From the jungle-clad mountains in the north to the beach-lined islands in the south, Thailand is just filled with wonderful places. It’s quite a big country though, so 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 classic Thailand itinerary combining cultural, nature, and beach highlights. This itinerary is ideal for backpackers or anyone traveling independently and looking for a mix of adventure and relaxation.

Don’t be afraid to improvise!

First, I should mention that an itinerary like this is just a rough template. If you’re traveling in Thailand for a while, you can still play it (mostly) by ear!

Most places in Thailand have great transportation links allowing for quite a bit of flexibility. You’ll also find a wealth of places to stay pretty much anywhere. This means it’s easy to decide to stay longer, take side excursions, or even totally alter your plans.

I’ve much enjoyed improvising parts of my past trips in Thailand, as the logistics are just so easy compared to other parts of the world. 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 offers a reliable way to see many of Thailand’s tourist highlights.

Part I: Bangkok to northern Thailand

1. Bangkok (half or 1 day)

The capital Bangkok is an obvious starting point as most visitors fly in to here.

Just one note of warning: if you haven’t been to a city quite like Bangkok before, it can be a bit of a shock to the senses!

It’s a very busy city with a lot of traffic. There are a lot of smells and sounds. I’ve heard quite a few travellers say they didn’t much like it, especially just after getting off a long flight.

I actually think Bangkok is amazing, but some find it easier to appreciate on a second visit. That’s why I recommend making a brief initial stop, then exploring it more deeply at the end of your Thailand trip.

Use your first (half) day to get through your jet lag, acclimatize to the weather, and take your first dive into the incredible Thai cuisine. You can check out some sights like the temples of Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho, or maybe visit the tourist district around Khao San Road (tacky but fun).

The first time I visited Bangkok I went on a bicycle and boat tour. This was a really chilled-out way to see a local side of Bangkok without too much stress. I explored the more chaotic areas, like Chinatown, on my second stay, and I thought this was a nice order in which to get to know Bangkok.

For more details on Bangkok, see this guide to Bangkok’s top areas to explore.

2. Bangkok > Sukhothai (1 day)

It’s time to see some ancient temples!

There are two big complexes of temple ruins in Thailand: Ayutthaya and Sukhothai. Ayutthaya is only 2 hours from Bangkok but tends to be full of day-trippers and it’s also inside a city. I like Sukhothai as it’s in a more open space.

From Bangkok, grab a bus or train to Sukhothai (about 8 hours). I like the train myself as it’s nice to watch the landscapes through the window. You’ll get 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 counts as a fun travel experience as well. It’s a bit more time-efficient than breaking up this journey with a stop at Sukhothai.


3. Sukhothai > Chiang Mai (3+ days)

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, as there are plenty of things to do in Chiang Mai. Be sure to 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 very easygoing and there is so much to do here, which is why I think it’s nice to dedicate at least a few days here. Most travellers I speak to love Chiang Mai and use it as a springboard for exploring the north.

4. Chiang Mai > Pai or Chiang Dao (3+ days)

Where to go next from Chiang Mai?

Well, there are several options.

If you are a backpacker looking to have some fun, consider a stop in the small mountain town of Pai. 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, though other travelers may take a liking to its many riverside bungalows and boutique guesthouses. It’s a touristy place, maybe not ‘authentically Thai’, but it’s fun. Pai has hot springs, waterfalls, and a small canyon nearby.

If the vibe of Pai is not your thing, then the town of Chiang Dao makes for a good alternative. It has a quieter atmosphere and various small-scale attractions. It’s a lovely place to experience some jungle and mountain scenery.

Another fun adventure is to rent motorbikes and ride a loop through the thinly populated Mae Hong Son area. Along the way, you can visit the epic Tham Lod Cave, or stay the night in the Cave Lodge where local spelunkers will show you many secret caves.

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.


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.

This time consider staying in an area that isn’t near the tacky Khao San Road or the other usual hotspots; for instance, try the local Ari neighborhood or check out these other Bangkok neighborhoods.

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. 

How to shorten the route

The above itinerary is intended for 4 weeks, which I think is the perfect amount of time for exploring all 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.

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 traveled in this way myself.

On each of my trips to Thailand I’ve spent at least a couple of weeks, so I was not in the mindset that I had to see as much as possible within just a few days. The logistics of a one-week trip also get a lot more precious with less room for mistakes or delays, making it more challenging to recommend a ‘perfect’ route.

I’m all about independent travel, but if you have one week and feel the pressure to pack in a lot of highlights, then I would maybe go on an organized tour. This will simply take out the stress of having to plan it yourself.

Combine with other routes

Planning to travel the wider Southeast Asia region?

If you follow the first parts of this route, you can connect this seamlessly to Laos via Chiang Rai and the border at Huay Xai. You can enter Laos either by bus or the so-called slow boat.

Will you end up in the south of Thailand? Then you can easily extend your trip to Malaysia or Indonesia.

Some travelers skip Ayutthaya and Sukhothai and instead travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia to see the temples of Angkor Wat.

If you’re planning a trip through Southeast Asia, be sure to see my Southeast Asia itinerary advice.

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