With beaches, waterfalls, hiking trails, temples, markets, trendy bars, delicious street food and fabulous hostels… it’s easy to see why backpacking in Thailand is so popular. We’re about to cover EVERYTHING to do with Thailand backpacking in this guide, but first a wee taster…
EAT! – Street Food: Thailand’s street food is the best in the world! From a steaming bowl of goyteow (noodle soup) to a plate of Pad Thai, a delicious Penang curry or a spicy Pad Krapow (stir-fry basil), there are hundreds of dishes to try! Just sprinkle some peanuts, add vinegar and chilli!
DRINK! – Fruit Shakes: Fresh coconut and mango shakes for less than a dollar, add a splash of rum and make it a cocktail. Fruit shakes are a deliciously refreshing drink in Thailand’s sweltering heat.
WEAR! – Fisherman Pants: You wouldn’t be seen dead in them at home, but in Thailand, elephant print fisherman baggies are every backpacker’s favourite garment! Perfect for overnight buses, lounging in the hostel or slipping on at temples to cover up.
BEWARE! – Snobby Backpackers: If you love getting off the beaten track and you’ve got the impression from a snobby backpacker that Thailand is too touristy, think again! If you know where to go, it’s so easy to get away from the crowds. Our off the beaten track destination guides will help you with that.
Whether you’re a party animal, adventure junkie, a culture vulture or a beach bum, Thailand has something to suit everyone… if you only know where to look! In this guide, we’ll give you the practical information you need for travel to Thailand; visa requirements, packing advice, useful Thai phrases, safety and transport tips. We’ll give you some pointers on the best places to visit in Thailand, on and off the beaten track, and some unmissable Thailand experiences, as well as tips on which places and experiences in Thailand to AVOID! We share our secrets on how to avoid the tourist traps, find deserted beaches, traditional mountain villages, and eat the most delicious cheap local street food…
If you’re looking for no bullsh*t, “cut the crap” travel advice, this Thailand travel guide is for you! Read on to find out the answers to all of your questions and more…
- Currency: Thai Baht
- Capital city: Bangkok
- Population: 69 million
- Main religion: 95% Theravada Buddhism
- Main language: Thai
- Telephone code: +66
- Time: GMT +7 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance: 1669, Fire: 199, Police: 191
Links to Thailand Travel Guides
South Thailand: Phuket | Krabi | Koh Phi Phi | Railay & Tonsai | Koh Lanta | Chumphon | Koh Samui | Koh Phangan | Koh Tao | Ang Thong Marine Park | Khanom | Koh Lipe | Khao Sok National Park | Hat Yai.
What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit Thailand?
The climate of Thailand is considered ‘tropical’ and in general, the country experiences three seasons:
The cool season – occurs during November to February with bright sunny days and very little rain. On average, temperatures across the country are around 25 degrees during this time, so it certainly can’t be considered ‘cold’ to most people. This is the most popular time for tourists to visit Thailand (known as “high season”) as the weather is the most comfortable for most activities from sightseeing to trekking. It’s also the best time for diving in terms of ocean visibility.
However, the one drawback is that prices for accommodation and tours are at their highest. In the north of Thailand, particularly in the mountainous regions, temperatures can get quite cold, especially at night. In Chiang Mai, the average temperature in January is 14 degrees Celsius, so you’ll need a jumper at night!
The hot season – occurs from March to May with temperatures reaching 35 degrees. There can be storms during this period, but in general, there is little rain and as long as you don’t mind the heat, it can be a great time to visit Thailand. This season is punctuated with Songkran, also known as the ‘Water Festival’, the largest water fight you’ve ever seen, providing cool relief on the streets! In terms of prices, the hot season is considered the ‘shoulder season’, which means that prices are lower than the high season and towards May, you may get some bargains on hotels and trips.
The rainy season (monsoon) – occurs roughly between June and October, although in recent years, it’s been a bit temperamental. Many people are put off visiting Thailand during this time as they are concerned that they won’t be able to do anything on account of the rain.
In reality, the rainy season can be one of the best times to visit Thailand. Why? The prices are low (sometimes up to 50% discount on accommodation!), there are fewer people and the land is lush and beautiful. The rains often come in short, hard downpours in the afternoons for only a few hours, leaving the mornings bright, fresh and cool. So, providing that you get up early, there can still be plenty of time to explore, plus, watching a tropical storm is an experience in itself.
Exceptions: The time of the rainy season differs from coast to coast. While the Andaman Coast (West) experiences monsoon from June to October (which is the same as the rest of the country), the Gulf of Thailand (East) experiences its own monsoon during October and November. So, if you’re visiting the popular holiday islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan or Koh Tao, this applies to you!
Do I Need a Visa for Thailand?
30-Day “Transit Visa”: Most nationalities, including Americans, Australians and most Europeans receive a free 30-day visa-free entry pass upon arrival in Thailand. This is the same whether you’re arriving by air, land or sea. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months upon entering and you must have at least two blank pages.
60-Day “Tourist Visa”: Another option is to purchase a 60-day tourist visa prior to entry into Thailand. This can be done at a Thai Embassy in your home country or in a neighbouring country to Thailand if you are already in Southeast Asia. The cost is around $40 USD depending on which currency you pay in.
Visa Extensions: The 30-Day Transit Visa and the 60-Day Tourist Visa can be extended for a further 30 days once you are in Thailand. You can do this by visiting an Immigration Office which are in most major towns and cities. The cost is 1900 baht and you can extend only once.
Border Runs: Another option for staying longer in Thailand is to leave the country and return by land, air or sea, known as a ‘border run’, which is essentially free, aside from transport costs. You can exit and re-enter the country as many times as you like this way and most travel agents can arrange border runs to neighbouring countries such as Laos or Malaysia. Read more about Thailand border runs here.
Penalty for Late Departure: 500 Thai Baht/day. The maximum fine for overstay that you can pay is 20,000 baht after this you may face deportation at your own cost or imprisonment.
Read more about Thailand visa requirements and other visa requirements for Southeast Asia here.
Do I need Vaccines to Travel to Thailand?
It is recommended that you get the following vaccinations to travel to Thailand:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Tetanus, Diphtheria and Polio – Combined
- MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella)
- Japanese Encephalitis
- A Yellow Fever Vaccine is not necessary for travel in Thailand.
Read in more detail about vaccinations for Southeast Asia here.
Disclaimer: We advise that you visit a travel medical clinic before travelling to Thailand.
Do I need Malaria Tablets for Thailand?
Malaria is very rare in Thailand. For travel to the most popular destinations in Thailand (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pai, Chiang Rai, Phuket, Koh Lanta, Krabi, Pattaya, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Kanchanaburi, Ayutthaya etc.) malaria tablets are not necessary.
Many websites and travel medical clinics advise you to take malaria tablets if you will be spending time on the borders of Thailand, near to the neighbouring countries of Cambodia or Myanmar where malaria is more prevalent. We advise that you speak to a doctor about this and research the malaria situation at the time of travel. Also check out our guide to malaria risk in Southeast Asia here.
Personally, I’ve travelled extensively throughout Thailand for 10+ years and I have never taken malaria tablets, (nor have I ever contracted malaria). Most expats and long-term travellers don’t bother as the risk is so low and the side-effects of taking malaria tablets can be discomforting (nightmares, skin sensitivity in the sun, nausea.) Plus, malaria tablets can be very expensive depending on how long you are travelling for. However, it is possible to purchase them from a pharmacy once you are in Thailand at a cheaper cost.
Whether you decide to take malaria tablets for your travels to Thailand or not, it’s very wise to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes as much as possible in Southeast Asia. Dengue Fever is common, especially in the rainy season, and you should invest in a strong mosquito repellant and consider a mosquito net if you are planning to sleep outside.
Disclaimer: We advise that you visit a travel medical clinic before travelling to Thailand for the latest information.
Is Thailand safe?
Crime in Thailand: In terms of crime, Thailand is an incredibly safe country to travel. Rates of muggings, theft and more violent crimes are low compared to Europe and the US, for example. Many Thai locals leave the keys in their motorbike while they shop at the market and in general it is very safe to walk around cities and towns after dark, even for solo female travellers (like myself).
While you may have heard sensationalist stories about backpackers getting murdered in Thailand, please remember that these incidents are extremely rare and the news stories sensationalise every story in order to get you to ‘click’. You are four times more likely to get raped in the United States than in Thailand and six times more likely to be shot. Source: Nation Master.
Road Accidents in Thailand: The most common cause of death for tourists in Thailand is in a road accident, most notably accidents on a motorbike. The World Health Organisation ranks Thailand as the country with the second-highest road fatality rate in the world out of 180 countries studied (with Libya at number one). Having travelled to India, Sri Lanka and Vietnam (where the driving, in my opinion, is much worse), I find this statistic very difficult to believe and I wonder how many deaths on the road in Asian and African countries go unreported.
Personally, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia where I feel safe hiring a car and travelling long distances across the country. I have also driven (and owned) a motorbike in Thailand (in Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta and Koh Phangan) and have never had a serious accident. Of course, it goes without saying that you should wear a helmet and drive carefully, not like a twat.
Buses, in particular, tourist buses, are well-maintained, modern and generally, drivers are well-rested and drive carefully. Train travel is safe, modern and very few accidents occur.
Food and Water Hygiene in Thailand: Thailand is a modern country and hygiene in restaurants and cafés, while not up to European standards, is generally very good, especially in comparison with India and other third-world Southeast Asian countries. Street food is safe to eat, often the safest type of food to eat, as it is cooked fresh daily.
Tap Water in Thailand: You shouldn’t drink out of the tap in Thailand. However, it is safe to drink the filtered water provided in local restaurants on tables across the country. Ice is often, though not always, made out of the filtered water and is usually safe to have in your drink. To ensure that you always have safe water to drink and to avoid wasting plastic during your travels, it’s a good idea to invest in a filtered water bottle for your travels.
Alcohol in Thailand: “Buckets” are a popular type of drink for backpackers. They consist of a coloured bucket filled with cheap alcohol, an energy drink and a mixer. Be careful when drinking these as it’s impossible to know what liquor has gone in them and they are very easy to spike. Cheap alcohol and cheap energy drinks are a bad mix.
Travel Insurance for Thailand
Travel Insurance is essential for backpackers to Thailand. If you get sick or you have an accident and you want to be treated in a modern, Western-style hospital, hospital bills can be extremely high. Medical expenses can run into the thousands and when you’re at a time of need, you don’t want to be concerning yourself with money, you just want to concentrate on getting better.
Travel insurance also comes in handy for lost and stolen items, as well as travel scams and travel cancellations that are out of your control. For example, if your flight is cancelled due to bad weather or that yoga retreat that you booked is called off.
Throughout the past 10 years of travel to Thailand and Southeast Asia, we’ve bought our insurance plan with World Nomads as it offers the most cover at the best value for adventurous travellers.
What to Pack for Thailand
Clothes for Thailand: Pack light clothes for travel to Thailand; cotton tops, shorts, t-shirts, tank tops, light trousers and a few long sleeved tops for protection from the sun or for covering up when visiting Buddhist temples. If you are travelling during the cool or rainy season, you will need a cardigan or jumper for the evenings. The fewer clothes you take, the better, plus, you can leave room in your backpack to buy clothes while you are there! (A sarong is a super useful item and can double up as a skirt, a headscarf, a blanket and a million other items!)
Do you need to cover up to travel in Thailand? The culture of Thailand is very laid-back, not too conservative and women do not have to cover up as they do in India and Sri Lanka. It is very common for Thai women and foreigners to wear shorts and have bare shoulders. It is not appropriate, however, to walk around wearing a bikini, unless you are on the beach. Males should wear a t-shirt when dining as eating topless in a restaurant is considered impolite. Nude or topless sunbathing is not allowed, even though this has started happening in some of the hippie beaches on Koh Phangan. When visiting a temple or religious monument, legs and shoulders must be covered.
Footwear for Thailand: Again, the advice here is the fewer shoes the better! Girls, you will certainly not need heels as nightlife in Thailand is very chilled and the dress code is almost always casual, except for a few of the swankier Bangkok clubs (for example, Backstage Bar in Thong Lo). Flip flops will suffice for almost any place and any activity, although if you plan to go trekking or do a lot of walking then a good pair of sturdy trekking sandals or walking shoes are a good idea. Walking boots will be too hot and unnecessary.
Useful Practical Items: Mosquito repellant, sunscreen, first aid kit, hand sanitizer, sunglasses, tampons (ladies), filtered water bottle, small padlock for securing your bag, travel towel, earplugs, travel pillow, head torch, travel adaptor.
Toiletries and Travel Medicine Items: Keep to a minimum. Most items can be bought at well-stocked pharmacies in Thailand.
Flying to Thailand: Bangkok Suvarnabhumi is the largest international airport in Thailand and where most visitors arrive into Thailand via international flights. To find the cheapest flights into Thailand, we always use Skyscanner to compare various airlines. Popular airlines that fly to Thailand are Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific. The cheaper airlines include Aeroflot, Eva Air, China Airlines and Air China.
Flying Within Thailand: Flying around Thailand is cheap, safe and easy. The most prevalent airline in the region is AirAsia who have cheap flights within Thailand, as well as to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. Other budget airlines in Thailand are Nok Air, Thai Lion Air, Orient Thai and Bangkok Airways (a little more expensive). To book your domestic flight, head to the individual airline websites or again, compare prices on Skyscanner.
Transport Tip: If you’re flying to any one of the Thai islands, you may want to look at Nok Air’s package deals as they offer an airline ticket with bus and boat included in the price, which can be better value for money than booking each leg of the journey separately.
10 Essential Thai Language Phrases For Travellers
Note: For polite conversation males should finish sentences with ‘Krap’ and females should finish sentences with ‘Ka.’ This is regardless of whether you are speaking to a male or female
- Hello / goodbye: Sawasdee krap / ka
- Thank-you: Kop khun krap / ka
- Sabaidee myee?: How are you?
- Can I have the bill please?: Check bin krap / ka
- Can you put the taxi meter on? Dit meter dai mai ka
- How much?: Towry krap / ka?
- Too expensive: Paeng mak!
- I don’t want it thank-you: Mai ow krap / ka
- I don’t want it spicy: Mai ped krap / ka
- I’m a vegetarian: Kin jay krap / ka
Phone and Internet in Thailand
WIFI: WIFI is excellent and is almost everywhere in Thailand. It is very unusual to find a hostel or café that does not have WIFI. Many digital nomads and people who work online are attracted to Thailand because the WIFI is so good compared with other Asian countries.
Getting a SIM Card in Thailand: It’s really easy to get connected with data on your mobile phone when you arrive in Thailand. The easiest way to do it is to head to a convenience store (which are literally on every corner) and ask for the SIM card of your choice. You can then load your SIM card with an internet or phone package. The cost tends to be around 199 Thai Baht for 1.5 GB, 399 for 4.5 GB of 4G Internet. We recommend AIS for backpackers as they provide the best overall coverage. Please note: 7/11 no longer work with AIS so you can only purchase their SIMs from other shops or official stores. For more information on Thailand SIM cards, read this.
Budget for Backpacking Thailand
While not voted the cheapest country to travel in Southeast Asia by our readers, it is possible to backpack Thailand very cheaply. Here’s an idea of how much things cost to help you plan your budget and some money-saving tips:
Cost of Food in Thailand:
Street Food: The cheapest way to fill your stomach in Thailand is by eating street food; it’s delicious, nutritious and will surely reward you with some of the happiest memories from your backpacking adventure. For lunch, most Thais eat ‘goyteow’ or ‘noodle soup’ which contains noodles (of course), a type of meat (chicken, pork, beef, fish or meatballs) and a sprinkling of vegetables in a tasty broth. A bowl of wholesome goyteow costs between 30-50 Baht ($1-$1.5 USD) depending on where you are and how posh the restaurant is. Other Thai street food dishes that are cheap are rice and noodle-based dishes from Pad Thai to Pad Krapow to Pad SeeYew. Why not try them all!
Tips for finding amazing, cheap street food
- Be aware that food in the north of Thailand is generally cheaper than in the south.
- Choose places where the locals go that do not have English menus to find the cheapest, tastiest food!
- Night markets are a great place to sample a variety of local or Thai fusion food. (E.g. A plate of fresh sushi at the night market in Chiang Mai will cost you 25 Baht.)
Western Food: Western food is more expensive than local food, as you’d imagine, yet not extortionate by any means. You can get a pizza or a burger for around 250 Baht $7-8 USD. There are many amazing Western restaurants across the country, from Italian to Greek to Japanese. A meal at a very good quality restaurant, with wine, can cost you around 1,500 Baht ($45 USD).
Drinks: A fruit shake will cost you 30 Baht ($1 USD). A small can of Singha Beer at the 7-11 store is 35 Baht. In a restaurant, a small bottle of beer starts at 50 Baht at a cheap place or 70 Baht at a more upmarket establishment. Wine is expensive (120 Baht per glass) and generally crap compared with European wine. Try to avoid if possible!
Fruit: Thailand’s markets are full of colourful, exotic and delicious fruits that make awesome healthy snacks while you’re on the go. Pick up some mangosteens, fresh mangoes or hairy rambutans for less than a dollar. Read more about the top fruits to try in Thailand here.
Cost of Accommodation in Thailand:
Accommodation is of a very high standard and excellent value for money in Thailand. Backpacker hostels are modern, clean and have awesome facilities (think swimming pool, lockers, shared kitchens, laundry etc. Private rooms are very reasonable and if you decide to splurge, luxury can be had on a budget. Of course, the price of accommodation varies greatly from place to place. Generally, prices are cheaper in the north and in the less touristy places.
Dorms: The average cost of a bed in a dormitory is around 250 Baht ($7 USD). This depends on the location of the hostel, and of course, the quality of the hostel’s facilities. If you’re on a strict budget, it is possible to find much cheaper than this. Fierce competition drives prices low in Thailand and hostels have even been known to give beds away to those who buy food, drink or tours at the hostel. The cheapest we’ve seen is a bed in Chiang Mai for just $2 USD at Rose Guest House, which has very decent reviews. In Bangkok, Petit Hostel gives beds away for $4 USD and in Koh Phangan, a bed in White Rabbit will cost you $4 USD. Female only dorms are a little more expensive and you’ll pay more for more space, more modern facilities, privacy curtains etc.
Private Rooms: Depending on where you are private rooms start at around 300 Baht or $10 USD (very basic, fan only, cold shower.) For 600 Baht and up you will start to get better quality. A very decent double room with AC, TV, hot shower, balcony and comfortable bed will cost you around 800 Baht ($25 USD). A basic wooden beach bungalow right on the beach can cost 300 Baht ($9 USD) such as the one at Mae Haad Cove Bungalow in Koh Phangan below.
Long-Term Rentals: Many people come to Thailand and decide that they want to stay a while. A clean, modern apartment with AC, hot shower and WIFI will cost you around 10,000 Baht ($300 USD) per month. The best way to find these long-term rentals is to simply arrive in a place, get on a motorbike and drive around looking for signs that say ‘HOUSE FOR RENT’. Prices on AirBnB are inflated.
Cost of Transport in Thailand:
Getting around Thailand is cheap and easy (see more in the section below).
- Flights: Low-cost flights within Thailand cost on average around $20 USD from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, for example, although even cheaper deals with budget airlines such as Nok Air and AirAsia can be found. Check Skyscanner for deals.
- Trains, Buses, Taxis: An overnight train will cost around 800 Baht from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or Bangkok to Surat Thani, while an overnight bus doing the same journey can be a bit cheaper at 600 Baht. Check 12GO Asia for prices and to book tickets. Taxis are generally cheap, except in the islands they can be more expensive. Use Grab for the cheapest rates.
Cost of Activities in Thailand:
The more you want to experience, the more you will spend in Thailand. Rather than accommodation, food or transport, it’s the activities that will cost the most in Thailand. Our advice would be to pick a few of the activities that you really want to do and don’t worry too much about the cost. After all, these activities will probably be much cheaper to do in Thailand than in your home country and you may as well make the most of your backpacking adventure! Here’s an idea of prices:
- 1-Day Try Dive in Koh Tao: $60 USD
- 3-Day Learn to Dive Course in Koh Tao: $280 USD
- 1-Day Trek in Pai: $25 USD
- Cooking Class in Chiang Mai: $40 USD
- 1-Week Muay Thai Course in Pai: $140 USD
- 1-Week Yoga Retreat in Koh Phangan: $500 USD
- 1-Day Rock Climbing Course: $65 USD
For cheap prices, check out our Thailand Backpacking Tours here.
If you give your laundry in at the hostel, you’ll pay around 30 Baht per kilo. However, find the coin-operated washing machines that are in most towns and cities and you’ll pay 30 Baht for a whole load. You just need to find somewhere to dry your clothes afterwards.
One of the BEST things about Thailand is that you can get a massage pretty much anywhere, at any time for less than $10 USD. A Thai Massage will cost 200-300 Baht. An oil massage 350-450 Baht and a foot massage 250-350 Baht. Pedicures and manicures from 200 Baht and a haircut from 100 Baht. Why not pamper yourself!
Transport in Thailand
Buses come in three varieties in Thailand:
VIP Bus: There are many ‘VIP’ buses across Thailand which specifically cater to tourists and run the most popular routes: Bangkok to Chiang Mai, or Bangkok to Surat Thani, for example. The buses are more comfortable than local buses and all of them have air-con with reclining seats. You’ll usually be given a bottle of water, snack and sometimes a basic Thai meal.
You can buy these bus tickets at most travel agencies across the country, particularly in touristy areas. If you’re travelling to an island, these tickets often come in ‘packages’ with bus and boat included and are very reasonably priced. You’ll be given a sticker to stick on your chest (you’ll see!) and will be herded on and off various forms of transport until you reach your destination. It’s super easy and straightforward.
Local Bus: Local buses can be much cheaper than VIP buses and there are many routes run to towns and villages all across the country. The buses are likely to be older, with people squashed more closely together, and with a fan rather than AC, however, they are still reasonably comfortable. The one drawback is that a journey via local bus can take a very long time as they’ll stop at many places along the way to drop people off!
Minibus: For shorter journeys, for example from Chiang Mai to Pai, minibuses run from local bus stations. The cost is cheap (from 100 Thai Baht) and the journey is relatively comfortable, despite some very fast Thai racing drivers!
Train: Trains run north to south and from Bangkok to the northeast of the country. All lines pass through Bangkok. Overnight trains are a great way to travel in Thailand and all passengers get their own bed with a privacy curtain. Trains are modern and clean and there’s no shortage of people selling food and drinks along the way. Tickets are very reasonably priced and must be bought directly from the train station or online.
Skytrain (BTS) and Metro (MRT): In Bangkok only. Cheap, easy and efficient methods of transport for the city. Tickets are bought on the day at the train stations.
Taxi: Taxis (orange, yellow, pink, green and blue) are available in major cities, particularly in Bangkok. While in some places you will need to negotiate the price of your journey before you travel, in Bangkok, all of the public taxis run on a meter. (From the airport there’s a 150 Thai Baht surcharge getting to the city.) To avoid getting ripped off make sure you check that the taxi driver knows you want a metered taxi by saying “dit meter dai my krap / ka” before you get in the taxi. This ensures that you won’t be charged an extortionate amount once you reach your destination. In general, taxis are cheap and reliable. However, in Bangkok, you should try and avoid ‘cheur mong reng duen’ (rush hour) or you’re bound to get stuck in a ‘lot tit’ (traffic jam!).
Grab: Grab is the most popular way to hire a private driver in the city.
Tuk tuk: While they are the most “iconic” ‘Thai’ vehicle, tuk-tuks, are not the most efficient way of getting around in Thailand, particularly in cities. They are noisy, polluting and uncomfortable for journeys longer than 10 minutes. The open doors and windows mean that you’re breathing in the city smoke whilst sat in traffic.
After you’ve taken the mandatory selfie, it’s not much fun. (Apparently, tuk-tuk drivers spend two months of the year stuck in traffic!) Furthermore, tuk-tuks are more expensive than taxis.
Scam alert! Don’t believe tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok who say they will drive you around the top sights of the city for only 10 baht. This is a scam and they will take you to gem shops, suit shops and other jewellery stores in order to collect ‘petrol tokens’ from shops that will give them in return for escorting the customer to their store.
Songthaew: Song means ‘two’ and thaew means ‘bench’, which gives the names of this shared taxi concept. These red vans drive around cities, in particular, in Chiang Mai, following a particular route and locals hop on and off when they fancy. The cost of a ‘journey’ (no matter how long) is 20 baht. (In Chiang Mai say ‘sow baht’ when you hop in and watch locals be amazed at your northern Thai slang!)
Moto-taxi: Motorbike taxis are okay for short journeys and if you don’t have much luggage. In Bangkok, watch out for the men in orange vests and negotiate your price before you get on the back of the bike.
Ferries: Passenger and car ferries run to all of the major islands in Thailand and the main companies are Lomprayah, Sea Tran and Songserm.
You can use 12Go Asia to book local transport in Thailand.
Thailand Routes Backpacking
Your personal Thailand Backpacking Route will depend on how long you have to travel, your budget and the time of year. You may want to avoid certain places during the monsoon season, for example. Here are some rough Thailand backpacking itineraries to give you some ideas! Please remember, that these routes take in some of the country’s highlights, but there are loads of destinations off the beaten track to explore too! See more places to visit in Thailand below the itineraries…
1. Northern Thailand Backpacking Route!
- A popular Northern Thailand backpacking route will start in Bangkok, spending 2-3 days in the bustling capital before starting to head up north.
- On your way up north, stop off at Thailand’s ancient capital of Sukhothai in order to break up your journey.
- Arrive in Chiang Mai and spend a few days visiting the city’s best temples and trying some cultural activities. If you have more time and want to explore the countryside, why not organise yourself a Chiang Mai trek!
- Head three hours west to Pai, a bohemian mountain escape.
- Head further west to Mae Hong Son, a beautiful lakeside town, gateway to amazing mountain scenery.
- Spend a night in the little-visited mountain town of Mae Sariang.
- Head to Doi Inthanon to take in Thailand’s highest mountain.
- Head back to Chiang Mai.
- Go north three hours to Chiang Rai to visit the White Temple.
- Continue to Chiang Khong, the border of Laos, where you can start your backpacking adventure in Laos! Or fly back to Bangkok from Chiang Mai (one hour flight).
Exploring Northern Thailand is Great For:
- Travellers on a budget. (The north is cheaper. While a plate of noodles will cost you 50 Thai Baht in the South, the same bowl will cost you just 30 Baht in the north.)
- Mountain and Nature Lovers: This route takes in amazing mountain scenery, offers the opportunity to visit ethnic minority villages, go trekking and caving.
- Those seeking the ‘real Thailand’: While we hate the word ‘authentic’, many parts of the north are less touristy than the south and offer a real local experience for travellers.
2. Southern Thailand Backpacking Route!
- Like most backpacking Thailand routes, this one begins in Bangkok. You’ll spend a few days in the capital before catching an overnight train south to Chumphon.
- Take a ferry to the island of Koh Tao, the most popular place in Thailand to learn to dive. Spend a few days getting your Open Water Course (PADI or SSI), try snorkelling or just chill on the island’s beautiful beaches.
- From here, catch the ferry just one hour to Koh Phangan where you can experience the Full Moon Party (if the timing is right) or explore the completely different yogi scene of the west coast.
- Catch a ferry back to the mainland and head for the awesome Khao Sok National Park for jungle adventures and elephant spotting!
- Take a minibus to Krabi and head to the drop-dead gorgeous Railay Beach. Learn to rock climb, trek to a lagoon, visit a penis cave… (for more info on that see our Railay guide!)
- Catch a boat to Koh Lanta for some serious beach time.
- Pick a paradise island of your choice in the Andaman Sea and play castaway for a few days…
- From here, you can head to the island of Koh Lipe and onward to Malaysia or fly back to Bangkok from nearby Krabi Airport.
Exploring Southern Thailand is Great For:
- Beach Bums: It’s no secret that Thailand has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, the itinerary above takes in some of the best!
- Curry lovers: Penang curry and Massaman curry are some of Thailand’s most delicious dishes and they’re best eaten in the south!
3. The COMBO: North & South Thailand Backpacking Route!
If you’re looking to explore parts of the north and the south of Thailand, then this itinerary is for you!
- Start in Bangkok, explore the capital for a few days, taking a day trip to the ancient kingdom of Ayutthaya.
- Take the overnight train north to Chiang Mai for temple hopping and cultural activities such as Muay Thai, Thai massage, cooking classes, or visit an elephant sanctuary (make sure you choose an ethical elephant sanctuary like BEES or Never Forget).
- Take a minibus three hours west to the backpacker hangout of Pai with its beautiful mountain scenery and wicked nightlife.
- Complete the Mae Hong Son Loop over a few days, or simply head back to Chiang Mai.
- Catch a cheap flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi to start your South Thailand adventure.
- Start in Railay, a jaw-dropping bay which has some of the best rock climbing in the world.
- Take a ferry to Koh Lanta for amazing beaches, snorkelling, caving and waterfall adventures. From here, you can take a day trip to a paradise island of your choice dotted in the Andaman Sea.
- Head back to the mainland and make a bee-line for the epic Khao Sok National Park for jungle trekking and floating bungalows.
- From Khao Sok, take a minibus to Surat Thani, jumping off point for Koh Phangan, famous for the Full Moon Party. If that’s not your scene, you can indulge in some yoga, meditation or any number of hippie activities.
- Take a ferry just one hour to Koh Tao where diving is the order of the day. Take your Open Water Course (PADI or SSI) or just try some snorkelling in the clear warm waters.
Travelling to Thailand for 2 weeks? Check out our Thailand 2 Week Itinerary!
9 Best Thailand Backpacking Tours
We’ve known the guys from Tru Travels for years now and in our opinion, they offer some of the best value for money group tours in Thailand. If you don’t want to travel alone, or you and your buddy want to join the group to meet loads of like-minded people, Tru Travels trips are the best fun! You’ll experience awesome adventures, visit places on and off the beaten track and most of all, meet friends that you’ll keep in touch with for the rest of your life! Here are some of the best Thailand tours…
8-Day Thailand Experience: If you’re looking for a short group tour where you can meet people for your onward Thailand adventure then the 8-Day Thailand Experience is for you! You’ll visit Bangkok, Khao Sok and Koh Phangan, stay in floating bungalows, try a Muay Thai class, go island hopping, snorkelling, experience a Thai massage and more!
18-Day Island Hopper: If you love beaches and islands then this epic 18-day trip is for you! Visit the best of Thailand’s amazing coastline, east and west coast, go snorkelling, diving, kayaking and surfing.
14-Day Northern Thailand Experience: Experience the amazing mountainous regions of the north of Thailand, visit temple ruins, see elephants, go trekking, stay in a hill tribe village, go zip-lining, take a cooking class and more in this epic trip of the north.
13-Day Full Moon Party Experience: Is going to a Full Moon Party on your bucket list? If so, this trip is for you! As well as visiting Koh Phangan, the home of the Full Moon Party. You’ll explore Bangkok, Khao Sok National Park and the beautiful beaches of the south before getting ready for the party of your life!
12-Day Half Moon Party Experience: The Half Moon Party is Koh Phangan’s alternative festival taking place in the jungle amidst awesome visuals. On this 12-day trip, you’ll explore Bangkok, Khao Sok National Park and the island of Koh Phangan before experiencing the delights of the Half Moon!
21-Day Northern Thailand and Beaches: If you can’t decide between exploring the mountains of the north or the beaches of the south of Thailand, then why not do them both? This tour takes in the highlights of Thailand where you get to visit waterfalls, beaches, hill tribe communities, elephants, go kayaking, trekking, island-hopping, snorkelling – a jam-packed adventure with like-minded travel buddies!
23-Day Full Moon Party Island Hopper: Explore the best beaches and islands in South Thailand before hitting up the Full Moon Party. This epic 23-day adventure is the ultimate beach holiday!
11-Day “Drive Your Own Tuk Tuk” Adventure: Ever wanted to drive your own tuk-tuk? Well now you can on this unique adventure through some of the best scenery in Northern Thailand. Meet adventurous people, explore the Thai countryside and have the time of your life on this unusual group tour!
1-Night Bangkok Pub Crawl: If you’re travelling solo and you want to meet people as soon as you arrive in Thailand, this Bangkok Bar Crawl is a great way to do it! Explore the best bars and clubs in the city, meet people for your onward travels and have a ball! Choose to party in either Sukhumvit, Khao San Road or the upmarket Thong Lor.
Places to Visit in Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand’s Capital
Start in Bangkok, a thriving metropolis of old and new. Where speedy tuk-tuks transport you from ancient temple to glitzy shopping mall; passing by the odd monk and the even odder ladyboy! Experience the famous Khao San Road, the bustling backpacker hub of South East Asia and the gateway to your backpacking adventure…
Did you know? Bangkok in the Thai language has the longest name for a city in the world, consisting of 32 separate Thai words. (Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit).
Lush mountainous scenery dotted with gushing waterfalls, lakes and rivers amidst bright green rice fields, Northern Thailand is one of the most unspoiled and beautiful areas in Thailand. Home to the highest mountain in the land (Doi Inthanon), Northern Thailand enjoys a cooler climate than the rest of the country, with temperatures reaching freezing in the highest areas.
A variety of outdoor pursuits can be enjoyed here; from mountain biking, trekking, hiking, rock climbing, rafting and kayaking. Many backpackers come here to visit an elephant sanctuary – where former working and street elephants are now being cared for. Northern Thailand is also home to the country’s ethnic minorities; the Karen and Hmong hill tribes and opportunities to arrange a homestay in a traditional village are available.
Chiang Mai – Capital of the North
Most backpackers start their explorations of Northern Thailand in the unofficial “capital of the north”, Chiang Mai. Despite what other travel guides will tell you, Chiang Mai is not a small quaint city with quiet streets full of Thai charm. It’s a large, modern and traffic-ridden city that has more tacky tourist attractions than you’d like to believe.
Its bustling weekend markets, hipster cafes and variety of cultural activities lure tourists from all over the world, most notably, nearby China. The city is also home to a fervent digital nomad scene and has more expats than any other city in Thailand. For a truthful take on the city, see this article.
However, if you travel to Chiang Mai without false expectations, the city is undoubtedly a great place to visit. It’s cheap, has amazing street food, markets and just outside the city, there is spectacular countryside to explore. One of the best things to do is go trekking in the national parks around the city. Check out our full Chiang Mai Trekking guide for more info.
Chiang Mai is also a fantastic place to lap up some Thai culture: learn about Muay Thai Boxing, indulge in Thai massage, try a yoga class or a retreat, take a cooking class or perhaps explore your spiritual side with a Vipassana meditation retreat in a Thai monastery.
Pai – The Backpacker Favourite
Many backpackers fall in love with the bohemian town of Pai, set in a lush green valley surrounded by waterfalls, hot springs and canyons. In recent years the town has become a hotspot for backpacker nightlife and mushroom shakes. If you’re backpacking in Pai and you’re over 30, better read this!
Quieter Towns and Provinces in the North of Thailand
Chiang Rai – Maybe you prefer the quieter town of Chiang Rai with the incredible White Temple and juxtaposing Black House. Plus, the opportunity to get off the beaten track and go trekking to visit ethnic minority groups in the area.
Chiang Dao – Just two hours north of Chiang Mai, why not stop off for a night or two, at beautiful Chiang Dao, famous for its bird watching and nature. All of the places mentioned are great places to arrange a trek into the nearby hills and visit hill tribe villages.
Mae Hong Son – Further West towards the Burmese border, the mountainous landscape of Mae Hong Son will blow your mind! For the more mature traveller, this beautiful lakeside town is blessed with great restaurants, a fun night market and gorgeous biking or hiking opportunities.
Phayao – Head East by bus or on a motorbike adventure to the little-visited lakeside town of Phayao for an authentic slice of northern Thai life! National Parks and waterfalls in this area abound.
Nan Province – A wild mountainous landscape with amazing national parks, hill tribe villages and windy roads just perfect for motorbiking. This is a little-visited area of Thailand where locals will be amazed to see ‘farang’ (foreigners).
On the Burmese Border
Mae Sot – For a taste of Myanmar in Thailand, visit Mae Sot with its Burmese culture and food and a mix of ethnic minorities. Many travellers cross the border here into Myanmar at the border town of Mayawaddy. Hpa An is your first destination in Myanmar!
Mae Salong – Right on the northern border with Burma near the Golden Triangle, this strange little town feels more like China than Thailand with its tea plantations and Chinese Temples. The scenery around here is spectacular and it gets pretty cold up here in the winter!
Isaan – North-eastern Thailand, also known as ‘Isaan’ is a very special side of Thailand that backpackers rarely get to see. This huge region is a vast empty area of rice fields that go on forever and authentic farming villages were it’s very rare to see a foreign (farang) face. You can explore this region
Nong Khai – Before heading into Laos, many backpackers stay at the lively border town between Laos and Thailand of Nong Khai – famous for the mysterious ‘fireball festival’ every November. This border town is considered part of Isaan too.
Central Thailand is a highly compact, diverse and fascinating place of high cultural interest, where you’ll find Thailand’s 24-hour hectic capital city Bangkok (Krung Thep in local language), ancient ruins, vast national parks and even tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand.
Islands Close to Bangkok
From Bangkok, escape to the nearby tropical islands of Koh Chang (Thailand’s second biggest island), Koh Samet and the smaller and less touristy Koh Si Chang – all within a five hour journey from the ‘Big Mango’, you’ll feel a million miles away from the traffic and noise as you laze on the gorgeous white sandy beaches.
Koh Kood is an island, practically devoid of tourists, just two hours from the larger island of Koh Chang. The scene here is totally different, with deserted beaches, mangrove forests and empty roads great for exploring. Truly off the beaten track.
History and Culture in Central Thailand
If you’re looking for culture, travel just one hour north to visit Thailand’s former Siamese capital – Ayutthaya to take a walk amidst ancient temples and kingdoms. Further north, on the way to Chiang Mai, you’ll also find the even older Thai capital, Sukhothai with its 70km historical park and hundreds of temple ruins. More ruins and cultural interest, this time from the ancient Khmer Empire, can be found east towards Isaan with Phimai Historical Park – Thailand’s answer to Angkor Wat.
Khao Yai National Park
If you’re looking for outdoor adventure and fresh air, head east from Bangkok just three hours to Khao Yai National Park for trekking and nature trails.
Kanchanaburi and Sangkhlaburi
A backpacker favourite three hours West of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi provides dirt cheap accommodation and access to the beautiful countryside; waterfalls, endless rice fields and fruit trees, as well as the infamous River Kwai Bridge.
Head further east still towards the Burmese border and you’ll come across Sangkhlaburi – a little visited tranquil town with amazing scenery and interesting cultural diversity.
For those looking for a more holiday feel, royal retreat Hua Hin fits the bill with a wide sandy beach, horse riding, kite surfing, seafood restaurants, golf courses and lively bars. Further down, you’ll find the lovely seaside town of Prachuap Khiri Khan with a great beach, lively markets and laid-back expat town.
Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
The little-visited Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park can be easily reached from Hua Hin and is one of the loveliest and least visited national parks in Thailand. Camp overnight on a deserted beach and visit the legendary Phraya Nakhon Cave. From here, you can also pay a visit to the nearby Kui Buri National Park which is the best place to spot wild elephants in Thailand.
This is the Thailand paradise you’ve seen on postcards. White sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and colourful long tail boats bobbing on translucent turquoise waters, Thailand has more than its fair share of gorgeous tropical beaches and islands and yes, it’s true they do look like the photographs.
Both the Gulf of Thailand on the East coast and the Andaman coast on the West offer amazing snorkelling and diving, activities from Muay Thai boxing to jungle trekking and a plethora of great restaurants, bars and crazy nightlife.
South West Coast (The Andaman)
Phuket – Avoid
You’ll be faced with the effects of the original Thai tourism boom in the most overdeveloped and largest island in Thailand, Phuket. However, you can still find quieter areas if you hire a motorbike and take the time to explore and cultural Phuket town is worth a visit. All in all, this is the place in Thailand that we would recommend the least to first-time visitors.
Khao Lak – For Divers
A bit further up north, you’ll find Khao Lak, located in Phang Nga province. Khao Lak is a National Park and a jumping off point for the Similan and Surin Islands, a divers paradise for live-aboard adventures amongst the pristine reefs.
Krabi is a province in Southern Thailand, famous for its limestone karst scenery, it is comprised of Koh Phi Phi, Railay and Ton Sai beach, as well as the island of Koh Lanta and neighbouring islands such as Koh Ngai and Koh Jum.
Once a huge hit with backpackers, Koh Phi Phi has recently become an island that many travellers are choosing to avoid due to the over-development of its undoubtedly beautiful landscapes. Famous for The Beach, Maya Bay is one of the most visited places in Thailand thanks to Leonardo Di Caprio. However, these days it is suffering from over-exploitation and environmental damage and authorities decided to close it in summer 2018 to prevent further damage.
Nearby Railay and Ton Sai beaches located on the mainland yet inaccessible by road are popular amongst the rock climbing crew. The coastal limestone karst scenery offers some of the most spectacular rock climbing in the world.
If you’re looking for a lovely island on the west coast of Thailand, chilled out Koh Lanta is an underrated castaway island which is fantastic to explore by scooter making a stop at beautiful beach after beach.
East Coast (Gulf of Thailand)
Hopping over to the other side of the Peninsula, you’ll find Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. The glitzy, the wild and the sporty.
Chumphon – Jumping Off Point
Chumphon, on the mainland, is a neglected spot as people jump on the morning ferry to Koh Tao and Koh Phangan and fail to explore the deserted beaches and rainforests of the area. Surat Thani is another jumping off point for the Thai islands and where AirAsia fly to and the buses from the north arrive.
Koh Samui – Avoid
Flashpackers and holidaymakers will delight in Koh Samui‘s abundance of restaurants, activities and nightlife (although we don’t recommend it for backpackers). Personally, I think it’s a tacky, overpriced touristy island with very little left in the way of culture. The beaches are mostly ruined and the locals are fed up of serving drunk blokes on a stag do.
Koh Phangan – Full Moon Party & Yogis
The island of Koh Phangan lures thousands of backpackers each month to experience the most famous best beach party in the world – the Full Moon Party. However, this isn’t the only thing the island is famous for. Recently, a rather controversial new age community of yogis and hippies has sprung up on the West coast of the island bringing tantra, reiki, rainbow healing and a whole host of other new age therapies to make money out of spiritual seeking backpackers.
Koh Tao – For Divers
In nearby Koh Tao, diving is the order of the day and many backpackers get their underwater licence by taking an Open Water Course. You can take the course with a PADI certified school or an SSI certified school. (The links go to our recommended providers). Courses cost around $280 USD. For a complete guide to diving in Koh Tao see here.
Make sure you take a day trip to the beautiful Ang Thong Marine Park while you’re in the area.
Khanom – Hidden Gem
Located on the mainland Khanom is a hidden gem that’s overlooked by most travellers in favour of the more popular Gulf Islands. However, those who stop here a while will be rewarded with empty beaches, mangrove forests, waterfalls, beautiful landscapes and the opportunity to spot pink dolphins!
Further south you’ll find tropical paradise Koh Lipe which remains (for now) a tranquil haven, far removed from some of the busier islands – make sure you visit now before it’s too late!
Khao Sok National Park
In between the skinny strip of land that separates the two coastlines you’ll find Khao Sok National Park, one of the oldest rain-forests in the world, home to many wild beasts such as the Malayan Tapir, the Asian Elephant, Sambar Deer, Wild Boar, Pig Tailed Macaque, White Handed Gibbon and even bears and tigers! See the official Thai National Park website for more info.
This city lies close to the Malaysian border and is a popular spot with both Thai and Malay tourists. Despite this, most backpackers rarely make it this far south. Hat Yai is often skipped over, although it is home to some stunning religious sites and also boasts the beautiful Ton Nga Chang Waterfall.
7 Places to Avoid in Thailand
1. Khao San Road, Bangkok – Bangkok’s backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road was voted the 9th worst place in Southeast Asia in a recent Readers Poll. Tacky, loud, dirty and seedy. Yet despite its brashness, there’s no denying that the area has a lot of things going for it for travellers; cheap food, cheap accommodation and cheap massage! Read our article on why one traveller loves the Khao San Road here.
2. Koh Phi Phi – The famous Maya Bay (AKA ‘The Beach’) was closed during the summer of 2018 in order to protect it from further damage to the fragile coastal environment. Once a true idyllic paradise, now a backpacker party zone with a huge waste disposal problem, Koh Phi Phi is what many people consider a ‘Paradise Lost’.
3. Phuket – Thailand’s largest island and its oldest in terms of tourism, Phuket is covered in fancy hotels, restaurants and tacky bars. Most of the island’s coast has been over-developed and the island’s culture has been obliterated everywhere apart from Phuket Town, which is a diamond in the rough. No wonder it was voted 4th worst place in Southeast Asia in our Readers Poll.
4. Koh Samui – Also making our list of worst places in Southeast Asia (13th place), the island of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand is definitely my least favourite island out of the three (Samui, Tao, Phangan). It’s a popular stag do place and is full of retired men with their Thai wives, a tacky bar scene and over-priced accommodation. Avoid Chaweng. Head to Bophut if you must go to Samui.
5. Pattaya – Taking tacky and seedy to a whole new level, most backpackers don’t even bother with Pattaya, the home of Thailand’s sex industry. For an eye-opening experience, take a stroll down Walking Street during the evening to see ladyboys, prostitutes and old white men out on the prowl. This is the worst of Thailand on one road.
6. Hua Hin – Although Hua Hin has a sophisticated side, I wouldn’t recommend it to travellers. Expensive, tacky restaurants, it has the air of a seedy retirement town complete with gangs of old men looking for a happy ending.
7. Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai – While we don’t know the truth about this place (yet), however, I would advise avoiding most, if not all, animal tourism in Southeast Asia. Anywhere that allows you to take selfies with a wild animal is a no-go in my opinion!
Top 10 Things To Do in Thailand
1. Learn to Dive
Thailand is the cheapest place in the world for a backpacker to learn to dive. Completing an Open Water Course takes three-four days and will grant you an underwater license that you can use anywhere in the world to dive up to 18 metres.
Popular places to learn include Koh Tao, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta (where we dived recently). Wherever you decide to take the plunge, there are no shortage of excellent, professional dive schools across Thailand who will open up the amazing marine world. Make sure you find a school that is PADI or SSI certified.
Watching turtles glide by, hunting for Nemo, swimming past stingrays, puffer fish and barracuda, spotting shrimp and crab lurking in the crevices of the colourful coral reef, diving is an experience you’ll never forget. And, if you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of the amazing whale shark, a seasonal visitor to Thailand’s waters. Growing up to 12 metres these gentle giants are incredible creatures that only visit a few places in the world.
And once you’re carded, you may like to explore some of the more celebrated dive sites across Southeast Asia; the Similan and Surin Islands in Thailand, wreck diving in Coron in the Philippines, Bali or Komodo National Park.
2. Rock Climbing in Krabi
Rugged limestone cliffs surrounding yellow sandy bays make Krabi the ultimate Mecca for rock climbing. The rock forms part of the worlds largest coral reef, stretching from China to Papua New Guinea. Railay and Ton Sai in Krabi offer rock climbing enthusiasts countless routes and challenges.
Beginners can sign up for a half day or full day climbing course with one of the rock climbing schools, where you will be taught basic how to belay a partner, climb and abseil. The more adventurous can commit to a three-day climbing course where you can learn to lead climb. Whatever level you’re at, it’s an exhilarating experience that will get your heart beating and your adrenaline pumping as you push yourself to the top!
3. Indulge in Massage & Spa Treatments
Where else in the world can you get a full body massage for under $10 USD? Not only that, there’s pedicures, manicures, facials, body scrubs, body wraps, mud masks, hot stone massage, waxing, aromatherapy, Swedish massage…
If you haven’t tried the traditional Thai Massage yet then next time you hear the words “Masaaaaaaaaage?”, get in there, lie down and get ready for a serious body work out. As your limbs are pulled in ways that you never imagined, you may wonder if this is torture or massage, but you may as well try it while you’re here!
Ancient Thai massage techniques are a form of Thai Traditional Medicine; which include yoga stretches and the practice of moving energy around the body through targeting pressure points. Many travellers take courses to learn the art of this ancient healing tradition.
4. Experience a Thai Festival
Whatever time of year you’re backpacking through Thailand, chances are your trip will coincide with a festival of some sort. Whether it’s a country-wide or local celebration, it will most certainly be an exciting and colourful affair, where tourists are welcomed to join in the events alongside the locals.
Songkran festival, (in April) is one of the most exuberant events in the Thai calendar, where people all over the country join together for an enormous water fight! Then, there’s the beautiful ‘Loi Krathong’ or Lantern Festival in November, best witnessed in Chiang Mai as thousands of glowing paper lanterns are launched into the night sky creating a wonderful spectacle.
Or for the adventurous, there’s the ‘Phuket Vegetarian Festival’ a gruesome sight as devotees take part in a demonstration of faith to their ancestors by piercing body parts with long spears. Or you may be lucky enough to witness a Thai wedding, a boy’s ordainment into monkhood or just a local street party.
Check out our Southeast Asia Festival Guide here.
5. Visit a Thai Market
Colourful, bustling and brimming with life, Thai Markets are a great cultural experience for travellers and a wonderful place to chat with locals. Wander around stalls selling intriguing bits and bobs, sample weird food and drink and put your bartering skills to the test as you attempt to get yourself kitted out with a brand new pair of fisherman pants!
All over the country, you’ll find markets selling souvenirs, local produce, homemade gifts, everything you can imagine can be bought from a Thai Market or ‘dalat’ in the Thai language.
Amongst the best markets in Thailand is the Chiang Mai Weekend Market, where part of the city is taken over by the huge fair. Specialising in hand-made products and silks from local hill tribes. There’s also street music and a chance to try home brewed wine!
However, the mother of all markets is Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. With an incredible 15,000 + stalls selling everything from retro jewellery to puppy dogs, it’s one of the largest outdoor markets in the world and makes for a great day out.
6. Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
The elephant is a revered symbol of Thai culture and heritage. In many places across the country, notably in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, you will find Elephant Homes or Elephant Conservation Parks. For many travellers, a visit to an Elephant Sanctuary turns out to be a highlight of a backpacking trip.
Feed them, bathe with them, learn how to take care of them; Thailand’s sanctuaries offer the incredible chance to get up close and personal with these amazing creatures in a natural environment; many of them who have recently been rescued from working in unsuitable conditions.
Read this article on elephant sanctuaries in Thailand.
7. Do it just once! The Full Moon Party
Rumour has it that the Full Moon Party began in 1987 as a gathering on the beach of a few friends with guitars to celebrate someone’s birthday. Since then, the party has continued every month on the night of the full moon on the island of Koh Phangan, and has escalated into one of the biggest beach parties in the world.
Every month up to 30,000 people dance and frolic on the sands, bodies smeared with luminous glow paint and a bucket in (each) hand to rave it out until the break of dawn. Thai and international DJ’s play a variety of music; techno, trance, drum n’ bass, house, reggae and even cheesy hits! Music blasts from about 15 different sound systems on the long sandy stretch of Haad Rin Beach.
8. Try Muay Thai Boxing
Muay Thai is an ancient martial art form that’s unique to Thailand. It has been compared to a form of kickboxing with its origins in Chinese and Indian martial arts. For people in the ‘know,’ it is referred to as the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ as it uses punches, elbows, kicks and knee strikes, so there are 8 points of contact as opposed to ‘two points’ (two fists) in Western boxing. It’s the national sport of Thailand and you’ll find boxing stadiums across the country.
Spectating a Muay Thai fight at Bangkok’s Lumphini Stadium is a boisterous experience that should not be missed! Sit at the back with the rowdy Thai folk as they bet on each match and passionately cheer the fighter to victory.
For those interested in learning more about Muay Thai, there are various camps where you can train and learn from real fighters. In Bangkok, you can train with ex-champion Attachai Fairtex at his personal gym for $225 USD per week. In Pai, at Sitjemam Muay Thai, a one-week Muay Thai course will cost you just $140 USD or $420 for one month. You can also take a try-session for $15 USD.
Anyone can sign up to learn the skills and the training is a great way to improve fitness, learn self-defence and self-discipline. Read more about Muay Thai Training here.
9. Get off the Beaten Track
Thailand is no secret. It’s a popular place and it’s easy to see why. It’s good for backpackers to get away from the crowds once in a while. And when you do, you’ll realise that it isn’t that hard to do! Hiring a motorbike is a great way to explore; taking dirt tracks up country lanes passing through hill tribe villages, driving up deserted coastal roads and checking out local eateries only the Thais know.
The fantastic thing about Thailand is that it’s a really safe place to travel and everywhere you go you’ll no doubt meet welcoming locals. And, if you’re looking to get way off the beaten track, North Eastern Thailand (AKA Issan) is a little-visited province of ancient Khmer ruins and rice fields that go on for miles. Travel can be rewarding when you take the path less trodden and seek out the places not many travellers do.
10. Sample the Amazing Street Food
All over Thailand, it’s difficult to walk down any street without passing by a food stall with a local selling some tasty meal or snack. From noodle soup to sushi, satay, meatballs, fried chicken, quail eggs, coconut ice cream, dried squid, fresh fruit, papaya salad, sticky rice… there’s nowhere in the world with the variety of street food that Thailand has.
To drink there’s the freshly squeezed orange juice, sugar cane juice, Thai iced tea or coffee or at night the suspicious looking local liquor ‘yadong’. Despite recent rumours that the government was trying to control the number of street food stalls, rest assured you’ll still find plenty to fill you up on Bangkok’s streets!
Read our Guide to Street Food in Southeast Asia here.
You’ll LOVE backpacking in Thailand if…
- You’re a first-time traveller to Thailand, a solo traveller or a solo female traveller to Southeast Asia. Thailand is the best country to begin your backpacking adventure. It’s safe, cheap and its well-trodden backpacker trails mean that it’s easy to meet fellow travellers along the way. The laid-back nature of the country and its people will ease you into your travels.
- You’re a flashpacker or you’re looking for luxury on a budget and you love clean, well-designed and great value for money hostels and resorts. Thailand has the best range of accommodation in Southeast Asia, particularly for budget travellers.
- You’re a family backpacking with your kids looking for fun activities to do along the way. Thailand is safe, has a higher level of hygiene than many Asian countries and there’ll be no end of Thai people wanting to entertain your kids!
- You’re seeking action and adventure: diving, trekking, caving, rock climbing, Muay Thai, yoga and more adventures await…