Scale the majestic ruins left behind by the ancient Siamese and Khmer civilizations at Ayutthaya and Phimai. Taste the relaxed country lifestyle and bright, spicy cuisine of Isaan. Rub shoulders with wild elephants and behold awe-inspiring waterfalls in the jungles of Khao Yai National Park. Reflect on 2,000 year-old skeletons at the excavation site of Ban Prasat. Be immersed in colourful northeastern Thai city life at Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat). Explore stunning hill country while sampling refined varietals of the Pak Chong wine region; and all of the above in just one- to two-weeks out of Bangkok.
A solid ten days to two weeks would be ideal for a jaunt like this if you want to see everything, but we've distilled the highlights into a manageable seven days for those with only a week to kill.
Day one: Ayutthaya
Rise early and hop on a bus or train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya. If you settle into a guesthouse fast, you could be bicycling the ruins before lunchtime. Wander among Ayutthaya's elegant stupa spires and Buddha images, many of which were robbed of their heads in the 1767 Burmese invasion that razed the former Siamese capital to the ground. Take an elephant ride if you fancy, and have your fortune read in a historic temple to find out if wealth and success are in your future.
Day two: Ayutthaya to Pak Chong
If you're a morning person, get out at dawn and catch some fantastic photo opportunities of the Ayutthaya ruins in early morning light. If you can't drag yourself out of bed, just enjoy a leisurely brunch before waving goodbye to the headless Buddhas on your way to catch a train to Pak Chong. Beginning in Bangkok's not so charming industrial shadow, you'll gradually ascend by rail into the stunning scenery and cool air of the Khao Yai mountains.
You could spend as little or as much time in Ayutthaya on this day as you want since trains run to Pak Chong roughly every two hours between 07:00 and 23:30. If leaving early, you could conceivably see a good amount of the picturesque Pak Chong wine and farm country after arriving. It's also worth mentioning that train is the only sensible option here; going by bus would first entail back tracking to Bangkok.
If wanting to skip Ayutthaya, a Bangkok to Nakhon Ratchasima local bus from Morchit station, a mini bus from Victory Monument, or a train from Hualamphong station could all drop you right in Pak Chong town. Pak Chong is the northern gateway to Khao Yai National Park.
Days three and four: Khao Yai National Park
Get out your hiking shoes and journey in to Thailand's grandest national park. If wanting to go largely independent, pitch a tent overnight at one of Thailand's most idyllic camping spots and take advantage of the extensive hiking trails nearby. Otherwise, rent a car or motorbike or hire a taxi to explore the park, or do what most do -- join up with one of the numerous tours. Wildlife tracking, bird watching, elephant trekking, night safaris, and cooling off at some of Thailand's most splendid waterfalls may all be done here over the course of a few days. The monkeys and deer are friendly, but watch out for cobras, tigers and bears.
Day five: Khao Yai to Phimai (via Khorat)
By this point you'll most likely be dragging along with a few sore legs from hiking in Khao Yai, and might be ready for something a little more laid back. Rest your legs on the train or bus from Pak Chong to Khorat, where you'll need to transfer to the local bus that runs up to the chilled out temple town of Phimai.
If you leave in the morning from Pak Chong you might stop for lunch in Khorat (this is a good idea particularly if you take the train since transferring to the Phimai bus entails a tuk tuk ride across town anyway). Or, if time allows, you could take a worthy detour to Ban Prasat en route from Khorat to Phimai. Both trains and buses run from Pak Chong to Khorat consistently throughout the day and into the evening. The last bus from Khorat to Phimai departs at 19:00. If you miss it, spend the night in Khorat and head out early the next morning. If you have more time, the charm of Khorat refuses to be served on a platter at first, but it's certainly there for those who take a deeper look into one of Isaan's grandest cities.
Day six: Phimai
Start your day by exploring Phimai's star attraction: the ruins of Prasat Phimai. These ancient, towering stone Khmer temples aren't nearly as extensive as those of Angkor in Cambodia, but they are indeed stunning. A mix of weathered stonewalls, broken statuettes and sprawling old trees in the surrounding grounds make for an overall tranquil experience. After you've had your fill of the ruins, hop on a bicycle and pedal out to surreal Sai Ngam, where Thailand's largest clutch of banyan trees lends a sense of being dropped in a spooky children's fantasy book. With some good sightseeing behind you, sleepy Phimai is the perfect place to kick back after a busy six days, but don't miss the night market!
Day seven: Phimai to Bangkok
Take the morning to chill in one of Thailand's more relaxing towns, or hit Ban Prasat on the way back to Khorat if you missed it on the way in. Otherwise, head straight back to Bangkok; if you leave Phimai early you'll get in to the Big Mango in time to prepare for one last memorable night on the town.
If wanting to explore further north or east from Phimai, say to Khon Kaen, Udon Thani or Ubon Ratchathani, you'll first need to go back to Khorat and transfer there. Travel to Bangkok will also require a transfer in Khorat.
One day: Skip Ayutthaya and head straight to Pak Chong.
One day: Do a single day Khao Yai trip rather than two days.
Take a side trip:
Half day: Stop off at Ban Prasat along the way to/from Phimai. There are also some quality homestay programs in quaint and quiet Ban Prasat village in case you want to linger.
One day: Spend a full day in Khorat.
One day: Explore the Pak Chong region.
Two days: Add a side trip to Phanom Rung.
More days: If time is less of an issue, one could easily spend three days or more in Ayutthaya or the Pak Chong/Khao Yai area. Many local tourists settle into the hills around Pak Chong for a week or more to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and consistently cool air. The sights of Phimai can be visited easily in a day, but we love this little town for its infectiously laidback atmosphere, so don't be surprised if you fall under Phimai's spell for an extra couple days.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.