There comes a time in every Bangkokian’s life where you gaze out of your rain-flecked office window onto the congested traffic below and wonder, “Is this all there is?”
Well, friends, no — there is so much more to Thailand than just Bangkok. And the best way to explore what’s out there?
It’s gotta be a road trip.
We’ve compiled the ultimate North to South Thailand road trip, complete with 40 stops through the Land of Smiles.
It doesn’t go everywhere but we reckon it should give you a flavour of what’s out there.
Even if you can’t afford a few months off required to do this trip properly, we’ve split it into six sections that you could feasibly do separately according to region.
[This was created using the wonders of Google Maps. Please don’t shout at us if we send you across broken bridges or down roads to nowhere.]
So, let’s find out where we’re going…
- 1 North Thailand
- 2 Northeast Thailand
- 3 East and Central Thailand
- 4 Along The Southeast Burmese Border
- 5 Southwest Thailand
- 6 Southeast Thailand
Mae Hong Son
Our epic road trip starts in Northwest Thailand in the town of Mae Hong Son — picturesquely set among the Shan Hills next to the Burmese border.
This gets the journey off to a relaxed start, as we explore the cross-over of Thai culture with Burmese, reflected in the town’s architecture, food, temples and the ethnic Shan people.
Mae Hong Son is low on tourists but high on charm. It’s also high on chill during the winter months, where temperatures are known to be literally freezing up in the mountains.
From there, it’s a 2 hour, 107 km drive to nearby Pai, which has plenty more western influence and is a perennial favourite among the backpacking crowd.
It’s another gorgeous northern town, just with a little more going on than in Mae Hong Son.
As well as plenty of places to eat, drink and sleep, there are lots of opportunity for adventure in Pai so it’s worth taking a few extra days here for excursions — white water rafting and trekking, for instance — if that happens to tickle your pickle.
No trip to Northern Thailand is complete without a visit to the mighty Chiang Mai, former Lanna Kingdom and favoured alternative to Bangkok for many expats.
It’s around a 150 km drive from Pai to Chiang Mai, and you’ll be able to settle in the city as soon as you arrive thanks to the plethora of hotels and restaurants here. Temples and food are likely to be on the top of your to-do list — and make sure to try some of the locally crafted coffee while you’re here too.
We recommend staying in the old city so you’re right in the thick of the action, but don’t neglect exploring the rest of this beautiful province — you could even climb Doi Chiang Dao if you’re feeling adventurous!
Next, it’s another 3 hour journey onto the second city of the North, Chiang Rai.
Quieter than Chiang Mai, although with just as much character, this is another place where you should take the time to explore the whole province and not just the city — make sure to venture up to the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar and Laos meet Thailand. Gorgeous countryside abounds.
There are plenty of temples in the city of Chiang Rai, as well as a cracking Night Bazaar and Saturday Night Walking Street.
Doi Phu Kha National Park
On the Laotian border, in the province of Nan, is Doi Phu Kha National Park — a great stop-off for any hikers. It’s around 250 km from Chiang Rai.
Doi Phu Kha itself stands just under 2,000 metres high and takes three days and two nights to climb. The national park is also full of rivers and caves ripe for exploring. Unfortunately, you’ll also find large sites of deforestation here, where human greed has overridden environmental concerns.
It’s another long drive now down to the beautiful Lampang; around 4.5 hours from Doi Phu Kha.
The beautiful Lanna temples, mystic views over the surrounding mountains, lack of rampant tourism and plethora of horse drawn carriages, mean that the drive is worth it for this charming city.
Sukhothai Historical Park
Our next stop is one for the history geeks, 2.5 hours away in Sukhothai Historical Park — the ancient ruins of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, which ruled Siam in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The site holds just fewer than 200 ruins, including a royal palace and 26 temples, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Wat Mahathat is the most esteemed temple ruin in the complex, and is captured in the picture above.
The first leg of the Northeast Thailand road trip is in Phetchabun city. The idea here is to take a few days to explore the entire province as much of the best sights can be found outside the city.
There’s ancient Khmer architecture in Si Thep Historical Park, while the Phetchabun mountains that surround the city are utterly sublime. There are also lots of other reserves and parks worth trekking in these parts.
Technically, Phetchabun is in Thailand’s Central Plains, but is serving us a gateway to Isaan from the North.
Phu Kradueng National Park
From Phetchabun, it’s a 195 km journey to Phu Kradueng National Park in gorgeous Loei province.
Phu Kradueng was Thailand’s second national park, and is home to mountains, tropical and evergreen forest, and even a sandy pine savanna at the summit, as well as a plethora of birds and some rare turtles.
It’s a bit of a long slog now to Nakhon Phanom, right on the Laotian border, and over 5 hours from Phu Kradueng. There is the option to stop off in Udon Thani to break the journey up here, if necessary.
The provincial capital lies on the west bank of the Mekong River with Laos just over the other side — it has a beautiful, savanna landscape and an irresistible laidback charm. There are also lots of temples and you can bike along the river.
Just like Mae Hong Son in the North, Nakhon Phanom is another great place to explore the mix of cultures in Thailand — here, it’s Thai, Isaan, Lao and even Vietnamese.
It’s a 270 km drive down to Ubon Ratchathani now (you could stop off in Mukdahan overnight if you want to break up the journey), which is one of the four major cities of Isaan and just generally, a really lovely place to spend a few days.
The city sports a rich history since its founding in the 18th century, and the Khmer and Laotion influence in cuisine and architecture is evident everywhere. Temples and centres of Buddhist learning are also abundant.
If you can, try and coincide your visit to Ubon with the annual Candle Festival in July — it’s pretty wacky, but quite a sight.
Korat — otherwise known as Nakhon Ratchasima — is another big city of Isaan, and the next on our journey. It’s another 5 hour drive, so do yourself a favour and take a leisurely stop-off in Surin or Buri Ram on the way, if you’re so inclined.
It’s one of the most cosmopolitan and tourist-friendly cities of Isaan, and is the place to be go for some amazing Isaan street food. Perhaps ask them to hold back on the chillies if you’re feeling delicate.
Keep an eye out for the ubiquitous Korat Cat — they’re a good luck charm!
Khao Yai National Park
Our final stop in the Northeast is the beautiful Khao Yai, just two hours from Korat.
Animal lovers will have a field day here: the national park is populated with elephants, tigers, sambar deer, Indian muntjac, macaques and more. There are also lots of waterfalls and other points of natural beauty.
East and Central Thailand
The Ayutthaya Kingdom ruled Siam from 1351 until it was sacked by the Burmese in 1767.
The ancient ruins of the kingdom can be found scattered throughout the modern city, but are most concentrated in the magnificent historical park. You need a couple of days to explore the city fully, and it’s worth visiting the nearby Royal Elephant Kraal while you’re here too.
From Ayutthaya, it’s about three hours drive back into East Thailand and to the Cambodian border province of Sa Kaeo.
Generally, tourists mostly come here for border runs, but it’s actually a beautiful province in its own right, with lots of ancient architecture and two national parks ripe for exploring.
The Rong Kluea Border Market is also a sight worth seeing as one of the largest of its kind, and a hotspot for bargain (and counterfeit) goods.
It’s about 2.5 hours now to drive down to the charming town of Chanthaburi, found on the banks of the river with the same name.
The town is notable for its French and Cambodian influences, including the amazing Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (pictured), as well as for it’s natural beauty — waterfalls and a beautiful sea coast lay just a short distance away.
Chanthaburi is also famous for its tropical fruits, most notably the somewhat stinky durian.
The town of Trat, 70 km from Chantaburi, pales marginally in comparison to the many islands off the province’s coast, but it’s still a pleasant stopover for a road trip, what with the many markets and abundance of good streetside food.
The Cambodian influence here is undeniable, and most recently compounded with the influx of refugees escaping from the Khmer Rouge regime in the early 1980s. Accommodation is plentiful here and very cheap.
We’ve only got time for one of the Trat islands on our roadtrip, but we’re going to skip over the tourist haven of Koh Chang and go slightly further south to Koh Kut. The island is around a 90 minute boat trip from Trat.
The island is growing in popularity but is still reasonably quiet and boasts some beautifully serene beaches, gorgeous rivers and an array of waterfalls. This is a place to relax and perhaps snorkel rather than to party – the nightlife is essentially non-existent.
Most visitors choose to explore Kut by rented motorbike.
After a quick return sail to Trat, it’s back on the road again, all the way up the Sukhumvit Road to Pattaya — around 3.5 hours away.
We suggest just one night in Pattaya to give you a taste of the ‘wild’ nightlife you might have been missing on Koh Kut. The city itself is arguably charmless, but a night on Walking Street is an experience to remember (or, actually, forget).
From Pattaya, it’s a quick 2 hour trip back to base in Bangkok, perhaps to wash some clothes and get a quick pizza.
Of course, if you’re not a Bangkokian, you may want to expand this section of the trip out by a few days as you explore the mighty Thai capital and its many neighbourhoods. Bangkok is your oyster…
Once you’ve got your Bangkok fix, it’s driving time again, this time out west to Kanchanaburi — one of Thailand’s most culturally rich provinces.
It’s best known for being the site of the notorious Death Railway and Bridge over the River Kwai, built by Allied prisoners of war and Asian Romusha labourers under duress of the Japanese during World War II. Countless men lost their lives working in the horrific conditions here.
Many visitors also like the magnificent Erawan National Park — famous for its waterfalls — and the ancient Khmer site, Prasat Muang Sing.
Along The Southeast Burmese Border
From Kanchanaburi, it’s time to go South and head to Thailand’s favourite playground, Hua Hin. This seaside spot is a 200 km drive from Kanchanaburi and considered Thailand’s first beach resort.
While the beaches are arguably less beautiful than those further down south, there’s always plenty going on in Hua Hin and it’s certainly abundant in character. Markets, street food, a city vibe and a handful of luxury hotels mean that it’s a great spot for a few days away.
Prachuap Khiri Khan
100 km down the coast is another resort, Prachuap Khiri Khan; the personification of a sleepy seaside town.
Quieter than Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan is home to a beautiful, wide bay and wondrous views over the surrounding limestone mountains. As is indicated by the many fishing boats bobbing along the water, this is the place to be for delicious sea food.
Mu Ko Chumpon National Park
3 hours south from Prachuap Khiri Khan is Chumpon marine park: home to 317 square kilometres of unrivalled marine beauty.
We’re talking coral reefs, 40 limestone islands, sandy beaches, mangrove, limestone and beach forest, caves, sea birds, reptiles and mammals. Keep an eye out for the incredible whale sharks stalking the waters here too.
If you’re into diving, Mu Ko Chumpon is a mandatory stop-off.
The final part of the Burmese border leg is a 150km drive down to Thailand’s rainiest province, Ranong.
It’s very quiet and more or less undiscovered by tourists — save for intrepid divers eager to explore the neighbouring Andaman Sea — and will make for an incredibly relaxing and incredibly Thai few days.
While you’re here, take the opportunity to take a boat out to nearby Koh Phayam, described as Thailand’s last undiscovered small island.
Koh Phra Thong
From Ranong, our first stop on the Southwest Thailand road trip leg is the unique island of Koh Phra Thong.
You’ll need to take an hour boat trip from Khuraburi on the Thai mainland, which leaves at 16.30 daily.
Mostly undeveloped and with a savanna landscape more associated with Africa rather than Asia, Koh Phra Thong makes for a gloriously relaxing beach trip with miles of untouched sandy bays. As a bonus, it’s also a great twitching spot if you’re into birds!
Khao Sok National Park
It’s back on the main road next and off to gorgeous Khao Sok — one of Thailand’s most underrated national parks.
Covered in the world’s oldest evergreen forest and surrounded by imposing limestone mountains, Khao Sok is the ultimate destination for hikers and adventurers.
Some of the animals you can expect to come across here include the clouded leopard, Asian elephant, Malaysian sun bear, tiger and barking deer.
From Khao Sok, it’s just an hour’s drive to Khao Lak, which we’ve included here as an alternative to the manic tourism of Phuket.
This area is full of beautiful white sand beaches facing right out onto the Andaman Sea — you won’t be surprised to hear that Khao Lak was hammered hard by the 2004 tsunami — and is looked over by miles of jungle and mountains.
Khao Lak is another great spot for diving and a fascinating glimpse into the Thai way of life.
Krabi province is our next stop, specifically the glorious Railay Beach, around 150 km from Khao Lak. We’re back in adventure mode here with rock climbing and deep water solo available above the cerulean waters and limestone formations common to this part of Thailand.
There’s also a little more nightlife here, with Ao Nang Beach and Krabi Town close by and frequently patronised by backpackers and other young travellers.
You can take a ferry straight from Krabi to Lanta, but we’re going to drive about 100 km south to take the ferry toll road down to the island instead.
In recent years, Koh Lanta has transformed into something of a luxury getaway and is becoming very popular with European tourists. Regardless of being firmly embedded in the tourist trail, the fantastic beaches and SCUBA opportunities mean that this is a spot still worth seeing.
After a few nights on Lanta, it’s another two hour drive back to the mainland and down to the beautiful city of Trang, that’s renowned for its epic food scene.
There’s a strong Chinese influence evident in Trang, which can be spotted through the cuisine and the architecture. As is common in Southern Thailand, there is a strong Muslim presence here too, and consequently, plenty of roti and curries. Delicious!
Tarutao National Park
We’re going further south still and down to the many islands that make up Tarutao National Park. First, it’s a 2 hour drive down to Pak Bara, where you can take a 90-minute ferry or speedboat to Koh Tarutao.
Tarutao is actually a national marine park that’s made up of 51 islands. We doubt you’ll have time to get to them all, so it’s best to focus on a couple within the Tarutao Group from a bungalow which you can rent on the main island. Koh Lipe is also very close by and part of the marine park, although generally quite busy with tourists.
There are a huge amount of flora and fauna to study in the park, including wild pigs, sea otters, sea eagles, fishing cats and tree pythons.
After returning to the mainland from Tarutao, it’s a 2 hour drive from Pak Bara to the South’s largest city, Hat Yai.
Found in Songkhla province, Hat Yai is an intriguing blend of Thai, Chinese and Muslim cultures, and is typically patronised by tourists from Malaysia and Singapore.
There are plenty of markets and street food is in abundance here, as well as a smattering of temples — both Thai and Chinese. The city is also home to the third largest reclining Buddha in the world.
Nakhon Si Thammarat
It’s a 200 km drive now going north towards Nakhon Si Thammarat, which is a smaller city than Hat Yai although still an interesting stop-off on your way to the Gulf Islands.
It’s home to Wat Phra Mahathat Vihan — the most important temple of Southern Thailand — which contains a tooth relic of the Buddha.
The city was also once an important trade route for Thailand and can be traced back to the Kingdom of Ligor in 775.
Tai Rom Yen National Park
After a couple of city stops, we think it’s high time to get back to nature — and where better than in Tai Rom Yen National Park, around 2 hours from Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Previously the stronghold of communist rebels in the 1980s, the national park is now a refuge of forest, waterfalls and caves — although you can still visit Camps 180 and 357 of the Communist party.
An hour drive north now takes us to Surat Thani, where it’s time to sell the car and make arrangements for our final island stops…
An express boat to Thailand’s premier party island takes around 3 hours from Surat Thani.
Now you have three choices when you arrive at Thong Sala Pier: head to the southeast of the island in Haad Rin and join the party people; head to the northwest of the island in Haad Salad for some luxury relaxation; or, choose a combination of the two.
Koh Phangan is s0 much more than the Full Moon Party.
From Phangan, it’s a ferry on to our final stop on beautiful Samui.
Undeniably touristy, commercial and occasionally expensive, Samui is nevertheless the best way to end an epic North to South Thailand road trip.
You can choose when to fly out of the island’s international airport and back to Bangkok…
Take a look at the full Google Maps road trip here.
Where would you go on the ultimate Thailand road trip?