Planning a trip to Thailand? After backpacking for an epic 5 weeks there, here’s my recommendations on the must see’s and what you can skip. I’ve divided Thailand into 3 main areas: Main Land, Andaman Sea Islands, and Gulf Of Thailand Islands. If you only have 2 weeks there, I would visit some main land cities and then pick one of the 2 sets of islands. If you have 3 weeks or more, you could visit all 3 areas. You don’t want to rush it and try to cram everything in. It is supposed to be relaxing 😉
There is a travel booking agency on EVERY corner, EVERYWHERE who can help you do all of this stuff there. Don’t worry too much about booking stuff ahead of time, go with the flow, let your plans be open. It is SUPER easy to figure everything out there, everything is in english and tourist friendly and everyone wants to help you, there is nothing to be scared of! I was there alone the majority of the time for 5 weeks.
Pack LIGHT! You don’t need much and you can buy everything there that you might need. You will want to shop so leave room in your backpack for that. I would definitely take a backpack, no one has suite cases really. There is a good amount of walking on gravel/dirt or riding in boats/ferries and suitcases make that really difficult. It is very laid back there on the beaches. Everyone is wearing shorts, tank tops and sandals each day or a light dress/cover up. Tennishoes and more modest attire are good for the cities though, such as Bangkok and Chang Mai (Ladies need to be covered shoulders to knees to enter temples).
Main Land Thailand: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai
Bangkok is the cheapest place to fly into Thailand so I recommend using it as a starting point for your trip, although I would say 2-3 days is definitely enough time here. It’s not the Thailand I love, but you have to go at least once!
-It’s fun to party and shop on Khao San Road at night. It seems to be a party pretty much any night of the week. There are tons of pop up vendors selling all the Thailand souvenirs your heart desires. Remember to always haggle and negotiate the price, it’s not rude, its the culture! There are plenty of hostels to stay at here as well if you really want to be in the action. Don’t be scared of the street food either! Get adventurous and eat a scorpion or two 😉
-Probably the best part of Bangkok is seeing all the temples such as The Reclining Buddha and Wat Arun. Ladies, you must show respect when visiting these temples and cover your shoulders all the way down to your knees. People in general dress pretty conservatively in Bangkok so you might feel uncomfortable wearing short shorts and a crop top- save that for the islands!
-If you want to indulge a bit, Bangkok also has some amazing rooftop restaurants that give you great views over the city. Horizons at Heaven and Sky Bar were two that I went to and enjoyed. These are both nice places and ladies should dress accordingly and not wear flip flops (strap around sandals ok though).
-Now the one “touristy” thing that was OK was the Tiger sanctuary. I say just OK because I’m not 100% sure on the ethical standards of this place. They claim to train the tigers to sleep during the day….but when you are holding that giant heavy head in your lap, you sort of get the feeling that the tiger is sedated. This is a whole day event though, we hired a driver through our hotel to drive us about 1.5-2 hours there I think, spent a few hours there, and then drive back. You can call ahead and arrive early and get to actually feed and play with some of the tigers. We didn’t know about this and got there too late.
– If you are interested in getting a Sak Yant tattoo from a monk while in Thailand, you should do so when you are in Bangkok because the temple is about 1 hour west from the city. The temple is called Wat Bang Phra. When you try to look it up on a map, it doesn’t give the correct location but luckily my driver knew of the temple and was able to find it, although it was a bit tricky (http://expertvagabond.com/sak-yant-tattoo/). I want to say it cost around $40 for the driver for the whole day. After arriving, I was led into a room with a group of about 50 people sitting on the ground crowded around the monk giving the tattoos. There is no “line”, you just scoot forward as fast as you can once 1 person gets up. That being said, I had to wait 5 hours sitting on the floor of this room, but it was worth it! The monk does not speak and they choose the tattoo for you. It is a blessing from him and you make a small donation to the temple.
-We rode elephants at some sketchy place near Bangkok and it was awful, don’t do it! Wait to go a legit, humane place near Chiang Mai or just skip that all together. First, this was a tiny place where the elephants didn’t seem to be taken care of very well. Second, they put the giant benches on the elephants back for you and another person to sit on. These benches are bad for their backs. Lastly, you just wait in line, hop on the elephant and walk around a trail and then get off.
-The second thing that people will try to sell you on in Bangkok is to visit the floating market. Sorry to crush dreams, but its a tourist trap! I don’t recommend it. You are not floating the ACTUAL thai market where the locals shop, you are taken on a boat, down a river, to souvenir shop. You get off the boat and walk around the store. Then if you want the “floating market” shopping experience, you have to pay again to have the small boat float you around to more souvenir shops. It did not feel like an authentic experience at all.
– Alright guys, I know you’ve heard of the famed ping pong shows in Bangkok where women on stage shoot things out of their… ya know. Yea, sounds like a great time right? Not exactly. I actually went to one of these with my boat crew at the end of Yacht Week Thailand and it was nothing like we expected. I thought it would be a fun, up beat sort of cabaret show. First, you get jumped on practically by the promoters outside each trying to pull you into their club and you really have no way of telling which one will be the best. Once we walked in, we were immediately approached by a group of women and lady boys as we sat by the stage to watch the show. I didn’t ask anyone to massage my shoulders, but they aggressively did and then tried to make me pay them for it. As for the show, several very depressed woman sadly shifted back and forth on stage as they waited for their turn. The whole situation and vibe was really sad and uncomfortable. We left pretty quickly and I had no desire to check out any other venues.
-The last tourist trap that I do not recommend is the alligator wrestling show. I was so concerned with the pick-pocketers walking around that I saw trying to sneak into everyones purses that I didn’t even pay much attention to the show, and to be honest I don’t really care to see a man wrestle an alligator.
I loved Chaing Mai, it is a great little city with so much to offer. There was a mix of hip young thai people and tourists in one small walkable area called the “Old City” which is where most people stay. It is filled with GORGEOUS temples, great shopping, hip bars, and tons of activities in or near by the city.
–Baan Hongnual Cookery School: I came here with my volunteer group and expected it to be a cheesy tourist thing at first but it was great! They start you off by taking you to a local thai market to hand pick out all the fresh ingredients that you will use to cook with. You go back to the school they take you through several traditional Thai dishes like chicken pad thai and spring rolls. They serve you thai beers while you’re cooking too! They food came out great and you get a recipe book to take home incase you forget anything!
-Flight of the Gibbon: This giant zip line park was a blast. You climb up trees and through the jungle to go across ____ zip lines. The staff was super fun and friendly.
-Baan Chang Elephant Park: This is THE place to ride,feed, and learn to care for elephants. It’s not in Chiang Mai exaclty, but its the biggest nearby hub to get there. Baan Chang Elephant Park (http://www.baanchangelephantpark.com) was EPIC to say the least! I did the over night stay with the water fall hike and rafting on the second day. It is a humane elephant camp and sanctuary.
They don’t put the big seats on the backs of the elephants (which hurt them), but rather you get to ride bare foot and bare back on their neck. In the over night stay, you get a little bit mahout training, which is the name of the person who cares for an elephant. On the first day you feed the elephants bananas, learn different verbal commands and hand signals to get the elephant to kneel down or stop for example. Then you ride around the sanctuary on them.
Staying the night was key because day 2 I woke up early and got to feed the baby elephants and get in the water and actually wash my elephant myself! After you are finished at the sanctuary, they take you on a hike to a waterfall and then rafting down the river! This was in the overnight adventure package called “2 Day Elephant Life Adventure”.
–Wat Srisuphan – The ‘Silver Temple’ – Not only are the temples found all over Chang Mai absolutely gorgeous to explore, but at this one you can also attend Monk Chat. You go at a certain hour (I found a brochure in my hostel) and you get to sit at a table out side the temple with who ever else shows us and ask questions to the Monks. It is a way for them to practice their english and a way for society to get a better understanding of their lives. It was so interesting to hear about their daily routine and why they become monks, etc. I highly recommend attending one of these! At the end, one of the monks also led a introduction to meditation class that I really enjoyed.
This is one place I sadly MISSED in Thailand because I pre-booked all my flights and hotels before leaving on my trip (NEVER again!). I heard about it from EVERYONE once I was there but it was too late for me to change my itinerary. You can take a mini bus there from Chang Mai in 3-4 hours and be prepared for a crazy winding road! It’s a new hot spot on the back packer trail that’s said to be a cool little hippie town to chill out at as well as has a growing popular night life scene.
Andaman Sea Islands: Phuket, Koh Phi Phi, Krabi
Phuket is obviously the most well known part of Thailand to visit, but too be honest, it was my LEAST favorite part and I would say most people who have traveled around Thailand would agree. I stayed at Patong Beach, the “main” part of Phuket, and was not a fan. It was so over populated with sex and tourism being thrown aggressively in your face. Spend a day there if you must, but use it mostly as a hub to hop on a ferry and explore all the amazing smaller islands near by!
– I did a tour of Phangnga bay from here which includes stopping by the iconic James Bond Island for a great photo
-A girlfriend and I went to see the Phuket Simon Cabaret, a fun and entertaining lady boy cabaret
–Sushi box in Phuket was a cause place with good sushi
–Kata Noi – nearby beach from Patong that was quieter and more enjoyable
Koh Phi Phi
Koh Phi Phi is one of my favorite islands. You can easily catch a ferry here from Phuket. Fun parties if you wanna party, tons of activities to do, good vibes.
-Hike up to The View Point to get a great view over the whole island.
-Snorkel and kayak
– Check the calendar and see if you are there during a full moon, they throw a great full moon party on the beach outside of Slinkys and the surrounding string of bars.
** You can book “Maya Bay Sleep Aboard” (http://www.mayabaytours.com/#!sleepaboard-trekksoft/cm1n) which departs from Koh Phi Phi and I HIGHLY recommend! You get to go to the infamous beach from the movie “The Beach”, when there’s not boat loads of tourist there! Maya Bay has exclusive rights to be the only boat there after around 5pm and until 8-9am. You get it all to yourselves! We had a camp fire, a BBQ, played games and slept on the beach. Incredible experience.
This is a nice alternative to Koh Phi Phi if you are looking for a more quiet, less party-type island to enjoy.
Ao Nang – Krabi
I took a ferry here from Phuket, it’s a small and quiet area with breath taking views on the beach. There is multiple small beaches in the area, I went to Railay Beach. They only party going on around here seemed to be at my hostel – Slumber Party Hostel. I don’t usually stay at party hostels but I honestly had a great time at this one and meet some really awesome people!
Golf Of Thailand Islands: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao
I used Koh Samui as a starting point to get on a ferry to Koh Phangan and Koh To and stayed here for one night to recover after the Full Moon Party. You can fly into Koh Samui and it’s a big resort island. If you are looking to stay in a super luxurious hotel/resort and not really leave the premises, this is a good place for that. Not really a back packer scene.
Koh Phangan is amazing! SO much to do here, it’s huge. I was here during a full moon party and didn’t find it to be over crowded or difficult to find rooms.
-This is were the REAL Full Moon Party is which you should definitely try to make it to if you are in the area around a full moon. To be honest, the party is pretty “fratty” but its all about who you are with. My group had a blast. Check out the shakes at Mellow Mountain.
We also took a long boat over to another part of the island in the middle of the night during the Full Moon Party and that was a pretty epic part of the night! We were looking for an after party called Eden that I am not sure if we ever actually found. But there was this amazing little bar woven into a tree where the boat dropped us off. The adventure of the boat trip alone made the experience worth it and the bar that we stumbled upon there was magical to say the least, you’ll have to check it out yourself to truly understand 😉
I believe they also do smaller parties for 1/2 moons and others times through out the month. Just ask around at your hostel there to see what parties are happening during your stay. There was a Jungle Party happening while I was there that was fun to check out and was in the middle of the jungle.
–Secret Beach (called Haad Son on a map) located on the north west side of the island, has one resort and restaurant here. The restaurant has an awesome bob marley themed chill-out area as well as delicious food, drinks, snorkeling, and hammocks that hang out over the water.
–Tree House Bar located on Sunset beach (opposite and walking distance from where the full moon party is) has a perfect view to watch the sunset over the beach and a rope swing you can swing out over the water on. Also a very laid back vibe here with cozy floor cushion chairs and delicious drinks.
It is a tiny island with no cars on the main strip of the island, you can walk around everywhere which was really nice. There are tons a dive shops here and little boutique hotels and hostels strung along the beach with gorgeous sunset views.
-Koh Tao has world renowned scuba diving so if you are a diver or looking to get PADI certified, you should definitely make it a point to stop here.
-Two times a week you can join in on the Koh Tao Pub Crawl which is a great way to get familiar with the island, see where all the best bars are, meet new friends, and if you are like me, win a twerk contest at the end which got me a free fun dive!
– You can also take a quick boat ride over to the nearby island of Nanyuan for a beautiful little beach view, snorkeling and if you want the BEST view and photo op in the area – hike up the “view point” here!
You could ferry back to Koh Samui from here to travel to your next destination OR what my friend and I did was take a ferry from Koh Tao to Chumphon (main land) and take an over-night train from there back to Bangkok. This was actually a really fun experience, the train ride at least (the ferry rides are pretty terrifying with large waves smashing the ferry around). The over-night train had lay down beds and we slept the whole night and woke up early in the morning in Bangkok, it was great.