Thailand is one of the top destinations for tourism and undoubtedly one of the best places for affordable luxury. Popular among luxury travelers and backpackers alike, for a country so swarmed with tourism, Thailand has still been able to maintain much of its cultural charm. Factor in that it is one of the more affordable countries to travel to, and you’ve found yourself one of the best places to have an exotic vacation while staying in luxury accommodations without the high price tag. A country so rich in culture and natural beauty, paired with warm weather year-round, it is no wonder why many expats choose to make Thailand their home. My flexible 10 day – 2 week first-time Thailand itinerary will show you the most popular cities and islands for the ultimate trip to the country who’s nicknamed “The Land of Smiles.”
Low Season Thailand
Thailand, much like the rest of Southeast Asia in general has two seasons: wet season and dry season. During wet season (May through October) heavy rains do occur, and there are rare chances of monsoons. However, the rain fall is usually not continuous and often clears up to beautiful sunshine. During the rainy season, 5 star accommodations can cost under $100.00 USD a night. Even better, with the average massage costing around $15.00 USD, you can’t afford NOT to get one every day during those short rain showers; especially when the average meal price can be as little as a couple dollars for some of the best Thai food you’ll ever have the pleasure of tasting. Dry season in Thailand is when all the prices increase to double, triple, or even quadruple the cost. The peak season of Thailand occurs between January – March. If you choose to visit Thailand during this time, be sure to book accommodations at least 3 months in advance to help with costs. The most optimal times to visit Thailand would be just before high high season or just after, when prices begin to decrease.
The Best First-Time Thailand Itinerary
3-5 nights in Chiang Mai
- Take a half day cooking class to learn how to make (and get to eat) all your favorite Thai dishes. This will easily be one of the best and your most favorite meal had in Thailand. Come hungry!
- Volunteer a day or half day at Elephant Nature Park – one of the few true and ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, where elephant riding is NOT allowed. At ENP you will get to feed, bathe, and play with these amazing gentle giants all while learning about the awful elephant tourism industry of Southeast Asia, and how ENP helps to rehabilitate the elephants after years of mistreatment and abuse. (Please never ride elephants!)
- Receive as many massages as your body can handle. Don’t bother with fancy hotel spa massages that charge western spa prices. There are so many incredible spas in Thailand where a traditional Thai massage will cost anywhere from 200 – 700 BAHT. One of the most popular spots to get a cheap massage in Chiang Mai is surprisingly at the Women’s Correctional Institution, where you can get massaged by a prisoner. For something a little more conventional, my favorite massage in Chiang Mai was at Makkha Spa, where each treatment is accompanied by a cup of tea and the most delicious mango sticky rice.
- Take a couple of hours and visit the sacred sites and temples, such as Chiang Mai’s most famous temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. Another popular temple, Wat Suan Dok even allows you to sit and chat with a monk to help them practice their English!
- Plan a day or over-night trip to a neighboring northern city such as Pai or Chiang Rai to explore more of northern Thailand’s culture and natural beauty.
- Jump on a half-day tour of either trekking through the jungle, or zip-lining through the jungle (the longest zip-line in Asia) at Flight of the Gibbon.
- Take a day trip to the stunning emerald pool and waterfalls in Lampang.
- Shop, eat street food, and wander the night markets, and especially do not miss the Sunday Night Market, which is the biggest night market in all of Asia. Be sure to get there as early as they open (around 5:00PM) as crowds will heavily build later in the evening making it more difficult to navigate.
- Book a private Chiang Mai Tour guide to show you around. TakeMeTour offers a variety of tours all over Thailand, from cultural, to nature, food, and so much more. The best way to see a new place is with a local, and with so many tour options, there is something there for everyone. These tours were a highlight of my trip to Thailand, and I cannot recommend them enough.
Best Place to Stay in Chiang Mai
Recommended accommodations from ultra luxe to affordable luxe: The Veranda High Resort and Spa is a breath-taking luxury hotel in the mountainous area of Chiang Mai. Read my review of the Veranda here. If you prefer Airbnb, the Astra Condos are beautiful and modern with a rooftop infinity pool that has spectacular views. (Condos at the Astra can be found on Airbnb, expedia.com, hotels.com, and booking.com.) I’ve also heard great things about the condos offered through Stay in Chiang Mai. Lastly, there are also no shortages of boutique hotels in Chiang Mai that offer nice accommodations for every budget.
Best Time to Visit Chiang Mai
Weather-wise, Chiang Mai is best visited during November-February. Because Chiang Mai is in the north, it is a bit colder compared to the cities and islands in the South of Thailand. Even in the summer, it can get especially chilly at night. Chiang Mai is especially exciting during the major festivals, such as the exciting Loi Krathong festivities of November, and the beautiful Chiang Mai flower festival in February.
3 – 4 nights Koh Samui
- Relaxing on one of the many white sand and clear blue water beaches such as Koh Samui’s longest beach, Mae Nam.
- Party and enjoy the bustling nightlife in the beach of Chaweng.
- Receive an ocean view massage at Cyan spa, then walk the streets of Bophut AKA the Fisherman’s Village, and enjoy sunset on one of the many beachside bars and restaurants.
- Visit the famous site of Samui Big Buddha.
- Take a day or overnight trip to a nearby smaller island of your choice, such as Ko Phangan (famous for their wild full moon parties) or Ang Thong National Marine Park.
Best Place to Stay in Koh Samui
Best Time to Visit Koh Samui
Koh Samui has the best weather from about February to October. Koh Samui is an island, so if sunny and dry beach weather is on your radar, the best months to visit would be February and March. You still may get lucky during low season months, and find plenty of sunshine while you enjoy the beaches.
3 -5 nights in Phuket/Krabi/Koh Phi Phi
- Have an insane nightlife experience on Bangla Street in Patong Beach, complete with infamous Ping Pong shows and ladyboy dancers.
- Witness excellent views of Phuket from the Big Buddha statue.
- Spend a night or two in Railay Beach in Krabi for unforgettable pristine beaches.
- From either Phuket or Krabi, take a day or overnight trip and tour the Phi Phi islands, where you can snorkel/dive, and visit other famous islands such as the stunning Maya Bay (where the movie the Beach was filmed), kayak through the caves of James Bond Island, and witness the wild monkeys of Monkey Beach.
- If you are looking for a more “un-touched” and quiet experience on an island, swap Phi Phi islands for the more secluded Koh Lanta or Koh Lipe.
Best Place to Stay in Phuket
Best Time to Visit Phuket
The best weather on Phuket occurs between November and April. If you plan to take day trips to surrounding islands, good weather months should be considered as severe rain can cancel boat trips and impede on plans. If this is a concern for you, monsoon season last from about May through October so those months should be avoided. Still, Phuket is always pretty warm and the rains are tropical so they do have a tendency to clear up and bring on some sunshine.
FAQ: How to get Around Thailand
- The best way to explore the cities and islands of Thailand is by motorbike/scooter and should cost no more than around 250 BAHT (~$8.00 USD) a day. If a motorbike is not for you, taxis are very cheap but be be sure to negotiate. Negotiate everything in Thailand as there are many tourist traps. Be especially aware of Tuk Tuk rides, they shouldn’t be more than a couple hundred BAHT and do not allow them to take you anywhere other than your agreed upon destination.
- Getting from one city to the next is most efficiently reached by short plane rides and usually costs no more than $100 USD. For a more economical route, an overnight sleeper train is a good option.
- The only way to get to the islands is by boat. A speedboat is the quickest but also most expensive. If you’re prone to motion sickness, make sure to take medication before. The ride can be very bumpy! You may also take a ferry for a cheaper option but it will take a bit longer to reach your destination.
With a country that has so much to see and do, a couple weeks in Thailand is not nearly enough time to see it all. I can’t wait to come back to explore the more remote and off-the-beaten-path cities of Thailand, and I especially can’t wait to explore some of the more untouched and secluded islands. If you’ve been to Thailand, which city or island is your favorite?