In 2002 I visited Thailand for the first time.
I vividly remember the moment that I walked out of the airport in Bangkok. The suffocating heat engulfed me in a way that I’d never experienced before in my life.
It was the first time I’d travelled outside Europe, the first time I’d visited a temple, ridden a tuk-tuk, drank real coconut water (straight from the coconut!), met people who were ‘travelling’ rather than just on holiday, and eaten some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted whilst sitting cross-legged around a tiny wooden table on a deserted sandy beach, surrounded by fairy lights and serenaded by the gentle sway of the waves.
I honestly can’t remember what initially drew me to Thailand. I wish I could tell you that it was something profound; something intrepid. But I rather suspect that – along with thousands of other tourists – I was drawn to the country after watching Danny Boyle’s ‘The Beach’ (released in the year 2000) – a film adaptation of Alex Garland’s fantastic novel.
I returned four years later, as part of a 6-month solo backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, using redundancy money from a long-term job in the telecommunications industry. Incidentally, this was when I started blogging the first time around.
Unlike a lot of travellers, I flew into Bangkok and headed north (rather than south to the islands), spending a total of almost three months in the country. I’d paid for a multi-entry visa so that I had the freedom to come and go during my trip.
Within those three months I fell head over heels in love with the country – with its people, its culture, the climate, the landscapes, and the food. Oh, the food.
Now, I realise that I am very privileged to have been able to spend such an extended amount of time exploring what has now become one of my all time favourite countries (of the 35 that I’ve visited!), and that many of you only have a limited amount of annual leave to work with.
For the majority of my adult life I’ve also had to fit travel around a full-time job, and I did so in 2011, when I returned to Thailand for a two-week holiday. The guy who I was in a long-term relationship with at the time had barely travelled anywhere outside of Greece (where his mum and step-dad had moved to some nine years previously), so – as well as taking him to a few new European destinations – I had to introduce him to the country that will always hold a special place in my heart.
But where would I take him? End to end Thailand is such a massive country, and two weeks is such an incredibly small amount of time in comparison. If we did the islands, we’d have to skip the beautiful north of Thailand – the rural mountain villages, rice paddies, and hilltop temples. Whilst all the major (read:easily accessible) islands are reportedly overrun with tourists, I found that so much of northern Thailand had remained relatively untouched by tourism, and had therefore retained its authentic Thai charm.
So I set about building an itinerary that would take in some of my favourite parts of northern Thailand, as well as including a couple of places that would be new to both of us. I also know, having travelled independently a lot, that transport doesn’t always work out the way it should, so I didn’t want to make our schedule too tight. I also wanted us to have time to be able to relax and fully appreciate our surroundings.
If you’re interested in visiting Thailand independently (and I thoroughly recommend that you do) and you only have two weeks in which to do it, here is a tried and tested two-week Thailand itinerary for you to follow.
Bangkok – 3 nights
We chose to stay in Banglamphu, close to the infamous Khao San Road, simply because it’s familiar territory to me, it’s got some great budget accommodation offerings, there are eating, drinking, and shopping options aplenty, and it’s also an easy walk to one of the major river taxi stations (the cheapest and easiest way to travel around the city). But Sukhumvit is also a popular area to stay if you’re looking for something a little more upmarket.
Although three nights is nowhere near enough time to discover all that Thailand’s capital city has to offer, it will give you a nice little taster (as well as allowing you time to get over your jet lag).
Take a tour of the city’s Wats (that’s temples to you and I). I’d recommend Grand Palace, Wat Pho (where you’ll find the huge Statue of the Reclining Buddha), Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Benchamabopit, Wat Saket (for amazing 360 degree views of Bangkok) and Wat Arun at sunset.
Tip: If a tuk-tuk driver tells you the Grand Palace is closed due to it being “a special Buddha day”, don’t believe him. Also, if he offers to drive you around the whole city for 20THB, don’t accept (unless you want to spend all your time in Bangkok looking around gemstone shops and being pressured to spend an inordinate amount of money).
I’d also recommend having a wander around Chinatown. It’s built on a huge scale and the streets are incredibly disorientating so bring a good map and don’t forget to sample some food you don’t recognise – of which there is lots here!
In the evening, if you’re on a budget you can’t go wrong with a large serving of Pad Thai from one of the street vendors around Khao San Road and a fruit smoothie from the market stall on the corner of Soi Rambuttri (which I desperately hope is still there!). After that head to Ad Here the 13th for some live jazz and blues.
Kanchanaburi – 2 nights
After the stifling humidity and polluted streets of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is quite literally a breath of fresh air. Famous for the Bridge over The River Kwai, Death Railway (the building of which claimed the lives of over 100,000 men), and its floating raft houses, Kanchanaburi was one of my favourite little towns in Thailand.
Sugar Cane 2 (near to the famous bridge) offers some lovely little bamboo huts set around its attractive garden, or you can pay a little more to sleep in one of its raft houses on the river Mae Nam Kwae, and be rocked to sleep at night (watch out for mozzies though!). There’s also a Sugar Cane 1 a little nearer to the centre of town.
The best way to learn about the town’s history is to visit the Allied War Cemetery and the Jeath War Museum, and also to take a tour that incorporates a visit to Hellfire Pass and the attached museum and includes a ride on the Death Railway.
We took a full-day tour with Toi Tours, which also gave us the opportunity to visit Erawan National Park. Kanchanaburi is surrounded by a dense jungle of fertile vegetation interspersed with rivers and waterfalls, so exploring beyond the boundaries of the town itself is a must. As is arriving at the Bridge over the River Kwai in time for sunset.
Don’t miss the night market, Mangosteen Cafe (for smoothies), Si Rung Reung (for tasty local dishes), and Buddha Bar (for nightlife).
Lampang – 2 nights
From Kanchanaburi, you have no choice but to return to Bangkok in order to head up north. Our original plan was to get the overnight sleeper train up to Lampang, however we arrived in Thailand in the midst of the Autumn 2011 floods, so the northern train line had been temporarily suspended. As a result we had to get an internal flight to Chiang Mai and backtrack. However, assuming the train is operating normally, catch the overnight sleeper train to Lampang (journey time approximately 14-15 hours).
Lampang was somewhere I’d not previously visited on my solo trip, but I’m so glad we incorporated it into our 2-week itinerary. Despite only being 37 kilometres from the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre, this charming city in northern Thailand sees very few visitors.
Horse-drawn carriages are still in regular use for transportation and many ancient Lanna temples and teak mansions remain (one of which has been converted into a beautiful riverside guest house at which we were fortunate enough to secure a room). It’s also the only place I’ve visited in Thailand where, at 6pm on the dot every evening, the Thai national anthem blares through the speakers, and every person in town stops in their tracks, stands completely still, and quietly takes a moment to pay their respects to their King and country.
Don’t miss Wat Phra Kaew Don Tao, the oldest temple in the city, and Gad Kong Ta Night Market on a Saturday or Sunday evening, and absolutely do not leave without dining at Aroy One Baht. The restaurant is housed in a 2-storey rambling wooden house and serves up some of the best Thai food I’ve ever tasted at embarrassingly cheap prices.
We also spent a whole day at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, learning about the conservation programme, and meeting and feeding the elephants.
Chiang Mai – 3 nights
We timed our visit to Chiang Mai with absolute perfection. Blissfully unaware when we arrived, we soon found out (after being turned away from around seven or eight guest houses in a row due to them being full) that both the Loi Krathong festival and Yi Peng (the festival of light) were happening whilst we were in the city.
Although the date of both festivals always coincides (the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar), Loi Krathong is celebrated amongst southwestern Tai cultures, whereas Yi Peng is a Lanna tradition, solely celebrated in northern Thailand. So if you’re in Chiang Mai at the right time (as we were), you’ll be lucky enough to catch both.
A krathong is a basket decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, incense sticks, and a candle. On the night of the full moon, Thais launch their krathong on a river as an offering to the water spirits.
But to make this spectacle even more amazing, Yi Peng sees Thais launching swarms of Lanna-style floating lanterns into the sky. It was the most incredible and magical sight I’ve ever been fortunate enough to witness.
Whilst in Chiang Mai, I’d also recommend taking a full-day Thai cooking course with Gap’s, pampering yourself with a Thai massage (although if you go for a traditional one, they’re really not that relaxing!), and taking a trip up to Doi Suthep.
Pai – 3 nights
Although Pai is only 148 kilometres northwest of Chiang Mai, the beautiful but arduous journey is along winding mountain roads and therefore takes between four and five hours. However once you arrive in Pai, you’ll appreciate exactly why you chose to make the trip.
Pai is a small village located in a picture-perfect setting in a mountain valley. Although incredibly popular with both Thai and foreign tourists, due to it’s relaxed atmosphere, vibrant arts and music scene, and good food, away from the main drag it’s still possible to feel like you’re a long way from civilisation.
Pai is also surrounded by villages that are home to the Karen, Hmong, Lisu, and Lahu tribes, and many of the travel agents in town will offer trekking opportunities which incorporate an overnight stay at one of these local villages.
I would thoroughly recommend that you sign up for a two (or three if your schedule will allow) night trek in the area. I promise it will be one of the most memorable experiences of your whole trip.
If you want to stay away from the centre of town but still close to the action, choose somewhere like the wonderful Breeze of Pai, where you can stay in a private bungalow overlooking their lush and beautiful garden. There are free bananas available and the staff are incredibly helpful.
Tip: If you were to do just two nights in Bangkok instead of three, it is possible to make a side trip to Sop Pong, an hour from Pai. The Cave Lodge in Sop Pong runs hiking/rafting trips to nearby caves.
Chiang Mai/Bangkok – 1 night
Depending on the time of your flight back home (and your connecting flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok), you can either spend your last night in Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
Whilst there are many more off the beaten track destinations that I could also recommend, the logistics of incorporating visits to them during such a short space of time is incredibly difficult due to their remoteness.
However if you have time, the following places are definitely worth checking out.
- Nan Province – a region rarely explored by tourists that has some amazing trekking opportunities.
- Mae Hong Song/Mae Sariang – beautiful landscapes dotted with hill tribe villages. Also great for trekking.
- Ayuthaya/Sukothai – Thailand’s old capital cities, with plenty of ruins to keep you occupied.
- Lopburi – for its wild monkey population. A very bizarre, unique, and occasionally quite frightening experience (don’t carry food with you!)
What of you think of my itinerary? What are some of your favourite spots in Thailand? Which destinations would you include in an itinerary of the country’s islands and beaches?
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