Temples and beaches
Thailand offers many of the quintessential Southeast Asian travel experiences: spectacular scenery, a rich culture and history, a friendly population, and a cuisine as rich in colour and appearance as in taste. For many, Thailand is their first foray into Southeast Asia and that first trip becomes one of a series.
The tourism scene has been developing seriously in the kingdom since the 1970s and today there’s both a very well trodden trail and a very developed travel infrastructure to take any pain out of travel here. Relatively easy to get around, and, by regional standards, quite affordable, the country attracts a vast number of tourists from all corners of the globe — you’re just as likely to be sharing a beach bar with an Australian as an Austrian.
Our Thailand travel guide is here to help you get the most out of each and every one of your trips to Thailand, commencing with the simple guidelines below aimed at first-time travellers to the country. Enjoy.
The big questions every first-time traveller has:
Thailand packs a solid punch when it comes to deciding where to go. Choose from scores of tropical islands, multiple historic centres dotted with fascinating ruins dating as far back as 600 AD and trekking destinations in the north, plus for those seeking an intense megalopolis experience, the nation’s capital, Bangkok, never fails to disappoint.
Top-shelf destinations for first-time visitors to Thailand include Bangkok, Kanchanaburi and historic centres like Ayutthaya, Sukhothai or perhaps Kamphaeng Phet. The northern capital of Chiang Mai remains a perennial favourite, with other northern centres including Mae Hong Son, Pai and Chiang Rai enjoying a steady stream of independent travellers looking for trekking or just a laid-back vibe. Those with an interest in Thailand’s Khmer period often strike into the northeast, visiting the spectacular ruins at Phanom Rung and Phimai — putting away heaps of spicy Isaan food while they’re at it.
While they’re not all world class, Thailand does have a rich network of national parks, including the enormous Khao Yai National Park in the northeast and Kaeng Krachan National Park in the south — both of which boast impressive reserves. Other, more crowd-pleasing spots, include ever-popular Khao Sok National Park and Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, both of which are in the south. In the northeast, Pha Taem National Park points towards early evidence of human habitation in the area.
When it comes to islands, Thailand can deliver to many different tastes. Hugely popular Phuket on the southwest coast, and Ko Samui on the southeast, attract families and tour groups — and have for decades — while also to the southeast, Ko Tao pulls in the divers and neighbouring Ko Pha Ngan the partiers and devoted hammock-swingers. The southwest (Andaman) coast is home to more than a dozen islands, ranging from laid-back family-friendly Ko Lanta, through to fast-developing Ko Lipe and chilled out Ko Bulon Lae. Then there is the east coast, with Bangkok-convenient Ko Si Chang and Ko Samet, jungle-clad Ko Chang and stunningly beautiful Ko Kut.
How long did you say you have?!
Between November and May, Thailand’s north sees mostly dry, cooler weather, warming to scorching hot in April. May to November is dominated by the southwest monsoon, characterised by heavy rain interspersed with dry and sunny stretches.?
The South has two seasons, and the weather changes depending on which side of the peninsula you are on. The west coast sees the southwest monsoon bring rain and often heavy storms from April to October, while on the east coast, most rain falls between September and December. The rest of the year on each side is warm and dry.
So when is the best time to visit? From a weather point of view, December to February generally offers the best conditions — the north won’t be blisteringly hot and you’ll fine great weather on some of Thailand’s islands.
With this great weather though comes big crowds and peak season prices. Those who don’t mind a bit of rain in return for thinner crowds prefer the shoulder season in November and March. Of course it also depends on where you are going — when the rain is pouring on Ko Chang, it is shining on Ko Tao and Ko Pha Ngan.
For many, an active Thai holiday means anything with more than a 20-metre stroll from the hammock to the ocean, but for those looking to do more than re-read Lord of the Rings in a hammock, Thailand isn’t at all shabby when it comes to things to do.
Top of the pops is probably learning to dive on Ko Tao (or Ko Phi Phi, or any number of other islands). Above the waters, rock climbing, especially by Railay Bay, is world class. Doing a cooking course or taking a food walk are both popular, as is visiting one of Bangkok’s many floating markets. In the north, trekking is hugely popular, often combined with bamboo rafting and visiting or staying in a minority village.
Every Thai town has at least one wat (temple) so there is no shortage of temples to visit and some choose to stay at or do meditation courses within. Language courses are also popular, especially in Chiang Mai, and then there is yoga, fasting and detox retreats, often in idyllic locations, for those taking a more holistic approach to their travels.
Thailand also celebrates an impressive selection of festivals, with the water festival of Songkran (Thai new year) in mid-April being the biggest of all. Others, including the Rocket Festival and Phi Ta Khon in the northeast of the country and nationwide Loi Krathong, also welcome foreigners and can offer a remarkable insight into life in Thailand.
How long have you got?! For a first time visitor looking to see just a bit of Bangkok, and say Kanchanaburi or Ko Samet, a week would suffice to give a taste of what the country has to offer, but the country really deserves two weeks as a primer.
If you’re planning on travelling around a bit — rather than just staying on one island — four weeks is a popular stretch as it fits within a visa-free stay and allows for a couple of weeks in the north and a couple of weeks in the south.
If you are planning a longer stay, it pays to familiarise yourself with Thailand’s visa rules. They change often and some rules are enforced haphazardly, complicating what should be a simple process.
Your budget will depend very much on your style of travelling. If you’re comfortable in simple accommodation, eating street food, not drinking too much alcohol, travelling using cheap transport and steering clear of heavily touristed (and so more expensive) destinations, you can still survive on around 600 baht per day — less if you’re especially frugal and travelling as a couple. Watch out for fancy pants dorms which are often way over-priced for the standard when compared to what you could pay for an air-con private room in a normal guesthouse.
Most independent travellers though tend to spend a little more. That air-con room is tempting, as is the pool and WiFi, frothed up latte and occasional VIP bus or short domestic flight. All these conspire to push daily budgets up to around a more comfortable 1,000 to 1,500 baht per day.
If your tastes veer more towards the luxurious, then Thailand does offer terrific value for accommodation around the 3,000 to 6,000 baht mark, with food and entertainment costs potentially rising accordingly. Likewise, you can also spend tens of thousands of baht a night for truly luxurious settings — think private pool villas and so on — flying everywhere and fine dining the whole way along.
Sadly Thailand has more than its fair share of scams. Gem scams, especially in Bangkok, remain problematic. Petty theft, snatch and grabs and other crimes of opportunity are not uncommon in heavily touristed areas.
Violent crime specifically aimed at foreign travellers remains rare, but does happen. Use your common sense, stay under control and, if a situation becomes uncomfortable leave or seek assistance immediately.
Thailand’s road toll is extremely high. Drink driving is endemic, especially over public holiday periods, when hundreds of people die on the roads. Bus accidents are frequent. Always wear a motorcycle helmet when riding a bike. Do not ride a motorbike if you don’t know how. Public boats are frequently overloaded and speed boats are often overloaded and driven erratically or dangerously (depending on your point of view). Public boats sink frequently, often with insufficient life jackets. If the boat looks overloaded to you, or the weather dangerous, do not get on board.
Don’t ride (or drive) stoned or drunk. Drug laws in Thailand are very strong, but enforced haphazardly. Just because the tuk tuk driver who sold you a bag of pot didn’t get arrested doesn’t mean you won’t be.
Basically if you wouldn’t do it in your home country because it is stupid, why do it in Thailand?
Thailand is currently run by a military junta that took power in a military coup, kicking out a popularly elected government. Under the junta’s rule many public and press freedoms have been significantly curtailed. Thailand maintains extremely harsh and severe lèse-majesté laws, ostensibly to protect the reputation of the Thai royal family, who enjoy considerable respect. Thais falling foul of this law have been jailed. Public political discourse is generally not a great idea, especially after drinking 15 large Singha beers.