Rays of Light @ Phu Chi Fa

THAILAND TRAVEL GUIDE

In Travel Guide by thedustyroad

A GUIDE TO TRAVELLING THAILAND ON A BUDGET

After our trip in Malaysia was plagued by the haze, we were really keen for some fresh air and blue skies. We also found after 3 years of living on the beach in Wollongong, we had a real urge to get back to the ocean. We spent a full month in Thailand in total, with the following being a collection of tips we heard and learnt along the way.

OUR JOURNEY

Having just concluded our trip through Malaysia, we set off from Penang and travelled north through Thailand along the following route:

  • Penang to Surat Thani via minivan (10hours, I think it cost RM60 each),
  • Surat Thani to Koh Tao via night boat (8hours, departed 9.30pm, 600B each) for 10nights,
  • Koh Tao to Chumphon via ferry, Chumphon to Bangkok via night train (departs Koh Tao 2.30pm, arrive in Bangkok 6am the following day, cost 1,200B each for ferry, transfer to train station and sleeper train) where we stayed for 2 nights,
  • Bangkok to Chiang Mai via day train (departs 8.30pm, arrives 7.30pm 641B each) for 2 nights,
  • Chiang Mai to Pai via minibus (depart hourly, 3 hour trip, 150B each, one way) for 5 nights before returning to Chiang Mai for another 2 nights,
  • Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai via bus (depart hourly, 3 hour trip, 149B each) for 1 night,
  • Chiang Rai to Phu Chi Fah via mini bus (departs 1.30pm, 3 hour trip, 150B each, one way) for 2 nights before returning to Chiang Rai for another 3 nights,
  • Chiang Rai to Nong Khai via overnight bus (departs 6.20pm, arrives 9am, 650B each) where we crossed the boarder into Laos.

ENTERING THE COUNTRY

This proved difficult from the get-go. When we arrived in Penang we checked the visa regulations, only to find they had changed since the last time we looked (a couple of months prior). This meant if we crossed the land boarder we would only get a 15day tourist visa on arrival (this can be 30days depending what passport you are travelling on). We looked into flying into Phuket from Penang, which would allow us 30days, but you must also have a flight booked out of Thailand. We opted to apply for a tourist visa, which gave us the more flexible 60days, and allowed us to enter via the land boarder. It also meant we could also exit via land boarder on a date we decided (rather than on a pre-booked flight). The visa cost RM150 (which was more than the RM110 the website suggested), you must have 2x passport sized photos, a photocopy of your passport, and the visa is processed at the Thai Consulate overnight. The visa application can only be dropped off between 8am and 10am. I would suggest getting there early, by the time we left the line (which moved at snail pace) had 50+ people in it. You then can collect your passport the following day between 2pm and 4pm.

When we got to the boarder, we were stamped out of Malaysia without concern. We had to give the mini-van driver RM2 each and he wrote down our passport details (I’m not sure of the purpose of this) before we continued to the Thai boarder. Waiting in line, we saw everyone in front slipping RM2-RM5 into their passports. We contemplated putting money into our passports as well, but in the end decided against it. All was going well until the customs officers asked to see 20,000B each in cash (this was something we knew they could ask for). I offered to show a bank statement as proof (which the Consulate said was sufficient) but we were turned away. Returning to the mini van without our entry stamps, the driver took my passport with him to chat with a customs officer. On his return, we both went back to this customs officer and were allowed through with all appropriate stamps. This was all quite stressful and I felt extremely intimidated. This was the only time we had any problems travelling in Thailand, which is a great relief!

BUDGET

As with Malaysia, I did some research and had developed the following budget:

  • 240B for food
  • 300B for activities
  • 500B for accommodation
  • 40B for transport

This was a daily total of 1,060B, which was way too tight for us. At the time of writing, 1AUD = 25THB. Over 30days we spent 59,500B which is 1,900B per day (between us), not including the dive courses Jimmy did on Koh Tao. This equates to about $40AUD per person per day. We broke the budget on:

  • Koh Tao: Everything on the island is more expensive than the mainland. We also stayed here 3 nights longer than expected, as Jimmy got quite sick.
  • Food: Nowhere we stayed provided breakfast (except a B&B in Chiang Rai). This was the most expensive meal of the day, often costing 200-300B alone. If you want to keep to 120B per person for food you could have a fruit shake for breakfast (30B), a toastie from 7/11 for lunch (25B), and a dish like pad thai for dinner (40-60B), leaving 15B for a bottle of water. We decided to have a 200B per meal budget instead, making our trip much more enjoyable and manageable for us.
  • Transport: After a horrendous trip in the mini-van from Penang to Surat Thani, we put a bit more money into long distance transfers (we had a few).
  • Accommodation: We stayed a few places which were over budget;
    • @ Hua Lamphong, Bangkok: after a long overnight train trip, for which Jimmy was sick for, we wanted something close to the train station, nicer than usual, and air-conditioning. We found that here, but at a whopping 1,200B per night.
    • Bamboo Nest, Chiang Rai: we chose to stay here for the experience and it was well worth it! 800B per night 23km out of town, I would recommend it to anyone who would enjoy rural Chiang Rai.
    • Baan Jaru, Chiang Rai: we chose to stay here when we got out back from Phu Chi Fah. At 800B a night it broke the budget, however, it did include an amazing breakfast (omelette, bacon, toast, fruit, tea, coffee and juice), which balanced the budget back for us.

I think if we were travelling Thailand again, 1,500B per day for a couple would be more reasonable. That would give 600B for food, 500B for accommodation and 400B left for activities and transport. Jimmy also did both the open water and advanced dive courses while we were in Koh Tao, which cost 16,600B in total (8,500B for the open water and 8,100B for the advanced course) which I have not included in our budget.

Another important point, it cost 360-400B for every withdrawal at an ATM, even though we were travelling with a Travel Card which had Thai Baht pre-purchased. We couldn’t figure out a more cost effective way of getting cash, but it is worth considering when tallying a budget.

ACCOMMODATION

We have found the guesthouses in Thailand are much less social than those we stayed at in Malaysia. It could be the places we chose to stay, most didn’t really have a well-established common area. Important things to remember when booking in Thailand:

  • A private room at a reasonable guesthouse will cost between 350B and 700B, price varies depending on the season and where you are (the islands and Bangkok are much more expensive than other areas).
  • Most places don’t give a complimentary breakfast.
  • Most private rooms come with an ensuite. This is usually tiny, and designed in a way that means the toilet will get wet by the shower. But a bit more convenient than a shared bathroom (which can often have the same set up anyway!).
  • The beds are all incredibly hard. Some are also very springy.
  • Thailand and Malaysia usually have holidays from mid-December to mid-January, which can spill into November as well. This means some accommodation (especially those rated highly on TripAdvisor and the Lonely Planet) will be booked out weeks in advance. We had no issues booking anywhere or finding somewhere when we arrived, but it often wasn’t our first choice.
  • Everywhere we went would only accept cash payment.
  • Most places will allow you to check in as soon as you arrive.

TRANSPORT

As with Malaysia, we continued our journey through Thailand over land. We spent 10hours on a mini-van from Penang to Surat Thani and vowed never to do another one the same! Not only was it incredibly hot and very squished (as there was no where to put luggage), but the driver kept falling asleep and was swerving all over the road. This is what we thought of the various methods of transport:

  • Mini-van (Penang – Surat Thani, 10 hours): this was horrendous for us. As it was the start of our trip, we avoided long distance mini-vans throughout the rest of Thailand, opting for train or bus where possible.
  • Mini-van (short distance): we travelled to both Pai and Phu Chi Fah via mini-van (both around 3 hours) as there were no other options. The driver to Pai seemed to be racing the clock, tearing around tight corners and overtaking in various dodgy situations. The Phu Chi Fah trip was more reasonable, mainly because there were so many massive potholes in the road it was impossible to go fast. There was still enough overtaking on blind corners to keep you on the edge of your seat!
  • Night boat (Surat Thani – Koh Tao, 8 hours): we found this really enjoyable! The boat we were on had 2 dorm rooms with about 15 bunks in each. Lights are out at 10pm and you travel through the night, arriving at 5am the next morning. An easy way to travel and you save on a night of accommodation, which is a bonus.
  • Ferry (Koh Tao – Chumphon, 3 hours): we caught the ferry, to then catch a connecting train to Bangkok. This was 3 hours, pretty relaxed and it was a nice way to check out the islands from sea.
  • Sleeper train (Chumphon – Bangkok, 11 hours): I found this quite tolerable. Jimmy hated it. As he was sick, the moving squat toilet pushed him to the limits. We were on the top bunks and had our bags up there that made it a very short bed. If we were to go again, I would book the bottom bunk (which is slightly more expensive but bigger) so we could put our bags on the rack on the floor and try to get the middle of the carriage (numbered from around 10 I think) rather than by the door, which is quite noisy. We were in the 2nd class air-conditioned carriage, which I found a bit too cold (but Jimmy enjoyed). Make sure you have a jumper handy if you feel the cold. Alternatively, you could try the 2nd class fan carriage (I haven’t travelled on this one yet), which is cheaper too
  • Day train (Bangkok – Chaing Mai, 11 hours): This is similar to being on a long distance flight. Your seated in rows for the journey, the seats recline slightly, and light meals are served. We went in the 2nd class air-conditioned carriage; I found the temperature good for daytime. Jimmy much preferred the day train to the over night train. I felt cramped and uncomfortable, much preferring the night train! I think this really comes down to personal opinion.
  • Bus (Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai, 3 hours): A nice short trip, easily manageable on bus. We used the Green Bus company that we found extremely professional and everyone was very helpful. You get served a snack and water along the way.
  • Sleeper bus (Chiang Rai – Nong Khai, 14 hours): This was a mammoth trip, and with no train servicing this particular route we opted for a bus. The only direct option was to travel overnight with the Green Bus company, which suited us. The bus stops frequently but aside from that it is again essentially the same as a long distance flight. You are served a snack when you get on, and a light dinner shortly after. The seats recline much further than airline seats but this is quite imposing on those behind you. VIP seats are huge with more legroom. We were quite content in the 1st class seats (the only other class on the bus).

ALSO OF NOTE…

  • The transfer from Chiang Mai to Pai should be around 150B each. We paid 180B that included the transfer to the mini-van.
  • Chiang Rai bus station one (the main station in the city centre) is currently being rebuilt and is disorganised personified. It’s very difficult to figure out what bus to catch and where from. Allow plenty of time to figure this out, not many people speak English around there either.
  • From what I understand, the night boat doesn’t go every night. It may be only alternative nights, but worth checking when if you plan on taking this.
  • If heading to the islands, be careful catching the ferry to link with a flight. Allow 24hours at least to allow for any mishaps.

ACTIVITIES

We have more detailed accounts of each place we stayed in the travel blog, but the following is a summary of our favourites:

  • Koh Tao: the main reason behind our lengthy stay here was to allow Jimmy to complete the dive courses. He did this with Ocean Sound Dive School and really enjoyed the time he spent diving. Aside from this, it is a picturesque place to spend some time by the beach.
  • Bangkok: this was more of a stop over for us to break up the journey to Chiang Mai. We enjoyed checking out the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, at 46m long it is pretty amazing.
  • Chiang Mai: Temples galore! We also hired a scooter and for a cruise through Doi Suthep National Park. A really good look out point from the top.
  • Pai: the Pai Canyon is very impressive. Well worth spending some time exploring the dusty tracks.
  • Chiang Rai: Bamboo Nest. While this is a bit out of the town and costly on a backpackers budget, this experience was really worth it for us.
  • Phu Chi Fah: The main attraction, the Phu Chi Fah lookout is worth the trouble to get there. We enjoyed two serene sunrises from Thailand, looking over the Northern Laos mountains.

FOOD

Even though we broke the budget on food each day, we were not eating extravagant meals. While there were a few things we really enjoyed, a lot of the food was quite plain, especially after travelling through Malaysia where the food was packed with different flavours. Things I found…

  • I preferred the fried wide noodle dish to Pad Thai. Still rice noodles, meat and vegetables, it was just more flavoursome and held a bit more authenticity to it.
  • Spicy Papaya Salad is a beautiful, refreshing salad made with green papaya and various other things. Worth trying.
  • Clay hot pots from the night bazaar in Chiang Rai (found behind the bus station) are incredible! Unless you love super spicy food, the non-spicy soup would probably be the safer option (you can add chilli to this to suit your taste buds).
  • Thailand has many major tourist areas. To find the more reasonably priced food (which is usually tastier) you have to look a bit harder, often down smaller alley ways, and a bit further from the main tourist precinct.
  • The fruit shakes are beautiful! Be wary, they are made with ice and the quality of the water used is questionable. Having a sensitive stomach, the shakes upset my stomach a bit. Jimmy enjoyed them without concern, I think it just depends on the individual.
  • I always enjoy the street food over eating in a formal restaurant.

OTHER IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS…

  • From what I understand, there is some unrest in the South of Thailand and I have heard whispers this is not the safest place to be. I think this is what added to the stress of the boarder crossing for me. There is a very noticeable military presence and many police checkpoints. Once a bit further north the atmosphere was a lot more relaxed.
  • We travel with our passports on us at all times. This is a safety thing for us, it gives us the ability to head to an airport and leave at the drop of a hat. The exception is when we have hired a scooter, where you must hand a passport in as a deposit.
  • When you apply for a Thai tourist visa you need an address of the place you are planning on staying. It would pay to have one on hand if you opt to apply for a visa in advance.
  • It can be risky business hiring a scooter, we saw so many people with massive grazes from falls. It is very tricky to navigate the Thai roads where minimal road rules are adhered. Jimmy has experience on motorbikes and I always resumed the role of navigator that worked well for us.
  • It is a good idea to take photos of the scooter (and any damage it has) before you hire it. There are scams where they try to charge you for damage you haven’t done when you return the bike.
  • Listen to other travellers; they have the best accommodation tips and different ideas on places to go.
  • Be wary the season changes between the north and south. When we travelled in November, it was the start of the monsoon season at the islands and winter in the north.
  • 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. It will involve a few stops at various stores that belong to the driver’s friends. On all occasions, we would walk around the corner to find the temples open!
  • It is necessary for women to dress modestly to enter the temples (knees and shoulders covered). Temples that are larger attractions will have things available you can borrow. I found it easier to take my own or wear appropriate clothing.

If you are after more specific information, have a look at our travel blog that has more detailed descriptions of each city with plenty of photos (with more in the gallery). We are also happy to answer any questions, if you comment below or send an email to admin@thedustyroad.com we will do our best to answer as best we can.