The land of smiles, Thailand hosts over 16 million visitors a year! Backpacking the country is relatively easy and there is a wealth of different experiences to enjoy. Relax all day on the beach and explore ruined cities. Admire beautiful waterfalls and go to crazy parties. Sample great street food and go trekking through the jungle. You’ll find plenty to keep you occupied. I’ve written this Thailand Country Guide to help you work out what’s best for you when visiting this fantastic country. And if you want to sample it all, well use this guide to help you figure out how.
The capital of Thailand is Bangkok which has 2 major international airports, Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang. Therefore it an obvious starting point. Chiang Mai and Phuket also have international airports that serve surrounding countries.
You can also enter Thailand by land from Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia and to a limited extent Myanmar.
Thailand offers visa exemption for up to 30 days for many countries (and even 90 days for some South American nations!). Wikipedia has a good page to check if you qualify https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_policy_of_Thailand
Otherwise you can apply for a tourist visa (or if you plan to stay longer than a visa exemption allows you might wish to apply for a 60 day tourist visa before you fly anyhow) at a visa/consulate before you go.
Officially you need proof of onward travel to qualify for a visa exemption on arrival, though this is rarely enforced. However it may be a requirement of your airline before they allow you to board so that’s something to bear in mind.
Thailand have a limited but well priced rail system, and it is worth it as 3rd class can be very cheap! Generally you can buy these on the day, though i’d recommend getting there an hour or so early to secure a ticket.
You can check destinations on the official site here: http://www.railway.co.th/Home/Index
Bus and Minivan
There are plenty of busses and minivans that serve both tourists and locals. They run all over the country. Generally you can buy tickets in hostels/guesthouses/hotels or from the inevitable nearby travel agents. You may get a cheaper deal actually buying from the bus station itself where there is one (Bangkok has a couple!). You shouldn’t have a problem with availability as long as you arrive with some time to spare.
If you don’t fancy the long journeys by land there are generally well priced domestic options from a number of airports. Asides from the above mentioned (under arrival), Krabi is a popular one amongst backpackers as it’s a quick way to get ‘from the islands’ to Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Thailand uses Thai Baht (THB) and you can find ATM’s throughout the country. Whilst you can usually use card in stores its wise to have cash on you, for example to pay for street food, taxi’ and tuk tuks.
A major highlight of Thailand, it’s food is popular around the world though nothing really compares to enjoying it in the nation itself! Street food is a big deal here and a tasty cheap way to eat, you can find some great dishes and spend less than $5 a day on meals. Spring Rolls and Pad Thai are 2 popular street food dishes There are also plenty of cheap restaurants, Thai curry is a big feature of these as well Papaya Salad and different kinds of spicy soups.
For vegetarians check out advice here.
Thailand had a wealth of great hostels, guesthouses, cheap hotels, luxury hotels, bungalows and everything else imaginable. Prices are more during high season (November to February) and as a general rule are higher on the big tourist islands and Bangkok than elsewhere in the country, but still they won’t break the bank and you can normally book last minute with no hassle.
Thailand is a Buddhist country so be sure to follow the etiquette.
Watch out for Tuk Tuk scams in Bangkok. Don’t believe anyone who approach you and tries to tell you a tourist attraction is closed. Just say no thanks and carry on walking. As for taxi’s in Bangkok always insist on the use of the meter and if they won’t then use another taxi.
Thailand has strict ‘Lèse majesté‘ laws . Any criticism of the Monarchy will result in harsh punishment.
Always barter in the markets. You will never be quoted the real prices, normally something is as much as 75% cheaper! Never barter for food though, that’s something that is always priced correctly upfront.
The ‘buckets’ (alcohol drinks) that are popular on the islands are very strong. You really to watch what you drink even if you think you have a high tolerance.
There are 7-Eleven’s all over the place in Thailand. Whilst it might be tempting to avoid them for their commercialism in truth they are incredibly convenient. And very cheap! I tend to use them myself to buy water and other drinks, and also snacks for the long bus/minivan journeys.
Chang beer is everywhere. It’s not a hangover, it’s a Changover!
Thailand is best categorised into 2 sections when it comes to planning itineraries: ‘The Central Plains and the North’ as one section, and the ‘South and the Islands’ as another. The former being focused on culture and temples. The latter on beaches and island life. Therefore I have split this destinations section into 2 two. You can of course ‘mix and match’ these sections. Its your trip after all and you should go to wherever calls to you!
Thailand – The Central Plains and the North
The obvious starting point for any trip to South East Asia, Bangkok is major international transport hub. The city tends to induce a ‘love it or hate it’ response, it’s a huge and sprawling urban streets often choked with traffic and plenty of opportunistic taxi and tuk tuk drivers ready to rip you off. But get beyond that and you’ll see the city has some great cultural sites and is great for picking up backpacker supplies, with places to relax and have a night out.
The Grand Palace and Wat Pho are the 2 obvious attractions to start with. Khao San Road is the backpacker district so head there for partying and supplies. You can read my guide to the city for more ideas.
A 2 to 3 hour bus/mini van ride to the west of Bangkok, this riverside town is home of the infamous ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai’. As well this there are Allied graveyards from the Second World War. It’s also the gateway to the Erawan National Park with it’s famous 7 tier Erawan Waterfall which makes for a great day trip. See my diary entry to see what I thought of the town.
Ayutthaya was once home to a million people and capital of a kingdom it it’s name until it was looted and destroyed by a marauding Burmese armies in 1767. Now it is home to some amazing ruins that give a great insight into Thailand’s past. Take a 2 hour long 3rd class train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya for only 20 Baht ($0.50!) and explore it’s historical park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can easily spend a couple of days here to see everything.
Continue exploring Thailand’s past by travelling to the ancient ruins Sukhothai as you head north.
Once the capital of Kingdom of Sukhothai, the ‘old city’ is 11km west of the modern-day city ‘New Sukhothai’. There are regular songthaew services there from the bus station and new city centre. It played a really important role in Thai history, often regarded as the beginning of the Thai nation.
If you want to ‘complete the set’ as such of the 3 Thai ancient cities then you can also visit Lopburi. Its on the way from Ayutthaya to Sukhothai. Here the ruins are mixed in with the modern city. In particular this features the ‘monkey temple’ which as the name implies is the domain of rampaging monkeys who run that part of town.
Effectively the ‘capital’ of Northern Thailand, the kingdom’s second city is full for cultural wonders and a great base for exploring the surrounding area. There are plenty of temples to check out in the city itself and you can also visit the wonderful Elephant Nature Park (book in advance) which does great work combating the abuse Elephant tourist industry. It’s firmly anti-Elephant riding and for good reason. You can also go trekking in the Doi Inthanon national park – there are options to do day treks or 2 / 3 night long ones. Check out my recommendations of things to do in Chiang Mai.
This laid back backpacker town is a great place to spend a few days of relaxation. There are loads of things to do in Pai and many backpackers find themselves staying much longer than they intended! Enjoy the mountain scenery, waterfalls, laid back bars, street food and much more! Take a minivan from Chiang Mai to get here. The journey is about 4 hours.
Home of the crazy ‘White Temple’ and its effective opposite ‘Black House’. These 2 places are home to some amazing artwork. The White Temple in particular is famous for its contemporary blend of Buddhist and Hindu imagery. It’s a cool place to spend a couple of days and you can also use it as a base to head off on tours to meet some of Thailand’s hill tribes. Take a look at what I got up to there.
A sleepy border town, the reason to come here is to get the slow boat to head into Laos! Whilst you can book transport to the slow boat from places in Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, i’d always recommend a ‘DIY’ approach. You can head here using local busses from Chiang Rai, stay the night and get a tuk tuk to the border in the morning.
If your interested in reading further about exploring Northern Thailand then you can check out my North Thailand itinerary here.
Thailand – The South and the Islands
Note: This section is a ‘work in progress’ in that I have yet to visit as many areas as I would like. There are just so many! It will be added and expanded on in future. In the meantime I have listed as many destinations as I can.
Koh Chang (large) and nearby
Located on the east side of The Gulf Of Thailand near to Cambodia, the larger Koh Chang and it’s neighbours Koh Mak and Koh Kut are reached by ferry from the city of Trat. Lonely beach on Koh Chang is party central. Head here if you want to drink and dance the night away. Klong Prao beach is far more chilled out and relaxing, plus the awesome Pyjamas hostel is right by it. You can catch songthaews that run around the island so if you want to chill by day and party by night then that’s no problem. Koh Mak and Koh Kut are more expensive than Koh Chang and aimed more at holiday makers than backpackers.
Pattaya – nearby islands
Pattaya City has a reputation of a sex obsessed hell hole, and that’s not something this blog will dwell on, but there are a few islands in the general area worth checking out.
Koh Si Chang is the closest island to Bangkok and therefore a popular one for it’s residents. Despite this it is pretty laid back, though there is only one main beach to relax on.
Koh Larn is an island that a friend has visited and it has several beautiful beaches. Reach it by ferry from Pattaya City. It has a reputation as being peaceful and relaxed. The main beach can get busy with tourists but the others are more spacious. Very different from Pattaya City! It’s also easy to get to from Bangkok so would be perfect for a weekend break from there.
The island of Koh Samet is part of a national park and has some popular beaches. These are situated on its eastern side and are the main focus on the island. Reach it by ferry from Ban Phe.
There are a few islands which can be visited by ferry from Sattahip, such as Koh Kham which is owned by the Thai Navy. This means there is no overnight stay allowed (and you will be told by loudspeakers when you have to go to get the last ferry back!).
Ranong -> Koh Phayam / Koh Chang (small)
The border town of Ranong doesn’t have much to appeal to any visitor, but it acts as the gateway to the beautiful islands of Koh Phayam and the smaller Koh Chang. These two islands are relatively undeveloped and receive a lot fewer visitors than others listed here. Koh Phayam is best explored by motorbike and has some spectacular beaches with very few people on them! You can sleep in bungalows in the jungle that covers the island and really relax away from the crowds. You often hear the word ‘paradise’ used about Thai islands and for me Koh Phayam lives up to that billing.
Chumphon -> Koh Tao / Koh Samui / Koh Phangan
As with Ranong, Chumphon is a gateway town, a popular boarding point for ferries to the 3 most popular islands in the Gulf Of Thailand.
Essentially it goes like this:
Into diving? Then Koh Tao!
Want to relax? Then Koh Samui.
Want to party? Hit up Koh Phangan for Thailand’s famous (or is that infamous) Full Moon Party.
Of course these are all generalisations! Keep an eye on the dates of the full moon party if you really want to experience it. As for Koh Samui it is really an islands of 2 half’s in truth. The south and west being more chilled out, the north and east being pretty drinking orientated. Whilst you can find nice relaxing places on all these islands you should remember that they are very popular with tourists and are thus very busy.
Surat Thani is the other main ferry point for these islands. Be careful of scams at its bus/minivan station! They generally consist of ‘tourist agents’ trying to rip you off with prices.
Krabi / Railay Beaches / Tonsai
The Krabi region is famed for its limestone hills which provide some stunning scenery. The small city of Krabi Town is the central point for transport and you can get to and from most other points in Thailand from here (by bus or plane).
The best tourist attraction around Krabi Town is the Tiger Cave Temple (no actual Tigers). The walk up to the summit here is 1237 steps…take your time and bring a drink! Just make sure you hide the drink from the opportunistic monkeys.
The town itself doesn’t have much to appeal to visitors, beyond a marketplace, restaurants and the Wat Kaew temple. This temple does have some pretty cool Buddhist artwork so if your into that take half an hour or so to pay a visit.
From Krabi town take a songthaew to Ao Nang beach where you take a boat to Tonsia and the Railay beaches. These places are actually on the mainland it’s just the jungle is so dense you really don’t want to try to reach them by land!
Tonsai is a village in the jungle and has some amazing street art. This place is haven for rock climbers, hippies and the more laid back backpacker crowd.This is definitely somewhere to chill out for a few days. The bungalows here are cheap and basic and there are monkeys everywhere! It’s a fun experience and you’ll be sad to leave. There is a beach here but you can’t swim, see picture below where the tide is out as for why!
West Railay is a popular beach for sunbathing. It doesn’t really have any shade though! There are restaurants/cafes up behind it and you can walk through them into East Railay. If your staying in Tonsai either go from the beach up across the rock path above the water or go round the back through the jungle to get here.
East Railay is a cool walk, there is a path that goes along the water and you can see all the tree’s that are growing in it.
Phra Nang Cave Beach is a nice beach but is always packed with tourists. The restaurant boats and island outcrops make for some nice photo opportunists.
Popular Andaman Sea Islands
I haven’t been to these last 3 places yet but they are all Thai islands that appeal to backpackers. They are all big on the beach relaxation, with scuba diving, snorkelling and bar hopping three of the other main activities!
Phuket is Thailand’s largest island is an extremely popular tourist destination. It gets over five million visitors a year so as you imagine tourism is the main industry here by far! Koh Phi Phi gained fame after the film ‘The Beach’ used it as a location. It transformed from a quite island into one filled with sun bathing holiday makers and a typical backpacker party crowd. Koh Lanta is more chilled out that the other 2 mentioned, but still attracts large crowds. It’s a more family orientated island and has a large Scandinavian immigrant population.
See places on the map:
One area that I haven’t visited yet is the North East of Thailand, known as Isaan. This is obviously a glaring omission from the places I’ve listed above. The Khao Yai National Park is located here and it has a great reputation. It’s somewhere I really want to visit myself in future. Phanom Rung Historical Park is another highlight here that interests me as it has Khmer temples.
Also missing from the above list is the Southern most part of Thailand. Unfortunately there is a terror threat around Hat Yai and many governments advise against travelling in that area. However Koh Lipe which is an island right on the border with Malaysia that is known for its beauty. If your planning to come into Thailand from Malaysia by land then consider doing so by sea from Langkawi to Koh Lipe instead!