Traveling to exotic Thailand should not remain just a dream. For many, it does mean traveling to the opposite side of the world but this fact alone is what makes the former Kingdom of Siam such a unique cultural gem. Full of deep traditions, many deeply rooted in Buddhism, diverse food and tropical climate, the rapidly modernizing nation will immediately endear the first time visitor. Your adventure will be budget friendly and full of whatever you seek. Whether it is the white sandy and clear watered beaches, cosmopolitan cities, treks through the jungle or exploring the mountains, Thailand has enough diversity to appease any traveler.
This insightful guide is meant to both provide unique tips and personal anecdotes but also act as a story, one that captures your imagination and moves it closer to reality as you explore the, people land and attractions of Thailand!
Unique in that it is the only Southeast Asian nation to not be colonized, Thailand, along with its people, have remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Only traces of unsuccessful attempts by the former French and British empires can be found within Thai culture, architecture and food. Their proud independence has allowed their traditions to remain unaltered by outside influence, with the perhaps the recent noticeable exception of western commercialization in the cities. Despite having KFC’s, McDonalds and dozens of other fast food chains dotting each city block, the roots of Thailand have stayed true to their roots and why on your first trip, you will be amazed at the graciousness and respect Thai people show to each other and foreigners alike.
Tourists spending money is a good incentive for respect in any tourist destination, but don’t be fooled, in Thailand as opposed to most tourist destinations around the world, their demeanor is genuine and their smiles and bows will attest to that. Instilled from birth and combined with the teachings of Buddhism, you will find that the “wai” is still very much practiced. The partial bow is used as both a greeting and sign of respect and serves as a nice departure from our rather cold and standoffish culture in the West. Being so tolerant doesn’t come so easily but even the occasional obnoxious “farang”, or foreigner is accepted although disrespectful behavior will earn sneers from all sides.
Thai people are in general, reserved and prefer to not draw unnecessary attention. Arguments and other pubic displays are uncommon and makes shopping in their overcrowded markets or traversing their busy city streets more appealing. It is a wonderful experience to shop in a market where, despite not knowing the language, the vendors will gladly write English numbers or use head nods and other body language to help with payment exchanges. This is again reinforced by the many local temples that are often the original source of traffic for the markets. Being nearly entirely Buddhist, residents will regularly pay respects at these temples, taking a moment to mediate alongside the monks who are revered for their dedication and peaceful message.
This does not mean that all is roses in Thailand, but if a change of culture is what your are looking for, you will get more than you can imagine during your excursion. The vast differences will undoubtedly create culture shock until you learn to accept and appreciate the changes as you explore the variety the nation offers.
Thailand is a long and narrow nation running north to south with the bulk of country’s land, north of the Gulf of Thailand. Myanmar borders the west and north, Laos on the north and east, Cambodia on the East and at the southern tip of the peninsula, sits Malaysia. Situated at the crossroads between the north and south, the sprawling city of Bangkok makes a great start and launching pad for excursions in all directions.
Just south of Bangkok lies the economically bountiful and beautiful waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Splitting off to the west is a narrow peninsula, partially shared with Myanmar and eventually meeting the Malaysian border to the far south. In between, you will find the famous and touristy island of Phuket, rock climbing paradise of Krabi and dozens of stunning islands, many uninhabited and reachable by boat.
The eastern seaboard of the Gulf, with its beautiful beaches, draws local and foreign tourists looking for rest and relaxation or lively nightlife. Overbuilt resort towns such as Pattaya are located here and worth a stop on your journey if your looking for a more energetic distraction. In these heavily developed resort towns, as in all urban areas throughout Thailand, you will find all of the modern amenities including hotels of all size and taste, western food and nightclubs. It is not all party on the eastern seaboard as the beaches are what the developments were built around. Although not as pristine as some of the islands, you can easily find quieter strips of soft sand if hearing waves crash is more important than discos.
In the northern part of the country, a mountainous region dominates, including twin peaks that majestically soar over Thailand’s second largest city, Chang Mai. These lush green hillsides may not resemble the Alps but the higher elevations do bring cooler temperatures, different fauna and wildlife. In between Chang Mai and Bangkok lies the fertile central plains. Heavy on agriculture and recipient of a good amount of rain, these farm friendly plains drain south to the Gulf with Bangkok in its way. On occasion, Bangkok has flooded severely for weeks at a time. This is a rare event and the government has been busy creating new infrastructure to handle this problem.
Perhaps the most unusual region is the rather desolate, semi-arid northeast. In some locations here, rain is scarce, the soil is poor and understandably the population dwindles. It is also in this unforgiving landscape where you will find some of the most unique customs and eating habits, some not for the faint of heart. The Mekong River, jasmine rice and city of Udon Thani are favorite attractions in this locale. In Thailand it should almost go without saying, but decorating the landscape are ornate, gold spired temples including remote forest locations such as the unique, turquoise clad Wat Pa Phu Kon Temple and it’s 65 foot long reclining Buddha.
Most of these regions are easily traveled by train, plane or bus with plane travel being the quickest and most comfortable. Prices to fly within the country on Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways are quite reasonable. This is important when considering that air conditioning, although common, is not always guaranteed on all buses or rail lines. Exploring each of these areas brings incredible variety in food, fashion, culture and traditions. Make sure to include a few on your journey with some great suggestions further on in the article. Regardless of the region and even around the bustling tourist hotspots, lush vegetation and rural life are never far away. Keep this in mind when the commotion of the cities gets to you. It is outside of the hectic urban centers where the Thai lifestyle has remained unaltered for generations.
Being a tropical climate and surrounded by a significant amount of water, Thailand is almost always hot and humid. It is the first and most emphatic sensory overload you will experience when leaving the air-conditioned airport. At times, it can be overwhelming, especially when the average humidity is around 73% and accompanies temperatures that hover in the in the high 80’s, low 90’s (Fahrenheit) year-round. Despite having 3 distinct seasons, the first time traveler may not notice the variations as much as the heat is never absent. Despite this, you will quickly adjust and learn to move at a more reasonable pace, one that suits the environment and Thai lifestyle.
Between May and October, monsoons from the west create the rainy season and should be researched if planning a trip to Phuket or other southwest destination where at times, it can rain non-stop. Despite being wet, and sometimes drenched, the landscapes will be as lush as ever and even in the urban cores where lush foliage will grow in highway underpasses and other unexpected places. This season may be considered the rainy season, but it is still an incredible time to visit as the monsoons do not affect the entire country equally. If your visiting Bangkok, the north or eastern seaboard, this time of year is quite enjoyable.
Following the rainy season is perhaps the ideal time to travel to Thailand. Running from November to February is a stretch of relative cool temperatures and drier conditions. Keep in mind that most peoples definition of cool and dry do not apply in Thailand. It is always hot and muggy and I find it humorous when forecasts for temperatures in the 70’s use a shivering Eskimo icon! Outside of the mountainous north, finding a time when it is in the 70’s is almost certainly going to be at night. With just periodic and brief tropical rains coming from the northeast monsoons, this makes for a perfect time first time travelers. The landscape is at its most lush, waterfalls at their peaks and even in the dense urban jungle of Bangkok, a time to appreciate the calm before the “real” heat arrives.
If you have not yet picked up on the trend, it is always hot in Thailand. However, even the hardened and usually gentle mannered locals start to complain come March to mid-May when temperatures can rise in to the high 90 degree range and when compiled with humidity, becomes almost unbearable. For many residents, air conditioning is an unaffordable luxury and they are forced to endure the unrelenting heat.
For travelers, this is not an issue if your at the beach or staying in a modern hotel but walking the crowded sidewalks amongst towering glass high-rises, smog and the notoriously bad traffic, you will need to learn pacing and patience while exploring. The thick vegetation outside of the cities seems to trap the heat making a brisk hike turn into a controlled walk. Even the well-tempered Buddhist lifestyles have limitations so your patience needs to extend to others as well. Not to be avoided, this season just means to plan accordingly and embrace what your given.
If the heat is the first sensory overload, next on this list is almost certainly the food. Forget what you might think you know about Thai food and you will quickly realize that not everything is made with copious amounts of chili peppers. While it is true that chili spices are extremely common, it is often served on your table as a condiment, allowing individuals to season to their preference. Beyond chili, Thai food is full of spices and herbs such as basil, ginger, lemongrass and curries.
Thai food is so diverse that it is nearly impossible to define. However, to create an underlying theme, the usual fare includes white rice or noodles with some form of stir fried vegetables and meat. Pork, chicken, egg, seafood and tofu are common sources of protein. Being so close to water, shrimp, squid and fish can readily be found in restaurants and street markets. The sauces used add to the variety making two noodle dishes, such as rad na and sukiyaki, unrecognizable next to each other. Even this brief synopsis provides little justice as the culinary options vary so much from region to region you need to experience it to understand.
Some of the most common flavors to expect regardless of the dish are spicy, sour, salty and sweet. In many combinations, these 4 components will keep your mouth constantly intrigued and your belly satisfied. For spicy, it is usually red chili flakes or powder that is available as mentioned earlier, on your table. Alongside the chili, you will find vinegars, soy sauce and sugar amongst other seasonings that tend to favor the type of food served there. To this point, it is common for the small local eateries to specialize in a particular dish ensuring quality of the food and avoid waste. This can be strange to the westerner expecting to a menu of dozens of options but a small purveyor who serves stir fired noodles will probably not specialize in soups, a very popular Thai staple despite the heat!
The above mentioned restaurants are often small and located in the front of the owners home. The first floors of many Thai homes open to the public with only a roll down gate that closes at night. This allows for the owner to operate their restaurant or other retail store from home. Walk any street in Thailand and your likely to find food for sale.
To further demonstrate this, Thailand boasts the worlds most famous street food. This staple expresses how little Thai people cook for themselves but instead, opt to eat out and eat fresh. The inexpensive dishes (think $4 a serving) make it quick to pick through an abundance of ready-to-eat foods and be on your way. It is the original, albeit healthier, “fast food.”
Based out of a small, mobile carts, street food vendors are everywhere. Even a quiet side street can be dotted with vendors selling fried chicken, skewered proteins, soups, noodle dishes and so on. There is no limit to how creative and hardworking these vendors are willing to be. It is common to find sidewalk line with large vats of boiling oil, adjacent to wood fired grills, fruit stands and iced drink stalls. The type of foods available are just as creative including vast amounts of fresh mango, papaya, dragon fruit and sweet desert dishes. As much fun as the street food is, Thai people take it up a notch with their markets.
In Thailand, they have two primary types of markets, ones that are open every day and primarily focus on the locals and the night markets, which are more festive and usually only open on the weekends. In either case, the markets operate similarly to the street vendors but differ in that they cluster together in small to absolutely enormous groups. It is also more common to find vendors selling clothing, household goods, lottery tickets and other items a Thai resident might need. There are traditional stores, but it is the neighborhood market where many purchase their meals, fresh produce, meats, seafood and other necessities.
Often very crowded, it takes some adjustment navigating your way through the maze of aisles, some covered with tarps, others open to the sky. Often loud and too close for comfort, these markets can be both amazing and stressful at the same point. One of the most special qualities of Thai markets versus others throughout the world is that there is very little haggling. The calm demeanor of the people is not conducive to barking negotiations back and forth. Somewhat contrary to this, it is somehow considered completely acceptable to ride a motorized scooter through the crowded aisles. It wasn’t until my leg was burned by a passing muffler that I really began to get annoyed by them!
Despite that isolated and almost comical incident, the markets are a one-stop shop for inexpensive food, fashions, goods and gifts. You have not seen Thailand until you have seen at least one market. You might want to pass on the fried insects though!
Most adventures to Thailand will begin in Bangkok simply because nearly every major airline flies into its modern and busy Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Located on what used to be the outskirts of the city, development has rapidly filled in what used to be farms and small towns. Connected by an elevated train line and major highway, the ride into the city can be awe inspiring and overwhelming at the same time. Home to 13% of the countries population, 11 million people call the 20th largest city in the world home. Perhaps more surprising is the view of the skyline as you make your approach. Unlike American most cities, Bangkok has no single center but instead, boasts dozens of financial districts that fill the horizon from end to end with a jagged line of towering skyscrapers. Often cloaked in a hazy layer of smog and humidity, it can look surreal upon your first approach.
Despite not having a traditional western-style downtown, there are many distinct neighbors that have there own unique identities. One trait they all share in common is that they were built faster than urban planning could keep up. This means that highways, subways and elevated rail lines are being built AFTER the neighborhoods were in place. This is far from unusual in Southeastern Asia where economic growth has exploded in the last 20 years and doubled the population of Bangkok in that time frame.
This translates into lots of traffic. Moving throughout the city can be painstakingly slow and why utilizing the super clean and modern rail lines is a priority for most locals. Some of the elevated lines offer great tours of the city in the comfort of the air conditioned train. If your attempting to drive there, beware that travel is on the left side of the road and scooters are everywhere. Not only are scooters everywhere, there seems to be no such thing as a traffic violation when riding one. At every red light, scooters will squeeze between the cars waiting until at the head of the line. From there, it is a mad dash to the next red light. On occasion these skilled navigators have collisions which is startling until you see them get up and continue on their way.
Not for the faint of heart, the streets are a logistical nightmare but once away from the insides of a vehicle, you can now navigate the similar congested sidewalks. Despite the crowds, you are now in more familiar territory and once the sound of horns becomes secondary, the aromas of street food will begin to call you in.
Depending on the neighborhood you first embark in, your level of culture shock will vary. First, your probably completely jet lagged being 12 hours off eastern standard time. Secondly, you probably do not speak Thai and will soon realize that contrary to traveling in Europe with the Latin based languages, Thai is written in it’s own alphabet so everything is unreadable. That is until you spot your first 7-Eleven. This will be the first of probably hundreds as they are everywhere. As odd as it can be, seeing a familiar site like a Burger King can be comforting when so far from home.
Being so large, there simply is too much to cover about Bangkok in this article so I will instead, provide some traveling insight on a two of my favorite destinations within the city limits. Accessing them depends on where your staying but in general, taking taxi’s is the easiest way to get around. It is wise to have a few addresses, including your hotel written in Thai so you can get yourself home at the end of the day! If your near the MRT (Mass Rail Transit) or BTS Skytrain, take advantage of them as you will save a lot of time and money. Most roads and rail stations have English translation to make navigating with confidence much easier.
Bangkok-The Grand Palace and Wat Pho
The first stop on any trip into Bangkok should be the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. Located adjacent to each other these two, must-see attractions are also accessible by the water shuttles a few blocks away on the Chao Phraya River. Once you set your eyes on the golden spires of Bangkok’s most famous landmark, you will feel like your adventure has begun. Built in 1782, It served as home of the King for 150 years. Today it still remains the spiritual heart of Thailand.
Many of the structures are clearly Thai architecture but here you will also find some European influences nicely meshed in with more traditional forms. The ornate facades and roofs are worthy of some time and reflection and will give you a chance to rest from the heat. Walking the grounds of this impressive complex is almost sacred and why long pants and no bare feet are requirements prior to entry. Within the palace grounds you can also view the revered emerald Buddha where the utmost in respect is expected and enforced by visitors and staff alike.
Across the street, you can find What Pho with its huge reclining Buddha statue and equally impressive spires. Whether a practitioner or not, Buddhism is a calming and unforced presence, making the grounds a tranquil stroll, less intimidating than the Grand Palace. If your legs are feeling weary, you cannot miss the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School. Here you can experience the unique Thai massage where varying levels of pain are intertwined with exhilarating deep tissue massage. These students-in-training will give you a one hour massage for less than $20. Once you try this, you will realize how addictive they are and why massage parlors are everywhere tourists go.
Bangkok- Chatuchak Weekend Market
As discussed earlier, outdoor markets are a huge component of Thai culture and socializing. Taking this to the extreme and spread out of 35 acres, the lesser known of my two Bangkok suggestions is Chatuchak Weekend Market. To say it is big is an understatement as it draws almost a quarter of a million people per weekend and with 15,000 stalls, ranks as the worlds largest.
Fondly known as JJ Market to locals and to tourists appreciating its’ easier pronunciation it is located on the northern edges of Bangkok and served by both the green line on the BTS and Blue on the MRT. There is ample parking available, but as with all things Bangkok, be patient as it is a bit chaotic. Most popular is a large open lot and adjacent parking garage. Both are conveniently located across the street from the main entrance.
Once in the market, you immediately will lose any sense of direction as stalls begin blend together and the commotion will confuse your senses. However, soon you will be manage your way around, sometimes in circles, and picking up trinkets, gifts, clothing and whatever your heart desires. The idea of a market this large means there is a huge variety and JJ does not disappoint here. You can purchase birds and fish, stroll a few aisles and inquire about antiques for sale.
At the heart of the market is where the food vendors are situated. If your lucky you might even find a cozy place to site and eat your meal. Beware, it can be a little claustrophobic at times and once again, patience is needed as this place draws a huge number of visitors. Also, if you have young children, keep them close as getting lost is easy. The aisles can also be a little tight so bringing a double stroller is probably not a wise idea. Thankfully, pickpocketing is not a problem in Thailand and petty crime is almost non-existent in public places. Still, I always move my wallet to my front pocket and remain weary of my backpack.
As with most in Bangkok, many people just cannot stomach the heat and crowded nature of the open air markets. Don’t worry, they have added a multi-story, air conditioned version next door where you can find many of the same products in a more comfortable but less atmospheric environment. Perhaps the best part, the Thai Baht is usually around 30 to 1 U.S. dollar so your money will stretch much further. Even better, many vendors sell wholesale sized packs of souvenirs so no one back home will be left out!
Southern Peninsula and Islands
The Southern Peninsula is home to the most popular beach destinations in Thailand. You can go from one extreme with Phuket, the largest island in Thailand, to Ko Lanta, a far more reserved village off the beaten track and requiring a ferry to access. In between you can settle on Krabi, a mountain climbers heaven with majestic and lush, foliage covered, limestone peaks gracing the landscape. Once you rest your eyes upon them, you will finally realize where all of those exotic movie scenes were filmed!
Phuket has a major International Airport and if you choose to do so, you could avoid Bangkok altogether and just stay at the beach. However, as beautiful as the beaches are, Phuket is not a great representation of Thailand and has been overtaken by tourism. This is not a necessarily a bad thing, but finding street food, markets and cheap meals is much more difficult. Here you will pay prices more on par with American or European restaurants.
Traveling the island is easy by scooter or taxi, but as with the food, everything is marked up for the relatively wealthy tourists who are so fond of the island. Muay Thai boxing arenas are spotted throughout and catching a fight is both impressive and scary. These fighters are true warriors and if martial arts combat is not for you, head to the beach and soak up the hot equatorial sun. Yes, it burns quickly down here so bring your sunscreen.
Across the picturesque Straight of Malacca, you return to the mainland and the next most popular southern destination, Krabi. Still touristy, Krabi though manages to retain some Thai charm. It is far less developed and not nearly as hectic as Phuket Town or Patong on Phuket Island. Despite having plenty of hotels and resorts to choose from, Krabi has a ruggedness to it, perhaps due to its jagged landscape that rock climbers seek out. Also home to an International Airport, flying to Krabi is easy and reasonably priced.
South of Krabi and closing in on the Malaysian border is one of the many unbelievably beautiful islands that dot the Straights. Lesser know than the Phi Phi Islands, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, Koh Lanta is a quaint and idyllic getaway.
Traveling requires taking a boat or if by car, a ferry. “Ko” or “Koh” in English translates to “island”, so there are no roads leading into Ko Lanta but there are once you arrive. Many of the resorts are nestled within the jungle and offer a respite from the crowds. Narrow and winding roads pass hidden beaches and eventually find their way to to the busier areas with restaurants and shops aplenty. The atmospheric commercial center of Saladan has a fishing village vibe to it with most restaurants built on piers and water visible through the floor boards. Easily to navigate, it is only a few streets in total, and loaded with great shops and restaurants just a short ride from your your hotel.
The Mountainous North
In the far north of Thailand is a region many consider to be the unexpected crown jewels where modern meets history in a more agreeable way. The mountainous region along Myanmar and Laos is almost unexpected and if your traveling into the higher elevations, you will soon realize it does get cool in Thailand.
Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai, lies in the valley below the twin peaks of Doi Suthep and Doi Pui, both around 5,500 feet. This fast growing city has a metropolitan population of over 1 million inhabitants and is easily the largest city outside of the greater Bangkok area. With an international airport, it too makes for a great inner-country stop and jumping off point for other attractions in the area.
The city itself, especially the old city surrounded by a mote and wall, is compact and easy to navigate by foot or tuk-tuk (think motorcycle taxi). A few night markets are highlights in the old city and are full of handicrafts, northern food delicacies and other typical market fare. The Chiang Main Night Bazaar is the biggest and has a great atmosphere that spills out onto the surrounding streets. Festive lighting and music adorns the cool evening air and makes for a great time.
Jumping in a pool may sound like a great idea when in Thailand but in the north where temperatures can drop into the 50’s at night, the water can be quite cold. Leave the swimming to the south and head to the mountains where you can visit poppy plantations, animal sanctuaries or perhaps the somewhat disturbing, Karen Hill Tribe.
Both fascinating and controversial, this tribe, more commonly know as the Long Neck people, still practice placing brass rings around their necks throughout their lives, causing them to elongate grotesquely. Without the rings, their necks would snap, unable to support the heads weight. Originally from Myanmar, they have crossed into Thailand since the 1800’s to escape persecution. Now you can walk through their “village” to see how they live. A bit more a human zoo, the tourist dollars appears to be there primary source of income as they sit patiently awaiting to be gawked at. Both for this reason and the sight of young girls wearing Nike sneakers undergoing this torture seems barbaric. This is not meant to say you should not go as the Karen Hill Tribe date backs for centuries and this is history before your eyes. However, you can easily sit it out and enjoy the other stops on your tour.
The final stop of the north is perhaps the most hidden of all gems in Thailand. Chiang Rai is a perfect jumping off point for backpackers, adventurous tourists and those on their way to Laos via the border town of Mae Sai. Also home to an airport, Chang Rai is a decent city on it’s own with just over a half million residents. Similar to Chang Mai, it is compact and easy to cover on foot, taxi and tuk-tuk.
Home to high end hotels, resorts and bungalow stays, the geographic location of Chiang Rai is why it should be high on your to-do list. With a one day tour, you can travel to Mae Sai, cross the border into Laos, visit the Golden Triangle whose name was interestingly coined by the CIA due to the massive opium trade that exists there. Continuing on to the east, you can stand on the banks of the Mekong River and where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand are no more than a rocks throw away. Last on the one day trek is a visit to the bizarre White Temple. A masterpiece by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the brilliantly white plaster covered structure is embedded with small shards of glass, giving it a luminescence. As for as temples go, it is otherworldly and almost surreal yet a popular attraction and one not to miss. For those who wish to see more of his art, they can visit the “Black House” which is a dark and foreboding compound of buildings that are downright spooky. Just to remind you, this can all be accomplished in one single day of your trip!
Also on the list for stops in the norths, is a trip to Phu Chi Fa, a mountainous national park on the border of Laos. Here people gather in the early hours of the morning to watch the sunrise on top of a 5,300 foot peak. Temperatures there get downright cold and most people, especially Thai tourists are completely unprepared. Bring a heavy sweatshirts as temps can drop in the 40’s at nigh and top out in the 60’s during the day. At the top, don’t forget to take a selfie of you at the marker that denotes the border of Laos and Thailand.
Before or after your journey to Phu Chi Fa, spend your night in one of the many nearby mountainside hotels where you can eat dinner while looking down a near vertical drop. Walking to and from your room can be a little nauseating as you hike up stairs with little to nothing below to break your fall. Echoing of adjacent hillsides you can hear the distant voices of other travelers exploring their hillside retreats.
Thailand has so much to offer and once the flying is out of the way along and your done watching 6 movies and still have 8 hours to go, your in a dream world. This gives you a good time to read up on your guide book and and brush up on your itinerary. I suggest guides by the respected travel publishers Lonely Planets or Frommer’s both retailing for around $25 on Amazon.
So distant geographically and also culturally. Let your senses take it all in and realize that no matter how far you travel, people are still warm hearted and caring beings. This is always present in Thailand where generations take care of each other, perhaps a lesson we should carry back home with us.
For other ideas or fun guides on travel destinations, read The Caribbean All-Inclusive Resort Guide and Your Guide to Universal Orlando: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Enjoy your travels!