3 Week Itinerary for Backpacking thru Thailand

The best part of visiting Thailand is the incredibly diverse landscape and, of course, the curry. Northern Thailand is known for its rural and mountainous landscape while Southern Thailand is made up of multiple islands and beautiful white sandy beaches. Each place you visit has its own unique culture.

To get the most of your time abroad, go in with very little expectations. Allow each town to reveal its personality to you. Word-of-mouth is generally the best way to navigate your travel itinerary but remember to take the negative recommendations lightly.

Thailand is touristy! If you are going to all the main backpacker hubs, you will have some experience with the local culture but it is heavily influenced by Western conveniences. Due to the tourist economy bringing in so much money, the locals have assimilated to make travel easiest for Westerners. Restaurants, hostels, convenient stores and entertainment provide WiFi and English translations which make it simple to get around.

When to Travel

Thailand’s high and low seasons are based on their weather patterns. The climate of the Northern and Southern region of Thailand is extremely different.

During the months of November through February, there is little rain and the temperature is typically between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However, for backpackers on a budget, there is a significant price increase. If you haven’t traveled during peak season it can be overwhelming. There is less flexibility in planning activities and you’ll have to book any accommodation and activities well in advance.

April to October is Thailand’s monsoon season. Rainfall is sporadic though it may cause cancellation to outdoor activities. From my own experience, I backpacked through Thailand during its monsoon season. There were some downpours in the South-West Coast and Northern Thailand but they were all manageable. It mostly rained at night, so although I did not have any cancellations, I did make it a point to get back to my hostel before it started to rain. For me, traveling during the off season has greater advantages since there are fewer tourists.

High Season: November to February

Pros:

  • Little to no rainfall
  • Temperature between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Holidays such as Chinese New Year and Makha Bucha Day

Cons:

  • Overall price increase
  • Large crowds
  • Less flexible planning
  • Need to make reservations well in advance

Low Season: April to October

Pros:

  • Fewer tourists
  • Less expensive
  • Greater flexibility for your trip

Cons:

  • Monsoon season

Budgeting Your Trip

If you are on a strict budget Northern Thailand is much cheaper than Southern Thailand. The islands have import fees and there is a noticeable price increase.

Alcohol is the easiest way to go over budget. Plan accordingly if you’re looking to purchase some big-ticket items such as trekking, scuba diving or visiting an elephant conservation.

Northern Thailand: $40/day

Southern Thailand: $60/day

The Itinerary

Here is my three-week travel itinerary through Thailand! It combines the best of Northern and Southern Thailand and includes transportation on how to get to each place.

Day 1 – Arrive in Chiang Mai

You have arrived! My flight to Thailand was from SFO (San Francisco) — TPP (Taipei) — BKK (Bangkok) — CNX (Chiang Mai). I skipped Bangkok as my first destination and instead stayed there for three days and two night at the end of my trip. This was an unintentional God send!

Bangkok is a loud and overwhelming city, and where most people begin their trip. You’ll be glad you waited until you get your Thailand travel legs and toured Bangkok as your last destination before the return flight home.

Upon arrival, flag down a red bus instead of a taxi, they’re much cheaper.

Download an online map before your trip to show your driver where to take you. The app I used is Maps.me and it is available for your Android or iPhone.

Take this day to chill out and shake off your jet lag.

Day 2-6 – Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was one of my favorite cities from my entire trip. It’s a big city with a warm and welcoming vibe. The perfect place to start your travels.

If you are limited on time and can only do one activity in Chiang Mai, go to the Elephant Nature Park. It is on the expensive side of the backpacker’s budget but so worth it. The knowledge you’ll gain about the treatment of elephants is priceless. Rather than riding the elephants, you feed them, bathe them and walk beside them. Elephants are incredibly intelligent and emotional creatures, treat them with love and respect. Do not ride them!

In addition, I highly recommend the monk chat offered at the Wat Chedi Luang Varavihara temple. You’ll be seeing monks everywhere in Asia and the monk chat offers a great opportunity to ask any questions that you have been wondering.

Chiang Mai offers many activities out in nature which is ideal for any wilderness explorers. There are multiple waterfalls at the national park, white water rafting and trekking. The Grand Canyon is a manmade watering hole that has different levels to cliff jump.

Feeling extra adventurous? Grab a motor scooter and drive to your destination! You’ll end up saving money and it makes travel time fun.

Activities:

Nightlife:

  • Zoe’s in Yellow

Leaving Chiang Mai

To get to Pai from Chiang Mai, you can take a mini-bus or a charter bus. I recommend spending a little extra for the minibus, the curvy road getting to Pai is tedious especially if you’re prone to motion sickness. The time you save by not taking the charter bus is well worth it.

Rather than taking a minibus you can even drive a motor scooter to Pai. 100 km of winding roads to get to your next destination!

Day 6-9 – Pai

Pai is a backpacker’s haven!

Before traveling a friend of mine told me that “Pai is a state of mind.” I understood what she meant once I arrived. Pai is a small, laidback town tucked into the mountains of Northern Thailand. It attracts all types of backpackers through its laidback daytime and groovy nightlife. I loved its small-town appeal and the ability to motorbike anywhere in 20 minutes or less.

Activities:

Nightlife:

  • Sunset Bar
  • Edible Jazz

Leaving Pai

You’ll need to take a bus back from Pai to Chiang Mai to venture onward.

If you’re looking to save time, you can get a cheap flight from Chiang Mai to Ko Samui.

Travel Time: 1 day

If you’re looking to save money, take the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. From Bangkok, take a bus then the ferry to get to Koh Pha Ngan (skip Ko Samui).

Travel Time: 2-3 days

Day 10-11 – Ko Samui

I personally would not spend more than a day in Ko Samui. If you are flying, it is the most convenient island to fly into. There are some beautiful beaches around Ko Samui. This is a good place to relax and unwind after a hefty travel schedule.

Activities:

Nightlife:

  • Ark Bar

Leaving Ko Samui

There are many ferries offered to get you to your next destination.

Day 11-14 –  Koh Pha Ngan

Koh Pha Ngan is famous (or maybe infamous) for their parties. They host monthly full-moon, half-moon and jungle parties where thousands of backpackers come together covered in paint to drink, dance and have one of the wildest nights of their lives. Take extra precautions during this event, as it is just as famous for pickpocketing.

For any late night partiers, check out after hours at Eden Bar. Watch the sunrise while dancing to some jungle techno music, an experience you don’t want to miss out on.

Unfortunately, I did not make it to the full moon party. I came down with a bad case of *ahem* food poisoning, however, Koh Pha Ngan offers much more than just their nightlife.

If you’ve mastered the art of motorbikes by this point, drive over to the beaches on the north side of the island as they are much more secluded. You have multiple beaches to choose from, each one as beautiful as the next.

My number one recommendation for Koh Pan Ngan is to make it to Amsterdam Bar for sunset! Imagine yourself laying back, overlooking the crystal-clear waters of Thailand. One of the most beautiful memories from my trip.

Activities:

Nightlife:

  • Full Moon Party, Half Moon Party, Jungle Party
  • Eden Bar (after hours)

Leaving Koh Pha Ngan

There are many ferries offered to get you to your next destination.

Day 14-19 – Koh Tao

Are you looking to get SCUBA certified? Backpackers from around the world flock to Koh Tao for their fast and inexpensive SCUBA certification courses. There are many different instruction facilities to choose from. These can greatly range in size, cost and extra perks (such as housing accommodation). It is worth it to shop around to see which facility offers the best option for you.

I went to Roctopus Dive School for both my Open Water and Advanced Open Water certification. They offered four-person class sizes and a discount if you did both Open Water and Advanced through them! You can also stay in the Roctopus hostel which is just up the street from their office.

If do not want to get SCUBA certified, the same facilities offer “try dives” that will teach you a crash course in SCUBA. You will need to take this course for every dive so it is worth it to get certified if you think you will dive multiple times during your trip or your life.

Last diving recommendation: if you want to see a whale shark, go on the Sail Rock dive trip. We saw three whale sharks during our two dives. Few countries allow you to dive with whale sharks, so take advantage of the opportunity to do so in Koh Tao.

If you don’t end up diving, snorkeling is another great option or hike to John Suwan Viewpoint! There is plenty of island fun on Koh Tao. Most of the hostels are on Sairee Beach, however, you can take a motorbike or taxi to the other side of the island which is home to Shark Bay and High Bar.

Activities:

Nightlife:

  • Koh Tao Pub Crawl
  • High Bar
  • Natural High Bar

Leaving Ko Tao

There are many ferries offered to get you to your next destination.

To get back to Bangkok, you can take the previously mentioned ferry/bus option…

Travel time: 1 day

Or take the ferry to Surat Thani and fly from Surat Thani to Bangkok.

Travel time: ½ – 1 day

Day 19-21 – Bangkok

At this point, you are a traveling genius, which means you are ready for Bangkok! Many people start their trip here which is why I believe that Bangkok gets such a bad reputation among backpackers. During my stay, I fell in love with the city but it takes an openness to city-life to get the most out of Bangkok.

To start, the public transportation is incredible. Between the train system and ferry boats, you pay next to nothing to get around. Also, UBER is in Bangkok and offers an inexpensive and safe alternative to taxis.

Bangkok is culturally rich and offers some amazing sights and attractions. Although there are thousands of temples throughout Thailand, the Grand Palace and Wat Pho are two of the most ornate. You can even see monks roaming the grounds! Please do remember your temple attire (covered shoulders and knees) when visiting.

One of the things Bangkok is most famous for is their nightlife. Check out Koh San Road where you’ll find locals and backpackers dancing in the streets together drinking actual buckets of alcoholic beverages.

Activities:

Nightlife:

  • Koh San Road
  • Rooftop Bar
  • Mui Thai Boxing
  • Lady Boy Show

Have you been to Thailand? Comment your recommendations below!

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