I’ve been backpacking in Thailand twice now, although the second time on this trip I actually ended up going in and out of Thailand a lot as it’s so centrally located to a lot of other countries in Asia if you’re traveling around for a while you’ll end up finding yourself passing through it a lot.
Northern and Southern Thailand are very different from each other with the north being much more relaxed and what feels like a more authentic experience of Thailand, with areas like the Ayutthaya Temples in Central Thailand, Grand Palaces in Bangkok and the south much more geared towards travelers and those on holiday with the focus being on partying and relaxing on beaches.
Although if you have time on your way down south try to stop by Khao Sok National Park on route for some of the most beautiful Thai scenery.
This is a popular Thailand backpacking route, so whilst it will be really easy to meet lots of cool people, don’t expect too much Thai authenticity in these locations. That also means that while Thailand is cheap overall your budget for Thailand might end up being more than you expected if you spend a lot of time in these areas.
Tuk-Tuk Scams – This applies mostly to Bangkok. There is a scam where tuk-tuk drivers will try to get people to go to their “friends'” shops or bars. With the shops the drivers then get kick backs from anything that’s sold while you’re there. And you will be hard sold. The bars are more sinister and you should watch out for this in general in Bangkok too. The bar scam usually involves people having their drink spiked and then all of their money taken. A lot of the time if it’s a male and female mix they’ll try to spike the mens’ drinks to incapacitate them from trying to defend the women or fight back against the attacker. The main motive is usually theft rather than sexual assault. Be careful.
The Really Hot Women – There are a lot of very hot Thai women but the really, really ridiculously hot ones who look like so much more woman than anything you’ve ever seen before, usually men. They’re the Thai Ladyboys. I say this just to give unsuspecting men a heads up if that’s not your thing.
The ladyboys are known for being quite persistent in their advances too and “no” does need to be communicated firmly.
7 Eleven – I don’t know what 7 Eleven is like in the US, we don’t have it in the UK, but in Thailand it’s incredible. I was hanging out with a Thai girl one night who went and bought a pack of sausages and then they grilled them for her right there in the 7 Eleven. The 7 Eleven toasties in Thailand are famous among backpackers for good, cheap late night snacks (also cooked by the friendly staff there). Not so vegetarian friendly though unfortunately.
Beer – The local beer in Thailand, Chang, is not actually regulated. It says it’s something like 4-5% on the side but that’s not true. It could be anything. Drinking Chang beer is like playing a beer version of Russian roulette. Sometimes you’ll drink 2 and be absolutely wasted. Other times 10 and barely feel anything. If you’d like to actually know the alcohol content of you beer opt for Leo instead, it’s not that much more expensive.
Monkeys – There are a lot of monkeys in Thailand and as cute as they look they are dangerous. Rabies is the least of your worries if you get bitten. And the medical bills will be really expensive unless you have travel insurance. I would also advise getting travel insurance wherever you’re going and certainly think travel insurance for Thailand would be a good idea.
Busses – There is a great network on busses across Thailand that serves all of the main tourist locations. The busses are comfy but they do get extremely cold so make sure you take warm clothes for the journey.
If you can I’d definitely advise flying from the north to the south to visit the islands as it’s a long and tiring over-night bus ride otherwise and if you book enough in advance the cost difference isn’t that much.
Trains – You can get trains between certain destinations, for example between Bangkok and Chiang Mai but I didn’t personally take any of these as the busses are so convenient and pick you up from your accommodation most of the time so it just seemed easier to use them. You can even download apps for Thailand that will help you get round the public transport options in different areas.
To navigate where you are when trying to get to the bus or train stops, and even when in Tuk-Tuks, I always find it handy to get a local SIM card whichever country I’m in just so I had data. Thailand is big though so there are a number of options as to the best SIM cards for Thailand depending on where you’ll be spending your time.
Accommodation – Hostels are cheap in Thailand but no way near as cheap as in the surrounding countries. In Cambodia or Vietnam for example you’re looking at a couple of dollars a night for dorm rooms. A lot of the time in Thailand it’s about $10, at least down in the islands in the south. In the north of Thailand it’s slightly cheaper. For hotels it’s about $20.
Food – You can get great street Pad Thai for as little as a dollar but you will likely have to eat is sitting on the curb of the pavement. It’s good food though. In restaurants it’s about $5-10 a meal. The food in Thailand is incredible, I still miss it.
Backpacking Thailand Itinerary – 4 Week Route
See the map below for what I’d recommend for your backpacking Thailand route and the key reasons you’d want to visit each place in the list below. Click on any of the links in the list below for full details of that location, where to stay and how to get to the next destination.
Bangkok is the perfect place to start your backpacking Thailand adventure. The city is crazy and busy but it’s also very touristy so it’s easy to get your bearings. Koh San Road is the most popular tourist spot and if you’ve never been to southeast Asia before walking down that street and around the surrounding area will be a real experience with plenty of stalls to shop at and delicious street food stalls selling pad thai and the like for only a dollar or two. While there make sure you don’t miss out on the impressive Grand Palace and be sure to check out the many markets. Read more about what to do in Bangkok here.
Chiang Mai is a popular next stop after Bangkok. Enclosed in fort walls the city has a very different feel to Bangkok and is perfect for just walking around and exploring the many temples. It’s easy to get out of the city into nature with a national park and large temple complex just nearby. Plus it’s the perfect jumping-off point from which to go trekking to visit the hill tribes, see waterfalls and go white water rafting. Read more about what to do in Chiang Mai here.
I ended up in Chiang Rai as part of my journey on the slow boat to Laos from Thailand, as do many others as you can get trips that involve a stop here. If not it’s an easy day trip from Chiang Mai and well worth it to see the White Temple which is unlike any other temple I’ve seen before and since. To read more about what to do in Chiang Rai click here.
Islands on the West
Phuket has a bad reputation but it’s still worth visiting. I particularly liked Phuket Old Town but the beaches are worth a visit too. And there are a number of day trips around the island, or off it, you can take too. Read more about what to do in Phuket here.
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi is a party island through and through. There’s one side of it which is chilled out but most of the rest is drunken backpackers wandering around with no shoes on, drinking from buckets, and doing the limbo. It’s good fun, just be aware of what you’re getting yourself in for. The beach where The Beach was filmed, Maya Bay, is also located just of Koh Phi Phi however this isn’t always open for tourists to visit. Read more about what to do in Koh Phi Phi here.
Koh Lanta is so wonderfully chilled in comparison to Koh Phi Phi. It’s a sleepy island with comfy cushions to sit and sip fruit juices on at beach restaurants, beautiful beaches, plenty of island tour options and relaxed nightlight options. Also a great spot if you’re looking for a co-working space too. Read more about what to do in Koh Lanta here.
Krabi – Ao Nang
Ao Nang in Krabi is a great spot to go for a few days. The beaches are quiet and the sea is even still enough you can do stand-up paddleboarding. A short boat ride away is Railay Beach that is a great island to explore for the day with rock climbing and a cute market street. Back in Ao Nang there are plenty of parties in the evening for people who want to balance daytime chill and evening party. Read more about what to do in Ao Nang Krabi here. Krabi has a lot more to offer than what I had time for on this trip. If I did I would stay another three days for and extended Krabi itinerary.
Islands on the East
I’d recommend Koh Samui if you’re a bit tired of backpacking Thailand on a budget by the time you get there as it’s great for staying in fancy resorts. Everything’s spaced quite far apart so it’s best to be staying somewhere there you’ll want to spend most of your time. Even though the resorts are expensive on a backpacker budget they’re actually very reasonable in wider terms. Read more about what to do in Koh Samui here.
Koh Pha Ngan
Koh Pha Ngan, or Koh Phangan, is where you’ll have heard of for the full moon parties. It’s the most famous place for them and the beach is packed with people when they’re going on. The island actually has a huge amount more to offer than just full moon parties though with chilled out yoga areas, and even it’s own Wipeout. Read more about what to do in Koh Pha Ngan here.
One of my favorite places in Thailand, Koh Tao strikes just the right balance for me of having things going on at night but still being a really calm lazy island during the day with plenty of beautiful nature to explore. It’s the cheapest place in the world to get your Open Water Scuba Diving Certification too. Read more about what to do in Koh Tao here.
Route Duration: Three to four weeks
Click on each location for more information
West Coast Thailand
East Coast Thai Islands
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