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Travel tips

12 must-visit hidden gems in Thailand

Feb 16, 2021 by Jamie Gallerani

Want to see things that’ll truly stop you in your tracks? Then a tour of Thailand should be next on your bucket list. The country practically glows (and not just because of all the smile-y locals and tropical sunshine!).

To find out what makes the Land of Smiles so wanderlust-worthy, we tapped into our travelers and Go Ahead Tours expert Kevin, a manager on our Market Innovation & Development Team. He helped handcraft one of our brand-new small group Adventure Tours—and even taught English there for a year before starting at EF! Here are some of his favorite places to visit in Thailand.

a bowl full of steaming hot pork and greens from a vendor in the Chiang Mai Night Market

1. Chiang Mai Night Market

No visit to Thailand is complete without a whirl through this local spot—which is exactly why it’s a highlight on our guided trips. “This is the best night market experience in the country,” staffer Kevin said of this hidden Thailand gem. “The market is held just outside the ancient walls of the old city of Chiang Mai and it’s amazing to see the sun go down and these relatively quiet streets come to life. Chiang Mai has a much more relaxed vibe than Bangkok or even Phuket in the south, which makes it so fun to just enjoy strolling amongst the food vendors and souvenir shops.”

Taste mango sticky rice at the market in Thailand >

two men driving a wooden boat around floating wooden planks that make up the fishing village, Koh Panyee, with may cliffs in the background

2. Koh Panyee fishing village

Sitting pretty in Phang Nga Bay is this Muslim fishing village, which is truly one of the most spectacular hidden gems in Thailand. Fun fact: Everybody who lives here is a descendant of an Indonesian man named Toh Baboo, as well as his family and friends, who founded Koh Panyee over 200 years ago!

Board a speedboat and float into this fascinating history during a visit to the village on our small group Adventure Tour of Thailand. You’ll enjoy a first-person perspective of the local lifestyle. The only thing better than visiting this photo-worthy place alongside an expert guide? Tasting local Thai specialties during an included lunch at a floating restaurant.

See the best hidden places in Thailand on tour >

an elephant up to their mouth in a murky water, spraying itself with water

3. ChangChill elephant sanctuary

If elephants—and animal welfare—get your travel-loving heart beating, then this hidden Thailand gem is for you. “The best day on tour in Thailand was the day we visited the elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, which aligns with EF’s mission to take a stand against elephant cruelty,” said traveler Maureen.

We’re all about responsible travel here at Go Ahead Tours, which is why this animal refuge is right up our alley. The organization works with World Animal Protection to create a safe living environment for the elephants, and you’ll get an up-close look as you watch them roam freely, help prepare medicine and food for them, and chat with their caretakers. It’s one of the best things to do in Thailand, indeed.

Stand up for animal welfare on our Thailand tours >

a traditional Thai longtail boat docked on the sand in green- blue water, in front of limestone cliffs that stand straight up out of the water

4. Phi Phi Islands

A speedboat cruise and snorkeling in some of Thailand’s bluest water? Yes, please. “Phi Phi (pronounced pee-pee), is literally paradise,” said staffer Kevin. “There are little to no cars on the island and everywhere you look offers an incredible view of the Andaman Sea. It feels like you are in a movie on this island—which makes sense, as it was the place where The Beach and The Man With the Golden Gun were filmed.”

If you think this sounds like one of the most unique experiences in Thailand, you’re right on the mark. The Phi Phi Islands are known for everything from staggering limestone cliffs and one of the world’s most abundant coral reef systems, to a literal “Monkey Island,” where you’ll stop to snap photos of wild Long-Tailed Macaques on an added excursion.

Visit this tropical hidden gem in Thailand >

a person sitting in a Thai longtail boat, weighing some of the fresh produce that fills their boat, next to a similar boat also full of produce

5. Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

What do traditional long-tail boats, freshly picked dragon fruit, and an immersive look at daily Thai life have in common? They’re all found at this famous floating market! One of the best things to do in Thailand is hop aboard a boat with an expert guide and barter with vendors selling regional, home-grown specialties from their floating stalls.

“I loved how much time we spent on the water throughout the tour,” said traveler Kathy, an artist who celebrated her time in Thailand by painting some of her favorite experiences. “Whether we were visiting floating markets or coasting along the canals, traveling by boat helped us see places that we couldn’t access by land.”

Boat through the market on tour in Thailand >

three wooden houses surrounded by plants, built on the side of a creek that flows under a small bridge

6. Mae Kampong Hill Tribe

“I love this excursion because it combines a short hike in the incredible Northern Thailand hills with a responsible visit to a local community,” staffer Kevin said. “The hike is doable and features Mae Kampong Waterfall and some stunning panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Then the visit to the Mae Kampong village gives a glimpse into the vibrant cultures of the region.”

“Unfortunately, there are some exploitive tourism practices in the area where inauthentic village are set up for tourists and the beneficiary is one businessman and not the community itself. But Mae Kampong is the real deal. Many villagers get by, by farming for coffee, mushrooms, or bai miang, which is a Thai tea. They welcome tourists to buy their goods, but are not forced to behave in any particular way. It’s a fun, responsible, and fascinating visit!”

Spend time with a Hill Tribe on a Small Group Tour in Thailand >

two hands pulling a head of bright green lettuce out of the ground

7. Bangkok organic farm

Picture it: You hop aboard a boat to an organic Thai farm, where you sample freshly grown fruit, sip a homemade coconut drink (yum), and do a little of your own hands-on planting. If you think this sounds like one of the best things to do in Thailand, we’re right there with you! And as luck would have it, our travelers get this exact opportunity on our small group Adventure Tour of Thailand.

“This is a truly unique experience that many travelers to Thailand won’t get,” said staffer Kevin. “Our host/guide is passionate about his work to farm sustainably and organically, and has carved out a little slice of paradise amidst the most urban part of Thailand. Thai cuisine is all about fresh ingredients, and many dishes are relatively simple. Visiting this farm and doing a hands-on activity gives our travelers a tactile appreciation for that.”

Do some planting on our Thailand tours >

two boats traversing through aquamarine water under a limestone cave overpass

8. Talu Island sea caves

There’s seeing places, and then there’s really seeing places on tour, and our travel experts know the difference! That’s where an immersive adventure to these picture-perfect sea caves—by canoe, alongside expert local paddlers—comes in.

Hop aboard a speedboat on our Thailand Adventure Tour to Talu Island, a tropical spot surrounded by limestone cliffs and aquamarine water. Sounds pretty, right? It’s just as picturesque as you’re imagining, and simply gets better and better as you explore the island’s sea caves in your own single or double canoe. As a cherry on top, you’ll visit James Bond Island, which earned its nickname thanks to its feature in the Blockbuster hit, The Man with the Golden Gun. Trust us: Getting an up-close look at these natural wonders is one of the best things to do in Thailand!

Go canoeing in sea caves in Thailand >

many buddha statues sitting in a row in front of a brick wall with trees in the background at Ayutthaya Historical park in Thailand

9. Ayutthaya Historical Park

Chiang Rai is one perfect place to be if you’re looking for both exceptional views and Thai history, and this park is proof of that. Here at this UNESCO-listed site, there’s everything from a gigantic reclining Buddha at Wat Lokkayasutharam to an intricately planned canal network that goes back hundreds of years. The canals have even earned the site the nickname The Venice of the East, so you know they’ve gotta be good. Long story short: Once you see all the giant monasteries, towers, and ruins of old palaces, you’ll know exactly why the Ayutthaya Historical Park served as the royal capital in the Kingdom of Siam in the 15th century.

See UNESCO-listed sites on our trips to Thailand >

the upper body of a gold buddha statue in front of the gold temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Thailand

10. Wat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

“This is a pilgrimage site for many Thai Buddhists and is one of the country’s most holy locations,” staffer Kevin said. “Legend is that a piece of the Buddha’s shoulder bone is enshrined here. You can feel its spirituality as you walk up the stairs and wander through the temple complex. There are many temples to visit in Thailand—but this is the most memorable to me because of its beauty and its importance to Thai history and culture.”

Experience Buddhist culture in Thailand >

lotus flowers and lily pads floating in water in front of the ruins of a dark brown temple at Sukhothai Historical Park in Thailand

11. Sukhothai Historical Park

Have some free time to make the most of on your tour of Thailand? This UNESCO-listed spot has—count ‘em—over 190 historic ruins, which makes it a worthwhile free time stop during your adventure in the Land of Smiles. “The breathtaking ancient temples were a highlight of my trip,” said traveler Audrey of her time exploring temples in Thailand and Cambodia. “Even though I had to leave the temples behind when I returned home, I carry warm and rich memories of them from my tour!”

Visit during free time while in Thailand >

the top of the intricately detailed White Temple in Thailand, covered with images of the buddha and dragon statues projecting from the sides

12. White Temple in Chiang Rai

This may not be the oldest temple in the Land of Smiles—it was built in 1997, after all—but all the ornate decorations make it one of the most visually interesting places to visit in Thailand. We only make a quick photo stop here on our Thailand tours, but it’s a photo you’ll be glad to have in your camera roll! “It was so special because it’s strikingly different from all of the other temples we visited,” said traveler Maureen. “The coolest thing about it is that there are depictions of Spiderman, Darth Vader, Michael Jackson, Hello Kitty, and even Angry Birds characters intermingled with flames, demons, and tragic scenes in history.”

Snap a photo of the White Temple on tour in Thailand >

Have you ever visited Thailand on tour? What are some of your favorite places to visit in Thailand? Tell us about your favorite moments on our Facebook page!

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About the author | Jamie Gallerani
It was Jamie’s homestay in Germany that made her fall in love with travel (and her studies in Florence that really sealed the deal). When she’s not writing and sharing the magic of seeing the world with others, she’s usually on the lookout for her new favorite memoir, testing out recipes at home, or visiting her family on Cape Cod.

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