Travelling in Thailand: The Ultimate Guide
Renowned for its dream-like beaches (where the 2000 movie The Beach was shot), notorious full moon parties, and its very own James Bond Island, Thailand has risen (and risen) over the last few decades to become one of the world’s top destinations for tourists and backpackers alike. Nestled in South-East Asia Thailand is vastly diverse both naturally and culturally. From the northern hill tribes at the border with Myanmar down to the Gulf of Thailand and its many, many islands, Thailand has natural beauty and wildlife in abundance. But nothing symbolises the country’s unique blend of modern-day Westernism and traditional far-east culture better than the capital, Bangkok, where lavish temples and thousands of monks walk beside spectacular skyscrapers and blinding neon lights every day.
Thailand has something to offer everyone and is certainly a place worth sticking around in for as long as you can. But inevitably, whether you stay for days or months, you’ll be moving on eventually, so we put together the ultimate mini-guide to travelling Thailand so you can get every last dazzling drop out of this awesome country. Whether you want to see temples or tigers, eat pad Thai or bugs, we’ve got you covered!
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Though it may not be on the top of everyone’s agenda when they arrive in Thailand, there is a wealth of history and culture almost anywhere you look. From the Grand Palace in the thriving capital, Bangkok, through to the traditional hill tribes in the north, Thailand’s culture comes at you through magnificent temples, floating river markets, water fights and breathtaking festivals.
With around 95% of the population describing themselves so, Thailand is the most Buddhist nation in the world. It might not surprise you therefore to learn that there are over 40,000 Buddhist temples across the country – some of which you simply must see.
Thailand’s capital is a dense, dizzying city where the country’s long-held traditions collide with the 21stcentury to produce a truly unique place. Enjoy a beer on a neon-plastered street or a cocktail on a modern rooftop bar; eat at one of the world’s top 50 restaurants or go for an authentic meal from a food cart – there’s an experience at both ends of the spectrum, and everything else in between.
Shopping in Thailand – when you’re not in the air conditioned megamalls – is an experience in itself. Bargain hunting is a breeze, with fake sunglasses, bags, DVDs and clothes, you’ll find virtually the real thing for unreal prices. Try the floating markets in Thailand where people sell everything from bananas to headphones on their river boats. Or visit the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar – situated on an ancient trade route with China, it’s open every day of the year from dusk until midnight.
Most of the hill tribes in the northern region of Thailand have migrated there over the past 100 or so years, and have mostly managed to preserve their traditions. Living in rural villages they live mostly by subsistence farming, and happily receives tourists and visitors.
Without a doubt the most famous and magical of all the festivals in Thailand, Loi Krathong, involves launching floating candle baskets on a river or pond and making a wish. If you’re there in November time it’s a must-see. Other festivals include the annual Songkran water fight to celebrate their new year, and the Bangkok International Film Festival, usually held in January.
One of the main draws for travelling and tourism in Thailand is undoubtedly the nightlife. With rooftop bars, cocktail bars, nightclubs, live music, live shows, beach parties, fire dancers, and thousands of revellers, Thailand’s nightlife is on supply every night of the year.
Start out with a cocktail at a bar on the top of a skyscraper looking out over the city lights, then head down to the street-level neon jungle for cheap drinks, live music and maybe a show, and end up at one of Bangkok’s stellar nightclubs. Bangkok has enough to keep you entertained every night of the week.
The notorious full moon party takes places every month on the island of Ko Pha Ngan and draws crowds of up to 30,000 every full moon. The beach is littered with bars pumping all genres of dance music, all competing to sell you their iconic buckets of alcoholic drinks. Make sure you get there a few days early to be sure of a place to stay, and come well rested!
While many think first of Ko Pha Ngan for nightlife and beach parties, the same is on offer all over the region. Koh Samui’s Chaweng beach is a popular, lively destination with a whole host of bars, pubs and clubs for you to party all night. If you’re in the mood for some live music try out an Irish pub.
The island of Phuket in the southwest of the country is not one to miss off your itinerary. Its thriving towns have good restaurants, bars, clubs and beach resorts, and the beach town hotspot of Patong is legendary for live shows, ladyboy cabaret, go-go bars, discos, clubs and world-class DJs.
As travelling and tourism grows and grows in Thailand you’re now spoilt for choice when it comes to nightlife options. Other top spots include Hua Hin, Khao Lak, Chiang Mai, Koh Chang, Pattaya and Phi Phi Island.
3. Islands & Beaches
It’s hard not to picture tree covered islands, white beaches and clear, turquoise waters when you picture Thailand’s islands. Many are world-class beach resorts by day and lively party scenes at night – all offer a welcome break from the dense cities and long journeys. But don’t assume they’re all the same: every island has its own unique offering, so check out which one is right for you.
Located near Krabi town, Ao Nang is one of Thailand’s most popular beach destinations. It’s not up there with some of the most serene places to visit in Thailand, thanks to a lot of building developments and a heavy flow of tourism, but Ao Nang has a great range of things to do, like scuba diving, snorkelling, kite surfing and the much-recommended kayaking around the mangroves.
This stunning marine national park located in the Gulf of Thailand is made up of 42 jungle islands and is one of the best natural sights in the country. Get the most out of the park with a sea tour or enjoy snorkelling and diving in the crystal clear waters.
First inhabited by the Chao Ley (Sea Gypsies) when King Rama V gifted it to them at the start of the 20th century, Ko Lipe is the pinnacle of beach paradise in Thailand. And although the secret’s slowly been getting out over the last decade or so, it remains one of the most untouched and idyllic beach spots, consisting of two pure white beaches straddling green jungled hills. Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, chilled out music and good vibes.
Ko Nang Yuan is an iconic image of Thailand: three small tree-topped islands joined by one thin white beach and wrapped in a turquoise glow. Perfect for a day trip, have a go at snorkelling and zip-lining, or just relax on the beautiful 360 degree beach.
The archipelago of the Similan Islands, less than 100km north of Phuket’s Paton Beach, rest in the Andaman Sea and are often regarded as one of the top 10 scuba diving spots in the world. But the Similan Islands also have things to see above sea level, like its huge, smooth boulders that are dotted about the southern and western shores.
If you get tired of humans, take a trip to Ao Phang Nga National Park where you could see sea snakes, shore pit vipers, crab-eating macaques, monitor lizards, gibbons and more. These 40 or so islands are famous for their caves, vertical cliffs, and James Bond Island – so called after it served as 007’s hideout in The Man With The Golden Gun.
Fantastic rock formations and typically-stunning beaches have made Ko Phi Phi one of the most popular destinations in Thailand for years, and even more so since the 2000 movie The Beach was filmed there. Expect just about everything, from clear waters, snorkelling and diving, relaxing beach huts, good food and buzzing nightlife.
4. Outdoor Activities
Though its face has changed somewhat over the last decade or so, as tourism has ramped up, much of Thailand’s natural beauty and diversity is still preserved. With clear blue waters, white sand beaches, and jungles and forests covering most undeveloped land, outdoor activities are abundant. In addition to the below, be sure not to miss out on using the Thai-Burma railway (bridge over the River Kwai) for some glorious scenery, and definitely make sure you catch at least one Thai sunset before you go.
Sea tours are an awesome way to see Thailand’s myriad islands and lagoons. Usually on your own kayak or canoe (though sometimes on small boats) paddling around the calm waters after your tour guide is a unique way to enjoy the rich marine beauty. Many tour operators offer hotel pick-up, picture opportunities and lunch included in a trip package.
Thailand’s many forests and jungles are home to a vast array of wildlife and are well worth seeing for a day or two. There are well trodden and not so well trodden trails through most national parks and tour operators will guide you through, either on foot or on the back of an elephant, as part of a package that usually includes camping and meals.
Monkeys can be a controversial topic in Thailand. In many places tourists are encouraged to feed them nuts and fruit, and they can be an interesting addition to a scene. But many monkeys – especially macaques, the most common species – are a nuisance. Every year hundreds of people are scratched and bitten by monkeys as a result of trying (or trying not) to feed them. The best way to enjoy Thailand’s monkeys is to visit the annual Monkey Buffet festival in Lopburi, north of Bangkok. Here over 4 tons of fruit are laid out for a few thousand monkeys to fill up on.
In the south of the capital lies the Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo, a world-famous crocodile farm that boasts over 100,000 crocodiles, including Yai, the world’s largest captive crocodile. Yai comes in at 6 metres long and weighing over a ton. Samutprakarm zoo is also famous for crocodile shows where trainers put their heads in crocodile jaws. It all goes smoothly, usually. Aside from crocodiles the zoo also has elephants, tigers, lions, monkeys and hippos.
If you’re looking for a more authentic and natural way to see Thailand’s wildlife, the many national parks will do the trick. Hike through Khao Yai National Park and see all the big animals as well as around 300 species of bird. Or take a trip to Erawan National Park to see the famous seven-tiered Erawan Falls. If you’re further south go and explore Khao Sok National Park, rumoured to be around 160 million years old, it’s claimed by some to have the oldest evergreen forest in the world – enjoy deep valleys, dark caves, serene lakes and plenty of wildlife.
5. Getting Around
With so many beautiful places to visit in Thailand you will need to do some travelling if you’re to make the most of it. Trains and buses are the most popular way to get around, but there are other options like tuk-tuks in the cities, and renting a scooter or a car for that sought after autonomy.
Whilst they may not be the ultimate vessel in terms of safety or comfort, at least one tuk-tuk ride in Thailand is a must. The tuk-tuks in Thailand are half-chariot-half-motorbike and as such are small and open-air. Drivers love to decorate them in all sorts of ways so the quality of the ride may vary, just make sure you agree a price to your destination beforehand and don’t get ripped off.
If you plan to see a lot of Thailand, train is by far the best way to get around the country. With a solid railway system and well-built trains that really have stood the test of time, it’s a reliable way to travel the big distances. Travel comes in three classes (1st, 2nd or 3rd) and for any long distances a first or second class sleeper ticket is the best way to go.
As well as the train network, Thailand’s bus network is reliable and extends almost everywhere you would want to visit. Government-subsidised Baw Khaw Saw (BKS) is the main player but there are many other reliable companies; just make sure you go with a reputable company to avoid commission-seeking stops and terrifying driving.
Renting a scooter is one of the most popular methods of short-range transport for travellers and tourists and it’s hard not to see why. If you’re tired of tour operators and generally being driven around by other people, a motorbike or scooter is a great way to take charge again and get away from the crowds. Many hire them for the day to ride around the countryside and enjoy the freedom that comes with it. Just be aware that, even if you’re the world’s most careful driver, the other motorists on the road always make it a dangerous affair in Thailand.
6. Food & Drink
Thai food has swept across the world now to the extent that almost everyone knows what a Pad Thai tastes like, but until you land in Thailand and take that first bite you don’t really know a thing about it! A vibrant mix of sweet, sour, hot and salty flavours will immediately disarm you and over take your senses.
Street food is probably the best place to start if you’re entering Thailand through Bangkok, but there’s a rich and diverse cuisine beyond that from the northern hill areas to the many islands and beaches. Plus, if you’ve spent less than expected, why not visit Gaggan in Bangkok – the 10th best restaurant in the world.
It’s not best advised for you to drink tap water outside of the capital in Thailand, but that’s OK, wherever you go there is a range of delicious drinks both hard and soft. Try a chaa (tea) or a coffee, both of which normally come sweet with condensed milk – a perfect pick me up. On the harder side you’ll find all sorts of cocktails and two very popular beer brands: Singha and Chang, the latter being notoriously cheap, and strong.
As you might expect in a part of the world so far from the west – both culturally and geographically – Thailand has some cultural standards and quirks. For instance, never leave your chopsticks in the bowl at dinner, as this symbolises death and is very bad luck. Conversely, don’t hold back from adding condiments to your meal to improve or change the taste.
One of the quickest ways to stir up some debate in Thailand is to try and get your friends to try some bugs and insects. Huge trays and buckets of salty, deep fried grasshoppers, worms, and crickets can be found in most town or city streets, and they’re the perfect snack to go with a few beers if you’re willing to try them.
Whilst there’s lots of fun to be had, and most of the fun is in just taking Thailand as it comes, a few bits of preparation and research will make sure you squeeze the most out of your time there and minimise any risks.
At the top of your to-do list should be vaccines. Some are essential and some just recommended, but make sure you’re covered so your mind can be at rest.
For those with allergies or dietary restrictions, an international dining card can let you communicate your dietary needs with anyone you need to. You can get cards for all kinds of allergies as well as for vegetarians and vegans, so you can be sure everything is kosher.
Apart from a few essentials like walking boots, insect repellent and lots of sun cream, the checklist for Thailand is pretty straightforward and nothing to think too hard about. That said, here are some comprehensive checklists to make sure you’re covered in every event.
It goes without saying, but people still come to Thailand every year with no insurance. Most don’t use it, but thefts, minor road accidents and monkey run-ins happen all the time so better to be safe than sorry.
The currency in Thailand is Baht and will go pretty far for any western visitors, which is why it’s such a destination for budget back-packers. If you’re not on such a tight budget you can eat, drink and sleep very well.
As well as some dining etiquette, Thailand (as well as the SE Asia area) has some cultural customs that, if known, will help you get on better with the locals even more. Think greetings, entering homes, dining, and saying thanks.
Still want to know more? Check out these lists for extra info. on what not to forget.