Thailand is widely regarded as an essential stop for backpackers visiting Southeast Asia. It is famous for its outstanding scenery, culture and cuisine, as well as a wonderful friendly atmosphere and a low cost of living. We have picked out the top places to see, which form a convenient Thailand backpacker trail from north to south, featuring a wide variety of different attractions. While our list is not comprehensive (there are new places being discovered all of the time, even in a country as well-explored as Thailand), it lists the absolute must-sees.
We have provided basic information on the cheapest available methods of getting from one destination to the next, including estimates of how long the journey should take you. However, it should be noted that the train times given are very much best-case scenarios, as Thai rail services are notoriously slow and unreliable; timetables tend to be more of a general suggestion than a strict schedule. They are, however, a cheap and pleasant way of getting around, if you don’t mind the delays.
- Phuket FantaSea Cultural Theme Park
- Phi Phi Islands Tour with Express Boat
- James Bond Island Full-Day Tour via Big Boat
- Coral & Racha Islands Full-Day Tour
- Whitewater Rafting & 4-Wheel-Drive Adventure
- Sea Kayaking at Ang Thong Marine Park
- Flying Hanuman Ziplining Experience
- Canoeing Excursion in Phang Nga Bay with Thai Buffet Lunch
- Introduction to City Tour
- John Gray's Cave Canoeing Tour in Phang Nga Bay
Chiang Rai...for the famous White Temple
Only just emerging on the mainstream backpacker radar, Thailand’s most northern major city still has a very local feel and a strong regional identity. It is home of the famous White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), with the Golden Triangle (the point where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet) nearby and beautiful mountainous scenery throughout the surrounding province. The city itself has a good selection of cheap hotels and hostels and great night markets. While it has few other major attractions and a very subdued nightlife, it gives you a wonderful look at the real Thai way of life. Read More...
- How to get there: Fly into Chiang Rai Airport or arrive by bus from Laos or Myanmar
Chiang Mai...for the Old City and its temples
The capital of the north (and one several former capitals of Thailand), Chiang Mai really showcases its delightful Lanna traditions. It is one of the country’s most beautiful and friendly cities, and one of the best places to experience Songkran. The moat and ancient walls of the Old City surround a great selection of beautiful temples, as well as plenty of hostels and cheap hotels, with backpacker-friendly nightlife nearby. The city is famous for its temples, including Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Wat Phra Singh. There is also a fascinating Karen Hill Tribe village nearby. Read More...
Pai...for the beautiful landscape
An increasingly popular spot with backpackers in Thailand, Pai has a delightful small-town rural feel, having a population of just 3,000. It is surrounded by the striking hills and verdant countryside of Mae Hong Son province, with waterfalls, natural springs and white-water rapids nearby. As well as the famous long-neck Karen hill tribe villages, you will also find a Yunnanese hill tribe, which fled Communist China in the mid-20th century. As it has become a popular stop on the Thailand backpacker trail, the number of budget places to stay and drink has increased. Read More...
- How to get there: Take the bus from Chiang Mai Arcade Station to Pai (3-4 hours)
Sukhothai...for the ancient temples and statues
Sukhothai is another of Thailand’s ancient capitals (in fact, it was the first of the Kingdom of Siam), and is therefore home to many beautiful old temples and statues. The majority of these can be found in the Sukhothai Historical Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The small city is still relatively undiscovered by the larger tourism industry, so retains its local charm and has a good choice of budget accommodation options, but limited nightlife. Don’t forget to sample Sukhothai Noodles while you’re there. Read More...
- How to get there: From Pai, return to Chiang Mai and then take either the bus from Arcade Station directly to Sukhothai (5-6 hours) or the train to Phitsanulok (6-8 hours) and a bus on to Sukhothai (1 hour)
Ayutthaya...for many more temples and statues
Yet another of Thailand’s former capitals (we might as well call this the ‘ancient capitals trail’!), Ayutthaya is to Thailand what Angkor Wat is to Cambodia or Bagan is to Myanmar – namely, a closely-packed selection of beautiful ancient temple ruins. Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old heart of the town is on an island formed by surrounding rivers, and is home to the large Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the Buddha head surrounded by tree roots at Wat Phra Mahathat and the beautifully restored Wat Ratcha Burana, with many others nearby. The small town has plenty of cheap places to sleep, but very little nightlife. Read More...
- How to get there: There is a regular bus service between Sukhothai and Ayutthaya (6 hours) and a train from Phitsanulok (4-6 hours)
Kanchanaburi...for the famous bridge and wild nature
Most famous for the “Bridge on the River Kwai” – part of the World War II Death Railway to Myanmar – it now also has a thriving backpacker scene, thanks to its generally relaxed atmosphere and beautiful surrounding scenery. That naturally means you’ll find plenty of cheap hotels and hostels, as well as a good nightlife. Riding the railway itself and visiting Hellfire Pass is a very spooky and moving experience and lets you see the stunning riverside scenery. The area is also home to the Erawan Falls – among the most beautiful waterfalls in Thailand. Read More...
- How to get there: There is a regular minibus service from Ayutthaya to Suphanburi (1.5 hours) and from there to Kanchanaburi (another 1.5 hours)
Bangkok...for Khao San Road. Enough said
Finally, we reach Thailand’s current capital city – the exciting metropolis of Bangkok! Home to a massive variety of things to see and do, the absolute musts on the Thailand backpacker trail include partying on Khao San Road (where you’ll also find plenty of cheap accommodation and a great, friendly atmosphere) and visiting Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, Chinatown and the floating markets. Ideally, you should visit on a weekend to see the huge Chatuchak Market. Read More...
- How to get there: There are regular buses from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok (2-4 hours, depending on which terminal you arrive at) and 3rd class trains to Bangkok’s Thonburi Station (3+ hours)
Koh Samui (and surrounding islands)...for the Full Moon Parties
We now enter the beautiful beach section of the backpacker trail, with Koh Samui as the gem of the Gulf of Thailand. Nearby Koh Phangan is a must-visit, being home to the famous Full Moon Parties on Haad Rin Beach, while Koh Tao is a particularly great place for scuba diving and snorkelling. Samui itself is the ideal main base for exploring the area, having the best choice of accommodation, beautiful beaches as well as a fun nightlife in Chaweng. Read More...
- How to get there: Take the train (8-12 hours) or bus (12 hours) to Surat Thani and then a ferry (3-7 hours, depending on which service you use) to Koh Samui, or fly direct from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Koh Samui Airport (1 hour)
Krabi...for the unspoilt beaches and landscape
In spite of its striking natural beauty, including a wealth of nearby pristine desert islands, Krabi is still relatively undeveloped as a destination and is yet to be “spoilt” by the mass tourism industry, making it a backpacker’s paradise. Names like Ao Nang and Railay Beach (which in fact is a peninsula featuring four beaches) speak of blissful days on peaceful beaches, while the rugged landscape makes a great playground for those who enjoy adventure sports. Being still unspoilt, there is naturally plenty of budget-friendly hotels and hostels to choose from. Read More...
- How to get there: Take the ferry back to Surat Thani and the bus to Krabi (3 hours) or fly direct from Koh Samui Airport to Krabi Airport (1 hour)
Phi Phi...for "The Beach"
Phi Phi is at the heart of Thailand’s largest marine national park and home to the famous Maya Bay, made famous by Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 movie The Beach. Tonsai Village is the main town on Phi Phi Don (the only populated island in the archipelago of six) and is almost exclusively populated by backpackers and has a huge choice of cheap hotels, hostels, restaurants, massage spas and bars. There are plenty of places to go diving and snorkelling and, of course, wonderful beaches. Read More...
- How to get there: There is one daily ferry to Koh Phi Phi from Ao Nang (2 hours, including a stop at Railay Bay) and five Krabi Town’s Klong Jilad Pier (1.5 hours)
Phuket...for the charming Old Town
As one of the more expensive destinations in Thailand, you would not ordinarily think of Phuket as being a part of the Thailand backpacker trail, but it remains a popular destination. The charming Phuket Old Town is well worth a visit and you can find cheap hotels and hostels there and in the party town of Patong. With over 30 beautiful beaches, stunning nearby islands (including the world-famous Phang Nga Bay and the stunning Racha Islands), a wealth of interesting attractions and an international airport with flights to nearby nations, it is a lovely place to end your adventures in the Land of Smiles. Read More...
- How to get there: There are several daily ferries from Koh Phi Phi to Phuket (1.5-2.5 hours)