Thailand has so much to offer travelers — from the beaches of Phuket and Koh Pha Ngan, to the jungles around Chiang Mai and Pai, to Bangkok’s backpacker scene on Khao San Road. With cheap flights increasingly available, it’s easier than ever to pack a lot into a short holiday here. But flying from major city to major city can also mean missing out on some of the best this country has to offer — namely, central Thailand. This one-week central Thailand itinerary can help you plan your trip.
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Why visit central Thailand?
These cities are most famous for their huge ancient temples. Wandering the ruins, you quickly get a sense for the evolution of Thai Buddhism. Visit the museums to get up to speed on your Thai history.
But it’s not all about the ancient. Central Thailand also has some of the best night markets in the country. Visit the Bridge over the River Kwai, and after you finish whistling the song, learn about its heartbreaking recent history. In between, check out the more modern temples, see a stunning waterfall, and chat with the friendly locals.
Additionally, it’s easy to follow this central Thailand itinerary as a way of breaking up a long train or bus trip between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. If you’re going to pass through these cities anyway, you might as well stop and see what they have to offer.
Finally, although central Thailand sees plenty of tourists, it’s not as overwhelming as the islands, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok. There is a noticeable lack of party culture. While Ayuthaya sees a healthy dose of day-tripping mass tour groups, in the evenings it clears out and you could be one of only a handful of tourists in town. You’ll likely be the only farang (foreigner) eating at the night market in Lopburi. That being said, if you’re a nervous first-time solo traveler in Thailand, you’ll find the infrastructure easy to navigate here.
Convinced yet? Read on for the details on how to spend one week in central Thailand. I cover this central Thailand itinerary starting in Bangkok and ending in Chiang Mai, but you could easily reverse it.
My one week central Thailand itinerary
Days 1-2: Kanchanaburi
Start your central Thailand itinerary in Kanchanaburi — home of the Bridge over the River Kwai.
Kanchanaburi could easily have just been another Thai town along the river. But during World War II, it was at the center of the construction of a railway line — the “Death Railway” — between Thailand and Myanmar. The railway earned its name due to the massive numbers of POWs forced to work on its construction who died in the process. The Bridge over the River Kwai is the most famous part of the railway. (For more on the history of Kanchanaburi, check out this blog.)
What to see and do
The main reason to visit Kanchanaburi as part of this central Thailand itinerary is to get acquainted with this horrifying recent history. Start by walking to the famous bridge. It’s about 2.5 km north of town, but it’s a pleasant walk along quiet side streets. You can walk across the bridge, but be careful — it’s still actively used by trains.
Next, pay a visit to the moving museum at the Thailand–Burma Railway Center (140 baht). This is one of Thailand’s best museums, and will give you real insight into the World War II history. The video displays — which include stories from POWs who survived — are particularly impactful. Allow 90 minutes to get the most out of the museum.
If you have extra time on your first day, try visiting a couple of the war cemeteries scattered around town. Alternatively, grab a beer along the river and relish the peaceful environment. Kanchanaburi also has a good selection of Thai massage places for very reasonable prices — expect to pay around 150 baht for an hour massage.
On your second day, get an early start to head to Erawan National Park (admission 300 baht). The four-tiered waterfalls here are among the most beautiful in Southeast Asia. Buses run every hour, take about 90 minutes, and cost 50 baht. If you want to climb to all four tiers, try to be on the bus before 9 am — the upper tiers close early.
Once you get back to Kanchanaburi, spend the late afternoon at Wat Tham Khao Pun. This cave temple, 4 km outside the town center, is a fascinating introduction to modern Buddhism. Admission is 30 baht and someone will show you around. Beware of bats!
To kick off your central Thailand itinerary and reach Kanchanaburi from Bangkok, catch a bus from the southern bus terminal. They leave every 15 minutes and take about 2 hours. The bus costs 95/110 baht (second/first class).
You can also take the train to Kanchanaburi (100 baht). Just note that trains leave from Thonburi Train Station, not the more central Hua Lamphong. It may take you more time to get to Thonburi on a local bus that it would to just take a bus all the way to Kanchanaburi. Since there are only a handful of train departures each day, the bus is likely to be more convenient.
Where to stay
Kanchanaburi has a huge number of guesthouses at all price ranges. Choose from a stylish room overlooking the river, a hostel with dorm beds, or a cozy local guesthouse.
Most of the budget places are along Mae Nam Khwae Road, especially on the southern end. Stamp Hostel is a good bet for the dorm crowd. I stayed at VN Guesthouse right along the river, which has decent private rooms at a great price. (And lots of lizards! So many lizards.)
Where to eat and drink
Two words: Night markets. Kanchanaburi has one of the country’s best, both for food and for shopping.
The main night market is on the southern end of town, just off Sangchuto Road. The entire area comes to life in the evenings — if you don’t see an appealing food stall in the market itself, try the surrounding side streets. Pumpkin curry is big here and definitely a life-changing food choice.
In the mornings, look for the amazing curry stalls along Mae Nam Khwae Road just before the bend in the road (on the far southern end). Point to what you want, rub shoulders with locals, and don’t be surprised if no English is spoken.
Kanchanaburi definitely caters to backpackers, so you don’t need to sacrifice good coffee on this central Thailand itinerary. Just be prepared to pay Western prices at any swanky cafe. To save money, get a Thai iced coffee at a curry stall for around 15 baht.
The most appealing bars are the ones along the waterfront. Be forewarned — Kanchanaburi has a startlingly active sex tourism industry. It’s more noticeable than elsewhere in Thailand. Solo men should be wary of overly friendly women approaching them in bars.
Days 3-4: Ayuthaya
Get an early start on your last morning in Kanchanaburi — it’s time to hit the road. Your next stop on this central Thailand itinerary is Ayuthaya, home of the first major kingdom to rule Thailand.
Ayuthaya was an important stop along Southeast Asian trading routes long before it became the capital of Siam in the late 1300’s. It lasted 400 years as the center of power before Burmese troops destroyed it.
What to see and do
Most of the fun in Ayuthaya comes from exploring the ancient, ruined temples dotted around the city. You can also visit a couple of still-active temples — be sure to carry a sarong in your daypack to properly cover up at these.
The best way to explore Ayuthaya’s temples and ruins is by bicycle. A slew of shops around the morning market rent them for around 40 baht per day. Make sure you get a lock and check the brakes before you pedal off. The roads are pretty quiet and safe for even novice cyclists.
Spend your first day visiting the active temples. Wat Kluay is the first one you’ll come to as you cycle out of town. It’s an interesting stop for a few minutes, just to observe modern Thai life. Then, continue onward to Wat Phanan Choeng — a Chinese-influenced temple with a huge golden Buddha. You may be charged 20 baht admission to visit, but when I was there no one was around to collect the fee. Finally, get a preview of the historical sites you’ll see tomorrow by stopping by Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon and seeing its huge reclining Buddha.
On Day 2 in Ayuthaya, focus on the ruins “on the island” (i.e. in and around the town center). Pick up a combo ticket for 220 baht — this will get you into most of the major sites.
Wat Mahathat is the most well-known temple in Ayuthaya, and a must-visit on this central Thailand itinerary. Try to arrive before day-trippers from Bangkok get there to appreciate it in a more quiet setting. Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Phra Si Sanphet are the other essential stops. If you have time, cross the river again just before sunset to visit Wat Chai Wattanaram.
Ayutthaya is easy to reach by train from Bangkok or Lopburi (about 1 hour from each; 15-20 baht). Unfortunately, coming from Kanchanaburi on this central Thailand itinerary, you have a longer travel day ahead of you.
Start by hopping on a bus from Kanchanaburi to Suphanburi. These cost 50-90 baht and take about 2 hours. From Suphanburi, you can hop on a minibus to Ayuthaya for another 80 baht and 90 minutes. All in all, it’ll take you about four hours.
Tell the folks at the bus station in Kanchanaburi that Ayuthaya is your final destination. They’ll help you out and make it relatively straightforward to change vehicles.
Where to stay
Ayutthaya’s budget guesthouses are clustered on and around Soi 2, near Chao Phrom Market. Since most people day-trip from Bangkok, the guesthouses are pretty quiet.
I stayed at PK Hostel — under $10 a night bought me a dorm bed in a good location with very clean facilities. My travel buddy and I had the dorm to ourselves the whole time we were there. Allsum Hostel is a newer option, with more modern amenities. The best private rooms in the same area are at Baan Bussara.
Where to eat and drink
Like Kanchanaburi, Ayuthaya provides a great chance to indulge in market food on this central Thailand itinerary.
In the morning, check out Chao Phrom Market for breakfast. You can get a bowl of noodles and a coffee for around $1.50. Many of the stalls have English-language menus.
Night markets abound, but the best is the Hua Ro Night Market, along the river to the north. You can get a full meal for under 20 baht. It really gets going after 6 pm. Bang Ian Night Market is another good option, right near the historical park.
Sainam Pomphet is an excellent (if not super cheap) lunch option. Outdoor seats along the river? Yes please! There are also a bunch of informal, cheap and cheerful spots near Wat Phanan Choeng to grab a quick bite.
Day 5: Lopburi
Lopburi is a nice change of pace after Kanchanaburi and Sukhothai on this central Thailand itinerary. It’s quite a small city, easily covered in a day, and it sees far fewer tourists. While historical sites are scattered around town, the real attraction (or annoyance, depending on your perspective) is the resident monkey troupe.
Note that Lopburi’s main attractions are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.
Lopburi is old. Like, really old. It may have been founded as early as the 6th century.
The city was a capital for a period, and you can still see the ancient palaces and homes dotted around town. It reached its prominence during the Ayuthaya era. But the architectural influence of other kingdoms is strong — you’ll see more Khmer influence in this area than anywhere else on this central Thailand itinerary.
What to see and do
As soon as you arrive in town, head for Prang Sam Yot. This is Lopburi’s most famous attraction and at the center of the monkeys’ territory. The 50 baht admission allows you to wander through the towers, but it’s just as fun to hang out outside and watch the monkeys swing around. Be very careful with your belongings here — anything dangling off your person (sunglasses, earrings, water bottles, etc.) is fair game for the critters.
The town’s best museum is on the grounds of Phra Narai Ratchaniwet (admission 150 baht). It’s worth a couple hours to explore the ornate grounds and displays about life in ancient Lopburi.
Pay a visit to the shrine of San Phra Kan, in the roundabout near the train station. Then, finish your visit around Lopburi at Wat Phra Si Ratana Mahathat the town’s most interesting temple.
It’ll only take you an hour and cost you 13 baht to reach Lopburi from Ayuthaya. Trains leave throughout the day, but there are more departures in the morning.
Lopburi is very compact and has fewer tuk-tuks or songthaew than most other Thai towns. You can walk everywhere within the town center.
Where to stay
The obvious budget choice in Lopburi is Noom Guesthouse. For $8 a night, you get a simple, very clean room with a shared bathroom. If the main guesthouse is full, they may put you in an annex nearby with similar facilities.
Where to eat and drink
Lopburi lacks a huge range of eating options. Aside from the cafe at Noom Guesthouse, chances are you’ll stick with street food the whole time you’re here.
Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The town has ample places to get a pad thai or a fruit smoothie while sitting in plastic chairs on the sidewalk.
The night market sets up near the train station. Beware: Monkey interference with your dinner is a significant problem. You may be better off getting takeout and bringing it back to your guesthouse.
Days 6-7: Sukhothai
I saved the best of this central Thailand itinerary for last. Sukhothai is by far the most impressive of the region’s ancient sites. Get up close and personal with the world’s most photographed Buddha, explore mysterious tunnels, and more.
Sukhothai developed in the 13th century and kept its grip on power for just over 100 years.
Sukhothai is considered the ancient society that most clearly led to the development of modern Thailand. Keep your eyes open for links between the ancient and the modern as you explore the historical park.
The modern city of Sukhothai is located about 12 km east of the historical park. While it lacks in interesting things to do, it contains most of the cheap food and guesthouses, so you may end up staying there and day-tripping to the ancient city.
What to see and do
The main reason to come to Sukhothai is to explore its incredible historical park.
On your first day, kick things off with a visit to the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum (150 baht). This museum provides a great overview of life in ancient Sukhothai. It also contains displays on parts of the temples that are no longer accessible. The most interesting component is the recreation of the tunnel at Wat Si Chum (the real tunnel is closed off).
On your second day, head back to the historical park and rent a bicycle (around 30 baht). Start exploring the ruins at the Central Zone (100 baht). Don’t miss the walking Buddha, the seated Buddha at Wat Mahathat, and the general atmosphere of moats, lakes and temples. This region of the historical park has the greatest concentration of interesting ruins, so take your time here.
Next, cycle over to the Western Zone (100 baht). The highlight of this area is Wat Saphan Hin. But since the Western Zone is quite spread out, it’s also an ideal chance to cycle away from the other tourists and admire the smaller ruins in peace and quiet. Look out for the interesting elephant stupa as you’re cycling over from the Central Zone.
Finally, head to the Northern Zone (100 baht). This is where you’ll find Wat Si Chum, Sukhothai’s most famous Buddha and one of Thailand’s most awe-inspiring attractions. Cycle around to several other small ruined temples nearby.
Coming from Lopburi (or further south), you’ll have to change vehicles at Phitsanulok to reach Sukhothai. This is a straightforward change of vehicle. The whole trip will take around 5 hours and it shouldn’t cost more than 300 baht.
Leaving Sukhothai, be sure to buy your bus ticket a day in advance. The bus station is small and few buses originate here, so you may have trouble getting a same-day ticket.
Between the new town and the historical park, be prepared to pay 30 baht each way on a songthaew. Unfortunately there aren’t many places to rent bikes in the new town, so you’re pretty stuck paying the ridiculous transport fee.
Where to stay
Your main consideration when choosing accommodation will be whether to pay extra to stay near the historical park (but cut transport costs), or to stay in the new city, with its cheaper guesthouses and more authentic food options.
In the new city, Happy Guesthouse 2 is the pick of the bunch. The $3 dorms and $6 private rooms are an unbeatable deal, especially with this location just a short walk from the bus station and steps from the night market. The owners operate Happy Guesthouse Bungalow a short walk away, if you’re after something swankier.
If you can’t take one more night in a grotty budget hotel, splurge for a couple nights at Pottery Street House. It’s an easy walk from the historical park and the best value for money you’ll find.
Where to eat and drink
Of all the spots on this central Thailand itinerary, Sukhothai is the most disappointing when it comes to food. In the evenings you’re best off sticking with the night market that sets up on the left bank of the river.
All the locals will point you to Jayhae, the town’s most famous noodle joint. It’s pretty good, but a bit on the pricey side (50 baht-ish for a meal).
If you must eat or get a cup of coffee near the historical park, Coffee Cup is the best option. They at least have actual espresso. But honestly the backpacker places around here are all pretty sad-looking and wildly overpriced.
Next: Explore northern Thailand!
You’ve come to the end of my one-week central Thailand itinerary. After Sukhothai, the logical next step is to hop on a bus to Chiang Mai — the launch point for northern Thailand. From there you can connect to Chiang Rai and Pai or fly back to Bangkok.
You won’t regret taking the slow route from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Central Thailand truly is the beating heart of the country. You’ll get a much better sense of the national psyche after exploring the ancient cities and temples on this itinerary. Have a great trip!
Have you been to central Thailand? What was your favorite part? Leave a comment!
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