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Plan your gap year in Thailand with this ultimate backpacker itinerary

Written by Zoe Faulkner on 25 / 04 / 2023

Gap Year Advice

Thailand is fascinating and beautiful country. It is a land of contrasts, from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok to endless stretches of rich-green rice paddies in the provinces and, further north, a mountainous landscape inhabited by hill tribes down to the famous stunning beaches and world class diving in the south.

It is easy to backpack on your gap year on a budget in Thailand. As a traveller no doubt you will be drawn to the full moon parties and backpacking hostels, but beyond all that there is a whole allure to Thailand that is rarely appreciated in its entirety. Try the incredible street food, head to the lush jungles in the north, or explore the side alleys in Bangkok. Thailand will be what you make of it.

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Bangkok

Thailand’s hectic capital. This is a busy bustling city that has much to offer:

  • The Grand Palace
  • The reclining Golden Buddha at Wat Pho
  • Travel by water taxi, jump on a tuk-tuk and use the BTS Sky Train
  • Jim Thompson House – an old wooden colonial-style building, full of his vast collection of Southeast Asian art
  • Khao San Road - This is the road that for a quarter of a century has been the hub for backpackers and budget travellers going anywhere in southeast Asia.
  • Lumpini Park – the large park in the heart of the metropolis.
  • Eat from the innumerable street food carts.
  • Visit the floating markets – a must do, a burst of colours.
  • Fantastic night life.
  • Visit Ayutthaya, where jungle temples have been reclaimed by nature. This is the ancient capital of Siam and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Here you can take a trip on a rice barge up the Chao Phraya River.

Doi Angkhang

This area with its rolling hills and lush farming climate which produces a vast array of fruit and vegetables is also known as Little Switzerland.

  • Explore The Royal Project – a plantation set up by the King to educate villagers in the alternatives to opium farming.
  • Visit the Phumanee hill tribes, see men farming the land and the women preparing food
  • wild elephants, deer, gibbons and wild boar and hundreds of bird species.
  • hiking and swimming, here you can trek to a beautiful waterfall in Umphang.
  • The national park feels a world away from the bustling metropolis of Bangkok. All of Southeast Asia used to be as wild as this so it’s definitely worth a moment of reflection to think about the impact we humans have on the planet.

Khao Yai

This is just three hours north of Bangkok en route to Chiang Mai. The uphill drive is exhilarating, but the park itself is mainly flat.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is an hour’s flight from Bangkok (or a 12-hour sleeper train if you want to enjoy the changing landscapes as you head north).This is a very different feel to Bangkok, there are no high-rise buildings, it is and old city that has a laid-back pace and still maintains its authenticity. The historical, yet surprisingly cosmopolitan walled city is surrounded by jungle and amazing hillside landscape.

  • Visit the night market down by the river and try the amazing street food.
  • Take a trip to the Elephant Nature Park
  • Thai cooking classes
  • You can stay with a hill-tribe in a homestay but make sure it is not commercialized and exploitive
  • If you want to trek head out towards the Mynamar border with a guide.
  • There is a vast array of temples to explore in Chiang Rai.
  • Visit the hippy village of Pai, high in the mountains near Mynamar border.This is super popular.There are incredible street food stalls, rolling hills, circus hostels, jazz bars.There are some eco-resorts here where your contributions help support local communities as well as lower your carbon footprint.
  • If you have time you can visit some of the Karen villages closer to the Mynamar border by motorbike.

Phuket

Phuket is the gateway to the Andaman Sea in Southern Thailand. Although it is touristy, Phuket has things to do for everybody: amazing beaches, boozy nights, and Buddhist temples galore.Relax and enjoy the warm sandbanks and beaches, with its crystal-clear waters. Here, the limestone karsts jut out into the ocean and its is very pretty.

  • Phang Nga Bay runs from Phuket to Krabi, and is fantastic for diving and snorkelling.You can go on a four-island tour, where you can hop on and off different islands, enjoy a picnic lunch on a deserted beach.
  • Head to Koh Yao Noi for an isolated treehouse experience. A fairly chilled-out place, it’s a short boat trip from Phuket where you can spend a week living in an incredible treehouse in the forest. Check out The Island Hideout
  • Ao Phang-nga National Park Ao Phang-nga National Park is also very close by. This place is famous for its surreal limestone towers and caves. Kayaking around the towers and through the caves is an amazing experience and definitely worth doing, The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed here.

Khao Sok

This is the best national park in Thailand, a 3 hour drive from Phuket.There are caves, jungles, rivers and gorgeous limestone scenery.You can explore the park by using its hiking trail, raft, canoe, or kayak through the Sok river.You can visit Elephant Hills sanctuary, which offers a genuine conservation and education experience. See the elephants in their natural habitat. Learn how to care for the elephants, help with their feeding and bathing under their Mahouts who train them.

Railay and Krabi

Here will find some of the most epic and exhilarating climbing routes in all of Asia. If you’ve never climbed before, this is a great place to start! You can go deep water soloing (climbing without gear directly over the ocean). Krabi is the main hub of the region. You can stay at Railay or Tonsai, (Railay is calmer).

Koh Phi Phi, and Koh Tao

Thanks to the The Beach, these famous islands are worth visiting but they can be very busy.There are beautiful beaches, epic nightlife and awesome places to stay.

Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao

Heading east across to the Gulf of Thailand are these three small islands. The full-moon parties are huge on Koh Phangan whilst Koh Tao is great for diving.Koh Samui is the resort island, more expensive.

Kanchanaburi Region

In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control and it was here that Asian forced labourers and Allied POWs were made to build the infamous ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ as part of the ‘Death Railway’. You should also take a look at the JEATH Museum. It does a really good job of putting the war in perspective even all these years on.This sobering experience and point of reflection is an important reason to take the trip out here. But, it’s also located near to some truly stunning waterfalls.While you’re in town, you can also check out the Khmer ruins on the edge of town. It’s a nice contrast of history to see the distant with the more recent.

So how are you going be a traveller in Thailand?

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