Sparkling white-sand beaches, verdant jungles and bustling cities mean Thailand is an amazing destination for the party-goer, nature-lover and beach bum. And there’s no avoiding it: Bangkok is a shopping paradise with multilevel malls and unlimited street markets.
Thailand travel resources
Thailand meets Burma (also known as Myanmar) on the west, with Vietnam and Cambodia to the east. The southern cone sees a lot of shoreline with the Andeman Sea on one side and the South China Sea on the other. The two largest cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai, are a short flight or long train or coach ride from each other, passing through farmland and dense rainforest, with some lovely groves and river views along the way.
Thousands of islands are found off the coastline, making for great chances to explore — either hitting the backpacker party islands or avoiding them and opting for undeveloped sites. The central highlands to the north are home to rainforest with excellent one-day and multi-day hiking trips available.
People come to Thailand for the shopping and parties, with all the love starting in Bangkok and radiating down from there to popular islands like Ko Phi Phi. Many people tired of the party scene are drawn to Chiang Mai: slower and smaller, it’s the perfect city in which to recharge and explore Northern Thailand from. Like neighbouring Cambodia, Thailand has its own share of ruined temples and jungle-claimed cities. If you can’t get to Angkor Wat, head to Sukhothai’s old city for a taste of what you’re missing.
City focus: Bangkok
Bangkok is the capital of Thailand, and the most popular place to fly into. Access from Cambodia and Laos is also pretty close and very well provided for. For most travellers, the heart of Bangkok is Khao San Road, or KSR for short, which is home to most of Bangkok’s cheap hotels, tour companies, and travel agents. The area is beautiful and historical, but the suit-sellers, ID-forgers and more nefarious beings make it irritating and shady. It’s important to escape the backpacker trail here and explore more of the city. Many expats find a place to stay in Sukhumvit, which has its own great nightlife amongst the mega-malls.Read more about Bangkok.
Getting to and from ThailandFlights to Bangkok will arrive at the pleasant, modern Suvarnabhumi airport with the Skytrain providing a cheap, convenient way into the city. When flying from there, be aware that they are very strict with sharps and liquids, and some gates have secondary checks (so you can’t buy duty free before you fly).
Almost everyone flies to Bangkok but Chiang Mai, Ko Samui, Phuket, Krabi, Hat Yai and Udon Thani all have international airports.
Crossing by land border may take the form of a walk, tuktuk ride, boat over the Mekong or even a train (a 10-minute ride from Laos before you change into another train). Borders seem less corrupt than they used to be, making things much easier for most travellers.
If crossing into Thailand by land, people of many nationalities can get a 15-day visa waiver. However, if the same person arrives by air, it becomes 30 days. The expense of a budget flight might be worth considering of you want to stay longer than the 15 days allowed by land travel, but don’t want to fork out for a visa.
Getting around Thailand
Thailand’s large bus network bounces along the highways with gusto and many have bright movie- or computer game-styled paintwork. If you’re travelling less than a few hundred kilometers from Bangkok, you may be well-served by a minibus or a songthaew (jumbo tuktuk).
There are many reports of scams regarding minibus trips on the way to Siam Reap and the Cambodia border. Consider flying or go by coach.
Budget flights through Air Asia and other low-cost carriers make flying in Thailand a very appealing option, though long waits in airport security dampen the appeal somewhat. A flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai can cost as little as US$30 if booking in advance.
The Thai train network is long-reaching, and a pleasant way to cover the long distances involved. Trains hub around Bangkok, but reach far in all directions.
Timing is a bit off, but the ride is comfortable and secure. You may need to add a road connection to get where you need to, as many cities aren’t on the line.
Car and camper rental
You can expect traffic to be manic, but you’re more likely to be hiring a motorbike than a car or camper, to be honest. There are many small independent rental operations, but be wary when using these and ensure that the vehicle is in good condition and your insurance (both local insurance and your own travel insurance) is up-to-scratch. Larger national and international rental companies also exist, and you’re more likely to find higher prices for a newer fleet.
Cycling and hiking
Road cycling in Thailand is generally great fun, with wide shoulders alleviating the problem of heavy traffic.
Traffic is also heavy in cities, but drivers are used to dealing with motorbikes and scooters and will be… let’s just say, they’ll be as aware of you as they are of the other two-wheeled vehicles on the road.
A boat up or down the Mekong river is a great way to head north to south, while the canal and river systems that run through other regions and cities can also be convenient. Try the canal boats for a cheap way to beat Bangkok’s hellish rush-hours.
Note: We travelled by train, tuktuk, bike and songthaew with Stray Asia when we visited in 2010.
Top 10 things to do in Thailand
- Chill on the beach. There are countless islands and beaches, but Indie Travel Podcast friend Cody McGibben recommends Railay Beach in Krabi: There’s rock climbing, chill nightlife, a great beach, plus Koh Lanta and Koh Phangan nearby.
- Pedal the Ayutthaya or Sukhothai Historical Parks. These two old capitals of Thailand have splendid ruins including royal palaces, religious centres and public buildings. The best way to get around the cities is by bike. Ayutthaya has an excellent discovery and research centre — a great place to start. The modern cities around the ruins have accommodation so you can stay close at hand.
- Ride an elephant. If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it in Thailand… the elephant graced their flag for such a long time, after all. You can ride elephants in many southern islands as well as in Chiang Mai. Choose a responsible company to do this with to ensure safe and fair usage of the friendly animals.
- Party at the Full Moon Festival. If you’re going to do one crazy hedonistic party in your life, this might be the one. The Full Moon Party runs at Ko Pha Ngan each full moon.
- Avoid Khao San Road. Okay, you might want to visit for the beer or a cheap place to stay, but expect the worst of backpacker culture and vultures.
- Do a bicycle tour of Bangkok With 11 million people, getting around by car or tuktuk — especially during rush hours — is a bad idea. Picking up a bike for the day is a highly recommended experience: we did a historical tour with Grasshopper adventures and that orientated us for other explorations.
- Check out the white temple at Chiang Rai. This magnificent modern temple is pencilled in for completion in around 2040. The vision of Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, the main shrine includes images of Superman, Batman, George Bush, Osama Bin Laden, Neo and others, revitalising the dynamic Buddhist imagery between heaven and hell.
- Trek the trails from Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai has an amazing travel blogger community, but you’ll probably want to take advantage of the hiking as much as the pleasant city grounds.
- Eat and get pummelled. Thailand’s most famous exports are its food and its massage. While you might not want to partake of these too close together, make the most of two elevated art forms.
- Start the world’s biggest water fight. Songkran, tied in with the Thai new year, is celebrated with the throwing of water throughout much of Thailand. Chiang Mai and Bangkok go mad with hoses, water guns and buckets of water everywhere;