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. This is a fairly standard Thailand itinerary combining cultural, nature, and beach highlights, which you can customise to your liking. This itinerary is ideal for backpackers or anyone travelling independently and looking for a mix of adventure and relaxation.
Suggested 4 Week Thailand Budget: $1100 per person (£834 / €936) (backpacker budget) to $1500 (‘flashpacker’ budget adding more comfort, some nice beach bungalows, etc.) More cost of travel details here.
Don’t be afraid to change your plans
This itinerary is just to give you a rough template to work with. 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. In Thailand most of the timetables are pretty flexible and you’ll find a wealth of places to stay. Still, it’s nice to have a rough overall plan, especially if you’re new to travelling in this part of the world.
Thailand travel route
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 travellers 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 amazing Thai food.
Then spend one full day sightseeing. 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 (where you’ll also see some more local Buddhist temples).
For more details on the Bangkok sights, see my Thailand travel guide.
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 sleeper train to Chiang Mai. This is a fun travel experience, plus you save some time by travelling mostly at night. Visiting Sukhothai will be slightly less efficient with your time, as this will break up the journey to Chiang Mai in 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. 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 be based and it makes sense to stay here for at least a few days.
4. Chiang Mai > Pai and/or Mae Hong Son loop (4 days)
Pai is a popular stop on the Thailand backpacker trail. It’s a funky little town among the rice fields and forest hills, and it’s filled with little hipster cafés and restaurants. If you’re a backpacker then the hostels in Pai are really good fun and there’s a fun social bar scene all around town.
From Pai you can visit hot springs, waterfalls, and a small canyon. You’ll also be in a great place to visit nearby caves such as 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.
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. Go here if you have the time available.
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. And now that you’re not totally jet-lagged and still fresh off the plane, you might want to properly investigate the Bangkok nightlife as well.
Consider staying in an area that isn’t near the tacky Khao San Road this time; for instance, stay in the local Ari neighborhood.
Things to do include visiting the floating markets, seeing a Muai Thai fight, exploring Chatuchak Weekend Market, or taking a food tour. However, by this point you’ll probably have gotten lots of personal tips from other travellers you’ve met elsewhere in Thailand. (You do ask other travellers for tips, right?)
7. Bangkok > Krabi (2 days)
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. While increasingly busy and pricey, you may want to go to nearby Railay Beach as well.
Krabi is famed for rock climbing, so if you’ve always wanted to take a rock climbing course, now is your chance.
8. Krabi > Khao Sok National Park (3 days)
Wean yourself off the beach (there’ll be more of that soon!) for an amazing jungle tour.
Visits to Khao Sok National Park can be done independently but are best done as part of an organized tour. You can book them easily in Krabi.
There are various 2 and 3-day adventures in the park. While you’re here, you might as well go for the 3-day option, which usually includes sleeping in the jungle, wildlife spotting, kayaking on Cheow Larn Lake, 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 the busiest and most expensive. (And it’s largely an over-the-top party island which might not be for everyone.) You could still make a quick stop there, but I recommend going to Koh Lanta instead for some good vibes.
In the last couple of years it seems the traveller scene has moved to this island, while the binge-y holiday party scene continues to dominate Koh Phi Phi.
Alternatively go to one of the less visited smaller islands like Koh Kradan, Koh Jum or Koh Lipe.
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 wonderful 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 cosy atmosphere.
12. Koh Tao > Bangkok (spend any 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 seems unlikely!) you can 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.
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
If you follow the first parts of this route, you can connect perfectly to Laos via Chiang Rai.
Will you end up in the south of Thailand? Then you can easily extend your trip to Malaysia or Indonesia.
Planning a trip through Southeast Asia? Then be sure to see my Southeast Asia itinerary advice.
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