It’s so hard to choose between Thailand’s incredible beaches, Bangkok’s sights and street food, and Northern Thailand’s temples and elephants—so don’t! We’ve planned an epic 10-day itinerary that includes Bangkok, Koh Samui, and Chiang Rai, to help you make the most of your visit.
When you visit the four-faced Brahma at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine to petition for love and good fortune, you must bow and make offerings before each of the Hindu god’s four faces, preferably in a clockwise direction. Apparently, the return on your prayers is just not as good if you place all your incense and marigold offerings at just one. Similarly, when visiting Thailand, you shouldn’t devote all your time to just one of its “faces.” Sure, you could easily spend 10 days on the Andaman Coast’s pristine white sandy beaches, and never tire of its cerulean waters and wild marine life. And you could happily devote a full ten days to vibrant Bangkok—finding your favorite street vendors and rooftop bars by night and exploring the city’s incredible temples by day. But to gain a broader and deeper understanding of Thailand, you should pay tribute to and spend a few days with each of its faces—city, beach, and mountains. It won’t be enough time because it’s never enough time, but your petitions and prayers to truly see Thailand will be answered (Whether you travel in clockwise order for extra credit with the travel gods is entirely up to you!).
INSIDER TIPThis itinerary does not factor in travel time. Depending on where you are coming from, you may want this to be a full 14 days (or longer if you want down days between hurts-so-good Thai massages.)
Set along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok is Thailand’s capital and one of Asia’s most visited cities. Between its temples, markets, street food scene, nightlife, and great day-trip options, Bangkok could keep you busy for a week, but you can hit the highlights, and get a really good feel for this vibrant city in three days. There’s so much to do in Bangkok that it’s helpful to schedule your time to keep the FOMO at bay.
There are so many temples to visit in Bangkok but you can hit the big three—the Emerald Buddha, the Reclining Buddha, and the Temple of Dawn—with a palace included in one day without overextending yourself. Begin with the most famous of Bangkok’s sights—the stunning Grand Palace. This is Thailand’s most popular and revered attraction so it’s crowded, always; arrive at 8 am to avoid the worst of the crowds and the sun. You will need a few hours (or up to half a day) to explore the compound which includes the most sacred temple in the kingdom, Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The Emerald Buddha is neither grand (26 inches), nor emerald (he’s most likely carved from jade), but his ridiculously ornate temple setting and cute golden outfit changes conducted by the King of Thailand three times a year make him incredibly impressive. A short walk away you can upsize your Buddha experience with a visit to a 150-foot lounging Buddha at Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.
INSIDER TIPDon’t rush off after you’ve finally figured out how to photograph all 10 horizontal feet of this Buddha: stop for a traditional Thai massage at Wat Po’s massage school (no appointment necessary) and visit the back of the gift shop to have your fortune told.
When you’re ready, hop on a ferry (from nearby Tha Thien Pier) and cross the river to Wat Arun. Built during the 17th century on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, this temple’s full name is “Wat Arun Ratchawararam Ratchawaramahawihan” but you can call it “Temple of Dawn” for short. Time your visit for dusk to see the porcelain-covered prangs bathed in warm golden light. If you’re feeling spry, climb the steep steps for views of the Chao Phraya.
By Night: You might think you can’t get any higher after a day worshipping before some of Bangkok’s most revered temples, but you can soak in the stunning city views from its famous rooftop bars. Lebua Tower offers two excellent options with Sky Bar on its 63d floor and Pink Champagne Bar on the 61st.
INSIDER TIPDon’t listen to anyone who tells you that you don’t need a tour guide for the Grand Palace. You don’t need a tour guide anywhere, but if you don’t hire a guide, you will just wander about with your jaw hanging open; it is incredibly ornate but all the more incredible with a little context.
Spend a morning getting lost, literally, as you wander 25 acres of narrow alleys filled with more than 15,000 stalls at Chatuchak Weekend Market, one of the largest markets in the world. You’ll find food, handicrafts, silk, art (and artists at work), clothing, jewelry, and almost any souvenir and knick-knack you can imagine—all at great prices. Despite its name, it’s not just open on the weekend (but it is best on the weekend).
In the afternoon, head to the beautiful Jim Thompson House (by cab or Skytrain) to donate all the money you saved at Chatuchak to the excellent gift shop. Thompson, an American expat, is credited with revitalizing Thailand’s silk industry and his traditional teak home is a national treasure, complete with priceless pieces of Southeast Asian art and beautiful gardens. You’ll also learn about Thompson, a fascinating character who disappeared mysteriously in the late 60s. After the museum, visit the Baan Krua weaving community, just across the canal from the museum (via a narrow footpath). Look for signs to find weaver workshops.
INSIDER TIPWhen you leave your hotel in the morning, plan to be out for the day. Wear comfortable walking shoes and lightweight clothing. Bangkok traffic is excruciating almost all the time, so you really do not want to waste time going back and forth to your hotel.
By Night: Head to Chinatown, just a 10-minute cab ride from Jim Thompson. While you can take in Bangkok’s street food scene by day, to fully experience it in all its fire, color, and energy, you should visit late evening and stay into the night. Wander from stall to stall sampling whatever your eyes want to eat, and stopping wherever there’s a line of locals (always a good sign). If you have picky eaters in tow, try simple noodle dishes, veg, and skewered meats. Before you head back to your hotel, visit the nearby Flower Market or Pak Khlong Talat. This street lined with flower shops is busy around the clock, but it is at its most vivid at night as the vendors sit with baskets of flowers creating offerings for locals to use the following morning.
No Hopping, Just Chilling
Take it easy on day three and take to the water to explore Bangkok by leisurely longtail boat on a Khlong tour. See houses on stilts, giant sunbathing Monitor lizards, kids playing along the canals, and visit less trafficked sights, like the beautiful Wat Khun Chan Temple and the charming Artist’s House, a 200-year-old house sitting on stilts along the canal where you can take in a traditional Thai puppet show, have a coffee or riverside meal, shop for souvenirs, and feed the catfish (for good luck). If you want to squeeze a little more Bangkok into your trip before you leave, head to Lumphini Stadium for a Muay Thai fight (only on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday).
By Night: Bangkok has amazing hotels so dedicate your last evening in Bangkok to actually enjoying yours.
WHERE TO STAY
Anantara Siam. A peaceful, lush oasis in the heart of busy Bangkok (right by the Skytrain so you can get anywhere in the city and convenient to shopping and top sights), Anantara Siam offers old-school elegance and service along with modern conveniences like complimentary Handy smartphones which you can use in and out of the hotel for unlimited calls, texts, and Google Maps. You’ll want to allow time to linger in the stylish and grand lobby with its stunning hand-painted silk mural over the staircase and by the great outdoor pool. Excellent dining options include traditional Thai at Spice Market (one of Bangkok’s best Thai restaurants) as well as Italian and Japanese options, all with leafy courtyard seating.
Beach: Koh Samui
Thailand’s most dominant image is its pristine white-sand beaches with cerulean waters. Think perfect beaches, perfect weather, and perfect turquoise waters. You’ll be glad to know that you can easily fit some of that perfection into your 10-day trip (and that the reality lives up to the hype). Most island destinations are within a few hours flying time from Bangkok but at just an hour’s direct flight from Bangkok, Koh Samui is our pick if you want to maximize time relaxing. Plus, while Samui offers a variety of hotels, restaurants, and bars, this island is typically more laid-back and easy going, so it never feels as frenzied (read: crowded) as other island destinations (looking at you, Phuket).
You don’t have to work too hard at happy vacation vibes in Samui so there’s really no need to schedule your time beyond spa appointments and island-hopping excursions. Most people come to chill so they check into beachfront hotels and rarely venture far. For that reason you’ll want to choose your accommodations wisely: look for built-in activities, a location either far from nightlife or convenient to it (depending on your vacation preferences), a great spa, good dining, and luxurious rooms.
After a couple of days of lounging in paradise, or exploring Samui’s many beaches, you might want to take advantage of Samui’s location to take a side-trip to Koh Tao for a diving excursion or Koh Phangan to chill by day and full-moon-party by night. Even better, dedicate your last day in Samui to Mu Koh Angthong, an archipelago of 42 islands, each of them a little piece of heaven, complete with gorgeous waterfalls, jungle treks, and emerald lagoons.
WHERE TO STAY
Avani+ Samui. Set on Koh Samui’s southwest shore, on the secluded Phang Ka Bay, the recently opened Avani+ Samui offers up private-island vibes, an excellent spa, great onsite dining (with highly Instagrammable van-bar and beachfront flamethrowers), a variety of activity options, and chic, sea-facing villas with private plunge pools. It’s off-the-beaten-path and a little unknown and therefore the perfect romantic or restorative escape. Take the free daily longtail boats to nearby Koh Madsum where you’ll find crystal waters, a gorgeous and quiet beach with a bar, casual dining, and beach pigs!
Jungle: Chiang Rai
With its mist-covered mountains, breathtakingly ornate temples and shrines, remote mountain villages, and magical elephant sanctuaries, Northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai offers a completely different side of Thailand than Bangkok’s hustle and bustle and Samui’s beaches and turquoise waters. Chiang Rai is a short, direct, and cheap flight from Bangkok and a must visit.
The short, untaxing flight means you can hire a driver to meet you at the airport and take you directly to two of Chiang Rai’s top attractions, often grouped together as the “Heaven and Hell temples,” before you go to your hotel. The gleaming white, still-in-progress, intricate Wat Rong Khun or The White Temple is Chiang Rai’s top attraction and one of Thailand’s most beautiful and unique temples. The nearby Baan Dam or Black House, contains a collection of about 40 buildings which include an art studio, museum, private house, and provocative art and sculptures, all predominantly in black. After these visions of Heaven and Hell, have your driver take you to the real heaven…
WHERE TO STAY
The “what to do” in Chiang Rai is really all about the “where to stay” here because, with just a few days, you need your accommodations to deliver big on the experiences of the destination. Meet the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. All the buzz words are in the hotel name: “Golden Triangle” for its location in the fabled mountainous region, bordered by Myanmar to the west and Laos to the East; “Elephant Camp” for its elephant camp and foundation rescuing street elephants and their mahouts and funding research and clinics; and “resort” for the fact that place is the epitome of rustic luxury with incredible dining, stunning public spaces, a beautiful pool, full-service spa, and plush banquettes on every balcony to sit and soak in the sounds of trumpeting elephants and singing birds.
Spend your first day making the most of the property and its offerings. Reserve an afternoon cooking class which includes a morning visit to a local market to source ingredients, a scenic breakfast picnic, and an intimate class where you learn to make traditional Thai dishes and then eat your creations. Spend the afternoon in the spa (we recommend a traditional Thai massage), followed by drinks by the pool soaking in the breathtaking views, and then just chill for the evening on your balcony or in the elegant lobby just inhaling the magic of the jungle setting.
You’ve heard them from afar and maybe caught glimpses of them from your balcony as you sipped your morning coffee but today you get to meet these beautiful creatures. Reserve a Walking with Giants experience to accompany these gentle giants as they amble into the jungle on an early morning walk. Watch them snack, play in the water or dirt, and socialize with each other as you walk alongside with a vet or mahout to answer all your questions about these incredible creatures.
Spend your afternoon just lounging in the luxury of the resort or ask for a driver to take you to the nearby Opium museum, if you’re interested in exploring the fascinating history of the opium industry in this area.
[(Sad) Editorial Note]: The issue of elephant interactions in Thailand is a complicated one. Established in 2003, the Anantara Elephant Camp works alongside the resort’s Asian Elephant Foundation to rescue elephants from Thailand’s city streets (to date, over 40 elephants have been rescued and 20 live in the camp, along with their entire mahout families). These elephants were raised around people and originally trained to interact with people. Only elephants interested in socializing are invited to interact with humans, and never under pressure or punishment. That said, while this magical resort is making every effort to put the elephants first, and to encourage visitors to bond via a safe and respectful walk with these giants, and raising money to care for elephants under threat throughout Thailand, it came to our attention during our stay, that they do also offer a training interaction that involves riding on the elephants. This activity is widely considered unethical and generally considered unnecessary to feeling some connection or bond to these magical giants. We strongly discourage partaking of or encouraging this activity.
Fly back to Bangkok and, depending on your hardiness, straight home (a good idea if you want to avoid the annoying traffic from the airport), or perhaps steal a last night or two in Bangkok to revisit your favorite street food vendors and trendy bars. End on a high with a reservation (now available by email) at Michelin starred Ray Jay Fai, the Queen of Thai Streetfood, for her appropriately raved about crab omelet.
WHERE TO STAY
If you do have one last day and night in Bangkok, stay at the Avani+ Riverside. This modern, affordable, and stylish hotel is to exactly central but it is has a stunning rooftop bar with infinity pool, which makes for a highly rewarding, low-effort last night and next morning in Bangkok.