Beaches. Island hopping. Kayaking. Snorkeling and Scuba diving. Visiting Buddhist temples. Monk chat. Night markets. Street Food. Elephant sanctuaries. Hiking. White-water rafting. Zip-lining through the jungle canopy. ATV tours. Massage. Exploring ancient cities. Whizzing through traffic on a scooter. Finding the perfect beach. The Kingdom of Thailand is the top destination in Southeast Asia, and for good reason.
With sublime tropical weather, thousands of miles of coast – with white-sand beaches and majestic limestone crags – and lush mountain jungles filled with exotic flora and fauna, the natural beauty alone would be enough to tempt any traveler. But an even bigger draw here is Thai culture: the welcoming and friendly people, the food, and the architecture. It’s not called the Land of Smiles for nothing.
Excellent transportation networks and tourist infrastructure make it easy—and cheap—to travel around. Thailand must surely be one of the best all-around destinations in the world when it comes to natural beauty, culture, weather, value, and fun. The only problem is that you’ll never want to leave.
Things to Do in Thailand
Below is an itinerary for 3 weeks in Thailand, flying into Bangkok, then heading to the southern beaches along the Andaman Sea in Tha Lane Bay (Krabi/Ao Nang) and the island of Koh Yao Yai, before flying up from Phuket to Chiang Mai, where we spent a week in this dazzling town of temples and its surrounding area, which is known for its mountain vistas, elephant reserves, and quiet traditional cities like Lamphun and Lampang.
Note: As always, all recommendations are my own; I did not receive compensation from any hotels, tour companies, restaurants, etc.
Must See Thailand: Bangkok (2 nights)
You will likely begin and end your journey here, though there are also direct flights from Europe to Phuket, where it is easy to catch a plane, ferry, or bus to destinations all around the south. Most international flights to Bangkok arrive at Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK), where you should buy a tourist SIM card so you’ll have Thai phone service and cheap mobile internet (kiosks near local transportation desks) and catch a taxi into town.
Bangkok is a sprawling world city, but the areas of interest to tourists are relatively circumscribed in Central Bangkok’s Pranakorn neighborhood, which is home to the infamous Khaosan Road, Wat Pho, Grand Palace, and Democracy Monument. One night or two in Bangkok will probably suffice.
We stayed at Adamaz House, not far from the Khaosan Road. Skip their standard rooms and treat yourself to their fantastic rooftop suite and sprawl out before your long flight back home. Adamaz House is also next to the most amazing massage we had in Thailand (Lumpoo Massage, 84-86 Prasumeru Road, Pranakorn, no website) and delicious street food vendors.
To catch a discount airline flight to many domestic and international destinations, head for Don Muang International airport (DMG). Both airports are located about 40 minutes from the Khaosan Road (assuming no traffic), but on other sides of the city from one another. To be safe, budget at least an hour travel time. Taxi service should cost around 500 Baht, and Uber is now available. There is also a free shuttle bus service between the two airports, which takes about 90 minutes. Keep the locations of the different airports in mind when booking your flights, and leave enough time to get between them if necessary.
Must See Thailand: Ao Nang/Krabi/Tha Lane Bay (6 days):
Krabi is the gateway to the Andaman Sea’s famous beaches, where the turquoise waters are filled with majestic limestone crags. This area is also the jumping off point for the Phi Phi Islands, where The Beach was filmed, and Koh Lanta further to the south.
Close to Krabi is Ao Nang, which is a decidely Thai town that seems to have begun catering to tourists in recent years, but it still has a certain local charm. From here, you can take a long-tail boat from Ao Nang to Railay, a beautiful long white beach framed with sheer cliffs popular with rock climbers.
Krabi Town and Ao Nang are fine for catching a Scuba tour, getting dinner, or visiting to the night markets, but I would stay at Tha Lane Bay (Ban Khao Thong) for a truly remarkable, off-the-beaten path experience. It’s about a forty-minute drive from both Ao Nang and Krabi, and you’ll pass lots of small roadside rural villages along the way, where life still moves at a different pace. Tha Lane Bay’s boasts stunning views of the Andaman sea, but the tidal movement here can be pretty extreme, so the beaches aren’t the best for swimming. The sunsets, though, are sublime.
We stayed at both Les Passe Temps, a tastefully curated French-run hotel with a tranquil private beach, and Banana’s Bungalows, a laid-back collection of simple, thatched roof cottages just down the road from Les Passe Temps on a mangrove with hammocks overlooking the bay. The vibe at Banana’s is more backpacker but loads of fun. It’s also a fantastic value. If you go to Banana’s, they might also show you the map to the SECRET BEACH…
You can rent a car or scooter to get around the local area. Any of the hotels will help you arrange kayaking, snorkeling, or Scuba trips, though if you want to Scuba dive out of Ao Nang, I would recommend Aqua Vision, which is run by a professional Russian divemaster named Alexei. His is the only dive shop in Ao Nang with its own speedboat, which means you will be in a smaller group and get the chance dive before the big day boats arrive, letting off hundreds of people into the reefs who scare away the fish.
Must See Thailand: Koh Yao Yai (4 nights)
In the bay between Phuket and the Krabi coast, there are two large, mostly undeveloped islands that are enticing precisely for that reason. Koh Yao Noi, to the north, and the larger and even less developed Koh Yao Yai to the south are perfect for those really looking to get away from it all. It still feels like the Thailand from decades past: people wave to you as you drive by on your scooter, women comb the beaches for mussels and fishermen cast nets by hand. With its blissfully slow pace and long, empty beaches, you can find your own little paradise – and have it all to yourself.
There is also a massage place that borders on the spiritual called Leela’s Massage, and a fish restaurant overlooking the sea called Ban Rim Nam where you will have one of the best meals of your life. Skip the Scuba diving here unless you’re an advanced open water diver, and even so, visibility at the nearby dive sites is poor to terrible. Instead, you can take an ATV tour through the island’s rubber plantations and visit a HIDDEN BEACH.
We stayed at the beachfront Thiwson resort, run by a local Thai family, which is located directly on a 2 kilometer-long white sand beach. The hotel is a great value: choose the third row of bungalows (without air conditioning) for rustic luxury and the most privacy. The infinity pool on the beach makes it feel like a much more expensive hotel.
From Koh Yao Yai, you can take a speedboat ferry to Phuket or Krabi, and catch local transport to wherever you need to go. There is also a ferry direct from the pier at Tha Lane Bay.
Must See Thailand: Phuket (1 night)
We stayed at Naiyang beach, which is close to the airport. If you have to stay in Phuket, this is an acceptable option, but even so, I was relieved to leave.
Must See Thailand: Chiang Mai (3 nights)
Located in the north, Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand, and like many of the world’s second cities, it outshines its rival Bangkok in many respects. With over 200 temples and an important university, Chiang Mai has long been a center of erudition, culture, and style. While you’re here, you should take part in this learning, whether by dropping by a temple for “monk chat,” or taking a Thai cooking class or meditation course.
These days, Chiang Mai is a hot destination not only for hipsters, but also for Chinese tourists due to a little low-budget 2012 movie called “Lost in Thailand” about the misadventures of two Chinese travelers in Chiang Mai. The film launched a wave of mass tourism, and these days, the accommodations are often booked at capacity for much of the year. You’re advised to book ahead.
You can easily spend two or three days getting lost in Chiang Mai’s charming back alleys, where every street seems to boast a temple more beautiful than the one before. The street food and night markets are legendary; make sure you visit over the weekend so you can hit either the Saturday night market, which is all about the food, or the Sunday walking street, which is more specialized in arts and crafts.
Must See Thailand: Mae Wang (2 nights)
Mae Wang is only about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, but it feels a world apart. On the drive in, you can stop at Baan Tawai, a handicrafts village where they have beautiful carved wood furniture and lesser knick-knacks for sale. As you approach Mae Wang, the road starts to narrow and wind as you enter the mountains. We stayed at the Chai Lai Orchid Nature Bungalows, which shares its property with an elephant camp. They offer a model of humane interaction, where you can ride an elephant bareback and bathe them, accompanied by mahouts who love the elephants and don’t use bull hooks to control them. The rustic “resort” is involved with the local hill tribe communities, many of whom are refugees from Myanmar, to promote responsible tourism and social empowerment. This was one of the best activities we did. Don’t miss out on the trekking and bamboo rafting.
Must See Thailand: Lampang (1 night)
Lampang is a provincial capital that doesn’t see many tourists, though it has plenty of sights to offer. It is famous for its horse-drawn carriages, which you can hire to take you from temple to temple. The impressive Wat Phra That temple complex, representative of the Lanna kingdom style, is carved entirely out of teak wood. You won’t see many tourists here, which means that this relaxing and authentic Thai city is yours to discover. On your way back into Chiang Mai, you can visit the Elephant Conservation Center, which is under royal patronage and provides veterinarian care to all Thai elephants, along with conservation and elephant training.
Tips About Thailand
Thailand Climate & When to Go
Thailand ranges from warm to downright sweltering all year round. You’ll also have to watch out for the monsoon season when planning your trip, which hits the southern Andaman coast (Phuket, Krabi/Tha Lane Bay, Koh Yao Yai, Koh Lanta, etc) from late August-early November. The Gulf of Thailand’s unique climate means that it is largely spared from a full-on monsoon season, so Gulf islands like Koh Tao and Ko Samui are more viable year-round destinations. The best weather throughout the country is from November-March, Thailand’s high season, making Christmas-New Year’s period the highest point of the high season. Prices are at their peak, but you’ll have great weather (not too hot, not rainy) if you go at this time, no matter where you are in the country. If you go to the north (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc.), make sure to bring warm clothes. Nights get COLD in the mountains, especially when you’re used to 90 degree+ days.
Thailand has every kind of accommodation you could desire, from 3 dollar-a-night dorm beds to luxury resorts, simple guesthouses, backpacker joints, and boutique hotels. The most atmospheric way to spend your holiday is in a beach- or mountain-side bungalow, which can range from simple thatch-roofed huts with outdoor bathrooms (nice, don’t worry!) to carved teakwood cottages. Air conditioning does not come standard at guesthouses and will cost extra. If you travel during the high season, you are advised to make your reservations in advance. While I am a huge proponent of flying to a country with nothing but a vague plan and an economy rental car reservation, the high season in Thailand is just too busy for this, and availability can really be a problem in many parts of the country. While hotel prices are at their highest during the weeks around Christmas, you can skip on the air conditioning to save a bit of money—it gets cool enough at night that you don’t really need it, even in the south. I like using Airbnb for unique retreats, Booking.com for cheap but decent places in cities, and Agoda for last-minute or more out-of-the-way destinations.
Thailand has a transportation network on par with anything I have seen in Western Europe, and it surely exceeds the anemic public transportation facilities in the United States. There is an extensive bus and railroad network, but for those pressed on time, low-budget airlines like Air Asia and Nok provide cheap and frequent service between tourist hubs and major Thai cities. These days, it’s often cheaper to fly than to take an overnight train. For independent travelers who want the freedom of their own transportation, you should rent a car to get off the beaten path. Driving is easy in Thailand and Thais are quite reasonable behind the wheel (I would take driving in Thailand over much of southern or Eastern Europe any day). The best way to get around locally, though, is with a small scooter, which you can rent for under 10 dollars a day.
Thailand is a great value, but it’s not outrageously cheap. If you want to eat banana pancakes, stay in hostel dorm rooms, and take the bus, yes, it’s embarrassingly cheap. But Thailand is cheap enough that you can splurge and do things you probably couldn’t afford to do at other destinations: have a massage every day, order the entire fish for dinner whenever you feel like it, or upgrade your room to the seaview. Scuba diving and guided full-day excursions (kayaking, hiking, elephant encounters, ATV, ziplining, etc.) cost around $100 per person, which is pretty standard no matter where you are in the world. I would budget $150-200 per couple, per day, assuming you are staying at mid-range guesthouses, have your own transportation, and want to live it up when it comes to dining and activities. Don’t forget that lots of fun things in Thailand are absolutely free, like hanging out on the beach, watching spectacular sunsets, or visiting temples. As a side note, prices drop pretty dramatically when moving from the south to the north.
Beaches. Island hopping. Kayaking. Snorkeling and Scuba diving. Visiting Buddhist temples. Monk chat. Night markets. Street Food. Elephant sanctuaries. Hiking. White-water rafting. Zip-lining through the jungle canopy. ATV tours. Massage. Exploring ancient cities. Whizzing through traffic on a scooter. Finding the perfect beach
If I could only eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be Thai. Part of what makes Thai food so amazing is its diversity: you have your fresh seafood, homemade curries, stir-fries, rice dishes, noodle soups, fresh salads, and succulent roasted meats. All defined by the principle of balancing sweet, tangy, sour, and salty flavors from the favored ingredients of garlic, lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce, chili, holy and sweet basil, oyster sauce, ginger, shallot, lime, palm sugar, cilantro, peanuts, and parsley. Do yourself a favor and take a Thai cooking class while you’re there.
Thai Culture Tips
- Shoes: Make sure to take off your shoes whenever you enter into any kind of “interior,” even if the interior is wide open to the outside. This can even apply to restaurants and public bathrooms. When in doubt, just check the entrance: if there is a pile of shoes laying about, take yours off, too.
- Tipping: Is not required, but is appreciated. In general, we would tip about 20 percent for a great massage or great meal, which was extravagant, but often we were so grateful for a job well done that tipping like an American just felt right. Plus, Thailand is relatively cheap, so you can really splurge. At fancier hotels or restaurants in touristy areas, a set gratuity will probably be included in the bill.
- Bargaining: Prices are often up for negotiation, especially at local markets. You are going to get overcharged as a Western tourist who can’t speak Thai (as is true anywhere), but the Thais don’t seem to gauge you and if you ask vendors selling similar wares in other parts of the market, the prices are similar. In comparison to bargaining in other parts of the world, Thais are pretty laid back. You should smile and stay calm, as Thais are a very polite and friendly, so you won’t get far with them if you aren’t. You might be able to shave 20-30 percent off the original asking price, but not much more. If you are interested in buying something, don’t low ball the seller. Unlike places in North Africa, India, or the Middle East, merchants will actually let you walk away if you don’t offer a serious bid.
- Clothing: Thailand is hot and humid throughout the year. Shorts, sandals, and tank tops are a necessity. In the south, however, where most of the beach destinations are located, there is a large local Muslim population. I think it is still polite for women tourists to wear more modest clothes outside of the beach areas. Shorts and dresses are still fine, but wearing super-short shorts, belly shirts, and skimpy tank tops is not respectful of the locals. When visiting Buddhist temples, women also need to cover up their knees and shoulders. Most temples have wraps available, but it’s probably just easier to wear a pair of pants and a shirt with sleeves, especially if you are going to be visiting a lot of temples, e.g. in Chiang Mai or Lampang.
- The King & Royal Family: Thailand is a Kingdom, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej aka Rama IX has ruled since 1946, making him the world’s longest-reigning head of state. He is adored by the Thai people, and his image is everywhere, from a small framed picture at a kiosk, to roadside billboards and banners on the side of buildings, but also alongside the Buddha at temples. Images are mostly from the 1960s-1980s and display the king in all sorts of poses, ranging from official portraits to action-shots of him doing good works (e.g. the king in a cowboy hat on a ranch, inaugurating a hospital, etc.). It is technically a crime in Thailand to disparage the king, and why would you want to? In Europe, we are so used to rotten kings, but you have to put all that aside when you go to Thailand, because the U.S.-born, Swiss-educated saxophone-playing Thai King really seems to have helped keep his country on a steady upward trajectory during his nearly 70-year-long reign. He is a role model for the country (I saw a man on the street take out a picture of the King out of his wallet, and his eyes filled with tears), and his importance in Thai politics and culture can’t be underestimated.
- Communication: The Thai language is difficult for Westerners, as it is a tonal language, which means one word can have several different meanings depending on the tone used. It is important to note that verbs are inflected for the speaker’s gender at the end by attaching the suffix -ka or -khab for female and male speakers, respectively. Do make sure to learn a few phrases. The bare minimum includes Sawadee-ka/khab (hello) and Khop Kum ka/khab (thank you). The general level of English is relatively low, but usually there is someone around who knows enough to understand more complicated requests or needs. For many encounters, though not all, the language barrier will frustrate discussions of higher-level topics like politics or religion. But for simple things, Thais are good at making themselves understood despite the language barrier, and are quite patient. If you love Thailand and want to spend time lots of time here, it would behoove you to learn Thai.
Surprises about Traveling in Thailand
- The sunsets are truly spectacular, every night.
- Thai massage. It’s the real deal. Depending on where you are, a 90-minute Thai massage will cost you between 5-10 dollars. The type of massage can range from therapeutic to relaxing to spiritual.
- Thailand is one of the most touristed countries in Asia, but it never felt crowded where we were, even in the high season. There are still wonderful places to explore.
- I suppose the biggest surprise was how much I loved it, and how easily I could imagine spending the rest of my life in Thailand. Unfortunately, foreigners cannot technically own real estate in Thailand. But one can still dream.