Published: 4th May, 2020
Stellar beaches extend to jungle and reefs. Terrific food bursts from heritage architecture. Waterfalls cascade down dramatic mountain slopes. If you think of Eastern Thailand as nothing but a way to kill a few days out of Bangkok, read on to find out how much more there is to this region than sleazy Pattaya and the touristy parts of Ko Samet and Ko Chang.
What follows is a four-week itinerary covering some of Eastern Thailand’s hotspots along with less-travelled points that we think are worth a look. A swing through the smallest of Thailand’s five main regions makes perfect sense for travellers entering or departing Cambodia via the coastal border crossing at Had Lek / Koh Kong. But the East is also worth considering as a round trip out of Bangkok, which is never more than a half-day bus ride from the mainland centres.
Rather than thinking of this as a rigid plan, view it more like a menu and adapt it to fit your tastes and time restrictions. We packed a lot in and the pace will be too swift for some. At least one night on six different islands may be overdoing it, but we’ve included all of the destinations that we think are worthwhile. However, if we had more limited time, we’d cut Ko Si Chang and/or Ko Samet and focus more on Chanthaburi and the Chang archipelago.
Few travellers use the East’s two airports—U-Tapao Rayong-Pattaya and Trat—because fares tend to be high and the region is well connected by cheap buses and minibuses (vans) out of Bangkok, where Ekkamai bus terminal has the widest range of departures. Some destinations can also be reached from Morchit bus terminal and Floor 1 of Suvarnabhumi Airport. Once you’re in the region, jumping around by bus or minibus is easy enough. You’ll find detailed info in our destination transport pages (like this one for Chanthaburi), and some fares may be booked online through Travelfish partner 12Go Asia.
Available for (usually) cheap rides on fixed routes and pricier charters for day trips, songthaews have you covered for local excursions around many destinations. A rental car is worth the splurge if you’ll focus on the mainland and Ko Chang, which is accessible by frequent car ferries out of Laem Ngop. Scooter (motorbike) rental is also widely available—read up on the insurance implications if you’re thinking of riding without a license. Also keep in mind that Ko Chang’s steep switchback roads make it one of the most dangerous places in Thailand for inexperienced scooter riders.
November to February provides dry and relatively cool weather, though rooms in the islands are most expensive, and often booked up in advance, from mid December through February. Away from the sea breeze, the mainland swelters during the March to May hot season, but this is not a bad time for islands. From June through October, expect rain on most days and rough seas causing island-hopping boats to stop running in the Chang archipelago. Rainy season riptides cause yearly deaths—look for red warning flags on beaches before you dive in. May to September is however the time to sample the East’s famously delicious fruits, including durian, mangosteen and salacca.
Day 1: Bangkok to Sri Racha
Don’t be deterred if you get a late start out of Bangkok—it’s only a 100 km bus ride southeast to Sri Racha (or Si Racha), a buzzing coastal town drawing few travellers. After settling into a hotel, watch fishers return to wooden jetties and wander about the town. At dusk, wander the seafront park and night markets to sample some of the area’s bountiful seafood. Of course, coming to Sri Racha without sampling the eponymous hot sauce would be a crime.
Side trip option: Chachoengsao
If you have extra time and would like to delve deeper into non-touristy Thailand, make a stop in Chachoengsao on the way between Bangkok and Sri Racha. The provincial capital is well known domestically for traditional Thai sweets and a priceless Buddha image that was supposedly discovered floating down the Bang Pakong River in centuries past. If you’re passing through on a weekend, pop over to the floating market in the riverside village of Bang Khla.
Days 2-4: Ko Si Chang
Ko Si Chang is geographically the closest island to Bangkok, a fact that made it the obvious choice for hosting King Chulalongkorn’s seaside retreat in the late 19th century—at least until French colonial warships ended the fun. His exquisite teakwood mansion was dismantled and moved to the Thai capital, but you can still visit the grounds to peruse the remaining structures. The few foreign visitors tend to be more interested in Si Chang’s photogenic fishing villages, viewpoints and surrounding isles that can be reached on day trips. Enjoy the seafood on Si Chang, as prices tend to be higher on islands drawing more foreign tourists.
Side trip option: Bang Saen and Pattaya
Many visitors to the East roll down the coast of Chonburi province to hit a couple of touristy destinations. Bangkok Thais file into Bang Saen on weekends, while foreigners congregate at Thailand’s sex tourism capital, Pattaya, whose raunchiness is hard to escape. Though we’ve had good times in Bang Saen, we find Pattaya so off-putting that we choose not to cover it on Travelfish. Both are mainly popular for nightlife and seafood rather than the mediocre beaches known for aggressive lounge chair vendors. If you do visit, look into distant islands like Ko Phai and Ko Maniwichai for diving and snorkelling.
Day 5: Rayong and Ban Phe
A 70-km ride southeast from Sri Racha takes you to Rayong, a non-touristy provincial capital with an atmospheric old quarter and countless fishing boats puttering into the Gulf each day. You could spend a night or immediately transfer by songthaew to Ban Phe, home to the Ko Samet ferry piers. While few stick around overnight in this small town, accommodation is available and nearby Khao Laem Ya is worth a climb to overlook much of Samet’s serpentine figure. On the way back to town you might pop into the aquarium or stroll down a lane stacked with seafood.
Days 6-8: Ko Samet
This relatively small island has long been a top-tier destination for both foreigners and Thais, many of them urbanites seeking short breaks from Bangkok and Pattaya. A bundle of beaches range from nightlife hubs Haad Sai Kaew and Ao Phai to family-oriented Ao Wong Duean and quiet coves Ao Wai and Ao Pakarang, which hug the remote southern tip of Samet’s long, slender tail. Though Ko Samet is best known for midrange to luxury accommodation, solid budget bungalows are available at low-key spots like Ao Nuan and Apache.
Day 9: Ko Thalu and Ko Kudee
Five to 10 km east of Samet sit a clutch of petite isles overseen by Khao Laem Ya - Mu Ko Samet National Park. On uninhabited Ko Thalu, take a dip off the marvellous beach after hiking to a cliff for a westerly view back to Samet. Nearby Ko Kudee has a wider beach to go with a campground, but the vast majority of visitors come on a day tour from Samet.
Side trip options: Laem Mae Phim and the Mun islands
Some 20 km east of Ban Phe, the mainland sand of Laem Mae Phim extends for several km and offers a chance to join working-class Thais enjoying their beach holidays. The area is also the main launch point for the triplet isles of Ko Mun, home to gorgeous beaches and a couple of pricey resorts on Ko Mun Klang and Ko Mun Nork. If not splashing out for a night or two, join in a boat tour that will likely include a turtle preservation centre on Ko Mun Nai. The Ko Mun (or Man) islands can also be reached on a day trip from Samet.
Days 10-11: Chanthaburi
Set 90 km east of Ban Phe, the heritage houses in this provincial capital display Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and French designs amid a three-century-old riverside settlement recently revitalised as a living attraction—it’s one of our favourite “old towns” in Thailand. After perusing the temples and cathedral, finish with massaman durian and fish sauteed with Siamese cardamom at the outstanding Chanthorn. The “Moon City” also anchors a serious precious stone trade—visit on a weekend to haggle over yellow sapphire at Talad Ploy.
Days 12-13: Around Chanthaburi
Chanthaburi province’s long coastal road covers empty beaches and viewpoints along with a free aquarium, a mangrove-studded bay and eateries specialising in local oysters and soft-shell crab, making for a wonderful day trip. You might also check out a couple of historic temples set near the maritime museum and a 19th-century fort, where the cannons are still attached. Of two national parks within daytripping distance of Chanthaburi town, we prefer Khao Kitchakut for its impressive waterfall and a “Buddha footprint” shrine set atop the namesake mountain. While the shrines are only open (roughly) between February and March, the falls flow year round and camping is possible. Birdwatchers: bring binoculars.
Day 14: Trat
Some 70 km east of Chanthaburi sits the capital of Trat, a province whose long and narrow panhandle stretches between the Gulf and the Cardamom mountains on the way to Cambodia. Colourful markets and a provincial museum discussing a brush with French colonial rule join a clutch of incredibly cheap guesthouses in the capital town, which is a good place to hunker down if you need to save cash. If you’re in a rush to get back to the beach, a quick pivot by songthaew and ferry could have you on Ko Chang by midday.
Days 15-18: Ko Chang
Trat province’s “Elephant Island” comprises more than 200 square km of mostly untouched mountain wilderness visible from as far away as the Chanthaburi coast. While the interior is great for trekking and swimming at numerous waterfalls, most of Chang’s coastline has been developed and you’ll find hundreds of places to stay. A wide variety of scenes range from the mainstream tourism of Haad Sai Khao to the sedate estuaries of Khlong Phrao to Lonely Beach’s hippie party scene and traditional fishing villages on the less-travelled east coast. Ko Chang is the largest of the 52 islands in the archipelago that bears its name—head to the lighthouse in scenic Bang Bao for a glimpse of what’s in store.
Day 19: Ko Wai
This tiny and attractive island lies six km south of Ko Chang and is the first stop for high-season island-hopping boats that also dock at Ko Mak and Ko Kut. Most visitors come on a day trip from Chang, but we always spend a night in a bare-bones bungalow after snorkelling, kayaking and hiking to dramatic cliffs rimming Ko Wai’s rarely seen south coast. It’s a rustic island with no roads and electricity switching on from only around 18:00 to 22:00. Bring a torch and plenty of mozzie spray.
Days 20-23: Ko Mak
At the centre of the Chang archipelago, mid-size Ko Mak is full of rubber trees tapped by islanders who have been careful to avoid heavy tourism development. The tranquil ambiance and comfy resorts attract families, romance makers and a few divers looking to pick up certification in a scene that’s more intimate than Ko Chang’s. To avoid the island’s notorious sandflies, strike east and lounge on the reddish sand of Laem Son, home to a single beach shack restaurant. From there you might take a half-day trip to Ko Kradat, a quirky island with some good beaches and little else save a few coconut farmers and a freely roaming herd of deer. A few other satellite isles present kayakers with options for exploration.
Day 24: Ko Rang
Six km west of Ko Mak and typically reached on a day trip, the national park island of Ko Rang is a beauty of the Chang archipelago. Its powdery white-sand shores, clear turquoise water, extensive reefs and forested interior all exceeded our expectations. Rang is most often reached from Ko Chang, but we prefer to save it for Mak because the boats are smaller and less crowded, and the ride considerably shorter.
Days 25-28: Ko Kut
Travellers often skip Ko Kut due to its location at the far southern end of the Chang archipelago, but this is a mistake if you want to see some of the finest beaches in Thailand. Recent years have seen independent travellers join the package tourists and luxury travellers, resulting in an influx of affordable accommodation options. The scenery is spectacular along the shores and at a few waterfalls flowing amid the mountainous interior. If you’re a beach snob or seek romance and seclusion, do make it down to Kut.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.