If your first port of arrival in Thailand is Bangkok, you might feel a little apprehensive about the idea of taking to the highway on a road trip. In the Thai capital, cars are stacked bumper to bumper, motorcycles duel for space with pedestrians and seemingly anything goes when it comes to road rules. But breathe easy: Bangkok is not all of Thailand.
Escape the capital and traffic conditions calm considerably, though you’ll still need to be cautious of speeding trucks and buses and the steady throng of motorcyclists. The good news is that Thailand’s roads are mostly well-maintained, car and motorcycle rental costs are moderate, and there’s so much to see that even a short road trip takes on an air of adventure.
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The smart way to road trip in Thailand is to start outside Bangkok, renting a vehicle in one of Thailand’s smaller towns. The further you go off the tourist trail, the quieter the roads and the more there is to discover in the towns and villages you pass through on the way. For inspiration, here are our favorite road trips in Thailand.
Mae Sa Valley
Best road trip for first timers
Chiang Mai–Chiang Mai; 80km (50 miles)
A great taster trip to get you used to driving or riding in Thailand, this circuit through the forested mountains north of Chiang Mai will introduce you to village life and the jade-green rainforest landscapes of northern Thailand. After leaving Chiang Mai, the crowds drop away as you get closer to Nam Tok Mae Sa, a natural swimming pool that makes a lovely picnic spot.
Continue to the Queen Sikrit Botanical Gardens, a collection of plantations, walking trails and greenhouses with a family-friendly natural history museum. From here, you enter a part of the country that was once used to grow opium poppies before hill tribe farmers were persuaded to switch to fruit and flowers by the Thai royal family.
Experience village life with a detour north to the Hmong community of Nong Hoi, where local restaurants at Mon Cham serve tasty village food and Thai fruit liqueurs in pavilions overlooking the valley. The loop back to Chiang Mai on the 1269 passes Samoeng village and a series of spectacular viewpoints where you can pause for photos, before swinging back into the Northern Thai capital.
Planning tip: Get an early start to make the most of this day-long road trip. Grab a portable breakfast at the Talat Thanin food market before you set off.
The distinctive twin pagodas atop Doi Inthanon near Chiang Mai © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Mae Hong Son Loop
Best road trip for traveler vibes
Chiang Mai–Chiang Mai; 604km (375 miles)
A more ambitious road trip from Chiang Mai meanders through the green hills to the southwest, following Route 108 and Route 1095 through the lively traveler town of Mae Hong Son. This twisting loop is famous for having 1864 curves and the Chamber of Commerce in Mae Hong Son issues souvenir certificates for drivers who complete the circuit. On the way, you can swing into some of the most interesting townships in northwest Thailand.
Leaving Chiang Mai on the 108, the first stop is Doi Inthanon National Park, a lush, green mountaintop that is one of the few places in Thailand to see temperatures dip below freezing. You’ll want to pause for a day or two at Mae Sariang, a relaxing riverside town that’s a great base for hiking and sustainable adventures in the hills.
There’s time for another stop at Khun Yuam to explore wartime history before you roll into Mae Hong Son, one of northern Thailand’s best hubs for monastery-hopping and treks to hill tribe villages. On the loop back to Chiang Mai on route 1095, make stops at the Su Tong Pae bamboo bridge, the “Little Switzerland” of Pang Oung and the bustling traveler hub of Pai, where you can kick back for a while, enjoying everything from treks to yoga classes and cooking schools.
Planning tip: Be ready for cold temperatures at Doi Inthanon National Park; chilly fog can swirl around the summit year-round so bring a warm layer.
Khao Sok National Park is home to ancient rainforest and the crystal clear Lake Ratchaprapha © iStockphoto / Getty Images
Hua Hin to Surat Thani
Best road trip for low-key beaches
Hua Hin–Surat Thani; 580km (360 miles) one-way
Southern Thailand’s long, slender profile doesn’t lend itself to looping road trips, but there’s plenty to see by drifting along the coast. Start in Hua Hin, Thailand’s original beach resort, where one-way car rentals can be arranged through Thai Rent a Car. Slide south through the low-key, locals-oriented beach towns of Prachaup Khiri Khan, Ban Krut and Bang Saphan Yai to Chumphon, where the Muslim culture of southern Thailand starts to surface.
Before ending the trip at Surat Thani, duck inland to Khao Sok National Park, a 160-million-year-old rainforest that provides shelter for bears, tapirs, gibbons, elephants and tigers, myriad birds and the enormous Rafflesia kerrii – the world’s largest flower. The fun doesn’t have to stop at Surat Thani; the town is a jumping-off point for the Gulf Islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao, where you can bask, party and enjoy some of the world’s cheapest scuba diving.
Take time off from driving and swimming the coast to wander Koh Lanta Old Town © lechatnoir / Getty Images
Phuket to Satun and back
Best road trip for island adventures
Phuket–Satun-Phuket; 1100km (690 miles) round trip
Because of political unrest in Thailand’s far south, the Andaman Coast is best explored as an out-and-back road trip starting from Phuket, avoiding the troubled east coast. With hundreds of idyllic islands offshore, you’ll want to stop regularly for overnight sojourns on tropical islands along the way.
Starting with a seafood feast in Phuket, follow the Andaman Coast around Phang-Nga Bay, stopping for a boat trip around the otherworldly karst islands of Ao Phang-Nga Marine National Park. Keep following the bay south to Krabi and the epic rock-climbing cliffs around Railay, one of the world’s most enjoyable adventure sports hubs.
Let the coast call you south to Ko Lanta for more time on the sand, then return to the mainland to reach Trang, gateway to its own collection of idyllic karst islands. The final leg south passes through townships that feel almost Malaysian in character. Turn around at Satun and take a couple of days to snorkel and hike on the unspoiled islands of Ko Tarutao Marine National Park before you retrace your steps to Phuket.
Planning tip: The seas off the Andaman Coast can get very choppy from May to October and many ferry routes and some national parks close for the season, so it’s best to avoid this time of year.
Prang Sam Yot temple is one of Lopburi’s best-known landmarks where monkeys run free © iStockphoto Getty Images
Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Best road trip for history
Bangkok–Chiang Mai; 583 kilometers (362 miles)
If you’re brave enough to start from Bangkok, the drive from the capital to Chiang Mai packs in a lot of history and some of Thailand’s most spectacular ancient sites. The hardest part is the beginning, escaping Bangkok’s gravitational pull on route 347. Fortunately, it’s only 90 minutes to Ayuthaya, the first stop on the route.
Explore the ruins of the imperial city that was Siam’s capital from 1350 to 1767, then continue north on route 32, making a detour east to view Lopburi’s monkey-thronged Prang Sam Yot temple. Back on the highway, it’s a sustained slog north to Phitsanulok, where you can pay your respects to one of Thailand’s most revered Buddha images at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat.
The next stop is stunning Sukhothai, whose ruined stupas and temples were the hub of a powerful Thai kingdom from the 13th to the 14th centuries. Break the journey north with a homestay at Ban Na Ton Cham or an overnight (or longer) stop in hip Lampang, where cool cafes throng with more local movers and shakers. Lamphun is another worthy stop before you roll into Chiang Mai and head straight for the night markets to feast.
Detour: To add some contemporary history to the trip, tack on a detour to Kanchanaburi between Bangkok and Ayuthaya. Made infamous by the Burma-Siam Railway, this town on the Mae Nam Khwae Yai river is today a hub for encounters with history and day trips to splash in the waterfalls of Erawan National Park.
Chiang Rai to Phayao
Best road trip for dramatic vistas
Chiang Rai–Phayao; 250km (155 miles)
Chiang Rai is northern Thailand’s second great city – crammed with temples and cultural sites like Chiang Mai, but with less of a backpacker vibe. A stop at the “white wat” of Wat Rong Khun is almost obligatory if only to view the pop culture murals showing such diverse subjects as the 9/11 attacks and Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.
To reach the Lao border town of Chiang Khong, follow back roads through a region that was once notorious as the heart of the opium-growing Golden Triangle. Take your time drifting through villages tucked along forest-cloaked ridges, then stop for a day or two in Chiang Khong to soak up the Lao influences seeping in from Huay Xai across the Mekong River.
Divert south on the 1020 and follow routes 1093 and 1155 through dramatic emerald hills to epic viewpoints such as Pratu Siam and Phu Chi Fa. Pause to enjoy the hot waterfall at Nam Tok Phu Sang before you roll onwards to finish up in leafy Phayao, an overlooked northern Thai town with pretty wooden houses, wetland scenery and a lost-in-time mood that will give you a sense of what all of northern Thailand was like before the arrival of mass tourism.
Planning tip: This route follows many back roads off the main highways; turnings are usually signposted, but if not, ask at roadside cafes and petrol pumps.
Stop to explore the Khmer temple complex at Phanom Rung Historic Park © Jeremy Horner / Getty Images
An Isaan loop
Best off-the-beaten-track road trip
Nakhon Ratchasima–Nakhon Ratchasima; 830km (515 miles)
Travelers gush about Thailand’s Isaan region – the tract of land running northeast from Bangkok against the Lao and Cambodian borders. In this gently slumbering corner of the country, the cuisine is spectacular, the pace of life unhurried, and crowds are rare… in other words, conditions are perfect for a slow road trip by motorcycle. Spare yourself the drive out of Bangkok by taking a bus or train to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) and pick up some wheels there.
Hit the trail and meander east through Phanom Rung Historical Park, a striking Khmer temple complex atop an extinct volcano. Track the Cambodian border eastward to reach Ubon Ratchathani, an off-the-tourist-track town studded with handsome monasteries and balanced beside the Mae Nam Mun river. Loop through Yasothon (worth a stop during the rocket festival in mid-May) and lake-centered Roi Et to reach Prasat Puay Noi, a fine Khmer Hindu temple complex from the 12th century. Keep the Khmer theme going at Phimai, a grand temple ruin fusing Hindu and Buddhist motifs, then close the loop back in Nakhon Ratchasima, grazing on Isaan delicacies at RN Yard.
Planning tip: A big part of traveling in Isaan is sampling the food. Essential Isaan dishes to try include laab (a zesty ground meal salad with lime, mint, chili and toasted rice), som tam (a pounded salad of green papaya, green beans, peanuts and shrimp) and sai grok isaan (a sour, smoky, fermented pork sausage).
Tips for driving in Thailand
Thailand nominally drives on the right, though this is widely flouted, particularly by motorcycles, which often ride against the traffic flow on the hard shoulder. Always give way to larger vehicles such as buses and trucks, and watch out for pedestrians. Driving slowly is always sensible. You can hire cars, motorcycles and scooters with a home driving license; take out as much insurance as is available, and keep your license and passport (or copies of the identity pages) handy for police checks.