4. Thailand Travel Guide – Where to Go
I can’t help but stop singing praises to Thailand. It is one of my favourite countries in Southeast Asia that boasts delicious street food, relaxed vibe, and culture that may take years to explore. I’ve written a great deal on Thailand already (and even more I have to accomplish). But since so many readers ask me to reveal the non-touristy and cultural side of Thailand I decided to put together this section.
From classic Lanna architecture, quiet Buddhist stupas and hilly landscapes, Northern Thailand is also popular for jungle and hill tribe trekking, zip lining and night markets. This mountainous region is much cooler compared to the southern coast and even Bangkok. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, and Pai are the most popular cities to visit here. Prices in Thailand’s north differ considerably from the rest of the country, making any of these cities a great base for backpackers. Especially if you plan on visiting the neighbouring countries.
This is the largest city in Thailand’s north and is like no other in country. Once a former seat of the Lanna Kingdom, it now has become a haven for backpackers and digital nomads escaping the frenzied buzz of the major cities. Chiang Mai is the most culturally significant city in the region and every time I want to unwind from hustle and bustle of Bangkok I hop on an overnight sleeper train to enjoy the incredible nature and adventure activities.
Chiang Mai boasts a well-preserved Old City with a moat and dozens of ancient temples and wats along with busy markets. I can’t recommend wandering the Old City and hitting the night markets along Wualai Street and Ratchadamnoen Road highly enough. A lot of travellers end up staying in Chiang Mai longer than anticipated because once you immerse yourself in the city, you won’t want to leave.
Situated in the hills of Mai Hong Son, the tiny town of Pai is a magnet for backpackers, outdoor enthusiasts, and travellers that are into trekking with hill tribes. About 15 years ago few people have heard of this town and even fewer people had any idea where it’s located. But for those who do know and who do travel to Pai, there are Mo Paeng and Pam Bok waterfalls, the Pai Canyon and what they call the Land Split. I originally came to Pai for three days and ended up staying for additional 20 days. I definitely recommend renting a motorbike to explore the area on your own.
The charming Chiang Rai rose under the reign of King Mengrai and it is a convenient base for exploring the surrounding countryside as well as the Golden Triangle (Saam Liam Thong Kham). While largely undiscovered, the town is often overlooked by travellers. Not by me though. I heard about Chiang Rai for the first time from my school teacher who was an avid globetrotter. Chiang Rai is just a little bit further north than its sister city Chiang Mai with plenty of affordable backpacker-style accommodation. If I were to choose between Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, I’d prefer to start my trip from the latter and then would make my way up to the north.
The ancient capital of Thailand, Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a midpoint between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The Old Sukhothai (meuang gòw) with the park is actually situated 12 kilometers away from the new city. So it usually takes 15-20 minutes to reach it by a scheduled bus. If you’re travelling on a tight budget, you would probably want to find an accommodation in the new city like I did, since there are many different types of hotels and cheap guesthouses to choose from.
Sukhothai park is broken up into several parts. And I really encourage you to research the history of this place before you actually get there. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of well-maintained ruins to see in the park but I just hate the feeling of being a little bit lost and find myself taking pictures of ancient ruins, not really knowing what I’m doing. If you’re planning on renting a bike consider renting from your hotel since rentals close to the park are much more expensive.
It is very common to hear that so many people schedule Bangkok as a stopover for a few days. With its cheap hotels, arguably the most delicious food in Southeast Asia and vibrant nightlife, it is no secret why backpackers (me as well) choose to stay here for at least a week before venturing out to the countryside. Here are 7 things you need to know before traveling to Bangkok.
Bangkok is often considered to be the gateway to Southeast Asia. But this hectic city isn’t the city most people fall in love with right away. While I knew what to expect from Thailand during my first trip to Bangkok, it took me two or three days just to get used to hustle-and-bustle of this city.
If you’re looking for some quintessential Bangkok experience, you I suggest visiting Khao San Road. This backpackers’ paradise with a vibrant nightlife, many budget accommodation, bars and clubs isn’t that accessible if you plan on using metro or Skytrain. You should be looking for bus number 59 if you want to reach Khao San road by public transport. Be aware of scams since this is very common in Khao San road. If you’re want to avoid noise at night, consider staying in Sukhumvit area with plenty of decent restaurants and western expatriates.
Koh Chang sits much closer to Bangkok (but still not very close) than the majority of other Thai islands. With pristine turquoise water, white sand and plenty of activities beyond just snorkeling and scuba diving, the third largest island in Thailand sees fewer visitors than the southern islands. At the same time, Koh Chang is much cheaper when compared to Phuket, Koh Samui or Koh Phi Phi.
Koh Chang (or the Elephant Island in Thai language) has still an incredibly laid-back ambience. As an avid hiker, I spent my days in Koh Chang not only relaxing but also trekking through the dense jungle. There are several hiking trails around the island that range from moderate half day treks to multi-day off-trail adventures and everything in between. If you’re planning an extended excursion or hiking in Koh Chang, be sure to bring enough water and wear cool clothing with head shading to avoid heat stroke or heat-related illness.
Koh Chang beaches are perfect for a quiet beach holiday, and Bailan Bay didn’t disappoint: it is super quiet. An unpretentious Bailan beach is fairly rocky but there is a stretch of white flour like sand in front of the Mercure Hideaway that makes swimming in the shallow waters unforgettable. The quiet Bailan beach is great for budget travellers to get some decent sleep. And I was pretty happy to find this paradise where I could recharge my batteries after three months of intense travels in the north.
Last year I spent two weeks exploring Southern Thailand and I wish I could have stayed longer. Thailand’s south is all about the fancy beach resorts and beaches, thus it is definitely the most popular region of the Land of Smiles. The Andaman Sea coast of Thailand is home to a large number of modern hotels, while Phuket is focused mainly on all-inclusive beach holidays. If you’re an independent traveler and looking for some secluded corner in Southern Thailand, I think you should skip infamous Bangla road and Patong beach in favor of Koh Phangan, Koh Lanta, and Koh Samui.
Countless backpackers head to Koh Phangan to take part in crazy Full Moon party at Haad Rin beach. Koh Phangan has actually much more to offer apart from one-week frantic partying. Attending the party wasn’t high on my list of priorities during my trip to Koh Phangan. In fact, realizing that I have spent way too much time in Koh Samui, I had to reduce the stay in Koh Phangan. Instead, I had an amazing time exploring in my motorbike, discovering beautiful beaches and viewpoints. For those of you who are looking for a more relaxed experience on Koh Phangan, head to the northern or eastern beaches since they are a lot more relaxed than Haat Rin.
Koh Lanta may seem perfect – it has laid-back ambience, stunning beaches, mangroves and it is not over-crowded. There are enough facilities to live a comfortable life of a digital nomad and indulge yourself occasionally in heart-pumping adventures. Koh Lanta has a number of decent family-friendly resorts along Khlong Khong beach and quality accommodation for backpackers mainly on Long Beach.
Located in the Krabi Province getting to Koh Lanta may involve some effort. If you find yourself in Krabi Airport, consider renting a car as a cheap and convenient way to get around. There is a car ferry that connects the north and south islands of Koh Lanta so you can easily visit both of them on the wheels. You can also reach Koh Lanta by well-maintained speedboat when travelling from Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang, and Phuket.
Khao Sok National Park
The lowland rainforest of Khao Sok National Park is one of the most beautiful places to enjoy in southern Thailand. Within the unspoiled jungle, there are many waterfalls, amazing biodiversity and a clear blue jade lake of Cheow Lan with its floating bungalows. Khao Sok has loads of different accommodation options to suite everyone’s travel style and range from budget guesthouses to treehouse bungalows. Khao Sok is home to world’s largest flower. Rafflesia flower typically blooms for 4 days and then begins to wither and smell attracting a lot of flies. You have to be there to see it with your own eyes.
With formations of limestone protruding from the lake and a funky tiny village, Khao Sok National Park is arguably a paradise on Earth and Thailand’s largest protected wildlife reserve. Situated in Suratthani Province, I couldn’t have missed Khao Sok because of its hiking trails. Some of the trails you can hike independently, though most of them technically require a guide. There are a wide array of organized tours that often outdoor activities like kayaking, rafting, caving, zip lining, wildlife spotting, and camping in the jungle. You can easily book these tours from travel agents in most locations in Krabi.