No matter what kind of traveler you are—the adventurer, the relaxer, the culture buff—Thailand offers unique experiences for everyone. The diverse landscape ranges from beach to mountain to city; the food from Southern spicy fresh seafood to Northern mildly spiced meats and veg and the activities from visiting with elephants to exploring rogue limestone isles by boat and snorkle. There's certainly nothing wrong with making this a beach vacay but there's so much more to experience. In this 12-day Thailand itinerary, we feature what to do and where to stay and eat in three areas—Bangkok, Krabi and Chiang Mai—that showcase the best of what makes this country such a dynamic destination.
Know Before You Go
- Go when it’s chilly in the U.S. The period from November to April traditionally has the best weather conditions with blue skies, warm sunshine, breezes and little rain (expect a brief afternoon shower each day, though!). Don't get me wrong, it's still hot!
- Visit your doc. Unless you’re planning on backpacking in some of the more rural areas, you won’t need malaria pills. You will want sleeping pills for the long flights to help get you on the right schedule to reduce jet lag.
- Pack light. Unless you plan to do it up in Bangkok, most everything is super casual and high heels are a waste of luggage space (trust this heel-loving writer). Some domestic flights charge you extra depending on bag weight, so spare yourself the unnecessary expense.
- Bring mosquito repellant. You can buy it there, but most likely you’ll need it before you get a chance to.
- Drink bottled water. Keep your Western tummy safe and don't drink the local H20. That said, do eat the local street food and take your chances.
- Don’t hug the locals. Thais are not touchy-feely. Hugging or touching their heads (a sacred part of the body) is a big no-no.
- Cover up. When you visit any temple, knees and shoulders must be covered and shoes are not allowed inside. People leave their shoes lined up outside of the doors.
- Respect the royalty. The royal family is held in very high esteem—every Thai home has a framed picture of them—so no wise cracks about the large murals you see everywhere!
- Don't do anything stupid. We've all seen Brokedown Palace, haven't we? If not, watch it before you go.
Day 1: Getting There
There are several airlines that fly into Bangkok, Thailand’s hub international airport. The length of the trip will depend on which side of the country you're flying from, of course, but from Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the journey was about 22 hours, with a direct to Tokyo, small layover (in the best Delta Sky Club I've ever experienced ... that's Japan for ya!) and connecting flight to Bangkok. You’ll lose a day going to Thailand, but gain a day coming back home.
Thailand Itinerary: Day 2-3
Bangkok is Thailand's largest and most international city. It is a modern city filled with ancient treasures like breathtaking palaces and temples (wats), as well as busy canals, interesting markets and a vibrant nightlife.
The ride from the airport via taxi or hotel car transfer will take about 20-30 minutes in good traffic and an hour in bad traffic at peak hours and on Friday or Saturday nights.
There are certainly accommodations that suit every budget—from backpacker style to uber-luxe—in Bangkok, but if you're looking for a high-quality stay to lay your weary jet-lagged head and above-caliber perfection, The Peninsula Bangkok is the place to be. The 35 floors of elegant accommodations on the Chao Phraya River offer sweeping views of the city and are situated near one of the must-see sights: The Grand Palace (see below). Amenities include a spa, fitness center, tennis court and stunning pool.
A great introduction to Thai culture is to visit a few of the historical wats in Bangkok. Even if you're not a "museum person," these are just too amazing in their sheer architectural prowess to skip over. Hop a water taxi down Chao Praya River, which offers a different perspective of the city. The three you shouldn't miss are within close proximity to one another: The Grand Palace/Wat Pra Kaew, Wat Pho and Wat Arun. My personal favorite with Wat Pho, with the giant reclining Buddha and his big, mother-of-pearl inlaid feet. If you are in Bangkok over the weekend, get your bargaining game face on and head to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, where you'll find everything from clothes to antiques to food (ugh, and poor little caged pets) among its 27 acres. It is hot. Dress to sweat.
After wat-ing around, head for a late lunch at The Deck at Arun Residence. The homestay offers a multi-leveled eatery that serves affordable, yummy Thai food like spicy chicken, soft-shell crab and spring rolls. In the evening, hail a tuk-tuk, a mini taxi manned by a bike. Before you get on, ask how much and bargain the price for where you are going. If you don't like the price, just say no and wait for the next one. Also, don't get roped into the scam where they take you to a friend's shop to buy stuff—just say no or get off if that's the case. Go to Le Dalat for delicious Vietnamese cuisine within an authentic, oriental-style house and try the marinated beef skewers, green papaya salad and Phor noodles, with crab curry and prawns on sugarcane. My Bangkok stay also happened to fall over Chinese New Year, during which I walked across its Chinatown area filled with decorations and performances, and stumbled upon more than one incredible street food vendor. I think that's the best way to explore the food here—stumble into something; don't be afraid to try it; feel your taste buds explode.
Thailand Itinerary: Day 4-7
On day four, head back to the airport for a domestic flight to Krabi. I suggest skipping the uber-touristy and somewhat gritty Phuket—unless you are going for the Paradise Beach raves, that is, which are legit!—and head straight to this lovely area for more rejuvenating beach time and outdoorsy adventure.
What a VIP entrance—after whisking you away from the tiny Krabi Town airport (it’s a 1-hour and 20-minute flight from Bangkok), Rayavadee’s transportation team escorts you onto a private yacht for the picturesque arrival to the secluded resort. It’s what you envision when you think of Thailand—pristine white-sand beaches looking out on a piercing turquoise sea with striking limestone cliffs and scattered little islands that beg exploration. Located on the tip of Phranang Peninsula on Thailand's Andaman coastline with 26 acres of lush tropical landscape, Rayavadee is bordered by three beaches and inclusive of two pools, a spa, three restaurants and a rustic beach-hut bar. The 98 luxurious two-story pavilions and four beachfront villas are decorated in stylish tropical decor with dark polished wood, richly colored fabrics and hand-crafted details. Each one is positioned amongst tropical gardens for utmost privacy—with the exception of playful rooftop visitors (monkeys!).
If you like spicy, you’ll love Southern Thailand’s flavorful dishes. And if you think you can handle it, ask for a side of prik nam pla, a tongue-tantalizing mixture of garlic, chili peppers and fish sauce—the locals will be impressed. Don’t miss the fresh seafood (or the brilliant sunset) at Rayavadee’s Krua Phranang—as local fishermen's boats’ twinkly lights decorate the darkening Andaman Sea, dine on dishes like Pla Thod Kha Min, a fried whole sea bass prepared with turmeric that offers a light curry kick, and Pla Seafood, a spicy salad mix of squid, prawns and crispy-coated fish tossed in lime-chili dressing and served with lemongrass, coriander, spring onions and cucumber. Plus, order miang kana poolside—the snack captures the distinctive sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors of Thai cuisine in individual, bite-sized morsels. To enjoy, place a small amount of each ingredient (chilies, ginger, dried prawns, lime, shallots and peanuts) into a Chinese kale leaf, roll up and munch. I highly recommend getting a fix of congee loaded up with all the fixings at the breakfast buffet, too.
The quieter, lesser-known sister of tourist-laden Phuket (2 hours away by boat or car), Krabi offers seemingly endless islands and beach inlets to explore including James Bond Island, named for the movie that was shot there. Chartering a boat, which comes with a private-beach lunch picnic, here is a must. Ask your guide to take you kayaking in the mangrove forest at Ta Lane Nature Reserve through gorgeous lagoons and towering limestone structures (snap photos of the monkeys, but beware—those fiesty little guys snatch cameras!) and stop to snorkel with rainbow-colored fish off of Phi Phi Island. Back at the resort’s Railay Beach, join backpackers who’ve migrated there to climb the 90-degree rock faces, or go for a hike into the Bat Cave to see stalagmite and stalactite formations, and yes, sleeping bats. On the same beach, another special cave, Phra Nang, provides offerings to Shiva, the Hindu god of fertility and virility. (I stumbled upon this cave featuring a large collection of carved wooden phalluses, and proceeded to have a case of my inner 13-year-old giggles.) There are plenty of adventures to be had in Krabi, but simply floating in the sea and popping some Singha beers is also encouraged.
Thailand Itinerary: Day 8-10
It's an easy two-hour-ish domestic flight from either the Krabi or Phuket airport to Chiang Mai. Get lost in history and shopping (and say “hey” to a gentle giant) in this Northern Thailand cultural epicenter.
Once the capital of Thailand, the ancient city of Chiang Mai sits in a rich valley surrounded by a mountainous region known for its teak forests a few hours from the Burmese border. Now the country’s second largest city, it has maintained its 700-year-old historic center—a square plot that’s still surrounded by a moat and wall (crumbling in some areas).
Nestled in Chiang Mai’s Old City, surrounded by ancient temples and quaint shopping streets, Tamarind Village is a sanctuary-like compound removed from the hustle and bustle that takes its name from a magnificent 200-year-old tamarind tree that shelters the hotel. The boutique property has 41 guest rooms and five suites, with even the most luxurious being quite modest, and designed with sparse wooden furnishings and art and accessories from local artisans. It also houses a quaint spa, topnotch Northern-Thai restaurant (see below) and small pool that offers a cool dip or shaded reading area after a day of cultural excursions. The room rates are very reasonable, and its within walking distance to many temples (wats), restaurants, shops and more.
The region’s dishes are noticeably less spicy and pack on more vegetables than its southern counterparts. Go to nondescript local joint Aroon Rai for khao soi, a bowl of deliciously soupy Burmese curry (coconut milk, coriander, cumin and several other spices) with chicken over egg noodles. You can take home some of the chef’s prepackaged spices and recipes (on display next to the fried insect and frog selection). Also try lively lunch spot Huen Phen and order Chiang Mai sliced sausages and beef ribs with a side of star-shaped steamed rice. If you’d prefer more “refined” cuisine, head back to the hotel to Ruen Tamarind for seriously good regional cuisine. Sample everything, but especially the Pla Kapong Neung Manao, steamed sea bass filet with garlic and lime sauce.
Get out a map and plot your trek through the historic town’s temples, which are pretty much on every block, including Wat Phra Singh, built in 1345 and now also a school to more than 700 monks. For tchotchke souvenirs, wallet-friendly pashminas and gorgeous hand-woven crafts like tablecloths and throws from Hmong village tribes, stroll through Warowot Market and the Night Bazaar just outside of the Old City. Also seek out the city’s gem of a shopping strip made up of art galleries and local craftsman stores just north of Narawat Bridge on the Ping River. Note: You might need to buy an extra bag to carry your finds back home, or work in post office time to ship items (it is a somewhat chaotic experience, so prepare for a good hour or so to get this done). Grab a happy-hour beer at The Good View while you’re by the river and people-watch the local hipsters. Plus, don’t miss a heartwarming elephant encounter. Plan a day excursion and choose an ethical camp like Elephant Nature Park, an elephant rescue and rehabilitation center, where you’ll feed and bathe the friendly giants. After a day of sightseeing on your feet, book the uber-relaxing foot reflexology at Tamarind Village’s spa, which starts off with a soothing lemongrass foot bath and scrub (all treatments do).
Thailand Itinerary: Day 12
It's time to go home, and that means it's time to bounce back to Bangkok via a one-hour-15-minute domestic flight and await your international transfer. By now you should feel filled-to-the-brim with the tastes and sights of this once-in-a-lifetime Thailand vacation.
Interested in more adventurous itineraries? Check out our 10-day Badass Belize Itinerary for a little Central American flavor.