Aerial view of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Our guide to Thailand's top places, plus our lesser-known favourites

Though it’s perhaps most famous for its beaches — stereotypically idyllic, with gently rustling palms and brilliant blue skies — Thailand is about a whole lot more than just sun, sea and sand.

Bangkok is the archetypal Southeast Asian megalopolis: big, bold and brash, for sure — but somehow beautiful in its dizzying, non-stop chaos. Meanwhile, chilled-out Chiang Mai offers a seductive, East-meets-West blend of tradition and modernity; familiarity and exoticism. Endless coastline intersperses dramatic cliffs and caves with low-rise fishing villages and world-class luxury resorts, while Khao Sok National Park offers the chance to escape the modern world altogether as you sleep in a rafthouse surrounded by rainforest that’s changed little since prehistoric times.

Not everywhere in Thailand is sunshine and lollipops. Mass tourism arrived here a long time ago, bringing with it overdeveloped and characterless resorts, badly behaved backpackers, and a seedier element that lingers in some destinations. Thankfully, those places are in the minority. Whether you’re in a massive city or a rural town, on a tropical island or a remote jungle mountain, you’ll find some of the world’s friendliest people, tastiest food, and best accommodation in Thailand.

“I love Samui in the wee small hours. I especially love it on nights like this when the white moon stares down from the blackness like the pockmarked eye of a blind god. At such times [...] the dark hills appear to me as slumbering prehistoric leviathans, the clouds assume the air of restless ghosts, and the moon-dusted sea murmurs in some long forgotten tongue of the divine.” – John Dolan, Everyone Burns

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Before it was razed to the ground by the Burmese in 1767, Ayutthaya had a million inhabitants and was one of the biggest cities in the world. Enthusiastically absorbing influences from across Europe and Asia, its cosmopolitan roots stretch as far as Japan, Arabia, Portugal and Italy.

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Bangkok is an assault on the senses. Clouds of aromatic steam battle with exhaust fumes, neon signs blink jarringly alongside confection-like temples, and 30-degree heat and humidity heightens the sensation that you’re simmering in a heady, spice-laden stew.

Chiang Mai

In contrast to the mile-a-minute chaos of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air. Here, leafy boulevards and European architecture survive alongside temples dating back to the twelfth century.

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More than just a base for excursions into the northern hills or river cruises down the Mekong to Luang Prabang (though it’s that too), Chiang Rai is Thailand’s unofficial capital of offbeat travel.

Kanchanaburi

Three hours’ drive from Bangkok, in a sleepy, riverside town surrounded by jungle, is the site of one of the most traumatic periods in Thai history. This is Kanchanaburi, home of the real-life Bridge on the River Kwai.

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Khao Lak’s beaches are straight out of central casting: pearlescent white sand, deep blue skies, and rustling palm trees leaning out towards glittering, turquoise seas.