Thailand is a pretty big country, and it’s geographically and culturally diverse. The North has beautiful mountains, hill tribe villages, and natural waterfalls in the middle of the jungle, and the south has pristine beaches, full moon parties, and is generally a lot livelier. Given the range of options, how does one decide on their Thailand travel itinerary?
When we got to Thailand, we had no plans. We arrived in Bangkok without deciding what our next move would be; we just knew we had to get to Krabi by the end of the month, to catch our flight from Krabi Town to Siem Reap. Our travel plans were wide open, and we were a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities. Though I knew that I wanted to see Koh Lanta, we really had no set course to get there. Being an analy-retentive planner, this freaked me out to no end, but ultimately I’m glad that we decided to meander.
Some of our Thailand highlights have been in the ‘in-between’ cities that we visited on our route to somewhere else. Yes, you can just take a direct route to get to your destination, but then you’d be missing out on the small, lesser-known cities and towns that often get overlooked by tourists. In Thailand especially, there can be some really great hidden gems!
Here are some tips on how to plan your travel itinerary. I’m using Thailand as an example, but you can apply this to the country of your choice.
Piggyback on Someone Else’s Itinerary
To start, there are plenty of websites where travelers can share successful itineraries for others to imitate. Travelfish (www.travelfish.org) is a great one. You can search for the length of time and start/end points and see what routes others have come up with. I’m personally not a fan of using a pre-made itinerary because I feel like it probably won’t be exactly what you want, and you’ll have to make a compromise somewhere. So, why not put in a bit of effort to create a plan that’s completely customized to your tastes?
Look at a Map (duh)
You’re probably thinking, “no shit, genius”, but hear me out. Pull up a map, and think about what’s important for you to see and experience. For example, I knew that I wanted to go to Krabi and Koh Lanta during our first visit to Thailand. So, I created my travel itinerary with Koh Lanta as the end goal, and then looked for stops between Bangkok and Lanta, where we could stay for a few days to rest. The route via the Eastern side of Thailand looked more appealing, so we chose that over other alternatives.
Consider your travel needs
If you’re only in the country for a short stay, it may be more prudent to fly to your destinations of choice, though it’ll obviously be more expensive. If you have time on your side, you can travel overland via bus or train. If you have a thing about sea voyages, then ferries aren’t your best bet. Any physical ailments or disabilities should also be taken into consideration, because bus travel is not always comfortable. Those on a tight budget will want to travel by land as much as possible, and by government buses, songthews (local transit), and good ol’ fashioned walking.
Do a google image search on some of the ‘in-between’ cities on your map. Does it look like somewhere you’d want to stay for a night or two? Are there hotels and amenities? How are you going to get from there to your next stop? Narrow down which of these places appeal to you for a short stay, and then plot out your route.
Be open to detours
If you have the luxury of having an open-ended itinerary, you can obviously be more flexible with your travel plans. But no matter your circumstance, keep an open mind about where you’re headed. If you are invited to travel with someone you happen to meet at the train station or at a bar, go for it – even if it deviates from the route you initially planned (not if they’re sketchy or weird though). If a local Thai person recommends a particular city or town and it sounds appealing to you, go check it out! One of the joys of traveling is feeling free to make your own choices, so don’t feel too attached to your itinerary. Spontaneity has been responsible for a lot of stupidity, but it can also result in happy accidents that create the best memories.
Have a ‘Plan B’
If you don’t catch your bus, if you’re denied a visa, if you run out of money, etc. have a back-up itinerary for when shit goes south. Whenever we’re on the road, I always look up at least two or three transport options, for example, so I know what our options are if our first choice doesn’t work out. I also pick out back-up accommodation, familiarize myself with other cities or towns that are close by, and keep screenshots of local maps on my phone at all times. Sometimes you get thrown a curve ball, and when you’re at a bus station at 3am waiting for a bus that’s obviously not in service, it’s better to be prepared and know your options, than be completely stranded. Actually, you should know that no matter how you choose to travel, or where you’re going, you should anticipate travel delays. The train that says it’ll arrive at 5pm will probably arrive closer to 7pm. If your tour operator says the bus is only a 4-hour ride, plan to be on board for 7 hours. Even if you’re traveling by motorbike or in your own car, don’t rely too heavily on google maps’ project timelines. The roads in Southeast Asia can be unfinished and slow, so a 300km route can take up to 7 or 8 hours!
As an example, here’s a recap of our itinerary during our first trip to Thailand: