Thailand is a country with some of the most stunning natural beauty in Southeast Asia. The locals are also by far the friendliest and accommodating people that I have met during my entire experience travelling. The general rule of Thailand is: cash, cash, cash. While ATMs are everywhere, not even the taxis, Tuktuks, or the 711s (which are everywhere) will take your credit card. Almost everyone in the country speaks enough English to get by, but never underestimate the importance of hand gestures and other body language for communication.
Get around by private driver or Tuktuk as drivers AND pedestrians in Thailand are careless. While they do drive seemingly accident-free, the rules of the road often seem optional to most. Cars “get in the way” of oncoming traffic to make a right-turn, and expect the opposing traffic to slow down and wait for them. Pedestrians walk out randomly from all corners. Motobikers weave in and out of rush hour traffic.
Tuktuks (what seems like a motorcycle with a carriage attached) are the way to go for in-the-city travel. Cheaper than a taxi (if you know how to bargain well), more direct than a ‘Red Bus,’ and definitely something unique to Thailand. Get from A to B at a glorious maximum of 60 km/hour. Hire a private driver to commute longer distances between cities. Great Siam Travel is a fantastic and reputable company to book with, though don’t expect to have fluent English conversation with their drivers!
The country is overwhelmingly bursting with temples, and it’s easy to look at TripAdvisor or photos online to convince yourself that seeing them all is a must. However, they very quickly become samey. For the average tourist, visiting Wat Pho (Reclining Buddha) and Grand Palace (Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok would be sufficient. Both are quite large and budget about an hour and a half for each. Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and Wat Traimit (Golden Buddha) weren’t overly impressive in person, despite being listed as iconic landmarks. Remember to wear long sleeves and pants as the temples have a very strict dress code, even in the ludicrous heat and humidity. Shoes that can be slipped on and off easily are a must! Never point your feet at Buddha cross-legged. Most temples charge a small entry fee of around 100 Baht (or about $4 Canadian).
The Chao Phraya Dinner Cruise with Manohra was a multi-course dinner on a converted rice barge done up to be a fine-dining experience. It’s a relaxing evening and to see the skyline at night after a long hot day of trekking the streets of Bangkok. Ditto for drinks afterwards at the Banyan Tree’s Vertigo and Moon Bar. Though, skip dinner at the Moon Bar as it is ludicrously expensive and attend for drinks instead. The view of the city from the rooftop is unparalleled. The Karmakamet Aromatic Diner has a bizarrely upscale contemporary “Bohemian meets Steampunk” feeling with some very inventive menu items including a massive cotton candy dessert. It was by far my favourite place to eat in the entire country.
Thai massages are everywhere, but don’t count on any sort of “certification” from the masseuses like in developed nations. Spend the extra money and visit a traditional massage parlour instead of an on-the-street or hole-in-the-wall salon. The Baan Sabai Spa has a traditional Thai massage that was culturally engaging (decor, tea, music). Be very cautious about choosing a traditional Thai massage as even a ‘light’ or ‘medium’ massage can be incredibly painful due to the immense pressure! The masseuses contort their bodies around you and pull, stretch, and press you in all sorts of torturous ways.
Chinatown is chinatown no matter where you go. Generally speaking, this is an easy pass unless its Chinese New Year.
For every temple, there’s a market as well. There will be no shortage of stops to pickup some handcrafted souvenirs, fake IDs, and scorpions on sticks. The Damnoen Saduak Floating Market has generally the same content as the Khao San Road Backpackers Market in Bangkok, but with the experience of being able to float from shop to shop. The experience feels like something straight out of National Geographic, but the drive will take about 75 minutes from Bangkok! Remember to bargain. Floating around the market should only cost around 400 Baht for an hour, but some tourists claim to have being charged 10x this amount. For merchandise, offer 60% off the asking price and compromise on a minimum of 40% off.
The ancient ruins at Ayutthaya (over an hour north of Bangkok) were stunning and an ideal opportunity to get some Indiana Jones points. Chai Watthanaram Temple was large and felt like it could have been a movie set for Tomb Raider. At Wat Maha That, get your photo next to tree roots entangling Buddha’s head. Wat Yai Chaimongkol has an army of Buddha’s protecting a huge mega structure with a steep stairclimb. All three are absolutely worth taking the time to visit in Ayutthaya. Travelling quickly, all three can be done in about 2 hours, but most tourists should allot 4 hours to thoroughly enjoy the architecture and history. Due to lack of signage, it may be a good idea to print off some Wikipedia pages for some background info before you go!
Sanctuary of Truth
Pattaya was an experience all by itself. The Sanctuary of Truth is a temple made entirely of wood and resting on the oceanside, with a completion date of around the year 2050. It’s a testament to the art, culture, and religion of both Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Do not miss this at any cost as it is unlike any other temple in the country. The Chumphonket Udomsak Monument Viewpoint offers a birds-eye view of Walking Street and the beach. It’s an ideal spot for a sunset photo. The beach has a number of options for getting out on boat trips, but the beach itself is only a few meters wide and not very enjoyable for lounging around on.
Pattaya Walking Street is loaded with sex tourism and just like in Las Vegas with promoters jumping out at you to offer hooker cards, you’ll instead be asked to attend countless Ping Pong Shows. These shows are probably one of the most disgusting things you can do in Pattaya, but are a bizarre cultural experience that’s hard to say no to just for the sake of saying that you’ve done it. In a club similar to a strip-joint, grab a seat and watch women shoot bananas, razor blades, birds, etc. out of their vaginas. Lovely. Always be very clear on the TOTAL cost to attend a show. Sometimes it will be the cost of one drink, but what they don’t tell you is that tipping is mandatory and will cost another 100 Baht.
Ladyboys across the country are everywhere. From removing their Adam’s apples, getting fake breasts, and even going as far as removing their penises… the most PG experience you can have to fully understand what they’re like is to watch Tiffany’s Cabaret Show in Pattaya. It’s an evening show (no dinner or drinks despite it being called a Cabaret) done entirely with Ladyboys. You won’t believe they are all men. Absolutely not a chance.
Chang Mai is a cheap one hour flight north from Bangkok, and is a city overloaded with temples. If you didn’t get your fix in Bangkok, now is your chance! The best night market in Thailand is the Sunday Night Market. It well-lit, absolutely huge, has a vast array of unique merchandise, and is the perfect chance to try some street meat.
Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep
The two national parks Doi Inthanon and Doi Suthep lurk nearby and host countless waterfalls. Google photos before making your selection, as many of them feel very similar. Skip the summit of Doi Inthanon as there is nothing special to see, not even a viewpoint, save the placard that displays the elevation. Instead, head straight to the Royal Pagodas which are two giant King & Queen temples with phenomenal views of the valley and well-manicured gardens. It will feel as if you’ve stepped onto an alien planet due to the creative architecture choices of these two towers. Wachiranthan Waterfall is a personal favourite of mine and worth the stop on the way back.
Tuang Thong Canyon
Hang Dong’s Tuang Thong Canyon is between the two parks and is touted as the Grand Canyon of Thailand. It is an old rock quarry that has filled with rain water over the years. Cliff jumpers now brave the heights and splash into the waters below. Be wary of trying this attraction as there have been a number of injuries and deaths over the years. While it does look somewhat impressive, it is very clearly man-made and is better as a quick photo or lunch stop only. Bring cash!
In Doi Suthep, the Bhubing Palace (pronounced “pooping palace”), is a great place to go poop. It’s the house where the royals would come to visit. Nice gardens, nice house, but nothing remarkable. It’s an easy pass. Instead, visit the small, poor, village market at Doi Pui and climb up to the Hill Tribe Museum where you can view people in traditional costume. And of course, don’t forget to check out at least one waterfall here as well. The Huey Kaew Waterfall is a more scenic falls, while the Monthathon waterfall offers a 1.6 km jungle walk.
Elephant Nature Park
Elephants are abused to an extreme degree for the sake of tourist entertainment. While the idea is appealing, NEVER ride an elephant (bareback or not), watch it paint, play soccer, or perform anything that is non-animal-like. Elephants are bound and tortured to an extreme degree to learn these tricks and to break them into submission. Research a humane venue such as Elephant Nature Park which rescues elephants from trainers and poachers. Feed them watermelon, watch them play, and laugh as you see them goof around in the river and bathe themselves in mud. The park is also host to over 400 dogs rescued during the Bangkok floods.
Chiang Mai Night Safari
For a less PETA-friendly experience, the Chiang Mai Night Safari (Zoo) is a half-hour Tuktuk ride from the city centre. Don’t forget to pay your driver to wait for you during your visit, as rides back to town can be hard to find. Expect to pay 800 Baht round-trip. The zoo is a huge commercial attraction with tigers, lions, pumas, cougars, zebras and more. It’s no different than any other zoo, but still quite enjoyable.
Hot Springs & Golden Triangle Tour
Chiang Rai is an area northeast of Chiang Mai. While there are a number of options for tours, the two most lacklustre experiences of these are the ‘Hot Springs’ and the Golden Triangle. The Hot Springs are man-made fountains supplied by hot spring water where tourists are sold eggs to submerge in the water to cook them. Woohoo. The Golden Triangle is simply an area of land with two merging rivers which borders Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. You’ll be carted off to yet another handicraft market in Laos during your boat ride, and float past an island referred to as the ‘back market’ – but there’s nothing special to see. The two MAJOR Chiang Rai highlights are the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun), which is an artistic masterpiece of white paint, sculptures, and mirrors and the Karen Long Neck village.
Karen Long Neck Villages
The women in Karen Long Neck villages wear brass rings around their necks. It does not elongate their necks, but pushes their ribcage down to give that illusion. The actual reason for the rings is up for debate. Some say to prevent tiger bites, for good luck, to stay evil spirits, to be more attractive to mates… but honestly, the most common reason these days is for tourism. While the brass rings lost appeal previously with younger generations, they are making a massive come-back as a way to lure in tourist money. Either way, this is your second stop for a National Geographic-style photo! While not expected, it’s polite to tip if you take your photo with one of the women (especially if you don’t buy from their shop).
While I didn’t spend a ton of time in Phuket, I did take a 2 hour taxi ride out to Krabi simply for the sake of hopping over to Railay Beach. This beach can only be accessed by boat. Prices are around 100 Baht each way on a schedule, or 700 Baht each way on demand. The ride is a mere 15 minutes and prepare to get a little wet! Watching the sunset during a beachside restaurant at Railay West is incredibly romantic and an experience no one should leave the country without doing.
Monkey Cave, James Bond Island & Panyee Village
The most postcard worthy experiences in Phuket are visiting Suwannakuha Temple (Monkey Cave), boating out to James Bond Island, and spending a few hours exploring the Panyee floating village market. Again, market, market, market. If you have more time to spend near Phuket, boat out to the full moon party or day a day trip to the gorgeous Phi Phi islands.
Overall, I feel like I really checked off all of the truly important attractions in the country with exception of one or two. There are more mountain-top ruins north of Bangkok and also a stunning temple in a cave on the coast to the south. Having unbucket-listed most of the country, I still would absolutely go back — which is something I seldom say — simply for the people and lifestyle.