WHAT WE DID:
- Traveled for 30 days (under a visa exemption for U.S. citizens)
- Our basic itinerary:
- Bangkok (3 days)
- Khao Yai National Park (2 days)
- Bangkok (2 days, needed to catch overnight bus to Koh Lanta)
- Koh Lanta (4 days)
- Transit (2 days, bus/overnight train/daytime train to Chiang Mai)
- Chiang Mai (7 days)
- Elephant Nature Park (7 days)
- Chiang Mai (1 day)
- Chiang Rai (2 days)
- Stayed in private rooms w/ en-suites (apartments, townhouses), primarily booked through AirBnB, or in a couple of hostels/guesthouses with private rooms. Stayed at a small resort w/ guesthouses on Koh Lanta.
WHAT WE LIKED:
- Chiang Mai – a really cool city with great food, people, and temples. The songthaews also seemed like a good deal compared to Bangkok (50 ฿ per person ($1.42 USD) will get you anywhere in the city).
- Motorbike rentals. We rented in both Chiang Mai & Chiang Rai and felt pretty comfortable driving the scooter around. They are also ridiculously good on gasoline; we probably could have driven to Vietnam on 1L of fuel. Total cost per day was around $5 USD.
- The fresh fruit… so delicious!
- Inexpensive food prices were fantastic, and made it easy to sample a bunch of different local fare (street food could be had for 10–60 ฿/dish ($0.30 – 1.70 USD), while decent restaurants would run around 70–200 ฿/plate ($2.00 – $6.00 USD)).
- Stephan loved his traditional Thai massage. Astoundingly, a mere 150 ฿ ($4.27 USD) will buy you a one-hour, full-body massage… can’t beat that!
- Volunteering at Elephant Nature Park. One of the best experiences of our lives!
WHAT WE’D CHANGE:
- We’d skip Bangkok completely! The atmosphere in northern Thailand was much more warm and welcoming – the temples were prettier, the street food was tastier, the people were so much nicer… this is where to spend time in the country. It made us feel a bit better (and less critical) that seemingly everyone we met along the way quickly agreed with this sentiment.
- We’d book more accommodations same-day. If you book lodging or transit (train, bus) ahead of time (online), you typically will pay a slight premium. If you wait and book in person, you’ll save a bit. Typically, there is same-day availability for either category, but we learned this after we’d booked several items in advance (we’re not used to this last-minute stuff).
WHAT WE LEARNED:
- AirBnB is not worth the cost in SE Asia. While it was an amazing value in Australia, you can get a private room w/ en-suite at either a cute guesthouse or a nice hostel for much cheaper (about 50% less). Additionally, while having a kitchen saved a ton of money in Australia, the food is so inexpensive here that it’s cheaper (or at least, as cheap) to just eat out. Lastly, finding a supermarket with some of the key staples we would typically need for cooking (pasta, legumes, rice, oatmeal) was a real challenge. Luckily, we realized this fairly early, and then stuck to guesthouses.
- Tuk tuks are not worth the price in Bangkok. Once regularly used by locals, tuk tuks are now essentially used by tourists. Many drivers will try to charge as much as an air-conditioned cab and, if driving a long distance, you’ll have to deal with the heat and exhaust fumes while sitting in city traffic.
- Temple etiquette – women should dress modestly (shoulders and legs covered), men should not wear shorts, and everyone must remove shoes.
- Haggling is okay, but smiling is important when doing so.
- Make sure that your taxi is metered, that the meter is running, and (if possible) pull up your route on Google maps before driving away. It’s not uncommon for a driver to try to take you on a joyride for some extra dough. Likewise, if taking an unmetered taxi (common in smaller towns like Krabi), look up the distance to your target destination. Drivers will regularly overestimate the distance (we had one driver tell us the distance was 10 km when it was 6 km, and another tell us it was 15 km when it was 10 km). Also, be firm and negotiate the rate down; it’s often outrageous.
- Police may profile you, and then try to extort you. Checkpoints were set up on the corners of Chiang Mai’s Old Town, and as we were exiting the city on our motorbike we were pulled over on three separate occasions. During two of the stops, the officers were actually very friendly, quickly checked our licenses, and directed us on our way. The third time, however, the officer insisted that we needed an international driver’s license according to “Thai law.” He then offered to cut the 1,000 ฿ fine in half if we just gave him the money directly, instead of paying at the police station. After arguing for a solid ten minutes, we got away with no fine (some more submissive Westerners behind us just payed the fine and fled).
- ATM use – the maximum withdrawal is 10,000 ฿ and there is a 200 ฿ fee per withdrawal. If your bank doesn’t waive ATM withdrawal fees, make sure to withdraw close to the maximum amount. 9,900 ฿ will get you near the maximum and get you some smaller bills, which are needed for taxis, buses, etc.
- Plumbing is really sub-par throughout the country, and you can’t throw your toilet paper into the loo. Try breaking that life-long habit.
- Along the same lines, always carry a bit of toilet paper with you, as it’s not provided at many transit stations. Furthermore, some bus/train stations will try to charge you a 2–3 ฿ fee to use the restroom (I know it’s only about 8 ¢, but there’s a principle here. If you bring your own TP and look pathetic, you can weasel your way out of it).
- 2nd class overnight sleeper trains are quite good – the beds are actually quite comfortable. The bathrooms on all trains, though, could use some work. The toilet hole goes straight out to the ground/tracks below – fecal/oral transmission, anyone? Or how about shedding a few resistant bacteria into the environment? I know you can do better than this, Thailand.
- The Thai national anthem is played twice daily, both in public settings and on broadcast television, at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Wherever you are at these times, be it a transit station, street market, or even a movie theater, be ready to stand at attention and pay respect for a couple of minutes, as even the bustling city life comes to a complete and sudden halt for a moment of patriotism.
- April is the hottest month of the hot season (March–May). Be prepared for temperatures to be regularly above 95°F, with heat indices well over 100°F. Luckily, we managed to visit during Thailand’s hottest April in 65 years, with the average daily temperature in excess of 104°F (40°C):
- Other things to consider if traveling to Thailand in April: (1) it’s low-season for tourists (major plus), (2) it’s the dry season, so the forests aren’t as lush and many waterfalls are completely dry (e.g. those at Khao Yai), and (3) it’s fire season – many people are burning fields to prepare for the upcoming wet season, so the particulate matter is high, while the air quality and visibility (views) are low.
WEIGHTS & MEASURES:
AVERAGE PETROL COST: 22–25 ฿/L (40 ฿/L on Koh Lanta)
AVERAGE EXCHANGE RATE: 35 Thai baht (฿) to $1.00 USD