Photo: At the Artist's Place, Trat.

Most first-time travellers to Thailand opt for a trip like this — we certainly did. Striking north into the hills and then relaxing on the beach is, for many, the ultimate first-time Thai experience. In a trip like this you’re travelling from the far north of Thailand well into the south — if you have only limited time try to minimise your time in transit.

Two good ways to minimise your time in transit include:
a) Make good use of Thailand’s network of domestic budget airlines.
b) Pick one island and stick to it — move only if you really don’t like where you are — nowadays there is little to differentiate the various popular islands. While travelling for example from Ko Pha Ngan to Ko Lanta will not really add that much to the experience, it will use up a day or two of your precious holiday time.

Pay attention to the weather! The islands on Thailand’s east and west coasts are affected by different monsoons — rainy on one side, sunny on the other — do your research and you’ll be able to leave your raincoat at home. More climate information can be found here: Travelfish interactive weather map.

Suggest trip length

The suggested minimum time for a trip like this is two weeks, though three weeks is far more comfortable. If you have less than two weeks consider doing just the northern or southern leg.

Sample plan

1) Bangkok -> Chiang Mai (northern capital, temples, food, scenic)
2) Chiang Mai -> Pai (trekking, scenic, traveller scene)
3) Pai -> Mae Hong Son (trekking, scenic, traveller scene)
4) Mae Hong Son -> Chiang Mai (northern capital, temples, food, scenic)

Seasonal switch — depending on the season, head to the south east (Surat Thani) or the south west (Krabi)

5a) Chiang Mai -> Bangkok -> Surat Thani -> Ko Samui/Ko Pha Ngan/Ko Tao (beaches, scenery, diving)
6a) Ko Samui / Ko Pha Ngan / Ko Tao -> Chumphon (caves, beaches, local flavour)
7a) Chumphon -> Bangkok

or

5b) Chiang Mai -> Bangkok -> Krabi (temples, national parks)
6b) Krabi -> Raileh Bay / Ko Lanta / Ko Phi Phi (beaches, scenery, diving)
7b) Raileh Bay / Ko Lanta / Ko Phi Phi -> Krabi (temples, national parks)
8b) Krabi -> Bangkok

Save some time

One day: fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
One day: Fly from Krabi back to Bangkok
Two days: Go trekking from Chiang Mai rather than Pai or Mae Hong Son (though the trekking from Chiang Mai is inferior)

Take a side trip

Two days: Near Pai, Soppong is well worth a loop, as is Mae Sariang, to the south of Mae Hong Son.
Two days: From Krabi, head north to the very popular Khao Sok National Park or head further south to the lovely islands off Trang.
Three days: Break up the trip from Chumphon to Bangkok by stopping at Phetburi for Kaeng Krachan National Park, or at Hua Hin, for a bit more beach.

Map

Sample Trip Times (in hours)

To help you work out how you’ll get around, we’ve listed the trip durations for the various forms of transport available. Note that with the exception of flight times, these are average trip times, so no hate mail if you take the slow train.

THAILAND: Mountains and Islands – a two week sampler
From To Air Bus Train Boat
Bangkok Chiang Mai 1:10 10:00 12:00
Chiang Mai Pai 4:00
Pai Mae Hong Son 4:00
Mae Hong Son Chiang Mai 0:35 8:00
Bangkok Surat Thani 1:15 11:00 12:00
Surat Thani Ko Samui 1:20
Surat Thani Ko Pha Ngan 5:00
Surat Thani Ko Tao 6:30
Ko Tao Chumphon 3:00
Chumphon Bangkok 7:00 8:00
Bangkok Krabi 1:20 12:00
Krabi Raileh Bay 1:00
Krabi Ko Lanta 1:30
Krabi Ko Phi Phi 2:00
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More itineraries

Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!


Burma

Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.


Cambodia

Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.


Indonesia

How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.


Laos

North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.


Malaysia

The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.


Thailand

So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.


Vietnam

Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.


The region

This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.