If you’re looking for no bullsh*t, “cut the crap” travel advice, this Thailand travel guide is for you! (Written by Nikki Scott, founder of South East Asia Backpacker, who has lived in Thailand for 5+ years.) As well as telling you the best places to go, where to try the best street food, how to avoid scams and save money, this Thailand guide will tell you the places NOT to go and the overrated tourist experiences to avoid! Read on to have all your Thailand travel questions answered…
Also See Our Thailand Travel Guides (Listed A-Z) – Each guide will open in a new window
Ang Thong Marine Park | Ayutthaya | Bangkok | Chiang Dao | Chiang Mai | Chiang Rai | Chumphon | Hat Yai | Hua Hin | Kanchanaburi | Khanom | Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park | Khao Sok National Park | Khao Yai National Park | Koh Chang | Koh Kood | Koh Phi Phi | Koh Samet | Koh Si Chang | Koh Lanta | Koh Lipe | Koh Phangan | Koh Phayam | Koh Samui | Koh Tao | Krabi | Mae Hong Son | Mae Salong | Mae Sot | Nakhon Phanom | Nan Province | Nong Khai | Pai | Phayao | Phetchabun | Phimai | Phu Sang | Phuket | Railay & Tonsai | Sangkhlaburi | Sukhothai.
INTRODUCTION | Backpacking Thailand
- 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
With beaches, waterfalls, hiking trails, temples, markets, amazing nightlife, delicious street food and fabulous cheap 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, I have something important to tell you…
Have you ever heard a snobby backpacker say “Ugh, Thailand… it’s just so touristy these days!” As someone who has lived in several different places in Thailand and explored the country extensively, hearing this type of comment really gets my goat! It is not true at all.
In Thailand, it’s so incredibly easy to get away from the crowds and into places where the locals don’t speak English and will giggle as you walk by. Very often, if you want to have a unique Thai experience, it’s just about turning your phone off and taking a walk up a different street…
You’ll love Thailand if…
- You’re a first-time traveller to Southeast Asia, a solo traveller or a solo female traveller. 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 friendly 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.
- You love to hire a motorbike or a car and get off the beaten track in the countryside. Despite what people may tell you, it’s super easy to get away from tourists in Thailand discover local villages, deserted beaches and empty mountain roads…
- You love Thai food. Enough said.
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WHEN TO GO | What is the best time of year to visit Thailand?
The climate of Thailand is considered ‘tropical’ and in general, the country experiences three distinct seasons: the cool season, the hot season and the rainy (or monsoon) season.
The cool season in Thailand
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.
However, 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 cool season is the most popular time for tourists to visit Thailand (also 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 during this time.
The hot season in Thailand
The hot season in Thailand 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 of every town, city and village in Thailand! 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.
Also see: The best festivals to visit in Thailand!
The rainy season in Thailand
The rainy season (monsoon season) 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 countryside is lush, green 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!
Read more about why we love the rainy season in Southeast Asia here.
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!
The burning season in Thailand
You may have heard rumours about the ‘burning season’ that occurs mostly in the North of Thailand during the months of March-April, which coincides with the hot season (see above). We strongly advise that backpackers, particularly those travelling with children or anyone who has any kind of respiratory issues, to completely avoid travel in the North of Thailand during this time. Is it really that bad? You ask. Yep! I’m afraid it is. Each year, terrible air pollution is caused by the burning of the fields by farmers and the air quality during this time, in cities such as Chiang Mai, is among the worst in the world. What’s more, the problem seems to get worse each year. South and Central Thailand usually aren’t affected by the burning season so make sure you plan your trip accordingly to avoid this time.
VISAS | 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 six 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 $40-60 USD depending on which currency you pay in.
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. After that, you must leave the country.
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 overstaying your visa in Thailand
The penalty for overstaying your visa in Thailand is 500 Thai Baht per day. The maximum fine for overstay that you can pay is 20,000 baht and after this you may face deportation at your own cost or imprisonment. Any overstaying guests may be barred from visiting the country again for several years. In short, be careful to check the date that your visa runs out and make sure you leave the country before that time. It’s just not worth it.
HEALTH | Vaccines and Malaria Tablets
Do I need vaccines to travel to Thailand?
It is recommended that you get the following vaccinations to travel to Thailand. Disclaimer – we do advise that you visit a travel medical clinic before travelling to Thailand and speak to a medical professional.
- 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.
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.
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 ex-pats 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. 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 health information.
SAFETY | 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, drive carefully and get an International Driving License before you travel to make sure that you are legal whilst driving in Thailand. (Important: if you do not have an IDL, you will not be covered by your travel insurance if you have an accident while in Thailand.)
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 Southeast Asian countries. Street food is normally 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 from filtered water and is usually safe to have in your drink (or beer). 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” (pictured above) 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 into them and they are very easy to spike. Cheap alcohol and cheap energy drinks are a bad mix.
TRAVEL INSURANCE | What’s the best 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.
SafetyWing is the travel insurance of choice for scores of backpackers!
- Subscription style insurance
- Cheap and flexible
- Available after your trip has started
Read more about the best travel insurance for backpackers here.
WHAT TO PACK | What should I pack for a trip to Thailand?
Clothes for Thailand
Pack light clothes for travel to Thailand; cotton tops, shorts, t-shirts, tank tops (or vest tops if you’re from the UK), 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 new 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. When visiting a temple or religious monument, legs and shoulders must be covered.
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.
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 Lor).
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 travel sandals or walking shoes are a good idea. Walking boots will be too hot, heavy and bulky to carry around.
Other items that you may like to consider taking: Mosquito repellant, sunscreen, first aid kit, hand sanitiser, sunglasses, tampons (ladies), filtered water bottle, small padlock for securing your bag, travel towel, earplugs, travel pillow, head torch, travel adaptor.
Keep toiletries and medical items down to a minimum. Most items can be bought at well-stocked pharmacies in Thailand.
FLIGHTS | Airports and airlines in Thailand
Flying to Thailand:
There are two airports in Bangkok, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang, both are located about an hour away from the city centre. Bangkok Suvarnabhumi is the largest international airport in Thailand and where most visitors arrive into Thailand via international flights. Don Mueang mainly caters to domestic flights and is the home of AirAsia, Thailand largest budget airline.
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. To find the cheapest flights into Thailand, we always use Skyscanner to compare various airlines.
Flying within Thailand:
Flying around Thailand is cheap, safe and easy. The most prevalent airline in the region is AirAsia which has 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.
LANGUAGE | 10 useful Thai phrases for travellers
- 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
COMMUNICATION | Phone & internet in Thailand
WIFI in Thailand:
WIFI is excellent and is almost everywhere in Thailand, even on tropical islands and high in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Of course, it is fastest in cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. However, across the country, 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 (for example a 7-11 which you can find literally on every street 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.
BUDGET | How much does it cost to backpack in Thailand?
While not voted the cheapest country to travel in Southeast Asia by our readers, it is possible to backpack Thailand very cheaply if you’re willing to compromise on a few luxuries (buses instead of flights, dorms instead of private rooms and street food instead of Western meals). Here’s an idea of how much things cost in Thailand to help you plan your budget and some money-saving tips.
Must Read: For more detailed information see our guide on the cost of backpacking in Thailand.
The cost of food in Thailand
Street food in Thailand: The cheapest way to fill your stomach in Thailand is by eating street food. A plate of street food or a bowl of noodle soup (goyteow) costs between 30-50 Baht ($1-$1.5 USD) depending on where you are and how posh the restaurant is.
Also read: A Guide to the Food in Northern Thailand.
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, will 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!
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 (I did!). 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 so it’s always much better to check out prices when you get there, in person.
Cost of Transport in Thailand:
Getting around Thailand is cheap and easy (see more in the transport 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 great value 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! (And have an authentic Thai experience while you’re at it.) You will 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. At these prices, why not pamper yourself?
TRANSPORT | Getting around Thailand
Buses in Thailand
Buses come in three varieties in Thailand: VIP buses, local buses and minibuses.
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 average cost for an 8-hour journey is 600-800 THB.
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, a 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!
Trains in Thailand:
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 and the cost is around 10-20 THB per journey.
Taxis in Thailand:
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 and used by locals.
In Bangkok, however, 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 is the most popular way to hire a private driver in the city.
Tuk tuks in Thailand:
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. For more on scams see here.
Songthaews in Thailand:
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-taxis in Thailand:
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 make sure you negotiate your price before you get on the back of the bike.
Ferries in Thailand:
Passenger and car ferries run to all of the major islands in Thailand and the main companies are Lomprayah, Sea Tran and Songserm.
THAI FOOD | Finding amazing food in Thailand
If I could give you just one tip for your travels in Thailand, it would be: don’t be afraid of eating street food. It’s fresh, delicious, nutritious and will surely reward you with some of the happiest memories from your backpacking adventure! (If you’re afraid of getting sick, remember that very often, the food at street food stalls in Thailand is much fresher than that in hotels and restaurants, due to the high turnover of customers.)
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. Often, you can choose between sen yai (big noodles), sen lek (small noodles) or sen bamee (yellow noodles). On every single street food table, you will find four glass dishes containing the noodle soup’s essential condiments: chillis, fish sauce, vinegar and pickled chillis. Add a bit of each for an authentic Thai lunch!
Other Thai street food dishes that are cheap are rice and noodle-based dishes from the national dish, Pad Thai, to Pad Krapow to Pad SeeYew. Why not try them all?
Tips for finding amazing, cheap street food in Thailand
- 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.)
- If you don’t know what to order, just point at the table next to you as if to say “I’ll have what he’s having!”.
- If you don’t like spicy food be sure to say ‘my ow ped’. Though don’t count on that working, Thais just love chilli!
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.
ITINERARIES | Thailand Backpacking Routes
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!
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. (See here for a Bangkok itinerary.)
- 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, and 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).
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.
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 Chiang Mai 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 live music scene.
- 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 Itineraries!
WHERE TO GO | Places to Visit in Thailand
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 the local language), ancient ruins, vast national parks and even tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand.
Bangkok, Thailand’s Capital
Most backpackers begin their Thailand journey in Bangkok, a thriving metropolis of old and new. Where speedy tuk-tuks transport you from ancient temple to glitzy shopping mall. Experience the famous Khao San Road, the bustling backpacker hub of Southeast 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).
- Travel guide to Bangkok.
- Bangkok itinerary.
- Choosing the best Bangkok neighbourhood.
- Find Hostels in Bangkok.
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.
More places to visit in Central Thailand
The rest of Central Thailand is dotted with places of cultural interest. Check out the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Phimai or head to Khao Yai National Park for trekking and wildlife spotting. Kanchanaburi and Sankgklaburi are chilled out towns out East towards the Burmese border. And finally, Hua Hin and Prachuap Khiri Khan are coastal towns on the way down south where you can visit the national parks of Khao Sam Roi Yot and Kui Buri (the best place to spot wild elephants in Thailand).
- Khao Yai National Park
- Hua Hin
- Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park
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. Most backpackers start their explorations of Northern Thailand in the unofficial “capital of the north”, Chiang Mai.
A variety of outdoor pursuits can be enjoyed from here; including 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 (we love BEES). 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.
Places to visit in the North of Thailand:
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: The north is home to amazing mountain scenery and 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.
North Eastern Thailand (Isaan)
The vast emptiness of North Eastern Thailand is called Isaan or Isan. This is a very off-the-beaten-track part of Thailand that few farang (foreigners) visit. The area is very flat, home to thousands of rice fields and local farming villages. Tourists who do visit Isaan will be greeted with stares and waves from amazed locals, but don’t worry, everyone will be very welcoming and friendly!
Places to visit in the North East of 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!
Discover the best beaches in Thailand here.
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. If you’re looking for the striking scenery of high limestone cliffs and longtail boats, you’ll want to check out the Andaman coast and the destinations of Krabi, Railay, Tonsai and Koh Phi Phi. 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.
Places to visit in South Thailand (West Coast):
- Phuket (Avoid – see below).
- Koh Phi Phi (Avoid – see below).
- Railay & Tonsai
- Koh Lanta
- Koh Lipe
Places to visit in South Thailand (East Coast):
Inland South Thailand
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!
See more of the best places to visit in Thailand here.
WHERE NOT TO GO | Places to avoid in Thailand
While we always encourage backpackers to explore every nook and cranny of a country, there are a few places in Thailand which, in my opinion, are best avoided due to them being overly touristy, expensive, tacky, or all three.
- Koh Samui – Touristy, expensive and full of stag parties. If you have to go, I’d recommend that you stay in Bophut.
- Pattaya – Thailand’s sex capital is full of go-go bars, strip clubs and shopping malls. If you like that kind of thing…
- Khao San Road, Bangkok – The tackiest street in Bangkok. Some love it, some hate it. Worth a look, but we recommend that you stay in a different neighbourhood of Bangkok.
- Phuket – Overrated, over-touristy island, expensive hotels and built-up beaches – worth a miss. Apart from Phuket Old Quarter, which we like.
- Koh Phi Phi – One of the smallest and most expensive islands in Thailand, ruined by too many beach parties and overcrowding of buildings. A paradise lost.
- Chiang Mai – While we don’t recommend that you avoid the city, it has changed in recent years and you shouldn’t visit thinking that it’s a charming old-fashioned and quaint city. It’s not.
- The Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi – Subject to controversy in recent years. This place should be avoided.
- Haad Rin, Koh Phangan – There are much nicer places to stay on the island, you don’t have to be right next to the Full Moon Party Beach. See here for a list of great hostels in Koh Phangan.
- Thailand’s Floating Markets – Some floating markets, particularly in Bangkok, are out-and-out tourist traps. See this article if you’re interested in visiting a more authentic floating market in Thailand.
See more of the worst places to visit in Southeast Asia here.
THINGS TO DO | 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 to dive include Koh Tao (the backpacker favourite) Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta (where we dived recently).
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.
- Read more about diving in Southeast Asia here.
- Read more on diving in Koh Tao here.
- Book dive trips in Thailand here.
2. Rock Climbing in Krabi
Rugged limestone cliffs surrounding sandy bays make Krabi the ultimate Mecca for rock climbing. The cliffs form part of the world’s largest ancient 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 are 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 workout!
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 Thai massage courses to learn the art of this ancient healing tradition.
Related: Learn Thai massage in Thailand.
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 welcome 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 guide to festivals in Thailand here.
5. Visit a Thai Market
Colourful, bustling and brimming with life, Thai Markets (dalat in Thai language) are a great cultural experience for travellers and a wonderful place to practise your Thai 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.
Thailand’s sanctuaries offer the incredible chance to get up close and personal with these amazing creatures in a natural environment; many of them have been rescued from working in unsuitable conditions. However, when visiting an elephant sanctuary, you need to make sure that the place you are visiting has the elephant’s well-being in mind. A decent sanctuary should offer no elephant riding or bathing. Do your research before you go.
Read this article on how to choose an ethical elephant sanctuary 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. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (You probably won’t want to do it twice.)
- Read more about the different types of ‘moon’ parties in Koh Phangan here.
- Read our guide to Koh Phangan here.
- Find the best Koh Phangan hostels here.
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.
Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and you’ll find boxing stadiums across the country, most notably in the bigger cities. 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. Read more about watching a Muay Thai fight in Bangkok here.
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 about the Best Muay Thai Gyms in Thailand here.
- Read about the history of Muay Thai here.
- Find out about training Muay Thai in Bangkok here.
- Book Muay Thai Training Camps 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.
Read more about hiring a motorbike in Thailand here.
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, 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.
TOURS | Thailand Backpacking Tours
If you’re a solo traveller, taking a tour at the beginning of your adventure in Thailand or Southeast Asia is a great way to ease you into the backpacking experience and help you to meet travel buddies with whom you can continue travelling!
Whether you’re looking for a day trip or a longer group tour, we have handpicked the best local providers on our website here.
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