Nuts N Bolts Guide to… Thailand

Thailand. It was my first experience travelling solo. It’s a pretty popular country in South East Asia for tourists and especially backpackers and has been for a good thirty years or more now. I think it’s a completely different place to visit too nowadays to what I experienced back in 1999 when I got off the plane and joined a couple of strangers in a taxi, taken to a cheap hostel type place where my single room shared bathroom was 200 baht, at the time around $18AUD and probably $12USD or a bit less.

A tuk-tuk in Bangkok.

I visited Thailand a couple of years ago and found it quite changed. Things were more efficient, cleaner I guess, the backpacker numbers, which were huge in 1999 were out of this world. Transport was easier to organise. But all in all it has been an easy enough country to navigate for the backpacker for a long time. And it also suffers from too many visitors as well and what that brings, and yes, there is an unpleasant side to it all.

Khao San, daylight, 2000. The only photo I took of it in two trips!

But that should not put you off visiting South-East Asia’s biggest backpacker country. And it caters for all budgets – you will find plenty of resorts and five star hotels, and the country itself really has a lot of variation from north to south, with trekking in the north, the out-of-this-world Bangkok in the middle and the islands and beaches in the south.

from Lonely Planet

What do you need to know if you’ve never been there before? Thailand is positioned north of the equator, and north of Malaysia, which it has a border with. There are borders also with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. All but Myanmar are fairly easy to cross, if you are crossing to Myanmar a bit of recent research has revealed it’s now possible to cross and continue travel into Myanmar, where as a few years ago you could cross the border but couldn’t go much further than the border towns (in Myanmar). This is great news. Transport is not brilliant in Myanmar, so I would make sure you do some research before crossing the border.

One US Dollar presently buys you around 30 Thai Baht, and whilst SOME places will accept USD and maybe Euro from time to time, your best bet is by far to stick to the local currency. Money changers are everywhere, but pulling money out of an ATM is not difficult and unless you go somewhere a little remote, it’s not too hard to find one.

Transport is pretty easy to organise, and most guesthouses will be able to help you book buses and probably trains, not to mentioned tours as well which is not a bad way to see things, especially things around Bangkok.

For example I took a one day tour from Bangkok last time I was there to the AmphawaFloating Market, which is certainly very touristy. OKAY – it’s totally touristy! But still kind of cool. This also included a couple of other stops including the Maeklong Railway Market, a market built around a railway. When a train approaches all the awnings come down and tables are moved to allow the train through. As soon as it’s through, they put everything back. A boat ride around Amphawa is the most rewarding thing to do there.

Trains do operate in Thailand, all the way south to Malaysia I believe, and north as well – I’ve taken a couple only. One to the Cambodian border which is often the popular way to access that border. Trains are not overly popular, they are not the fastest way to get around Thailand. Buses come in many varieties. ‘VIP’ services are usually where you find travellers. They are more comfortable than the local buses, which are however significantly cheaper. I had a couple of experience though on these VIP buses where we were strongly urged to buy a tour and stay at a certain guesthouse upon arrival. However, it was easy to just walk and I doubt whether this is still a common issue.

Waiting on the tarmac in Bangkok

Flying is a pretty decent and obviously quick way to get around. With a bunch of budget airlines in the South-East Asian skies these days, including Air Asia and Jetstar, you can fly pretty cheaply indeed. Chiang Mai in the north to Phuket in the south, flying tomorrow booking today, barely over $100US with Air Asia. Less than half what I paid in 1999.

Chiang Mai street
Thai Boxing in Chiang Mai
The night market rocking as always!

With the popularity of Chiang Mai and the southern islands, you need not even transit in Bangkok these days. You can fly direct from a lot of cities, even cities in Australia. Thai Airways is the national carrier, and they are still a pretty good option. But with Thailand’s popularity, well, you have a tonne of choices.

Khao San Road at night (2014)

Bangkok is not one of my favourite cities. It’s stinking hot and it’s humid. It’s also really big – 8.2 million according to google but that’s just the tip of the iceberg I’m sure. The metro system is great, taxis and tuk-tuks are pretty cheap all said but often you will need to bargain hard. The backpacker area is still Khao San Road, although today there is a McDonald’s (maybe 2?) and a Burger King, less rats (didn’t see ANY last time I was there) and so it’s fair to say it’s lost something of its charm. Loads of bars and restaurants and shops selling rings, chains and lots of other kinds of jewellery. The Golden Palace is DEFINITELY worth a visit. I have not visited Patpong in four visits to Bangkok, nor do I ever intend to. Oh, and when I say Khao San Road is the backpacker area, it is probably the WORLD’s backpacker central.

Chiang Mai City Walls at night
Wat Chedi Luang

Chiang Mai is the second city, loads of temples, a nice place where you can see the old citadel wall and moat, great night market, and the jumping off point for those wanting to take a trek. I took an elephant trek back in 1999, but probably would avoid getting on an elephant these days because honestly, it’s no fun for the big beasts. Only 4 years ago I visited Tiger Kingdom in a fit of naivety. They claim the tigers are not drugged. Which is very hard to believe. I do not recommend that. I do recommend checking out some Muy Thai (Thai Boxing) whilst you are there. A few hours away is Chiang Rai with its white temple, I didn’t get there but I wish I had.

Kanchanaburi is towards Myanmar and has the reconstructed ‘Bridge over the River Quai’, and I think it’s worth a stop for the history. Ayutthaya is an ancient city of temples, which don’t really compare to Bagan or Angkor, but are worth seeing and that can be done as an easy day trip from the capital.

I have only spent a couple of days in Phuket, back in 1999 and don’t have great memories of the place, I believe Ko Phi Phi and even Ko Samui are better island choices. Budget options at times are hard to find, and you might be limited to a dorm bed. However, this is the area for the ‘Full Moon Party’.

Thailand is a pretty cheap place to visit. But if you want to pack activities in and have your own room, you’ll probably want $40-50 a day. I budgeted $20AUD in 1999, and spent about double. Prices have certainly increased since then. Food is pretty inexpensive and full of flavour and spices. And sometimes nuts so if you are like me and have an allergy, be sensible and vigilant. Although most prices have obviously increased since 1999 and my first Thai visit, they have gone down in air travel.

The Thai people… well, although the reputation is that they are unassuming and kind, this simplistic and a little racist view is not necessarily anywhere near the mark. And as a visitor there’s a good chance most of the Thai people you meet will be in the tourist trade – which is huge in Thailand. And so the chances are you’ll encounter a little aggression as people try to make sales. It’s very competitive and therefore not indicative of the greater population – which I will NOT try to summarise.

You’ll also find there is no shortage of other tourists. Some are quiet, some are loud, some are there for history and culture, and some are there just to party. And some are there for other reasons I don’t need to detail. I realise in my visits I haven’t gotten off the beat out tourist trail at all. Which I think could be really rewarding.

Inside one of Thailand’s beautiful temples.
Elephant trekking – part of the quintessential Thailand experience now for a long time.

But as a first country introduction to backpacking, I think Thailand is a very good choice. It is hard to escape the rest of the tourists – but maybe you don’t want to? Maybe you need a ‘safety net’ whilst there. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that no matter how many tourists are there, you are visiting someone’s country, someone’s home. (Also, never ever say anything bad about the Thai Royal Family!) Financially I guess the people have gained, but I feel like something has also been lost due to the floods of tourists for some many years now.

I hope this is a useful introduction to a very popular destination to someone! Thanks for reading – and May the Journey Never End!

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6 Comments

  1. Good guide Andy. Thailand has really changed in the last 20 years, sadly. It’s not what it was but it is still an easy introduction to SE Asia and despite higher prices by most standards it’s still cheap – except the Andaman islands. Went to Phi Phi in 2001. Magical, the most beautiful place I’ve been. Went back in 2008 and it’s terrible now…

    I don’t love Thailand the way I used to. I don’t think it’s the “land of smiles”anymore which is a shame. It really was. But for the first timer it’s still an exciting place to go.

  2. A comprehensive review of Thailand! Bangkok is not my fave city either, has to get out from there to see the great things about Thailand. I like Ko Phi Phi but it’s too busy for me. Been thinking to visit Ko Samui – maybe someday! Thanks for the review, Andy!

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