Endearingly nicknamed the 'Land of Smiles,' Thailand is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire world. Its serene beaches, lush jungles, incredible food, and warm hearted people make this one of my favorite countries to spend time in.
You're going to Thailand! I can't think of any other place that I'd recommend a first time backpacker to explore than this magical destination. It's one of the most developed countries in Southeast Asia, so the entire region is very accessible and easy to get through for backpackers. You'll learn the gist of cheap street food, overnight busses/trains, and haggling for goods in your first 24 hours here. Regardless of if you plan to only travel through Thailand or explore more of Southeast Asia, you'll most likely be flying into the megacity of Bangkok.
Budget & Etiquette
My budget was about 1000THB per day, which is roughly $30. Keep in mind, the further south you get in the country, the more expensive everything gets. The following are the average prices you should expect to pay in USD:
- Dorm Beds: $4.50 - $15.00
- Private Room: $12.00 - $40.00
- Street/Local Food: $1.00 - $5.00
- Western Food: $3.00 - $8.00
- Pint of Beer: $1.50 - $4.50
- 2-liter Water (at 7/11): $.50
- 2 Large Chang Beers (at 7/11): $3
- Laundry: $3.00 - $5.00
Thailand has a bartering culture, and so a lot of prices can be negotiated. Always be respectful, balancing assertiveness and politeness when haggling so that you and the seller can find a price that works for both parties. This encompasses purchasing bus/train/boat tickets from travel agents, souvenirs/clothes from merchants, and activities.
When taking tuk-tuks and taxis, and the driver will want to charge you a flat rate, which always benefits them. Politely ask to be charged by the meter (just say 'taxi-meter please'), and if they decline, wish them a good day and keep waving down taxis; you'll find a driver who's down for the meter within 3 tries, I promise!
Lastly, try your hardest to withdraw money from actual banks. If you must use an ATM, use the ones in hotels, and never use ATM's that are on the street, or are in alleys. They are often used to clone your bank info to drain your money out of your account.
Thailand really only has 2 seasons; summer and monsoon. The rainy season begins off and on throughout June, with full monsoon starting in July and lasting until November, when the climate is the least extreme. November - February is the sunniest and nicest time to visit, and the country gets its peak heat in April/May.
In the case of BKK, less is more, and that's why I highly recommend a 3-day cut off. 3 days is the perfect amount of time to get your backpacker-sea-legs, make some new friends, and set out for the jungles, temples, and elephants up North, or South for the islands and parties.
If you're willing to climb 49 flights of stairs to the top of an abandoned skyscraper, you will be rewarded with the best view of Bangkok. A lot of people like to get ripped off at the 'Sky Bar' that was featured in the Hangover II, but the Sathorn Unique, or 'Ghost Tower,' is a much cheaper and better adventure. You can bribe the guards to get in for as cheap as 200THB each, climb your way to the top, and see the city how it should be seen.
Get there around 5pm to be at the top in time for sunset, and make sure you're back down by 8:30 or so, because the guards will lock you in when they leave for the night. The Ghost Tower is located less than 200 meters from the Taksin BTS Station, and there's great street food nearby to munch on, as well as a 7/11 to stock up on some beers to bring up in your backpack! Just get ready to sweat...the 49 floors is daunting.
Khao San Road is the infamous backpacker street where you can barter for cheap clothes from street vendors, and spend the nights dancing, drinking, and partying with travelers from all over the world. To avoid the chaos at night, I say sleep at 'Bed Station Hostel,' which is about 20 mins taxi ride away. Bed Station has such incredibly friendly and helpful staff, complimentary breakfast, and a wonderful atmosphere for meeting people, as well as being just a 2 minute walk from the BTS Skytrain stop 'Ratchathewi.'
There are tons of great temples in Bangkok, but Wat Phra Kaew, or Emerald Buddha Temple, is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in all of Thailand. As with all temples, long pants and sleeved shirts are dress code, but if you don't have the proper attire, suitable clothes can be rented with a deposit.
Bangkok has an entirely different vibe once the sun sets, and both the 24 hour Flower Market and night markets cannot be missed. The best time to visit is after midnight when the streets come alive like a kaleidoscope, with rich textures and colors bursting from each stand as vendors receive the day's shipments of flowers. The Flower Market is just south of Wat Pho Temple, and can be accessed very easily by the pier, which I recommend because the boat is cheap and fun!
After 3 days of Bangkok adventures, you'll find yourself surrounded with solo travelers that come from all around the world. Now to decide; head north to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Pai, or head south to Krabi, Phuket, and the islands?
Chiang Mai, chiang rai, pai
The tropical beach paradises are best saved for last, so I recommend exploring northern Thailand, and then backtracking south. However, if you plan to head directly to Laos after Thailand, it may be best to continue making a clockwise circle around SE Asia (Thailand - Laos - Vietnam - Cambodia - Southern Thailand.)
That being said, Northern Thailand is the perfect place to go jungle trekking, see ancient temples, wildlife, and hang out with elephants at a sanctuary. If you can, visit in the month of April and celebrate Song-Kran in Chiang Mai! From April 13th - 15th, Thai people celebrate the new year with food, music, and parties all over the country. But the most important way of celebrating is by turning the country into one massive water war! The sprinkling of water is seen as symbolically washing away sins and bad luck, which gives people 3 days to grab water guns and drench EVERYONE you pass by in public.
Song Kran is one of the greatest memories of saying yes I have ever had in my life, and I'll never forget the absolute jubilation and warm energy that manifested in Chiang Mai as my friends and I patrolled the streets meeting locals, filling our super soakers up in random families' front yards, making new friends everywhere while we ate and drank, shouting 'Sawadee Pee Mai!' The third night of the festival culminated with a huge concert in front of the shopping mall where no soul went home dry!
There are over 300 temples(!) in Chiang Mai, and so its important to understand that because it is impossible to see them all, there are no wrong ones to go and see. I do suggest seeing Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phra Singh, Wat Buppharam, or Wat Suan Dok, all of which are awe-inspiring. But I have to dedicate a special recommendation for one of the most morally sound organizations I've encountered on my travels, Elephant Nature Park.
I can't say enough nice things about ENP. I won't even start about the drugged-tiger tourist trap situation in Thailand (just don't do it, simple as that), but I will stress the importance of finding an ethical way of interacting with these majestic animals. I hate zoos. I've always gotten a sick feeling in my stomach when I see sentient creatures locked in cages, atomized from their natural environment. It is beyond important that if you choose to give your tourist dollars to an organization, you find a proper sanctuary to do so, like ENP.
All of their elephants have been rescued from the cruel tourism industry, there is no breeding going on, and thus each animal is given a second lease on life. There are no cages, endless fruit buffets, NO elephant rides, and the funnest part...guest provided bath time! The park offers a variety of different programs on their website, and provides pickup/drop off shuttles included, as well as a vegetarian lunch. Make sure to book at least 2 weeks in advance.
After exploring Northern Thailand, you can continue heading north to either Laos or Myanmar, or head south for the tropical beaches. If going to the beaches, and you're trying to adhere to a minimalist budget, you can overnight bus/train to Bangkok and then further to Krabi, or you can fly from Chiang Mai to Krabi for as low as $79.
Krabi is a little too touristy for my tastes, but still worth a couple days of exploration. The most popular sites here are Ao Nang beach, Krabi's most developed beach, Had Yao, the last untouched beach in Krabi Province, Rai Leh, Thailand's rock climbing mecca, and Ton Sai, which has the cheapest bungalows in the area, and is an easy walk to Rai Leh beach. After a day or two, the small party island of Phi Phi awaits..
Koh Phi Phi
This island is known for one thing; its parties. Koh Phi Phi is a VERY small island, and thus completely walkable. Backpackers come here from all over the world to eat, drink, and dance late into the night. The island is pretty sleepy throughout the day, as most people are beyond hungover and just laying out on the beach. Around 6pm, the island starts to wake up from its slumber, and every hostel starts setting up music on their section of the beach.
Fire dancers perform everywhere, and you can run around drinking cheap buckets of vile Thai whiskey, while making memories you'll never remember with friends you'll never forget from all over the globe. This island is NOT where you go for rest and relaxation, as it is unbearably loud until about 4am. 2-3 days is MORE than enough. And while you're here, If you want to take a day ferry to Maya Bay, the place where the Leonardo Dicaprio movie 'The Beach' was filmed, you can fork over 500THB to do so, which is outrageous and stupid. Koh Tao is a far more serene island, so party on Phi Phi, and detox on Tao.
If you're trying to party, stay at 'Blanco Beach Bar!' Located at the far end of the beach, they are an awesome spot with great parties and night life. Bonus: they have an adorable dog named "Vodka!"
Phuket is not my vibe, for the same reasons I recommend not spending too much time in Bangkok. Its trashy, the beaches aren't that nice, and is largely just a seedy tourist trap. There are just so many other areas in this country worth your time, and so use Phuket like we did, as a stopover for rest while we booked a bus and ferry package with a travel agent to get to Koh Pha Ngan for the world famous 'Full Moon Party.'
Koh Pha ngan
There is NO better place to be for the Full Moon Party than Koh Pha Ngan! Up to 30,000 people gather on this island every month for the celebration of the full moon, which made for one of the single funnest nights of my life. The party takes place on Haad Rin beach, conveniently facing the sunrise, and staying awake to watch the sun come up after the party is MANDATORY. Most people head out for the party at 11pm, so that they can stay up for the sunrise at 5am.
Stay in Haad Rin, because it's too expensive to taxi to and from a further area. Due to the number of people arriving for the party, security over possessions is an issue. Instead of staying in a dorm, get a private room with a couple friends that has a locking door, and if possible, a safe as for your valuables (passports).
It's best to arrive 2 days before the party to ensure that A) you actually get a room in a decent location, and B) you don't get overcharged, as prices rise closer to the party. Additionally, most people leave the island the day after the party, so to not get stuck in the stampede, leave 2 days after, unless you're in a hurry. There are beach volleyball and soccer tournaments with cash prizes during the day, and tons of friends to make while drinking Chang beers, half submerged in the ocean. Lastly, it's tradition to wear neon colors and get covered with body paint prior to the party, so buy a cheap tank top, and some shorts you don't care about, because that paint is NOT coming out!
You know what they say about saving the best for last? Most people think of Koh Samui as THE island destination in Thailand, and that's great, because they can keep it. Koh Tao is a tranquil paradise that stomps the commercialized Samui. I have never felt so absolutely relaxed, and able to completely recharge anywhere else. The 'turtle island' is quiet, and if that's what you're looking for, you will not find a more beautiful haven. There is also a great pub crawl on most evenings.
Koh Tao is massive, and you won't be able to explore it all on foot. I highly recommend renting motorbikes and spending your days driving around the island discovering new beaches and areas to hike with incredible viewpoints. But remember, do not give your passport to anyone, regardless of if they say you need to in order to rent a bike. My friend made this mistake, and upon returning his bike, was told that he needed to pay an exorbitant amount of money to repair it or he wouldn't get his passport back. Learn from our mistake; be smart, and you can have a blast riding around finding views like this:
Koh Tao is also one of the cheapest places in the world to get PADI certified. I met travelers from all over the world that came to the island just to scuba dive, so if you ever plan on getting certified to dive, this is your best opportunity to do so. There are a number of dive schools on the island, most requiring a 3-5 day course, with accommodations included. I also made a friend who spent an entire month on Koh Tao doing a yoga retreat, which she only had good things to say about.
Go during April, May, and June to avoid the rain. And if you stay near Sairee Beach, you'll have your pick of where you'd like to eat dinner and toast life with your friends when this shows up, every night, right on schedule:
- As with any guide I write, these are suggestions. Use this as an outline, and improvise too! Don't forget...the journey is the destination.
- Drink only bottled water, and if you order a drink, no ice.
- Do not give your passport to anyone.
- Do not go to a tiger 'sanctuary.' Tigers are not meant to interact with humans, and they are all horribly drugged up at these tourist traps.
- Don't ride with a taxi driver unless he agrees to use the meter before you get in.
- Go to banks to withdraw money, and avoid ATM's on the street, or in alleys.
- Every price can be negotiated, especially tuk-tuks.
- Do not give your money to anyone who puts a baby monkey around your neck or to anyone who will let you ride an elephant.