The Ultimate Thailand Itinerary: how to visit the land of smiles on a budget 

Thinking of heading to Thailand but don't know where to go or how much money you will need? Wondering how easy it is to make your way around this foreign land? What are the must-see's and the must do's? I know these were questions which ran through my mind the first time I visited Thailand. 

 

Fear not.

 

Thailand has something for everyone and whether you are looking for idyllic beaches or jungles, visiting temples or relaxing massages, a cultural experience or a beach party. You will find it here in this beautiful contrast of a country.

 

For me, Thailand is easily split into two separate parts which offer completely different things.

 

The North and the South. 

 

In the North you see the traditional Thailand. Here you can explore jungles and temples, wander around old cities and try delicious local cuisine. Visiting the North enables you to understand and absorb Thai culture. It's not as catered towards tourists as the South is, which I loved. 

 

Then in the middle of the country you have Bangkok. A crazy, frantic metropolis that never sleeps. It's where the old and the new clash with an almighty bang. The city where anything and everything goes. Walking along Khao San Road you can purchase anything from British drivers license (which looks disconcertingly legitimate) to a degree from Harvard. After a few days here you will be utterly exhausted, some love it and some hate it but everyone agrees you will never forget it. 

 

Heading south you discover the picturesque landscapes that adorn the cover of travel brochures all over the world. Thailand's beautiful beaches. Where crystal clear waters and white sands welcome you. Thailand's islands are also home to some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving spots in the world. Not to mention, its infamous beach parties where 30,000 people meet under a full moon, cover themselves in glow paint and dance until the early hours of the morning. Due to all of this, its not difficult to understand why so many tourists flock there every year.

 

How Much money do I need for Thailand?

 

This is a common question, but it's difficult to answer.

 

The prices in Thailand vary a lot dependent on where you are. The north is far cheaper than the south and the time of year can also impact prices a lot, if you visit in high season you can pay up to 3 times more for accommodation than in low season.

 

In general, Northern Thailand can be done for as cheap as $12 USD per day, you shouldn't have to pay any more than 300 baht ($8 USD) for a double room and private bathroom. The South on the other hand costs a fair bit more, if visiting the popular islands such as Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi, then expect to pay up to 800 baht ($24) per night in high season. Once you add in the cost of food and drink etc on these island you are probably spending close to $35 USD per day.

Where to go?

North to South

Pai

Pai, my beloved Pai.

 

I think I could have stayed here forever. It is a picturesque little town nestled in a mountain valley in Northern Thailand. Although it appears sleepy from the outside, this place seems to be growing in popularity. It is a great location for hiking through neighboring jungles. I would recommend hiring a motorbike for atleast a day so you can explore the various high points, waterfalls, canyons and fishing farms. For me, Pai was reminiscent of Vietnam's Hoi An with a similar charm and allure which is so easy to fall in love with.

 

How to get here?

Pai is easily accessible from both Bangkok and Chiang Mai by bus. Most tour operators in either city will be able to arrange transport for you. If travelling from Chaing Mai which is the closer of the two, this journey will take about 4 hours and cost 160 baht ($4 USD). However, the journey from Bangkok will take about 16 hours and costs closer to 500 baht ($14 USD).

 

Where to stay?

Guesthouses in Pai are pretty cheap and cost roughly 300 baht ($8 USD) per night, for a double room and private bathroom. I would recommend the Duang Guesthouse as it was clean, affordable and spacious.

 

How long to stay for?

As there is so much to see and do in Pai and surrounding areas I would recommend at least 6 days for this part of Thailand. 

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is the capital of Northern Thailand, but a polar opposite to it's bustling and fast-paced sister, Bangkok. Chiang Mai has retained a lot of it's original Thai character, and unlike Bangkok it feels more authentic somehow. Wander the city streets absorbing the sights, tasting the delicious street food and browse through the local markets. If you fancy some adventure then you can book a day of zip lining through Chiang Mai's nearby jungles. Be sure to get ticket to a Mui Thai boxing event too!

 

How to get here?

Whether coming from Pai, Bangkok or even neighboring Laos, travel to Chiang Mai is very easy as most buses tour company's can arrange transport here.

 

Where to stay?

Darrets Guesthouse is a great little place to stay while in Chiang Mai, it is very central and comes with a price which is hard to beat!

 

How long to stay for?

A few days in Chiang Mai will enable you with plenty of time to get lost in the city and absorb the capital's relaxed atmosphere.

Bangkok

Bangkok is a city on steroids. 

 

It's loud and colorful, bold and daring. It has the audacity to combine the old, traditional Thailand with new shiny malls, roof top bars and intimidating skyscrapers, and it does it fearlessly. The city doesn't sleep nor stop, it demands your attention and is determined to entertain you. Whatever you want, Bangkok can offer it to you, It's the genie and all you have to do is rub the lamp. Most travelers stay on Khao San Road while in the city, a place notorious for it's party scene and open-all-night bars. Although staying here wasn't exactly my cup of tea, I know i will never forget it.

 

How to get here?

If flying into Thailand, then the chances are Bangkok will be your first stop. Expect the unexpected! If you are anywhere else in Thailand then it is very easy to get a bus or train to the capital.

 

Where to stay?

There are guesthouses upon guesthouses along Khao San Road which you may want to stay in if you plan on soaking up on all the action. Alternatively, if you stay outside of this area you will see your money goes a lot further. Shanghai Mansion and Metropolitan are two hotels which get great reviews.

 

How long to stay for?

Bangkok is such a huge city, and I know people who have visited here several times and still find something new. I think a few days is just enough time to see the main sights, although it will take alot longer for you to scrape underneath the cities layers. 

Koh Phanghan

Koh Phanghan is the infamous party island, more well known for it's glow painted revelers than than its pristine beaches. This is the island where every month 30,000 people descend to dance into the early hours of the morning under a full moon. Complete with flaming skipping ropes, fire dancers and drinkable buckets, it is a party experience like no other. Although this island is 1 million miles away from the traditional Thailand, The Full Moon party is a once in a lifetime experience. There is, however, more to Koh Phanghan than partying. The island itself is easy to explore with one main road connecting Haad Rinn to the rest of the island. Rent a motorbike and move away from the main beach, and once you do you will leave the majority of tourists behind. The island has waterfalls, jungles and deserted beaches scattered everywhere, just waiting to be explored.

 

How to get here?

Chances are you have flown into Bangkok and want to make your way down to Koh Phangan in time for the full moon party. Travelling down to the islands couldn't be easier as bus loads of people leave Bangkok daily and head south. Head to Khao San Road and haggle with the various ticket sellers for a good price. The bus ticket will cost about 1100 baht and will include the ferry to the island. If heading down to the islands outwith the full moon party time, you could probably get a bus ticket for about 600 baht.

 

Where to stay?

Again, due to the full moon party, accommodation tends to book up very quickly so I would recommend booking ahead. It's also worth noting most hotels/guesthouses have a minimum stay of 5 nights at the time of the full moon. Haad Rin is the main area so even basic accommodation will cost you upwards of 800 baht per night. I stayed in the Thai Dee Garden Resort which had cute little bungalows with a private bathroom and fan, nothing fancy but a good location and a good price!

 

How long to stay for?

 5 days is enough time to see the island and enjoy the beach party.

 

Top Tip

Never pay more than 150 baht for a bucket on the beach! They have options between basic and more expensive vodka but don't bother paying more for the better vodka as everyone gets the same regardless!

 

Koh Tao

Koh Tao is a little island not far from Koh Phanghan, and a great place to relax after the madness of the Full Moon Party. It also just happens to be one of the best places in the world for snorkeling and scuba diving AND it is also the cheapest place in the world to get your PADI certificate! If you don't want to dive then there are plenty of amazing snorkelling trips you can take where the water is clear and the fish are remarkably colourful - these trips usually include a stop off at Nanyuan Island. Nanyuan is a protected island off Koh Tao which looks like a little slice of paradise. It is made up of two, lusciously green island connected by a white sand strip. The view point over the island is a famous landmark and showcases unparalleled views. Koh Tao, unlike its neighbor's party scene,  has more of a laid back and relaxing vibe. There are lots of little bars scattered along the beach front where you can recline on a bean bag, listen to the lapping waves and light your own lanterns. 

 

How to get here?

You can get the ferry from Koh Phangan to here for 550 baht and it takes about an hour and a half.

 

Where to stay?

When I visited Koh Tao, pretty much every single hotel and hostel was fully booked so if visiting in high season then i would suggest you book in advance. I wouldn't recommend the place I stayed for a long list of reasons however if on a budget, then I've heard good things about the Koh Tao Backpackers Hostel.

 

How long to stay for? 3 of 4 days is more than enough time to explore Koh Tao, but if you are doing your PADI then of course, you will need to stay longer. 

Rai Lay

 Rai Lay, one of my favorite Thai islands, sit's just off Thailand's west coast and is only accessible by boat from nearby Krabi. The journey from Krabi to Rai Lay by long tail boat will be one of the most beautiful you will ever take, the white sands, craggy limestone cliffs and emerald water is exactly how Thailand looks on a postcard. Rai Lay isn't your typical party island, instead it offers everything from rock climbing to cliff jumping and kayaking. An absolute MUST while on Rai Lay is the hike to a hidden lagoon, this is a tough climb so pack your trainers and prepare to get dirty. You will pass a stunning look out point over the island, but keep on going and eventually you will lower yourself down into a breathtaking lagoon, completely enclosed by cliffs. There is also a walk you can do which takes you down to a hidden, little beach and passes lots of monkeys (it's fun to take bananas and feed them!) and once you reach the beach you can cool off in the glistening water by swimming under a nearby cliff filled with wooden phallic shaped items! Rai Lay is the perfect island to have busy days hiking, climbing and swimming and evenings relaxing with cocktails in nearby bars.

 

How to get here? 

The journey from Koh Tao to here costs about 1250 baht and takes 9 hours. Its a mixture of buses, boats and more buses but the final leg of the journey is spectacular. The scenery which awaits you on the final leg to Rai Lay is more than worth the long day.

 

Where to stay?

When you arrive on Rai Lay you will arrive at the "expensive" side of the island where rooms in hotels will cost you atleast $75 USD per night. Instead, you should make your way to the opposite side of the island which is about a 10 minute walk. Here, the accomodation is much more affordable but sadly the view isnt quite as nice. I stayed in the Diamond Private Resort which cost 800 baht ($22 USD) per night for a double room and private bathroom.

 

How long to stay for?

Four or five days on Rai Lay is enough time to see the island and enjoy some of the activities that come with it, although it's such a pretty little place that you will probably want to stay longer!

Koh Phi Phi

Phi Phi is arguably the most famous of the Thai islands, and some say the most beautiful however I would have to disagree. Of course, it is still a beautiful island but it is also incredibly busy, far more expensive than other islands and very westernized. Phi Phi offers everything from a full English breakfasts to pints of Guinness. It is a hot spot for Australian tourists who come to blow off steam for a couple of weeks, and it feels more like a British holiday makers idea of a beach party than anywhere near traditional Thailand. My main reason for visiting Phi Phi was the fact it is the only access point to Maya Bay, the acclaimed cove where The Beach was filmed, and this was a place I had always wanted to visit. However, after spending 5 days in the beautiful and relaxed Rai Lay, I found Phi Phi itself a little underwhelming. Now, I'm not saying don't go to Phi Phi, I'm just saying don't expect an untouched paradise as you will be left disappointed. There is, however, lots of great things the island has to offer. You can kayak to nearby Monkey Island, there is gorgeous high point you can hike to which overlooks the island offering the most spectacular views, plus various snorkeling and scuba diving trips.

 

How to get here?

You can travel to Phi Phi from Rai Lay by ferry for 400 baht. However, as the waters by the island are far too shallow for the ferry to get close, a long tail boat will take you out to deeper water. Then you simply need to climb up the side of a ferry in the middle of the ocean!

 

Where to stay?

This is where the time of year really matters. If you visit Phi Phi in high season then most places will be fully booked and very expensive, however if you visit the island in low season then you could get a bungalow right on the beach for a very good price. Plus, there would be no where near as many tourists. 

 

How long to stay for?

Spending 5 days on Phi Phi should give you enough time to visit Maya Bay and see all the other nearby sights on offer. 

The above places were all spectacular in their own right, and I would recommend going to each one to gain an understanding of just how diverse Thailand is. There are hundreds more islands and little towns to visit, and they are on my list. I would happily go back to Thailand at the drop of a hat and I know lots of people who have visited it and explored it much more than me, and they always find new reasons to go back . The thai people are hospitable and friendly, the cuisine is one of the best in the world and it really does cater for all. Regardless of what parts of Thailand you are able to visit, it will be a magical trip.