Thailand's often-overlooked Southeast region is best known for its two island stars, Ko Samet and Ko Chang, and the not-so-charming scene at Pattaya. Yet it would be a mistake to write the region off as a place for sex-tourists and beach-goers who don't have time for the south. Those up for some exploring will uncover compelling cultural and natural attractions, endless beaches and little-known islands that stack up to the Andaman's best.
Travelling around the Southeast by regular bus, minibus, songthaew and public boat is relatively easy. This is the smallest of Thailand's five regions, so backtracking and criss-crossing isn't as big of an issue as it would be in, say, the vast Northeast. If you miss somewhere on the way down, you can always hit it on the way back, and it's never more than a few hours from one spot to the next. Motorbikes can be rented, or songthaews chartered, for local exploration.
The dry season from November to April is the best time to visit. The whole region, but especially the far southeast, gets lashed with formidable rainstorms virtually every day from June through September, while October and May can go either way. Boat transport in the Ko Chang archipelago is sporadic during the rainy months, when smaller islands like Ko Wai close up completely.
A week is enough for two full days in Chanthaburi and three on Ko Chang, while two weeks would allow you to add another island (or two) and a couple of day trips. You'll need a solid three to four weeks to check out all of the places listed here without needing a holiday to recover.
A sample itinerary that includes a good chunk of Southeast Thailand with minimal transport time between destinations would be:
Bang Saen ->
Ko Si Chang ->
Ko Samet ->
Ko Chang ->
Ko Wai ->
Ko Maak ->
Ko Kut ->
Back to Bangkok, onwards to Cambodia or up into Northeast Thailand.
Before setting off, you'll want to chop, trim and turn this itinerary inside out so as to create the sequence that best suits your tastes and time frame. It's also worth mentioning that hitting all of these islands would be overkill for all but the most dedicated of island hoppers. Just don't cut Chanthaburi!
Reachable from Bangkok by a steady stream of regular and minibuses, Bang Saen will take care of your beach craving right off the bat. It makes a good starting point for a gradual build-up towards the region's more sublime beaches that lie further southeast, ensuring that you don't "pop the best champagne" too early. While popular with Thai holiday-makers, the town doesn't attract many foreigners and lacks the sleazy scene found further south in Pattaya.
From Bang Saen, you can hop in a minibus straight to Sri Ratcha (for Ko Si Chang), Pattaya or Rayong (and onto Ko Samet), or pick up a regular bus heading further east to Chanthaburi and Trat.
Ko Si Chang
An idyllic island paradise Ko Si Chang is not, but its laid-back lifestyle and fascinating history make it a worthy sidestep for those who lean towards the offbeat. Visit the old palace that once served as a getaway for King Rama V; wander past the Chinese shrines in picturesque fishing villages; and finish with a seafood feast that will cost a fraction of what you'll pay on the touristy islands.
Not to be confused with the far larger and more popular Ko Chang, Ko Si Chang is reached by a 40-minute ferry hop from the coastal town of Sri Ratcha, which itself can be accessed from Bangkok or Bang Saen by most Pattaya-bound transport. Ko Si Chang attracts mainly Thai visitors and has remained largely untouched by large-scale tourism. Give it a pass if you're not keen on a traditional Thai fishing island that lacks white-sand beaches.
Speaking of powdery white sand kissed by clear cerulean water, you'll find it on Ko Samet. Whether you're after a basic bungalow in a sheltered bay, a top-notch pampering at a lavish resort or a backpacker enclave complete with cheap buckets and all-night parties, Samet delivers. Droves of Thai visitors converge on the island on weekends and prices spike drastically in response. Visit during the week for a quieter atmosphere and better deals.
Ko Samet is a major destination thanks to its relatively close proximity to Bangkok. It's not a bad little island, but we'd be inclined to skip it if the Ko Chang archipelago were on the horizon.
Arguably the most underrated destination in Thailand, Chanthaburi adds a splash of history, culture and nature to this otherwise beach-heavy region. In the City of the Moon's riverside old quarter you'll find an impressive Gothic cathedral along with locals slinging delicious crab noodle soup from century-old houses. Two mountainous national parks, ornate temples, refreshing waterfalls, tropical fruit farms and scenic coastal roads entice travellers to explore further afield.
Though Chanthaburi town is easily reached by regular bus from just about anywhere, it's not stacked with traveller services. This is great if you hope to hop off the well-trodden track, but getting the most out of the province can be a (not-insurmountable) challenge if you're inexperienced with motorbikes, maps and the Thai language. On the other hand, intrepid travellers could spend a full week discovering all that "Chan" has to offer.
Similar to Chanthaburi in size, atmosphere and history (both were briefly part of the French empire in the early 20th century), Trat town is an especially worthwhile stop-off for those looking to save some cash. While not quite as charming as the one in Chan, Trat's old quarter has plenty of guesthouses with basic rooms for under 200 baht a night, and traveller services (pizza anyone?) are easier to come by. Trat province's far southeastern "pan handle" makes for an interesting day trip.
Buses run straight to Trat town from Bangkok, Pattaya, Rayong and Chanthaburi throughout the day. If you're anxious to reach the islands, simply skip the town and catch a songthaew straight to the ferry piers.
For good reason, "Elephant Island" is Southeast Thailand's top draw. As the kingdom's third largest island (after Phuket and Samui), Ko Chang is studded with stunning beaches, pristine mountains, several waterfalls, quaint fishing villages, thumping nightlife, upscale beach resorts, hippie hideaways and activities ranging from scuba-diving to cooking classes and jungle treks. With so much to offer, it might just be Thailand's quintessential island destination.
Ko Chang will most likely be a highlight of any trip through Southeast Thailand. Put it in the beginning, middle or end of your itinerary, but don't miss it!
The Ko Chang archipelago comprises of 52 islands in total, though most are undeveloped blips of green scattered around a handful of larger islands. Ko Maak and Ko Kut are each large enough to explore by motorbike; the latter is almost elephant-size. Both boast beaches that trump the best of Ko Chang and compete with the likes of Lipe, Phi Phi and Pha Ngan.
Overshadowed by their more beastly neighbour to the north, Both Maak and Kut are still relatively unspoiled despite their splendid stretches of sand. Either is well suited to those who find Ko Chang too busy, and each offers a good mix of affordable accommodation. A few nights on Ko Wai is also a fine idea if you prefer tiny, obscure islands with rustic huts, limited electricity and beaches that will make your pals back home very jealous.
Island-hopping boats depart regularly for Ko Wai, Ko Maak and Ko Kut from both Ko Chang and the mainland, making it easy to hit all of them on a single trip. If time is limited, you could always settle on a day-long boat tour booked out of Ko Chang, with stops at Ko Wai and other snorkelling sites.
Two or more days: Skip Bang Saen, Ko Si Chang and/or Ko Samet, and be selective on which islands to hit out of Ko Chang.
One day: Hit non-touristy Chachoengsao for a dose of central Thai food and culture on the way from Bangkok to Bang Saen.
One day: Take a day trip to Pattaya, which does have some worthwhile attractions beyond the go-go bars, including the Sanctuary of Truth, Ko Lan and some world-class golf courses.
Half day: Stop off in Rayong for a stroll through its artsy old town.
Two or more days: Linger at any of the small beach towns on the Chon Buri, Rayong, Chanthaburi or Trat coasts.
One day: Take a trip to Khao Kitchikut national park to the north of Chanthaburi, or further north to Pang Sida national park in Sa Kaeo province.
One or more days: Spend a night on Ko Rayang Nok, a tiny island just south of Ko Maak.
Lots of days: You could beach-bum it around Ko Kut for months; or maybe launch a gemstone empire out of Chanthaburi?
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.