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Thailand – Open to the new shades

Last Update: August 2020


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Thailand


“Open to the new shades” is the promotion tagline that the Thailand tourism bureau came up with since 2018. It’s rather cryptic, right? With this slogan Thailand aims to emphasize its diversity as a tourist destination. I think it’s spot on! Thailand has everything, even for the well seasoned traveler that is looking for authenticity. Just to briefly sum it up for you:

From stunning white sand beaches on the Islands in the South to rural landscapes in the North Eastern Isan. Jungle is mainly found in the Western and Central part, while venturing North West you will find yourself surrounded by the rolling mountains of the golden triangle. Emerald green rice paddies are literally everywhere and the limestone rocks popping out of the turquoise colored sea in the South offer a spectacular scenery.


Monkey on the beach - Thailand
Enjoying the beach

You can experience life in the fast lane and indulge in big city pleasures in bustling Bangkok, which probably has the best night life of South East Asia. Thailand’s second city Chiang Mai is more laidback and typically attracts a more spiritual crowd (though not exclusively).

Furthermore, the vast temple sites of Ayuttaya and Sukothai represent the rich and impressive history of a country with a future so bright that it’s no wonder the Thai tourism bureau recommends wearing shades (pun intended).


Ayutthaya temples - Thailand
Ayutthaya temples
Sukothai sunset - Thailand
Golden sunset in Sukothai

And the food, oh the food. Thailand is deservedly renowned for its excellent and abundant street food. However, you should know that Thai gastronomy is so much more than just pad thai and spicy curries.

Affordable

To add to all of this diversity, the biggest bonus is that Thailand is still very affordable if not dirt cheap compared to Western price levels.

During all my travels in South East Asia I have spent more than a year (on and off) in Thailand. Well, now you know why.



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Reasons (not) to visit Thailand


Reasons to visit Thailand

  • Highlights are abundant and diverse;

  • Incredible food scene;

  • Ample tourism infrastructure with efficient and affordable transport;

  • Some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world for tranquility seekers, as well as for party-goers;

  • Thailand has a lot of culture to offer.


Read: “Fight for your bike in Thailand”


Reasons not to visit Thailand

  • Accommodation and food on some of the more popular Islands can be really expensive;

  • Some of the most popular highlights suffer from overtourism in peak and high season;

  • Hot and humid all year round (except for the mountain areas);

  • For longer stays, visa extensions are difficult and might require leaving the country and a re-entry.


Tuk-tuk Thailand
Transport is everywhere
Crowd at Maya Bay - Thailand
The viral photo that made the world wake up to overtourism of Maya Bay – Photocredit: Dr Thon ThamrongnawasawatFacebook

Visa



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How to get to Thailand


There are several international airports in Thailand with Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok as the main hub for intercontinental flights. Other international airports are Phuket, Chiang Mai and Don Muang (also in Bangkok). They mainly receive domestic flights and flights from within the Asian region. The Skyscanner website is an excellent source for schedules and the best prices for incoming and outgoing flights.

For international travel by bus into Thailand from neighboring countries Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia it’s very convenient to use an online transportation portal to book your tickets online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). Skip the lines at the bus station!

There are several portals, but usually 12Go.asia and Bookaway come back with the best results. The tools are incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly!


Powered by 12Go Asia system



Cost


As said, Thailand is very affordable. It’s fairly easy to travel on a budget, but then again the saying “what you pay is what you get” holds a lot of truth here. Still, accommodation, food and also transport are all very cheap, depending on your desired level of comfort of course.

The Thai Baht (THB) is used for currency. US$ 1 will get you between THB30-33 and 1 Euro goes for approximately THB35-38.

ATM’s are abundant in Thailand, but not all of them allow international withdrawals so always make sure you have some cash left when planning your next ATM run. Also, most Thai banks that do allow international withdrawals often charge a hefty fee for the service. As this is usually a fixed fee it might be a good idea to withdraw the maximum allowed amount.


ATMs - Thailand
No problem finding and ATM, but they come with a cost

Accommodation

Prices for accommodation may start at THB150 for a dorm to THB350/400 for a basic guesthouse. Expect to pay from THB600 and up for a 3-star hotel room while 5-star hotel rooms will start around THB1500.

Airbnb is definitely an option to consider. Especially Bangkok has a huge selection.

Note that prices can jump up in tourist areas. Bangkok is typically ~50% more expensive and the popular Islands in the South can even be up ~100% from the above mentioned prices.



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Food

Food can be found on practically every corner in Thailand at mostly cheap prices. THB50 will buy you a full meal at any street food stand or even a restaurant in the rural areas. In fact, I bet it’s even possible to get a full meal for less than THB50. Western fare goes for THB150/250 without guarantees that the quality goes up as well. Of course the more touristy or fancier it gets the more expensive it will be.

If your budget is really, really tight head for the local markets. Street food prices are usually the lowest and there’s unlimited ready to eat fresh produce. I once bought 2 pounds of mangosteen (the queen of fruits) for THB20. Mind you, mangosteen is considered an expensive fruit in Thailand.

Transportation

There are many transport options and they all come with a different cost. Therefore, one simple way to balance your costs in Thailand is by smartly managing your transportation.

Bangkok is a busy air-hub and its two airports receive international and domestic flights from literally anywhere. Also buses and trains easily find their way through the country. Long distance transportation from let’s say Bangkok to Chiang Mai can be done by plane for as low as THB950, by train from THB720 and by coach from THB530. If you plan on traveling to the Islands, don’t forget to budget the boat fare.

Ticket prices are easy to check online with transport planning portals like 12Go.asia and Bookaway.

Getting around

Prices for getting around in cities are difficult to list since they vary from town to town. Bangkok transport is the most affordable in the country with TBH8 for short bus rides, THB15 for metro/skytrain (only in Bangkok), THB40 for motorbike and THB70 for metered taxis. Tuk-tuk’s will do between THB100 and THB200 depending on your negotiating skills.

Beware of tuk-tuks though! If ever you are offered a fare that’s too good to be true, it probably is. You’ll never reach your destination, but instead they’ll take from one tailor and gem shop to the other while the driver pockets gasoline vouchers. Don’t bother protesting as he suddenly doesn’t understand English anymore.


Tuktuk in Bangkok, Thailand
Tuk-tuk in Bangkok

Transportation on the Islands is the most expensive, because the local tuk-tuk mafia is very successful in keeping out the competition. They offer their service for inflated prices without any serious alternative.

Using a taxi app is really worth considering as it eliminates the issue of negotiating. Grab is the most popular and widespread taxi app in Thailand.

Wait! I’ll give you another option and it’s up to you if you want to use it. You can always rent a bicycle or a motor bike, although a bicycle might be less of a great idea in Bangkok, because of traffic. Rent prices vary, but it’s almost always very cheap.

Note that proper document requirements for tourists riding a motorbike are very confusing. Not having the right documents will most likely invalidate all insurance you might have. Check out this link for some explanation on regulations.

Tours

Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I get it, I do, where is the adventure in that? However, if you don’t have a lot of time a tour might actually not be a bad idea. It allows you see all the highlights in a condensed time frame. Also, for jungle treks and alike it’s always wise to at least hire an experienced local guide.


Hilltribe folklore girls - Thailand
I’d follow these guides

Prices for tours will differ greatly, depending on the area and the sort of activity. Keep in mind that often the bigger your group, the lower the price per person. In the Things to do in Thailand chapter I have listed a few great activities.



When to go to Thailand


Weather

There is a difference between the North and the South with the latter receiving significantly more precipitation over the year.

Rainy season in the South runs roughly from mid April until October with precipitation possible up to 400mm per month. Temperatures between 30C and 33C might be a few degrees down from dry season, but because of the humidity the feel temperature remains high.

Rainy season in the North starts around May to end somewhere in November. Precipitation isn’t as bad as in the South with about 150/200mm per month and it usually comes in afternoon showers.

In March and April temperatures and humidity in Thailand will go up to 33C/36C. You might be fine at the beaches, but any inland activity could be less comfortable.

From mid November until February the weather is mostly sunny for the majority of the day with lower humidity and moderate temperatures between 28C/30C.

Events

Thailand has a large number of public holidays. They normally won’t interfere with your stay, unless you can’t do without your alcohol. Some of the religious holidays also bring a national ban on alcohol. Don’t worry, there aren’t a lot.

From 13th to 15th of April the Songkran or Water Festival is celebrated. It represents the Thai New Year and people are having festive water fights in the streets.


Songkran – Thai water festival

High season starts mid November until March, which coincides with the better weather conditions. It also coincides with the winter in Europe that many Europeans try to escape. At this time of year it’s also very cold in the Northern part of China and Chinese travelers visit Thailand in large numbers.

From mid December to February is the absolute peak season. Prices for flights to Thailand, as well as accommodation, will be at their highest especially on the Islands. Be aware that many hotels charge you a mandatory outrageous fee for Christmas and New Year’s eve dinner, whether you attend or not.


Read: “15 Fun things to do in Krabi, Thailand


So, when to go?

Weather wise December to February is the best period to visit Thailand. However, it’s also the busiest time and certainly the most expensive. Just to let you know, I visited Thailand at any time of year and always had a good time. Don’t let a bit of rain stop you, unless it’s torrential and causing floods. Maybe stay in the North during the wettest months?



Where to go in Thailand


Thailand has so many places worth visiting. Maybe if you could stay forever you can see it all. Most of us aren’t that lucky, so here is a neat selection of destinations in Thailand to help you create your ultimate itinerary.


Highlights


Statues of mythical guards


It’s easy to understand why Thailand is one of the most popular countries for travelers in South East Asia. Due to the agreeable climate, price level, delicious food and ample attractions, Thailand has something to offer for everyone. According to the Thai ministry of tourism a whopping 41million tourists a visited the land of smiles in 2019. Mind you, that’s substantially more people than the total population of Canada!

The list of highlights seems endless, but with so many other tourists visiting, you know you won’t be alone. After all, they are…, well let’s just say that everyone wants to visit the highlights. Don’t worry about it too much though, the infrastructure around the most visited attractions in Thailand is often well developed. As a result, visiting the highlights remains the best introduction to Thailand.

Unless you’re a full-time traveler and time is not an issue you’ll have a hard time deciding which destinations to cover. Most visitors start in Bangkok, which is a highlight in itself. After that, it’s either down South for some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world, or up North for mountains and rain-forests.


Islands



If your aim is to spend a few relaxing days in a hammock on an empty beach, you don’t want to find yourself on a ‘hardcore party all night’ type of Island.

Similar, maybe what you’re looking for is luxury and moonlight dinners on the beach. Ending up on the ‘wrong’ Island could mean that you have to machete your way through mosquito riddled jungle just to find that the only food on offer is fried crickets from a rickety old food cart.

There’s something for everyone on the Islands, you just have to make sure you’re on the right one.


In the know destinations



I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve visited Thailand. Some visits were just short beach holidays or passing through on my way to other destinations. Several, longer visits involved extensive travel for months on my way to nowhere, just exploring this wonderful country.

And although the list of Thailand’s highlights seems endless, there are still many places that are not yet overrun by tourists, but certainly worth discovering. Interesting cities oozing with local culture. Small laidback riverside towns and spectacular nature reserves. Not exactly hidden gems, but without the usual crowds, only visited by the few travelers in the know.



Things to see/do in Thailand


So much to do, so little time. Yep, life is all about choices. I have listed a few of my favorite activities down here. Maybe this helps to make up your mind on what to do when in Thailand. Have fun!

Islands – Things to see/do

Learn how to surf at Kata Beach, Phuket. The waves here rarely reach higher than 3ft. Seasoned surfer dudes (and babes) might laugh at this, but it’s perfect if you’re new to surfing and want to learn in a controlled environment. In fact, when I tried it at Phuket Surfing the only ones laughing were a few 10 year old local boys that I’m sure just envied my cool surf shorts. Well that, and the fact that they were naturals while I was really struggling.

At Phuket Surfing they rent out surfboards and provide lessons as well. And if surfing is not your thing, they have paddle boards as well. Find them at the Northern tip of the Kata beach.


Learn how to surf in Thailand
Phuket Surf School at Kata Beach

Trat Island hopping. If you’re done with the tourist magnet Islands like Phuket, Phi Phi and Samui then opt for the Islands in the East of Thailand (Trat province). Koh Mak, Koh Kood and Koh Chang are way less commercialized and every bit as beautiful.

Bangkok – Things to see/do

Explore the outskirts of Bangkok by bicycle. Just minutes away from the tourist hustle and bustle is Bangkok’s best kept secret. You will be amazed once you steer your bicycle into the green tranquility along the khlongs (canals). But to get there you will first navigate the small alleys of Chinatown.

The first time we went on this bicycle tour I was amazed by the fun it gave me. Locals smiling and waving as we literally cycled through their backyards in Chinatown. Once we crossed the bridge we ended up in an unsuspected peaceful world of small canals and lush greenery. Ever since, I go cycling every time that I’m in Bangkok.

Visit the Grand Palace and iconic temples. An absolute must see for every first timer to Bangkok is the Grand Palace (article) and the iconic temples that surround it.

Chiang Mai – Things to see/do

Soft-trek through the Northern mountains. Visit the waterfalls near Thailand’s highest peak, cool down in a natural pool and meet up with a local hill tribe.


The King and Queen pagoda’s near the top of Doi Inthanon, Thailands highest peakphotocredit: @bharath mohan on unsplash.com

Cook like a Thai. Do you want to replicate those tasty Thai dishes at home? Learn how to cook like a Thai and have fun while you’re at it. Chiang Mai is definitely the best location for a Thai cooking class with regards to atmosphere, price and quality.

Other areas – Things to see/do

Zipline through nature and over the lake. The Tree top Adventure Park offers an exiting 40 platform zipline in Kanchanaburi. Take in the beauty of the surroundings and feel the adrenaline pumping at the same time.

Rent a car and self drive. Experience the ultimate sense of freedom driving your car through Thailand. Renting a car in Thailand is easy, cheap and safer than you think. Explore the Islands, discover rural Thailand in the East or take on the green mountains in the North. The Thai road network is excellent. Especially with kids, driving your own vehicle is sooo convenient.


Read: “How to rent a car in Thailand”.


Visit Phang Nga Bay. This photogenic piece of Thailand is accessible from most of the popular beach destinations. Words can’t describe the beauty of the limestone formations jutting out from the sea. Phang Nga Bay is an absolute must see when in Thailand.


Phang Nga Bay in Thailand
Phang Nga Bay – Need we say more?




Thai Food


Every time I get off that plane upon arrival in Thailand, I can’t wait to settle myself on the street side patio of a cozy restaurant. Then, whilst enjoying my ice-cold beer Singha and springrolls I just sit and observe the local scene go by. The tropical temperature and the effects of my 12 hour flight are having their drowsy way with me. And all I can think of is…..What’s for dinner?

I totally love Thailand for a million reasons, but admittedly the main reason must be the food. Are you with me?

Read up on Thai food in the articles below and feel confident when ordering in a restaurant next time you visit Thailand.




Health in Thailand


The quality of health care in Bangkok is generally ok. Certainly private hospitals are the better choice for tourists as they can avoid the long lines and the out dated equipment in most of the public hospitals. Bangkok even attracts a lot of medical tourism for cosmetic surgery and dental work. Not only is there a high standard of care, but also the cost is reasonable compared to Western care.

However, the further you venture out of Bangkok the more the quality of care deteriorates. In rural areas, health care is practically non-existent. Pharmacies are abundant in the cities, as well as in small towns. In many cases a prescription is not needed.


No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. If you do get sick or involved in an accident, let’s hope you didn’t skimp on travel insurance.

Always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuations and repatriation. Medical transport to Bangkok is expensive and hospital beds are $500 per night, payable upfront if you lack proper insurance.

Read more about travel insurance here, or get a non-committal instant quote right now



Safety in Thailand


Crime

Overall, Thailand is a very safe country. That doesn’t mean however that crime is non-existent. The ever so general advice to “be aware” of your surroundings applies like in any other major city. The same goes for not showing off your valuables and don’t wander into dark alleys late at night when you’re alone and intoxicated.

Crime usually comes in the form of pick pocketing, although bag snatching has been reported in Bangkok recently. Similarly, violence against tourists is not very common, but does occasionally occur in the form of muggings. Again, do not show off any valuables and take a taxi back to your hotel after drinking late at night.

Police

Police make very small salaries and often seem more interested in fining you for not wearing a helmet on your rented motor bike. For them it’s a way to make an extra buck. Normally you just pay them THB 500 and you’ll be on your merry way. No use trying to argue, you won’t win.



However, do not think you can bribe your way out of everything, that is definitely not the mindset you should bring to Thailand. Bribery is still illegal and if you get caught up in a dispute with a local it’s best to be very cautious.

Your bribe might backfire, because the first instinct of the Thai police will be to side with the local. That being said, the police can prove to be extremely helpful in dire situations as long as you are respectful to them. Tourists can especially rely on the Thai Tourist Police. Dial 1155 for free from all over Thailand.

Traffic

No doubt about it, Thailand and Bangkok in particular, has some of the most congested roads in the world. According to studies (never mind the source, I’ve been there, it’s true) this is caused by the car vs road ratio (duh). Other reasons are accidents, floods and the bad driving habits of the Thai drivers.


Bangkok traffic - Thailand
Bangkok Traffic

Thailand drives on the left side of the road by the way. There’s an urban legend saying that this is due to the fact that the first car in Thailand was a gift from the Queen of England, and thus a right-hand-drive, to the Thai King.

Another story tells that in the old days men on horses preferred to pass on the left side. Hence, their right hand was free to attack with their swords. Right side, left side, whichever it is, I’m saying that Thai usually drive in the center of the road.

Ok fun aside, traffic can be dangerous in Thailand. It’s very busy on the road and many drivers lack reasonable driving skills. So, watch yourself when crossing the road and be extra careful at night. Thai bus and truck drivers often work long hours and have been known to take amphetamines to stay awake so they can keep driving. Needless to say that their responsiveness and judgement are somewhat clouded at the least.



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