Planning a trip to Thailand can be overwhelming. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ayutthaya, Phuket. And don’t even get me started on all the islands. There simply isn’t enough time to see everything that Thailand has to offer without going full nomad.
Thailand will always hold a special place in my heart because it was my very first backpacking trip abroad. I went into my 4 weeks with little planning, no previous travel experience, and absolutely no idea what I was doing. And I still managed to have the time of my life. That being said there are many things I wish I would have done differently.
For starters, you’re likely going to have to pick and choose locations based on how much time you have. Trying to see all of mainland Thailand as well as several islands in two weeks simply isn’t feasible on a backpackers budget. I would recommend a minimum of 2-3 weeks in Thailand to get a well-rounded experience. A combination of temples, jungles, street food, outdoor markets, nightlife, beaches and ELEPHANTS.
I also always try to avoid the crowds because I feel that it takes away from the authentic experience of a new country. Thailand is tricky because hoards of tourists flock there year round. Avoid late Nov-Feb as it is going to be the peak season.
Now the tricky part…Where to see and where to skip.
This city gets a bad rap. Yes it is polluted, yes it is chaotic, yes people try to scam you left and right. But Bangkok is the central hub of Thailand. Your trip wouldn’t be complete without a thorough understanding of this city. I’ve found that the longer you stay in Bangkok the more it grows on you.
What to See
The Grand Palace. To this day it is the single most beautiful man-made structure I have any seen.
Patpong Marketplace. Go with an open mind and on a weekend night for the full experience.
Khao San Road. Classic backpackers hub, fun for a night or two just don’t get stuck there.
Visit a few temples, some of my favorites are Wat Pho-Reclining buddha and Wat Arun by the water
Wat Arun was under construction both times I have been to Bangkok, so although I have seen it, I haven’t had the pleasure of climbing the stairs to the top
Sip on a cocktail high above the city at one of the many rooftop bars.
Do some exploring of the Chatuchak weekend market
Watch a Ladyboy Cabaret show
By far my favorite memories of Bangkok involved getting foot massages. Lounging in a plastic chair underneath the late afternoon sky nestled away in an alley somewhere, people watching and snacking on some freshly picked mango. Don’t be afraid to slow down and watch the crazy hustle of the city around you.
What to Skip
Anything involving elephants. I promise you if you like animals even a little, it’s just going to make you sad. In fact, skip anything involving ANY animals for that matter. Just trust me.
This is the cultural center of Thailand. It’s everything that Bangkok is not. Temples here are quiet, motor-biking isn’t a major risk to your life, and life moves at a slower pace. The food in this region is also phenomenal. The sausages and fried quail eggs from the night market will change your life. Chiang Mai is also the wildlife epicenter of your vacation. Elephants and tigers are both easily (and ethically) accessible from this area.
What to See
Elephant Nature Park. First and foremost it was important to me to choose an option that supported the animals’ wellbeing. Elephant Nature Park lets you get up close and personal with the elephants without riding them or forcing them into saddles. If you want more information about the ethical options for interacting with elephants check out foreverlostintravel’s website.
Tiger Kingdom lets you into the lion’s (tiger’s) den. Literally.
Chiang Mai night market. Hands down the best street market I experienced in Thailand.
Chiang Mai Night Safari. Driving around open enclosures in safari style buses feeding giraffes, zebras, and hippos.
Doi Inthanon National Park. Highest peak in Thailand, hiking trails, and two picturesque temples. Also if you’re lucky a monkey sighting.
Join an overnight trek into the Hmong village hill tribes. Most treks involve some combination of river rafting, elephants, and extensive hiking.
Visit a few of the temples. My favorites were Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.
Take a cooking class. Chiang Mai has lots of farm style cooking classes. You cook several traditional Thai courses in an outdoor kitchen after picking your vegetables straight from the garden.
Rent a motorbike and drive around the rural roadways. Enjoy the scenery and get a little lost.
***Tiger Kingdom has mixed reviews amongst animal lovers due to reports that they drug the tigers. The tigers I interacted with were wide awake, running around, and in my opinion showed no signs of neglect. However, I did see many drugged animals in Thailand and it isn’t an uncommon practice for tourist attractions. So use your own judgement.
What to Skip
I’ve got nothin. The whole region of Northern Thailand was stunningly beautiful. I only wish I had twice as long to explore the countryside and make it to Chiang Rai.
This area of central Thailand is a historic city filled with ruins from the 13th century. If you’re interested in photography or history this area is a must see. The infamous face inside the tree is located here!
All of these ruins are very close together and can easily be seen in one or maximum two days so no need to plan for a ton of time here!
I haven’t made it there. Yet. But I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about this northern hippy town made for nature lovers. I would fit right in.
Undoubtedly beautiful. But it caters mostly to the resort crowd. I chose to skip this region and instead spend more time on the islands. If you have the time check it out, but I feel there are better beaches more suited to backpackers.
Islands of Thailand
Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Lipe, Koh Phi Phi, the list goes on and on. It would take months to see them all. (Sounds, like a future trip to me) I only ventured to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan during my time in Thailand.
Great beaches, but quite a few resorts. I highly recommend renting a motorbike and driving around the entire island. It takes about 4 hours, but the Southern side of the island is beautiful and rural and most likely you’ll have the road to yourself to explore.
Visit some really cool temples here like Wat Plai Laem and Big Buddha.
Hunt for waterfalls AND while doing so get your feet rejuvenated by the little suckerfish in this mountain pond.
This islands appeal is a little more party-centered. Every month coinciding with the full moon they have a crazy beach festival that can attract tens of THOUSANDS of people (depending on the month). People get wasted on literal buckets of cheap Thai alcohol, paint themselves neon and participate in flaming jump rope on the beach until the sun rises (I have the scars to prove it). Beach bars serve mushroom milkshakes and blast electronic music at the waves while everyone dances and meets other young souls from around the world. It’s an experience worth having at least once, just make sure you don’t have anything else planned the next day.
My next Thailand trip will be taking me to islands further south. KohLipe is known for being serenely beautiful and not a tourist in sight. Nothing ruins a good beach quite like other humans and I take any opportunity I can get to have the sand to myself. I had an amazing time visiting the islands but undoubtedly if you are looking for culture, authenticity, and all around beautiful beaches, I would venture towards Koh Tao or Koh Lipe.
***Disclaimer: Obviously everyone’s destination list is going to be a little different based on your travel personality and what you are looking for in your vacation. Mine was focused on culture, food, and the native wildlife.
Thailand is one of those places that you just get drawn back to.
The food is phenomenal, the country is beautiful, and the people are genuinely kind and welcoming. Thailand just has something in the air that makes you feel at ease. Maybe it’s just me because I’ve always been drawn to SouthEast Asia. It’s a place of relaxation and reflection and an area of the world filled with positive memories that helped shape me into who I am today.