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Thailand Backpacking Route
The Thailand backpacker scene has changed dramatically over the past 20-30 years and some would say for the worse but travellers continue to flock to the so-called ‘land of smiles’ in ever-increasing numbers. The main backpacker destinations, particularly the most popular islands in the South have become much more commercialised and predominantly party-orientated, which is great if you want to party all night and recover by day on beautiful golden beaches. If that’s not your scene, it’s not hard to find quieter more peaceful destinations sometimes even on the same island.
Bangkok remains the beating heart of the country, a true city of sin which love it or hate it makes for a truly intoxicating travel experience. It’s almost impossible to visit Thailand and Southeast Asia for that matter without passing through Bangkok at least once or twice given it is the core of the country’s transport network and home to the biggest two airports. The North still retains much of its old charm and places like Chiang Mai are the ideal spots to really get to grips with ancient Thai culture while there are plenty of natural wonders to be discovered outside of the towns.
Many of the destinations on this backpacking route for Thailand have already been covered in our South East Asia travel itinerary but split into two separate parts to get around the need for a visa (see bottom of this page for info on sorting out a visa for this route). However given it remains the most popular backpacking destination on the planet, we figured it could use its only dedicated route and here it is!
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
Allow 2 months to get round the whole route although it could be done in less time particularly if you are not so fussed with the party/beach element.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1250-1650 | €1400-1900 | US$1500-2000 | 50,000-70,000 THAI BAHT
Backpacker budgets in Thailand vary dramatically depending on the kind of trip you want to have. The lower figure we have quoted is a real shoestring budget and would involve staying in the cheapest places, eating local food and not going wild on the partying. The higher figure is perhaps a more typical backpacker budget these days but still requires some self-discipline as even though Thailand is cheap, there is temptation to spend almost everywhere, particularly if you are a party animal, in which case you should definitely allow for a bit more.
These figures were updated in January 2017 but DO NOT include the cost of flights to/from Thailand, visas, vaccinations or travel insurance.
Read more on the cost of travel in Thailand.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR THAILAND
Most nationalities do not require a visa for Thailand (30 days) but this route is for 2 months. We have detailed info on how to deal with that at the bottom of the page.
We recommend World Nomads, who specialise in backpacking trips and cover all kinds of activities that are typical for backpackers in Thailand.
Backpacking route for Thailand
BANGKOK & AROUND
Time Needed – 10 days should be more than adequate.
Logical starting point with flight connections to all 4 corners of the world. The Thai capital has many faces and chances are you will find one that is to your liking. It has a reputation as a real life Sin City and certainly it’s seedy sexual side is hard to ignore but there is plenty more to it than that. Great shopping, vibrant nightlife, buzzing street markets, delicious food and a few stunning palaces mean you will never be short of things to see and do in Bangkok. Most backpackers head straight to the Khao San Road which is the biggest backpacker hub in Southeast Asia and the perfect place to make some travel buddies, which is handy in those lonely early days, particularly if it’s your first time travelling alone.
MFT RECOMMENDS – The Aris Hostel, Bangkok
Just 100m from Khao San Road, Aris is a good place to base yourself in Bangkok.
Can be done as a long day-trip from Bangkok or with an overnight stay. This ancient city, the 2nd capital of Siam was the largest city in the world in the early 18th century with 1 million residents. It is a shadow of its former self now but the remnants of its heyday are still spread across town and give clues to its former grandeur.
This chilled out riverside town has becoming a big backpacker destination in recent years. The bridge over the River Kwai is the main point of an interest and most of the sights relate to the dark history of the so-called Death Railway to Burma during World War II. Nature lovers will also find plenty of thrills around the town and there are several interesting historical sites dotted about too with highlights including the Tiger Temple (very popular but has come in for fierce criticism from animal rights groups), Hellfire Pass and Erawan National Park.
Thailand’s oldest beach resort is getting its groove on once again. It’s popular with Thais in Bangkok due to its proximity to the capital and gets lively at weekends and during national holidays. Budget travellers tend to prefer the islands further South but Hua Hin is still a popular stop and breaks up the journey from Bangkok down to Southern Thailand.
Getting to Southern Thailand from Bangkok and Hua Hin
You have many options, the most interesting of which is to take the train down to Chumphon and connect to a boat to Ko Tao (All-in-one tickets can be bought including train, bus to the ferry port and ferry to Ko Tao or one of the other islands). Hua Hin is on the main trainline from Bangkok to Chumphon so it’s very easy sort out.
Time Needed – roughly 4 weeks*
* This depends on how much you enjoy the beach and party life. The time-frames suggested for each destination are just a guide. It’s very easy to extend your stay on any of the islands if you are enjoying it. Each destination has its own subtle differences and points of interest but there is an element of ‘same same’ about the backpacker scene at each place so some travellers choose to skip a few of these destinations in favour of spending longer in one place and perhaps doing a diving course, a bit of voluntary work or if you’re low on funds perhaps finding a bit of work for one of the bars or hostels. Either way it’s probably best not to plan a rigid schedule in this part and just relax, enjoy the lazy beach lifestyle and move on when you feel ready.
The smallest and quietest of the 3 main inhabited islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Ko Tao is a beautiful island and very popular with backpackers, some of whom end up staying much longer than intended. It is a fabulous place to do a PADI diving course and many of the centres also provide accommodation.
Ko Pha Ngan
Home of the famous full moon parties. Once a month the travellers flock to Ko Pha Ngan’s Haad Rin beach for a night of debauchery under the moonlight. The island gets very busy during this time although the other end of the island is much quieter. It’s a good idea to book accommodation in advance here around Full Moon night, something which isn’t really necessary anywhere else. There are big parties every week though so you don’t have to come for full moon with black moon and jungle parties also worth checking out and arguably better than the main night itself.
The Southernmost island in the Gulf of Thailand is less popular with backpackers and is unquestionably very touristy but it’s a big island and there are so many different beaches that you are sure to find one to your taste and it’s a fun place to explore for a day or so.
Krabi (Ao Nang or Krabi Town)
Krabi is the name of the province and most visitors either stay in Krabi Town, its capital or Ao Nang, its principal beach resort, which is about 30 minutes by bus from the town. The town is full of dirt cheap accommodation and restaurants and has a few interesting things to see and do but nothing remarkable. Ao Nang is a lively beach town packed with bars, restaurants, hotels and massage parlours (mostly not of the ‘happy ending’ variety). There are a couple of great beaches to relax on.
Rai Leh (Railay Beach)
Rai Leh is only 15 minutes or so round the coast and although it is not an island, it can only be accessed by boat as it is engulfed by huge cliffs on all sides. Active travellers and anyone who wants to do more than just bum around on a beach and get drunk should definitely check it out and might want to spend a fair while here. It’s a great destination for climbing, perhaps the best in Thailand and is also popular for its hiking, kayaking and snorkelling possibilities.
Ko Phi Phi
Phi Phi is one of the iconic destinations of the Thailand backpacker trail. Phi Phi Don is the only island that is inhabited and possible to stay. 20 years ago it was a very quiet island and although it is still beautiful, the main beaches and village on Phi Phi Don are now full on party-orientated not dissimilar to Haad Rin on Ko Pha Ngan. There are numerous boat trips you can do around the bay, most of which include plenty of stops for swimming and snorkelling in beautifully clear water and a visit to Maya Bay, where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed.
If you found all the other islands a bit too crazy and just want some time to rest and most likely detox, then Ko Lanta is the perfect place. It is home to miles and miles of long white sandy beaches, clear waters and not many people!
Getting from Southern Thailand to Northern Thailand
Getting from Ko Lanta or any of the other Southern destinations to Northern Thailand is best done by flying unless you want to spend in excess of 24 hours on buses and trains and still end up spending roughly what you would have had you opted to fly. Thai Lion Air offer the cheapest flights and allow you to put your backpack in hold for free which is a big advantage on Air Asia that also offer good deals also but place heavy charges on anyone with more than just hand luggage.
From Ko Lanta, it is best to fly from Krabi Airport, which is about 2 hours away via boat/bus transfer. You may find it cheaper to book two separate flights to move onto the next leg of our route. The first would be from Krabi to Bangkok and the 2nd from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. If you are a bit flexible with your times and perhaps willing to spend a night in Bangkok, you should be able to do the whole trip for around 2000 Baht (roughly 50 Euros). Note flights will be to Bangkok’s older Don Mueang Airport (which handles domestic flights). A taxi to Khao San Road or Central Bangkok should set you back between 250-400 Baht and take 20-30 minutes depending on traffic and whether you take the toll road (which you will have to pay an extra 150 Baht or so for so tell the taxi driver ‘No Toll!’ if you are in no rush) or not.
Time Needed – 2-3 weeks.
Chiang Rai, Golden Triangle & Around
Given you will most likely need to return to Bangkok to leave the country it is probably best to start your Northern Thailand adventure in Chiang Rai which is the furthest away from the capital and then work back. The town of Chiang Rai has 1 or 2 interesting sights and some nice museums that can occupy you for a day or so but its main purpose from a travellers perspective is as a base that will allow you to explore the region or even do a day-trip to nearby Tachileik in Myanmar (no need for a visa).
Most travellers also head to the golden triangle, which is a small area in Chiang Rai province where the River Ruak meets the mighty Mekong River and where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar. It was well-known as a famous opium growing region and there a few interesting sites where you can learn about the trade. Nowadays though the Golden Triangle is undoubtedly a tourist trap and is more or less completely dependent on tourism for income so those looking for a more authentic Thai experience, sometimes turn their nose up at the mention of it.
This can also be done as a day-trip from Chiang Rai but there are a few guesthouses with rock-bottom prices in town so it’s nice to stay overnight in what is a really small village with beautiful surroundings. It has a fascinating history and was the home of a group of 12,000 Chinese Nationalists who fled China to Mae Salong in 1949 following the rise to power of the Chinese Communists. They continued their insurgency, part-funded by the opium trade for several decades from Mae Salong. There are several museums relating to this in the village, which nowadays is famous for producing excellent oolong tea.
Another key destination on any backpacking route in Thailand. Chiang Mai is a cosmopolitan city with a very international vibe like Bangkok, but much smaller and more relaxed and without a lot of the hassles that go with the capital. It’s a great place to get to grips with traditional thai practices such as massage, muay-thai boxing and thai cooking and has a reputation as the country’s cultural capital.
You could potentially split your time in Chiang Mai into two separate stints as you will probably need to return after Mae Sariang in order to take a train down to Sukhothai as there are no easy and certainly no direct connections between Mae Sariang and Sukhothai.
MFT RECOMMENDS – Mapping Hostel, Chiang Mai
Dirt cheap bungalows and dorm beds in a beautiful location overlooking the river.
Pai is another stop which has turned into a real backpacker place and it’s not hard to see why. With only 3000 permanent residents it is very small and is located in a really beautiful valley North of Chiang Mai. There are a whole range of different ways to witnessing the nature from lazily chilling out in one of Pai’s plentiful backpacker bars and taking in the views to tubing, trekking, zip-lining, white-water rafting and plenty more.
Mae Hong Son
This is another very small town not far from Pai. You probably won’t need as long here but it’s certainly worth hiring a motorbike or at least a bicycle for a day or two and getting out to the surrounding areas which are home to a few points of potential interest including a mud spa, a bamboo bridge, a waterfall, a palace and a fish cave!
Close to the Myanmar border and without the crowds of Pai and Chiang Mai, this is a good place for trekking in the mountains and getting to see small local villages and tribes. Its remote location means the ‘hilltribe’ experiences are much more authentic here so be sure to get out to the Karen and Lawa Hilltribe villages.
Thailand’s original capital is located 1 hour by bus from Phitsanulok, which is on the main trainline between Chiang Mai and Bangkok at almost exactly the halfway point (express trains take about 7 hours to reach either city from Phitsanulok) so it is a convenient stop if you opt to get the train back to Bangkok for your flight home or onwards. The train journey alone allows you a glimpse into the remoter areas of Thailand away from the travelling hordes so it is well worth doing although price-wise there is usually little difference between flying from Chiang Mai to Bangkok or taking the train.
Old Sukhothai is 12km west of the modern city and quite a lot of effort has been put in to restoring it to something like its 13th Century glory and it has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Consider renting a bike (which you can do for as little as 50 Baht) and exploring the ruins.
And that’s the end of our Thailand backpacking itinerary although you may want to spend another day or two in Bangkok taking advantage of the great shopping centres to grab a few bargains while you wait for your flight home. Certainly don’t rely on the train to deliver you from Phitsanulok to Bangkok on-time for a flight the same day.
Extending Your Trip
Most travellers in Thailand these days, visit at least one of its neighbouring countries too. Our Vietnam backpacking route takes you on a train-ride to remember from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City with numerous stops in between. Alternative options include neighbouring Myanmar.
Check out our Burmese backpacking route for some inspiration there. Leaving mainland SE Asia behind you might also want to check out our Indonesia route, which takes you around some of the country’s most popular islands.
Budget Accommodation in Thailand
Advanced booking isn’t important as there are backpacker districts or streets almost everywhere on this route and some of the beaches on the islands are almost entirely full of hostels and backpacker accommodation that rarely sell out. That said advanced booking during festivals and certainly for full moon parties is an absolute must.
Do I need a Visa for Thailand?
If you are from Korea, Brazil, Peru, Argentina or Chile you get 90 days visa-free and therefore won’t need a visa for this route.
Travellers from 52 countries do not need a visa for 30 days of travel in Thailand. Here is a list of the countries elligible for this 30 day visa exemption. If you are not from one of those 52 countries you will need to arrange a visa in advance in your own country via the Thai Embassy or through a Thai Embassy in another country.
If you are from one of those 52 countries you have a few more options. Seen as this route is scheduled for 2 months, the 30 days visa exemption will not be enough so here are your choices:
Option 1: Get a tourist visa valid for at least 60 days before you enter Thailand
This is something you should do before you leave home but it can also be arranged at a Thai Embassy in other countries if you are doing a long trip visiting various places. It’s best to sort it well in advance of your trip though and you most likely won’t be required to visit the embassy in person. Prices vary from country to country but this is certainly the most hassle-free option and once you are in Thailand you can relax and not have to worry about such issues.
Option 2: Visa Run
You can do a visa run, which basically means you will leave Thailand for a neighbouring country before your 30 day visa exemption expires and then return immediately or after a few days and you will get a fresh 30 days visa-free in Thailand. Note that only people from UK, USA, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Macau, Hong Kong, Laos and Vietnam get 30 days when crossing at both airports and land borders. Other nationalities get 15 days at land borders but 30 at airports.
The most obvious points for visa runs on the route are to Malaysia from any of the destinations in Southern Thailand (particularly Krabi, Ko Lanta or Ko Phi Phi) with Penang or Pulau Langkawi on the Andaman Coast of Northern Malaysia a nearby popular destination for a couple of days or so. Alternatively in Northern Thailand you could head to Laos and the town of Huay Xai very close to Chiang Rai although the need for a Laotian visa makes this option a bit less attractive unless you particularly want to go to Laos.
It may also be tough to fit this into this route without rushing your time in Southern Thailand although you could always leave the first section (Bangkok & around) until the end of your trip (i.e. spend 4 weeks in Southern Thailand first, leave then come back and do Northern and Central Thailand within your new 30 days). You can also often get very cheap flights to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore from cities across Thailand, which may be handy especially if you are from one of those countries who only gets 15 days at land borders.
Option 3 – Extend your 30-day visa-exemption while in Thailand.
Since August 2014, you can now extend your 30 day visa exemption to 60 days by visiting an immigration office in the country and paying 1,900 Baht (roughly US$55). The immigration offices are plentiful enough and wherever you are, you won’t be far away from one but queues can be long in some centres and it isn’t the most enjoyable way to spend a morning or afternoon so getting a visa in advance seems more logical if you’re certain you will be spending more than 30 days in Thailand.
PLEASE NOTE – This is correct as of March 2016. The Thai government does from time to time change these visa rules so try to verify this info is still correct if you are reading this at some point in the distant future ;).
Feel free to post a comment below if you know of any changes to these rules and we will update this info. Also let us know what you would include in your backpacking route for Thailand and any of your favourite off-the-beaten track destinations, which can be a welcome relief from the tourist trail.
This article was published in March 2016.