Bangkok to the islands the slow way

Bangkok to the islands the slow way

Before venturing from Bangkok to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Tao off southern Thailand’s Gulf coast, many travellers ask, “What is the fastest way down there?” Our answer: slow down. Hop off the train and explore the national parks, floating markets, beach towns, seafood shacks and historical sites that dot the 600-km coastline between Bangkok and Surat Thani.

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This itinerary covers the upper half of the southeastern Gulf of Thailand coast. At first you’ll encounter a traditional central Thai lifestyle focused on agriculture in river deltas studded with Buddhist temples. Later you’ll shift into a southern Thai culture in which the food becomes spicier and the prominence of Islam starts to appear. Apart from Hua Hin, all of these spots draw few foreign travellers, though quite a few Thais take their holidays in this region.

Cruisin‘ the Ta Pi River in Surat Thani. Photo by: David Luekens.
Cruisin‘ the Ta Pi River in Surat Thani. Photo: David Luekens

We’ve packed a lot into three weeks—some will find the pace too swift and should adapt the route to best fit their own tastes and time restrictions. If you love wildlife and camping, allot more time for Kaeng Krachan and Khao Sam Roi Yot. Skip Hua Hin if you want to steer clear of mainstream tourism. If you’re keen to immerse yourself in classic Thai towns with plentiful temples and rich history, spend more time around Amphawa and Phetchaburi. Want to keep it low key on long beaches? Prioritise Prachuap Khiri Khan, Ban Krut and Bang Saphan Yai.

Getting around

The main Southern railway line accesses many of the destinations from Phetchaburi south, but you’ll need to catch a minibus or songthaew to hit the national parks and some beaches. Buses also run between all of these points; and a private car, motorbike or taxi would come in handy for exploring locally around certain spots. Vehicle rental can be arranged in various places, with Hua Hin offering the widest range of choices.

On an early morning train out of Bangkok—bring on the beaches! Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
On an early morning train out of Bangkok—bring on the beaches! Photo: Stuart McDonald

Check out the Thai railways site and 12Go Asia for train timetables, and then dig into our transport pages for each destination (such as this one for Phetchaburi) to get a better handle on the logistics.

When to go

Dry, sunny weather is likely any time from December through March, and the shoulder months from April to June can also be agreeable. The worst of the rainy season hits from July to October in the northern points around Amphawa and Phetchaburi. However, July and August tend to be drier further south in Chumphon and Surat Thani, where the monsoon hits from around mid September to early December. Kaeng Krachan National Park closes from 1st August to 1st November each year.

The sun is shining! (At least it was in Chumphon in 2016) Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
The sun is shining! (At least it was in Chumphon in 2016) Photo: Stuart McDonald

At any time of year, expect beach towns and national parks to fill up with domestic tourists on weekends and holidays. On weekdays you’ll often have places like Ban Krut and Khao Sam Roi Yot almost completely to yourself. While room rates spike in Hua Hin at busy times, they stay fixed throughout the year at most of these spots.

Day by day

Day 1: Bangkok to Samut Songkhram
Get up early and head to Wongwian Yai railway station in western Bangkok to jump on the >Mahachai line, an old commuter railway that cuts southwest out of the Thai capital. Hop off at Mahachai to watch wiry men stock one of Thailand’s largest seafood markets with a dizzying array of fish, prawn, squid, shells and much more. Have a taste beside the Tha Jeen River before continuing southwest into Samut Songkhram province.

Yes, see the train, but do explore the markets at Mahachai. Photo by: David Luekens.
Yes, see the train, but do explore the markets at Mahachai. Photo: David Luekens

To do that you could take a ferry across the river to pick up the final leg of the Mahachai line, or jump in a minibus for a quicker trip. Either way you’ll end up at Talad Mae Khlong, a famous market in the provincial capital of Samut Songkhram that’s also known as Talad Rom Hub, or “Folding Umbrella Market”. Arrive by train (or wait for one to arrive or leave) to watch the vendors frantically fold up their umbrellas and hoist produce off the track to let the locomotive roll through. The Mae Khlong market vicinity is also the place to catch a songthaew or tuk tuk to nearby Amphawa.

Days 2-3: Amphawa and surrounds
This languid town features rows of century-old teak houses set on stilts beside a canal that flows into the Mae Khlong River. From the porch of a homestay or guesthouse you can watch fishers toss their nets as farmers row sampans full of fruit and vegetables. Amphawa floating market attracts loads of Bangkokians and some foreign travellers on weekends, but few hang around overnight. On weekdays, Amphawa reverts back to the tranquil canal-side lifestyle that has coloured it for over a century.

Oh Amphawa. Photo by: David Luekens.
Oh Amphawa. Photo: David Luekens

If you find Amphawa’s weekend market too crowded, arrange for a longtail boat or tuk tuk to take you to the quieter floating markets found at Tha Kha and Bang Noi, perhaps with a stop at a haunting temple wrapped in banyan tree roots at Wat Khai Bang Kung. Dig into jumbo river prawns and savoury Thai mackerel along with fresh pomelo salad and Thai sweets made with coconut sugar—these are just a few of the area’s many culinary delights.

Day 4: Samut Songkhram to Phetchaburi
When you’re ready to move on, head back to Talad Mae Khlong to catch a bus to Phetchaburi, located 50 km to the south. If travelling by private vehicle, take the coastal road through the fishing village of Bang Tabun, where Bryde’s whale watching trips can be arranged from May to December. Further south you’ll pass photogenic salt farms before arriving at Haad Chao Samran, a pretty beach set 20 km east of Phetchaburi town.

Salt anyone? Photo by: David Luekens.
Salt anyone? Photo: David Luekens

Days 5-6: Phetchaburi
Start by climbing the monkey-infested Khao Wang to soak in broad vistas from the 19th-century palace where King Rama IV once stargazed. For lunch, graze on local specialties like the Mon-influenced khao chae, combining savoury fish with spices and palm sugar, slow-cooked and served with rice in jasmine-infused ice water. In the afternoon you could wander through several gorgeous temples or head to Khao Luang cave to see Buddha images bathed in the sun’s rays.

The town also has a great fresh market area to go with an old town where narrow lanes trace the path of the Phetchaburi River. At night you could pop into the friendly Rabieng Rimnam for a meal—don’t be surprised if locals ask you to join them for some beers. Approaching Phetchaburi is a little tricky due to the lack of a central bus terminal, but a clutch of guesthouses provides travel assistance to the trickle of foreign travellers who pass through.

At Wat Yai Suwannaram in Phetchaburi. Photo by: David Luekens.
At Wat Yai Suwannaram in Phetchaburi. Photo: David Luekens

Days 7-11: Kaeng Krachan National Park
Covering nearly 3,000 square km of wilderness in the Tenassarim mountains that form the border with Burma, Kaeng Krachan is Thailand’s largest national park and certainly one of its most impressive. Cruise on a scenic lake, watch a sea of fog drape over deep mountain valleys, camp in remote spots and trek through old-growth jungle to caves and waterfalls. In a couple of days we spotted dusky langurs, gibbons, an elephant and multiple snakes. Clouded leopard sightings are also relatively common, and the park is one of Southeast Asia’s premier birdwatching destinations.

Headquartered 60 km west of Phetchaburi town, Kaeng Krachan is a challenge to explore so you’ll want to come prepared. Motorbikes are not allowed and most visitors hire a four-wheel-drive pick-up with driver to tackle the bumpier tracks. Those looking for more assistance could book a tour in Phetchaburi or Hua Hin, or come independently and arrange a guide locally through a place like Samarn Bird Camp.

On the trek to Thor Thip waterfall in Kaeng Krachan. Photo by: David Luekens.
On the trek to Thor Thip waterfall in Kaeng Krachan. Photo: David Luekens

Day 12: Kaeng Krachan to Hua Hin
Though it’s only 70 km from park headquarters to Hua Hin, the trip necessitates a transfer in Phetchaburi town and is likely to take half a day or more by public transport. Once in Phetchaburi we’d hop on a train and enter Hua Hin through its classy early 20th-century railway station. If skipping Hua Hin you could spend another night in Phetchaburi or take a bus out to Cha-am, a rather dumpy beach town that’s smaller than Hua Hin and popular with Thai travellers and students who live it up over the weekends.

Day 13: Hua Hin
The comforts and conveniences of this bustling beach town will be welcome after a few days of roughing it in Kaeng Krachan. Yes, it’s tacky and heavily touristed with beaches that don’t compare to those in the islands, but the Khao Takiab seaside temple, Hua Hin Hills winery and a seafood-stacked night market are all worth a look. Hua Hin is also a worthy spot to splurge on a cushy room.

Cows and peaks in Khao Sam Roi Yot national park. Photo by: David Luekens.
Cows and peaks in Khao Sam Roi Yot national park. Photo: David Luekens

Days 14-15: Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
The namesake 300 peaks of Khao Sam Roi Yot look like turrets of limestone towering hundreds of metres above the coast. Concealed within them are beaches, canals, viewpoints and caves, including the spectacular Tham Phraya Nakhon with its Thai-style pavilion set deep inside an open-topped cavern. On the east side of the dramatic peaks you can watch fish, and the purple herons that catch them, in a serene wetland.

Sam Roi Yot is a fractured park, beset by competing land claims and prawn farms, but what has been protected is well worth a look. Those heading here without a vehicle can take a train or minibus to Pranburi, 40 km south of Hua Hin, and catch a songthaew to the national park campground and bungalows at Phraya Nakhon beach (near the eponymous cave). Just north of the park, Phu Noi beach has privately run resorts where you can arrange motorbike rental or a private taxi to explore the park.

Khao Sam Roi Yot boasts some spectacular viewpoints. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Khao Sam Roi Yot boasts some spectacular viewpoints. Photo: Stuart McDonald

From here you could also take a side trip 40 km west to see one of Thailand’s most consistently visible herds of wild elephant and gaur grazing at Kui Buri National Park.

Days 16-17: Prachuap Khiri Khan
All of that nature loving in Khao Sam Roi Yot will have helped you work up an appetite, and nowhere can an appetite be better satisfied than in Prachuap Khiri Khan. Hemmed in by enormous limestone outcrops on either end, the seaside provincial capital is famous for its seafood and while Hua Hin is better known, we think the food is not only better here, but also a good deal cheaper. Do spend an evening dirtying your hands on crab shells down by the water.

Seafood by the sea at Prachuap Khiri Khan. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Seafood by the sea at Prachuap Khiri Khan. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Eating aside, Prachuap has its own rather pretty beach and you’ll find a slightly better beach, Ao Manao, a little further south. Accommodation is available at both. There’s also a hilltop temple with the mandatory marauding monkeys and another viewpoint, both affording splendid vistas of the bay. Throw in the seven-tier Huay Yang waterfall out in the countryside and you’ll find that underrated Prachuap is well worth a couple of days.

Days 18-19: Ban Krut and Bang Saphan Yai
Set along vast stretches of sand backed by old-style Thai beach digs, Ban Krut and Bang Saphan Yai are both low-key towns set 20 km apart from one another, some 50 to 70 km south of Prachuap. We like to think of them as Hua Hin or Cha-am without all of the annoying stuff. A few temples are worth a look and the partially protected island of Ko Talu could do for a day or overnight trip. Most visitors are content to kick their toes up with a book, a beer and a plate of seafood.

Cool your heels at Ban Krut. Photo by: Stuart McDonald.
Cool your heels at Ban Krut. Photo: Stuart McDonald

We suggest picking only one of these towns to stay in—and don’t lose sleep if you don’t have enough time for either. However, if downtime at a non-touristy beach is a priority, consider carving out extra time for this area.

Day 20: Chumphon
Set 100 km south of Bang Saphan Yai, the provincial capital of Chumphon deposits you firmly within the southern Thai region. Coconut and rubber trees define the landscape as mosques begin to appear in numbers equal to Buddhist temples. While there’s not much to do in town apart from a cracking night market, those with time to spare could strike east to some attractive beaches or head inland to spelunk through several caves. You could also join mostly Thai travellers on a boat trip to the uninhabited islands of Mu Ko Chumphon Marine Park.

Grab a bite to eat in Chumphon. Photo by: David Luekens.
Grab a bite to eat in Chumphon. Photo: David Luekens

Chumphon is best known as the closest jumping off point for Ko Tao, so skip Surat Thani and hop on a ferry here if you plan to hit this popular island.

Day 21: Surat Thani
As with Chumphon, most travellers stop in Surat Thani only to catch a ferry to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan or Ko Tao. Those who stick around will find yet another great night market and a serene river delta that can be explored by hired longtail boat. On the way between Chumphon and Surat you could stop in Chaiya, an ancient centre of Srivijaya civilisation with a small national museum, some minor ruins and several striking temples. Among them is Wat Suan Mokkh, a go-to option for foreigners looking to to do a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand.

Surat Thani has an old school charm many travellers miss out on. Photo by: David Luekens.
Surat Thani has an old school charm many travellers miss out on. Photo: David Luekens

Surat is a crucial transport hub where you can catch a plane, bus, train or ferry heading to dozens of destinations. While most travellers get funnelled straight to Ko Samui and other islands, you could stick to a non-touristy plan by continuing south into historic Nakhon Si Thammarat, or striking west to Khao Sok National Park and onwards to Phuket, Krabi and the rest of southern Thailand’s Andaman Sea (west) coast.

Reviewed by

David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.

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