Thailand destination guide

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Introduction to Thailand for first time visitors

Thailand is our favourite travel destination right now. We’ve been five times in the past five years and we’re planning another visit very soon. But there are so many things we wish we’d known the first time we visited. So we hope our Thailand destination guide for first time visitors will help you to choose the right places to go and the right things to see on your first visit.

As you plan your Thailand holiday, make sure to stay in touch via our Asian travel blog where we post the latest updates about what’s happening in Thailand and other parts of Asia.

Thailand is a country that has so much to offer tourists and travellers. From great limestone mountain bays and sandy beaches in the south to unbelievable shopping experiences in the capital, to amazing temples and ancient historical ruins, walled ancient cities, fantastic festivals, the Golden Triangle and, of course, the great food and famous Thai smile.

There are so many famous travel destinations that it’s hard to get to them all in one lifetime, but we’re doing our best throughout this website so when you next travel, you’ll get the best too.

There’s no way you can see everything in one trip, unless you’re spending six or twelve months backpacking around the country. But our original three week itinerary was a great introduction to the wonders of Thailand and something we organised all on our own.

Bangkok city centre district
Bangkok is the vibrant capital of Thailand, a mecca for shoppers with nightlife like no other city in Asia

Week 1 was spent in Bangkok, shopping our little hearts out and visiting iconic tourist spots like the Tiger Temple, the Grand Palace, the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Chao Phraya River – we found the Phra Arthit area a great base in Bangkok, close to the river and the famous BTS Skytrain (the quickest way to explore Bangkok). We flew to Bangkok with Air Asia (from Gold Coast, Australia, via Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), stayed at the New Siam II guest house in Phra Arthit, just a short walk from Khao San Road, and we booked our tours from the tour desk in the hotel. It’s a five minute walk to the river ferry and a 10 minute walk to the Grand Palace.

Water sports are fun at Ko Phi Phi Island
The island resorts of Southern Thailand are the place for sin, sun and fun

Week 2 was spent exploring the southern beaches and islands, lazing on sandy beaches and having long lunches and dinners in palm-fringed cafes and restaurants. We based ourselves in Ao Nang beach resort near the town of Krabi, and took time to explore the delights of the nearby Koh Phi Phi islands. We flew from Bangkok to Krabi with Thai Air Asia (a local subsidiary of Air Asia) for just US$30 each. We stayed a couple of days in Krabi Town at the Krabi Riverside Hotel (a great place) and then took a 20 minute taxi ride to Ao Nang Beach. In Ao Nang, we stayed at a tiny guest house called Ao Nang Friendly Bungalows run by a lovely Muslim family. They organised our trip our to Ko Phi Phi and also recommended places to eat.

The Thapae Gate in the walled city of Chiang Mai
The Thapae Gate in the walled city of Chiang Mai

Week 3 took us way up north to Chiang Mai, the ancient walled capital of the former Lanna Thai kingdom, where we chilled out even further. In Chiang Mai we based ourselves on the edge of the “old city” near the city wall and the famous Thapae Gate, so we were in walking distance of the Chiang Mai night market, the Saturday Street Market on Wu Lai Road, and the Sunday Street Market in the old city. We also took the time to explore the famous temple at Doi Suithep, about 30 minutes from Chiang Mai, and the nearby White Meo hilltribe village. We flew from Krabi to Chiang Mai, via Bangkok, with Thai Air Asia for about US$50 each. In Chiang Mai, we stayed at the Elegant Lanna guest house, which was recommended on TripAdvisor. They organised our tours and looked after us very well.

There are lots of other destinations to explore in Thailand, some of which get added to our itinerary each year since. Popular destinations include:

Phuket and the southern beaches

Phuket region has some of Asia's best and least crowded beaches
Phuket region has some of Asia’s best and least crowded beaches

The south is famous for its beautiful white sand beaches, sparkling blue oceans, incredible limestone islands poking up out of the azure sea, amazing seafood, resort hotels, diving and snorkelling trips, lazing on the beach, surfing and just having fun.

We prefer to travel the area around Krabi/Ao Nang because it’s a bit quieter and more laid back, but you’ll have fun almost anywhere here.

Just be careful if you get down close to the Malaysian border and especially further east from there as there have been some troubles around that area in the recent past with Muslim separatists.

  • Koh Phi Phi – gorgeous islands in the middle of a sparkling bay
  • Koh Samui – limestone mountains, white sand beaches, famous nightlife
  • Krabi/Ao Nang – gateway to the islands and beaches
  • Phang-Nga – gorgeous beaches, gateway to the Andaman Islands
  • Phuket – the Bali of Thailand, famous for its beaches and seafood
  • Ranong – famous hot springs, gateway to Burma (Myanmar)
  • Songkhla – beaches, historical sites, gateway to Malaysia
  • Trang – 46 islands, famous for its wildlife and natural scenery

Pattaya and the eastern beaches

It's easy to find quiet, uncrowded beaches north and south of Pattaya
It’s easy to find quiet, uncrowded beaches north and south of Pattaya

There’s beaches around here too – and damn good ones too, but they tend to be full of package tourists from Bangkok or around the world so we don’t spend a lot of time here.

The east does have some beautiful mountain scenery too, especially around Trat, and some gorgeous unspoilt islands around Koh Chang area.

  • Chonburi – closest beach resort to Bangkok, close to Pattaya
  • Rayong – beach resort famous for its fresh fruit and food
  • Trat – mountains and sandy beaches, tiny unspoilt islands and coral reefs
  • Pattaya – bars, sex, nightclubs, water sports (not my kind of place)
  • Koh Chang – awesome marine parks, rainforest islands, amazing scenery

Bangkok and the central region

Central Thailand is steeped in ancient history, religion and culture to explore
Central Thailand is steeped in ancient history, religion and culture to explore

Dominated by Bangkok, the central region is mainly about the shopping and the tours you can take to places like the floating markets (Kanchanaburi) and the ruins of the ancient capital (Ayutthaya).

But there are also some beaches close to the capital if that’s as far as you can manage to go. Hua Hin is a very popular beach destination for Bangkok residents and for stop-over travellers who only have a few days in Thailand.

  • Ayutthaya – ancient capital and major archeological site
  • Bangkok – the capital and heaven for addicted shoppers!
  • Kanchanaburi – Bridge over the River Kwai and famous war memorials
  • Phetchaburi – unspoilt beaches, where Thai royalty went to holiday
  • Prachuap Khiri Khan – Bangkok’s weekend beach getaway
  • Hua Hin – Thailand’s original beach resort, a day trip from Bangkok

What ever your interests, there’s something for you in and around Bangkok. It’s also the jumping off point for many of Thailand’s most famous attractions like the Grand Palace, the Bridge over the River Kwai and the Tiger Temple.

Isaan and the remote north-east

Phi Mai Historical Park in Isaan region is compared with Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Phi Mai Historical Park in Isaan region is compared with Angkor Wat in Cambodia

The Isaan region is for the intrepid traveller, with lots of unspoilt wilderness to explore and great places to go hiking and trekking.

You’ll find far fewer tourists here, but more dedicated travellers. It can get dangerous too the further east you go as there are some armed insurgents and border conflicts in this area from time to time.

  • Chaiyaphum – Land of Victory, famous for its national parks
  • Khon Kaen – commercial capital of NE Thailand, famous for its silks
  • Loei – pristine rural beauty with rugged mountain ranges
  • Nakhon Ratchasima – center of Khmer culture in Thailand
  • Nong Khai – ancient temples and market towns on the banks on the Mekong River

Chiang Mai and the northern provinces

Wat Rong Khun Chiang Rai
The White Temple of Chiang Rai is a major attraction in Northern Thailand

If you’re looking for unspoilt and safe, you’ll find it in the north.

It’s a place of remote beauty, rugged mountains, hill tribes, rivers, amazing crafts and souvenirs, cheap accommodation and meals.

There are “must see” attractions here like the White Temple in Chiang Rai, the Doi Tung royal villa near Mae Sai, the Golden Triangle on the border with Burma and Laos, and some of the best elephant rides and river rides in Thailand around Chiang Mai.

  • Chiang Mai – ancient capital of the Northern Lanna kingdom
  • Chiang Rai – laid back gateway to the Golden Triangle, Laos, Burma and China
  • Mae Hong Son – sometimes called the “Switzerland” of Thailand
  • Sukhothai – capital of the first independent kingdom in Thailand

Where ever you go in Thailand, you’re sure to find friendly people, great food, fantastic shopping bargains, lots to see and do and a great all-round holiday for travellers of all ages.

Travel money

The great thing when you travel in Thailand is that it’s so cheap – everything is cheap except perhaps wine and spirits, most of which is imported. If you’re like us and don’t throw money around stupidly, you’ll get by comfortably on 500-1000B per day for a couple, except in places like Phuket or Pattaya or perhaps Bangkok – because prices do tend to be a little more expensive in those heavily touristed places. This will cover your accommodation (around 300-600B per night), food (300-500B), transport (100-200B) and a few drinks to end the day. Of course you can easily spend more than that, but even if you eat, stay and drink in fairly good places, you should not need much more than 1500-2000B per day.

Read our guide to the Thai Baht to get a better idea about how to manage your travel budget.

Staying safe

I can’t say we’ve ever felt unsafe when we travel in Thailand, but we do tend to stay away from areas known to be troublesome I guess. But there are a few things to think about before you take your Thailand holiday.

Read our guide to travel insurance and staying safe in Thailand for more information.

Avoiding scams and trouble spots

The major scam to avoid is in Bangkok and involves tuk-tuk drivers wanting to take you to a “Thai Export Centre” to buy jewellery or the like. They will entice you with very cheap or free rides and they will tell you all sorts of small lies to get you to go there. Once there, you will get pressure from salespeople to buy expensive products, but no-one will actually rob you or do anything terrible. So even if you do get caught up in this, just give a lot of firm “NO” answers.

Read our guide to Thailand scams and how to avoid them before you go, and nothing will spoil your holiday. Don’t forget to stay updated via our travel blog for the latest updates on what’s happening in Thailand right now.

Getting around in Thailand

Taxis, tuk tuks, motor scooters, bicycles, songthaews, trains, buses and planes, even hire cars, they’re all great options for getting around in Thailand.

It’s a fairly large country, so don’t expect to be able to see it all on a bicycle in two or three days. In fact you are unlikely to even get a real handle on getting around in Thailand in two or three month-long holidays. But that said, it’s not a hard country to travel in, by comparison to other Asian countries like Vietnam or China.

If you’re travelling from the south (e.g. Phuket) to the centre (e.g. Bangkok) and on to the north (e.g. Chiang Mai), be ready for some airline flights. Travelling between these places by road  (e.g. bus) can be a long, slow haul and it doesn’t pay to waste your precious holiday time this way.

Getting around by train

It's cheap and easy to get around in Thailand by train
It’s cheap and easy to get around in Thailand by train

Getting around in Thailand by train is often a reasonable option as Thailand does have a well developed small gauge rail network (although most of it is single line, so there are often delays when two trains need to pass each other. Just getting into or out of Bangkok on the train can take more than an hour due to line congestion! But the trains are typically comfortable and air-conditioned and travelling in Thailand by train is much cheaper than flying.

We took a train from Malaysia up to Bangkok and it was tolerable, but it did arrive a fair bit later than it should have and getting out of Bangkok railway station without being caught up by overcharging taxi touts can be a challenge.

The main railway line runs into Thailand from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, through Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chumpon and Hua Hin and on to Bangkok. You can connect to this train line from Phuket or Koh Samui in the regional centre of Surat Thani. The main line then runs north from Bangkok to Lop Buri, Nakhon Sawan, Phhitsanulok and on to Chiang Mai. An eastern line runs from Bangkok to Bang La and then south to Chon Buri, Bang Lamung and Sattahip. There is also an eastern rail line to Nakhon Ratchasima, Sunn and Ubon Ratchathani and a north-eastern rail line to Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nong Khai where you can connect to Vientiane in Laos. For more information about getting around in Thailand by inter-city train, visit Thailand by Train.

Getting around by plane

Air Asia is one of several cheap airlines servicing regional Thailand
Air Asia is one of several cheap airlines servicing regional Thailand

Domestic flights in Thailand are relatively cheap, especially by Western standards. This is because Thailand is well serviced by a competitive network of domestic airlines including the national carrier, Thai Airways, a boutique carrier called Bangkok Airways, a budget carrier called Nok Air and a relatively new entrant, Thai Air Asia (part owned by Air Asia in Malaysia).

A flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Thai Air Asia costs about 3000B (A$100) and takes a little over an hour. A similar flight from Bangkok to Phuket costs about 2000 Bt or less and takes about 30 minutes. It’s fast and cheap and really worth thinking about if you value your travelling time. The trick with Air Asia is to watch the “extras” – they like to charge extra for almost everything including baggage, seat allocation, meals, priority boarding, insurance, etc. It can soon make a very cheap airfare a bit less cost-effective. But if you manage your bookings carefully, getting around in Thailand on Thai Air Asia can be almost as cheap as train travel. They do sometimes cancel flights or reschedule them when there are not enough bookings, so always confirm your flights before heading to the airport. Also, be aware that November to April is peak travel season in the south of Thailand (Phuket and Ko Samui) so flights are often booked out well in advance.

Flying from the south (e.g. Surat Thani to Bangkok) can be very cheap. Booking more than two weeks in advance you can often get flights from Surat Thani to Bangkok for less than 600 Baht with Thai Air Asia (around US$20). Flying to the north you can often get fares out of Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Thai Air Asia for USD$50-60 by booking a few weeks in advance. Likewise, you can often get flights from Phuket to Chiang Mai on Thai Air Asia for less than 2000 Bt (USD$65). The only direct (non-stop) flights from Phuket to Chiang Mai are with a new carrier, Thai Smile, who charge around twice the fare of Thai Air Asia (about 6000 Bt).

But if you’re connecting through Bangkok you have to be aware that turnaround times at Don Meuang airport can mean you need more than 90 minutes to make your connecting flight. It can be done in less, but it’s not worth the hassle. Thai Air Asia generally don’t book through, so you’re responsible for collecting your baggage in Bangkok and checking in to your connecting flight on time.

Getting around at your destination

The BTS Skytrain is a great way to get around in Bangkok
The BTS Skytrain is a great way to get around in Bangkok

We like to make the most of every minute we have in Thailand, so we don’t bother wasting good time walking when you we take a tuk-tuk to most places for 30-50 Bt per trip (around US$1), or a taxi for maybe 100 Bt (US$3). We started out walking a lot and taking the Bangkok Skytrain, but once we discovered how cheap tuk-tuks and taxis really are, we started using them like everyone else. It just makes sense.

You need to be prepared to haggle a bit with the tuk-tuk drivers or you will get overcharged – but even then you’re likely to pay US$3 for a ride instead of US$1.50. It’s so cheap you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the effort of haggling. Just be careful not to accept any offers of tuk-tuk tours in Bangkok, because often this means them trotting you around all day to expensive shops where they get a commission on what you buy (see Thailand scams and how to avoid them for more information).

You can easily rent scooters, motorbikes, cars or even four-wheel-drives (RVs) all over Thailand and they are reasonably cheap to rent. You typically don’t need an international drivers licence, but you will mostly be expected to leave your passport as security. We usually rent a scooter in the north or the south where the traffic is manageable and we’ve also rented cars and RVs in the north to explore the border regions at leisure. Just be careful to check your vehicle thoroughly on pickup (take photos with the date feature turned on) because some cheaper rental companies will try to get more out of you when you return the car by claiming you’ve damaged it.

Don’t bother driving in Bangkok because it’s a nightmare, but most other places are manageable. Remember that the ex-pats in Thailand say the police will always take the side of locals in an accident. And if you’ve never ridden a scooter or motorcycle in Thailand before, you need to read our 10 tips for riding a motorbike in Thailand first. Be aware that your travel insurance might not cover you if you ride a motorcycle bigger than about 150cc!

Finally, there’s always the option of the ubiquitous songthaew for getting around in Thailand. These are utility (pick-up) vehicles with a cab on the back, usually red and with two rows of bench seats. They cruise the streets of most Thai cities and towns picking people up off the side of the road and taking them where they want to go. They are part of the Thai public transport system, although privately owned and operated. They typically run a set route which is written in Thai on a sign in the front window, although in some places the colour of the songthaew is the only indication of where it’s going.

If you want to use songthaews as a way of getting around in Thailand (and they are very, very cheap), you need to flag them down as they pass you (often they’ll toot to let you know they’re coming). Check with the driver to see if he goes where you want to go, then jump in the back. There’s usually a buzzer near the rear window in the back that you press when you want to get out, although in some you might need to bang on the window. When you get out, pay the driver the fare and you’re done. Fares are usually around 10 Baht for a short trip and around 60 Baht for a longer trip (say 10-20 km).

In the more touristy areas like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, you’ll also see songthaews running around with big signs on the side advertising various tourist attractions like tiger parks and elephant camps. These are usually special destination songthaews and pick up tourists all over the city to take them to a single tourist attraction. They are also very cheap and will usually be waiting outside the attraction when you come out to take you back to your hotel.

Stay in touch by reading our travel blog. Ask questions by leaving comments here or on Twitter or Facebook. Check out our Attractions in Thailand to inform your holiday planning.