So this is a part of my new series called ‘A beginners guide for beginners’. I thought that I could offer some insight into what to do and what not to do when traveling in these countries. However, I do not fancy myself an expert so that is why these guides are for a beginner by a beginner. I figure, if you are a wanderer like me some tips from a like minded roamer will be just what you want. And with that! Onward to Thailand!
Some quick and dirty tips for places to go and those you can skip:
Cities/places to visit:
Koh Phangan/Koh Samui
Tonsai Bay/West Railay
Cities you can skip:
Bangkok (yeah, yeah I know it is in both places, but hear me out.)
1.) Bangkok – The Capital
Don’t miss the: MBK Shopping Center, Khao San Road and the Red Light District (hey, when in Bangkok right?)
Try the: Super cheap Thai massages and as many curries as you can get your hands on. If you would like to get a Thai massage, find one on a side street off of Khao San Road. These are the places that will charge less, but are still going to give you a kick ass massage. For the record, I don’t really like massages, but the Thai massage I got was great. I didn’t know my body could crack in so many places.
Look For: The large monitor lizards swimming around in the canals, the Buddhist monks getting their food for the day in the early morning hours (trust me you’ll probably just be getting home at that point) and the tuk tuk drivers asking you, “Tuk tuk? Ping Pong Show?” Actually, you don’t need to look for them. They will find you.
**These are just things that you can do inside the city. There are lots of other attractions in Bangkok but most of them are actually outside of the city. Some popular ones are the Tiger Temples and the Floating Markets. These are cool, but might require a full day trip to see.
Don’t miss the: Crazy parties and the beautiful, less crowded beaches on the north of the island. (This is for Koh Phangan, I didn’t actually stop on Koh Samui, but I have heard it is just as nice just with less partying. If you are looking for a more family friendly place, that might be it.)
Try the: AMAZING breakfasts at Nira’s Home Bakery right by the large south pier where the Song Serm Express and Raja Ferry drops off. Seriously, I wake up in cold sweats craving their German breakfast.
Look for: The dozens of (stray?) dogs that roam around the island. They may have had fleas, but they were too cute and friendly for this dog lover to care. Also look for the dozens of half empty bars on the road side that contain a suspicious number of scantily clad local girls.
Don’t miss the: Clear waters, laid back people,
Try the: Bungalows up the hill on Tonsai. Depending on the season you can get a double bed bungalow for anywhere from 300 – 600 Baht (or more if you are willing to spend more) per night. They are a tad bit rustic, but they come with mosquito nets which keep away all the nasty bitey things.
Look for: The fire shows that the locals do pretty much every night, the tight ropes that the tourists try to do and the monkeys that will steal your food. They are sneaky little bastards, beware.
4.) Chiang Mai
I, unfortunately, didn’t make it up to Chiang Mai or the north of Thailand. We didn’t have enough time to make it up north and still spend a significant amount of time drinking on the beach. We all have our choices to make. However, I heard a lot of good things about Chiang Mai, and I really wanted to go. I would definitely recommend getting yourself up north even if for a short amount of time. If you want to ride an elephant in Thailand (WHICH I’M FURIOUS I DIDN’T GET TO DO), Chiang Mai is the best place to do it. Not only is it kick ass to ride an elephant, but it is even more kick ass to ride an elephant that is being well taken care of. Unfortunately, lots of the elephants that are used for tourists are terribly treated. If you still want to ride one (which is on my bucket list) go ride one from an elephant sanctuary or reserve that is not being mistreated. You’ll feel better about yourself after seeing Dumbo and his mother all happy and well cared for.
Now for a more in depth look:
- Many countries don’t need a visa for Thailand. If you are coming from the U.S. you can receive a 30 day tourist visa upon entry. For any country the best place to look to find out about visas is directly on that countries government website. Any other place might have outdated or untrue information. The border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand was much like the crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam. You will probably take a bus there, then get off and walk yourself over the border. You will cross lots of checkpoints and the Thai people working them will probably just wave you by. Just don’t look like you are carrying a backpack full of drugs and you’ll be fine. You aren’t right? Oh yeah, who takes drugs INTO Thailand. Silly me.
- Thailand uses the Thai Baht, and has a large majority of exchange places and ATMs that accept Union Pay, VISA, Mastercard and a whole slow of other cards. Currently, the Thai Baht is about 32 Thai Baht = $1. Thailand is a huge tourism country so you are likely to find more creature comforts, but you are also going to pay more in most places then you would in other places in SE Asia. As always, you should take some cash with you, and have some back up bank reserves, just in case.
- Haggle. As with most places in SE Asia you can haggle with most of the street venders. I prefer to haggle with the shop keepers over the food venders. Something about being a waitress for 6 years and knowing not to mess with people who make your food. You are probably going to find the cheapest souvenirs in Bangkok because there are so many people selling. Compared to the tourist shops on the islands, Bangkok is a steal.
- As with any place you are unfamiliar with, make sure you take care of your belongings. As I said before, Thailand is a tourist country, and where are are tourists there are people who will try to take advantage of them. I’m not saying everyone will, but i’m saying it can happen. So basically, don’t be stupid.
Bangkok is clearly the most well known place in Thailand. It is a huge, bustling city with a decent amount of foreigners, both tourists and expats. You want to go to Thailand and experience some serious nightlife? You can do that there. Maybe you want to have a relaxing time getting Thai massages and delighting in the finer sides of Bangkok? You can do that too. Or maybe you want to explore the darker delights of the red light district? You can do that too. Bangkok has something for everything, but it doesn’t mean it is for everyone. I had 4 nights of fun and debauchery (just kidding, Pop, don’t worry. It was less debauchery, more shenanigans … more or less) but the times we did go out during the day were hot and crowded and to be honest I just felt like Bangkok was yet another big city.
I mentioned before that the majority of the really cool things to do in Bangkok aren’t technically in the city. The tiger temple(s) where you can go and pet sedated tigers and feel bad ass is an hour away. The floating markets are the same.
Actually in the city is the Democracy Monument (Should I mention the unfortunate irony here? Too soon.) The MBK Shopping Center is definitely something to check out, even if you just do a walk through of the seemingly endless stores. There is also the Grand Palace which is always cool to see, but all three of these things you could see in a day if you wanted to, or if the traffic let you.
Bangkok’s Khao San Road is pretty much the main strip where all the tourists go to experience the night life. There are clubs, bars, street carts that sell booze or food or delicious fresh coconuts, random popup dance parties on the street, lady boys, regular prostitutes, locals having a good time and motels selling rooms by the hour (I will refer you back to the previous mentioned lady and lady boys of the night). You can, and will, find whatever it might be that you are looking for on Khao San Road. And if you don’t there are plenty of tuk-tuk drivers who will gladly take you where you need to go. Ping Pong show anyone? Please don’t Google that.
Overall I had a really fun time there, but I also barely saw any part of Bangkok in the daylight hours. It is really up to you to experience Bangkok how you want.
Let me start off by saying that this island isn’t easy to get to. You have to take either a train or bus from whatever big city you might be in, then another bus to get to the harbor, then a roughly 2 hour ferry to the island itself. That being said, we had to drag ourselves away from this place. I am not joking when I say that if I didn’t think my parents would come drag my sunburnt bum home, I would go back there and stay for as long as I could. I can tend bar! Need a maid for those bungalows? Sure, as long as I can stay too! I’m not the only one who thought of this either. There are a lot of foreigners who live on the island either running or working at one place or another. Retirement plan maybe? Anyway shattered dreams aside, once you finally get to the island there are an abundance of hostels and hotels to chose from. I would book them in advance, especially if you are going during the full or half moon. Those are the two main events held on the island, but because of the success of the full moon parties the island now pretty much hosts parties of all kinds. There is the Half Moon Party, the Full Moon party (the biggest), the Jungle Experience party, the Waterfall Party, the Eden Party, the list goes on. For more up to date information on the parties you can go here: http://www.fullmoonparty-thailand.com/
Start swinging on a hammock and curl up with a drink and a new furry friend.
Parties: I’m assuming one of the main reasons you are looking into going to Koh Phangan is for the Full Moon or other parties. All of these parties are similar in the sense that they all take place either in the jungle or on the beach, have an abundance of black and neon lighting, body painting, extra-curricular activities and house/techno/trance music. I like a good beat as much as any other gal, but heavy techno for hours on end isn’t quite my thing. That being said I went to both the Waterfall Party and the Half Moon Party while I was there, and it was a blast! I watched the sunrise both days, and never regretted a second of it. You are going to pay anywhere from 300 – 600 baht for tickets to these events, depending on which one it is, and a little more to take a taxi (covered pick up truck) to get there, but it is an experience you aren’t likely to forget. Unless you take something stupid. Don’t take something stupid. Now, was that that hard?
Sunrises are always more beautiful in the strobe light drenched jungle.
If you want to go to Koh Phangan and not experience the parties, there are plenty of beaches on the north of the island that are more relaxing and family friendly, you know, with less drunken backpackers. A map of the island from your hotel or tourist station will tell you how to get there by the roads that cut through the island. They aren’t that far, and you can easily get there by taxi or scooter. My favorite was Coconut Beach. It was peaceful and serene, complete with a large wooden swing that I, of course, took pictures on.
Here’s why you go to West Railay beach: clear water, soft beaches, amazing scenery, some comforts of home, high end hotels and resorts.
Here’s why you go to Tonsai beach: clear water, amazing crags to climb, the most laid back locals you’ll ever meet, a paradise of beach bars and low key bungalows to help you pass away the days in a haze.
I stayed on Tonsai (if you couldn’t tell), but I did walk over to West Railay beach once. You can get from one to the other by boat or by climbing over the rough cut rocks that jut out from the beach. At low tide it might be easier to just wade through the water, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it at night because one slip on those rocks and your looking at something bloody. See the Transportation section below on more information on how to get to Tonsai and West Railay.
Both of these beaches are both nice, but I would consider West Railay to be more family and luxury friendly. There are only about 3 nice hotels on Tonsai, the rest of the places being bungalows with nothing more than a bed and mosquito net and enclosed, open air bathrooms. That was exactly what I was looking for so Tonsai, to me, was legitimately paradise. If you are looking for a more typically nice beach, then go with West Railay. I prefer the more rugged, don’t give a damn feel of Tonsai. It is really easy to lose track of your days while laying in a hammock on the beach, drinking an ice cold beer or coconut shake while the locals constantly puff puff pass.
Just do me a favor and wear sunscreen, like all the time. I wasn’t punctual enough at putting it on, and two weeks later I was shedding my skin like a lizard.
Where to Stay:
I will always stay in hostels if I can. Of course, I say this now because I’m poor and like to socialize. Maybe in a few years i’ll not want to sleep in a dorm full of fun loving party people…. doubtful but maybe. I love hostels so much because they do everything they can to make you socialize and meet new people!
When I look for hostels to stay in I always use www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelbookers.com. No, neither of these websites paid me to advertise for them. I just really like using them! I have found all of my hostels through them and I have never (well almost never) stayed in a bad one. The key things to look out for on these websites is:
1.) Location – nothing is worse then finding a cheap hostel only to find out when you arrive that is it out in the middle of nowhere.
2.) Price (duh) – especially in SE Asia if you are paying more than $15 a night (and that is on the very high end) for a hostel room you might as well just pick up a pile of bills and burn it.
3.) Facilities – What do they offer? If you don’t want to bother packing a towel make sure the hostels you are booking come with a towel. Most do, but some you have to pay for.
4.) Look at the reviews, but take them with a grain of salt. I always check the reviews before I book because that is where you find the best information about the hostel. Is the breakfast they offer good? Will the owner talk your ear off? Does it not really offer the things it says it does? However, not everyone’s standards will be the same. I have been in some hostels where one or two people commented that is was filthy and when I stayed It was spotless. Even so, checking the comments is the best way to find out information about the hostel they might not have put on the information page.
Where I Stayed:
Bangkok – Samsen Skyline Hostel
This hostel has a good location, about a 5 minute walk from Koh San Road. The rooms and bathrooms were clean, and the manager was really nice. He was chill and helped us get train tickets and call a tuk tuk whenever we needed it. We stayed in a dorm room that cost about $9 a bed/night, which I found to be pretty standard for a hostel in Bangkok. I didn’t like that they didn’t provide locks for the lockers in the hallway though, and they even charged for coffee and tea in the downstairs common room. But I mean, how much can you expect for $9 dollars a night.
Koh Phangan – Hard Road Cafe
This hostel is a steal for only a few bucks a night for certain dorm rooms. We actually booked the large dorm room, but were instead put in the 6 bed dorm when we got there. No complaints here! The outside dorms could have been a little cleaner, but my main concern was the mosquitoes that always seemed to get in. However, at that point in our trip there was pretty much no more un-bitten skin for them to delight in. There is also a bar, a nice common room (only open during the day though), a restaurant and they were in the process of building a pool when I stayed there. The only problems I had with it was the ‘jacuzzi’ was just a small, cold water pool that didn’t look like it had been used or cleaned in awhile, and the ‘big parties’ they claimed to have before the island parties weren’t that big and they shut down the bar around 11p.m. Come on, if you are going to claim something at least do it. Overall though, I would stay here again.
I don’t really have any information about where we stayed on Tonsai. There are not many phones, and less internet, on the beach so it isn’t easy to book things in advance. The further up the hill you go the less expensive the bungalows get, generally. I would recommend arriving at Tonsai during the day, maybe mid-afternoon, after checkout time. We didn’t arrive on Tonsai until it was dark and that made it difficult to find a place to stay. Find a place to stay on Krabi for the night if you have to, to make sure that you arrive on Tonsai during the day.
Home sweet home
Trains, planes, and automobiles: There are plenty of ways to get around in Thailand, trains, ferries, buses, you get the point. I found the nicest mode of transportation, if you are going long distance, to be the train. The sleeper trains have neat little beds that come down from the ceiling and seats that fold into beds, so no going wrong there. Most travel agents you go to will book you a package deal to get to where you need to go. For example, when we traveled from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, we paid one set price and received our train, bus, and ferry tickets all together. It is probably going to be a little more pricey this way, but you really can’t beat the convenience of that. As with anywhere, you should go with as reputable a company as you can find for tickets. The easiest way, which might not necessarily be the cheapest way, is to get them through your hostel or hotel. Try not to book very last minute, as you might not get the time you want to leave. This site: www.seat61.com has pretty much everything you will need to know about train/bus travel in Thailand or any other country you might be going to. I used this site for lots of research before I left.
Tuk Tuks: If you take Tuk Tuks that are not sent for you by the place you are staying, make sure you agree on a price before you get in. Most Tuk Tuk drivers are honorable enough that they won’t try and charge you more than you agreed upon, but if they do just insist upon the price you agreed on. If you don’t agree on a price ahead of time, they will ask you for a much higher price and they will be the ones insisting.
Scooters/motorbikes: There might not be as many scooters in Thailand as there are in Vietnam, but the roads are still full of them. It is really easy for tourists to rent motorbikes, especially in the smaller towns and islands. You rent for a certain price/day, and usually put up some kind of collateral like your passport or more money. “Oh”, you might ask, “but what about needing a motorbike license?” Ha! Don’t make me laugh. There are 10 year olds driving these things around, you think they have licenses? Yes, scooters are a really easy and cool way to get around, but just a word to the wise, not like i’m speaking from experience or anything, be careful. Tourists have actually died from motorbike accidents. Just be cautious, and know that even if you are confident on a motorbike it doesn’t mean that every else is too.
Getting to Tonsai: Wherever you are coming from to get to Tonsai, you will most likely buy a package deal to Krabi. When you arrive at the bus stop in Krabi tell the people there that you want to go to Tonsai. They will arrange a tuk tuk (probably for a fee) that will take you to the dock where you can get a boat to Tonsai. From there you will need to buy a longboat ticket to take you to Tonsai. Here is where it comes in handy to get there earlier in the day. The longboats will usually only go out if they are full, so about ten people. You might have to wait awhile. We had to wait at least 2 hours when we arrived, which is why we didn’t arrive on Tonsai until it was dark out. Don’t plan on not getting your feet a little wet either. The longboats can’t go directly to the beach because of their motors, so you will probably have to wade through the water a bit to get to the boat. Hey, I did say getting there was a bit difficult. So worth it though.
I hope that this guide helps you out on your travels. Like I said before, I am not an expert nor have I been to every city in Thailand, but if you need some honest tips from one traveler to another you know where to come! I feel like I’m in my classroom when I say this, but if you have any questions about anything feel free to ask away! Also, keep on the lookout for my next post about Thailand.
Until next time, explorers, never forget: