Attracting the most travellers of any country in Southeast Asia, Thailand delivers a huge range of possibilities across its 513,000 square kms of terrain.
A “banana pancake trail” covers a bunch of big-name destinations where it’s easy to book transport and activities as you go. This makes Thailand popular with first-time visitors to the region. Many nationalities receive a 30-day visa-exempt stay when entering the country, and those seeking a longer trip can go for a two-month tourist visa with an option to extend for an extra month.
Most travellers dive in with Bangkok, the multi-layered capital city located at the heart of Thailand. Flat and blanketed in rice paddies outside of the capital, the central region rises to mountains around Kanchanaburi in the kingdom’s western frontier near Burma. The eastern seaboard hosts some popular islands, like Ko Chang, on the way towards Cambodia.
In the less-travelled northeast, a trip along the Mekong River might shove off from Nong Khai, home to a widely used border crossing with Laos. Wedged between Burma and Laos, northern Thailand is a favourite of mountain trekkers, and some terrific travel loops start from Chiang Mai. While Pai is another hotspot, the north has many other places that are worth a look.
We suggest leaving the south for the end of your trip, granting yourself chill-out time on some of the many islands and coastal beach areas—such as Ko Samui, Krabi and Phuket—that dot both the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. From the south you can always cross into Malaysia as well.
Thailand’s comprehensive public transport system makes it easy to get around on your own. The railway reaches all five of Thailand’s primary regions and public buses connect all 77 provinces. Domestic air travel is also widespread, while ferries string many of the islands together.
In most of Thailand, dry season runs from December through April and it gets oppressively hot towards the end of that stretch. Rainy season is from May to October in most places, the exception being the east (Gulf) coast down south, where rain picks up in August and lasts into December.
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.
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.
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.