The experience of backpacking Thailand has changed dramatically over the past twenty years and some would say for the worse but travellers continue to flock to the so-called ‘land of smiles’ in ever-increasing numbers. This page gives you an idea of what a typical Thailand backpacking route might look like. It’s most applicable to travellers without major time restraints but you can easily pick and choose sections that appeal if you have less time.
Backpacking Thailand – Route Info
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
Allow 2 months to get around the whole route outlined below. It could be done in less time, particularly if you are not so fussed with the party/beach element. Just be sure to check the entry and visa rules at the time of your visit. Depending on where you are from, you may need to apply for a Thailand tourist visa in order to stay in the country for 2 months. Alternatively, leaving the country after 30 days and returning may be an option.
BUDGET – £1250-2050 | €1350-2250 | US$1500-2500
Backpacker budgets in Thailand vary dramatically depending on the person and 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. Even though Thailand is cheap, there is temptation to spend almost everywhere, particularly if you are a party animal. If this is you, then you should probably allow for a bit more still.
These figures were updated in October 2019 but DO NOT include the cost of flights to/from Thailand, visas, vaccinations or travel insurance. They equate to 45,000-75,000 Thai Baht (750-1250 per day).
Read more on the cost of travel in Thailand.
CUT YOUR THAILAND TRAVEL COSTS
We’d highly recommend getting a Revolut Card before you travel. This will enable you to pay for things in Thai Baht. Over the course of a lengthy backpacking trip, this will save you a lot of money as you’ll dodge most of those irritating hidden fees. You can easily load money directly from your bank via the app and can exchange it in an instant at excellent rates. They also have some great budgeting tools which will help you keep tabs on your expenditure and make sure you are not overspending.
THAILAND BACKPACKER JOBS
There are lots of ways to find a bit of work to support your travels in Thailand. It’s rare to find paid work but you can often find a placement or short-term role which includes free accommodation and food. Worldpackers is a good platform for finding these and they have 70 opportunities in Thailand at the time of writing. This includes everything from teaching English to leading pub crawls and tours for other travellers.
You can get a $10 discount off the Worldpackers sign-up fee by following the link and activating the promocode ‘MYFUNKYTRAVELWP’.
THAILAND VISA REQUIREMENTS
We have a separate post on the Thailand entry requirements (updated December 2020) which includes more general travel tips for exploring the country with some FAQs answered.
It’s highly advisable to get travel insurance if you are planning on backpacking in Thailand. We recommend SafetyWing who offer affordable medical travel insurance for nomads and travellers in Southeast Asia.
A 2 Month Itinerary for Backpacking in Thailand
Part 1 – Bangkok & around
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 or indeed Southeast Asia without passing through Bangkok, one of the most visited cities in the world, at least once or twice given it is at the core of the country’s transport network and home to the biggest two airports.
Time Needed – 10 days should be more than adequate.
Bangkok is the 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 its 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 there are many things to do in Bangkok. Most backpackers head straight to the Khao San Road which is the biggest backpacker hub in Southeast Asia and the best place to try and make some travel buddies, which is handy in those lonely early days, particularly if it’s your first time travelling alone.
The heat will also hit you if you are arriving from somewhere cold, with Bangkok ranking as one of the world’s 10 hottest cities by average temperature. Therefore it might be wise not to plan too much on your first couple of days as you get over any jet-lag and try to acclimatise to your new surroundings.
This can be done as a long day-trip from Bangkok or with an overnight stay. Ayutthaya was the second capital of Siam and remarkably it was the largest city in the world in the early 18th century with one 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 become 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 find plenty of thrills around the town with nearby highlights including the Hellfire Pass and Erawan National Park. The controversial tiger temple in Kanchanaburi province has now been shut down.
4. Hua Hin
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 pleasant 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.
Part 2 – Southern Thailand
The main travel destinations and 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, even on the same island.
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 of Thailand. Just relax, enjoy the lazy beach lifestyle and move on when you feel ready.
5. Ko Tao
The smallest and quietest of the three main inhabited islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Ko Tao is the sort of place where you can end up staying much longer than intended. It is a fabulous place to do a PADI diving course (possible in a week) and many of the centres also provide accommodation. While the nightlife is more condensed into a small area of the beach and a few bars, there’s certainly enough to keep you entertained in the evenings with a few parties every night.
6. Ko Pha Ngan
Home of the infamous full moon parties. Once a month, travellers in Southeast Asia 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 always much quieter. It’s a good idea to book accommodation in advance around Full Moon night, something which isn’t really necessary anywhere else in Thailand aside from during holiday and festival periods.
There are big parties every week on Ko Pha Ngan 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. There are also some cool pool parties in the nights immediately prior to full moon.
7. Ko Samui
The southernmost island in the Gulf of Thailand is less popular with backpackers and is unquestionably very touristy. It’s a much bigger island though 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.
8. Khao Sok National Park
Khao Sok National Park is the country’s largest natural reserve and home to the huge Cheow Lan Reservoir. It’s not like any man made lake you’ve ever seen though. With its towering limestone cliffs and crystal-clear blue waters, it is surrounded by the world’s oldest living rainforest.
One great way to see everything this place has to offer is to join a group for an overnight trip to the floating bungalows of Khao Sok Lake. You’ll ride a traditional long tail boat, sleep in a bamboo floating bungalow and eat three meals per day. You’ll also be able to explore the jungle on foot hiking to caves and waterfalls or spend your time relaxing in the water or kayaking.
9a. 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.
9b. Rai Leh (Railay Beach)
Rai Leh is only 15 minutes or so around 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.
10. 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. At the time of writing (October 2019), Maya Bay, where the movie ‘The Beach’ was filmed, remains closed. This is due to the impact of the huge numbers of tourists that were visiting the site every day. It is due to reopen in 2021.
11. Ko Lanta
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. Air Asia tend to offer the best fares but you may find their high baggage fees make other airlines cheaper overall. As always, it’s easy enough to find the best deals on skyscanner with midweek usually cheaper than weekends.
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. That said, you could travel around Northern Thailand in a different order (to what’s listed below) and fly direct from Krabi to Chiang Mai.
Note that these 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 300-500 Baht and take 20-30 minutes depending on traffic and whether you take the faster toll road (which you will have to pay an extra 150 Baht or so for. Tell the taxi driver ‘No Toll!’ if you are in no rush).
Part 3 – Northern Thailand
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. There are also plenty of natural wonders to be discovered outside of the towns and it feels very different here to the south. The good news for budget travellers is that Northern Thailand is significantly cheaper too.
Time Needed – 2-3 weeks.
12. 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, one of the cheapest cities to live in Thailand, has a couple of interesting sights and some nice museums that can occupy you for a day or so. However its main purpose from a traveller’s 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. Those looking for a more authentic Thai experience, sometimes turn their nose up at the mention of it.
Check out 19 amazing things to do in Chiang Rai.
13. Mae Salong
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.
14. Chiang Mai
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 life in 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.
For volunteering opportunities near Chiang Mai, check out Mindful Farm:
Pai is another small Thai town which has turned into a real backpacker place and it’s not hard to see why. With only 3000 permanent residents, it is tiny and is located in a really beautiful valley north of Chiang Mai. There are a whole range of different ways to witness 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.
16. 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!
17. Mae Sariang
Close to the Myanmar border and without the crowds of Pai or 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 ‘hill-tribe’ experiences are much more authentic here so be sure to get out to the Karen and Lawa hill-tribe villages.
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.
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 5-6 hours from Bangkok & 7 hours from Chiang Mai. Therefore it is quite 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 off-the-beaten-track, remoter areas of Thailand so it is well worth doing.
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!
Thailand Map & Itinerary Overview
As you can clearly see above, this Thailand itinerary is formed of three distinct sections and overall it does cover just about every major travel destination in the country. It should be said though that most backpackers spend less time in Thailand than our suggested time-frame of two months for this route.
Thailand Backpacking Route – How long to spend in each place?
|4||Hua Hin||1-2 Days|
|5||Ko Tao||3-7 Days|
|6||Ko Pha Ngan||3-7 Days|
|7||Ko Samui||2-3 Days|
|8||Khao Sok National Park||2 Days|
|9||Krabi & Rai Leh||4-5 Days|
|10||Ko Phi Phi||3-5 Days|
|11||Ko Lanta||3-5 Days|
|12||Chiang Rai/Golden Triangle||3-4 Days|
|13||Mae Salong||1-2 Days|
|14||Chiang Mai||3-4 Days|
|16||Mae Hong Son||1-2 Days|
|17||Mae Sariang||2-3 Days|
If you have time restrictions, you can easily pick and choose the parts that appeal to you. Alternatively you could do the whole route but skip a few of the islands and northern destinations. At a push, you could visit Bangkok, spend some beach time in the south and visit the best the north has to offer inside a month. However if you only have three weeks in Thailand or even less, you may be better off visiting Bangkok and then choosing between either the south or the north.
If you have a shorter time-frame but a higher budget and want to see a lot (or are just anxious about travelling solo for the first time), you may want to consider joining a backpacker tour for at least part of your trip.
Head over to Indie Traveller for an in-depth Thailand travel guide.
Check out all our Asia travel routes!
This article was published in October 2019.