I know how it is thinking about planning a trip somewhere new. Especially when that somewhere is Southeast Asia. You know the cost of living it cheap and food is good, but beyond that it can feel far and foreign, and with planning comes the hassle and headache. Then there's the curiosity (coupled with uncertainty) of what exists beyond the epicenter of bigger cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. And the question of how to get there.
Luckily once you get to Bangkok, you've got options. This depends first on how much time you have. Then, it's about what kind of experience you're looking for, and how off-track you wanting to go.
Below, I've outlined three different routes to travel in SE Asia. Each route will loop you back to Bangkok, allowing you to fly in and out of one destination.
If You Have Seven To Ten Days, Head To The Islands
If you have minimal time, but still want to get to Thailand, fly into Bangkok and go straight to the islands. Which island doesn't matter too much, you could go the Koh Samui, Koh Tao or Koh Phangan route.
Koh Tao is where people (myself included) go to get their open water scuba certification. It has more of a community, local culture than the other two islands, which have more of a tourist-centered, commercialized culture.
If you're looking to get lost on cruise-y island time, stay on Koh Tao longest. Hike from Freedom Beach to John Suwan lookout point, rent scooters and explore the coastline, eat coconut ice cream and papaya salad streetside and watch the boats at sunset.
- Take any train from Bangkok to Chumphon: 1st Class Sleeper = 1, 424 baht/$43 USD, 2nd class sleeper 920 baht = $28 USD. Trains run often.
- From Chumphon, take a ferry to Koh Tao on Lomprayah Catamaran: 600 baht/$17 USD one way.
- Alternatively, purchase a combined train + ferry ticket together from 12go.asia (a reliable agency): First class ticket = 1,744 baht ($53 USD), second class = 1,240 baht ($38 USD)
If You Have Ten Days To Two Weeks, Head To The Mountains
Take the bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or the less popular, but equally beautiful Chiang Rai. In Chiang Mai, hang out for a couple days and visit the markets, which are some of the best in SE Asia.
Skip dinner and head to the Sunday night market for delicious food stalls, live music and handicrafts. Or, visit the more laid back Saturday Wualai Walking Street Market for an impressive array of jewelry, scarves and local woodwork, located opposite the Chiang Mai gate.
The Warorot Market, or 'Khad Luang' is one of Chiang Mai's oldest markets, and known for its authentic representation of the Thai lifestyle. Food lovers will be satisfied, and shoppers can wander the upper levels for clothes and local goods.
Chiang Mai is a larger city, so renting bikes and riding around town, to the Sunday Night Bazaar or botanical gardens is a great way to get around.
After a few days, catch a bus to Chiang Rai or up to Pai. This is also a popular motorcycle route if you want to do a mini-trip for a couple nights. But unless you're an experienced rider, take the bus.
Once you get to Pai, open roads and less traffic make it a safer place to get comfortable riding a motorcycle or scooter. You'll have no problem renting a bike or scooter from a variety of local shops around town.
If you're taking the bus up to Pai, know this is a twisty route known for giving people road sickness. BUT Pai is worth it. It's small and has a local charm, sweet market at night and surrounding nature like hot springs and caves.
Sprawling two lane roads are made for riding scooters and motorcycles, and there's a friendly travel and local culture here.
If you're diving into street food: eat with caution, since this is a more rural region the vendors don't adhere to the same food regulations you'll find in a larger city like Bangkok. As a general rule, don't eat meat that's been heated and cooled (look for meat that's staying heated).
- Bangkok: 2 nights
- Chiang Mai: 4 nights
- Pai: 3 nights
- Chiang Mai: 1 night
- Bangkok: 2 Nights
- Bangkok to Chiang Mai is Thailand's most popular train route.
- Chiang Mai to Pai: take local bus or motorcycle.
- Chiang Mai to Bangkok: take the bus.
If You Have Three Weeks To A Month, Explore The Cambodian Coast
Cambodia will give you a whole different kind of experience and cuisine, but since you're flying into Bangkok you'll still get a classic Thailand experience. Cambodia feels different, it's a different layer of laid-back, people move slower, the lights aren't so bright, the sunsets are rusty and long.
From Bangkok, take a six hour bus to Sihanoukville. From Sihanoukville, you've got a few options. Look for Speed Ferry Cambodia, a speedboat out of the Koh Rong Dive Center that runs speedboats (60 to 90 minutes) several times a day from Serendipity Pier in Sihanoukville. The catamaran seats 125 people and is $20 USD for an open return ticket.
The schedule changes often, make sure to confirm before, or buy in advance here. Make sure to have a hostel or hotel reservation for both Sihanookville and Koh Rong (using booking.com or agoda.com) before arriving so you know exactly where you're going after the bus arrives.
Scam Alert: If they stop and tell you you have to get off for a visa and pay and extra $20. Don't do this, it's a scam. Stay on the bus, and wait to get a visa on arrival, where they let you off at immigration station.
It may seem like a lot to get here, but Koh Rong is a gem. It's laid back and beautiful, and it still feels undiscovered with authentic culture and a fluid mix of locals and young travelers. When I was here they were building cabins every morning, and I know as more people discover this island the remote feeling will fade. Which is why, if you're reading this now, you should not think twice and go. Koh Rong is often compared to the Thai Islands in the '70s, it's a special place to unplug for awhile.
Mini Itinerary, Bangkok Koh Rong Loop (Add Or Extract What You Want)
- Bangkok: 2 nights
- Siem Siem Reap (& Angkor Wat): 3 nights
- Phnom Penh (& Killing Fields): 2 nights
- Sihanoukville: 1 night (or 0 nights if you take 11:30 pm sleeping bus from Bangkok and get in in morning, go directly to Koh Rong on later boat. I did this route and it worked great.)
- Koh Rong: 6 nights or more (When you go back to Sihanoukville, you have the choice to continue traveling to Kep and Kampot, which I have never been, but heard great things about. They're both little fishing villages on the coast. Or, you can take a bus from Sihanoukville back to Bangkok, a 6 hour or less ride for $25 USD)
- Bangkok: 2 nights
- From Bangkok to Sihanoukville: Longer, Cheaper Option. Best if you want to not fuss with flying, and get straight to Koh Rong.
- Most direct route from Bangkok: Take bus from Bangkok to Trat (5-6 hours, schedule at hostel or guest house)
- From Trat to Had Lek: Take minibus from Trat to the Thai border town of Had Lek. Buses depart every 30 minutes or so and take 1.5 hours to the border.
- Cambodia Border: Stamp out of Thailand. Walk to the Cambodian immigration station and buy a visa and stamp in. Drivers will approach you as soon as you exit. Prices to Koh Kong City are $10 for private taxi or $7-8 for tuk tuk. (Depending on time of day you might be offered bus straight to Sihanoukville.)
- From Koh Kong to Sihanoukville: Take daily bus or taxi from Koh Kong to Sihanoukville. The road is paved and in pretty good condition. 4-5 hours.
- Sihanoukville Speed Ferry to Cambodia: From Dive Center, 9am, 11:30am, 3pm
- Koh Rong to Sihanoukville (returning): Boat departs 10am, 12:30pm, 4pm
Flight Option & Bus Option:
From Bangkok to Sihanoukville. This option is best if you have more time to stop in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh along the way to Koh Rong.)
- Fly to from Bangkok to Siem Reap (DMK → REP, $60-80 USD on Air Asia)
- Spend a couple nights in Siem Reap and visit Angkor Wat.
- Then fly from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville (REP → KOS, $29 on Cambodia Angkor Air)
- Or, go from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh: Take big bus to Phnom Penh (5 or 6 hours, $10-15 USD, book on BookmeBus.com )
- Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville: Take a bus (4 and a half hours, $7-8 USD, book on BookMeBus.com)
Stay Longer, Go Further:
Once you get back to Sihanoukville after your dreamy stay in Koh Rong, you can take the six hour bus back to Bangkok to finish your loop and fly out of Bangkok. Or, you could go further, to Kampot and Kep, by taking a bus from Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville to Kep is $10 and 2-3 hours, leaving at 8:30am and 1pm. From Koh Rong to Kep, take 10am boat and 1pm bus. Kill some time in Sihanoukville and grab a bite to eat.
- Seat 61: For train travel in Thailand & surrounding areas
- Agoda, Booking.com: For bungalows and hotels
- Skyscanner: Cheapest flight options
- BookMeBus.com: Bus tickets in Cambodia
- $1 USD = 33 Thai Baht
- Bring 2 or more extra passport-size photos for Cambodian Visa on arrival.