Thailand is an amazing country with great food, great culture, great places to visit. For the price and the modern amenities, it's hard to beat as a great travel destination. But if you haven't been there, it can seem to be quite intimidating with all these foreign names and places.
So where do you start if you travel to Thailand for the first time? Now that I've been there, I can say that it's quite easy as 1, 2, 3, 4, and either case, you really can't have a bad time in Thailand (you can still have a really bad hangover though, it's far too easy)
There are 4 main destinations that you can visit in Thailand:
1) Bangkok - a super modern city with a crazy amount of highrises, amazing restaurants, and nightlife. A must for first timer.
2) Phuket - the beach town South of Thailand, about 2-hour flight from Bangkok. Koh Phi Phi is one of the islands you can visit after when you are Phuket. The flight from Bangkok is about $50. By bus, it's 12 hours from Bangkok (800km) so it's not worth it.
3) Pattaya - the famous city for nightlife. It's Southeast of Bangkok and only a 1,100 bahts taxi ride from/to Bangkok.
4) Chiangmai - the smaller, older city in the northwest of Thailand. I didn't get to go to Chiangmai, but I've heard a lot of good things about it. Lots of temples and cultural buildings.
Other lest-touristy provinces such as Udon Thani, Khon Kaen to the north but as a first-time visitor, you probably don't need to go.
If you know English, you can travel around the world. Thailand is no exception.
The Thai language a completely different language than any Roman-based languages you've seen. Not being able to read and recognize Thai writing is a challenge to get used to the language. Personally, I had a much easier time learning Spanish than learning Thai. I was able to pick up a lot of Spanish in a short amount of time, but after 2 weeks in Thailand, I still had trouble saying "Thank you" correctly.
But it doesn't mean that you can't have a good time in Thailand. While the regular Thai people don't speak English very well, most Thai people will understand what you want if you try to explain hard enough, and you can always use Google Translate.
Knowing a few basic words/phrases are great, and your trip will be much more enjoyable. I asked the local people for some basic phrases and I wrote the pronunciations down, but you can visit this link Basic Thai Frases for more info.
Exchange rate: $1 = 31 bahts (May 2018). Your dollar goes a long way here. Here's a quick comparison to give you some ideas:
- Street Padthai: ~40 bahts
- A big Chang beer (at 7-11): ~50 bahts
- Beer at a bar: 100 - 150 bahts
- You can pig out at a night market for 200 - 300 bahts
- 1 good person meal (at a local restaurant): 300 - 400 bahts
- A good (legit) massage in Bangkok: 150 - 200 bahts (not including tips) but prices can go up depending on the shop and the location
- A taxi ride from BKK airport to the city: 400 - 450 bahts
- Non-college educated's salary: 10,000 bahts/month (300 bahts/day, $10/day).
- College-educated's salary: 25,000 - 30,000 bahts/month (~$900/month)
To get money out, you can either use your Debit card or bring cash in $100 bills. You have the best rate for $100 bills. Just exchange $100 at the airport for local Bahts for the taxi ride because they have bad rates at the airport, and then exchange more at local spots as you go. 31+ baht/USD is good (May 2018 rate)
If you have a travel card that doesn't charge an exchange fee like the Amex Gold or Platinum card, you can use that to pay for restaurants without spending your cash. The exchange rate isn't the best but it's very convenient.
Thailand is a tourist-friendly country. It has lots of options for hotels, and what you get is easily double or triple its worth for the money. For example, a 5-star hotel in Bangkok is around ~ $120/night vs $350/night in the US.
To book, you can use Agoda.com to reserve hotels. You can either choose with or without breakfast. The breakfast-included rate is usually $10 more and is worth it if you're lazy and don't want to walk to find food in the morning.
You don't have to pre-book your hotel in advance if you just need 1 room. Just book for the next day (or even same day). Hotels hopping can be fun if you want to mix it up and go to different locations.
Tips: sign up with Ebates.com and you can get cash back when you book your hotels. 3% on Agoda and TripAdvisor, and 6% on Expedia.
Tips: if you use AmericanExpress, you can use AmexTravel.com to redeem for free rooms with your points and it has the best exchange rate (1 point for 1 penny) but the options can be limited. Agoda is still the best when it comes to hotel selection.
In general, taxis in Thailand are plentiful and cheap. Uber sold their shares in Southeast Asia to Grab so you won't find Uber in Thailand, but Grab is pretty much the same thing, albeit a bit better with Grab Bike.
I usually use Grab to check prices and book a taxi (or Grab Bike) or use that price to hail the next available taxi if I don't want to wait. Grab has the Cash option so you don't even have to link your Credit Card and you can start using the app right away.
My trips around the city are usually around 100 - 200 bahts, and it's worth it (no tips needed). At first, being a frugal traveler, I was negotiating 150 bahts for a 200 bahts trip, but then I realized that I was trying to save $1.80 while waiting outside in the hot weather, so I stopped trying to negotiate too hard and just paid the Grab price.
People recommend using Meter taxis as well (using the meter instead of pre-negotiated price), but I just used Grab for pricing/negotiation so I didn't get to use meter taxis that much.
The train is supposed to be very efficient as well - provided that you're willing to walk a bit more. For me, since it's only average around $5 - $6/trip for 2, 3 people so we just took the taxis around and we skipped the train. In Bangkok, staying in Sukhumvit next to the Asoke train station is very convenient if you want to use the train.
Phone and Communications
If you're using T-Mobile, you're set. T-Mobile has 2G (yes, 2G) free roaming across Thailand so you can constantly be online. 2G isn't that fast, but it's enough to use Google Maps, book Grab, or even make a call via Skype. And T-Mobile has free Wifi-calling so that you can just turn on your Airplane mode while connected on Wifi, then you can call pretty much anyone back in the States. And iMessage still works as normal.
If you don't use T-Mobile, you can buy a temporary $10 sim that will last 7 or 14 days and it will give you enough high-speed data to use. But you'll have to use a Thai number. This is when you wish that the iPhone has dual-sim (Apple: here's your next billion-dollar idea: make a dual-sim iPhone)
For me, I brought an extra iPhone 5 phone with me and I got a local sim, but I ended up just using my main iPhone with T-Mobile 99% of the time because I could already get online.
Apps to download:
1. Google Translate - with offline Thai translation. You'll appreciate it 🙂
2. Skype - use Skype if you need to call 1800 numbers in case of emergency (e.g. calling your Bank or your Credit Card company or Airlines to resolve a booking issue). Skype lets you call 1800 numbers for free so it's great to have Skype installed and ready.
3. Grab - for hailing taxi.
4. Agoda - for booking hotels.
5. TripAdvisor for reviews (Yelp is dead in Thailand)
6. Line - to communicate with the local Thai people (if need to. Most Thai people use Line)
7. Viber - to chat
8. TripIt - if you don't use TripIt for traveling, you should. I use TripIt to track all my itinerary, flight info, hotel info, and I shared it with my co-workers so that we all have the latest information. Highly recommended. TripIt works wonder when the flight got delayed, I received the delay notification in the TripIt app even before the official message from the airline.
Most hotels will have tour info for you in the lobby that you can book with them. But for me, I use KiteTravel.vn to book the tours. KiteTravel.vn is a travel agency in Vietnam that has relationships with all the tours in Bangkok, and their prices are about 20% cheaper than if you book directly in Thailand. The only requirement is that you have to speak Vietnamese.
The real convenience with KiteTravel.vn is that you can book the tour 1 day ahead so you don't really need to book everything in advance. This allows you to be flexible with your traveling plan, and you should leave some downtime in between your trips because you are on a vacation and not on a dead-march to the next destination.
If you speak Vietnamese, you can connect with the staff on Viber. Toàn or Trung are great to work with and they can help you put together your traveling plan. I worked with Toàn and he helped me figure out which trips to take.
Bangkok is a big city and a major tourist attraction. The Thai people have built an amazing and modern city with very good public transportation, but they are victims of their own success: traffic can be horrible during rush hours.
Moving around: Taxi is cheap, and Grab is great. I usually use Grab to check the price, then hail the next available taxi so that I don't have to wait.
During rush hours I did have to use a Grab Bike to go (danger factor = 8/10) because they can go between cars.
Places to stay in Bangkok
I mainly stayed in the city center.
Bangkok has a river running thru the city. If you want a romantic spot with river-view, you can book a place next to the river like River-a-Run hotel. Rooms are cheap, and you get more for your bucks. A $30/day room is equivalent to an $80 - $90/day room in the US. I didn't stay near the river, but I ended up staying near Khao Sarn for the first night.
Agoda.com is great to find good hotels to stay.
Khao Sarn Road
For expats, a good place to stay is anywhere near Khao Sarn road. It's a strip of road about 0.5 miles long that is blocked off at night to become a walking street. There are lots of bars, live music, restaurants, and people watching can be a lot of fun. In term of high-end hotels, there are not much here. You don't find 5-star hotels around Khao Sarn.
I stayed at The Raweekanlaya Hotel Bangkok for the first night in Bangkok and it's a very cute and quiet boutique hotel, perfect to recoup after the long flight from the States.
Financial District (Sukhumvit)
Sukhumvit is the heart of Bangkok. This is the financial district, and it is famous for Bangkok nightlife, especially at Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy. I stayed in the financial district (at the Asoke train station) next to the Terminal 21 shopping mall.
I highly recommend The Continent Hotel Bangkok by Compass Hospitality. It's a 4-star hotel right at the center of the city with rates around $80+/night. They have a roof-top pool and excellent food. They are next to the famous Soi Cowboy with lots of Gogo bars and (legit and not legit) massage places. Another option is the Pullman, a 5-star hotel nearby, which is also walking distance from the Asoke train station.
In terms of location, I love staying at The Continent Bangkok. We ended up staying there for the majority of our time in Bangkok.
Places to visit in Bangkok:
Night Markets: Bangkok's night markets are AMAZING. I visited the Ratchada night market, Neon Night Market, and Chatuchak night market. They all have their charms, and you'll see a lot of younger Thai going to the markets. The food scene is also amazing. I didn't have a bad meal when I was in Thailand.
If you can go to only one night market, I'd chose Neon Night Market. You can buy souvenirs for cheap here as well. You can save your last night in Bangkok to go to Neon Market and get all your gift shopping done.
Tips: try the grilled squid at Neon Market. At 20 baht/skewer, you can't beat the quality and the price. Thai seafood is amazing.
Sky-bar: Thai has lots of highrises and thus they have multiple Skybars. I went to the original one, and I had a great view of the city.
Temples: Bangkok is famous for its temples, so book a tour and get lost for a day.
The Floating Market: I'd skip this tour. The original floating market was gone and replaced with a tourist trap. It's still cool to sit on a boat going up and down the canals, but none of the local people live or shop there. They just have souvenir shops selling price-inflated gifts along the way, and your boat person gets a cut whenever you make a purchase. I had a good time still, but I wouldn't recommend it.
Terminal 21: a great shopping mall with lots of fun and boutique shops. Simply put, Terminal 21 puts South-Coast Plaza to shame. Besides the shops, the main attraction is the food court on the top floor. You can pig out for less than 100 bahts. They have a Michelin-rated BBQ restaurant as well that serves delicious char-siu pork and noodles. I spent 2 days here at lunchtime and I barely ate even 5% of the places. Highly recommended.
Soi Cowboy: you have to go there to experience the nightlife.
Nana Plaza: it's like the dirtier version of Soi Cowboy. We went there as a group but we didn't like the vibe so we left after 30 minutes. It's still a place to visit just to see why Bangkok is famous for its nightlife.
Massages: Thai massage places are everywhere. But skip the shops with skimpy-clothed girls and go for the older and bigger masseurs, you will have a much better massage experience. I had the best massage I ever had (and I've had a lot of massages) at a place near The Continent. If I can do it again, I will try the 4-hand massage (because you can't get that price/quality anywhere!)
After a few days in Bangkok, you can hop on the airplane to fly to Phuket, an island South of Thailand. Phuket is only 2 hours away by flight for about $50.
Being an extremely popular tourist destination, everything in Phuket was much more expensive compared to Bangkok. A 50-baht taxi trip in Bangkok will be 200 to 400 bahts in Phuket, and the drivers don't really like you to bargain with them (you can still bargain, but you need to be serious about your bargaining and ready to walk away). Coming from Bangkok, I constantly feel being ripped off in Phuket with the taxis, but it is what it is.
The main attraction here is the Island trip. You can book the Koh Phi Phi trip by Speedboat for about $40/person for the day and you can spend a day getting lost in paradise. Remember to bring lots of sun-screen (Nivea 110 SPF is great) and bug sprays. I used KiteTravel.vn to book my trips here as well.
If you can swim and want to snorkel, you should rent the fins for 150 bahts before leaving for the trip. The fins are amazing for snorkeling. I also bought the water shoes for 250 bahts and it was a great investment for walking on the sands.
For hotels, you should stay near Bangla road, the main walking street of Phuket. I stayed at the Baan Laimai Hotel and we had a really good time. The room was very spacious and the location isn't too far away from Bangla.
Tips: if you have dirty laundry accumulated from the previous days, you can use the laundry service by the kilo along the street. It's cheap and very convenient. 150 bahts/kg for regular wash and fold, and 180 bahts/kg for wash, iron, and fold. I went with the cheaper 150-baht option and I was very happy.
Tips: Check out Illuzion club, it's a great club with no cover charge, and the drinks are reasonably priced.
Tips: check out the live music on Bangla road. There are multiple bands playing and they are surprisingly good. I heard one of the best covers for Despacito there.
Tips: there is a food court area along Bangla road that you can go and choose your food and they will cook it fresh for you. For less than 300 bahts ($10) you can pig out and have a bunch of seafood. And you can negotiate too if you want to save some money.
Massages in Phuket is pricier than in Bangkok, but you're in a tourist town. A 200 bahts massage in Bangkok is now 400. However, they have the Aloe-massage for sunburn if you get burnt from your island trips.
I flew from Phuket to Pattaya and again it's about $50. Flying within Thailand is cheap, but don't go over the limit for your baggage, or you will have to pay a lot for your overage (I did!). Nook Air or Air Asia are pretty cheap and they will make their money back from your overweight baggage. Don't carry stuff. Travel light.
If you want to go to Pattaya from Bangkok or vice versa, you can take a taxi and it's about 1,100 bahts.
Despite being a popular tourist destination, hotels in Pattaya are much cheaper. I stayed at the LK The Empress at Moo 10 Beach Rd and it was reasonably close by to the ocean, and within walkable distance to the Walking Street. You can choose to stay closer to the Walking Street too if you want to be closer to the all the actions.
I didn't spend much time in Pattaya because it was towards the end of my Thailand trip, but they have many activities as well such as island trips. Pattaya is famous for their nightlife. I didn't get to go to the ping-pong shows, because I hate being hustled by someone on the street. But I've heard good things about the shows - just watch out for the drink prices (they charge 800 bahts for your drinks, some people said that they were able to negotiate to 400 bahts PRIOR to going to the show)
To recap: Thailand is amazing. You should just go and get lost discovering in the country, the food, the people. I'm truly impressed with how modern and affordable everything is.