Thailand Travel Guide

Thailand Travel Guide

The diversity of what Thailand offers to first-time senior visitors, or even more seasoned travellers, is what sets it apart from many of its Southeast Asian neighbours. A year-round tropical climate, sandy beaches, idyllic tropical islands, abundant wildlife and natural wonders, archaeological sites, temples and monasteries, to name a few. The vibrant and lively festivals that happen across the country, the thriving nightlife, world-class shopping facilities, and let’s not forget the friendly welcoming people.

Eating in Thailand is an absolute highlight. Although many associate Thai cuisine with lots of chilli and spice, it is much more diverse than that using an abundance of fresh vegetables, herbs, seafood, pork and chicken, and of course, delicious tropical fruit. Within Thailand, there are distinct regional variances: the northern or Lanna style; northeastern or Isaan food; Central Plains cuisine which is sometimes referred to as Royal Cuisine; and the food styles of southern Thailand with its Malaysian influences. It is worth researching regional specialities and seeking them out.

Great infrastructure means ease of travel within the kingdom for visitors and the welcoming nature of the Thai people make it a delight to travel around. Actually, Thailand is one of the 10 most visited countries in the world with over 37 million international tourists visiting the ‘Land of Smiles’ in 2018.

Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’. Image: Prot Tachapanit

Highlighting the top destinations for readers is difficult, as Thailand has so many diverse and ‘worth visiting’ destinations. If we were to use international visitor numbers as a criterion, then four of the five most visited destinations are included here.

One omission, Pattaya, is the most visited destination in Thailand after Bangkok with a staggering 15 million visitors in 2018. It is often known as ‘Sun City’. It also has the less than favourable ‘Sin City’ tag. It is highly attractive to those seeking lots of nightlife, bars, and every conceivable entertainment option. This is mixed with beaches, water sports and a great diversity of other recreational activities. It is certainly Thailand’s most developed tourist destination. Add it to your Thailand travel plans if this sounds like you.

Bangkok

The thriving capital of Thailand for over 235 years sits astride the Chao Phraya River. Formerly a small trading port, it has grown into a heaving city of 8.3 million and in 2018 was the most visited city in the world. Typically, visitors to Thailand enter the country through one of its two international airports. The city’s Mass Rapid Transport makes getting around including to and from the airports easy. Over 60’s even receive discounted travel on the MRT networks.

Topping Bangkok’s ‘must see’ list is The Grand Palace, built in 1782 and for 150 years was the home of Thai kings and the royal court. With its beautiful architecture and intricate detail, The Grand Palace continues to leave visitors in awe. Within the same vast complex is Wat Phra Kaew which enshrines the Emerald Buddha, pared from a single block of emerald, which dates back to the 14th Century. Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha) also top the sightseeing list. And no trip to Bangkok is complete without a trip on the Chao Phraya River or adjoining canals.

One of the busy floating markets near Bangkok. Image: Dean Moriarty

Chinatown with narrow lanes and intriguing alleyways is one of the most authentic spots in the city. Colourful markets and shops, street art, hundreds of restaurants and stalls, temples including Wat Traimit make it easy to become immersed. When it comes to shopping, there is an abundance of upmarket shopping centres and air-conditioned malls with luxury brands. For bargain hunters and collectors, Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok’s northwest offers over 8,000 stalls, and is one of the largest undercover markets in the world.

Day trips from Bangkok to the world-famous floating markets, and tours through waterways contemplating a different way of life, are popular. Highly recommended is a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic ruins of Ayutthaya, capital of the Siam kingdom until 1767, and an important international trading port between the East and West. For history buffs and nature lovers, catch a train to Kanchanaburi to visit an area of World War II significance – Hell Fire Pass and the River Kwai. Do stay and explore the natural beauty of this region’s national parks, lakes and waterfalls.

Chiang Mai

Perched on the banks of the Ping River, Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s northwest is often called the “Rose of the North”. Located in a valley surrounded by mountains, it offers a full range of outdoor activities, plenty of culture and arts, and insight into the history of the north and indeed, Thailand. It’s just over an hour’s flight from Bangkok, or a more leisurely option is an overnight train trip in a comfortable sleeper. Chiang Mai’s international airport also has direct flights to many of Thailand’s other popular tourism destinations meaning ease of onward travel.

Chiang Mai is a place where the past and present seamlessly merge with modern buildings standing side by side ancient temples. It’s the creative epicentre of the north, with artisan traditions going back centuries. Renowned for its custom-made teak furniture and celadon ceramics, the city also boasts many established art galleries and museums. The arts and crafts from indigenous hill tribes add to the colour and curiosity.

An ornate Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai. Image: Michelle Maria

Chiang Mai Old City is an attraction in itself. It’s practically a living museum with narrow streets lined with beautiful temples, old shophouses and historic buildings, all surrounded by the crumbling ancient city walls, grand entry gates and an impressive water-filled moat. Temples are star attractions of Old Chiang Mai, like Wat Chedi Luang, with the temple of the Great Stupa dating back to 1441 and Wat Phra Singh, the most revered temple in Chiang Mai.

Overlooking the city is one of northern Thailand's most sacred temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. The drive up to the peak is worth it just for the views of Chiang Mai in the valley below, though the temple and central Golden Chedi are the real reason for visiting. Nature and wildlife are also in abundance through exploration of the region’s national parks, boasting at least 10 parks within 200 km of Chiang Mai. Doi Inthanon National Park is home to Thailand’s highest peak, at 2,565 metres and offers numerous walks, waterfalls and over 360 different bird species and some 1,600 different species of butterflies.

Phuket 

Thailand’s largest island is about 50 km long and is situated on the lower west coast of the Thai Malaysia peninsula. Phuket is Thailand’s most visited island, welcoming some 12 million international tourists a year. With its own international airport, visitors are linked to the rest of Thailand as well as to many international destinations via Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Around 70 percent of Phuket is covered with mountains and forest, and several creeks cascade through to the plains.

It is often mentioned amongst the world’s best beach destinations, thanks to the fine white sandy beaches, nodding palm trees, and the glimmering Andaman Sea.  Blessed with more than 30 beaches, the choice can be overwhelming. On the island’s lower west coast, Patong, Kata, Karon and Kamala beaches are the most popular. Heading north on this side of the island reveals some hidden gems for a more laid back or even romantic atmosphere.

James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay. Image: Engin Akyurt

Phuket is also the jumping off point to many nearby tropical paradises, including the mystical Phang Nga Bay. A cruise around the bay usually includes a stop at the famous ‘James Bond’ island. Those wanting to explore the interior can enjoy trekking, adventure sports, golf, or even visit an organic rum distillery. Phuket was on the major trading routes between India and China and a visit to Old Phuket Town allows you to explore the Sino-Portuguese architectural style, dating back to that era.

Whatever your budget, accommodation, shopping, entertainment and recreational activities are all covered as is eating from Thai street food to Michelin Star dining.

Ko Samui 

Situated on the lower east coast of the Thai Malaysia peninsula, Ko Samui is Thailand’s third largest island, welcoming some 1.2 million international tourists a year. With its own international airport, it is easy to access. You may be wondering about the difference between Samui and Phuket. Samui is less than half the size of Phuket, so there are fewer beaches, accommodation houses, and so forth. You can drive around the island in a few hours.

Many argue that when it comes to beaches on Samui, the sand is whiter and finer, and the water calmer and clearer. Samui water-based activities include deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, snorkelling, sea walking, or just hanging out on a beach chair. It’s easy to get to the neighbouring islands of Ko Pha Ngan with its gorgeous beaches, mountainous jungles and famous full-moon parties, and Koh Tao, offering some of Thailand’s top diving sites.  Alternatively, a visit to Ang Thong National Marine Park, an archipelago of some 40 small islands features dramatic limestone cliffs and sea lagoons.

The white sand of Lamai Beach, Ko Samui. Image: Simon Gurney

Samui has an excellent range of accommodation, and with building height restrictions in place, many resorts and housing development appear more tucked into the landscape. The nightclub scene is quieter than Phuket, but for those wanting to let their hair down, Chaweng on the island’s east coast is the hot spot. Samui tends to be more laid back with more beach clubs and restaurants offering light entertainment.

When it comes to eating, Samui has a Walking Street Market on each night of the week in a different location offering fabulous inexpensive street food. Even dining in beachfront restaurants is great value. Interestingly, as the island only became popular with tourists in the early 1990s, it still retains a delightful blend of traditional Thai hospitality.  

Krabi

Located on southern Thailand’s Andaman coast, Krabi is perfect for those looking for a relaxing destination. Islands appear to erupt vertically from the turquoise waters, and form a stunning archipelago of over 150 islands. Beautiful beaches and flourishing marine life around Krabi and on the islands are only part of the appeal. Attractions including the Emerald Pool, hot springs, walking trails, waterfalls, breathtaking viewpoints add to the allure. And it’s just over an hour’s flight from Bangkok. 

Many will be captivated by the island paradises of Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi. No trip to Krabi is complete without catching a long-tail boat around to more secluded islands, like Koh Rok offering incredible snorkelling, Koh Talabeng with craggy cliffs, sandy coves and eerie caverns. Koh Gai is idyllic, with powdery white sand and crystal clear waters and an easy walk to Koh Tub at low tide. 

Long-tail boats on Koh Phi Phi. Image: Frankie Spontelli

On the mainland, Ao Nang, a delightful bay with hotels, restaurants, bars and shops is attractive and popular with international visitors. As is Noppharat Thara whose shady beach is part of the regional national park.  Railay Beach, one of the most popular and scenic destinations in the entire Krabi region, enjoys a stunning location. As well as its four stunning beaches, it is also a magnet for rock climbers from all over the world thanks to its dramatic limestone cliffs. The sleepy provincial capital, Krabi Town is a riverside town, and few tourists go there. However, it offers inexpensive dining and a riverside evening market with authentic cheap Thai food.

Krabi is less developed than Phuket and Samui and rolls on at a slower pace. It has a good offering of accommodation, plenty of tours and things to do. The distinctive southern Thai cuisine with fiery curries and delicious seafood is a reason in itself to visit.

Best months to visit Thailand

Thailand’s tropical climate has three seasons influenced by the south-west and north-east monsoons. The hot season is March until May, followed by the rainy season which lasts until October. The cooler, dry season is from November until February, bringing some respite from the hotter months.

The country is over 1,700 km from north to south, with the north bordered with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia and the southern peninsula bordered by sea. Temperature, humidity and rainfall can vary significantly between locations, so it is worth checking the weather and sea conditions in preferred locations. All of this said, it can be easy and comfortable to travel around Thailand at nearly any time of the year.

The peak travel period in Thailand is in the cooler months from November to February, which coincides with the western Christmas and New Year period. Chinese New Year (usually in February) and the Thailand New Year period from April 13-15 are also busy travel times, and prices can be higher.

The average temperature across the year is about 30°C. In the hot season, temperatures can reach up as high as 40°C, and cool off to about 25°C at night. In the mountainous areas in the ‘winter’ season, it may drop as low as 5°C but generally ranges from an average of 15°C to about 29°C. 

Currency and exchange rates

The Thai baht (THB) is currently one of Southeast Asia’s strongest currencies. At the time of writing this, one US dollar was buying around 30 THB, down from 35 THB two years ago. However, Thailand is still an exceptionally affordable country to travel in. The country's continuing economic development is just taking the gloss off its long-held reputation as one of the most affordable Southeast Asian travel destinations.

Cash is the easiest way to pay in most situations and bringing currency and exchanging is usually the most cost-effective. A maximum of 20,000 USD equivalent can be brought in without declaring it to Customs. You’ll get the best exchange rates when exchanging at major, locally-owned, money exchange kiosks rather than bank-owned exchange counters. When trading dollars or euros into Thai baht, you’ll get the best rate with clean, undamaged 50 or 100 denomination bills. Smaller bills will get you slightly lower rates.

Bringing Thai currency pre-loaded onto a Travel Debit Card is also a decent way to carry your cash with safety. However, sometimes these travel cards may not be accepted. Withdrawing money from your existing credit and debit cards can attract an ATM fee (currently 220 THB) and many institutions give a poor exchange rate, sometimes fleecing up to 5 percent. Credit cards can be used in larger businesses like hotels and department stores, but some enterprises apply up to 1.5 percent surcharge, and your provider may apply additional fees and charges. 

Thailand is a relatively safe country. Issues with bag snatchers, pick-pockets, and other petty thieves are rare, though caution is always advised. Of course if you are carrying a lot of cash, you should take the usual precautions.

Header image: Simon Steinberger

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