Thailand is a very popular destination and provides excellent support for visiting tourists. However it can still be confusing for first time visitors. Where should you go? What should you do when you are there? How do you get around?
After living in Thailand for a while and our many visits since we have compiled a few ideas for you to consider. This post contains numerous links to detailed information about each idea.
North West Thailand
Don't under-estimate Chiang Mai. The old city, the area within the old walled city center, is filled with beautiful temples while the surrounding city provides an abundance of cheap delicious food and very reasonable accommodation.
Tha Phae Gate and the eastern end of the old city is the main hub for tourism. The tourist-centric area has however spread west over the years to encompass much of the old city.
Chiang Mai has also become a hub for digital nomads and online entrepreneurs due to its low cost of living, fast Internet and the comfortable life that it provides. For many people moving to Asia starts with a move to Chiang Mai. This place has quite a hold on a lot of people.
If you can ride a scooter or motorcycle then the Mae Hong Son loop is a fabulous experience. It typically starts and ends in Chiang Mai and takes you through a beautiful area of Thailand along mountain range along the border with Myanmar. It also takes you through the quirky hippy town of Pai.
If you cannot already ride however, it is probably not a great way to learn. In that case, just catch a minivan or bus from Chiang Mai to Pai. We first visited Pai back in 2009. Its a lovely hippy town that is well worth visiting.
The national capital gets overlooked by many who do not see the appeal of the big city. Skipping Bangkok or only briefly passing through is a real shame. Bangkok is one of the world's mega cities and there is always something happening on its sweaty, bustling streets.
If you want to spend your days drinking with other backpackers in Bangkok stay near Khaosan Road. If you do not want to spend your days drinking with other backpackers then do not stay anywhere near Khaosan.
Whether by accident or design Khaosan is poorly connected to the rest of Bangkok. Your options are limited to catching a riverboat along the Chao Phraya River to a location where you can catch the train or getting a taxi. The riverboat is actually quite pleasant but it adds a time consuming step to your daily trips to and from wherever you are going.
If at all possible stay somewhere within a few minutes walk of an MRT or a BTS station (the subway and the skytrain). We have a guide to the best areas to stay in Bangkok. Now that our getting smashed on cheap booze days are far behind us we usually stay in Sukhumvit. The main priority is to be near a station so you can easily access the excellent Bangkok public transport.
Only bother going to one or two islands. They are very similar so you won't get much out of going to a whole bunch of them. Koh Tao is very pretty. It is not very Thai due to the large numbers of foreigners who run the numerous diving related businesses but it is a nice place. It is the go-to spot for scuba diving in Thailand.
View Chumphon, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui, Surat Thani in a larger map
You can get to Koh Tao either by ferry from Surit Thani (via Koh Samui or Koh Phangan) or ferry from Chumphon. You can catch the train south from Bangkok to Chumphon then access the ferry to Koh Tao. Alternatively you can fly to Koh Samui then ferry to Tao.
Trains in Thailand are generally excellent and cheap. Don't be afraid to catch trains. It is a fun experience in itself Vs sitting in yet another airport.
Get a third class ticket for a trip lasting a few hours. If its overnight then get a second class sleeper. Do not bother with first class. Tickets are typically bought in person at a station a day or more before you want to travel although you can often get tickets on the day without incident. When there is a national holiday the trains get extremely busy.
If you want a major once in a lifetime adventure that will take you through a big part of south east Asia, you can catch the train all the way from northern Thailand, through Malaysia, into Singapore then even get onto a ferry to Indonesia. We have done it in sections but never in one go. Click here for information on a train trip through Thailand.
So here is my list of ideas for a reasonably comprehensive Thailand adventure:
- Do the Mae Hong Son loop if you can ride a motorcycle or scooter. If you cannot ride at least visit Chiang Mai and Pai.
- Don't skip Bangkok.
- Go to at least one island but do not bother going to more than one or maybe two.
- Catch a train as part of your journey.
If you do all these you will have seen a good sized slab of Thailand, everything from the bustling big city to small villages and everything in between. You will see mountains and beaches. You will see the modern and the ancient.
Hopefully I have provided you with some inspiration. There are, of course, a multitude of places to go and things to do. Search this site, do some googling, take lots of notes. Its a big wonderful world, go see some of it.