The hub of Southeast Asia, Thailand offers a wealth of travel possibilities within its borders and makes the perfect base for crossing over into neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Malaysia. Around Thailand travel options range from budget to luxury, and from mountains and jungles to a multitude of islands and white sand beaches. While Bangkok’s traffic, heat and pollution may be jarring, at the same time it has become a gourmet foodie mecca and shopaholic paradise unrivalled, and does offer some of Asia’s swankiest hotels and rooftop bars to escape the chaos below.
Most folks coming to Thailand do so for its sand and sunshine, both of which are in abundance. There is a wide choice of island escapes, ranging for the ultra-popular and old time favorites of Phuket and Koh Samui, to the more budget friendly full moon party side of things on Koh Phangan and neighboring Koh Tao, famed for diving and scuba license PADI courses. These are the top Gulf of Thailand islands, along with Koh Chang near the Cambodian border, but the Andaman Ocean side has even more to choose from, whether it is the limestone karst scenery around Krabi, along with the best rock climbing in Asia to be found at Rai Leh Bay.
Further south, the islands around Trang, like Koh Mook or Koh Kradan are far less touristed, and the resorts and beaches on Koh Lanta are popular with those who want to get away from the major crowds, although if you really want solitude, you’ll need to head way south to places like Koh Lipe or Koh Tarutao National Park, which is an entire island with no development allowed.
Those who get bored with beach vacations need to head to the north of Thailand, calling in to the cultural capital of Chiang Mai to enjoy its wealth of cafes and old city, hidden inside of a moat and full of historic temples. North of here the mountains begin, with trekking opportunities abounding to visit ethnic minority hilltribes, or go whitewater rafting or ziplining in the northern jungles.
There are 1867 curves to negotiate if you want to drive up to artsy Pai or the remote province of Mae Hong Son, worth it just for the journey itself, and if you come in the winter, mountain tops like Phu Chi Fah have views over valleys full of seas of mist, a phenomenon caused by the colder winter temperatures hitting the hot valley floors. For something more off the beaten track, consider visiting Chiang Rai and its surroundings up in the Golden Triangle, where you can stay in Asia’s premier luxury tented camp, or head even further afield to Isan, the northeast of the country, famed for silk, spicy cuisine, non-touristed towns along the Mekong River, and a collection of Khmer temple ruins.
Finally, almost all trips to Thailand start or end in Bangkok. It may be hot and chaotic, but the Thai capital does have something for everyone. Its restaurant and bar scene now attracts foodies from around the world, and for that matter, so does its legendary street food. If it gets too hot, the elegant indoor shopping malls are a destination in and of themselves, and there are enough temples, parks, and museums to keep families busy for a few days. Throw in some of Asia’s fanciest hotels, many perched along the atmospheric Chao Phraya River, and it’s easy to stay longer than planned. Bangkok is also an easy base for escapes to the nearby eastern seaboard, where the nightlife city of Pattaya has sights beyond just the go go bars, and there are a handful of islands like Koh Mak or Koh Kood, where it is easy to escape the hordes and get a glimpse of the Thailand of old.
Thailand can be visited year round, although weather certainly determines some of the comforts of travel and what type of travel you’ll be doing. While many joke that there are only two seasons in Thailand, “hot and hotter”, this isn’t quite true, and there is a bit of variation. For most westerners, by far and away the best time to visit is during the “cooler” winter months, between November and February. During this time, there isn’t much rain, it is warm and sunny almost every day, yet not too hot. Bear in mind that there are regional variations to this.
In the north of the country, from Chiang Mai up into Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle, it gets downright chilly at night, and you will need at least a sweater if not a jacket. Hotels here have thick blankets, and if you are visiting national parks and going camping, you will need a sleeping bag. Days however, are sunny and warm, with temperatures between 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit for the most part. Down south on the islands, the temperature is actually cooler, as it’s closer to the equator, but the humidity is higher. Phuket is usually in the 80s every day, but it is wet and sticky all the time.
The Gulf islands like Samui, Koh Tao, and Koh Phangan are the exception to the no rain rule at this time of year, as there is a Malaysian monsoon that comes up and affects the weather here, with rain lasting through the second week of December, so best to head for the Andaman side of the country at this time. This cooler period is also high season in Thailand, with booking required in major resort areas, and prices at their highest, especially from mid-December until New Years.
From March through May is the hot season, and everywhere in the country roasts. It is often over 100 degrees, and even the hardiest budget traveller will want air conditioning. It’s very dry at this time of the year, and in the north of Thailand, there is severe smoke and haze from the slash and burn agricultural practices that still go on, and thus it is not a good time to visit this area. Songkran, the Thai New Year, falls at this time, and places outside of Bangkok will be booked solid by Thai tourists for this week in mid-April, so plan ahead.
June through October is the rainy season, which starts slowly and gets heavier as the season progresses. June and July may actually see little rain, whereas September is the wettest month, and the only month where it really can rain all day. For the most part, the rainy season does not mean all day drizzle, but rather one hour deluges and electrical storms, followed by sunny periods, so it isn’t that bad for travelling. Additionally, this is considered the low season, especially on all the islands, and you can get some great prices.
Do note that the Andaman side does get hit particularly hard by the monsoon at this time, with islands like Koh Lanta actually being at least 75% deserted, with resorts closed down, so best to head for the Gulf of Thailand at this time. While it is the low season, places like Chiang Mai actually can get pretty busy in July and August, as this is the European summer holiday, with a lot of families travelling at this time.
Thailand can fit just about everyone’s budget. Compared to the U.S. and most of the western world, it is very cheap, although certainly not what it used to be, and if you want western goods like craft beer or imported meat and cheese, you will pay a premium. High taxes on imported alcohol do not make it a wine connoisseur’s spot, but for those who want to eat delicious street food and travel across the country by bus and train, it is still a real bargain. Domestic airlines are cheap, especially the low cost carriers, and car rental is also a bargain by international standards.
The currency of Thailand is the baht, with notes of 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1000, and coins of 1,2, 5, and 10 baht. The baht was quite strong from 2010-2013, but the Thai economy has weakened since then, and those holding dollars will get good rates now. You can find banks in even the tiniest village in the country, and ATM’s are on practically every block, so it is easy to change money. Banks also have money changing windows outside. Several items for visitors to note: 1) All Thai ATM’s charge a 200 baht fee on any withdrawal, so it’s better to make one large withdrawal as opposed to several small ones. 2) For those changing dollars, rates are much lower for $1, 5, 10, 20, and 50 as opposed to changing $100 denominations.
Credit and debit cards are accepted in many places, certainly in any midrange hotel or restaurant, but there is usually a 3% fee added to credit card purchases.
Tipping as in the west is not the norm in Thailand, however, it has come to be expected from tourists. It is not done by a percentage though, and usually a 20 baht note given to a bellboy, taxi driver, or a waiter is more than enough. Fancier hotels and restaurants often tack on 7% tax and 10% service charge to the bill.
If you are shopping in Thailand, on purchases totalling over $100, you can get back the VAT tax, so make sure to ask for receipts on major purchases, and note that the paperwork must be filled out and goods shown at the airport before flying home in order to get the refund.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 100 baht per person
$$ => Tickets 100-300 baht per person
$$$ => Tickets 300 baht per person
$ => Rooms less than 1500 baht for a double
$$ => Rooms 1500-4000 baht for a double
$$$ => Rooms 4000 baht for a double
$ => 300 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => 3-500 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => 500 baht per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than 1000 baht per person
$$ => Tickets 1000-1500 baht per person
$$$ => Tickets 1500 baht per person
Thailand is served by a wealth of comfortable travel options. All the major cities have airports, and with plenty of competition between low cost carrier airlines like Air Asia or Nok Air, or the bigger Thai Air or fancier Bangkok Airways, it is easy to find flights. Booking in advance may produce fares that can even be cheaper than bus or train prices! Most tourists utilize at least one flight during their trip, most often from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Phuket, or Koh Samui. Do note that Koh Samui’s airport is controlled by Bangkok Air, meaning that it is more expensive than elsewhere, and this can be avoided by flying into Surat Thani on the mainland, and then getting a ferry connection from there.
Train journeys are also an excellent way to see Thailand, with lines running both south and north, as well as one through the northeast, taking in the Isan cities of Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surin, and Nong Khai, gateway into Laos. There are a few daytime express trains (which are not fast like French or Japanese trains), and more commonly, night trains, where one can book a sleeper berth and wake up at the destination the following morning. Night trains are far preferable to night buses, due to the high road accident rate that plagues Thailand.
Buses are certainly comfortable and convenient, as they go all over the country, and the first class buses are equipped with soft seats, restrooms, and plenty of other perks. Private companies like Nakhon Chai Air have their own terminals, best used for trips from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but do heed the warning about night travel above. There are also local buses in every town that will get you to the next destination up the road.
Other types of transport include songthaews, basically a pickup truck outfitted with benches in the rear, which run fixed routes and are shared. They are a good way of getting around cities as well as into the countryside from larger towns, and they cost next to nothing. Taxis are available in bigger cities, although Bangkok is about the only place that they will actually use their meters, and in spots like Phuket, they are notorious for overcharging. There are also motorcycle taxis in all cities, and while they aren’t exactly safe, they are a necessary evil, sometimes the only way of getting around during rush hour gridlock.
Finally, if you are planning countryside tours, renting a car can be a great way to go. All major rental companies can be found in Thailand, the road system is extensive and roads are well paved and with fairly abundant English signage, although not well lit at night, and travellers would do best to restrict their driving to daytime hours. For getting off the beaten path, to national parks, and avoiding high private transport fees, a car is a great way to go here.