Photo: Longtails on West Railay Beach.


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.

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Down to onward travel

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.

Could be worse.

Could be worse. Photo: Lana Willocks

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:

Absolute highlights

Thailand packs a solid punch when it comes to deciding where to go, but when it comes to the absolute must sees in Thailand, there are a few spots that you really shouldn’t miss. 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 disappoints.

Touching the earth in Sukhothai.

Touching the earth in Sukhothai. Photo: David Luekens

Bangkok: Set astride the majestic, churning Chao Phraya River, the Thai capital Bangkok represents all that is good and bad about an Asian megalopolis. Loved or loathed, it’s a city with everything for some and nothing for others, and a place that almost every visitor to Thailand will find themselves in at some stage.

Chiang Mai: Thailand’s northern capital, with its smaller size and population, Chiang Mai has a lot in its favour for tourists and travellers alike, with the centre of town packed with glittering wats, excellent restaurants and expansive shopping markets all of which are easily taken in on foot.

Historic ruins: These three destinations between Bangkok and Chiang Mai are home to expansive collections of historic ruins dating back as far as the 13th century. Both Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were capitals in their own right and are the two most popularly visited. Kamphaeng Phet will appeal to those looking to get a little further off the beaten trail.

Islands: With so much variety, we’re wary of nominating absolute faves, but these four very different islands are really difficult to beat. Ko Pha Ngan for its amazing variety of beaches and affordable accommodation, Ko Jum for its bo-ho laid back vibe, very beautiful Ko Bulon Lae for how the tourism seems to exist in harmony with the tranquil rhythm of the islanders and Ko Kut for a more upmarket choice where you don’t feel like you’ll get nudged out of the way by tour groups (you won’t) — and the beaches are gorgeous.

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Popular destinations

Kanchanaburi: Just 128 kilometres from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is home to pristine national parks, cavernous caves, majestic rivers, lakes, waterfalls and temples. For many though, all this takes a backseat to the area’s World War II history.

Rafting in Pai.

Rafting in Pai. Photo: Travelfish Thailand

Pai: Once a sleepy and somewhat remote Shan town, Pai, while still a bit of an effort to reach, is these days well and truly on the traveller’s map of northern Thailand, and if you’re a young backpacker on a first trip to Thailand it can seem like a great scene.

Nong Khai: Overlooking the Mekong River within earshot of Laos, Nong Khai boasts magnificent landscapes, waterfalls and serene forest temples in the surrounds, and a good mix of affordable accommodation, eclectic food and one quirky yet awe-inspiring sculpture park in town.

Hua Hin: A vast white-sand beach, thriving art scene, tacky tourist sites, early 20th century architecture, seedy bars, scenic hills and golf courses, hastily developed streets, aggressive touts, inflated prices, family-friendly resorts and lots of European retirees. Love it or hate it, Hua Hin has a character all its own.

Krabi: A mash-up of funky bars, Western restaurants and old-school markets slinging fiery curries somehow come together to form a fun and intriguing puzzle, better known as Krabi.

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Alternative destinations

Sangkhlaburi: When travellers dream of Thailand, they may picture jungles, sparkling temples and the exotic charm of rural villages — Sangkhlaburi is home to all this and it’s seclusion only adds to its mystique.

A quiet moment in Sangkhlaburi.

A quiet moment in Sangkhlaburi. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Chiang Dao: Dao means star in Thai — and the mountain in Chiang Dao is so high it’s supposed to be on the same level as the stars themselves.

Sangkhom: Nestled along a scenic stretch of the Mekong River, the tiny village of Sangkhom is one of those little-known, remote places that turns out to be a highlight for those willing to sidestep the well-trodden track. In other words, we love Sangkhom!

Prachuap Khiri Khan: Make time to visit and you will be amply rewarded with a low-key, local atmosphere that has just enough of a developed tourist infrastructure and plenty of largely tasteful accommodation to make your stay comfortable. The seafood is great too.

Nakhon Si Thammarat: Set to a historical backdrop of Buddhist kings and bustling trade, modern Nakhon Si Thammarat is a fast-paced cultural and commercial centre. If you’re after a taste of unadulterated South Thailand and you don’t mind sliding off the tourist trail, head here.

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Tropical islands

Thailand is no slouch when it comes to sea and sand (we cover over 30 Thai islands on Travelfish), with four four main clusters of islands and dozens of individual islands to choose from.

Ko Pha Ngan with the weather turned on.

Ko Pha Ngan with the weather turned on. Photo: David Luekens

Eastern Gulf Islands: Set over towards Cambodia, these include the jungle-clad Ko Chang, the drop-dead gorgeous Ko Kut and, closer to Bangkok, the convenient weekender for the megapolis, Ko Samet.

Southern Gulf Islands: These include family friendly Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan (home to the infamous Full Moon Party) and the diving mecca of Ko Tao.

Northern Andaman islands: On Thailand’s Andaman (south west) coast, these run from Ko Phayam and Ko Chang Noi in the north to Phuket in the south. Note, there are plenty in between.

Southern Andaman islands: The lovely Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai are striking antidotes to their boisterous and overtouristed yet spectacular Ko Phi Phi. Further south you’ll find laid-back Ko Jum and family-friendly Ko Lanta, followed by a whole string of smaller islands which taper off at Ko Tarutao, Ko Bulon Lae and Ko Lipe just before the waves become Malaysian.

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Nature lovers

National Parks: 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.

Amazing scenery at Khao Sok National Park.

Amazing scenery at Khao Sok National Park. Photo: Lana Willocks

National Marine Parks: With such a beautiful, island-sprinkled coastline, Thailand has plenty to offer the aquatic nature lover. If you’ve ever seen The Man with the Golden Gun you’ll recognise Ao Phang Nga National Marine Park and further south you’ll reach Mu Ko Lanta National Park and further south still, Mu Ko Phetra National Park. Last stop before Malaysia, former political prison Ko Tarutao National Park is a highlight for many. Over on the Gulf side, the 42 islands of Ang Thong National Marine Park are ever popular.

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Ruins and rivers

Khmer ruins: Those with an interest in Thailand’s Khmer period often strike into the northeast, with highlights including the spectacular ruins at Phanom Rung and Phimai — though there are plenty of other sites as well. Be sure to put away heaps of spicy Isaan food while out this way.

Breathtaking Phanom Rung.

Breathtaking Phanom Rung. Photo: David Luekens

Rivers: While Thailand is so famous for its beaches and islands, there’s something really special about lazing away a few days by swirling river waters. The Mekong delineates much of the Thai Lao border and prime river-hangout towns include Chiang Khong, Chiang Kha, Sangkhom, Nong Khai, That Phanom, Mukdahan and Khong Chiam. Other rivers worth experiencing are the Kok River in the north and the majestic Chao Phraya which weaves straight through the Thai capital.

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What to do

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.

Do it!

Do it! Photo: Ayesha Cantrell

Learn to dive: 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.

Cooking courses and food walks: Doing a cooking course or taking a food walk are both popular activities, as is visiting one of Bangkok’s many floating markets.

Trekking: In northern Thailand, trekking is hugely popular, with Chiang Mai, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Pai all popular trekking centres. The trips are often combined with bamboo rafting and visiting or staying in a minority village.

Courses and personal improvement: 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.

Festivals: 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.

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When to go

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.?

Wet season can be ... interesting.

Wet season can be ... interesting. Photo: Stuart McDonald

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.

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How long to go for

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.

Dawn on Ko Taen.

Dawn on Ko Taen. Photo: Stuart McDonald

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.

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What it will cost

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.

Show me the money!

Show me the money! Photo: Stuart McDonald

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.

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What to watch out for

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.

Having adequate travel insurance cover is essential.

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.

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