Thailand Backpacking: A Quick Guide

Interested in backpacking in Thailand but not sure where to start? Here’s a quick run down of ideas of what to see and do while you’re in this spectacular country

I first arrived in Thailand backpacking in 2003. Now I live in Bangkok and I’ve travelled around a fair bit of the country.

Here’s some of the things I wish people had told me before I went travelling:

1) Travel light
Thailand gets over 11 million tourists visiting a year. It may be a developing country, but you can buy just about anything you want here, and cheaper than at home (assuming your first stop is Bangkok). As such, only bring a few items of clothing with you; you can buy tshirts, shorts, bikinis, jackets, trousers etc by the armful for very little cash when you first arrive. Same goes for sunscreen, sunglasses and the contents of your toilet bag. Getting laundry done is cheap and easy. Plus, given that it’s a tropical country and you’ll be pretty active, you’ll probably want to ditch your clothes after every couple of months anyway.

Make sure you have decent carry cases for iPods and digital camera cases so they don’t get smashed while you’re travelling – iPods in particular are very fragile. (Believe me – I’ve found out the hard way).

Similarly, invest in a decent computer backpack (I recommend Samsonite) if you plan on bringing your laptop with you. (Thailand has plentiful internet connections and free wireless internet access in some places in Bangkok). As with all travel, make sure you have adequate travel insurance before you leave the country that covers both your health (most important thing) and your possessions.

Before you leave home, make sure you shop around for the cheapest flight you can get to Thailand. Use flight comparison sites like Kayak to get an idea of the range of prices. Ask your local travel agent too in case they can best what you find online. (Follow the link for more tips on finding cheap flights online).



The Reclining Buddha Of Wat Po

2) Be prepared for culture shock
Even though you will have no trouble finding a McDonalds or Starbucks in Bangkok, Thailand is still very very different to America or Europe. Some snobby travel writers whine about Thailand becoming too Westernised and just like everywhere else. They’ve obviously walked around the country with their eyes shut. When you first arrive in Bangkok, you will find it extremely hot, incredibly chaotic and pretty overwhelming. You will be craving a McDonald’s just to go somewhere which is clean and quiet. At least, that’s how I felt. It helps if you’ve done a little reading beforehand of a guidebook like Lonely Planet Thailand. I’ve also put together my Bangkok Travel Guide: 55 Tips To Help You On Your First Trip To Thailand which covers a lot of the basics, and Bangkok On 30 Dollars A Day to help you get an idea of what you can do budgetwise. For a more comprehensive rundown of what things cost in Thailand, see my article How Much Money Do I Need For Thailand.

After the first day or so, once you’ve got over the jet lag and started getting your bearings, you’ll begin to enjoy it a lot more. Most people begin their time in Bangkok staying around the Khao San Road area – and it’s a good place to be based, especially the Rambutri / Pa Athit area next to the river which is quieter and better value than Khao San itself. (See my guide to my favourite cheap Bangkok hotels) This is where you can stock up on cheap clothes and CDs, sample lots of great Thai food cooked up by street vendors, sit around in plethora of bars, meet lots of other travellers and generally chill out. You can also browse and book a bigger selection of Bangkok hotels online too if you’re looking for a little more luxury. There are some excellent boutique hotels in Bangkok if you want something unique, and there’s also several Bangkok hotels with free wifi if you need to be constant touch online without it costing a fortune.



Bangkok skyline just before sunset from the Vertigo bar

3) Bangkok Rocks
I have to admit, when I first got to Bangkok, I absolutely hated it. Now I’ve been living here for a year, I’ve grown fond of the city and found quite a few great things to do. So, even if you feel like leaving Bangkok the moment you arrive, give it a chance. You have to be prepared to brave the Bangkok traffic and get out of the backpacker ghetto – but you can avoid the roads by heading from Khao San down the river on one of the ferries to Saphan Taksin and get onto the BTS Skytrain there, which will take you all over BKK. Taxis are cheap and plentiful, but be prepared to get stuck in Bangkok’s notorious gridlock. Arm yourself with a copy of the Bangkok Groovy Map which is incredibly useful and easy to read – it’s like a guidebook condensed onto two sides of paper.

There’s the obvious tourist stuff like the Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho; the Bangkok Canal (Klong) tour for that Venice Of The East feel (and to reenact James Bond’s waterway chase too if you want); taking in the spectacular skyline view at Vertigo, South East Asia’s highest open air bar; and finding the green spaces amongst Bangkok’s concrete jungle for some respite. Visit Jim Thompson’s House for a tour of a beautiful traditional Thai house stacked with beautiful Buddha antiquities – and it also has a great restaurant. Indeed, there is a plethora of great restaurants and nightclubs in Bangkok too, like Crepes And Co (my favourite eating place) and BedSupper Club. Go to Lumphini Park Night Market for laid back open air shopping and lots of Thai beer garden restaurants – perfect for people watching and bargain hunting. And see my complete list of Things To Do In Bangkok. You should also not miss out on trying Thai massage – it does you a lot of good. Just be careful where you go to get your massage otherwise you might wind up being offered a “happy ending” you weren’t expecting…



Bangkok Klong Tour

4) It Pays To Talk To Other People About Where To Go In Thailand
There are scores of other places you can visit in Thailand. It’s worth reading your Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook and dropping into Thailand discussion forums to get the latest info on places you want to go, especially if you’re on a budget. Koh Samui and Phuket, for example, are pretty expensive places for backpackers – much better to head for Koh Tao, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi if you’re looking for beautiful beaches and simple island life away from megabucks resorts and thousands of other people. There’s also spectacular scuba diving around these islands too. (See my other site Divehappy.com for more about Koh Tao scuba diving and Koh Lanta scuba diving).

If you’re after culture, you can’t do much better than Sukhothai, the ancient seat of Thailand’s first civilisation and the country’s equivalent to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Sukhothai comprises of some spectacular temples with exquisite, ancient and sometimes gigantic statues of the Buddha which are impressive whatever your spiritual leanings. The temples are set in an immaculately kept park which lies within a valley – it’s a great taste of the Thai countryside. If you want to compare Sukhothai to Angkor Wat, it’s easy to fly from Bangkok to Angkor direct. If you are looking to get in touch with your spiritual side, you can do a Meditation Retreat with Thai Monks.

Thailand also has some of the most colourful festivals in the world, like the water-pistol madness of Songkran in April and the beautiful water lanterns of Loy Krathong in November. There are also many regional festivals, like the stomach-turning self-mortification Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, where devotees pierce themselves with anything from swords to trees, and the Phi Ta Khon Spirit Festival every July where amazing masks and costumes represent the return of the dead.

If you want to touch a tiger, visit the Tiger Temple, where tigers rescued from poachers in the Thai Burmese jungle have been raised within the monastery. They are let out for the afternoon to exercise in a quarry, where they are no longer behind bars – visitors can see the tigers up close and personal, and can even pet them if you feel brave enough. The head monk and numerous volunteers are on hand to ensure the tigers don’t get out of hand. The sense of danger – because, after all, they are still predators and still wild animals – seems to enhance their beauty; they are spectacular creatures, quite mesmerising to look at.



Tiger Temple

5) See The Real Thailand – Volunteer and teaching work
There are plenty of opportunities for volunteer and teaching work in Thailand, and for a foreigner it is the ideal way to see the real Thailand and live and work amongst the Thais. There are teaching jobs available all over the country which you can pick up quite easily while in the country. Teaching English In Thailand has the full details of what you can expect about trying to get an English teaching job in Thailand. For volunteer opportunities, check out SmilingAlbino.com, TransitionsAbroad.com and VolunThai.com – and save the gibbons! Lastly, you might want to consider visiting one of the foreigners serving time in Bangkok’s prisons to offer some moral support and take some food and reading material – it’s a sobering reminder that while you’re in Thailand, you definitely should make sure you stay on the right side of the law.

And there you have it – a quick guide off the top of my head to things I think are worth doing in Thailand. If you found it useful, you can always buy me a pint in Bangkok…Enjoy!



Comments

  1. Hi,I don’t know why I’m always interested in traveling Thailand.
    I’ve been there twice, but still want to go instead of going some other countries.

    check out my blog, I wrote about my friend Julie I met in Thailand, and also you will see some pictures I took on Taste of Thailand in Toronto Canada.

    http://maangchi.blogspot.com/

  2. Found you on a Yahoo Answers page. Congratulations on a very useful Thailand Guide. I hope to get back there sometime soon and maybe go NE as Samui and Chang Mai are too commercial these days. If you have any tips on how to get from the new Airport to link up with trains Khong Kaen please mail me.
    I live in York , UK so winter is approaching and I need a break.
    Regards,

  3. Maureen Chen says:

    How to travel from Siem Reap to Chiangmai? Any experience?

  4. dear sir/madam,
    it’s been really helpful and informatic. thanks a lot and god bless u.
    ramadass….malaysia.

  5. hi,im visiting thailand for the second time,ive found a few ex pats websites that advertise sales jobs in bangkok , are they genuine or are there opportunites for falangs in jobs out there as when i was there i was told its impossible to find jobs if your not thai ?

  6. Thank you so much for this guide. Two of my teachers and their homeroom, is working on a project for Geography. Each one of us had to choose a country, draw a map with its land formations, bodies of water, etc. I originally wanted to do it on Germany, but a friend of mine already started. I thought, why not Thailand? I love the food they have here in New York where you can find out of Soho. Great restaurants, and i remembered about it. Thanks again for this guide, now i know where to look just in case i end up going there, and for the information for my project !

  7. Hi! Your site was really helpful. I’ll be travelling from the Philippines to Bangkok then from BKK to Cambodia then Cambodia to Vietnam. I would like to ask suggestions or recommendations on what to do or what are the must see places for a day for each countries as this is the first time I’ll be on a backpacking trip which means I only have a small budget. Unlike other asian countries I’ve been to, I was able to stay there for at least 3 or 4 days.

    I hope you can help me and my sister on this.

    Thank you so much! :)

  8. hi chris,thanks 4 the guide found it very helpful.will defo buy u a pint or 2 wen we get there in april.

  9. Thanks Ed – already looking forward to that pint :)

  10. after reading more of ur write up on bk,we av decided to cum a week or 2 earlier to spend more time in bk itself (its only by reading independant sites like urs that make u realise that bk is not all hussle and bustle).my missus saw the link to the gibbon sanctuary,she as already made enquiries about offering our help.if that comes off u will get bangers & mash and 6 pints,if u can drink that much.many regards-ed

  11. Dubliner pub does the best bangers and mash in BKK, in an authentic Thai-Irish Pub atmosphere :) Bangkok is pretty full on but there are areas of peace and quiet too – and it’s easy to get out to the countryside like Kanchanaburi and Hua Hin too.

  12. I’m going to Thailand next month and will be arriving in Bangkok but want to make my way down to the south. What is the best method of traveling? Is there a good bus system? Train? I don’t have a lot of time just 3 or 4 days to get to Koh Samui but I’d like tour as much as I can. Can anyone recommend a good route? Or some must see or must do’s on the way? Thanks!

  13. I am in practically the exact same situation as Sarah above ^. I also read that its best to stick to the east of the peninsular during may / june as it gets a lot less rain than the west at that time? is that true?
    Thanks, very helpful website!

  14. You can take the overnight train or bus down to Samui / Phangan / Koh Tao – there’s not much to see en route. Yes, there are excellent train and bus infrastructure to get you down to Surat Thani, which is the town from where you catch the ferry to the islands. May / June the weather is better on the east but still OK on the west if you want to go to Phi Phi, Lanta, Krabi etc and are prepared that it might rain. The monsoon only really kicks off August onwards. That said, Thailand’s weather is getting more unpredictable every year so best to be flexible.

  15. Stuart Meadows says:

    Hi
    Fellow Brit here (Scottish). Thanks so much for the guide. It is REALLY helpful. I’m hoping to get over there in winter this year, but hoping to avoid the tourist areas/new year parties. Your information came in really helpful. I live and work in Japan so want to make the most of being in Asia.

    Thanks a lot again for writing this. I’m very glad I came across it.

    All the best
    Stuart

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