Top tips for travelling through Thailand
We spent a month travelling through Thailand, enjoying some towns and cities more than others. The following are our travel tips, with a couple of top picks, things to be wary of and a few ideas for potential itineraries.
TOP PICKS FOR…
Food: We loved the fried flat noodle (a beautiful, wide rice noodle) dish and red curries. While we tried a variety of different foods, these were our go-to choices and were always excellent. The clay hot pots in Chiang Rai are beautiful, there is a night market almost solely dedicated to them behind the bus station.
Activities: Jimmy learnt to dive at Ocean Sound Dive in Koh Tao, which he thoroughly enjoyed. He found the small group of four and excellent guide made an excellent learning environment. We also thoroughly enjoyed a trek we did with Noi, one of the owners of Bamboo Nest. For a full day he took us all through trekking through the jungle. We also went on a long boat along a river to visit some of the more remote Hill Tribe villages, which allowed us an insight into their way of life without travelling to one of the more overly touristy villages. It was an incredibly authentic experience.
Sights: Watching the sunrise at Phu Chi Fah was extraordinary. The whole experience was incredible, the tiny township was charming and the locals were the friendliest we encountered throughout Thailand.
BE WARY OF…
Thailand is an interesting country but perhaps at risk of becoming over westernised. It wasn’t until we travelled to more remote parts of northwestern Thailand that we felt we were experiencing true Thai culture. This, of course, means there are plenty of traps for tourists to fall into.
There has also been some civil unrest developing, especially in the south of the country close to the Malaysian border. For up to date information, the Australian DFAT website has great advice for travellers. The following are a few things we wish we had known prior to our travel, and in some cases a few lessons we learnt the hard way.
- The land border crossing from Malaysia: We entered Thailand from the south, crossing the border by mini-van after obtaining a 60-day tourist visa from the Thai embassy in Penang. We were aware prior to crossing security had tightened (but were still a bit naïve), and found there was a lot of military and checkpoints to go through at the crossing. There was some confusion and issues with our passports and we had to seek help from our minivan driver, who chatted to a customs officer and told us to put money into our passports. We eventually made it through with all the necessary stamps but it was a daunting process. My advice, be prepared for the checkpoints, military presence and potentially some complications.
- Hiring scooters: If you plan on hiring a scooter, they will want to keep your passport as a deposit. There are also some scams operating with scooter hire, where they claim you damaged the scooter when you return it. This is easily avoided; take pictures of all the damage on the scooter before you leave (and make sure they see you doing this).
- Long distance trains: We caught both a 12hour day and night train. If you are on the night train, book the bottom bunks, as they are bigger and you can put your luggage on the ground (it is worth the extra charge). Also try and get a bed in the middle of the carriage, which I believe are usually around number 10. We were on the 2nd class air-conditioned carriage. I found it a bit cold and would have been happy in the 2nd class fan carriage, but Jimmy thought the temperature was perfect. It’s worth having a jumper handy though.
- Fruit shakes: There are stalls selling fruit shakes throughout Thailand and they are beautiful. Be a bit wary of them, I have a sensitive stomach and found they upset me a bit. The ice they use sometimes comes from questionable water sources.
- Mosquitos: Both Malaria and Dengue Fever (both are mosquito born, potentially life threatening diseases) exist in Thailand. You can take a prophylactic treatment for Malaria but there is currently nothing available for Dengue Fever. We both started on a course of Doxycycline but stopped within several weeks due to the side effects (I think Jimmy had a severe drug reaction and was very sick for over a week). There is also Malarone, which has minimal side effects but costs around $5 AUD per tablet. It is important to discuss these options with your doctor. Regardless, you will still need to wear a mosquito repellant with at least 30% DEET. Also avoid wearing perfumes and fragrant moisturisers, as mosquitos are attracted to the smell.
- The Chiang Rai bus station: The bus station is currently being renovated and the tiny makeshift office is hardly coping. It’s quite confusing, make sure you head to the office to find what bay your bus will be going to.
- Temple scams: Watch out for the scams at temples (especially in Bangkok). We had multiple tuk tuk drivers try to tell us the temple was closed for the monks to pray. They then offered us a tour around the city to see the other sites. These ‘tours’ usually involve a few stops at various stores that belong to the driver’s friends. Each time we were offered one of these ‘tours’; we would walk around the corner to find the temples open!
IF YOU LIKE…
Food: The further north we travelled the more I enjoyed the food. Watch out for the sticky rice, it’s really nice and a good change from the usual steamed rice.
Shopping: It would certainly be worth spending some time researching the best place to go in Bangkok. As we didn’t stay there long I can’t offer any insight into the Bangkok shopping scene. The Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai is raved about and the streets are lined with stalls. Be wary, the prices are often quadruple what they should be as it is such a big tourist destination. Be prepared to pay huge prices or for some serious bartering.
Physical activity: As I mentioned earlier, we did an incredible trek with Noi from Bamboo Nest. Aside from this, we skipped most of the national parks in favour for attractions such as Phu Chi Fah, which was incredible.
Heritage: I found Chiang Mai gave us a great insight into Thai heritage. There are hundreds of temples and the Old City Walls are quite fascinating. It is worth going to the Lanna Folklife Museum before heading to the temples, it helps give a bit of background to the religious symbolism seen at the temples.
Culture: For me, I learnt quite a lot about Thai culture in Phu Chi Fah. A place usually only visited by Thai tourists, we enjoyed being the only western people in town. The people were a lot more friendly and inviting than we had found in other parts of Thailand.
Beaches: The islands. While we only visited Koh Tao, we spent 10 days there and it was beautiful. Palm lined beaches, white sand and beachfront bungalows. We had an incredible time there.
IF WE WERE TO GO BACK…
It’s difficult to pick things to do if we were to return, but I think it would depend on the type of holiday we were after. I would love to visit more of the islands in the south, however that probably wouldn’t be on a backpacker’s budget. Aside from the islands, I think Khao Yai National Park would be worth a visit. After thoroughly enjoying the mossy forest in the Cameron Highlands, I think this monsoon forest would be an interesting contrast. Lastly, we enjoyed northern Thailand so much we would definitely make it a priority to return. I think there is much more to be explored in the region.
We travelled from Malaysia, crossing the border in southern Thailand, before travelling to Koh Tao, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai and Phu Chi Fah. From what we have seen, the following would be my picks for itineraries.
- One week: This would be difficult as the country is so big. Realistically, I think there are three options:
- Pick either the east or west coast islands, and fly into either Koh Samui or Phuket. From Koh Samui (spend two days here), you could island hop to Ko Pha Ngan (for two days) and Koh Tao (for two days), before returning to either Koh Samui or Bangkok (for the last day) to fly home. From Phuket you could follow a similar pattern, island hopping to Ko Phi Phi (for two days) and Koh Lanta (for two days) before returning home.
- Fly into Chiang Mai and spend three days exploring the old town and temples. From here, you could head to either Pai or Chiang Rai for another 3-4 days (or spend 2 days at each) before returning back to Chiang Mai to fly home.
- Lastly, fly into either Phuket or Koh Samui for 3-4 days and spend some time enjoying the beaches. Fly up to Chiang Mai and spend the remaining 3-4 days exploring north Thailand before returning home.
- Two weeks: The extra week here would make a big difference. Again, I think you would have to choose between the islands on the southeast and southwest, flying into either Phuket or Koh Samui. After 4-5 days enjoying the islands, I would head towards Bangkok. From the ‘Samui’ islands, you can catch a ferry and overnight train that departs the island mid-afternoon and you arrive in Bangkok early the following morning. I’m unsure of the best mode of transport from Phuket to Bangkok (as we didn’t visit Phuket), however, I’m sure there would be bus networks. Alternatively flying would be much quicker from both sets of islands (if your budget allows for it). After spending 2-3 days in Bangkok, catch the train to Chiang Mai (you can go overnight to save time). Spend 3 days in Chiang Mai exploring the temples and town before heading to Pai for 2 days. From Pai, I would travel to Chiang Rai (via Chiang Mai as there are no direct transport links yet) for the last two days before returning home.
- Three – four weeks: This is the perfect amount of time. I would spend a week exploring the islands in the south (pick the islands that suit you best) before heading north to Bangkok. After 2-3 days in Bangkok (or longer if you enjoy big cities or want to explore further afield), catch the train north to Chiang Mai. On our trip, we spent 2 days in Chiang Mai, caught the mini-van to Pai (spend 3-4 days here), before returning to Chiang Mai for another 2 days. We then went further north to Chiang Rai and used this as our base to explore further afield. Phu Chi Fah is incredible and worth the extra 3 hours in the mini-van. One night is enough to check out the town and see the incredible sunrise, but if you have time stay for the extra night and do it all again. The second day we watched the sunrise from a different lookout point that was just as magical as the first. Lastly, spend at least two nights at Bamboo Nest (a bit of a splurge if your on a budget). It’s incomparable to anywhere else we went in Thailand and well worth spending some time there.
Alternatively, follow these itineraries in reverse, which would mean finishing your travels on the islands. It could be preferable to finish relaxing on the beach after a busy few weeks travelling. Remember, this is only a suggestion based on the places we went when we travelled through Thailand. The country is massive and you could easily spend much longer exploring all the different parts and there are definitely places we missed that would be well worth visiting.
We really enjoyed our time in Thailand and will most likely return at some stage. Please leave a comment below if you have any questions, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help. For a breakdown of what the various aspects cost us have a look at our Thailand Travel Guide, and for more information on the various towns check out the relative blog posts for Koh Tao, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai and Phu Chi Fah.