Thailand is one hot travel destination for honeymooners, backpackers and pretty much every travel enthusiast in between. And for good reason. Thailand has it all — shining Buddhist temples, historical cultural ruins, crystal clear waters, massive rock formations, lush natural landscapes, vibrant culture, wonderful people and spectacular food. Oh, the food!
Thailand isn’t huge geographically (it’s about the size of Texas), but its regions are diverse, and building an itinerary can feel like planning for several trips.
With 36 hours of travel time between the Midwest and Thailand, my husband and I were intent on making the most of every minute of our 12-day visit. We split our time among three regions: Chiang Mai in the north for history, Ko Lanta in the south for relaxation and Bangkok in the center for everything you could ever want.
We found traveling between cities to be easy and affordable. AirAsia flights run less than $50 USD each way, and overnight trains are a great way to cover both your accommodations and travel expenses in one swoop. Plus, you can save money by booking tickets online before you go. Taxis and tuk-tuks are everywhere in Bangkok and Chiang Mai; just be sure to negotiate a rate before you get in the vehicle. You should definitely experience at least one tuk-tuk ride.
Days 1-4: Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is every wonderful and delicious thing you’ve heard it described as — and more! It’s a cultural, epicurean and scenic treasure trove.
Visiting the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary outside Chiang Mai was a highlight of our trip. The elephants on this sanctuary are rescued, and there’s no animal riding. We got to walk among these magnificent creatures, feed them sugar cane and even bathe them. It was a truly humbling experience.
The temples in Chiang Mai are spectacular. Reached via a 306-step staircase flanked by serpents, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep provides an incredible view of the city. We were a bit disappointed as clouds formed during our trek up the imposing stairs, but what a surprise once we ascended above them! Wat Sri Suphan is a spectacular silver temple with elaborate and intricate hand-crafted landscapes etched into the silver. It’s not in many guidebooks but came as a recommendation from a local we befriended.
There’s no bad place to eat in Chiang Mai, but favorites include The Gallery along the Ping River for Thai iced tea and traditional Massaman Gai (yellow chicken curry), and The House Restaurant, for a modern take on Thai food. Coffee lovers are in luck because Chiang Mai has no shortage of cafés, including Ristr8to, a specialty coffee shop that has the most impressive latté art I’ve ever seen (a raccoon in foam!), and Woo Cafe & Art Gallery with tropical plants and colorful flowers.
If shopping is your game, the trendy Nimmanhaemin District is the place for strolling, browsing and sipping frose (a yogurt drink). You can find everything from fresh flowers to fried pork to live eels at Warorot Market, the largest public market in Chiang Mai. The Sunday Market is also a gem — go around 4 p.m. to beat the crowd.
Chiang Mai is an old city with few sidewalks. Walking can be dangerous with all of those tuk-tuks! We hired a driver (about $30 USD, including tip) for a full day of sightseeing, including watching Thai artisans make umbrellas and silk scarves.
Days 5-9: Koh Lanta
Thailand is well-known for its picturesque islands. You can go island hopping, or follow our lead and immerse yourself in one. We chose Ko Lanta, a small island off the coast of Krabi in the Andaman Sea that’s less touristy than more widely known Phuket and Koh Samui.
While most of your time can easily be spent on the beach, take in a cooking class at Time for Lime in Ko Lanta and a three-hour (yes, THREE hour) Thai oil massage by Cha at Arista Spa in Kantiang Bay. Relaxation at its best.
We didn’t fight the crowds to see the famous James Bond rock off nearby Railay Beach, but we did take a dive boat to explore the rock formations of Ko Phi Phi, Ko Haa and Ko Rok off Kantiang Bay. No matter your mode of transportation (can you say long-tail boat?), be sure to get out in the water between the majestic rock formations.
Ready for more food? Phad Thai Rock N Roll in Kantiang Bay makes an insanely good passion fruit smoothie, and the Tom Yum Koong soup is the best on the island. Order a whole fish right off the coals at A la Carte, an outdoor restaurant where they prepare all of the food on a grill. For a good latté and Wi-Fi: Drunken Sailors. For a fancy night out: Baan Phu Lae.
Drinks are a must when on the islands. Why Not Bar, where you sit atop pillows on the sandy floor and watch the waves roll in and out of the bay, is a relaxed night out. For something more upscale, hit the Reggae Bar at Crown Lanta for happy hour and enjoy the posh, private rocky beach without paying to stay at the upscale resort.
Days 10-12: Bangkok
Thailand’s capital is like any other modern Asian city with its rooftop bars, gourmet food and frenzied pace (you’ll be shocked at how jam-packed the public transit is). But it’s also a truly unique place where you can experience modern malls juxtaposed with ancient temples, businesswomen and Buddhist monks living side-by-side.
The Grand Palace is worth the hype and is even more extraordinary in person than in photos. You can join a free English-guided tour, which is helpful given the size of the temple. The palace is packed, so go early in the morning for your best chance at people-free photos. The best and easiest way to get to the temple is by the Chao Phraya Express Boat — also a great way to get around and see the city from the water.
Nahim Cafe X Handcraft is a fun Japanese doughnut shop. Bonus: You can buy Japanese washi tape for a fraction of the cost in the U.S. Toast the twinkling skyscraper lights at a rooftop bar like Vertigo at Banyan Tree Bangkok or Octave Rooftop and Lounge. You may pay a pretty penny for drinks, but the views are worth the splurge. If you’re ready for a taste of home, head over to Smokin’ Pug BBQ near Lumpini Park. It’s run by two Midwesterners, and the ribs and sauce rival the best of Kansas City BBQ joints.
Lodging choices abound in Bangkok, from upscale hotels to hostels. We chose Hansar Hotel Bangkok, a boutique hotel near Lumpini Park and the MRT train. The location was perfect, but my favorite part was the infinity pool high among the buildings after a hot day of exploring!
If you get a chance to travel just outside Bangkok, Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ruins of Siam’s ancient capital, deserves an entire day. Also on that list should be the Maeklong Railway Market (along train tracks) and the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
Thai people are lovely and welcoming. It’s always a good idea to respect the culture when visiting a country, and in Thailand that means covering up when entering temples, taking off your shoes when you see them piled outside a door and never taking durian fruit into your hotel room. After all, you don’t want to be known as that disrespectful American!