Thailand is the travel hub of Southeast Asia. Most people coming into the region fly into Bangkok and make that their base for doing the circuit around Southeast Asia. With its lush jungles, famed beaches, world-class diving, amazing food, friendly and cheap prices, Thailand is by far my favorite country in the world! I’ve been coming to the country since 2005, lived there for 2 years, and always seem pulled back to it. It’s an easy country to travel and you can meet a lot of other people there. You’re never alone! The country is a well-worn destination on the backpacking trail and everything is convenient and easy. However, there are still many off the beaten path destinations aways from the crowds and the prices they bring. Overall, Thailand speaks for itself. When you hear its name, you already think about beaches, beauty, jungles, and food. And your thoughts are spot on.
Accommodation – Thailand is very cheap, though the north is far cheaper than Bangkok and the southern islands. You can find cheap guesthouses for as little 300 THB per night in cities and 200 THB per night in the countryside, though in the big cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok, rooms start at about 400 per night. On the islands or for a nicer room with air-conditioner, expect to pay 600 THB and up per night. Basic bungalows cost the same. Hotels start at around 1,350 THB per night and go up from there. Big resorts on the islands start at 1,700 THB per night for a bungalow on the beach. Dorm rooms, which are increasingly widespread throughout the country, range from 100-150 THB per night.Airbnb is also growing in Thailand and a good amount of cities have a nice selection. A shared room starts around 350 THB per night and renting a full apartment starts around 700 THB per night. Chada Guesthouse (Bangkok), Julies (Chiang Mai), Kodchasri B&B (Chiang Mai), Pooh’s (Ko Lipe), Greenhouse (Khao Yai) are my favorite places to sleep in the country.
Food – Food is really cheap in Thailand. Street food costs as little as 20 THB, though on average you’ll spend about 35-50 THB per meal if you want something really filling. If you stick to the local street food, you can eat for around 120-170 THB a day. Most western dishes (burgers, pizza, pasta, etc) cost between 170-340 THB, though they can be higher in the fancier western establishments. Since food is so cheap, there’s no point in grocery shopping unless you’re looking to get some pre-made salads or fruits. Visit each city guide for specific food recommendations in each place!
Transportation – Like everything in Thailand, transportation is also cheap. Local buses cost as little as 8 THB per trip, the Metro and Skytrain in Bangkok cost 15-50 THB per trip and metered taxi rides are usually 60-100 THB each. Tuk-tuks are un-metered and generally more expensive, costing 100-235 THB per ride. Motorbike taxis (in orange vests) are available all over the country with short trips costing about 35 THB (you need to negotiate the price). Train service around the country is cheap – day trains cost as little as 50 THB. Night trains start at 575 THB for second-class without air-conditioning. Boats to/from the islands cost between 250-475 THB. (Note: It’s often better to get a bus/boat package then pay for them separately.) Coach buses are a great way to get around the country. For example, a bus ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs 550-700 THB and a bus ride from Bangkok to Phuket costs 500-1,000 THB.
Activities – Day tours cost 500-1,200 THB depending on the activity. Jungle trekking costs 1,000-1,685 THB per day. Keep in mind, you have more bargaining power if you go with a group. Most parks and national museums cost between 50-100 THB to get into (as a non-Thai, you’ll always pay a higher rate). A PADI dive certification course (very popular in Thailand) costs around 10,000 THB (but often includes accommodation).
Suggested daily budget – 900-1080 THB / 25-30 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals or eating cheap street food, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Go local – The easiest way to save money in Thailand is to simply live like a local. Take local buses, eat street food, and drink local beer. The average Thai lives on a less than 7,750 THB per month in Bangkok, and on even less in the country side. If you stay at cheap guesthouses and eat street food, you can spend as little as 335 THB per day.
- Eat street food – Speaking of street food, don’t be afraid to eat it. It’s safe — sometimes it’s even safer than restaurant food. If it wasn’t, Thai people wouldn’t be packed in the food stalls each day. You’ll find the best of Thailand’s food on the street and it will cost you a fraction of what you pay at a restaurant.
- Take advantage of happy hour – Thailand’s many happy hours have half-priced drinks and 2-for-1 specials.
- Buy beer at 7-Eleven – Buying beer at Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens and drinking outside will save you quite a bit on your bar tab. A beer in 7-Eleven is about 35 THB, while the same beer will cost 100-170 THB in a restaurant or bar.
- Don’t book any tours before you arrive – Want to take a cooking class? Go zip-lining? Trek in the jungle? Dive? Wait until you get into Thailand to book anything. Travel agencies are located all over the tourist areas, looking to sell their tours. Time to brush up on your negotiation skills. You’re able to purchase these tours online before you arrive, but you’ll be paying a lot more!
- Stay in hostels – Hostels are both an economical and social choice for Thailand. There are tons to chose from, especially in the really touristy areas of Thailand. Bring some earplugs and prepare to save a lot of money!
- Couchsurf — Nothing’s cheaper than sleeping for free. Couchsurfing connects you with locals who will give you not only a free place to stay, but also a local tour guide who can introduce you to all the great places to see.
Top Things to See and Do in Thailand
- Explore Bangkok – The heart of Thailand, this crazy city is a must-see. Most travelers don’t like it right away but it grows on you. Explore temples, palaces, amazing markets, shops, one of the craziest nightlife scenes in the world, and of course, amazing Thai food. At first, I didn’t like this place but now it’s one of the places I feel most at home in. I love this city and return frequently.
- Visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pho – Thailand’s royal palace was built at the end of the 18th century by King Rama I and is the official residence of the current monarch (though he doesn’t live there anymore; now it’s just used for ceremonies). It’s a striking place filled with numerous temples, including Wat Pra Kaeo, which houses the 15th-century Emerald Buddha. Nearby Wat Pho is famous for two things: a larger-than-life golden reclining Buddha statue and a very relaxing massage school.
- Find adventure around Chiang Mai – Chiang Mai is an old city ringed with temples and surrounded by jungles. It’s a good launching pad for jungle treks into the area; there is a nearby elephant sanctuary, and the Chiang Mai night market is a place for some of the best handicrafts and deals in the country.
- Hike in Khao Yai National Park – Khao Yai National Park located about 2.5 hours north of Bangkok and is one of Thailand’s best national parks. It’s truly amazing — visually stunning, empty of tourists, and filled with lush flora and fauna and even a few wild elephants. This park is an excellent place to hike and swim. It’s not very crowded so you’ll have the jungle to yourself. Stay at the Greenleaf Guesthouse for the best tour/accommodation deals in the area. Park entrance costs 400 THB.
- Visit Khao Sok National Park – Located in the south of Thailand, Khao Sok National Park is constantly rated as one of the best in Thailand, with incredible trekking, camping, limestone karsts, cooling rivers, and a glistening lake. You’ll find semi-challenging hikes, tons of wildlife, walking paths, and incredible sunsets. Park entrance costs 200 THB.
- Hop around the ancient capitals – Between Chiang Mai and Bangkok are Thailand’s three ancient capitals – Sukhothai, Lopburi, and Ayutthaya. Visiting them on your way north is a unique way to head from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. You’ll get to learn about ancient Thailand and see rural life at its best. My favorite is Ayutthaya.
- Relax on tropical islands – Thailand has a million and one beautiful tropical islands. Some are overdeveloped, while others only have a single bungalow on them. You’ll find everything here. Some of the best islands here are – Ko Samet, Ko Taruato, Ko Lanta, Ko Chang, Ko Tao, Ko Jum, Ko Lipe, Ko Phi Phi, Phuket, the Similan Islands, and Ko Samui.
- Partake in the Full Moon Party – If you like partying, there’s no better party in the world than the famous Full Moon Party. The Full Moon Party is a giant festival-like party with a lot of drinking, dancing, and drugs. Each bar has its own sound system, so you’ll hear different music loudly blasting onto the beach every few feet. The beach itself is lined with people selling alcohol, fire dancers putting on shows, and little booths selling glow-in-the-dark face paint. Sure, it is super touristy but that doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun and it’s as much a part of Thailand as anything else.
- Go jungle trekking – There are some great jungle trekking opportunities in northern Thailand. Be sure to go on a multi-day hike. The shorter hikes aren’t as good and the hill tribes you visit are like visiting a rural impoverished Disney World. The biggest departure points are Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Don’t book any tours ahead of time, you can book these sorts of outings through the hostel or hostel you’re staying in closeby. If you book online ahead of time, you will pay more.
- Go scuba diving in the Similan Islands – Scuba diving here is a popular activity because of the crystal clear waters and majestic sea life. The cheapest place to learn is on the island of Ko Tao, which caters specifically for dive trips. Most people don’t go unless they’re planning on diving. While you can dive all over the country, the Similan Islands offer the best diving. If you dive the Similan Islands, be sure to see Elephant Head Rock, and the reef houses plenty of fish, snappers, rays, and turtles. Day trips start at 3,700 THB.
- Learn to cook – Thai food is delicious and it’s relatively easy to cook. All over the country, you’ll find places to teach you, though the best are in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Even if you don’t plan to cook back home, at least you get to spend a day making and eating scrumptious food.
- Explore the Khmer temples in Isaan – There are many temples built throughout the region, all along the ancient roads connecting Angkor to the other villages. The largest of these is Phimai, located at the end of the ancient highway. In the Buriram province are two other magnificent Khmer temples only a few kilometers apart. Phanom Rung built on top of a hill and Muang Tum which is at the base of the hill.
- Get off the trail in Isaan – One of the most under visited areas of the country, Isaan is mostly a land of farms and villages. This is a great place to escape the frantic tourist atmosphere of the rest of the country. It is not overrun by tourists, and you get a chance to experience Thai culture in a different, more personal way. I think it’s one of the most interesting places in the country.
- Take the day train – Taking the day train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is not only cheaper but a much better way to see the countryside than the night train. Sure, you waste a day but you see the countryside, you experience how Thais take the train, and you’re treated to vendors coming off and on every stop selling meals for 15 THB. The day trip remains one of my favorite experiences in Thailand. Just make sure you have a good book!
- Throw water during Songkran – Between April 13-15th, the Thai celebrate Thai New Year by holding an enormous, three-day water fight. Songkran, as it’s known, is meant to wash away the old and begin the year anew. It’s an amazing festival and an unforgettable experience! Be prepared to get wet everywhere you go those days (and keep your electronics sealed in plastic). Here’s a glimpse of the festivities:
- Help the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park – Sure you can come to Thailand and ride an elephant, but so many of them in this country suffer from abuse. An even better way to get up-close-and-personal to the animals is to volunteer at the Elephant Conservation Center near Chiang Mai. A one-day visit costs 2,500 THB for adults.
- Admire Wat Doi Suthep – This stunning Buddhist temples lies in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, 10 miles out of Chiang Mai. A tram or a trek up 300 steps will take you to the summit of Doi Suthep, where the glittering gold temple spire awaits you. The temple dates back to the 14th century and holds rare relics of Buddha. It’s really is too beautiful of a view to miss, so don’t leave Chiang Mai without visiting Wat Doi Suthep. Admission is 30 THB. It’s open from 6am-6pm.
- Visit the Golden Triangle – The point where the Mekong River meets the Ruak River is known as the Golden Triangle. You can take a boat and head to the Golden Triangle Park, or check out some of the many Buddha statues and markets.
- Phuket – This island is the biggest destination for tourism in Thailand. You’ll find great beaches and amazing activities this island, and if you stay away from Patong Beach, you can avoid most of the over-development and crowds. Phuket draws a lot of tourists, and if you really want to enjoy the area, get out of the main spots.
- Ko Phi Phi – This is one of the most popular tourist islands in Thailand. From the famous of Maya Bay (made famous in The Beach) to the monkeys on the aptly named Monkey Beach to the diving and nightlife, there are reasons people flock here. Destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, the island has been rebuilt and developed to an even greater extent than before.
- Ko Lipe – Located in southern Thailand, this semi-off the map island is one of my favorite places in the world. Here on Ko Lipe, the super friendly locals bring in the daily catch for amazing seafood. The beaches are beautiful, the water warm, and the island cheap. I came for three days and then lived here for a month. In the last few years, it has become very developed and it’s not the sleepy little island it used to be but it’s still way less developed than many other destinations in Thailand. Moreover, you’re near a pristine and undeveloped national marine park where you can snorkel and enjoy some beaches to yourself!
- Shop at the floating markets – Thailand is full of markets. Perhaps the most whimsical of these are the floating markets, which can be found throughout the country. Some of the best are Damnoen Saduak, in Ratchaburi, and the Taling Chan Weekend Floating Market in Bangkok. You’ll find rickety boats piled high with colorful goods and eats. You’ll get plenty of great photos! (Although it’s become majorly touristy to go to the floating markets, you’ll not want to miss a morning shopping from boat to boat.)
- Backpack through the Kanchanaburi Province – Here you’ll find a lush forest perfect for trekking, though the history of this area is rather dark. The infamous Death Railway is located here, linking Burma and Myanmar, which were constructed during WWII by prisoners of war. This is also where you will find the Bridge on the River Kwai, built using POW labor and the subject of a both a film and a book. While it is a haunting reminder, it is an essential part of Thailand’s history.
- Motorbike through Northern Thailand – Around the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai areas, there are lots of great routes. Many people rent bikes and tour the scenery. You can take a day trip, or you can take a couple of days – whatever suits your schedule. The Mai Hong Son Province offers a great loop that you can do starting in Chiang Mai and ending in Pai. Note: Make sure if you’re renting a motorbike, you’re comfortable with driving it and never (ever) drink and drive.
- Relax in Pai – Pai has grown as a tourist destination in more recent years, but it is still a great place to escape some of the craziness of your larger cities. It is a true backpackers town, located in Northern Thailand. It is nestled in rolling green mountains and surrounded by waterfalls and incredible hiking trails. Be sure to take a day trip to the Tham Lot Caves, where you can take a stop off to swim in waterfalls and hot springs on your way there. Stay on the outskirts town in a lovely little bungalow, rent a bike, traverse the hills, and bathe in the cool waterfalls.
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