Though Europe tops most travelers’ bucket lists, Southeast Asia has continued to climb up in the rankings for worldwide travel experiences. Back in April, Thailand was ranked No. 3 of eight on the World Economic Forum’s list of most tourist-friendly Southeast Asian countries, and last September, Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, was named the top-ranked destination city in the sixth edition of the MasterCard Global Destinations Cities Index.
Perhaps going along a recent trend, travelers are craving more authentic, cultural travel experiences. An Expedia survey from 2016 showed that 76 percent of baby boomers and 62 percent of Gen Xers rated local culture as the “most important” part of travel – only 52 percent of Millennials agreed it was most important; however, 31 percent of Millennials said it was tied with social media response (for a total of 83 percent).
For authentic, immersive experiences, mark Thailand as the next travel destination on your bucket list. Here's a compilation of the top 10 things to experience while visiting.
1. Explore historic sites
This includes Ayutthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which can be found about one hour from Bangkok. Never reconstructed after being attacked by the Burmese, this property is considered an extensive archaeological site. The Great Buddha in Wat Muang is also worth a visit, located about an hour and a half from the capital city. It is the tallest statue in Thailand, and the eighth tallest in the world. Not far from here is “Hell Park,” where there are smaller – though more gruesome – statues that depict the fate of sinners.
2. Visit some of the nation’s ancient temples
While in the north in Chiang Mai, a must-see is the Buddhist temple of Wat Phra Singh. Dating back to 1367, this is the Rose of the North’s most revered temple, and dominated by the mosaic-inlaid “wí·hăhn,” or sanctuary. It is home to Phra Singh, the Lion Buddha and elegantly decorated by gilded serpents and golden stenciling.
In Bangkok, tourists can visit the Grand Palace, located along the Chao Praya River and constructed after the destruction of Ayutthaya. The palace was built for the new capital and houses a royal residence, throne halls, government offices, Buddhist temples and works of art.
3. Play with elephants
Thailand’s Elephant Nature Park can also be found in Chiang Mai, and was established in the 1990s as a “sanctuary and rescue center” for elephants and other endangered or rescued species. With a few different options to choose from, visitors can pet, feed and even bathe the elephants during an insightful and rewarding day. All proceeds from admission go toward feeding the elephants, some of which consume nearly 100 pounds of fresh produce per day, plus general upkeep of the park.
4. Come eye-to-eye with a tiger
Travelers can visit Tiger Kingdom, located in the town of Mae Rim – not far from Chiang Mai’s city center; there is also a second location in Phuket. At these centers, guests can interact with tigers of all ages and sizes, ranging from three months to full grown adults. The center is a wildlife preservation, though rumors have been spread otherwise. There is no threat to visitors, as these tigers are hand-raised. According to the center’s website, there are only an estimated 120 tigers that continue to inhabit the wild, and all proceeds from the centers go toward the investments of captive breeding of tigers.
5. Go on a boat tour of Phang Nga Bay
Depicted in movies such as Roger Moore’s “The Man with the Golden Gun” and “The Beach,” starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio, the bay is recognizable by its limestone rock formations that jut out of the emerald green Andaman Sea. This is a perfect excursion for those visiting the islands of Phuket or Krabi as well as beach and nature lovers, as they can explore the caves, lagoons and secluded beaches along the way. This is also a perfect opportunity to snorkel or swim.
6. Relax on Thailand’s pristine beaches
Ko Samui and Ko Phangan are usually the places to go to soak up some rays but for those looking for a little extra seclusion, head across the peninsula to Koh Lanta. Known for its luxury, the beach is home to miles of unpolluted waters, nearby dive spots include Hin Daeng, Hin Muang and Ko Haa, and five-star Pimalai Resort & Spa offers rooms with stunning views of the bay. There will be fewer tourists found here than on the other two islands, providing for ultimate tranquility and relaxation.
7. Eat like a local
Tourists can find pretty much any traditional Thai dish on the streets of Bangkok. There is everything from stir fries, mango sticky rice, roast pork belly, steamed crab, sausages, curry, mangosteen, among other local delicacies. One of the best places to find local street foods is on Rama IV road in Sathorn, between Lumpini and Klong Toei Station.
For a more organized experience, consider booking with Bangkok Food Tours, an award-winning food and culture tour operator that has been recognized by such publications as CNNgo, Travel+Leisure and Lonely Planet. There are over a dozen food tours to choose from, between the Eat with Locals Tour, Bangkok Bites & Bike Tour, Central Thailand Rice & Spice Trail, Yaowarat Street Food Tour in Chinatown, including a few others that are organized in Chiang Mai and Phuket.
8. Drink like a local (whether virgin or alcoholic)
As the capital city, Bangkok is not only the place to eat, but the place to drink. Some traditional Thai drinks that are a must-try for travelers are: Cha Yen (Thai iced tea), a popular sweet, orange beverage made with brewed tea leaves and condensed milk that can be made both iced or hot and found on the street for cheap; Nom Yen (iced milk with syrup), popular among Thai kids and teenagers and is made with hot milk, green or red syrup and ice and can also be found on the street or at local bakeries; Thai beers such as Singha and Chang, which are both known and enjoyed worldwide; and Mekhong and Sangsom, the two most popular Thai whiskeys.
For a night out, there are guided tours such as the Bangkok Bar Crawl, that takes travelers to four bars and one club where they receive welcome shots and discounted drinks from a special menu. For those who want to explore the city at night for themselves, some popular bars are Maggie Choo’s, The Iron Fairies, Brown Sugar, which doubles as a venue for live music, Tuba Bar, which doubles as a thrift shop, and Moon Bar, located on the roof of the Banyan Tree Bangkok hotel and offers mesmerizing panoramas of the city from a bird’s eye view.
9. Visit Thai markets
About an hour and a half drive from Bangkok is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, something of a staple in Thailand. Only accessible by long tail boat, there are souvenirs, clothing, fresh produce and food such as noodle bowls, coconut pancakes and stir fries being sold. This market fills up quickly with tourists, so make sure to get there in the early morning to beat the rush.
Back in Chiang Mai, travelers can explore the Sunday Night Market or “Walking Street” – the largest market of the week. Locals come to sell arts and crafts and handmade goods at this market, such as lanterns, wooden boxes, masks, paintings and string lights.
10. Watch and learn Muay Thai
The traditional art of Thai boxing has been around for centuries and is Thailand’s national sport. Becoming increasingly popular, many tourists go to watch Muay Thai matches – but there are also opportunities to learn this fighting art, whether in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket. Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket offers a beginner level training program where trainees can learn from instructors who train the pros. There are other similar opportunities at facilities such as Kombat Group Pattaya and Fairtex Bangkok, where instructors have sufficient English skills and can easily communicate with travelers.