The Ultimate Thailand Itinerary

 

 

I’ve had a lot of time to refine and perfect my Thailand itinerary. In addition to the fact that I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost two years, as of October 2018, I took nearly two dozen trips to Thailand (over a period of almost a decade) before I finally moved here. Thailand has not only been the place where I’ve decimated large swaths of my bucket list, but has been a backdrop to many of my most consequential life events.

As a result, what you’ll find below is more than a rundown of Thailand attractions, Thailand tips and my opinion on how long to spend in Thailand—10 days in Thailand seems to be a popular number, though it’s not what I recommend. It’s a thoughtful—and, I hope, insightful—ode to a country many people think they know, but few take the time to explore at the depth it deserves.

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Practical Matters

When to Visit Thailand


Unlike say India, whose monsoon can actually entail weeks upon weeks of endless rain, Thailand’s “rainy” season involves a couple hours of showers per day, or sometimes at night. There isn’t really a worst time to visit Thailand and therefore, not a best one either. With this being said, my personal favorite time to visit Thailand is January, when the holiday crowds have largely left, but when most of the country is dry, and the north can actually be cool, particularly in the mountains around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

Where to Stay in Thailand


Many travelers on the backpacker end of the spectrum are on the lookout for cheap hotels in Thailand—and there are plenty of those, to be sure. However, Thailand is one of the cheapest places in the world to enjoy luxury accommodation, from five-star hotels in Bangkok to villas in the islands. My favorite Thailand hotels, to be sure, are on the higher end when it comes to quality, but still relatively affordable, from SO Sofitel Bangkok, to Siripanna Villa Resort in Chiang Mai, to Sunrise Tropical Resort in Krabi.

How to Get Around in Thailand


Traveling within Thailand is easy, superficially, thanks to cheap Thailand domestic flights with airlines like AirAsia and Thai Smile, but there are some quirks that can make it difficult. For starters, while taxis (and private cars with the “Grab” app) are plentiful in big cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, some smaller cities only offer communal song thaew pick-up trucks, long-tail boats and motorcycle taxis that, while normal to Thai people, can seem dangerous or even scary to foreigners. Additionally, Thailand lacks high-speed rail services; both trains and buses tend to go painfully slow, even though the quality of vehicles has improved.

Money, Costs and Communication


Many people email me or comment on my articles asking “is Thailand cheap?” or, rather, whether it still is. While it’s true that Thailand has gotten more expensive over the years, largely as a result of increasing numbers of tourists (and, especially, increasing numbers of wealthy tourists), it still remains affordable, particularly if you eat and transport yourself like a local. Due to what I can only assume are incredibly shitty trade deals, imported items are extremely expensive in Thailand. In general, I’d say most travelers can expect to spend between 50-200 USD per person, per day in Thailand.

As far as communication, it’s very easy to buy a tourist SIM upon arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport and other major airports in Thailand; WiFi is relatively widespread, but outside of hotels often requires a subscription package through a mobile carrier like AIS, dtac or True. On the other hand, many rural areas of the country have poor or even non-existent service, particularly remote islands and the stretches of sea that separate them from the Thai mainland.

READ MORE: Is Thailand Cheap?

Bangkok

Bangkok is an essential part of any Thailand itinerary—this should go without saying. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the real world, as many travelers have a negative and in some cases inaccurate impression of the city I now call home. Like any city of 10 million or more, Bangkok is definitely overwhelming, so I try to break it down for newbies.

You can break down things to do in Bangkok, more or less, into two categories: The Old City and the New City. Within the Old City you have Rattanakosin, which is home to “mainstream” attractions like the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, and more-local Thonburi over the river, where Wat Arun is about as commercial as it gets. The New City can be sub-divided, for its part, into rowdy Sukhumvit, upmarket Siam and Silom, which is both seedy and seemly at the same time.

 
 
 

Assuming you have 2 weeks in Thailand, I’d recommend spending two days in Bangkok at the beginning of your trip, and exploring the Old City on day one and the New City on day two. Add one more night at the end of your trip, and devote it either to last-minute souvenir shopping, or mindless eating adventures in Bangkok’s chaotic alleys or sois.

The question of how many days in Bangkok becomes a more open one the longer you spend in Thailand. Travelers with more time can add day trips from Bangkok to their city itineraries, be it to the cave temples of Ratchaburi or the mysterious (and massive) chedi of Nakhon Pathom, an oft-overlooked historical city.

READ MORE: The World’s Best Bangkok Itinerary, Period

Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai

When it comes to Chiang Mai, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that most of things to do in Chiang Mai are located within the old City Walls, from Chiang Mai temples like Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang, to the city’s famous (and delicious) might market, to most of the places you’ll want to stay within the city center.

The bad news? Seeing the truly “special” parts of Chiang Mai require venturing outward into Chiang Mai province. And unless your Thailand itinerary is one of the longer sort, this can be somewhat difficult, though I do have some tips and tricks that will allow you to make the most of Chiang Mai, even if you only have a few days.

 
 
 

For instance, you can base yourself in the city center and spend one day exploring it, then devote a second day to seeing Chiang Mai elephants at Elephant Nature Park. On day three, explore Chiang Mai’s interesting nature, starting with a morning panorama at Doi Suthep temple, followed by an afternoon at Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak.

An alternative option would be to spend your time here outside the city center, in a place like rural Chiang Dao, though there are a few problems with that. In addition to missing out on the best Chiang Mai hotels, you’ll be at the mercy of local transport, which requires some proficiency in the Thai language, among other potential challenges.

READ MORE: Three Days in Chiang Mai

Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle

For my money, if you have 2 weeks in Thailand or less, you should skip Chiang Mai entirely. Instead head to the city of Chiang Rai, which in my opinion paints a more authentic and less crowded picture of northern Thailand, regardless of how much time you have. (Spoiler alert: If you have a lot of time, the aptly-named “Golden Triangle” region is very much worth exploring!)

Within the city center, popular things to do in Chiang Rai including what I call the “white, black and blue” circuit: The white temple at Wat Rhong Khun, as well as the Black House (Baan Dam) and Blue Temple. Chiang Rai’s chill city center is also home to the ornate Chiang Rai Clock Tower, not to mention what might be the best bowl of Khao Soi in all of Thailand.

 
 
 

If your Thailand itinerary is longer than two weeks, spend one of your days in Chiang Rai heading north to Mae Sai, then east to Saam Liam Trong Kam (the actual “Golden Triangle” monument) and south to Chiang Saen. Other Chiang Rai-area destinations including Chiang Khong, which is home to a border crossing with Laos, as well as a number of coffee farms and tea fields.

While I do think seeing as many different places in Thailand as possible is important, Chiang Rai and the Thailand Golden Triangle are a worthy substitute for Chiang Mai if you don’t have a lot of time. Both have their charms, but in my mind the Chiang Rai area is superior in almost every conceivable way, certainly if relaxation is a priority for you.

READ MORE: Thailand’s Golden Triangle

The Islands

Phuket vs. Krabi

Whether you’re in search of the best beaches in Krabi or things to do in Phuket, this is the point where you need to pay attention. Many travelers to Thailand are trying to make a decision between these two coastal provinces, and while I have a clear favorite (Krabi, for the quality of its beaches and its relative un-crowding as compared to Phuket), a lot of things will depend on you.

 
 
 

Timing is the most important—if you have just 10 days in Thailand or less, I wouldn’t bother with Phuket. If your Thailand itinerary is longer, you could spend a couple days on the island for a point of contrast, though in my opinion nothing in Phuket holds a candle to Krabi’s stunning Railay Beach or dramatic Wat Tham Suea “Tiger Cave” Temple.

READ MORE: Three Days in Krabi

Trang and Trat

Many travelers settle on visiting Koh Chang Thailand as a way to inject the beach into a short 2 weeks in Thailand trip. And this is fine: Though the Koh Chang archipelago is reachable by bus from Bangkok, and while the Gulf of Thailand boasts slightly less dramatic scenery than what you find in the Andaman Sea (i.e. Phuket and Krabi), Koh Chang and the Trat islands are totally beautiful.

 
 
 

With this being, and while Koh Mak Thailand was the first island I ever explored in the country, I find Trang Island hopping to be more satisfying than places like Koh Wai and Koh Kood. To get here, fly to Trang deep in Thailand’s southwest, and get a long tail boat from the main pier to idyllic Koh Kradan or slightly more built-up Koh Mook.

READ MORE: Ghosts of Paradise Past

The Best (and Worst) of the Rest

For a shorter Thailand itinerary, you probably won’t have time to consider the best beaches in Thailand besides the ones I’ve listed so far. What I will say, as a general statement, is that popular islands in Thailand are popular for a reason: With possible exceptions like Satun province’s Koh Lipe (which I actually find overrated) or Chumpon province and Koh Tao, many “quiet” islands in Thailand aren’t that great.

 


Nor are “loud” ones. I’m not a huge fan, for example, of popular Bangkok weekend retreat Koh Samet; I wouldn’t list top-rated Koh Samui among the best islands to visit in Thailand, even on a list of five or 10. This is not to say you shouldn’t be adventurous as you plan your Thailand island hopping itinerary, of course. But you should have realistic expectations for places no one visits.

READ MORE: The Problem With This Popular Bangkok Getaway Spot

Thailand Off the Beaten Path

Isaan Region

 


Have 2 weeks in Thailand in Thailand or longer? Great! All these off-the-beaten-path destinations are now accessible to you, starting with the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand. Famous among Thais for spicy cuisine like som tam papaya salad, Isaan has gained notoriety among a certain set of foreigners for interesting attractions like Udon Thani‘s flower-filled “Red Lotus Sea” and Thailand’s Grand Canyon, aka Sam Phan Bok in Ubon Ratchathani.

READ MORE: The Pinkest Place on the Planet

Nakhon Si Thammarat

 


I’ll be frank: You probably haven’t heard of Nakhon Si Thammarat as you plan your Thailand itinerary. Probably nine of out 10 local Thai friends of mine can’t locate it on a map, and even those who can wouldn’t think to visit it. If you’re looking for an authentic cultural experience in southern Thailand, and have some Thai language skills, consider a trip to this backwater on Thailand’s Gulf coast.

READ MORE: Unadulterated Southern Thailand

Sukhothai

 


The word “Sukhothai” appears pretty commonly throughout Thailand, but Sukhothai Thailand is very much a singular destination. Often compared to Ayutthaya (which is a popular, but in my opinion unsatisfying day trip from Bangkok) because they were both ancient capitals of the country, Sukhothai consists of a moated citadel that’s home to temple ruins, Buddha statues and serene lotus ponds. It’s definitely worthy of a visit on longer Thailand itineraries, but you could see it with as little as 2 weeks in Thailand if you don’t mind flying.

READ MORE: Is This Asia’s Most Enjoyable Lost City?

Ranong

 


I first discovered Ranong province in early 2016, after a boat trip through the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar, on whose border a Thai city of the same name sits. I returned earlier this year to visit Koh Phayam, an island that I have to admit was disappointing, at least in terms of its scenery. On the other hand, the lack of crowds somewhat made up for the commensurate lack of white sand and palm trees (Phayam Island is rather pine-y).

READ MORE: Thirty-Free

How Long Should You Spend in Thailand?


In an ideal world, you’d be able to spend at least 3 weeks in Thailand: Three to five days in the Bangkok area; a week and change exploring the spiritual north; and another week to 10 days island hopping in the South. However, if you manage your time in Thailand responsibly (Reminder: I offer a highly-recommended Travel Coaching service!), you can see many of the highlights of my Thailand itinerary with 2 weeks in Thailand or 10 days in Thailand, though I wouldn’t really recommend trying to see the country in any less time than that.

Read More About Thailand

The Bottom Line

This Thailand itinerary is both comprehensive and concise, and is as useful for planning a single trip to Thailand as it is for mapping out a long-term strategy. Ideally, you’ll be able to spend 3 weeks in Thailand, equally divided between Bangkok, the North and the Islands, though shorter trips to Thailand can be transcendental as well. Even if you don’t feel compelled to call Thailand home like I did, one thing is for certain: If you read this post and take it to heart, you can avoid falling into the traps that lead an increasing number of travelers to dismiss the Land of Smiles.