Thailand is filled with wonderful sights, but they can be a little spread apart. If you want to sample all it has to offer within a few weeks, you’ll want to follow a good route.
In this example itinerary, I’ll run you through some of the popular destinations in Thailand. It’s a fairly typical Thailand itinerary combining cultural, nature, and beach highlights, but you can customise it to your liking. This itinerary is ideal for backpackers or anyone traveling independently and looking for a mix of adventure and relaxation.
Suggested 4 Week Thailand Budget: $1100 per person (£832 / €972) (backpacker budget) to $1500 (‘flashpacker’ budget adding more comfort, some nice beach bungalows, etc.)
Don’t be afraid to improvise!
Before I continue, I should say that you can use an itinerary like this simply as a rough template. If you’re traveling in Thailand for several weeks, you can still play it (mostly) by ear! You can decide to stay longer, take side excursions, or even totally alter your plans. Most of the timetables are pretty flexible in Thailand, and you’ll find a wealth of places to stay anywhere. Still, it’s nice to have a rough plan, especially if it’s your first time in Thailand or you’re new to traveling in this part of the world. This itinerary is a popular and reliable way to see many of Thailand’s tourist highlights, though other routes are certainly possible.
Part I: Bangkok to northern Thailand
1. Bangkok (1½ to 2 days)
Bangkok is extremely well-connected by air and land, making it the obvious starting point (not only for Thailand but also for travelling the Southeast Asia region at large).
Unlike most other itineraries, I recommend only a brief stop in Bangkok initially, as you’ll be coming back there anyway. If you haven’t been to a city like Bangkok before, it can be a bit of a shock to the senses. Many travelers appreciate Bangkok much more on a second visit.
Use your first (half) day to get through your jet-lag, acclimatize to the weather, and to take your first dive into the heavenly Thai cuisine.
Then spend one full day sightseeing: maybe hit up the famous temples like Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, stroll around Chinatown, and visit Khao San road at night for a great little taster of Thailand.
Alternatively, skip the busy temples, and go on a bicycle tour of less-visited Bangkok. Many of these tours pass by more local Buddhist temples without the crowds.
For more details on the Bangkok sights, see our guide to Bangkok’s top neighborhoods.
2. Bangkok > Sukhothai (1 day)
There are two big complexes of temple ruins in Thailand: Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Ayutthaya is only 2 hours from Bangkok but is full of day-trippers. It’s also inside a city, so it’s not as serene as Sukhothai. I recommend going to Sukhothai.
Grab a bus or train to Sukhothai (approx 8 hours). I prefer the train myself as it’s nice to watch the landscapes through the window. It will give you a nice preview of rural Thailand.
Spend a day exploring the temple ruins of Sukhothai, then stay the night there or head on straight on to Chiang Mai.
Alternatively, take a day trip from Bangkok to Ayutthaya and then take the 12+ hour overnight train to Chiang Mai. You will save some time by traveling mostly at night, and the sleeper train can count as a fun travel experience as well. Visiting Sukhothai will be slightly less efficient with your time, as this will break up the journey to Chiang Mai into two parts.
3. Sukhothai > Chiang Mai (4 days)
Okay, breathe out.
Chiang Mai may be Thailand’s second biggest city, but it’s way more relaxed than Bangkok. It’s also very cheap, with some of the best-value accommodation around.
You probably won’t struggle to fill your time here, as there are plenty of things to do in Chiang Mai. Stroll the night markets, go on day trips in the area, visit the Elephant Nature Park, go on a Thai cooking course, or go on a hill tribe trek (these are usually 1 or 2 days but can be longer).
Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to base yourself, and it makes sense to stay here for at least a few days.
4. Chiang Mai > Pai or Mae Hong Son (4 days)
Pai is a favorite stop on the Thailand backpacker trail. It’s a funky little town among the rice fields and forest hills, and it’s filled with cozy hipster cafés and restaurants. The hostels in Pai are good fun if you are a backpacker, while other travelers may take a liking to the many riverside bungalows and boutique guesthouses. While it’s a very touristy place, the town has a fun social bar scene and a lot of great food (including many veggie and vegan options). For more, see our complete guide to Pai.
From Pai you can visit hot springs, waterfalls, and a small canyon. You’ll also be in a great place to visit nearby caves including the epic Tham Lod Cave.
Renting motorbikes in Pai and then exploring the thinly populated Mae Hong Son area makes for a great adventure and gives you a good taste of authentic Thailand. Not as many people venture this way, but if the overly touristy vibe of Pai is not your thing, you’re sure to love a road trip through Mae Hong Son. The town of Chiang Dao also makes for a good alternative for those seeking a bit more of an escape than Pai can offer.
5. (Optional) Chiang Rai (2 days)
Chiang Rai is a smaller city than Chiang Mai and makes for another good base for temple visits, trekking, and bicycle rides around the area. It’s a nice add-on if you have some time available. There are some good things to do in Chiang Rai province, such as making a day-trip to the hilltop town of Mae Salong.
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Part II: Bangkok & Andaman Coast
6. Northern Thailand > back to Bangkok (2 days)
From the north, dip back down into central Thailand. You could take the train back down again, or if you want to speed things up a bit, take a domestic flight with a budget carrier such as AirAsia.
After so many relaxing days in Chiang Mai and Pai, you’re in a better state to dive deeper into chaotic Bangkok. You could visit the floating markets, see a Muay Thai fight, explore Chatuchak Weekend Market, or take a food tour.
And now that you’re no longer jet-lagged and still fresh off the plane, you might want to investigate the Bangkok nightlife more closely as well.
7. Bangkok > Krabi (2 days)
It’s time to go to the beach! Take a train to Surat Thani, and from there travel onwards to Krabi.
Alternatively, you can fly to Surat Thani with AirAsia, which also offers all-in-one tickets with ground transfer services to Krabi or the islands.
You can stay in Krabi town, but better yet, stay in Ao Nang as this will put you right along (or very near) the beach. While increasingly busy and pricey, you may want to go to nearby Railay Beach as well. It’s the famous Thai beach that has tall karst cliffs on either side. Speaking of cliffs: Krabi is famed for rock climbing, so if you’ve always wanted to take a rock climbing course, now is your chance.
By the way, the local authorities have begun using a ticketing system to control visitor numbers to Railay, and longtail boats are also now only allowed to dock in one area (this is a good thing). Again, Krabi can get very crowded especially in high season, but a lot of people do love the scenery a lot. If you feel it’s too busy around these parts, consider escaping to the islands like Koh Lanta, Koh Ngai, Koh Jum, etc.
8. Krabi > Khao Sok National Park (3 days)
Wean yourself off the beach (there’ll be more of that soon!) for an exhilarating jungle tour.
You can visit Khao Sok National Park independently, but it’s easier (and arguably better) to take an organized tour.
You can book such tours easily in Krabi, with various 2 and 3-day adventures within the national park on offer. If you have the time, you might as well go for the 3-day option, in the jungle, which usually includes wildlife spotting, kayaking on Cheow Larn Lake, sleeping a night and more.
9. Krabi > Koh Lanta (3 days)
While the island of Koh Phi Phi is the most famous on the Andaman coast, it’s also easily the busiest and most expensive. It also has a reputation for over-the-top-parties which, while not inescapable, do give the island a different vibe than others.
You could still make a quick stop there, but I recommend going to Koh Lanta instead for a more relaxed atmosphere. Koh Phi Phi has maybe gotten a bit too popular, while Koh Lanta has more space and more things to see around the island.
Alternatively, you could go to one of the less-visited smaller islands like Koh Kradan, Koh Jum or Koh Lipe, though some of these are a bit further away.
Part III: The Gulf Coast
10. Krabi > Koh Phangan (2 days)
Famed for the Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan is the biggest party island in Thailand. Not to be pigeonholed, it also has a wonderful quiet side that’s much less known. It’s another great island to spend a few days.
11. Koh Phangan > Koh Tao (2 days)
Koh Tao is not only a beautiful island in its own right, but it also happens to be the scuba diving capital of Thailand.
If you’ve ever wanted to give it a try (or do the 4-day Open Water certification course), you couldn’t ask for a better place to do it. It’s a relatively small island, and while very developed, it has maintained a cozy atmosphere.
12. Koh Tao > Bangkok (remaining days)
Take the ferry from Koh Tao to Koh Samui, from where you can get a quick flight back to Bangkok. If you have time left (and didn’t extend your stay at any of the stops, which chances are you did), you can then continue to explore Bangkok or take day trips in the area. Consider going to Kanchanaburi or Khao Yai National Park to cap off your Thailand itinerary.
Alternatively, you could skip the Gulf Coast and head east instead. From Bangkok pop down to the small town of Trat, then take a ferry to Koh Chang or Koh Kood. These islands are (still) somewhat less densely developed and make for an interesting alternative option.
Backpacker map of Thailand
There are of course many ways to cook an egg and the routes above are just a popular way to do it. The Thailand travel map below shows more places that you might want to take a look at and include in your research.
How to shorten the route
The above itinerary is for 4 weeks, which is an ideal amount of time for exploring the major sights in Thailand.
If you have 3 weeks, then follow the sections on Bangkok and northern Thailand, but then pick either the Andaman or the Gulf Coast for your last week on the beaches and islands.
If you have 2 weeks, then do Bangkok, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai in week one. From there, fly down to one of the southern coasts for a week of nature and beaches.
Of course, this is a rather standard Thailand itinerary. Don’t let it stop you from venturing off the beaten track.
What about Thailand in one week?
To be honest, I don’t know!
I get a lot of e-mail from people attempting to craft a perfect 6-day whirlwind Thailand itinerary, but I haven’t travelled in this way myself.
It’s easier for me to describe an overall best-of-Thailand itinerary than to cherry-pick only several locations. The logistics of a one-week trip also get a lot more precious with much less room for mistakes or delays, making it more challenging to give good recommendations.
While I’m all about promoting independent travel, if you have only one week to spend and are dead set on packing it full of highlights, I would maybe just get an organized tour, so you don’t have to stress so much.
Combine with other routes
Some travelers skip Ayutthaya and Sukhothai and instead travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat.
Planning a trip through Southeast Asia? Then be sure to see my Southeast Asia itinerary advice.