From the vibrant streets of Bangkok to the heavenly beaches of Koh Lanta, from historic cities such as Ayutthaya and Sukhothai to the prodigious temples of Phetchaboun and Chiang Rai, from the luxuriant jungle around Chiang Mai to the golden triangle, from “Pad Thai” to “Hot Pot”, from bus to hitch-hike, from city dweller to villager… Thailand was the first stage of our road trip and in all sincerity we spent a month full of emotions vagabonding with our backpacks from South to North. For us Thailand is a crush! Mythical capital, diversity of landscapes and consequently of activities, gastronomy, “easy” to travel, friendly locals, “safe country”, affordable prices, many positive points come to my mind when I think about this trip… One thing is certain, we recommend this country to any traveller.
In this article, you’ll find our itinerary, advice, good addresses and anecdotes to help you plan your future trip to Thailand.
- You do not need a “tourist visa” for a stay of less than 30 days in Thailand.
- To avoid any surprises, check carefully the suggested time to travel (it would be a waste to fall in the middle of the rainy season).
- Download “Maps.me” application on your phone, then the maps you need. Once downloaded, you can consult them offline.
- For those who want unlimited internet access (get a sim card at the airport; about $25 for 1 month).
- For all visits to “sacred places” (temples, large palaces…) it is mandatory to have an appropriate outfit: legs covered for the bottom = minimum length below the knees; for the top the shoulders must be covered = at least a T-shirt, tank tops prohibited.
- If you wish to travel “freely”, in other words without bookings, Thailand offers many possibilities of accommodation, means of transport and activities (you can book everything from one day to the next). That’s what we did in the high season (January) and we did not have any problems.
- Thais are calm people, so be discreet.
- The feet are characterized by “impure”, you should remove your shoes regularly and avoid exposing them.
- A detail but there are no small savings: ) It is preferable to buy your sunscreen in your country of origin because the price charged on site is very expensive (about $20 for a “Nivea” spray).
- For any trip, I advise to get an insurance before leaving in case of health problems. For years, I have subscribed to AVI International’s offers but I have never received a discount despite an overuse of their services : )
Below, via our interactive map, you will find our one-month itinerary in Thailand (from south to north), with a short description of each spot we discovered.
When we talk about Bangkok with other travelers, opinions are always very disparate. Some hate it and others love it, I am in the 2nd category, for me Bangkok is an absolutely mythical capital. I have heard the arguments “against” and I understand them, it is true that agitation, heat, traffic, pollution, the crowd, scooters etc. can be scary, annoying after a long flight and a “jet lag” still very present but… Bangkok is so exotic and offers so many possibilities of activities, authenticity, beauty that for me its little annoyances do not take over on its positive points. If you don’t want to “arrive” in the excitement of this great city, I advise you to discover Bangkok at the end of your stay, just before leaving for home.
2. Ao Nang – Railay – Hong Islands
After our 3 days of craziness in Bangkok, we flew to Krabi in the south to reach the city of Ao Nang where Morgan had booked a very nice hotel as my birthday gift. A little out of the center in a park full of flowers and perfectly maintained, the Fiore Resort was a very comfortable place, and obviously very different from a hostel. Even though I’m not a fan of this type of resort, it must be said that for a short time, the comfort is very appreciable.
Beyond the hotel, Ao Nang was a big disappointment. When we got off the tuk tuk in the middle of the city, we looked at each other and immediately said, “Oh, yeah, okay, we’re in Huntington Beach”, the city where we lived in the United States. Although we love our old American city, we didn’t expect to find ourselves in the same setting in southern Thailand. Mac Do, Starbucks, Pubs, KFC, all-purpose shops, restaurants… The city has no “soul” except its nightly food market. An important thing to know also is that the beach of Ao Nang is far from being paradisiac, the water troubled by the gas of the multiple “speed boat” and “long tail boat” clearly does not make you want to take a swim.
The only advantage of this city is its central position to access the many surrounding islands. You will also find a multitude of tourist agencies offering day trips. On our side, we opted for Hong Islands by speed boat! What a disappointment! The place is of course magnificent, but the incalculable number of boats and consequently of tourists deposited on “small beach benches” completely ruins the celebration. It’s “Disney Island”, with troubled water! If you are tempted to try a day trip, we recommend to choose a “private long tail boat or in a small group” as you will have the possibility to choose your stops.
After describing negative points, I will end on a positive note by telling you about Railay. We reached it by long tail boat from Ao Nang (only 15 min for 100 baths = $3.22 / person). Swimming, cave, hike, tour of the island, our early day was peaceful until we decided to head into the “viewpoint hike” and extend it to the lagoon by a prohibited access (subject to a fine). The lagoon is of course a great reward but I don’t encourage anyone (except climbers) to embark on this extremely dangerous adventure. This is completely irresponsible and the slightest mistake can have dramatic consequences. I can assure you that I will remember this hike for the rest of my life!
3. Koh Lanta
Bungalow on the beach, fresh coconut feet in the sand, fire show, palm trees, turquoise waters, “national park”… Koh Lanta is an island that we loved to explore for a few days. Its undeniable advantage is its size, you will not have the impression of suffocating in the middle of a crowd of tourists, you can even find almost desert beaches. Less known than Koh Samui, Koh Phi phi or Koh Tao…. we recommend this island to all travelers looking for “tranquility”.
4. Krabi Town
From Koh Lanta, we reached Krabi Town by ferry (about 2h30). Krabi Town was a transit city for us, we spent only one day and one evening there waiting to catch our flight to Bangkok and then head north of Thailand. This little stop was relaxing, we stayed at Chanchalay Hip Hostel, a hotel with a very satisfying quality/price ratio. In the evening we ate a feast at the night market, the atmosphere between locals and tourists was very friendly. I don’t think Krabi Town offers many possibilities of activities for a long stay but this authentic city will satisfy you for a quick passage.
We flew from Krabi Town to “Bangkok Don Mueang Airport” (about 1 hour flight, $90 / person), then we reached the railway station by walk (about 10 min) to take a train to Ayutthaya (frequent departures, 1 hour trip, 11 baths / person = $0.35).
Founded around 1350, Ayutthaya became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothaï. It was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century. Its remains, characterized by prangs, or reticular towers, and by monasteries of gigantic proportions, give an idea of its past splendor. [unesco.org credit]
We recommend to stop and visit this ancient capital by bike, 1 day will be enough before continuing your journey to the North or South. We stayed 2 nights at the hostel 1301, a peaceful spot on the banks of the river. In the evening, you can eat at the night market or just across the street from the corner at Took Took and his friend restaurant.
After our 2 nights in Ayutthaya, we chose to travel by train to the northern city of Phitsanulok. On the way, we made a 3-hour stop in Lopburi, “the city of monkeys” (1 hour by train from Ayutthaya, 20 baths / person = $0.64). We don’t regret it, it’s amazing, it’s clearly an invasion! If you make a stop, be careful with your smartphone, camera, food… These little animals are of a disconcerting agility. For the record, it cost Morgan his coffee :). Our 3 hours in Lopburi were more than enough for us, especially since we didn’t want to visit the city’s museum. We preferred to take a walk and have a drink at the Nom Cup D, a coffee with a very neat and original décor. We then reached the station and took our train to Phitsanulok (3h trip, 480 baths / person = $15.32). In Thailand, different “classes” of trains are possible: “classic” and “top of the range”. For this trip we opted for the “top of the range” faster by 2 hours, and very comfortable (air conditioning, meal trays included, toilets), in short, happiness.
7. Phitsanulok – Phetchabun
Phitsanulok is not a popular city for travelers, the majority of them join Chiang Mai directly due to lack of time or simply knowledge about the possibilities offered by this city. What a pity! Phitsanulok is typical, ancient and deserted by tourists. The “streetfood”, “nights” and activities (cooking classes, yoga…) are at unbeatable prices, the cheapest so far on our road trip. And the most important point, Phitsanulok offers 1h30 bus access to the absolutely amazing temples of Petchabun: Wat Phan Sorn Kaew and Wat Phra That PhaSon (a Guell park Thai version). For the return to Phitsanulok, “hitch-hiking” is a very nice option. I may repeat myself, but the Thais are really incredibly kind.
We spent two nights at the “Karma Home Hostel“, where Mark the manager did everything possible to make sure we had a good stay.
From Phitsanulok, we reached Sukhothai by bus (1 hour trip, 48 baths / person = $1.53). Sukhothai looks a lot like Ayutthaya. There are not 50,000 activities except to discover its historical park and its countryside by bike. For sunset, we recommend that you stay inside the historic park, you will also find a small market where you can eat. The atmosphere is calm and relaxing. We had a very nice day in Sukhothai and we recommend the detour. Between Ayutthaya and Sukhothai for us is Sukhothai!
We spent two nights in a very comfortable guest house, the “old city guest house”, at the entrance of the historic park with bicycles at your disposal.
9. Chiang Mai
From Sukhotai, we reached the famous Chiang Mai by bus (5h30 trip, 207 baths / person = $6.61). You must book the bus one day in advance, and we advise you to cover yourself because the air conditioning is freezing. We were very lucky because we arrived in Chiang Mai on a Saturday for a night market day and during the flower festival, an annual event very important for the city. In Chiang Mai, you walk to discover the city and its temples, taste a Khao Soi, the local speciality and you will find many activities to do in the surroundings (cooking classes, yoga, meditation, jungle excursion with elephants…)
On our side, we booked 3 days of excursion with Chi Jungle Man company including a day of trekking, waterfalls and overnight stay in a Karen village (a tribe), a day with the elephants (food, walking and swimming with the pachyderms) and finally the last day with the elephants again and a trip on a bamboo rafting. We will remember these 3 days for life, the highlights of the stay were the second day with the elephants and our informative exchanges with our guide Saïan. For the night at the Karen village in the jungle, we think that the organization is not yet ready to receive tourists. There is a lack of “minimum comfort”, at least mattresses in the “cabins”, sleeping bags worthy of the name, pillows, an activity to do on site and above all a list of things to take with you because the nights are excessively cold and humid. As it is, I think that the experience is really not accessible to everyone (young children, the elderly, people with back problems…) What is certain is that you will remember your night! We stayed two nights and we’re still alive, lol! Beyond a more than basic comfort, we will remember many good moments: these good meals around the fire, this view on this sublime valley, this good bottle of “happy water”, our exceptional guide Saïan and of course the smiles of this Karen family. To conclude on this experience, not everything was perfect, it is an organization sometimes very disjointed in a Thai way but at the end the overall result remains very positive and above all memorable. One last extremely important point is also that we really felt that Chi Jungle Man elephants were treated “ethically” and not as circus animals. We met other companies on the way, especially at the river where elephants are fairy animals, making movements like robots, and surrounded by I don’t know how many tourists. A heartbreak.
Back to civilization in Chiang Mai and after recovering from our emotions, we decided to do a 1/2 day cooking class. There are many possible formulas! We chose the company “Smile Organic Farm Cooking School”, and honestly it was great (small group, organic farm, organization to perfection, a delight), we had a very good time with the chef “Nathalie”. Not sure we will be able to reproduce our recipes in France, but the experience was very positive from start to finish.
When you travel with a backpack from hostel to hostel, you meet a lot of people and it is very easy to share about the good tips and must-see things of everyone. Backpackers generally do the same routes and are looking for similar activities, they are mostly young, or even very young (under 25 years old). As an anecdote, the thought of a 19-year-old German girl telling me “it’s good that you still do that (a backpack trip) at your age hurt me! lol
All this to get to the fact that we didn’t like Paï! Most of the very young backpackers advised us to do so, but we didn’t appreciate this “ultra-tourist hippie” city located 3 hours drive from Chiang Mai. We had a remake of our feeling of Ao Nang Beach without the Americanized version, i. e. “Ah that’s it?”. For us Pai is an overrated city that the Thais have deserted. The countryside is pretty there, but the small town with its “all is allowed junkie” vibe clearly didn’t make us vibrate. Some will love it, others will have the same feeling as us. Go ahead if you want to make up your own mind, but for us it is clearly not a must-see spot.
11. Chiang Rai
4 hours by bus from Chiang Mai, we are in the city of Chiang Rai, our last Thai stop before reaching Laos. Chiang Rai is a pleasant city where you will find sumptuous temples (the white temple, the blue temple and the big buddha). For us, these are the most beautiful temples in Thailand, as well as those in Bangkok and Phetchabun. You will also have the possibility to access the golden triangle from where you can observe the Burmese and Laotian coasts (1h15 by scooter from the centre of Chiang Rai, the highway type road is not the most pleasant but it is doable). The Chiang Rai night market is also very attractive, you will find many shops and stands of Hot Pot, the local specialty which is once again a delight. We also enjoyed the Hill Tribe Museum. Our only failure was the visit to Singha Park on the first day of the balloon festival. Nothing was ready, no one was able to tell us what to do in the park or give us a plan. Honestly, apart from a very beautiful field of flowers, we found that the park was not exceptional.
So much for an overview of our road trip in Thailand, we then continued our adventures in Laos (article to come).
I hope this article will help you plan your trip, feel free to leave your comments.