Affordable and Beautiful, Thailand Has Something for Everyone
From Turquoise Waters to Towering Temples
Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in Southeast Asia. It’s well-known as a backpacking destination due to being relatively affordable and easy to get around, as well as for its famously raucous nightlife.
However, Thailand is not just for the party-crowd. There are stunning beaches, interesting cultural attractions, serene meditation centers, delicious food options, intriguing historical sights and beautiful natural environments that make it popular among families and individuals of all ages. Not to mention how it has become such a hotbed for medical tourism.
You can find almost anything in Thailand from dense jungles to turquoise water flanked with white-sand beaches to exotic sights and all of the modern amenities you could ask for. So what do you need to know when going on a Thailand holiday?
Where to Go
There are three main cities in Thailand we recommend visiting, especially for first-timers. Each offers a unique and special experience of Thailand:
The bustling, frenetic capital city of Thailand is drastically more modern and more populated than the rest of the country. Bangkok tourism includes temples and palaces for exploring, top-notch markets where you can buy virtually anything you could imagine, soaring skyscrapers, luxury shopping malls, amazing Thai food and one of the most insane nightlife scenes on the planet.
Many of the main tourist attractions in Bangkok are situated along the Chao Praya River. If you have only a few days in Bangkok, then the best way to experience a lot in a short period of time is by traveling by river taxi and hopping on and off at the various attractions.
You can see the Grand Palace, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Chinatown, Wat Arun, Wat Po and more. Check out this guide to seeing Bangkok by River Taxi for detailed information about the sights along the river.
If you’ve come for shopping, there are tons of impressive multi-level shopping malls with designer brands rivaling those you would find in New York City. For those more interested in open-air markets, Chatachuk Market is the world’s largest weekend market, attracting thousands upon thousands of visitors each weekend, and for good reason.
You can find almost anything you can imagine at this market, including souvenirs, food, knickknacks, Buddha statues, clothes and even live animals.
Chiang Mai is an old city full of temples and interesting sites. It is a great place to base yourself for exploring the jungle and mountains in Northern Thailand.
Things to do in Chiang Mai include visiting an elephant sanctuary. There are many in the area, and while we chose to visit Elephant Retirement Park, Elephant Nature Park remains the most popular.
For those who wish to shop for handicrafts, you will find the Chiang Mai night market has some of the best options in the country for locally made items. In fact, it remains one of my favorite markets in all of Asia, with the Siem Reap night market being a close competitor for first place.
The temple on top of nearby Doi Suthep mountain offers stunning views of the city from the top and is a beautiful temple in its own right.
If you have some time on your way to Chiang Mai, you can visit the three ancient capitals of Thailand: Ayutthaya, Lopburi and Sukhothai. This “capital tour” offers a unique way to experience rural Thai life and learn more about ancient Thailand.
The beaches of Southern Thailand are some of the most beautiful in the world. Phuket is the most popular destination in the south with great beaches, amazing activities and a bumping nightlife.
If you’d like to skip the touristy areas, stay away from Patong beach and you should be okay. Ko Phi Phi is another popular destination. It was made famous in the movie “The Beach” and features amazing diving, nightlife and beautiful scenery.
There are a ton of other islands and attractive mainland beaches along the Thai coast. Do some research before you go as each island has its own character and attractions. For example, beautiful Koh Samui hosts one of the top yoga retreats in the world if that’s up your alley.
If you’ve conquered these destinations and are still looking for more to see and do in Thailand, you can check out the sleepy backpacker town of Pai, then visit the historically significant and beautiful Kanchanaburi Province (think “Bridge over the River Kwai”) and finish off with a hike in Khao Yai National Park.
Traveling on a Budget in Thailand
As with most countries in Southeast Asia, live like the locals during your trip and you can have a very affordable vacation. Street food is typically safe, delicious and can be had for around $1 per person. If you stick to Thai food you can certainly save a great deal of money. There’s really no need to grocery shop either since you can get street food so cheaply.
Plenty of housing options exist for less than $20 per night (down to less than $10 per night outside of the big cities), but certainly be careful of your belongings in these cheaper hostels and guesthouses.
Also be prepared for the party crowd to do their thing late into the evening in many of these backpacker areas. For families, affordable accommodations in the $30 range can still be found with the bonus of having a bit more relaxing night sleep.
Transportation is also quite affordable, especially if you do it like the locals. Local buses start at less than $0.50 a trip in Bangkok whereas the faster BTS Skytrain runs less than $2 for any trip.
Bus and train rides are also fairly cheap ways to get to other destinations throughout the country. If you are short on time, budget airlines such as AirAsia and Nok offer fairly affordable domestic flights around the country as well.
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Helpful Tidbits to Make Your Trip More Enjoyable
Visit During Songkran
Songkran is the name of Thai New Year and it’s celebrated April 13 to 15 each year. It is celebrated by a massive country-wide water fight where everyone is fair game. It can be absolutely crazy fun and is an experience like none other I’ve seen. Bring your water gun and get ready to play like a kid again!
How Long Should You Stay
Thailand is one of those places that some see on a long layover and others, such as us, come for a bit and stay indefinitely. The visa rules are strictly enforced and rules change frequently, so make sure you do your research before your visit.
Is Thailand Safe?
Thailand is relatively safe in almost all areas. Violent crime especially aimed at foreigners is quite rare, but happens from time to time. Bag theft is somewhat more common especially in tourist-heavy areas, so be on guard.
How You Should Get Around
Many tourists choose to rent motorcycles when traveling in Thailand, but we would suggest to use the utmost care in doing so. Road accidents are quite common and drunk driving is a huge problem, causing many to die each year. Wear a helmet and never drink and drive.
Another significant piece of information to keep in mind when traveling to Thailand is their strict political laws. They have extremely harsh and severe lese-majeste laws and it would be wise to avoid any public conversations related to the royal family or the military junta.
When to Go
Thailand has three seasons: hot, rainy and cool. While it will always feel hot to most Americans and Europeans who visit as temperatures rarely drop into the 70s, hot season (March to June) in Thailand is hard to bear and should be avoided if possible unless you are coming to celebrate Songkran.
The rainy season runs from May to October and can offer some great deals to travelers. The rain can be torrential at times, but is rarely long-lasting, so it’s not a terrible time to visit if you are okay with a few rain storms in exchange for some deals on accommodations.
The best and most popular time to visit Thailand is from November to February when temperatures are cooler. Even then, you won’t really need to pack a sweater unless you plan on hiking in the mountains during this time.