend splitting your trip into 3 or 4 of the destinations covered below
✔️Hopping between cities in Thailand is super easy and inexpensive (flights can be as low as $31 round trip – not an exaggeration, I just checked google flights and found one between Bangkok & Phuket for $31 total)
✔️Tuk-tuks are actually a rather efficient way to get around the city. Some are even tricked out with strobe lights and speakers!
NORTHERN THAILAND: Chiang Mai
A tranquil alternative to bustling Bangkok, Thailand’s mountainous northern capital is an animal lover’s paradise, with elephant sanctuaries, tiger temples, and even a “nocturnal zoo” night safari.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai
This is where I stayed on my most recent trip and I can’t recommend it enough. Everything about the property is pure paradise, and I love that it’s located outside of the city by the Ping River. Staying here truly feels like an escape. I’d recommend it for honeymoons in particular.
Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai
The five-star property is everything you’d expect from a Four Seasons—meticulous attention to detail, cushy accommodations, and over-the-top service—but it’s also decidedly authentic.
Pavilion-style suites overlook sweeping rice paddies, and an on-site cooking school teaches would-be chefs the intricacies of Northern Thai cuisine.
Other hotels that I would recommend are: 137 Pillars, Anantara, and Akyra Manor.
Best Things to Do in Chiang Mai: Patara Elephant Farm
There are plenty of camps to choose from in Northern Thailand, but few are as highly regarded as Patara, where participants are paired with their own dedicated elephant for the day.
You’ll learn how to feed, bathe, and communicate with your animal under the tutelage of an experienced trainer; plus, a staff photographer captures the journey, leaving you with a library of Instagram-worthy snaps to take home.
NORTHEAST: Nakhon Ratchasima
Known for its mind-numbingly spicy food, the region isn’t much of a tourist mecca, but quaint rural villages and lush rice farms showcase Thai culture in its purest form.
Where to Stay in Nakhon Ratchasima: Muthi Maya
If you’re longing for that middle-of-nowhere vibe but don’t want to sacrifice comfort—or a strong Wi-Fi signal—head to Muthi Maya. The bucolic 30-villa retreat is nestled within Khao Yai National Park, and nature-centric excursions (like trekking to the Haew Suwat waterfall) can be arranged by helpful hotel staff.
Best Things to Do in Nakhon Ratchasima: Sri Thai Silk
In the same way that Italy is known for fine leather and Provence for fragrant lavender, Thailand is a haven for handwoven silk. The most varied selection can be found at Sri Thai Silk; be sure to leave plenty of extra room in your luggage.
Thailand’s capital—situated along the Chao Phraya River—is sensory overload in the best way possible.
Nearly everywhere you turn, you’ll find street vendors hawking hot plates of pad thai, tuk-tuks whizzing hurriedly past and statuesque temples looming overhead.
Where to Stay in Bangkok: Mandarin Oriental Bangkok
When you step foot into the hotel’s lobby, you’ll be greeted by a live orchestra and the scent of exotic flowers—400,000, to be exact—wafting through the air. The Oriental (as locals call it) is grand in every sense of the word, earning the property a reputation as Bangkok’s grande dame.
Over the course of its storied 140-year history, the hotel has hosted an impressive roster of A-list guests, ranging from politicians (George H. W. Bush) to Hollywood starlets (Audrey Hepburn).
Best Things to Do in Bangkok: Wat Pho, Temple of the Reclining Buddha
Visiting a Buddhist temple is ostensibly a rite of passage for Thailand first-timers, and while The Grand Palace is Bangkok’s most renowned, it can also be an overwhelming experience: The temple sees more than 8 million visitors annually.
Wat Pho, on the other hand, has all the trappings of a traditional Buddhist temple and a fraction of the foot traffic.
SOUTH: Phuket or Koh Samui
There’s a reason why so many backpackers visit Southern Thailand and never leave. The postcard-perfect beaches and turquoise Andaman Sea will tempt you to make island-hopping your full-time job.
It’s an IDEAL place for a girlfriends getaway.
Where to Stay in Phuket: Sri Panwa
Grab a daybed at Sri Panwa’s rooftop lounge for sunset and you’ll notice that the guests have one thing in common: They’re all impossibly chic.
Fashion editors, celebrities, and Bangkok’s “high-so” (the Thai term for “high society”) flock to Sri Panwa, where you can choose to “see and be seen” or enjoy complete seclusion in a cliffside suite.
Best Things to Do in Phuket:
Ka Jok See
You’d be hard-pressed to find more beautiful drag queens than those at Ka Jok See. The restaurant, which turns into a disco-era club around 9:00 p.m., is a Phuket institution.
Guests are invited to dance on the tables as performers belt out hits from Beyoncé and Whitney Houston. Kate Moss even celebrated her birthday here—the ultimate stamp of approval, as far as I’m concerned.
Thailand is well-known for its impressive ladyboy and drag performances, and Simon Cabaret is the absolute best. Think of it as the Broadway of the Thai cabaret world. I highly recommend getting tickets in advance.
Where to Stay in Koh Samui:
Located on a private island just 3 minutes off the coast of Koh Samui proper, Cape Fahn is definitely a splurge—but well worth it. Guests have their own individual villas and plunge pools.
Other hotels in Koh Samui that I would recommend are: Anantara, Banyan Tree, and Le Meridien.
Best Things to Do in Koh Samui:
Fisherman’s Village and Night Market
If you want a real taste of Thailand, head to the Fisherman’s Village on a Friday night. You’ll be able to enjoy ALL of the incredible street food, live music, and plenty of shopping from local vendors. Don’t miss the 9pm nightly fire show at Coco Tam’s.
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This post originally appeared on Vogue.com