T H A I L A N D
How to see the best of Thailand in 3 weeks.
I'd be lying if I said I hadn't left a small part of my soul on Koh Phi Phi after spending three weeks in Thailand last summer. So much so, I'm heading back this Christmas to claim it back. Planning travelling can be overwhelming, especially if you're heading to South East Asia for the first time, so I'm sharing my itinerary so you can take inspiration for your travels, and hopefully you'll fall in love with Thailand just as much as I did.
Day 1-2 Bangkok
When we stepped out of Bangkok airport after a 16 hour journey across two time zones and were faced with unbearable heat and a surge of people aggressively trying to usher us into their 'taxis', I was completely overwhelmed. Bangkok is one of those cities I remember feeling lost in, but for some reason I can't wait to go back. Maybe it was the unforgettable pad thai we had from Thipsamai, or maybe it was the endless bowls of coconut ice cream I devoured from Chatuchak Market (the city has more to offer than just good food, I promise).
We stayed at Once Again Hostel, a stylish and cosy hub tucked away in Bangkok's old town, just a 10 minute walk from the infamous Khao San Road. With each dorm offering a locker, privacy curtain, comfy bed and AC it was the perfect place to flop after the flight and catch some much needed Zzz's. If you’re lucky, your room might even have a view of Loha Prasat Bhuddist temple. Also, it's a few steps away from Thipsamai, where you can find the best pad thai in Thailand.
Days 3-6 Chiang Mai
This city in the North of Thailand is easily accessible by flight, bus or train. We chose to catch the sleeper train from Bangkok, which arrived in Chiang Mai first thing the following morning.
Chiang Mai is constantly developing, with quirky districts and trendy streets making it the ideal hub for digital nomads. Yet just outside the city is a vast jungle, mostly untouched by tourists. Personally, Chiang Mai was one of my favourite places in our whole trip.
The city has all the comforts of home (fresh coffee, places to chill, high street shops), but also embodies everything the beautiful Thai culture has to give. We spent our evenings catching a tuk tuk around the old town, strolling through the Night Market, getting foot massages and sipping on fresh fruit smoothies.
If you're in Chaing Mai, be sure to make a day out of Chiang Mai Elephant Jungle Sanctary - an ethical elephant sanctuary that cares for rescued elephants from riding businesses and the circus. Always remember to practice ethical animal tourism wherever your travel, and be sure to do your research before giving your money to any tourist activity that involves animals.
We stayed at Oxotel, a boutique resort hostel attached to Artisan, a coffee shop. This may be a bit more boujee than your average backpacker's hostel, but for the cheap price we couldn't have asked for better accommodation. It was spotlessly clean and the staff were extremely helpful when we had questions about travel and tours.
If it falls into your budget, be sure to visit The House by Ginger, a stunning restaurant that serves unreal Thai cuisine. It is relatively cheap compared to European standards (our three course meal for two cost around £35), but is expensive compared to the vibrant array of street food you can find across the city for a few baht. We loved this place so much, we're detouring through Chaing Mai when we return at Christmas just so Ewan can get the crispy king prawns.
Days 7-8 Pai
Pai is a small laid back village even further North than Chiang Mai. It is reachable in 3-4 hours from Chiang Mai by bus or motorbike - just beware of the dreaded 'road to Pai'. Route 1905 has over 300 twists and turns and the Thai bus drivers don't always take road safety very seriously. We took travel sickness tablets before we set off and were absolutely fine, minus the occasional moments of sudden death when our bus driver would turn a corner just a little too quickly.
Take your time here to relax and unwind. I'd simply recommend hiring a motorbike and exploring everything Pai has to offer in your own time. We spent hours driving through rice fields, discovering waterfalls and winding through the mountains. Make sure you don't miss Pai's Bamboo Bridge, a beautiful winding path built over a huge rice paddy. On our journey to finding it, we stumbled across a tiny open kitchen with mats on the floor, where a lovely Thai lady made us a delicious noodle dish. There was no menu, no prices, and she spoke no English. It was a simple but heart-warming exchange of culture that I often reflect on as being one of the most poignant moments in my travels.
Days 9-11 Koh Samui
From Pai, we headed back to Chaing Mai and flew south to Koh Samui, a large island on Thailand's east coast. Koh Samui is one of the larger islands, and is consequently more developed. It wasn't my favourite, but I didn't hate it.
There are many large and luxurious resorts on Koh Samui that tend to dominate most stretches of beach. If it's in your budget to stay in one of these beach-side resorts, or a hostel on the beach then I would recommend doing so. We stayed inland close to the 'strip' and often found ourselves back in our hotel room trying to escape the mass of tourists and stag dos. It's highly commercialised and was a lot more expensive than any other island we visited during our trip. To put it into perspective, there was even a Hard Rock Cafe on this island. (If you know, you know).
We did however, stumble across Na Muang waterfall. Tours will take you all the way to the top in a jeep, but the prices are steep (pardon the pun). We decided to trek it on foot and managed just fine in our flip flops. We spent an entire afternoon climbing the waterfall, following the sound of water instinctively to guide us further. Health and safety went in the bin on this occasion as we jumped into hidden fresh water pools and hung from trees in search of the breathtaking views over the jungle.
Unfortunately the base of the waterfall was minutes from an elephant trekking camp, where elephants were chained up and visibly beaten before being forced to carry up to four people on their backs, which put a downer on our experience.
Koh Samui wasn't the island life we were necessarily after, but you may love it. If you're not keen on travelling here, Koh Phangan (home of the full moon party) is only a few hours away by ferry.
Days 12-14 Krabi
From Koh Samui, we got a ferry to Krabi which took about 5 hours.
Visually, this place was unreal. Limestone islands frame the entire province and are what give it its name 'Avatar island'. Just a short long tail boat away from Railay beach, Krabi is a the perfect place to hire a kayak or paddle board and explore the coves, hidden bays and secluded islands - just watch out for the monkeys!
Krabi has quite a sleepy town, with not a great deal to do in the evenings. There's a bustling night market that pops up at the weekends, but other than that, Railay beach is what truly makes Krabi special.
We stayed in a tiny guest house called Talardkao Balcony and it felt like a little slice of home. The family were so welcoming, and even came to rescue us at midnight when our key snapped in the lock. The only downside is that it was a little far out from the centre, but we found it quite enjoyable to bike through the fields each evening to get to the town.
Days 15-18 Koh Tao
Two words. This. Island. I find it hard to picture a better place in the Andaman Sea. If you're into diving, or even curious about learning more, the island is full of PADI centres where you can get your diver's license in a few days for a fraction of the price anywhere in the world. The people are laid back, the beaches are beaut and you’ll find the most delicious “testy pancake” stalls all across the island.
Every morning, we would walk into the centre of the island and get a smoothie bowl from Living Juices, a tiny bamboo juice bar that only has 4 seats. There a plenty of beach bars where you can chill with a cocktail whilst listening to the waves, and the infamous Koh Tao pub crawl if you prefer to experience the night life.
I have hours of footage on the GoPro of us snorkelling through the various reefs across Koh Tao’s coastline. Whether you’re an experienced diver or not, pick up a snorkel from one of the many diving shops on the island, hit the beach and explore the beauty of the waters.
Days 19-21 Koh Phi Phi
This wonderful island is small, but mighty. Despite the wild thunder storms and violent waves (maybe skip the stormy trip to Maya Bay), my experience of Koh Phi Phi in low season was incredible. A little hectic at night and the dangerously enticing buckets of alcohol, Phi Phi is not for the faint hearted.
We spent our days on snorkelling trips and our evenings in Banana Bar - the best place in Phi Phi to relax, watch the sun disappear behind the mountains and watch a film on their open air rooftop cinema.