- Tour the floating markets on the canals of Bangkok
- Visit historic Lanna temples in northern Thailand
- Soak in hot springs and visit ethnic hill-tribe villages
- Explore caves and national parks in northern Thailand
- Enjoy the beaches of Ko Samui and visit marine parks
|Day 1||Arrive in Bangkok, Self-Guided Tour||Bangkok|
|Day 2||Half-Day City Bicycle Tour||Bangkok|
|Day 3||Floating Market Tour, Fly to Sukhothai||Sukhothai|
|Day 4||Sukhothai Tour, Transfer to Lampang||Lampang|
|Day 5||Lampang Lanna Tour, Transfer to Chiang Rai||Chiang Rai|
|Day 6||Botanical Garden & Golden Triangle Tour||Chiang Rai|
|Day 7||Transfer to Pai, Visit Hot Springs||Pai|
|Day 8||Transfer to Mae Hong Son, Visit Lod Cave||Mae Hong Son|
|Day 9||Visit Hill Tribe Villages in Mae Sariang||Mae Sariang|
|Day 10||Transfer to Chiang Mai, Visit Doi Inthanon||Chiang Mai|
|Day 11||Fly to Ko Samui, Optional Activities||Ko Samui|
|Day 12||Angthong Marine Park Speedboat Tour||Ko Samui|
|Day 13||Ko Samui Free Day||Ko Samui|
|Day 14||Depart Ko Samui|
Day 1: Arrive in Bangkok, Self-Guided Tour
Welcome to Thailand! This off-the-beaten-path adventure begins in Bangkok. Even though Thailand's capital is hardly a secret, it's nevertheless a dynamic metropolis with surprises and adventures around every corner. You'll get to enjoy them immediately after transferring from the airport to your hotel.
After checking in, venture out and discover this city's myriad wonders yourself. Perhaps start with the Golden Mount Temple, which sits on the only hill in Bangkok. Climb the 320 steps leading to the top and enjoy some of the city's best views along the way. You can also take a boat ride down the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok's arterial waterway that flows past Rattanakosin Island, the city's historic center.
You'll definitely want to indulge in Bangkok's famous street food. One of the best places to delight in these quick eats is in the Chinatown neighborhood, which is the largest Chinatown in the world (outside of China, of course). You can also visit Siam Paragon, one of Thailand's largest shopping malls, or watch a Muay Thai kickboxing match (Thailand's national sport) at a stadium like Rajadamnern. Younger travelers may want to have a beer on Khao San Road amid the backpacker atmosphere.
Day 2: Half-Day City Bicycle Tour
Wake up early for an immersive tour in and around the city. This half-day tour begins at 6 am in central Bangkok, on the waterfront at the River City Shopping Center. There, you'll meet your group and guide and receive a briefing about the day's route, plus enjoy some soft drinks. The early start is well worth it, as the best time to travel around the city is long before the oppressive midday heat arrives.
Then, hop on your bicycle and venture out into the city. The first area you'll visit is Chinatown. There, you'll ride down winding alleys as you pass street markets and Buddhist temples, enjoying the chaotic beauty of daily life as you go. Afterward, cross the Chao Phraya River by ferry to Thonburi, a residential district that was a national capital for a brief time in the 18th century. One highlight is a ride around the pavilions and well-maintained gardens of Princess Mother Memorial Park. This green oasis is situated near major landmarks like Wat Arun and makes a tranquil respite from the bustle of the city.
Next, take a break from cycling and board a traditional long-tail boat for a ride around the klongs (canals) of the Thonburi district. Witness candid scenes of local life as you pass wooden stilt houses strewn with clotheslines; wave to friendly locals relaxing on their porches as traditional music emanates from indoors. After disembarking the boat, you'll cycle across elevated walkways over urban green spaces where residents grow fresh produce on plots of land right in the city. Stop for a refreshment before hopping on another long-tail boat back to Chinatown and transferring back to your hotel.
Day 3: Floating Market Tour, Fly to Sukhothai
Leave in the morning for a half-day tour of one of Bangkok's cultural highlights: its famous floating markets. A driver/guide will pick you up at your hotel for the transfer west out of Bangkok, about 1.5 hours to Ratchaburi province. As the city gives way to the country, you'll pass remote coconut plantations, stopping at one for a tour to see how they process coconut sugar.
After the tour, you'll continue on to Damnoen Saduak, a paradise for food lovers and the most popular floating market in the country. Plying its maze of canals are vendors in traditional wooden boats selling fresh produce, snacks, and other delicacies. Here, you'll board a long-tail boat and travel around the market with your guide. Learn the art of haggling as you browse fresh fruits and handicrafts.
Later, you'll transfer back to Bangkok and the airport. There, you'll catch a flight 1.5 hours north to Sukhothai, one of the most famous archaeological sites in Thailand. At the airport, a driver will pick you up for the transfer to your guesthouse near the site. Be sure to rest up, as tomorrow morning, you'll embark on a tour of Sukhothai.
Day 4: Sukhothai Tour, Transfer to Lampang
This morning, you'll tour the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sukhothai Historical Park, once the capital of the mighty Kingdom of Sukhothai in the 13th and 14th centuries. Spread over 17,300 acres (7,000 ha), this well-preserved archaeological site is dotted with ponds and ruins. Wander Sukhothai's royal palace and 21 historical landmarks, including the largest temple complex, Wat Mahathat, which served as the royal chapel and has a distinctive lotus-shaped stupa at its center.
Later, continue to Sri Stachanalai, the lesser-visited sister town of Sukhothai. Also protected by UNESCO, the city was founded in 1250 and acted as a second center of power for the kingdom, home to the crown prince. Marvel at its ruinous palaces and temples, then take a lunch break at a local restaurant. Afterward, you'll meet a driver for the two-hour transfer north to Thailand's mountainous north and Lampang, the capital of the province of the same name.
Day 5: Lampang Lanna Tour, Transfer to Chiang Rai
This region of Thailand's north is famous for its Lanna heritage. The Lanna monarchy was a medieval kingdom that existed from the 13th to 18th centuries and had its own customs and traditions. It was renowned for its unique art and architecture, influenced by a blend of Thai, Burmese, and Mon cultures. This morning, you'll see some well-preserved Lanna architecture with a visit to Wat Pratat Lampang Luang. This Buddhist temple was built in the 15th century and is famed for its image of the sacred Emerald Buddha, now housed at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
After a horse-drawn carriage ride around Lampang (a popular activity in the city), you'll break for lunch at a local restaurant. Then, meet your driver for the 3.5-hour transfer by car to Chiang Rai. Though a long drive, you'll stop near the halfway point for a coffee on the shores of glassy Phayao Lake, known for its crystalline waters. Eventually, you'll arrive in Chiang Rai. Located near the border with Myanmar, this city is the gateway to the famous Golden Triangle—where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge. Once here, you'll check into your hotel.
Day 6: Botanical Garden & Golden Triangle Tour
Meet your driver/guide in the morning and embark on a full-day tour around some of Chiang Rai's highlights. First is a visit to Doi Tung Palace. This royal summer residence was built in 1987 and was once the residence of Princess Mother Srinagarindra, a member of the Thai Royal Family (and mother of two kings), who was celebrated for her philanthropic work.
The palace features a mix of Lanna and Swiss architectural styles, but its real highlight is the Royal Flora Garden. Established by the Princess Mother, this botanical garden spans over 170,000 square feet (16,000 sq m) and bursts with colorful blooms, including orchids, roses, lotuses, and many more.
Afterward, you'll stop at Maesai, a trading town between Thailand and Myanmar, where you can browse the local market. Then, continue to the town of Sop Ruak, where the river Ruak joins the Mekong on the borders of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. There, you'll stop at a viewpoint to enjoy sweeping vistas over the Golden Triangle region. While here, your guide will point out where the borders meet and explain the history of the area and its notorious opium trade.
Day 7: Transfer to Pai, Visit Hot Springs
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
After breakfast, meet your guide at the pier on the Kok River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong. There, you'll board a boat for a river cruise to the rural town of Pai, a hugely popular destination among backpackers, hippies, and artists. En route, you'll visit hilltop temples and ethnic villages home to ethnic tribespeople. These groups emigrated to Thailand from places like southern China and Myanmar (Burma) and have retained their cultural traditions.
Upon arrival in Pai, you'll enjoy lunch at a local restaurant and some shopping at its famous market. Later in the afternoon, take advantage of the Pai region's famous hot springs with a nice long soak at Pong Duet. These springs are a popular destination for locals, known for their healing mineral waters. After relaxing in the springs, you'll return to Pai and your hotel.
Day 8: Transfer to Mae Hong Son, Visit Lod Cave
Your journey continues today as you venture deeper into Thailand's most mountainous province, known for its jungles, waterfalls, and highland villages. Your first destination after leaving Pai is Lod Cave, a 1-mile (2 km) limestone cave system with three huge caverns filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and fluttering bats. A guide will lead you on a hike through the first couple of caverns, and in the third, you'll board a bamboo raft and glide along an underground river.
Eventually, you'll emerge in the jungle and meet a vehicle for the transfer to Mae Hong Son. Known as the "City of Three Mists," this small town on the Myanmar border sits beneath towering mountains and is known for its terraced rice fields. While here, you can take a walk around Jom Kham Lake in the center of town. It's bordered by two 19th-century temples: Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang. Their glass mosaics and golden chedis (Buddhist stupas) cast a vivid reflection on the lake's surface.
On the other side of the water, tour the Shan-style Wat Hua Wiang, a wooden temple with a striking bronze Buddha statue. Then, stop at a local market with hill-tribe vendors selling handicrafts ranging from silver items to handmade textiles and ceramics. Be sure to sample a bowl of creamy khao soi, a Burmese-inspired coconut curry with crispy noodles. You'll overnight at a guesthouse in Mae Hong Son.
Day 9: Visit Hill Tribe Villages in Mae Sariang
Mae Hong Son province is dotted with tiny villages home to Thailand's ethnic highland communities, often referred to as hill tribes. These groups include the Hmong, Karen, and Shan people, whose ancestors emigrated from Myanmar and China. Each community has its own distinctive dress, language, and history. Many, like the Hmong and Karen tribes, are renowned for their unique and colorful clothing as well as their prowess at embroidery/needlework.
Delve into this culture with a trip to a Padong Karen village, an agricultural community where the people make a living growing rice, tea, and tobacco. The Padong people are well known for their jewelry; women wear brass rings around their necks from an early age, which creates an elongated neck. While here, you can also visit some elephants—Thailand's national animal—before transferring to the rural town of Mae Sariang to spend the night.
Day 10: Transfer to Chiang Mai, Visit Doi Inthanon
This morning, you'll meet your driver for the transfer 3.5 hours west to the popular northern city of Chiang Mai. Set in the cooler, mountainous north of Thailand, Chiang Mai was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom and still retains many well-preserved historical landmarks, including its moat-encircled Old City. Besides its rich history (and incredible street food scene), Chiang Mai is a pious place, home to over 300 Buddhist temples where orange-robed monks live and worship.
To break up the drive to Chiang Mai, you'll visit Ob Luang Gorge. This rugged gorge is carved by the Mae Chaem River and surrounded by lush, forested mountains. Because of its depth (about 1,640 ft/ 500 m in places), it's regarded as Thailand's Grand Canyon. From there, continue on to the Thep Phanom thermal springs, which are hot enough to boil an egg.
Your next stop is Doi Inthanon National Park. This 482-square-mile (1,250 sq km) protected area is named for Thailand's highest mountain, Inthanon, which towers 8,400 feet (2,565 m) above sea level. Bask in the cool air as you hike to crashing waterfalls and spot exotic birds, like the green-tailed sunbird, and flowers, like orchids and rhododendrons. After enjoying Doi Inthanon, you'll continue to Chiang Mai, arriving in the early evening. If you like, browse one of the city's famous night markets, the Night Bazaar, and sample the offerings at various street food stalls.
Day 11: Fly to Ko Samui, Optional Activities
Leave the northern mountains behind this morning as you transfer to the airport and board a two-hour flight south to Ko Samui, the largest island in the Gulf of Thailand. Upon arrival on the island's main town of Chaweng, a driver will transfer you to your hotel. After settling in, you can head out and do some sightseeing on your own.
Perhaps the most famous landmark is Big Buddha Temple. This 39-foot (12 m) gilded Buddha statue sits on a hilltop on Ko Samui's northeast coast. Needless to say, the panoramic views from here are fantastic.
For more great views, head over to Lad Ko, a viewpoint overlooking Chaweng Beach. Running 4 miles (7 km) along the east coast, this is Ko Samui's longest beach. If you'd prefer a more tranquil experience, head to the north side and Bophut Beach, famous for its palm-fringed sands and crystalline waters. Nearby is Fisherman's Village, a colorful town that, from Monday through Friday, hosts a popular night market.
Day 12: Angthong Marine Park Speedboat Tour
Get ready for a full-day speedboat adventure to Ang Thong National Marine Park. Located west of Ko Samui, the park comprises a 42-island archipelago covering 39 square miles (102 sq km). In addition to its photogenic limestone islands (most of which are uninhabited), the park also protects the region's vital wetland ecosystem.
In the morning, you'll board a speedboat at the pier and zip across the turquoise waters to the park. One of the islands you'll visit is Ko Wau Ta Lap, home to a powdery white-sand beach. Inland, you can hike up to a viewpoint at 860 feet (262 m) above sea level for jaw-dropping archipelago views. Another highlight is Lotus Cave, filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Of course, there will be ample time for swimming and snorkeling before your return to Ko Samui.
Day 13: Ko Samui Free Day
Today is yours to spend on Ko Samui however you like. If you wish, stake out a spot on a popular beach like Chaweng, which is beloved for its powdery white sands and turquoise waters. There are plenty of beach bars and restaurants where you can grab lunch, too. Or, if you want something quieter, head to Lamai or Maenam Beach. They're less crowded and are the perfect spots to relax in peace.
For something more active, trek through the jungle to the rocky Hin Lad Waterfall and reward yourself with a refreshing dip in its lagoon. For panoramic views of the island, take an easy walk to the Lamai Viewpoint. From here, you can ride a zipline ride through the treetops. Also, if you're in Ko Samui on a Sunday, the Lamai Night Market is a must-see and a great place to buy gifts and try authentic Thai snacks. Another popular way to spend your evening is to visit a colorful cabaret show.