The Best Cities in Thailand to Visit for Culture Lovers
When I first arrived in Thailand, I was struck by how busy and vibrant Thai cities were. As friends of mine recommended beach after beach, island after island, I kept finding my mind wandering back to the big cities. With this post, I want to showcase the fact Thai cities offer a perspective into the country’s history and culture that isn’t as easily accessible on one of Thailand’s many beautiful islands. Thus, here lies this post - the best cities in Thailand to visit for culture lovers.
As I alluded to before, it really comes from a perspective of a traveller who relishes the opportunity to explore big cities, despite the potential dirt and grime that comes with urban travel. Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that when you’re travelling around Thailand you should avoid beaches and relaxation, I’m just saying that in planning a trip to Thailand, don’t forget about the cities.
I’m biased - I admit it. I was raised in Canada’s largest city, moved to Norway’s largest city, then relocated to Korea’s biggest city, and followed that up by moving to Istanbul, one of the larger cities on the planet. Needless to say, I love big cities. In short, there’s a fine line to me between relaxation and boredom, so big cities ensure I’m always on the go, and I relish that.
Today, let’s talk about the best cities in Thailand to visit if you’re looking to get a good feel for the culture of the country at large.
Here Are Some Famous Cities in Thailand to Visit for Lovers of Culture
The term “culture,” generally speaking, is quite ambiguous, so, in this article, I’m more thinking of cities which showcase something unique about Thailand as a nation, and do it particularly well. Obviously, it would be blasphemous to not include certain cities, but I’ll also mention a city or two that you may not be as familiar with.
I should also mention that when I’m using the term “culture,” I’m thinking primarily of the best cities in Thailand in which to become better acquainted with the Thai way of life. Ultimately, the idea is to visit these cities to discover Thai arts, history, food, or any representation of intellectual achievement that has manifested itself.
I’ll admit it, I have a hard time not starting out a list with the most obvious choice (a prime example being my post on Florida vacations). My feeling is it has something to do my general lack of patience, but who can say?
From a cultural perspective, let’s consider for a moment that in a country that’s still fairly rural, Bangkok is an absolute megacity. The city proper has close to ten million (and many would say it’s much higher in actuality), which is the only place we see this in the country. In fact, other “large” cities tend to max out between one hundred to three hundred thousand.
I wrote about tackling Bangkok in 24 hours, but if you’ve got the time, take it, and soak it all in. Be sure to check out famed temples such as Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Traimit, and Wat Saket. You’ll actually find many of the main cultural sites can be checked out with a thorough visit to the Grand Palace and the surrounding area, so culture lovers can start there. If that tires you out, Lumpini Park offers a great escape from the crowds.
Food wise, I was eating non-stop from the food stalls, often figuring out the name of the dish post-consumption. I was pretty much permanently full, and was always munching on something. You’ll find plenty of Khao Pad (fried rice), Som Tam (papaya salad), and Pad Thai as well, though it’s a touch harder to find than you’d think.
It’s unquestionable, Bangkok is one of the best cities in Thailand to visit for culture lovers, and possibly even around the world.
It’s not all that far from Bangkok, but Pattaya sure offers a different vibe from Thailand’s capital. Pattaya, in actuality, is known as a resort city, and is located on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand.
Many people come to Pattaya purely for vacation reasons, but I’d also argue that Pattaya has some sites that make it more than worth the trek for the traveller who is looking to go deeper than just a beach trip. For starters, Prasat Sut Ja-Tum (also known as the Sanctuary of Truth), is an impressive structure, and it’s layered exterior is beyond pleasing to the eye.
The Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden (pictured above) is also worth the visit, and that’s coming from someone who isn’t usually enthralled by botanical gardens. The gardens are distinctly Thai and the natural creations celebrate everything from the country’s natural phenomena, to its animals, and even its history to some extent.
Walking Street, the main tourist throughway, is always worth peaking at, but know that Pattaya is a major destination in the sex tourism industry, and much of the dark-side of that rears its ugly head at night on Walking Street. You might be better to see it in the daylight, to be honest.
Chiang Rai isn’t a large city, but it is an old city, as it was founded all the way back in 1262. For geography purposes, think of Chiang Rai as the largest city in the northern portion of Thailand.
As with most Thai cities of a certain size, there are a number of temples that are revered and well visited. I am particularly partial to Wat Huay Pla Kang, and that’s only because it was one of the first Thai pagodas that I saw, and it was noticeably different than other structures I’d seen. Wat Rong Seur Ten (also known as the Blue Temple), is pleasant as well. I’d also recommend taking a night to go wild at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar and fill your tummy to the brim.
The crown jewel in Chiang Rai, and, in my opinion, one of the most impressive sights in the country is Wat Rong Khun, known more colloquially by the name the White Temple. I can recall my time travelling around Thailand quite well, but my memories of the White Temple are as vivid as can be.
Honestly, the White Temple alone makes Chiang Rai one of the best cities in Thailand to visit for lovers of culture. I can promise you’ll never have seen anything like it, and you can read my linked post in the above paragraph if you’d like to know more. That being said, you don’t need to stay long in a place like Chiang Rai, and many people just spend a number of hours there exploring before heading further north to take the slow boat to Laos.
Ayutthaya (Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya)
As far as the best cities in Thailand are concerned, I think Ayutthaya is the best kept secret.
When people are bouncing their Thailand itineraries off me, I’m always adamant that they should stop in Ayutthaya, and so I’d like to communicate much the same to you as well. Ayutthaya is the former capital of Thailand, and the current monuments live up to that former title.
To talk about individual places within Ayutthaya almost seems insulting to the fact that there’s so much to see. My suggestion would be to take at least a half day and just relish the Historic City of Ayutthaya. It’s a large section that you cannot miss, and if you take the time to deliberately soak it all in, I’m positive it will be one of the most memorable times of your trip in Thailand.
Everything in the Historic City of Ayutthaya will impress you, and the ruins are extraordinarily well preserved. Bri and I felt that our trip to Thailand would not have been to complete without stopping here, so take that as you will!
Sukhothai (Sukhothai Thani)
I’m a bit iffy on calling Sukhothai a “city,” but, if it isn’t a city, it’s at least a very sizeable small town. And, arbitrary distinctions aside, the historical centre is gorgeous.
It’s really not all that different from Ayutthaya in the sense that it was also a former capital of the Thai Kingdom (its first capital, actually) and, in light of that, it has the goods to show for it. My recommendations are almost exactly the same as well, as if you’re smart you’ll just take your time in the Sukhothai Historical Park and soak it all in.
I haven’t been personally, but I’ve had several friends and people in travel mention that a visit to Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (known as BLES), can quite literally be life-changing, so you may want to look into that during your visit as well.
Temples, temples and more temples is what you’ll find in Sukhothai and, in Thailand, that’s just not a bad problem to have. You probably won’t find it on a “top cities to visit in Thailand” post, but I think it’s a special spot. It’s simply one of those nice places in Thailand that people tend to smile when they think back on.
Chiang Mai is one of those famous cities in Thailand that, in my humble opinion, lives up to its reputation and quite possibly exceeds it. I loved spending time in Chiang Mai, both during the day and at night. As far as I understand, it’s become a bit of a digital nomad hotspot since I was last there, so I’m not sure how that’s effected things, but it was certainly a cool spot when I was there.
What I like about Chiang Mai is that you’ve got impressive temples like Wat Chedi Luang Varavihara and Wat Phra Singh, but you’ve also got some unique sites like the Art In Paradise, Chiang Mai 3D Art Museum. Chiang Mai is also a city where it’s just fun to wander and see what you come across, because you’ll certainly come across something. It’s rather hard to walk anywhere without finding something of interest.
I personally thought this was the spot in Thailand to check out markets, as they’ve got innumerable markets both for the day and night. Chiang Mai is also a good spot to get more acquainted with Thai boxing if that’s something you’d like to see. That counts as Thai culture, that’s for sure.
When you add it all up, you’ve got one of best cities in Thailand to visit, period. Whatever you’re looking for in Thailand, you’ll likely find it in Chiang Mai. If you’re simply overwhelmed by how much there is to see in Chiang Mai, companies like Withlocals offer tours of Chiang Mai which cover all angles.
Believe it or not, Hat Yai is the third largest metropolitan area of the country. Personally, I’m not sure I’d really go out of my way or alter my itinerary to ensure that I included Hat Yai, but if you’re already in the south near the Malaysian border, then I’d consider coming here.
It's certainly not one of the most visited cities in Thailand, but they do have an interesting collection of markets and bazaars that give an intriguing picture of southern Thai culture, or at least a Thai city which is so close to the Malaysian border.
Hat Yai isn’t the city where you’re going to pad your Instagram account with a bunch of new stunning photos, it’s more an opportunity to immerse yourself in a particular culture. There’s no real glitz or glamour here, but it’s also kind of a neat place in its own right.
So, You’re Travelling Around Thailand - Should You Try To Visit All of These Cities?
Ultimately, it’s your decision, but if I were you I would ensure that you do escape the cities at some point to get a counter-view of what life is like outside of the cities, which is, arguably, what Thailand is better known for. As I said before, I’m partial to cities, but I also don’t want to lead you astray. Your itinerary needs to include Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but then, after that, you should look further into the cities above and see what really tickles your fancy.
Those in search of unique temples are going to be drawn to Chiang Rai’s White Temple, where history buffs may be more partial to spending some serious time in a place like Ayutthaya. That’s the beauty of creating your own itinerary, it can serve you.
Trying to visit of all these Thai cities in one trip might be a tall order, but anything is possible if you’ve got the time and wherewithal to do it. In all likelihood, travelling around Thailand is going to treat you well regardless of what choice you make.
So, those are the best cities in Thailand to visit for culture lovers according to yours truly. I hope this aids in your planning, and your travel unfold beautifully. As always, you can hit me up on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter if you’ve got any further questions! Happy travels!
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