Planning travel in Thailand can be completely overwhelming. Unlike much of Asia, there’s a wealth of information out there, and from halfway around the world, it’s practically impossible to figure out which “must-see destinations” you really must see. This itinerary is actually not the exact itinerary we followed, but an improved version based on what we learned. In fact, we actually spent 25 days in Thailand, but I think you could get just as great an experience in 3 weeks.
What to see in Thailand
In my opinion, the best way to visit Thailand is to reduce the total number of places you visit, and focus instead on getting some quality time in each of the wildly different landscapes this country offers.
- Day 1-7: Bangkok. Most people wouldn’t recommend spending a full one-third of your time in Bangkok, but I think this is the ideal amount of time. Bangkok is positively packed with sights to see, it’s a great place to acclimate to the country, and it offers several day trip opportunities. Be sure to check out our guide to staying sane in Bangkok.
- Bangkok day trip: Ayutthaya. This World Heritage-listed ancient city is Bangkok’s predecessor as the capital of the country. It’s definitely worth a wander around, and after a full day at Ayutthaya, you’ll have had your fill of ancient temples (check!). See our guide to Ayutthaya here.
- Bangkok day trip: Kanchanaburi. From ancient history in Ayutthaya to recent memory in Kanchanaburi. This town is a somber reminder of the hardships faced by POWs and slave laborers held by the Japanese in Southeast Asia. Though we visited Kanchanaburi overnight, you could absolutely do it in a single day. Check out our tips for visiting the famous bridge over the River Kwai here.
- Days 8-15: Chiang Mai & surrounding areas. We flew from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, then traveled by bus to Chiang Mai. However, in my opinion, Chiang Rai isn’t really worth the detour on a trip this short. Instead, I’d recommend spending 4-5 days in Chiang Mai’s old city (see our recommendations on things to do here), then spending 2-3 days outside the city, either staying at a resort like Chai Lai Orchid, traveling the Mae Hong Son Loop by motorbike (if you’re braver than us), or trekking in the mountains.
- Days 16-21: Island beaches. There’s quite a bit of debate over which Thai island has the most beautiful beaches, but no matter where you go, you’re sure to be wowed. I recommend choosing a single destination (Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi, Koh Samui, and Koh Pha Ngan are all options) rather than trying to hop between beaches — you’ll be far more relaxed staying put. We opted to visit Koh Samui so that we could have easy access to the Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan without being in the middle of the chaos. Unless you’re planning to go to the Full Moon Party, I recommend checking out Air Asia and Nok Air’s discounted flights and just picking the destination with the best deal. Wherever you decide to go, count on a long travel day on either end of your visit, and allot at least three days in between to fully unwind.
How to cut down this Thailand itinerary
If you can’t spend a full 3 weeks in Thailand, here’s where I’d spend less time:
- Start by reducing your time in Bangkok. You’ll almost definitely have to fly in and/or out of this major city, so you can’t scrap it completely, but you could get by on fewer days. Instead, visit for just 4-5 days and omit one of the two day trips.
- Spend 4 days in Chiang Mai’s old city and leave off the visit to the mountains surrounding the city.
- Shave one day off your beach visit, but be sure to invest in a direct flight (vs. flight plus ferry transfers) to avoid losing too much time in the sand.
Adding time to this Thailand itinerary
In my opinion, it’s not necessary to spend any more time than I recommended above in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and the islands. So, if you have more time, I’d add additional destinations, such as:
- Chiang Rai and/or a detour to the Golden Triangle.
- Spend more time exploring Southern Thailand and the islands.
- Check out the trekking in Khao Yai National Park or Umphang.
- If you’re a temple junkie, stop off in Sukhothai en route to Chiang Mai.