Out of all the SE Asia countries I went to, Thailand was the most complicated to figure out where to go, mostly because there is a little bit of everything: mountains, cities and islands on islands. Then there are the planes, trains, buses and ferries to figure out. It can be incredibly overwhelming.
I obviously haven’t been everywhere, but I have been to quite a few places and done a LOT of research. I’ve included my notes (that I gathered from other blogs/websites for places that I haven’t been to personally) to help give you an idea of what places would most fit your travel personality.
So, here’s a quick run down of the places you will most likely be looking at visiting.
You can’t exactly skip over Bangkok, being the capital of Thailand (and really the only option to fly into internationally). Bangkok is busy, crazy and unlike any city you’ll ever visit. It’s home to the famous (maybe infamous…) Khao San Road which is the literal Diagon Alley of Asia. There are so many smells, sounds and sights to see that it can be sensory overload for the unsuspecting traveler. Bangkok is very much a love it or hate it city. My input: LOVE IT!
Chiang Mai is a popular destination up north that is a short flight or long bus/train ride from Bangkok. Here you will find a mountainous landscape, elephants and jungle treks. I have to say I am much more inclined to spend my time roasting on a beach than I am trudging through the wilderness, so it wasn’t my favorite place. However, most people really enjoy Chiang Mai and stay several days here.
Pai is the more rustic and raw version of Chiang Mai and is located a few hours away from it. It’s perfect for nature lovers and those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities. I’ve heard this area is quite beautiful and worth the trip if you have the time.
Chiang Rai is the sister city of Chiang Mai and about 3 hours away to the east. As with Pai, it’s a more rustic, less touristy version of Chiang Mai. The main draw for this destination is Wat Rong Khun—a gorgeous all white temple. To be honest, I didn’t see much more appeal to this city besides the temple and therefore didn’t make the trip.
Think of Pattaya as the naughty sibling of Bangkok who is always up to no good. It has a pretty seedy reputation for being a destination for sex tourism. They have been trying to turn that around and there are some things to see here. You can expect a narrow, overcrowded beach, lots of Russians (and Russian ‘hot girl’ shows) and plenty of Indian restaurants.
This place is a 1-hr train from Bangkok. It’s a UNESCO site and you will find ancient city ruins here.
Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is a NW Province of Thailand. It’s a mountainous region filled with Burmese style temples and craft markets. You will also find the long-necked tribes here.
This is where things get complicated because there are hundreds of Thai islands to choose from and if that wasn’t hard enough, some islands even go by TWO names. The easiest way to navigate them is to choose a region.
The Andaman Sea side of Thailand is peppered with islands all the way down the coast. While there are some very scenic and beautiful islands towards the middle and top of the west coast, they are a bit more out of the way. Most people head down south to Phuket or Krabi and start their island hopping from there. There are many islands in the south with a variety of atmospheres to choose from.
Popular islands here: Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe, Samilan Islands, Surin Islands
Gulf of Thailand
Southern Thailand, East Coast Islands
In the south of Thailand, across from Phuket, is where 3 popular islands are: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. These islands all have a different personality as well. They are only a short 1-1.5 hr ferry away from each other, so it is easy to do all three.
Islands in the North
There are several islands that are in close vicinity to Bangkok. I originally assumed that they would not be as good as the southern islands, but was pleasantly surprised! The islands here are more rustic and laid back then some of the more popular tourist islands.
Popular Islands here: Koh Chang, Koh Maak, Koh Kood, Koh Samet
(A comprehensive island guide coming soon!)
So, now what?
First, you need to figure out what you want to see (Elephants? Beaches? Mountains? Cities?) Then decide how long you have to visit.
I’d say that most people want to do Bangkok, Chiang Mai and some islands.
However, Bangkok is not a city that you need a lot of time in. I feel like I might be in the minority of loving Bangkok as a city and most people would be fine with a 1-2 day stay.
1 Week in Thailand:
For one week, it is definitely possible to do Bangkok, Chiang Mai (or other city) and an island, though it will be a whirlwind trip. I recommend staying a day in Bangkok, flying to Chiang Mai on day 2, then flying to Phuket, Krabi or Surat Thani (or Trat for the northern islands) on day 4 and taking a ferry to a nearby island.
OR you may just want a nice beach vacation, which in that case, I would fly straight to the south and island hop. In 1 week you could potentially go to the Phuket side and the southern Gulf side, but it would also be a whirlwind. I would recommend picking 1 side/area of islands.
If you fly into Phuket (which is technically an island) or Krabi (a beach town on the coast), you can easily take day trips to the islands from there. If you fly into Surat Thani (or Trat) you will then need to take a ferry over to one of the islands and would stay there.
2 Weeks in Thailand:
This gives you some more flexibility. You could break it up and do a week in the mountains and a week in the islands or pick out your top locations and decide how much time you want to spend in each. 2 weeks is a great amount of time to get a taste of Thailand.
Though, I spent 6 days on one island and could have stayed longer!
How to get around
The easiest and fastest way to travel is by plane. The cities with bigger airports have many domestic flights daily for around $30-45 RT. Flights down to the islands will be a bit more at about $50-70.
By Bus/Train: bus and train transportation in Thailand is very cheap but will cost you in time. You may only pay $8 for a bus, but it will be a 6-8 hour journey (sometimes more!!). You can book bus tickets at any travel agency or kiosk around town. I’d recommend booking the day before to make sure you get the time you want.
There are 3 main airports to fly into for the islands down south: Phuket, Krabi and Surat Thani. Or if you have the time and the patience to sit on a bus for long periods of time, you can take an overnight bus from Bangkok. You can book ferry tickets very easily from any travel agency to island hop (I’d recommend one day in advance). Ferries usually take 1-3 hours but vary depending on locations.
For the northern islands, the closest airport is Trat and then you would need bus/ferry transportation to the islands (which is easy to get at any travel stand).
Once on the island, there are usually songthaews (covered pickup trucks with seats in the back) ready to take you to your hotel/hostel.
The best and cheapest way to get around on the islands is to rent a motorbike for the day, which will only run you about 150-250 Baht (about $5-10) per day.
Bus tickets and ferry tickets are the same price at all ticket kiosks and agencies. However, tour prices for boat trips are NOT and will vary by seller.
What to bring:
If you plan on going to the temples in Thailand, you will need either long pants or a long skirt (a sarong tied around your waist will be fine) and a top that covers your shoulders. The Thai sun can be hot and it’s very important to bring lots of sunscreen…not only to protect your skin but because sunscreen in Thailand is, for the most part, pretty expensive.
Some people panic at the thought of not having a vacation entirely planned out but Thailand is a place that is very easy to travel around at your leisure and book things on the go. If you don’t have everything sorted out, it’s completely fine. Take in the culture, a few Chang beers and enjoy the ride!