Most trips to SE Asia start with Thailand. For travelers with a small amount of vacation time it makes sense to stay in Thailand. Between the tropical islands in the South and the scenic mountains in the North you can stay occupied for weeks or even months. Here’s my first travel tip – if you fly into an airport in Thailand your passport will be stamped with a 1 month free visa however if you come overland from Laos, Cambodia, or Malaysia you will only get a 15 day visa.
Language: Thai – Hello is (sawat dii) thank you is (khawp khun) Don’t worry if you can’t speak Thai everyone speaks English in the tourist areas but they do appreciate a little effort on your part.
Currency: Baht – Approximately 30 baht equals 1 USD. Be sure to check on current exchange rates.
Climate: Try to avoid the rainy season in the North from June to Oct. March to May are the hottest months in the South.
Religion: Buddhism and Islam – They take religion seriously and their temples even more serious.
The largest hub for flights into SE Asia from abroad. The city is massive and its buses and trains provide transportation to the many destinations within Thailand as well as to bordering countries.
Where to Stay: You can find hostels in the backpacker area called Khao San Road or guest houses across the street in the district known as Banglamphu. If you want to sleep at night and are traveling with a friend go for the guest houses. A shared room in a hostel will cost around 10USD and a private two bed room will cost around 20USD (split with your friend = 10USD each!). Of course it is wise to book accommodation ahead of time but if you’re adventurous like me you can just show up and shop around.
Watch this video of Khao San Rd https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbvBwo9G6Sg
The safest and fastest way to your guest house in Banglamphu is to take a taxi direct from the airport. For half the cost you can also take the airport rail link to its last stop “Phaya Thai” and then get a taxi or tuk tuk the rest of the way. TIP: The cost of tuk-tuk services should be equivalent to a few dollars for up to a half hour ride. (50 to 100 baht)
Watch this video of a tuk tuk in action https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AstAb1Vk3QQ
Eating: The roads of Banglamphu are lined with average priced restaurants serving anything you want. Most menus offer some western food alongside the local dishes. My favorite places to eat are the road stalls offering Pad Thai for a couple bucks a plate.
Shopping: You could show up to Bangkok with an empty suitcase and buy everything you need for the rest of your trip between Khao San Rd. and Banglamphu. Many stalls and shops are selling the same items; don’t buy without haggling, the prices will certainly come down!
What to do: Bangkok is a massive sprawling city, it is hard to get anywhere without hiring the services of a tut-tuk. Due to this and the safety factor, many people never leave Banglamphu to go out exploring. While I understand the hesitation, it is no way to go about a vacation so here are some helpful tips and safe trips outside of the backpacker haven.
Another great way of getting around Bangkok and also a fun time in and of itself is taking the Chao Phraya Express boats that run the length of the city in the Chao Phraya River. There is a boat pier and ticket office walking distance from Banglamphu. Take a boat to Chinatown and explore the narrow alleyways packed with shops and restaurants.
Dusit zoo – The zoo in Bangkok is not world renowned but it does offer a few good sights for those willing to venture outside of Khao San Rd. We saw a pretty cool sea lion show, took up close pictures with the giraffes, and ate some ice cream to cool off.
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo is the holiest site in Thailand and has to be the biggest tourist attraction in Bangkok. Admission is 15 USD and you can walk from there from Khao San Rd. Pictures do not do this place justice, because of its massive nature. Be sure to wear pants and cover your shoulders or you will not be allowed in; for those who forget they will rent shawls outside for a few dollars.
Arriving to this mountain paradise is a breath of fresh air after the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. The streets are clean and quiet, the temples are within walking distance, and the mountains are a short truck ride away. The city center is surrounded by a moat and the bus and train stations are both a few miles to the East of town.
Where to Stay: There is an abundance of guest houses near the eastern bridge into the city called “Tha Pae Gate”. You can find places ranging from $5 to $20 depending on your budget, but know that you get what you pay for here. If you don’t book your accommodation ahead of time be sure to see the room before you pay for it. If you don’t like go to the next place.
Eating: For daytime eats I recommend the area around the Somphet Market. Chaing Mai is where I fell in love with fresh fruit smoothies from a guest house called “La Mer”. For night time eats head to the night bazaar. Don’t be afraid to try some of the strange meats that come served on a stick.
Shopping: Daytime shopping for linens and ceramics is best at the Warorot Market and surrounding area. For dresses, purses, and the other hand crafted delights visit the Night Bazaar to the SE of Tae Pae Gate on Thannon Loi Khro rd.
What to do: Chaing Mai is the adventure capitol of SE Asia. Trekking is a very popular activity. (see side trips) There are also many culturally rich experiences in town such as: cooking, language, and massage classes. If you are interested in temples, rent a tuk-tuk and ask the driver if he can give you some history of the different sites.
Tiger Kingdom was a very awesome and scary experience. For about $20 you are allowed to pet tigers that are well feed but not drugged. Trainers are on hand to make sure you are safe and snap your picture while you slowly approach the Tiger and place a trembling hand on its back.
Side Trips: Most people come to Chaing Mai to go on a trek into the surrounding mountains. There are a dozen or so options available depending on length of trip, optional activities, and your physical abilities.
Where to next: Travel in style into Laos on a slow boat down the Mekong River.
The Gulf of Thailand has three main islands. Ko Tao known primarily for its amazing diving, Ko Pha Ngan which is host to the famous Full Moon Parties, and the larger Ko Samui that has become a big tourist destination.
Where to Stay and what to do: If time permits island hop to all three of them, otherwise choose one based on what you want to do. Diving in Ko Tao, partying in Ko Pha Ngan or lounging in Ko Samui. The options for accommodation are endless from hostels to high class hotels. There is two options either browse the internet and book ahead or show up and book when you get to the docks and people are willing to haggle and show you the rooms.
When to go: It’s great year round in the islands because of it’s tropical location near the equator, temps don’t change that much. November to March is peak tourist season which means prices are higher and everything from the beaches to clubs are more crowded.
Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and draws a lot of tourists because of it’s international airport and major road system including a bridge connecting to the main land. It is well known for its diving centers and all night parties. From here you can get a ferry to the smaller islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta.
Krabi is not an island but is worth mentioning because it has become a popular alternative to the crowded hub of Phuket and a cheaper option for travel to Phi Phi and Lanta islands. It is surrounded by mangrove swamps which are popular for people to go kayaking through and has some nice beaches.
Ko Phi Phi is actually two islands, one of which is a marine park and has no accommodation. Phi Phi became famous for the Leonardo Di Caprio movie called The Beach. Where a young man heads out into paradise
Ko Lanta, Ko Lipe, etc. – There is island after island out here. They are all beautiful and they will probably all have tourists on them at this point. Except the ones that are national parks which can only be visited on day trips. Don’t spend too much time sweating over where to visit. No matter where you go you are sure to have a great time. If somehow you don’t like it, then get a ferry to the next island!