Get Ready for Gap Year Paradise

Contents

Use these quick links to navigate Adam's wonderful guide:

Introduction

“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have landed at Suvarnabhumi International Airport, Bangkok and the local time is 11.30am. The temperature outside is 34º C coupled with a humidity of around 74%. We hope you enjoyed your flight with Cheepnkrap Airlines and we hope to see you again in the near future. Enjoy your stay in Thailand!”

As you land in Bangkok you will no doubt hear your captain mumble something like this over the plane's speakers, further exacerbating that itch of excitement that has been building up in the weeks and months leading up to this moment. The enthusiasm will come to a head at this point as you wonder about the wonder and mystery that is seperated from you by the few minutes it takes to open those plane doors!

That tingle of excitement, anticipation and nervousness was the exact feeling I had when I first arrived in Thailand on a very hot and humid day back in April 2003. My friends and I had done a little bit of reading on the country, but we decided that we wouldn't do too much research as we just wanted to have a mad experience where we knew nothing except the hostel we were staying in! This added to the excitement and as soon as that plane landed, the magic we had imagined duly followed....

For as long as I live I will never forget that first time I stepped out of the airport in Thailand and entered a completely strange and incredible world. Previously I had only ever travelled to a few of the standard countries in Europe, so nothing could have prepared me for the awesome culture shock I was about to experience. Firstly the heat and the humidity hit me like a ton of bricks, and I'm pretty sure I was sweating within around 2.4 seconds of walking out of the air-conditioned airport. Secondly there were touts everywhere offering taxis. “Hey man... where you go?”, “You want taxi my friend?” and the ever-amusing “You give me 50 baht I take you everywhere!”. Once we had successfully negotiated the airport, we finally got to downtown Sukhumvit. I just remember walking around Bangkok on that first night, experiencing the strange and wonderful sights, the various crazy sounds, the smells ranging from horrendous to indescribably delicious, and the people... oh the people!

On that very same night as I was tucked up in my hostel bed I thought to myself “This is IT, I have ARRIVED! This is INCREDIBLE!”. I just couldn't quite believe where I was and it took a while to sink in. It is hard to describe that feeling but it's great, and I sincerely hope that each and every one of you will experience it when you get to the 'City of Angels'.

From that first day onwards, Thailand has given me so many unbelievable experiences and I have to say I have fallen head over heels in love with it. It has so much to explore, including tropical jungles, perfect islands, amazing food, friendly people, cities steeped in history, beautiful mountains and awesome animals.   I have been back and travelled around the country 4 times and I have even lived there for 8 months teaching English in a Thai government school.  Thailand does seem to have a magnetic charm that makes you want to go back again and again, as you will soon discover for yourself ;-)

It is using this experience that I am writing this guide for you. It will not be a perfect guide nor will it cover absolutely everything that Thailand has to offer, but it will be written from my views as a backpacker, a tourist and a TEFL teacher. Even though this only covers what I have done,  I hope you will find it useful. Please feel free to message me any suggestions or questions you may have.

Khob Khun Krab!


History

The word "Thai" means free, and therefore Thailand means the "land of the free". Previously the country was well-known to the world as "Siam" and only on May 11, 1949 did an official proclamation change the name of the country into " Prathet Thai" or "Thailand" by which it has since come to be known throughout the world.

In their school textbooks, Thai children are told that their ancestors had their roots in Southern China where they originated some 4,500 years ago. Under pressure from China, they moved southward through Burma down to the Indo-Chinese peninsula, the "Thai Noi" then established their capital in Sukhothai, the northern province of Thailand.

Now there are conflicting opinions and theories about the origin of the Thais since the discovery of many instruments and artifacts at the village of Ban Chiang in Nong Han District of the northeastern province of Udon Thani. The theory about the origin of the Thai people has now changed, it appears that the Thais might have first settled down here in Thailand and later scattered to various parts of Asia, even to some parts of China.

The controversy over the origin of the Thais shows no sign of definite conclusion as many more theories have been put forward and some even go further to say that the Thais were originally of Austronesian rather than Mongoloid descent. Whatever the outcome of the dispute may be, by the 13th century the Thais had already settled down in the Southeast Asian mainland with Sukhothai as the "first kingdom". The Sukhothai era marked a period of great cultural development. Under King Ramkhamhaeng the Great who ruled from 1275 to 1315, the land of Sukhothai was thriving. According to textbooks, “there were fish in the water and rice in the fields”. Due to the kingdom's prosperity, it is regarded as a "golden age" in Thai history.

Then in the 1350, a new dynasty led by King Ramathibodi I (Uthong) established a new capital at Ayutthaya, and in 1378 during the reign of King Borommaracha I, Sukhothai was subdued to become a tributary state of Ayutthaya. The Ayutthaya kingdom survived several wars with Burma before falling to the invading Burmese in 1767. Following this defeat, the Thais led by King Taksin retreated south and established another capital at Thon Buri. On his death in 1782, the King was succeeded by King Phra Buddha Yodfah Chulaloke (Rama I) who moved the capital across the river to the present location in Bangkok as Thon Buri was too vulnerable to Burmese attack. The King founded the Chakri dynasty which rules the country to the present day. 

The heirs of Rama I became increasingly concerned with the threat of European colonialism after British victories in neighboring Burma in 1826. The first Thai recognition of Western power in the region was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United Kingdom in 1826. In 1833, the United States began diplomatic exchanges with Siam, as Thailand was called until 1939, and again between 1945 and 1949. However, it was during the later reigns of King Mongkut (1804–1868), and his son King Chulalongkorn (1853–1910), that Thailand established firm understanding with Western powers. It is a widely held view in Thailand that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined with the modernising reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation. This is reflected in the country's modern name, Prathet Thai or Thai-land, used since 1939 (although the name was reverted to Siam during 1945–49), in which prathet means "nation".

Jumping forward a few years to World War II, Thailand managed to avoid major conflict during this time of war for a large portion of the planet. The use of skilled diplomacy and a policy of neutrality helped Thailand stay out of the fighting, while Indochina and other parts of South East Asia were ravaged by the various trials and tribulations of  the war. Actually, as mentioned above this use of diplomacy has given the Thai people something to be very proud of. Should you make friends with some Thai people or stay over an extended period you will eventually hear a Thai person say:

“You know.... Thailand has never been conquered by a foreign power!”

And it is true! This is understandably a great source of pride for the Thai people, especially considering the rest of South East Asia was carved up between the French, the British, the Spanish and the Dutch.

After the war, Thailand emerged as an ally of the United States. As with many of the developing nations during the Cold War, It then went through decades of political instability characterised by coups d'état as one military regime replaced another, but eventually progressed towards a stable prosperity and democracy in the 1980s.

Thailand built on this democracy and really started to prosper, which made it one of the richest and most prosperous nations in 1990s South East Asia. Despite some political instability, Thailand has continued to prosper and its economy continues to improve year upon year.


Politics

*Given the volatile nature of Thai politics, this section will have to be updated on a regular basis*

The structure of the Thai political system

The power structure of Thai politics is actually very similar to the UK. Thailand has a constitutional monarchy, whereby the Prime Minister is the head of government and the King is the head of state. The judiciary is completely independent from the legislative and executive branches of government.

Where it does differ to the UK however is that Thailand has a written constitution. Thailand's 'popular Constitution', called the "People's Constitution" was successfully rubber-stamped in 1997 after the 1992 Bloody May Incident. Publicly, constitutional devices have often charged as the root of political turmoil. The 1997 Constitution was considered a landmark in terms of the degree of public participation involved in its drafting as well as the democratic nature of its articles. It stipulated a bicameral legislature, both houses of which are elected. Many civil rights were explicitly acknowledged, and measures were established to increase the stability of elected governments while new organs supervising the administrative power also emerged for the first time such as The Constitutional Court, The Administrative Court and The Ombudsman.

There is also another big difference to the UK system, and that relates to the status of the monarch.

The King

Although the King has little direct power under the constitution and Thailand categorises itself as a constitutional monarchy, the King is more than a symbol of national identity and unity. The present monarch has a great deal of popular respect and moral authority, which has been used to intervene in political crises and influence the course of the government.

The King and his family are also protected by lese majeste laws. This means that any words or actions against them are actually a criminal offence. You may have heard about this before, but let me repeat it again here so you are clear:

DO NOT do or say anything that could be construed as an attack on the King or the royal family. There are foreigners currently in prison for various convictions on the lese majeste laws. Be very careful around his picture (his portraits hang everywhere throughout the country), and I would advise you to generally avoid talking about him at all.

He is the longest reigning monarch in the world and he is almost a demi-god to Thai people, so just remember this and try to avoid any discussion about him, just in case.

The current political situation

At the time of writing, the current political situation is generally stable, but still fragile. The Pheu Thai Party, the party pretty much run by the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won a landslide victory in the recent national elections. The party's supporters are known as the 'red shirts', and they were responsible for the riots and pitched battles with army troops in Bangkok in 2010. Thaksin has been in exile from Thailand since 2006, when he was ousted by a coup d'etat. He remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand, with most of his support coming from the poorest Thai people in the North and North East of the country. His sister, Yingluck, is now the Prime Minister of the country. Most commentators believe that now Pheu Thai have power, they will try to bring Thaksin back to the country at some point. Their opponents, known as the 'yellow shirts', are staunchly pro-Royal and firmly anti-Thaksin. That is the group which took over Bangkok Airport a few years ago to protest against the 'red shirts'. I would expect Thailand to remain relatively peaceful for now, but if Thaksin does attempt to come back, all hell could break loose in Bangkok like it did in 2010. Keep your eye on the news on the lead up to your trip to make sure Thailand is stable.

The situation is far too complex and detailed to be covered properly here, so if you would like some more information on the recent turmoil in Thai politics, check out these pages:

Thaksin and Pheu Thai: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-14075218

Opposition to Thaksin (Yellow Shirts): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13973251


Weather

Remember when I mentioned that wall of heat that hits you as you exit the airport?

Well, Thailand is tropical and humid in the majority of the country during most of the year.

In northern Thailand the seasons are pretty clear. Between November and May the weather is mostly dry, however this is broken up into the periods November to February and March to May. The later of these two periods has the higher relative temperatures as although the northeast monsoon does not directly effect the northern area of Thailand, it does cause cooling breezes from November to February.

The other northern season is from May to November and is dominated by the southwest monsoon, during which time rainfall in the north is at its heaviest.

The southern region of Thailand only has two seasons really -- the wet and the dry. These seasons do not run at the same time on both the east and west side of the peninsula. On the west coast the southwest monsoon brings rain and often heavy storms from April through to October, whilst on the east coast the rain mostly falls between September and December.

Overall the southern parts of Thailand get by far the most rain with around 2,400 millimetres every year, compared with the central and northern regions of Thailand, both of which get around 1,400 millimetres.

“So Lunny, when is the best time to visit Thailand?” I hear you ask. Well, I would say the optimum time to visit is between November and February as the weather is nice and it is a little bit cooler due to the monsoon breeze at this time. However, the word about this has got around, and this time of the year is the 'high season' in most of Thailand when most tourists flock there. This means that prices will generally go up for everything from hotel rooms to food to bike rental and even travelling itself. March to June is the summer season, so it very hot and dry all over Thailand (particularly in April). Then between July and October is the rainy season, which means this is also the real 'low season' when prices for many things are halved.

I have travelled and lived in Thailand at all different times of the year, and I have to say I really like to travel in the rainy season around July time. The weather is still not bad, though it may rain occasionally. The main thing for me is that the prices go down though, which makes for a trip that is cheaper than high season but still fun!


Health Advice

The first thing I would advise you to do is to book an appointment with your local GP surgery, to discuss your health needs for your trip. They will be able to advise you better on your specific situation. However in the meantime here is some general information that has so far prevented me from ending up in a Thai hospital with a gruesome tropical  disease.

Jabs

  • First of all, confirm that all your standard immunisations are up to date. I mean ones that you normally get in the UK.
  • Secondly, you should get the following injections (or boosters) before your trip: diphtheria, tetanus, hepatitis A and typhoid. These are the basic ones that are advised for most travel in Asia. Many of these are communicable by food and water, so you can see why that would be important.

There are other immunisations you could consider, but most people seem to do fine without them. They include: rabies; Japanese encephalitis; hepatitis B and cholera. You should discuss whether you need these or not with your GP or practice nurse, but the vast majority of people don't. If you are to volunteer with animals though, for example, you may want to get the rabies jab (even though it's prohibitively expensive!).

Malaria

The majority of Thaland is malaria-free, so unless you are visiting neigbouring countries such as Laos or Cambodia, you generally don't have to worry about malaria prevention. Again though you can discuss this at your GP surgery, as you may be visiting a specific border area that happens to have malaria.

Also be aware there are other mosquito-borne diseases around Thailand such as dengue fever and chikungunya, so just generally try to avoid being bitten by mozzies. Try as much as possible to wear longer sleeves and trousers (though this can be difficult in the heat), and also get yourself an effective insect repellent with a high DEET content. You may also want to carry a mosquito net with you for extra protection.

Food

Way back in 2003, I learned a very VERY valuable lesson in Thailand.

I was on my way to Krabi by bus from Bangkok, when we stopped off at a rest station so people could stretch their legs, eat, go for a piss etc. My mates and I were pretty hungry, so we went to see what food was on offer at the little stand in the station. I went for a chicken curry sort of thing, while my mates went for a tube of Pringles or something like that. Once we arrived in Krabi I started getting crippling stomach pains and I was on the toilet for hours with 'stuff' coming out of both ends. This was the only time in my life that I genuinely thought I was going to die!. It took 3 days until I finally felt well enough to go outside and face the world. Looking back I realised that the food looked like it had been standing there a while, and nobody else was eating at the place.

Since that experience, I have never eaten at a rest station again unless I see the food being cooked in front of me. If there is only food that has been sat there a while, I will just go for the Pringles like my enlightened friends! This is a principle you can apply to any street food stand in Thailand.

The other golden rule is to look for those places that are busy, especially if they are busy with Thai people. These are usually the best places and you can be almost certain they are clean and have good reputations.

Also it goes without saying, but be particularly careful with chicken and seafood!

Thai food is incredible. I won't go into it on here in too much detail, as I think it's much better to discover it yourself. Follow these golden rules however, and you can make sure you enjoy the food without getting ill.

Sexual Health

You've heard this a million times before, but here goes again: ALWAYS USE A CONDOM! It's particularly important in Thailand as HIV is more prevalent than in many other countries. That's all I'm going to say.

Doctors and Hospitals

The quality of doctors varies in Thailand, depending on where you are. If you are in a more rural area, you can expect local surgeries to only have very basic equipment and the doctors will be less likely to speak English. Despite this, they will be able to handle most things and be able to arrange transport to a big city if it's needed.

Hospitals and doctors in major cities are good enough for the majority of ailments, and pharmacies are everywhere in Thailand. In fact, for more minor problems I would recommend just going straight to a pharmacy and showing them your problem, as they don't require a doctor's prescription to give you medicine.

In Bangkok, the majority of doctors trained in the West, so they normally speak excellent English and their facilities are usually up to Western standards. If you have any serious problems I would recommend getting to Bangkok as quickly as possible.

Doctors and pharmacies are generally pretty cheap. On avergage expect to pay 300-800 baht to see a doctor (though this varies a lot). The medicine you might then need will also be fairly cheap.

Insurance

Get some. NOW!


Visas

The Thai visa issue comes around time and time again on gapyear.com, due to the frequent changes that are made to the visa requirements by the Thai government. Due to these fairly regular changes, this section may find itself out of date. I will try to keep on top of it, but if you feel that something is out of date here, please contact me and I'll look into it.

This is meant to be general guidance only and is based on my own personal experiences. It is not the be-all and end-all, so please don't whinge and moan if you have a different experience to me!

This is for those who have a standard passport from one of the 'usual' countries that people on gapyear.com tend to come from (United Kingdom, Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). If you have a passport from a different country, please refer to the Thai embassy/consulate website in your own country for advice.

Also, this guide does not talk about the pre-arranged visas you can get from your local embassy. I tend not to do those as the visa exemption on arrival is more than adequate if you're staying 30 days or less, and it's free! For information on those visas please see the website of your local consulate/embassy or the FAQ thread on the Thailand board.

If you are arriving by plane:

  • You will receive a 30 day visa exemption stamp when you present your passport to immigration at the airport.
  • This exemption stamp entitles you to stay in Thailand for up to 30 days from the date of entry.
  • Should you stay longer than 30 days without extending you are liable for a fine of around 1,000 baht for every day you are over, and possibly even arrest and jail time.
  • Technically, you have to provide the immigration officer with proof that you will be leaving the country within that 30 days. Proof being an air ticket that shows you will be leaving. I would use Air Asia and book a cheap flight to Kuala Lumpur or something and have it as backup. You may actually use it anyway.

If you are arriving by land:

  • You will receive a 15 day visa exemption stamp when you present your passport at the border immigration.
  • This exemption stamp entitles you to stay in Thailand for up to 15 days from the date of entry.
  • Should you stay longer than 15 days without extending you are liable for a fine of around 1,000 baht for every day you are over, and possibly even arrest and jail time.

Planning your trip

So when you are planning your trip, just bear in mind how long your visa will run for, and plan your trip around that.

If you are travelling all around South East Asia, it's probably best to 'do' Thailand first rather than last, as you have more time with the air visa (30 days). That's unless you book a flight back into Thailand from somewhere like Vietnam of course. Then you can get the 30 day one again.

Just be aware of the timing as I know a few people who have had pay fines for overstays and it wasn't cheap!


Getting Around

One of the benefits of Thailand being such a well-travelled country is that it is almost laughably easy to get around! I will cover things briefly here, but to be honest it's so easy a monkey could do it.... ;-)

Car/Motorbike

I would not recommend driving around the country by yourself, as it's so cheap and easy to use public transport.

However, it is awesome to hire a motorbike or a scooter to explore a new place in Thailand just after you arrive. The weather is normally lovely, so the conditions are right for driving around and taking your own time to find new things (Except Bangkok. Don't drive there. Just..... don't).

I have found so many cool things by just driving around on motorbikes that I wouldn't have normally come across. For example, one time I was driving around Krabi in the South when I chanced upon a random catfish farm. I spent the day feeding the huge catfish there and learning a lot about fish that I never knew before from the very friendly owner of the farm. Pretty random find, but it's those little things that can make your trip. I can't recommend it enough! Especially since you can hire one in most places for as little as 100 baht a day.

Hiring a car is also a decent option if you have a small group and there's a few places to do day trips around your area.

In all cases just be extra careful, as Thai drivers can be crazy and the roads can be a little overwhelming sometimes. Always wear a helmet on a motorbike and keep within speed limits, then you should be fine.

Bus

If you are travelling intercity, you can travel by VIP bus in most cases. VIP buses are nice and comfortable for long journeys. In most cases you get nice, big reclining seats with a blanket and sometimes even a bottle of water. Also, there will be air conditioning so don't worry about sweating yourself to death. The bus will make fairly regular stops for you to stretch your legs, too. Just remember my advice on food from the health section!

These buses can be booked from the various travel agents you will find in the touristy places and quite often your hotel will be able to book for you. You should receive a ticket and be told a time and place you will be picked up. If there are no travel agents, you will have to make your way to the bus station to enquire.

Try to avoid karaoke buses, unless you are really into getting drunk, singing and not sleeping.

Buses within cities are normally OK for short journeys. They can be very cramped and basic but they are also a very Thai experience that you should probably see at some point!

There will normally be a conductor on the bus that you pay. Otherwise you can pay the driver.

Train

I have travelled on fairly long journeys by train in all classes and each one was a great experience in its own way.

First Class Sleeper – You are in a small room with only two bunk beds, top and bottom. It's very quiet and pleasant, and the beds are really comfortable. You will also get somebody who will look after you on the journey and get things like food and drink for you, until sleep time comes around. This was a really nice experience and I would recommend this one especially to couples.

Second Class Sleeper – Imagine a normal train carriage except the seats are ripped out and on either side, bunk beds have been installed top and bottom all the way down the length of the carriage, facing into the aisle. This is how a 2nd class sleeper looks. You can book top or bottom bunk. For some reason the bottom bunk seems to be more sought after and difficult to book, but I think the top bunk is fine. Anyway the beds here are also very comfortable. You have a curtain which closes all the way over your bed so you can sleep in privacy when it's bedtime. Before bedtime, you have various vendors who get on and off at different stops and walk up and down selling various snacks and drinks. This is one of my favourite parts of travelling on Thai trains. These people sell a variety or weird and wonderful foods and drinks, and it's a great way to pass the time sampling them. I am not very good at sleeping on public transport, but I slept like a baby on these journeys just because they were so nice and comfortable. Highly recommended.

Third Class – Very basic, as you might imagine. After doing an 11 hour journey in this class before, I would only recommend it for shorter trips! You get a seat on a hard plastic seat with a metal headrest, making it almost impossible to sleep. When I did this journey I was with a few friends and we just kept ordering beers and getting drunk for the entire journey. The most fun part was that the vendors I mentioned before also come down this part of the train, so you can sample lots of stuff there too (and get ratarsed if you so desire). If you are with friends and having a laugh, 3rd class isn't too shabby. If you are alone, I wouldn't recommend it. Not when you can pay a couple of hundred baht more and get a nice bed!

You can book train tickets from the various travel agents around the tourist destinations. You may need to actually go to then train station to book though, if there are no agents around.

Plane

Most of Thailand's major cities and islands have airports.

If you book far enough in advance, you can often get internal flights that don't cost too much more than getting the bus or train. To me, one hour on a plane is infinitely more appealing than 16 hours on a bus. For that reason I have used internal flights a few times in Thailand. If your trip is a while off yet, you may as well have a look and see if you can fly  for a leg of your trip. It is a good feeling to know you have saved loads of time on your trip and only spent a little more money doing it. Obviously this is especially the case if your trip is a short one!

The websites I always check are:

www.airasia.com and www.thaiairways.com

No harm in checking. You may just find a great deal! You can also book flights through tourist travel agents when you re in the country. Just don't forget to confirm your flight with the airline after they book it.

Bear in mind also that any flight you book to Bangkok from another place may fly to the old airport, Don Muang. Just keep it in mind if you are flying back to catch another plane from Suvarnabhumi airport, you may have to travel to get there.

Taxis and Tuk-Tuks

As far as I know, you won't really see many actual car taxis outside of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. If you do use one of these taxis, don't let the driver negotiate a price with you before you go somewhere. Politely insist that the driver turns on the meter, and if he refuses just exit the taxi and find another one. This can be frustrating when it happens but it does seem to be a lot rarer these days since the Thai authorities cracked down on unscrupulous taxi drivers. When you arrive at the destination, you simply pay the amount in baht that is shown on the meter. Sometimes if there is heavy traffic in Bangkok, the driver may suggest that he take the special highway to avoid the traffic. In my experience this is nearly always a good idea as the Bangkok traffic is some of the worst in the world. It will only cost you about 40 baht more and the driver should take that off you to pay at the toll booth as you enter the freeway.


GAPPER TIP – When you arrive for the first time at Suvarnabhumi Airport: Go through immigration, collect your bags and walk straight past the various touts that offer your taxis/hotels etc. It can be hard to be 'impolite' and ignore these people, but trust me it makes a lot more sense in the long run and saves you a lot of time. So once you have walked straight past them, you will see signs for the official taxi stands which are just out front on the 1st floor. Keep on ignoring those persistent touts and go to the stands where you can get an official taxi.


Tuk-Tuks are the most fun way to taxi around Bangkok. I love speeding around the busy streets on a white knuckle adventure in a tuk tuk! The problem with them is that they don't have meters, so the drivers try to scam a lot more often. I always make sure I negotiate with a  tuk tuk driver as if I am buying something in a market. I ask him how much, I roll my eyes at the absurdity of his price then offer him something below what I'm prepared to pay. He will then normally say no, at which point I walk away. I walk away for a few seconds then nomally he will call me back and offer me a price that's acceptable. It is all a game, and part of the experience! He will then normally try to offer to take you to anywhere from a suit shop to a rare gem factory to a ping pong show. Just politely decline and that should be OK, unless of course you want any of those things ;-)

You will also see motorbike taxis around most cities, which are definitely the most dangerous way to travel! You can spot them because he drivers normally wear bright green or orange jackets and hang around at certain spots. You basically just jump on the back of the driver's motorbike and he will take you where you need to go. This method is really cheap, but like I say it's not the safest. I have used it myself quite a few times but each time I couldn't wait for the journey to stop! Use with caution.

Boats

In Bangkok it is awesome to take boats up and down the Chao Phraya and see the city in a different light. This is also another way to avoid the terrible traffic!

In the South, you can use boats and ferries to travel around the various islands. This way of getting to the islands is usually very pleasant as you sail past beautiful scenery on your way. Also, they are great for meeting people as you can walk around the deck freely rather than just stay in a designated seat. These boats can be booked by travel agents and hotels.

In some places you can also hire longtail boats for the day. I hired one with a group of friends to take us around various islands in Krabi and it was one of my best experiences in Thailand. We went fishing, and snorkelling and saw lots of amazing stuff, so that comes highly recommended if you visit that area.

Bangkok – Sky Train and MRT

The Skytrain (basically a subway but on raised platforms in the air) and MRT system is Bangkok really is excellent. As I mentioned before, the traffic in Bangkok is probably some of the worst I have ever seen, so these options offer welcome relief from the frustration of being stuck on the roads. Also they are cheap, and can save you a lot of money that you would have otherwise spent on taxis.

The Skytrain now also helpfully runs right to the airport! So if you arrive at the right time of day, you can catch it into town.

For more information about the routes and times, check out:

http://www.bangkok-city.com/go/index.html


Top Events

Chinese New Year (January/February time)

Thailand celebrates a new year not once, not twice but three times! In addition to the standard global new year, there is Songkran (the Thai new year) and the Chinese new year. There is a large Chinese-Thai population in the country, so this is also celebrated with lots of zeal and it is great fun to be a part of. You can see concerts, colourful parades, lots of chinese food, chinese dancing and general partying. Check up on the net for the exact date in the year you are going, as it changes all the time.

Songkran (April 13th – April 18th)

Songkran is a famous festival which marks the beginning of a new solar year and the summer season in Thailand. It's Thailand's most popular festival, starting officially on April 13 (though some cities start celebrating a couple of days earlier) and lasting between three and five days, depending on where you are in the country.

Traditionally, families and friends celebrate Songkran by visiting temples and splashing water on each other to wish each other good luck.

Over the years, it’s evolved into a nationwide water fight and a fantastic reason to travel and party. Most employers let their staff take time off over Songkran, and lots of them get drunk and have a good time.

Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the craziest places to celebrate Songkran. The Khao San Road and Silom areas of Bangkok go absolutely mental. But I'd say Chiang Mai is the wildest place to celebrate in Thailand. It starts with an opening ceremony that includes a colourful parade around Chiang Mai city.

You can start by pouring some Thai scented water on a Buddha image, check out some traditional cultural performances and join in the massive water fights taking place on just about every street.

Things really get mad at night time, with the celebrations continuing well into the morning.

Just remember, you are 100% guaranteed to get wet!

Loi Krathong (October/November time)

Water used in a different way is the stand out feature of Loi Krathong, the alluring festival of lights that delights many tourists and backpackers every year.Held on the full moon of the 12th lunar month, usually in November, the festival sees Thais floating (loi) tiny banana leaf offerings (krathong) on waterways, lakes and ponds all over the kingdom to ask forgiveness from the goddess of water for polluting her waterways. Traditionally the krathong are made in the shape of a lotus flower, containing lighted candles, joss sticks and some coins.

Thais believe the krathong also carry away their sins as the tiny vessels bobble along the waterway in a romantic sea of lights. This is a great spectacle to witness. Also you will see travelling fairs around with rides and  games to play, as well as Thai people dressing up in traditional clothing. This is the most beautiful event Thailand has to offer, so if you are in the country make sure you experience it! Again, check for the exact dates as it changes every year.


Top Sites and Activities

Bangkok

Just for your information, the full name of Bangkok in Thai is: Krungthepmahanakhon Amornrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharat Ratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.

This translates to:

The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated God, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.

If you can learn that in Thai and recite it to me, I'll give you a biscuit!

But seriously, that name should give you an idea of the high regard that the Thai people have for their capital city.

It is dirty, smelly, overpopulated, way too hot and the traffic is unbearable, BUT for some reason this city has really captured my imagination and I have grown to love it. Most people that visit  don't like it much and they will happily tell you not to visit or get out as quickly as you can. If you question these people further however, you'll find out that 9/10 times they just stayed on the Khao San Road and nowhere else.

The Khao San Road – this is what I would describe as a backpackers' ghetto, and it  is one of my least favourite places in Thailand. The majority of travellers head there when they arrive in Bangkok as it has the cheapest accommodation and lots of services and help for tourists. This is fair enough and I would advise you if you are staying there to stay no more than a couple of days. You just get constant hassle from various touts and tuk tuk drivers all day long and this really starts to wear thin and gets old very quickly. On the plus side, I will say that the KSR is a good base for seeing the Grand Palace as it is very close, and other cool tourist attractions. Also, it is a pretty good party round there! I like the street stalls selling cheap buckets (just watch that red bull, as you may not be able to sleep that night if you drink too much. Thai red bull is around 4 times more concentrated than ours!).

I like to stay in Sukhumvit or Silom when I stay in Bangkok. You get a much more real experience of the city and you get access to the Skytrain/MRT, which is awesome for getting around and seeing things.

I personally just like to walk around the city and experience all the strange sights and sounds it has to offer, as well as all the rich and sometimes disgusting smells. Part of this walking also has to be stopping at random little food stalls and trying new and amazing foods I never knew existed. There are also some specific things I would recommend too (aside from the obvious places like the Grand Palace etc.):

Taking a boat down the Chao Phraya River – this  is something I love to do. The city owes much of its fascinating history to the communities that still exist along the Chao Phraya riverbanks. The areas from Wat Arun to Phra Sumeru Fortress are home to some of the oldest settlements in Bangkok, like Bangkok Noi, where you can still enjoy the charm of stilt houses and markets lining the complex waterways. This is truly awesome and it is even better enjoyed with a partner in my opinion.

Shopping at MBK– This is the biggest and most famous shopping centre in Bangkok, and it really is great. It has anything you could possibly want to buy, and you can get some great deals if you get your bartering hat on. For me the electronics section is a particular highlight.

The Siriraj Medical Museum – Now this is a place you will NOT find in most tourist guides. I enjoyed this place in a strange way, because I sometimes enjoy things that are really strange, twisted and macabre. The SMM is 6 museums joined together, all of them covering in some way all types of illness and death that human beings have experienced and continue to experience. Just to give you an example of the kind of thing you might see here, there is the fully-embalmed and preserved body of a famous Thai cannibal on display. You can see the hole they made in his head to examine his brain after he died. Another highlight includes a massively enlarged scrotum that was removed from a patient suffering from elephantiasis. All 75cm of it.... in a glass case. Disgusting eh? Damn right it is, but it's also one of the most fascinating places I have ever been. Recommended for those with a strong stomach.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is quite often called 'the Rose of the North'. It is a big city, with around 1 million people in its metropolitan area, but it still manages to be green and peaceful in a lot of areas. Lots of visitors seem to fall in love with it (hence the large expat population), and it's easy to see why. The entire city is bursting with culture, and it has some amazing ruins, temples and old buildings. If you are a big fan of old time architecture like me, you will love this city as much as I do. I am not going to recommend specific temples, as I think the best way to 'do' Chiang Mai is walk around and disover these places yourself. I will say though that my favourite temples are within the city walls, so you may want to bear that in mind if you have limited time.

Anyway, my top things to do:

Jungle Trekking – this has become synonymous with a trip to Chiang Mai, and once you have done it you can see why. The hills and countryside in the area are stunningly beautiful, and trekking through it all really is an amazing experience (even if you have the hangover from hell like I did!). I only did a one day tour as we didn't have a lot of time, but we got a lot done. We trekked through the hills and we rode elephants along riverbanks which was very cool. We also went bamboo rafting which was scary but obviously awesome. The highlight though was going to a traditional village of the Karen people up in the mountains. Now I know these things are massive tourist traps, I'm not naïve enough to think otherwise, but I still found it fascinating. You get an authentic glimpse into the lives of a  people who are maginalised in Thailand, and you can see handcrafting methods and cooking which has stayed the same for hundreds of years. You can book these tours through almost any hostel/hotel.  As I said I only did the one day trek, but you can do up to three ays (maybe more). I would recommend more if you have the time as I have heard great things about the longer trips.

The Night Bazaar –  this is a huge outdoor market stretching along both sides of the road with the Night Bazaar Building at the centre of everything. I like the atmosphere here, and it's a good place to buy little trinkets and presents for people back home. Be prepared to bargain hard.

Warorot Market – this is a vast indoor market that you will not see many tourists shopping in. I like walking around here and looking at all the crazy spices, fabrics, teas and things like that. Another place that is an assaut on the senses, just like Bangkok.

Chiang Mai also has some good places to party, my favourite club there being Spicy. Check it out!

Lop Buri

I lived and worked in Lop Buri for around 8 months so I may be biased, but I genuinely think this cool little town is worthy of a visit while you're in Thailand.

It is rarely heard of by foreigners and it's not yet a must stop place on the tourist trail, but it is very famous to Thai people. The first reason for its fame is that it is one of the oldest cities in Thailand and was once briefly the capital of  the Ayutthaya Kingdom. As a result of this, the city is left with some amazing old ruins of royal residences and temples which are a must see. The second, and by far the biggest, reason that Lop Buri is famous however is for the monkeys that reside in the old town. The city is sometimes known as 'money town' by Thai people all over the country because of this. It is lots of fun to visit the old town and watch the monkeys in action, as here they really are kings of the concrete jungle. Watch out though, they do have bad habits. They have been known to defecate on passers-by and quite often they will steal food from you if you leave it too exposed. The monkeys in Lol Buri are seen as almost holy as they are said to be descendants of the monkey god, which is why they are basically left to do what they want.

If you are lucky enough to be in Lop Buri in the last weekend of November, then you are in for a real treat as this is the time of the Monkey Festival! Locals lay on a massive spread for the monkeys made up of fruit, eggs, cucumbers and more to make a big tea party (they believe this will bring them good luck). Watching the monkeys devour all this is a great spectacle.

Lop Buri is only a 2 and a half hour ride from Bangkok, and it's not too far from Ayutthaya (another nice place to visit). You can get the minibus from around the Victory Monument in Bangkok, or from the main Bus Terminal. There are plenty of cheap hotels around the old town, and there's even a backpacker hostel there called Noom's. Go on, go somewhere different! :)

Krabi

The southern part of Thailand, especially Krabi, is in my opinion by far the most beautiful part of the country and it just keeps on drawing me back. I like to come here for the beautiful weather, the fantastic rock formations in the sea and the relaxing, sandy beaches. You will also find a slightly different culture here, as Krabi is predominantly muslim unlike the rest of the country. One of the first things you will notice is that most of the Thai women here wear muslim-style head dresses in all kinds of bright colours and styles, and some men will wear islamic robes and hats. You will also notice that there are a lot more mosques around. The food also has a distinct style. Try the massaman curry!

Ao Nang – this is the place I usually stay. It is right by the beaches and has lovely views of the sea. It is very touristy, but I find that a fair trade-off for the amazing scenery which surrounds the place. If you head up and around the beaches, past McDonald's and up the road you can find cheaper lodgings if you are there in high season. When I'm in Ao Nang I like to go down to the beach, marvel at the scenery, enjoy a beer and feed the monkeys. Life around there is so relaxed, you'll find yourself wanting to stay a long time! Also one of the coolest things I have ever done here was to hire a longtail boat with friends and go snorkelling and fishing for a day round the big rock formations. You can bargain with the boat guys to get a decent price for a whole day.

Ko Phi Phi – this is most famous for being the place where 'The Beach' was filmed, and you can see why it was chosen. It is absolutely stunning and definitely worth a visit. Bear in mind though it is the most expensive place to stay in the Krabi area due to its fame, so it can sap your budget if you're not careful. If you are on a budget I recommend staying at The Rock Backpackers. Never have I come across a friendlier bunch of people in all my time in Thailand than I have at this place. In Thailand, that is really saying something! Phi Phi is really good for partying too. If that's your thing then try out Reggae Bar for cheapish buckets and fake, but entertaining, Thai boxing.

Ko Lanta –  this is by far and away my favourite island in Thailand. It is quiet, but not too quiet and it has really nice places to stay for very reasonable prices. My favourite thing about Lanta however, is the fact that you can find beautiful, long white sandy beaches with nobody else on them! The further you head south on the island, the more likely this is, as the tarmac roads have not yet been extended all the way to the South. If you get a motorbike you can get there though. Just follow the road all the way south till you reach the dirt roads, follow the dirt roads for a while till you come to Sun Moon Bungalows. Behind this resort you will find a beach that in low season is often deserted, and in high season maybe has only a handful of people on it. Very relaxing after the mad beaches of Ao Nang. As for places to stay, I would recommend Sun Moon if it is high season (it's closed in low season) and anytime I recommend Lanta Marine View resort. I have chosen these places for their excellent locations and their extremely cool and friendly staff. I guarantee you'll have a good time if you stay in either of these places.

The Tiger Temple (Wat Tum Sua) –  my Thai friends in Krabi recently said to me “you haven't been to Krabi until you've climbed the Tiger Temple steps!” When I agreed to do this I could see them laughing as if i'd just signed my life away and I soon found out why. The Tiger Temple sits on top of a pretty high mountain, and to get up to it you have to climb 1,237 steps right to the top! I thought this would be pretty easy but I had to take it pretty slowly to make it. It's a lot of climbing anyway, but add the heat into the mix and I was close to fainting a couple of times. I recommend taking it fairly slowly and making sure you have plenty of water for the climb. Once you get to the top though, what a reward! The scenery from the top is gorgeous and there's even a water machine that you'll probably need to camp in front of for 5 minutes once you get up there. It's a temple at the top, so there is a massive golden buddha too which is awesome. Don't forget to ring the bell seven times for good luck then have your picture taken in front of the sign in Thai which acknowledges you have managed to get up the stairs (see my picture).

The Hot Springs, The Marine Park and The Catfish Farm –  these are also things I highly recommend doing while you are in Krabi. Ask your hotel for details on how to get to them, but the easiest and cheapest way is by motorbike.


Costs

The economy in Thailand has been gradually improving for years now, which is good for Thai people, but not so good for tourists. I have noticed a marked increase in prices since the first time I visited and the weak pound hasn't helped either.  You can spend as much as or as little money as you want, depending on how much you are willing to 'rough it'. Equally, you can live like a king and spend a shedload of money. Just bear in mind though if this is your first visit, it probably won't be as cheap as you might have imagined.

You have probably worked out by now that costs can differ greatly depending on where you are in Thailand and at what time of the year you are visiting. This is a guide only, so don't plan your budget down to the last penny based on this!

The costs I'm giving here are very general, and can vary according to the season.

Accommodation

Accommodation is everywhere and varies a lot, so I recommend checking out a few places before you commit to one hotel or guesthouse, in case you can find a better deal.

  • Dorm Bed (100 – 200 baht, though not usually available outside Bangkok)
  • Single Room (200 – 400 baht)
  • Double Room (400 – 1000 baht)
  • Beach Bungalows (400 – 1500 baht)
  • Beach (Free, though you may be robbed blind)

Travel

Buses and trains are generally pretty reasonable. See the 'getting around' section for an idea of the standard of each mode of transport.

Bus – a long journey on a VIP bus normally will not set you back more than around 600 baht (for example, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, or Bangkok to Krabi... 12 to 14 hours). Local buses around cities and towns are dirt cheap, and will set you back no more than 30 baht for most journeys.

Train – a similarly long journey on a train depends on the class you buy. 1st class will set you back around 1000 baht. 2nd class around 650 baht. 3rd class around 300 baht.

Plane – as I said before, book in advance and you can get deals like flying to Krabi from Bangkok for just a shade over 1000 baht. If you wait till closer to the time you'll be looking at more like 2000.

Food

If you want to eat Thai food the whole time (which you should, based on its renowned deliciousness), then you really don't need to spend a lot on food at all.

Although the prices for food have also gone up, eating in smaller street restaurants and stalls has really saved my budget a number of times.

Stalls on the street selling noodle soup for around 20 baht are a bargain for lunch.

Other favourites include:

  • Barbecued chicken leg and sticky rice – 50 baht
  • Fried noodles/rice – 20 baht
  • Bags of fruit, like pineapple or watermelon – 10 baht
  • Pancakes – 20 baht

This is just a tiny fraction of what is on offer from street stalls. Go and explore yourself and you'll see how incredible it really is! (just remember that advice about going to popular stalls)

Foreign food is widely available almost everywhere you go, including all the major fast food chains. Obviously this food will set you back more money, but now and again you can give yourself a guilty taste of home when you're feeling homesick, without spending too much!

Alcohol

As with any country, drinking can really destroy your budget. Bars in Thailand often have a big mark up on drinks and you can end up spending a lot if you're not careful.

In the South, I like to drink on the beach with friends to save money. Local Thai whisky can be bought cheaply from the 7/11 and mixers are cheap too.

Telephone

I recommend you get a Thai sim card for the duration of your stay. They can be bought from the airport as soon as you land or from any convenience store. The reason for this is that they offer very cheap calls home from your mobile, so you don't have to bother with expensive call shops. Specifically I recommend the Dtac Happy sim card, as it is really cheap, their top up cards are sold everywhere and they have excellent English-speaking customer support. To call home, instead of dialling 0044 + the number, dial 00944 + the number instead. This also works for texting.

Internet

If you have a smartphone, most places seem to offer free wifi now, so you won't have to pay for the internet most of the time. If you don't have a smartphone, internet cafes are cheap and abundant (usually about 20 baht an hour).


Further Information

A Bit of Thai Language

You will find that most Thai people you meet in the more well-travelled areas normally speak at least enough English to help you get around. However, maybe you are like me and you enjoy learning a little bit of the language? I personally think it's more fun that way and it's a great ice breaker when you meet local people. So if you'd like to learn a little, here's some simple Thai to get you started. You can even write down a few useful phrases to help you on your travels.
(The romanised Thai is by no means the perfect transliteration, it is written with your pronounciation in mind to make it easier if you write it down! Remember though that Thai is a tonal language, so what you are saying may not be understood at first. Just be prepared to persevere and be patient)

Hello

Sawaidee Kap - Say 'kap' if you are a man

Sawaidee Kah - and 'kah' if you are a woman

You will hear 'kap' and 'kah' used very often and in almost every sentence when Thai people speak.... it makes words and sentences sound less harsh and abrupt to Thai people, and as a result failure to use them can sound bad and even cause offence... especially to people older than you. You can get away with leaving them out sometimes when you speak to Thai friends you have known for a while, but generally it's best to be polite.

Goodbye

Lar gorn and sometimes you can say sawaidee kap/kah for goodbye too...

How are you?

Sabaidee Mai - (when you ask a question with 'mai' it is a rising tone, similar to how it rises when we ask a question)

Answer:

Sabai Dee - I'm good!
Mai Sabai - Not good

Thank you (very much)

Khob kun (mahk) kap/kah

Excuse me

Used pretty much exactly as we do in english... it can mean excuse me when you want to get past someone, or excuse me can I ask you something, or excuse me as in sorry for knocking you on the way past:

Khor toat kap/kah

No problem/ Never mind/ No worries/ It's cool etc.

Mai pen rai kap/kah

(You will hear this a lot!)

Where do you come from?

If you want to ask a Thai person where in Thailand they are from:

Khun maa jark tee nai- Where do you come from?

maa jark (ung grit) kap- I come from... (England)

Do you understand?

Kow jai mai

Answers:

Kow jai kap/kah- I understand

Mai kow jai kap/kah- I don't understand

Random words I learned...

You may or may not use these, but could be useful!

som nam na - serves you right!

kee gohng- cheat! (used quite often when people cheat at pool)

mau mai - are you drunk?
mau (mahk mahk) - yep I'm (very) drunk!

Mau kang- hangover

ung krit- england/english

lek/ noi - small

yai - big

Useful for ordering beers... Chang yai kap - Large Chang beer please!

Very useful if you stay on the crappy Khao San Road...

mai ow kap/kah - I don't want it... (use this liberally to rebuff the annoying breed of street sellers that only the KSR could produce)

Buddhism

Around 95% of Thailand is buddhist, and most people take their religion quite seriously. With this in mind, respect buddhism and remember to show respect when you are looking around temples and sacred buildings. Take off your shoes before you enter, and don't wear short sleeves or shorts. Ladies should cover up their shoulders and legs.

Also, don't point your feet at anybody or anything sacred. Feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body so consequently you shouldn't put your feet up on tables and chairs and things like that either.

The feet are the dirtiest part and the head is the most sacred part of the body. As a result of this, you should generally never touch a Thai person on the head if you don't know them. This will cause great offence.

Also remember that Thai people feel very uncomfortable with public nakedness. This means that anywhere outside the most touristy beach resorts, you should refrain from taking off your shirt. Too many times I have seen idiots walking down the street shirtless at completely inappropriate times and in inappropriate places. It isn't Spain, so don't treat it as such. I even saw one moron in Bangkok walking shirtless and he had to be told by a policeman to put his shirt back on. Don't be that guy!

OK, to finish off, here's some delicious treats that you have to try on your travels...

Lunny's Top 5 Thai Foods :)

  1. Larp  - Delicious but very spicy. This food is from the Isaan region, so it's kind of Laos food too, but it's really famous throughout the whole country. You can have it with chicken, pork, beef or fish which is minced, mixed with chilli and lemon then served with sticky rice. Top notch!
  2. Pad Thai – Perhaps the most famous Thai dish. Your choice of noodles fried with bamboo shoots, various vegetables, peanuts and meat (if you want). Delicious and classic, never gets old.
  3. Massaman Curry – This is a Thai curry, but it has Indian and Malay influences. A really delicious mix of flavours with the meat of your choice and peanuts, served with rice. In my opinion the best curry available in the country!
  4. Tom Yam Gung – Spicy shrimp soup. This is very popular. Taste it and you'll see why!
  5. Som Tam – Spicy papaya salad. Another food that originated from Isaan but became popular and is eaten by a lot of Thai people every other day. Truly delicious salad, but if you don't like spicy food be sure to ask for 'mai pet' (not spicy).

Thank you...

Thanks a lot for reading! This isn't even nearly a comprehensive guide, just a summing up of my experience really, but I hope it has helped you in some way. You will inevitably have lots of questions still, so feel free to go over to the Thailand board and post any you may have. We will do our best to help you. If you have any specific questions about my guide you can drop me a PM.

As you can see, I have fallen in love with Thailand. I hope and believe that you will too :-)

Sawaidee Kap!

Khob Kun Kap!


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