A Classic Thailand Itinerary from North to South

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

A cultural megapolis, Thailand is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. Travellers tend to arrive for the Thai island life: spa days in Phuket, parties on Koh Phangan for backpacking tales in Bangkok and treks in the mountains. But what brings everyone back is the bits in between - the spiced soups and sizzling street foods, the Thai people and their legendary hospitality, the stupas hidden amongst mountains, and the sheer magnitude of beauty. From grand vistas found in Chiang Mai and Bangkok to paradisiacal sandy islands, these are our top picks for a classic journey in Thailand… from north to south.

The Cultural Heart: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai

Chiang Mai is the Thailand of incense-infused temples and orange-robed monks, ritual and tradition, hikes through rice paddies and sensory nights in lush jungle villages. Spend some time trekking to get to know the hill tribes and wildlife of northern Thailand, and ascend to Wat Phra Doi Suthep to see those fabulous views of cloud-haloed mountains framed by stupas and towers. The moated old town conceals so much of this old-world allure, with numerous temples like Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Chiang Man, often strung together by monks collecting alms in the mornings. There’s a modern edge too, found in cafes, art museums and contemporary galleries, but if you find yourself craving more of northern Thailand’s charms, include a trip to Chiang Rai.

Chiang Rai’s core is a tangle of roads strewn with bars and restaurants, while temples like Wat Phra That Dpo Chom Thong and Wat Klang Wiang offer tradition over the frankly bizarre Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) that mixes Hindu and Buddhist architecture with modernist frescoes depicting, amongst others, Keanu Reeves as Neo. But Chiang Rai is at its best as a base for languorous treks along the mountainous Laos and Myanmar borders, visits to picturesque tea plantations and the sights of the Mekong and the Golden Triangle.

Shopping and Dining in Bangkok

Bangkok’s skyline is stunning from its cloud-mingling cocktail bars, the structures reflecting the sunset in glassy gradients that drip down to streets spiced with the scent of chillies and lemongrass. But most interesting for shoppers is Siam, the central downtown area of Bangkok. Siam is where cabs become entangled with mopeds, where luxury shopping malls boasting designer stores are separated by skytrain tracks and dual-level walkways that allow pedestrians a slight refrain from the chaos at ground level. But dig in, and all of this super-modernity is more of a facade, with tangles of back alleys appearing smokey from the sizzling street food and animated by local fashion students shooting street-style photos with all of Bangkok life zipping between.

Bangkok’s river is a canvas coloured by the reflections of flashy towers and stupas in white and gold rising from either bank, but a recent contemporary addition to the riverside is the superb ICONSIAM. Essentially a super mall, ICONSIAM hosts top designer brands alongside local specialities, a one-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse outpost and Bangkok’s first Apple store, and there are themed areas like a floating market and a dedicated Japanese mall.

Parties and Island living: Anantara Rasananda on Koh Phangan

Koh Phangan’s nightlife is best known for the Full Moon Party on Hat Rin Beach, but an alternative is the Half Moon Festival, which, alongside DJs from across the world, showcases local talents in a neon-soaked jungle setting. For beach days, the west of the island tends to be prettier and quieter, with tropical beaches a photogenic mix of emerald hills, white sands and Thai long boats rhythmically bobbing on the water.

Stay at the Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan in the heart of the sickle-shaped Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach — easily reached from Koh Samui by the hotel’s private speedboat. The all-villa property is ideal for guests seeking a more refined experience on Koh Phangan, with a rural and intimate feeling throughout and a beach besieged by palms and privacy. Best of all, those beautiful rooms with mosquito nets cascading from the ceiling are accentuated by pitch-perfect service and plunge pools with every villa.

Sail Butang and Tarutao

Heavenly white beaches with countless palm silhouettes are the standard postcard looks that fly out of Thailand, but, far away from the crowds of Samui and Phangan, close to the Malaysian border, the Tarutao and Butang archipelagos offer a wilder way to appreciate it all. The two archipelagos boast predominantly uninhabited and untamed islands, with waterfalls and caves creating lush, highly explorable interiors and stunning coral and beguilingly beautiful beaches forming magnetic fringes. Many of Thailand’s charters are based in Phuket, leaving these islands oft unexplored and somewhat off the beaten path, and despite their intense beauty, it’s normal to find bays and coves empty, making exploring by intuition a delight.

Sail from Koh Lanta to Butang via Koh Rok for coral-swimming and sunset anchorages, and to the comparatively teeming Koh Lipe if the call of civilisation beckons. 

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