For a reason or for another, I ended up travelling to Thailand already four times. Here are the places I have visited with an honest, and short, review about them.
Perhaps it is because it is a huge tourist and backpackers hub; or perhaps it is for its natural beauty, jungles and seas; or perhaps it is for the vibrant life of Bangkok, or for the great food, or the Buddhist culture… Be it as it may, and no matter the type of tourist you are, if you are travelling in Asia sooner or later you’ll end up in Thailand.
It has happened four times to me, never for a long period to tell the truth, but I had the chance to visit several parts of the country. So here are my thoughts about it, and possibly some useful information.
I’ll keep it short because there is like a trillion blogs talking about Thailand, so for more detailed information you can always get in touch or check around the internet.
Some general information and things you don’t have to worry about in Thailand.
Wherever you are, whoever you ask, transport will be organised for you. It’s like magic. If someone tells you that someone will be in that spot to take you to that other spot, you can be 100% sure that’s exactly how it is going to happen. Well, exactly is a big word: more or less what’s going to happen. Yet, in a way or in another in Thailand you always get to your destination. So don’t worry, and enjoy your time 😉
I admit it. During my first travel experience in Thailand (2014) I went for an elephant ride. I still feel the shame! That’s before I understood that in order to be tamed these beautiful animals are beaten and tortured for years, with NO exceptions! Since I discovered the truth I obviously avoided any tourist trap of that kind, and went looking instead for wild elephants, which aren’t easy to see, but when you do get to see them it will be much more satisfying, because of the adventure around it.
Yes, I have seen one wild elephant in Thailand.. keep reading 🙂 And another one in Nepal, at Bardia National Park.
No, there is no exception to elephant scams. You should be wary of places that call themselves sanctuaries as well. There is no difference whatsoever between riding an elephant and patting an elephant while it takes a bath. They need to be tamed just the same. A sanctuary should be a place where elephants are protected and keep their distances from tourists. But it is often not the case in the whole of Asia. So, whatever you see advertised, don’t believe it. If an elephant let itself be approached, it has been tamed with brutal force. Otherwise, they are wild, and in that case you’d better keep your distance. That’s all there is about it.
Food and massages
I mean, I ain’t going to start pointing to a specific place rather than another or to a specific food rather than another. Food in Thailand is great pretty much everywhere, just like massages. The best advise I can give is to go and try all the street food markets you can, from the far north to the south of the country, just like massages. But don’t forget to try out some fine dining in Bangkok, you won’t be disappointed, just like there are many high-level spas in the capital that offer a much more regenerative experience than a simple massage.
This said, here I go with the destinations:
1) BETWEEN TRADITION AND MODERNITY: UNMISSABLE BANGKOK
However you look at it, Bangkok is a place to visit. I am not a fan of big cities, but this one has a kind of special vibe. It’s a mix of tradition and modernity that satisfies any kind of traveller. All you read online is true, the markets, including the famous floating market, are a lot of fun. The Grand Palace with its many temples and shiny constructions is a must visit. The highlight is the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, believed to be more than 2000 years old. While you are there you can also visit the Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclined Buddha, which is the other highlights of the area. Remember there’s a dress code: shoulders and knees must be covered.
I would recommend avoiding taking tours. If you are interested in history you can take a guide at the entrance of the attractions, but moving around Bangkok is actually very easy either by taxi, by Uber or Grab apps, by Tuk Tuk (A must try), or by metro station or the newest sky train.
In Bangkok, you can shop in some of the biggest and most modern malls in the world, inside which you can find traditional markets. You can eat the cheapest and tastier food in street markets or go for expensive fine dining experiences. You can party until late in the morning at famous, and cheap, Khao San road, or go for expensive cocktails at some of the highest bars in the world, from where you can admire the view on the city and its skyscrapers. You can visit temples and gardens of course, and all kind of attractions. It’s really a city that covers all kind of tastes.
2) KHAO YAI NATIONAL PARK
Two to three hours north-east of Bangkok there’s an over 2,000 squared Km jungle made into a protected area and national park: Khao Yai. I must say I didn’t expect much from it when I went, and I was really wrong. It surprised me. You can spot a lot of wildlife in a relatively easy way there, including, if you are lucky, wild elephants and gibbons.
I was lucky, and in two safaris I saw one wild elephant (the only one I have seen in the whole South-East Asia) and a lot of gibbons families (Also the only Gibbons I have ever seen). I have also seen some lizards, some deer, big black squirrels, a blue scorpion and lots of macaques of course. Finally, in the park, there’s a lot of beautiful waterfalls to discover, including a famous one where a scene of Leonardo Di Caprio’s starring movie The Beach has been shot.
You can enter the park with your own car, but I strongly recommend you go with one of the tour agencies and guides. They know where to go, especially where to go walking to spot Gibbons, which is almost guaranteed. They are also in contact with each other about the elephants and they call each other if a family is spotted on one side or the other of the park. It cost about 50€ per person, but it’s totally worth it if you are in for wildlife spotting. All in all, it’s also quite an easy day, most of it spent on the car to move from one place to the other, although of course a little bit of jungle trek and ups and downs to see waterfalls is necessary.
There are several resorts close to the entrance of the park. Alternatively, some people stay at Pak Chong, which has a nice night market, to use it as a base for organising safaris. Around the area there are also some other attractions like temples, hot springs and the like, if you have extra time, but no big fuzz about it. Khao Yai NP is really what you want to see and do here.
3) KANCHANABURI’S NATURE
Two hours west of Bangkok you can find Kanchanaburi, a town famous for its world war history. The Death Railway, the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Allied War Cemetery are the three big attractions there. However, the whole area can also be enjoyed for its wild nature, through river rafting adventures, abseiling and cave explorations. The place is so big that the owner of the bungalows resort where I was staying told me in 20 years he managed to explore only a small part of it. So, adventure seekers, this might be one place for you.
4) CHIANG MAI BACKPACKERS LIFE
One of the most popular destinations in Thailand is Chiang Mai, far in the north, which can be reached with some cheap internal flights, or by train or bus. The town is a big backpackers hub. I must say it makes more sense to stay there for those people that have a digital nomad lifestyle, travel and work, and are in for long stays. Then Chiang Mai becomes really enjoyable as you will make many contacts and be able to participate in this kind of backpackers life through meetups etc.
However, if you are just a tourist, there isn’t so much to do. Once you have checked out the ruins of Wat Chedi Luan in the town’s centre, the backpackers party area overnight with every bar playing a different style of music (reggae, electro, rock…), some good food and markets as usual, and the Golden Temple Doi Suthep on a hill just at the outskirt, all of which can be done in a couple of days, then the town has exhausted its options.
So what you can do is to get out of the city. Rent a scooter or a bigger motorbike and go for some tours in the so-called Golden triangle or up and down the hills in the north of Thailand. This is actually a really enjoyable activity, the views are beautiful and you might end up in some villages with local ethnicities, such as the Long Neck Karen Tribe.
Whatever you do please DO NOT go to the Tiger Kingdom. Just like for the elephants, using animals for tourism always entails some kind of taming, and taming wild animals always entails violence. These tigers are obviously drugged. So, up to you, but if you are in for real emotions and not fake ones, then go looking for tigers in the wild.
As the last point, from Chiang Mai, you can go visit Chiang Rai’s White Temple, the only reason to go there really. You can also enter Laos through the Northernmost border crossing between the two countries.
5) DIVING 6) DIVING 7) DIVING
Three times I have been diving in Thailand, and three times I have thoroughly enjoyed it. If you are up for getting your diving licenses, then go to Koh Tao. The small island in the Gulf of Thailand (East side) is famous for hosting a high number of diving schools, and to be perhaps the cheapest place in the world to do your diving licenses. I did the Open Water and the Advanced (or Adventurer) Diver in one go, it took me less than one week, and since then I can dive anywhere I like in the world. Yay! The diving is also good, so while you learn, you see. What more can you ask? On my very first dive I saw a turtle.
Close to Koh Tao there’s Ko Pha Ngan, famous for its backpackers’ life, full moon parties, easy going lifestyle, and beauty. I have never been there though, I just thought it was worth mentioning.
My second experience diving in Thailand was on a 3-days live aboard at the Similan islands, on the Andaman Sea (West side). Just amazing, perhaps the best diving of my life. The departure point for these boat expeditions is always Khao Lak, a couple of hours driving North from Pukhet. If you go for this, you will dive on some of the most renown spots in the world, like famous Richelieu Rock. Compared to others liveaboard around the world, it is also quite cheap! I spent about 400€ for 3 days full board and 10 dives.
The third diving experience in Thailand has been in Ko Lanta, still on the Andaman Sea but more in the south. Good diving, big schools of fish, and some of the best coral sites I have seen if you go for the two faraway sites of Hin Muang and Hin Deang. However, it is more expensive, and unfortunately the once manta’s cleaning station at those two sites is no more. Probably this is due to some changing patterns from the mantas, but mostly it is because, stupidly, fishermen in the area do fish mantas. What can I say? It’s just very sad.
8) RELAXING IN KOH LANTA
My last point, for now who knows when I’ll end up in Thailand again, is about Koh Lanta. Perhaps the southernmost island of a certain size to visit in Thailand, on the Andaman Sea (West side) as well. Koh Lanta is a little paradise of relative quietness compared to, say, Pukhet or other destinations. There are many places to stay on the West coast of the island which becomes quieter the more you go South. Sunsets are spectacular no matter from where. (Featured image)
However, there is no coral right there, in order to snorkel you have to go on boat tours at some of the smaller islands around Koh Lanta, which cost about 50€ per person on average. Then you’ll get your white sand beaches and coral reefs.
On the island itself, the best beach is probably Epic Beach in the South, inside the National Park. It cost 200 THB to enter and you can also go for an easy 2 Km trail inside the jungle. Other highlights include the visit to some waterfalls and caves, to a mangrove forest on the East side of the island, and to the Old Town, also on the East side. Everywhere can easily be reached by renting a scooter. If you are more than two, then there are taxis and Tuk Tuks.
All in all, Koh Lanta is a nice spot to spend some relaxing time, go for runs on the long beaches, have some good food, and enjoy some wonderful sunsets.