Thailand has been the backbone of SE Asia tourism for years. It’s no surprise to anyone who visits, why Thailand is the travel mecca that it has become. The beaches are great, the food is delicious, the prices are low, the history and culture are rich…..AND….it’s easy to get around. There’s no secret to their success. Everything in Thailand is awesome! But, before you head off and dive into that first Som Tom (Papaya Salad) be sure you check our Big 5 Thailand Travel Guide so you can be prepared to do and see it all.
Here’s our Big 5 Thailand Travel Guide
1) PREPARING TO GO:
Expectations: Thailand is about as well rounded of a tourist destination as you’re going to encounter, and every destination offers days worth of activities and attractions. So, it’s good to be realistic about what you can accomplish in the time you have there. Don’t try to see all the islands, beaches, cities and temples in just two weeks. Be realistic, because rushing through Thailand would be a shame.
Visa: You should consult your country’s embassy for exact requirements, but Thailand does have visa exemptions for many countries. Which means if you are arriving by air and plan to stay less than 30 days, no visa is required. Be aware that if you arrive via land, your visa exemption is only good for 15 days. For stays longer than 30 days, you may be able to apply ahead of time, or you can always pull the ultimate backpacker move and do a visa run. This means get out of the country for a few days then return to a brand new visa. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is a very cheap and easy flight option.
Packing: If you’re headed to the beaches, you really just need sunscreen and a bathing suit. Save room in your bag for Thai elephant pants and a Chang Beer Tank. If you’re headed to Bangkok, don’t forget your best duds for clubbing. Temps are much cooler in the Northern Highlands. If you’re headed up there, you’ll want some cooler weather gear. If you’re hoping to tour any of the spectacular temples or ruins, remember to bring clothes that cover your knees and shoulders, so you can dress respectfully.
Booking Accommodation: The range is as wide as they come. You can flop on the beach in rustic bungalows, party in dorms, or get a luxurious private suite. A great place to start your lodging search is with agoda.com for hotels, and guesthouses. Hostelworld.com is a better bet for backpacker dorms. There are so many options that pre-booking isn’t usually necessary, but it doesn’t hurt to book ahead.
Big cities, ancient ruins, beach towns and mountain getaways…Again, Thailand has it all. Let’s start it off with the hub of the country. A place you’re likely to start or finish your time in Thailand – Bangkok.
Bangkok: It’s a big modern city that has it all – malls, markets, bars, lady boys, clubs, temples, ping pong shows, etc. There are so many temples in Thailand that they will all start to look the same. That said, the ones that I would not miss in Bangkok are: Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (huge reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun (right on the river & lights up at night).
Once you’ve had your fill of temples, head to the markets. Whether it’s a night market, floating market, or day market, go enjoy a slice of market life. Chatuchak Market is one of the world’s largest weekend markets. You’ll get lost, but that’s ok because there’s something to see around every corner. It’s a great place to grab some street eats and get all your souvenir shopping done in one shot.
You can’t miss nightlife in Bangkok. There are lots of options – Soi 11 in Sukhumvit, Soi Cowboy, RCA (Royal City Avenue), or Khao San Road. Khao San Road is backpacker haven with street food (safe for foreigners), bars, 24 hour massage spots, and night markets. It’s not a mind blower, but a safe bet. Sukhumvit is a bit more upscale and more popular with locals. RCA is the more dressed up local clubbing scene. Soi Cowboy has a racy reputation if you’re looking for something a little “darker”.
If you want to get a place with a local feel, laid back vibes and a view of the city, one of our favorite spots was Sky Train Jazz Bar. They sometimes have live music. Otherwise, it’s a chill place where you’ll feel like you’re a local while checking out views of the passing MRT and the lights of the city. Or if you’d rather reenact scenes from The Hangover 2 you can check out Sky Bar – just be sure to dress appropriately as they have a strict dress code.
If you’re really into culture, go to a Muay Thai boxing match. That’s some real deal stuff right there, and Bangkok is where you can see the best of the best. The Rajadamnern Stadium is centrally located. Check the schedule, it there are matches, go to the arena and negotiate ticket prices, or you can buy online. Ticket salesmen will try to sell you ringside seats, but they aren’t necessary. The 2nd and 3rd class cheap-o seats are fine. Plus sitting in those seats puts you amongst the local gamblers for a truly authentic experience. The early matches will be younger, lower level fighters. By the end, you’re watching some of the top Muay Thai fighters on the planet. Be warned, it can get pretty gruesome. We saw a fighter get his leg broken.
*Travelin’ Note – We stayed at 2 awesome budget places in 2 different areas of Bangkok: 1) Pod Hostel – It may seem weird, but it’s a super cool, clean and mod hostel. It’s location near Victory Monument makes catching mini buses super easy. It’s also close to an MRT station, and easy to get to the domestic airport (DMK). 2) Suk 11 – A funky place to stay, but it has lots of character and is well located in the Sukhumvit neighborhood. Close to bars, eats and not far from the MRT.
* Day trips from Bangkok
Ayuthaya: The former capital of the Siam Empire is home to some impressive ruins. A very large temple complex is spread throughout the city, but easily reachable by bike (rent from shops or hotels in town). Be sure to seek out the famous Buddha head engulfed by a banyan tree. Ayuthaya is about 90 -120 minutes from Bangkok. Mini-buses leave from Victory Monument about every 15 – 30 minutes. If you do go to for the day, make sure you know when the last returning bus to Bangkok leaves.
Lopburi: Home to the “Monkey Temple”, Pram Sam Yot. A Khemer Shrine in the center of town has been taken over by macaque monkeys. Literally hundreds of them are monkeying around on the old shrine. There are some docents keeping monkeys from running amok. They’ll also help you get a photo with the monkeys in exchange for some pocket change. There are a few other temples and shrines scattered through town (all within walking distance). Lopburi is about 150km east of Bangkok, and a fun and easy day trip.
Chiang Mai: You can’t not see like a hundred temples here. No matter where you are, you’re going to be within reach of some ancient temple. There are many, so do some research and pick a couple to check out, or just see what you run into. Look into the Monk Chat at Wat Chedi Luang…Monks work on their English while you ask them anything you’ve ever wondered about Monk life, like why they have smart phones. It’s pretty cool and free. You’ll want to cruise up to the top of Doi Su Thep for sunset at Wat Phra. It’s just a short bus or cab ride to the top of the hill overlooking the city.
There are a ton of activities on offer in and around Chiang Mai, and just as many tour agencies wanting to book you into these 1 to multi day tours. From elephants and rafting to ziplining and cooking classes. Always negotiate the price, and be sure to know what you’re getting yourself into. With any animal tourism, be sure the company treats the animals well.
Massages…They are everywhere. They are cheap. And for the most part, they are awesome. You won’t get the private massage ambiance of a western spa, but these streetside massage parlours will offer you a great massage for between $4-15. The masseuses are a bit chatty (sometimes even belchy…we’ll tell you that story some other time), but if you zone out and relax…it’s hard to beat a $6, 60 minute massage. Prices will vary and from what we noticed, they are all more or less the same. Just choose a place you’re comfortable with. The more Thai massages you get, the more you know what to expect, and the more you’ll love them.
* Travelin’ Note: I can’t help much with lodging…we stayed in dumps; you kids deserve a little better. That said, there are some nice spots in Chaing Mai and your money should go a long way! My one piece of advice on this topic… stay in the old town, inside the wall.
* Side trip from Chiang Mai
Chiang Rai & the Golden Triangle: This is a popular 1 day tour from Chiang Mai, but we recommend going on your own for at least a couple days. We did the 1 day tour and spent nearly 10 hours in the car. They took us to the Golden Triangle where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet on the Mekong. Once the Heroin trading capital of the world, this is now just another tourist trap.
We also visited a cultural village to see the Karen “Long Neck” Women (I use the term cultural loosely, as it was a bit of a human zoo). The highlight of the trip was the White Temple near Chiang Rai. It’s a modern temple unlike any other. Unfortunately it’s swarming with tourists by the time you arrive from Chiang Mai. If you give Chiang Rai a couple days, you can go there when it opens and practically have it to yourself. If you only have the one day like us, it’s worth it, but try to give yourself more time to explore.
Pai: A slice of Thai hippy heaven. Sure, there are plenty of ‘Full Moon Party backpackers’ fried out of their minds, but don’t let them spoil this magical mountain escape. Enjoy a break from the heat and sand of Southern Thailand, and breath in the cool mountain air. Explore Pai Canyon, shop in the art driven markets, chill out at one of the many hippy vibed cafes, wind through the lush mountains by motorbike, get zen at a yoga class, watch the sunset at a hilltop temple, relax by one of the many nearby waterfalls or in the natural hot springs, join a drum circle, or even take a circus class. One way or another Pai is a great place to get in touch with your inner child and forget about the stresses of life.
* Travelin’ Note: If you’re feeling up for it, there’s a great 4 – 7 day motorbike trip you can take to get from Chian Mai to Pai and back on the Mae Hong Song loop. We highly recommend it!
Islands & Beaches: You have soooo many options – do you want posh, party, local, adventure, or secluded? When choosing lodging, there are luxury resorts, cute beachside bungalows, or slightly skanky but very cheap beach shacks. All are available and if you don’t like one, there’s probably another option next door.
Phuket is huge, and also hugely popular, especially with Russian tourists. So, if you go to Phuket, know that Patong is gross and overcrowded. If you’re looking to party or partake in the racier side of Thailand then you’re in the right place. There are better, less crowded beaches South of Patong, like Rawai. We spent a night in the mostly industrial Phuket Town before hopping on a boat to Koh Phi Phi. If you find yourself in Phuket Town for a night, check out the diamond in the rough Suay Restaurant for delicious food and great service.
Koh Samui and Koh Tao are the big resort islands. They have more western influence, but have great food and beaches nonetheless. They are popular for a reason. Koh Phi Phi and Koh Phangan are the notorious party islands. Nearby, Koh Lanta offers both party and quiet beaches with plenty to see, do, and eat. Koh Chang is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with elephants. And there are a bunch of smaller, more secluded islands like Koh Kut or Koh Jum. You just have to decide what you’re wanting to get out of your Thai Island experience.
There’s also some top notch mainland beaches. Krabi and Railay Beach have awesome karst formations rising from the oceans. It’s a rock climber’s paradise with white sand beaches. Hua Hin is where many Thai families vacation with one long beach perfect for kite surfing, and believe it or not, a pretty good winery just inland.
We visited Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Krabi & Railay, Koh Chang, Koh Kut and Hua Hin. We loved them all, but Koh Lanta was our favorite. It’s a great place to chill out especially after the party madness of Koh Phi Phi. Koh Lanta’s got a little bit of everything. Most of the development is on the west side of the island, where you’ll find accommodation, restaurants, bars, dive shops, etc. along the Phra Ae and Khlong Khong beaches.
The nice thing about Koh Lanta versus some of the other Thai islands is that it’s just as easy to find the party and nightlife as it is to avoid it. It’s big enough to avoid cabin fever, but small enough to really get to know. You can explore the whole island by motorbike, go island hopping, snorkel or scuba, hike through monitor lizard and monkey infested forest, relax on a beach, or party all night. We stayed at an awesome spot called Sanctuary that has great vegetarian food, yoga and affordable beachside bungalows. We could have stayed forever.
We can write a Thailand Travel Guide just about food. Thai food is world famous for a reason and now you’re heading to the motherland. You are in for a treat! First of all, don’t be afraid to eat the street food. For the most part it’s safe for foreigners. Besides, if you do get sick, whatever food you ate was probably worth it. A great place to sample the street food is at one of the many markets. Get yourself to one of these markets and go crazy. Some dishes that you must try while in Thailand are:
- Som Tom – Fresh and spicy green papaya salad. It’s probably the best food in Thailand’s heat.
- Curries – Red, green…the color doesn’t matter. Just order one!
- Tom Yum Soup – It seems odd, but eating this delicious hot and spicy soup gets you sweatin’, so it cools you off on hot days!
- Khao Soi – A speciality of the northern region. It’s a delicious curry with crispy rice noodles on top. Yum!
- Pad Thai – It’s so common, but it’s because it’s soooo good.
- Spicy Thai Basil – This personal favorite consists of thai basil, lots of peppers, some veggies and your meet of choice – try it with chicken!
- Thai Roti Pancakes – Breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert…I wouldn’t blame you for living off these while in Thailand. Choose any filling, but banana/Nutella reigns supreme.
- Thai Tea & Coffee – This combination of black tea or coffee and sweet condensed milk poured over ice hits is addicting.
- Fruit Shakes – There’s a stand on just about every corner. It’s a great way to get your vitamins and replenish after a big night out.
- Mango & Sticky Rice – A perfect sweet and light dessert after a spicy Thai meal.
- Buckets – If you don’t indulge in a bucket at the beach, you should question why you came to Thailand. For about $3-5 USD you get a small bottle of Thai whiskey and mixer of your choice. 1 bucket is good. 2 buckets – you’ve leveled up. 3 buckets – you’ll probably regret.
This is where Thailand shines over the rest of SE Asia. Transport is plentiful and affordable. There are a number of discount airline providers, so flying is pretty cheap, even if you book last minute. We flew from Krabi to Bangkok for about $25 USD, and from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for about $35 USD saving us from two 10 hour bus rides. It may cost more than the bus, but you’ll save yourself heaps of time.
Check lionairthai.com, thaismileair.com/en/, bangkokairways.com, http://www.nokair.com/, or our least favorite airline airasia.com (they’re awful, but you can try for yourself). or look at skyscanner.com
Land travel is easy and efficient. The buses are decent, plentiful, and the roads are usually nice. If there’s not a bus, there’s a mini bus. There are a few cheap transportation choices for within cities: tuk tuks, taxis and songthaews (ride-share trucks with uncovered benches in the back). Settle on a price before you jump in a tuk tuk, and make taxis run the meter. Bangkok taxis are plentiful, cheap, and have AC. Songthaews are what most locals use. They’re cheap, but usually take longer. Renting a motorbike is easy, but driving amongst the Thai’s is a whole different story.
Island-bound boats are pretty nice, and even stay on a schedule, but try to do it in good weather. You can buy tickets right at the dock. Boats are also a great option for day trips around the islands. Try to join a group tour to save yourself some money. A private boat makes little sense, because wherever you go is likely to be busy with other boats anyway. No matter your vehicle, getting around Thailand is a breeze.
5) TRAVELIN’ PICK:
Take a Cooking Class – Where you do it, I don’t care. But if you are in love with Thai food, a cooking class is a must. You’ll have your mind blown on how simple Thai cooking is. A full day class probably starts at a local market to pick up fresh ingredients, but half day courses usually skip the market and prepare a smaller menu.,
We highly recommend Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School in Chiang Mai. If you can, request to take Meow’s class…That’s right…Meow…like a cat. We did a full day class with her and absolutely loved it! We had a ton of fun learning to cook so many different delicious dishes, and stuffed ourselves full eating all that we prepared. We’d do it again in a heartbeat, but until then, we have our commemorative cookbook so we can prepare the dishes at home.
* Travelin’ Note: Try to find an option to take a class at a farm away from the city, so it will be more memorable. There are tons of choices for cooking schools throughout Thailand, so if you miss taking one in the south, you’ll be able to find one in the north or vice versa.