Updated August 14th, 2018.
An Introduction to Backpacking Thailand
Whether you’re a party animal, outdoorsy type, culture vulture or beach bum, Thailand has something for everyone. Stunning white sands, tropical rainforests, delicious food, friendly locals and crazy nightlife; it’s no wonder ‘The Land of Smiles’ continues to lure thousands of backpackers to its beautiful shores year after year. But despite, what you’ve heard, it’s easy to get off the beaten track and AWAY from tourists in Thailand, quite easily actually! Our destination guides below should help you with that.
- EAT! – Pad Thai: Thailand’s most famous dish. For 30 baht (about 1 US dollar) grab yourself a plate of steaming noodles, vegetables, prawns, chicken and egg. (Thailand is famous all over the world for its incredible street food, but it may not be this way forever according to the recent government crackdowns on street vendors.)
- DRINK! – The Bucket: Vodka, whiskey or gin mixed with M150 (same same but different Red Bull, pronounced ‘Em Loy Ha Sip’) and a dash of fruit juice. These are deadly concoctions – be warned!
- WEAR! – Same Same T-Shirt: Like the timeless white T or classic little black dress, the archetypal SAME SAME T-Shirt is suitable for all backpacker functions.
- BEWARE! – Girls named Lola: That girl is gorgeous and she’s well into you… Seems a bit too good to be true? It probably is.
Check out our travel guides to the best places to visit in Thailand below! Scroll further down and you’ll find some important travel info (visas, the best time to visit etc.) as well as an overview of each region and a clickable map! Travelling to Thailand for 2 weeks? Check out our Thailand Itinerary 2 Weeks.
An Introduction to Thailand
The Capital – Bangkok
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 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).
The famous Khao San Road, Bangkok
Stunning mountainous scenery dotted with glistening waterfalls, lakes and rivers amidst lush 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 also home to the country’s ethnic minorities; the Karen and Hmong hill tribes and the opportunity to arrange a homestay in a traditional village is available. Backpackers coming from bustling Bangkok and the touristy South of Thailand will experience a drastic change of pace here in the north… picturesque cities and quirky villages and a unique way of life will charms and enchant visitors – so much so that you might end up staying here forever!
Start in the capital of the north, Chiang Mai, with its bustling weekend markets, hipster cafes and plethora of outdoor activities. Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to lap up some Thai culture: indulge in Thai massage, try a spot of yoga, take a cooking course or perhaps explore your spiritual side with a Buddhist meditation retreat in a Thai monastery.
Or maybe you prefer the quieter town of Chiang Rai with the incredible White Temple and nearby hill tribe villages… the north of Thailand offers the backpacker much adventure!
You will fall in love with the bohemian town of Pai, set in a lush green valley surrounded by waterfalls and hot springs and further West towards the Burmese border, the mountainous landscape of Mae Hong Son will blow your mind!
On the way, be sure to stop of 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.
For a taste of Myanmar in Thailand, visit Mae Sot with its Burmese culture and food and mix of ethnic minorities.
Or head East on a motorbike adventure to the little-visited towns of Phayao and Mae Salong right on the norther border with Burma near the Golden Triangle with its tea plantations and Chinese Temples.
And, perhaps on your onward journey into Laos, don’t miss a side of Thailand that backpackers rarely get to see, Issan (the north east of Thailand), 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.
What year is it in Thailand? As well as the Gregorian calendar, Thailand runs by the Thai Solar Calendar, which is 543 years ahead of the West. Dates are often written B.E. in English. (Buddhist Era)
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.
From Bangkok, escape to the nearby tropical islands of Koh Chang (Thailand’s second biggest island), Koh Samet and the smaller 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.
If you’re looking for outdoor adventure and fresh air, head east from Bangkok about three hours to Khao Yai National Park for trekking and nature trails.
Or, 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.
A backpacker favourite three hours West of Bangkok, Kanchanaburi provides dirt cheap accommodation and access to 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 Sangklaburi – 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.
This is the Thailand paradise you’ve always dreamed about! White sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and colourful long tail boats bobbing on translucent turquoise waters, Thailand has more than it’s fair share of gorgeous tropical islands. Both the Gulf of Thailand on the East coast and the Andaman coast on the West offer amazing snorkelling and diving opportunities, activities from Muay Thai boxing to jungle trekking and a plethora of great restaurants, bars and crazy nightlife.
On the West Coast (The Andaman)…
You’ll be faced with the effects of the original Thai tourism boom in the most overdeveloped and largest island of Phuket. However, you can still find beautiful quieter areas if you hire a motorbike and take the time to explore.
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.
Backpackers go dewy-eyed at the gorgeous island gem, Koh Phi Phi, where you can take a long tail boat to explore The Beach made famous by Leonardo Di Caprio in the film of the same name.
Nearby Railay and Ton Sai beaches located on the mainland yet inaccessible by road are popular amongst the rock climbing crew and die-hard Bob Marley fans.
Chilled out Koh Lanta is an underrated castaway island which is fantastic to explore by scooter making a stop at beautiful beach after beach.
The East Coast (The 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. Flashpackers and holidaymakers will delight in Koh Samui’s abundance of restaurants, activities and nightlife, whereas Koh Phangan lures thousands of backpackers each month to experience the most famous best beach party in the world – the Full Moon Party.
In nearby Koh Tao, diving is the order of the day and many backpackers get their underwater licence by taking an Open Water Learn to Dive Course. Take the plunge for the first time and experience another world!
Make sure you take a trip to the incredible Ang Thong Marine Park while you’re in the area! 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!
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! Chumphon, on the mainland is also a neglected spot as people jump on the morning ferry to Koh Tao and fail to explore the deserted beaches and rainforests of the area.
Did you know? South Thailand’s awesome Khao Sok National Park claims to be the amongst the oldest forest eco-system in the world. It is a protected wildlife reserve and home to many exotic creatures, such as tigers, clouded leopards, bears, tapirs, gibbons, langurs and pangolin.
In a nut shell, Thailand is a fantastic place to start your backpacking trip! And, it’s popularity as a renowned backpacker destination means that you’ll have no problem meeting other travel companions going your way! It’s an incredibly safe country to travel in with a huge diversity of activities on offer.
- Currency: Thai Baht
- Capital city: Bangkok
- Main religion: 95% Theravada Buddhism
- Main language: Thai
- Telephone code: +66
- Time: GMT +7 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance: 1669, Fire: 199, Police: 191
Thai Language Essentials
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: Sawasdee krap / ka
- Thank-you: Kop khun krap / ka
- Sabaidee myee?: How are you?
- Can I have the bill please?: Check bin krap / ka
- How much?: Tow-ry krap / ka?
- I don’t want it thank-you: Mai ow krap / ka
- Learn Thai on your iPod.
- Climate: Most of Thailand experiences three seasons; The cool season occurs during November to February, followed by the hot season, March to May, then the rainy season, between June and October. As with many countries in this part of the world, the wet season tends to consist of short, hard downpours. The time of the rainy season however, differs from the East coast to the West. The Andaman Coast (West) experiences monsoon from June to September (Phuket, Phi Phi, Krabi, Railay) whilst in the Gulf of Thailand (East) rains mostly fall during September to November.
Thailand Visa Information
- Tourist Visa: Most nationalities, including Americans, Australians and most Europeans receive a free 30 day tourist visa upon arrival into Thailand by air. However, if arriving by land you will only receive 15 days. Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months upon entering. Another option is to purchase a 60 day tourist visa prior to entry, which can be extended for an additional 30 days (60 tourists visas cost around 40$).
- Visa extension: Visas can be renewed for a fee at immigration points. The cost is 1900 baht for 7 days extra and it can be extended only once. If you leave the country and return, your visa will be renewed for free. 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.
- Penalty for late departure: 500 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.
Don’t Forget: Make sure you have good backpacker travel insurance before you head to Thailand.
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