Backpacking Thailand

Thailand Travel Guide - Longtail boat Khao Sok

A Travellers Guide to Backpacking Thailand

By Frederik Jacobsen | Bikudo Travel

Disclaimer: This guide is a general travel guide and does not take the current situation of Covid into account.

I’ve been to Thailand countless times, lived and worked in Bangkok two times in my life and went to kindergarten in Bangkok, when my parents were establishing a travel business there.

I used to work with our local partner at Go Beyond Asia as a Travel Advisor at our Bangkok Travel Center, where I assisted backpackers with whatever questions or needs they had, held information meetings on backpacking Thailand and helped arrange their travel plans in and around Thailand.

This is our guide to backpacking Thailand based on my many years of experience with backpacking this magnificent country.

What's included in this guide:

You will be much wiser on the following topics:

  • Preparing your backpacker trip to Thailand
  • When to go
  • Suggested itineraries for backpacking Thailand 
  • Places to see in Thailand
  • Getting around
  • Thai food
  • Bargaining and tipping
  • General backpacking tips 
  • Backpacking solo
  • Thailand nightlife 

Enjoy! 

Preparing your backpacking trip to Thailand

Thailand is a relatively easy destination to travel, but there are certain things that are good to know before you go, that will make your backpacking trip here easier.

Currency:

Thai Baht is the currency of Thailand and in time of writing this guide you could buy approximately 150 baht for 5 USD.

There are ATMs everywhere and they are usually reliable. It happens that a certain ATM won’t accept your card and then you just try the next one.

You should always carry some cash around with you as much of your purchases and payments will be cash transactions. 

Budget:

How much does it cost to travel in Thailand?

Backpacking Thailand is not as cheap as it used to be, but it’s still considered a cheap destination compared to so many other destinations. It is however relatively expensive compared to its neighbours.

Backpacking in Thailand I would suggest budgeting with 50 USD a day. You can certainly travel cheaper, and you will also find other guides that will say 25-35 USD a day. However, I wouldn’t recommend that as it leaves very little room for any activities and experiences. 

This budget is based on backpacking, using local transportation, sleeping in dorms or fan rooms and eating locally (which is the best way to travel regardless!), but it leaves room to go on a trekking tour, maybe go diving or something else.

What fun is to travel to Thailand if you can’t afford any experiences?

  • Accommodation: Dorms from $6 and private from $15 a night.
  • Food: Eat locally from $3 and in restaurants from $10 USD.
  • Transportation: To give you an idea a taxi in Bangkok starts from 1 USD (35 THB) and a taxi from Bangkok Airport to the city centre is approximately 8 USD. A night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is approximately $30 USD. 
  • Organised tours: Anything from $35 a day to $150 a day (all included).

Culture:

Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles” as Thai’s generally speaking are very welcoming and friendly people. You will experience this traveling through the country, and especially if you do an effort trying to learn a few phrases of Thai and respect them and their culture. 

As with every country there are certain cultural customs or etiquette which is good to know about.

Firstly, Thailand care very highly for the royal family and especially their king. Do not ever insult the king as he is probably the most respected figure in Thailand – or at least he was, the most beloved king passed away a few years back and now his less popular son rules the land. But still, the rules still apply.

For example, it is not taken lightly if you step on a Thai Baht bill as it portrays the king. Extreme insults, even if accidental, may be punishable with jail.

Secondly, Thailand is mostly Buddhist, and they consider the body as sacred with head being the most respected part of the body and the feet being the lowest part of the body. There are certain rules to this:

  • Don’t ever touch a Thai’s head as it is considered very rude.
  • You should not point to someone or something with your foot.
  • Never step over someone laying down not even a sleeping dog.
  • When seated, don’t sit in a position where your foot sole is facing someone.
  • Always remove your shoes when entering into someone’s home.

Also, temples are sacred places and monks are very respected men. Show respect to the monks and don’t fool around inside a temple. The same goes with Buddha. If you sit in front of Buddha in a temple, bow your head and don’t point your feet towards him. 

When visiting a temple, you should dress modestly and there are usually strict rules for showing off skin. For the touristed temples sarongs are often provided to cover up.

When to go:

Being a tropical destination, Thailand mainly has two distinct seasons, the dry season and the rainy season.

High season: November to March is considered the cool season, where temperatures are at its lowest (still warm between 25-35 degrees), the air is dry, and rainfall are rare. Temperatures starts rising in March and by end March/start April it gets really warm!

The North of Thailand can get cold during these months so remember to bring warm clothes!

Cost and tourists tend to spike around Christmas time until February. Don’t expect to get a good last-minute deal on your accommodation and don’t be frustrated if your bargaining with the Tuk Tuk drivers doesn’t work.

Shoulder season: Either side of the high season is considered the shoulder season. From April to June, just before the monsoon season hits, and from September to October when the monsoon wears off.

April and May get extremely warm with high humidity and the occasional to daily downpour. If you don’t mind the heat and humidity, April can be a really good month to visit Thailand.

It has less tourists and it’s when Songkran is celebrated throughout Thailand in the middle of April and typically celebrated for up to 3-4 days according to where you are in Thailand. 

Songkran is the Thai celebration of New Year and is a massive celebration with colorful clothing and massive water fights! 

Suggested Itineraries for Backpacking Thailand

Backpacking Thailand there are so many different options and ultimately, we all have different preferences. However, here are a few of our suggested itineraries that are great for backpackers!

A True Trekking Adventure: This 10 days adventure starts in Bangkok from where you take the bus to a small border town called Mae Sot next to Myanmar.

Explore Mao Sot and stay overnight in a small homestay before getting transferred through the mountains to Umphang, a remote village up in mountains.

From here, you’ll embark on a 3-day trekking tour through the jungle where you’ll stay in small villages, drift down the river a bamboo raft and jump off one the highest waterfalls in South East Asia.

Drive back to Mae Sot and catch a night bus to Chiang Mai, the capital of the north, from where you can explore Northern Thailand at your own pace.

From bustling Bangkok to empty beaches: Start your journey in Bangkok and travel down south to Chumphon by night train. The next day sail out to a deserted island for some proper island camping with bon fire, snorkeling and lots of fun.

From a small and deserted island head out further at sea towards Thailand’s most famous diving island – Koh Tao. Apart from being a diver’s paradise, Koh Tao is home to a beautiful stretch of white sand beach where all the activity happens. Enjoy a great relaxed and fun atmosphere under the palm trees.

End your trip on the neighboring island, Koh Phangan. Famous for the Full Moon Party, this island has so much more to offer and is outright gorgeous. Explore the island on your own or chill by the beach.

Beautiful nature, cultural insights and beaches: Spend a few days in Bangkok before boarding a shared minivan to Kanchanaburi. From here, it’s a short drive to the beautiful Sai Yok National Park!

Stay at floating raft bungalows in the middle of the jungle one night and kayak to a jungle camp for your second night.

From one national park to another – head South to Sam Roi Yod National Park. Here you’ll have a beautiful beach all by yourself. The nearby Kuiburi National Park is home to great wildlife animals such as gaurs and elephants.

From here head down to Chumphon and sail out to the deserted island of Koh Kye where you’ll sleep in tents on the beach for a proper island adventure!

As your final destination you should consider going to Khao Sok National Park. One of the most beautiful places I’ve been in Thailand, this artificial lake reminds of the glorious Halong Bay in Vietnam. It is stunning!

From here, continue down south on the islands and chill, party, dive and just enjoy life!

Places to see in Thailand

Thailand is home to so many popular destinations and has so much diversity to offer. Here is a mix of some popular destinations and lesser known destinations.

Bangkok: The mega city and capital of Thailand, Bangkok is a city that divides many opinions. Personally, I love the city as it has so much diversity and so much to explore - but I understand fully, why some find it difficult to love. If you want to explore Bangkok, read our extensive guide for exploring Bangkok!

Here are a few great tips for visiting Bangkok: 

  • Skip the fancy restaurants and find a small street kitchen. Small plastic stools, foldable tables and a small kitchen – that’s the best, most authentic and cheap food you’ll have here. If you stay near Silom try Jack’s Bar. It’s something in between of a street kitchen and restaurant but it’s placed on wooden stilts on the river.
  • Head to China Town at night. Being one of the largest China Towns in the world this place is still one of my favourite places in all of Bangkok. Busy, bright, loud, beautiful, China Town is a must. Oh, and the street food is amazing with one particular street food restaurant receiving a Michelin Star (order well in advance for a chance to dine here).
  • Bangkok is famous for its many sky bars and even more so after the movie "The Hangover Part 2" in Bangkok. It’s difficult to point to one particular sky bar, but the Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower is probably the most popular. It’s also pricy!
  • Take a half day tour on the river – a Klong Tour. Great way to get behind the scenes of Bangkok and witness a completely different side of this mega city. It ends at the Grand Palace which takes me to the next point:
  • Temples of Bangkok. Bangkok is full of temples and if you are here for the first time most will tell you to visit the Grand Palace. It is spectacular, but I’m personally not a huge fan of temples and it is arguably the most visited sight of all of Bangkok. Consider Wat Arun opposite the river from Grand Palace, Wat Pho (the reclining Buddha) or Wat Saket.
  • A bike tour is a must. Just like with the Klong Tour, going on a bike tour takes you down small alleys, through local markets and to neighbourhoods you never new existed. My favourite activity in Bangkok by a mile and been on numerous bike trips!

Chiang Mai: The capital of the north and the second largest city in Thailand is a playground for any adventurist.

Surrounded by misty mountains, beautiful hill tribes and incredible landscape, Chiang Mai and its surroundings is a dream destination for anyone traveling to Thailand for more than just the beaches of the south.  

The city itself boast of great shopping opportunities, plenty of cultural activities, a vibrant nightlife and a cultural heritage that gives you a feel of authenticity.

While in Chiang Mai, staying in the old city means you are close to the action and most other travellers. Here are plenty of great hotels and hostels as well as cafés and restaurants.

Venturing out of Chiang Mai you will have thrilling adventures, stunning scenery and cultural experiences in abundance!

We can highly recommend anyone coming to the north to check out the following activities:

  • Elephant Sanctuary: Located outside the city, this sanctuary takes care of elephants former used for hard labor or have been in captivity. Spend most of the day getting up close with these majestic animals.
  • Cooking class: If you are into cooking and Thai food, a cooking class is a must do activity while here. It’s great fun and a good introduction to Thai food culture.
  • Jungle trekking: This 3 day trekking tour gives you a proper taste of rainforest trekking along some beautiful trails a bit off the beaten track (trekking in Chiang Mai is extremely popular).

These are just examples of activities around here, but there are plenty of other choices, such as ziplining, river rafting and more!

There are also plenty “do-it-yourself” activities in Chiang Mai, such as temple hopping, exploring the city by foot and renting a motorbike to drive around in the mountains.

The latter are more for thrill seekers and should be planned carefully and with a bit of caution. Many motorbike accidents happens in Thailand, and while it’s a great adventure, it is not without danger.  

Pai: This is a real backpacker magnet. Located in the mountains, with the Pai river running just right through town, this little place is truly magnificent. 

Pai is located about 3 hours drive from Chiang Mai on the famous Mae Hong Son Loop. If you are renting a motorbike or scooter in Chiang Mai to drive around in the area, make sure to spend a few days here in Pai and its surroundings. For starters, it is such a beautiful trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son to Pai and back again to Chiang Mai. 

If you aren't very experienced driving on a motorbike, consider joining a tour instead as the road is tricky. The Mae Hong Son loop consist of 1864 turns so drive carefully if you venture out on your own! 

In Pai there are plenty of nice hotels, bungalows by the river, hostels etc. It used to be a preferred hang-out destination for young backpackers, like Khao San Road in Bangkok, with plenty of bars, parties, music, artists, yoga enthusiast etc. 

This attracts local crafts-men and service provides, so the city offers lots of crafts shops, arts, souvenirs made by hill-tribes, thai-massage, ethnic food etc.

All of this really gives Pai a certain laid back atmosphere and a special charm to it. I can highly recommend staying for a couple of days, chilling and exploring the nearby surroundings: 

  • The Lod Cave, (Tham Lot), about 40K away from Pai. Best reached on a scooter.
  • Bamboo Bridge pai, 800 m long bridge over lush rice fields
  • Water falls, Pam Bok and Mo Paeng being the most popular
  • Pai Canyon, remember to bring plenty of water. Exhausting and warm trek

Isaan: The Northeast part of Thailand is the closest thing you'll come to a time machine. This part of the country represent a society lost in time and reminds visitors of a simpler time as it provides a glimpse into life in Thailand as it was some 30 years back. 

While tourists generally flock to the beaches of the south or trekking trails of the north, you can spend days here without meeting other tourists. Such is the authenticity here and if you do make your way to this part of the country, expect a friendly welcoming from the small village communities. 

The cities of Isaan don't offer much as Isaan should be experienced out in the countryside. However, traveling as an independent backpacker without your own transportation can be a difficult task and I'd recommend you to plan in advance. 

If you are looking to get off the beaten path and experience a more authentic side of Thailand, then backpacking to Isaan can be a very rewarding experience. 

Udon Thani is a great place for a base during your Isaan experience. It is a somewhat larger city that also attracts other backpackers, making it a good vantage point for your explorations. Yet, when you reach the outskirts of the city you are thrown right back into the countryside. 

From Udon Thani, head north to the border town of Nong Khai that sits on the river bank of the Mekong River and opposite of Vientiane in Laos. 

While in Isaan, you can do volunteer projects of varying lengths, rent a scooter to explore the countryside or try working on a farm

Khao Sok: Khao Sok National Park is located in the south of Thailand sitting just above Phuket and is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful national parks in Thailand.

Towering limestone cliffs and dense jungle surrounds the lake from all sides. Your typical accommodation are floating bungalows with immense views and direct access to the lake from the front door.

Explore the nearby area by kayak or join a trip to one of the large limestone caves in the area. There are also rich possibilities of a jungle trek in the area with plenty of great hikes of varying duration and difficulty.

Khao Sok National Park is not on the main backpackers’ route, which is their loss and your gain. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an “off the beaten path” destination, but it is not nearly as crowded as other popular destinations, which makes this place a special one.

For more information have a look at our Khao Sok Adventure Tour.

Krabi Province: Together with Phuket, Krabi is the main gateway to the popular islands in the Andaman Sea in Southwest Thailand and is a spectacular destination in itself.

When travellers speak about Krabi they usually refer to either Ao Nang Beach or Railay Beach as these are the two most popular beaches around Krabi and arguably two of the most iconic and stunning beaches in Thailand.

Railay Beach probably have more of a backpacker and adventure appeal to it than Ao Nang Beach, as it is less crowded and more secluded as you can only get there by long tail boat. If you want a complete backpackers/hippie vibe consider Tonsai Beach, which is accessible by boat or a 45 minute walk from Railay Beach. 

Railay Beach is especially known for its stunning limestone cliffs which are also a very popular spot for rock climbing enthusiasts around the world.

Koh Phi Phi: In my opinion one of the most beautiful islands, I’ve ever been to. The two islands (Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Leh) rise up from the crystal-clear azure waters as towering limestone cliffs with a few perfectly constructed bays and beaches.

Phi Phi Leh was the setting of the popular film The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, portraying a secret island paradise. Not so secret anymore, the island was closed for visitors in 2019 by the Thai government due to mass tourism ruining the reefs and eco system. 

You can't stay on Phi Phi Leh, so most tourists joins a one or half day tour from the main island (Phi Phi Don) and the island, it's beautiful beaches and coral reefs, gets overrun by hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists every day. 

Both islands have suffered from overtourism and the mainstay island Phi Phi Don, is also massively overcrowded, which somewhat ruins the experience of an island paradise. That is my opinion at least and today I would rather look for other, less crowded, island stays.

However, as a backpacking destination, staying here for a few days is good fun and the islands are still spectacular. Just don't expect a beach paradise. 

Phuket:  With its international airport, stunning scenery, good infrastructure and hotels of all size and shapes, Phuket was the 14th most visited destination worldwide in 2019 with an estimated 9.89 million tourists travelling here.

The largest island in Thailand has something for almost everyone, but for some is perceived as a no-go destination. Maybe because of its massive popularity or due to Patong beach giving it a bad reputation.

However, Phuket is a stunning island with many great beaches and destinations for backpackers and families alike. Kata and Karon Beach are probably the most popular destinations for beach bums.

Patong are for those looking for 24 hours partying as this is the uncrowned beach party destination in Thailand alongside Pattaya beach.

Phuket Town is a quieter and more cultural oriented place to stay and a good choice if you don’t necessarily fancy being by the beach.

For an extensive guide on backpacking Phuket you might check out this guide.

Koh Tao: Probably one of the most popular diving destinations for backpackers and touted as one of the cheapest places in the world to take your diving certificate, this island just oozes diving.

The main beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand beach facing an even more beautiful sunset, this is the place to stay on this island. With plenty of decent and cheap sleeping options, bars and restaurants and of course cheap diving, Koh Tao is one of my favorite islands in Thailand for having a good time. 

Consider visiting the impressive and tiny island Koh Nang Yuan just off the coast of Koh Tao. If you dare, you can kayak there and back from the main beach. I have, it was a great little adventure, but beware of the traffic between the two islands. 

Koh Phangan: Like its neighbouring island Koh Tao, Koh Phangan is very much on the main backpacker route, mostly due to the infamous Full Moon Party.

This is not all this island has to offer though with multiple stunning beaches and a generally beautiful island to explore on motorbike.

Koh Kood: Despite being the fourth largest island in Thailand, Koh Kood (or Koh Kut), is the main island of the smallest district in all of Thailand measured by population.

This relatively unknown island is still unspoiled by tourists and is the perfect destination if you are looking for perfect white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters all for yourself (almost at least). There’s a small main town with 5-6 or so resorts located at a perfect stretch of beach and shallow clear waters.

Don’t expect late night parties here as there’s not much to do. It’s a good place to rent a scooter and explore the island as there’s not much traffic. Highlights include a few fishermen villages build on stilts, glorious beaches and a small waterfall.

If you are looking for a laid back and yet not overrun island paradise, then you should consider Koh Kood and our adventure sailing cruise taking you from the mainland to our partner resort by sailboat. 

Getting Around

Thailand’s infrastructure is one of the best in Southeast Asia making getting around the country relatively easy and cheap and there are many different means of transportation.

A general tip for making getting around even easier, is to buy a local sim card. It’s especially great when you travel by train, as it’s not always easy to locate which station you are at or how far away you are from your destination.

For booking transportation you may have a look at www.12go.asia.

Busses

Traveling by bus is extremely popular and Thailand have a huge network of busses. I would be shocked if you wouldn’t be able to go almost anywhere in Thailand by bus.

Bangkok have numerous large bus terminals, so be vary of which one you are heading to. An increasing number of busses departs from Khao San Road. These are almost exclusively VIP tourists busses and take tourists to the islands located in the Gulf of Thailand (Koh Chang Marine National Park and Koh Tao/Koh Phangang) as a combo bus + ferry ticket.

If travelling by VIP bus, you get more comfort and your rest stops are more “tourist friendly”. The prices are also much higher than local/public busses and you should bring warm clothe – the VIP busses tend to get freezing cold.

The local busses are less comfortable, almost exclusively used by Thais and the rest stops serve proper local Thai food. It is less costly but usually also take longer with more stops along the way.

Beware: Do not leave valuables in the backpacks sitting in the bus holds/cargo as theft does happen. Passports, computers and money, keep that with you in your smaller backpack. 

Trains

Not as far reaching as the busses, but the railway system in Thailand is still pretty comprehensive, covering some 4346 km and transporting roughly 35 million people each year.

Bangkok is the major train hub from where a southern, northern, northeast and eastern line connects the capital with the rest of the country. The northern line ends in Chiang Mai and is a great way of travel from Bangkok To Chiang Mai on a sleeper class. It’s anywhere from 1.000-2.000 baht and takes 14 hours.

The southern line goes all the way to the Malaysian border. It is especially popular for going to Koh Tao/Koh Phangan by backpackers, as it’s a good night’s sleep down and connects with the ferry by a bus at the train station.

Flights

Low-cost carriers like AirAsia and Nok Air makes domestic air travel a potentially cheap way of getting from A to B fast. Sometimes you might even find flight tickets cheaper than that of train or bus tickets.

Take for example a flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket, directly for as low as 2500 THB (a quick search, might even find it cheaper). Compare that to a night train back to Bangkok for 1500 THB and then you have to get from Bangkok to Phuket by bus.

Ferries

Ferries connect mainland Thailand with most of its popular islands. Often you book your ferry ticket with either a bus or train ticket making it extremely easy as you will get picked up at the station and transferred to the ferry terminal.

Ferries to Koh Tao, Koh Phangan or Koh Samui departs from either Chumphon or Surat Thani a bit further south.

Koh Lanta and Phi Phi are easily accessible from Phuket or Krabi with high-speed ferries.

The smaller islands such as Koh Lipe are usually reached by speed boat.

Closer to Bangkok you'll find Koh Chang and Koh Kood, two increasingly popular island destinations and in closer distance to Bangkok than the southern islands. 

Travellers going to either island usually comes through Trat from where it's a short drive to the pier. High Speed ferries leave for Koh Kood frequently and takes about 45 minutes to reach the island. Koh Chang is closer to the mainland with both speedboats and ferries serving Koh Chang. 

Thai Food

The exquisite and ever so tasty kitchen of Thailand is for many a reason to travel here as Thai food is a highlight in itself.

With everything from a 3 dollar meal on plastic stools to some of the finest Michelin food money can buy, you are (almost) guaranteed to dine in style throughout your Thailand adventure.

Introduction to Thai food

The main ingredients in Thai food is based on four flavours – sweet, sour, salty and spicy. You will find all of them in the traditional Thai dishes, where the flavours are perfectly balanced.

Foreigners often associate Thai food with spiciness, but there’s also plenty of delicious non spicy food for those who don’t like spicy food or for children. The restaurants are very accommodating to foreigners and make the food non spicy or just a little spicy if you ask for it.

One of the best ways to explore the food, especially if traveling with others, is to order several dishes to share and explore the different flavours. Ask the restaurant for their recommendations if you don’t know what to choose. This may help you to find your favourites.

Popular dishes:

Being one the most popular kitchens in the world there are plenty of dishes to choose from. I will share you some of mine with a mix of classic tourists dishes and some local favourites.

Pad Thai: Of course, you got to have the Pad Thai here even though it’s not one of my favourites (maybe I’ve had it too many times?). Especially the local version takes some getting used to as Thais usually ads tiny shrimps to add a fishy flavour.

Laab: A spicy salad with your choice of meat, my favourite is Laab Moo (pork). This dish is a popular local dish that originates from Northeastern Isaan. 

Pad Kra Pao: Absolutely one of my favourite dishes as well yet it’s quite simple. I usually order it “Moo Sap” which means minced pork. It’s a spicy dish where you fry meat with thai basil, garlic, onion, chili and different sauces. Served with rice and fried egg if you ask for it (you should).

Pad See Ew:  A noodle dish that reminds a little of a Pad Thai, this Chinese inspired dish is great if you want a break from rice!

Massaman Curry: A very tasty dish, massaman curry is a favourite amongst many travellers. Creamy and rich in flavour, massaman curry consist of your meat of choice, potatoes, a few vegetables and rice on the side.

Yum Nua: If you feel like you need a break from rice and noodles and crave something more fresh, Yum Nua is a great choice! This is a Thai beef salad, but beware, it can sometimes be quite spicy – ask before you order.

Khao Pad (Fried rice): Also an absolute classic, fried rice is simply rice fried in a wok with an egg, different vegetables and herbs and your choice of meet, often served with a lime to give it some sourness.

Pla Kapong Neung Manao: Or simply “Steamed fish with lime”, this is a whole fish that’s steam cooked with lime, garlic and different herbs and it taste delicious!

Tom Kha Gai: A really fresh and creamy dish. Tom Kha Gai is chicken cooked in coconut milk. It’s less spicy than Tom Yum but equally tasty.

Tom Yum Goong: Hands down my favourite soup in Thailand. Goong means shrimp in Thai and is the most popular version of this spicy and sour soup. It is a mix of different vegetables, herbs and shrimps and sometimes (depending on if you are in touristed place or not) can get very spicy.

Stir fried morning glory: Morning glory is often ordered as a side dish (for me at least) as it is a simple but oh so tasty dish. Morning glory is a spinach like vegetable which is fried with garlic, chili, oyster sauce, fish sauce, soya sauce and a few other basic ingredients. 

A few ”food words”

Going to a local restaurant or street food kitchen it’s usually good to know a bit about the menu items and be able to know a few phrases (no spicy is good to know).

  • Gai: Means chicken. If you order Tom Kha Gai, you order Tom Kha with chicken.
  • Moo: Means pork. Again, if you order something with moo, you get pork.
  • Sap: Means minced. So if you order something “moo sap” it’s minced pork. One of my favourite dishes, Pad Kra Pao Moo Sap – Pad kra pao with minced pork.
  • Goong: Means shrimp. If you order Tom Yum Goong you order it with shrimps.
  • Pet: Means spicy. If you want something to not be spicy you simply order mai pet. If you want it be a bit spicy it’s pet nit noi and if you want it to be very spicy it’s pet mak mak.
  • Kai dao: means fried egg.

Street food in Thailand

Street food is very popular in Thailand, and Bangkok is often voted as the world’s best destination for street food in travel polls. The real and authentic food experience in Thailand is street food and therefore definitely a must when travelling to Thailand.

Also, in my humble opinion, the best food experiences are from small street kitchens. It’s cheap, it’s authentic and it’s delicious! Believe it or not – these are often the places serving the best Thai food.

Many first-time travellers are often a bit skeptic about street food as they worry about the hygiene. Our best tip is – don’t worry. Eat from a popular stall that has a lot of guests (especially if local). 

To give you an idea about the popularity of street-food one such restaurant in China Town received a Michelin Star for her food and is considered a bit of a legend in Bangkok and beyond.

Bargaining and tipping

If you travel to Thailand, it’s a good idea to brush up on your bargaining skills. Although Thailand may seem cheap to many, it’s not always the case, and locals knows that they can get a good price out of a tourist. That’s why many travelers end up paying overprice, in part for being ignorant on a fair price and part just because they are foreign.

It’s not that you have to bargain everywhere you go. It’s mostly confined to the tourist places in the major cities and on the popular islands. 

Also, remember that sometimes you are haggling over 20 baht or even less which is less than 1 USD.

General bargaining tips

Before we go into the actual bargaining tips, beware that you don't bargain for everything in Thailand. If you are in a large shopping mall prices are fixed as they usually are. However, open air markets and shopping booths, like the MBK in Bangkok are places you can strike a bargain. Bars and restaurants are also not a place you bargain.

That said, here are a few tips and tricks for when you are out trying to strike a bargain: 

  • When out shopping finding something you like try and establish a base price by shopping around multiple shops for the same or similar item. When you start negotiating you know you have hit a lower limit, when the seller lets you walk away. 
  • Try and establish what you are willing to pay for a certain item and your upper limit before you start haggling with the seller.
  • If you walk away from a bargain and you feel like your price is fair and you’ve bargained reasonably, chances are that the vendor will come after you and accept your price. If not, you’ve gone too low.
  • It’s in no way anticipated, but a very nice gesture is to give the vendor a small tip after a good “tug of war”. I have pretty good experiences with this, especially if I might come back to the same shop, they’ll remember you and shopping there becomes much more fun.
  • Keep a certain façade of disinterest instead of going “oh my god I need this”, the vendor sees dollar signs and can be difficult to get rid of again.
  • Don’t be afraid to consult a local what the price should be. It might help you get a better idea.
  • Learn a few phrases of Thai. That way, the seller knows you are not completely new to the country, and it creates a better rapport between you and the seller.

Words and phrases like “hello” (Sawasdee), “how much” (Thao rai) and “no thank you” (Mai ao). Especially the last one is good to get rid of pushy sellers relentlessly approaching you with souvenirs.

Don'ts: A list of things you shouldn't consider bargaining over. 

  • Bars & Restaurants: The prices are on the menu and they are not be bargained over. Okay, if you meal was horrendous or you didn't get what you ordered, that's a different matter. But don't bargain for your lunch or beer. 

General tipping tips

When out eating or drinking in Thailand, tipping is often expected, but not mandatory. Certain restaurants add a 7-10% service fee on top of your bill so you don't have to speculate about tips. 

If you want to give a tip then 10% is considered a pretty fair amount. Normally I leave the change when paying cash if the food or service was good or paying the taxi driver, the street vendor etc. 

Backpacking tips for Thailand

Arriving in Bangkok

When you arrive in Bangkok from your international flight you will arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Upon arrival, clear immigration and collect your luggage at the baggage claim area. While you wait for your luggage it’s a good idea to withdraw money from an ATM as you will cash to get to the city. 

Getting to the city is relatively easy, either by skytrain or taxi. Skytrain is approximately half price of a taxi depending on where you are going. Certain Skytrain stations links with the metro. Make sure your hotel is located close to a station.

It can be a good idea to find a small kiosk where you can buy a sim card. If you go by Skytrain it makes it easier with google maps to find your location.

Alternatively, you should take a taxi. There’s a taxi stand on the ground floor, where write down your address and someone helps you pull over a cab. It can be congested, but you shouldn’t expect to wait for too long.

Another thing you can do, which I always do when I come here, if you want a taxi fast and if you are able to explain the driver where to go is to head upstairs to the departure terminal and grab a taxi from here.

When you exit the departure terminal you need to cross the street. There are gates ensuring people only walk towards the terminal, but they’re easy to bypass and the taxi drivers are eager to take you as they don’t have to drive downstairs and wait in que.

It’s usually 250-300 baht from the airport to the city center plus highway fees which are 80 baht or something.

Taxi is by far the easiest and fastest way to get to the city. Don’t pay 500+ baht for a fixed driver. Either head down to the public taxis or upstairs and pull one over at the departure hall.

If you are a little uncertain of arriving to a new mega city for the first time, consider booking an arrival package to ensure a soft and easy landing. With an arrival package, you are collected at the airport and transferred to you pre-booked accommodation. You won't have to worry about finding a taxi and explaining where to go. 

Transportation:

Booking low-cost flights can be a great way to bridge large distances, but on a backpacker budget, I would mostly recommend flying from north to south or vice versa. It’s cheaper, faster and more convenient than bus or train and you save a day plus a nights accommodation during transportation.

Remember, if traveling low cost, either domestically or internationally, your flight is likely to depart from Don Mueang, the old airport in Bangkok. Make sure you know which airport you are flying out from.

Other than that, traveling over land is the way forward and the better experience. When possible, travel by overnight train. You save one night of accommodation and it’s a good experience.

Beware of Tuk Tuk scams. Don’t enter a Tuk Tuk without a fixed price and if someone tries to sell you a Tuk Tuk ride for 20 baht just don’t do it. He will drag you around for half a day to tailors and jewelry stores.

Scams:

Previously I wrote that Thais are a friendly bunch, and they really are, but you will most likely encounter locals around the tourist hot spots who does not fall into that category. 

Popular tourist sites such as Grand Palace is a magnet for locals trying to scam unknowing tourists. These are some common scams that you should be aware of: 

  • Temples: Around the most popular temples such as the Grand Palace, there are locals who seem very friendly and will tell you that the temple is closed due to public holiday. Some also offer guided tours of the temple. Ignore all of that, head to the main entrance or ask other tourists if you are feeling insecure of someone approaching you. 
  • Tuk Tuks: Often Tuk Tuks are the most expensive mean of transportation as they don't drive on meter. As such, it is tempting to jump into an extremely cheap one. Don't. Chances are that they will drive you around for half a day and drop you off at different tailors and jewellery shops. Also, be aware that they might tell you a temple is closed due to public holiday and offer you a great alternative. Don't believe them. 
  • Taxis: Always make sure that the taxi meter is running before driving away in a taxi. It starts at 35 baht. If it's raining heavily or rush hour, taxi drivers might refuse to use the meter. In such case, make sure to agree on a price before getting in the taxi. Also, be aware of taxi drivers (and Tuk Tuks for that matter) recommending good and cheap restaurants. They usually have a deal with the restaurant owner. 
  • "Free" guides: You might also experience friendly locals who approach you, ask where you are heading and offering you to show you the way or show you around. It might be just a friendly local who likes to interact with foreigners, but if it's around popular tourists destinations, it's most likely not. I've tried a few times when someone just wants to help only to ask for a reward afterwards and getting angry when I refuse. Feel out the situation and if you are uncomfortable then politely refuse the gesture. 
  • Scooters/Jetskis: If you want to rent a scooter or a jet ski be very, very careful checking it for scratches and damages and make sure you do it with one of the staff members. Too often do backpackers rent a scooter, leave their passport in deposit and charged heavily for an old scratch that they didn't make. And what can you do, when they hold your passport? Ask locals or other tourists, the hostel or resort you are staying in for any recommendations for scooter/jetski rentals. 

Renting a scooter:

I'll repeat the above as it is a very common scam. Be cautious when you select where to rent from and make sure to inspect your bike before renting. Some try and hustle tourists by not disclosing existing scratches, take your passport in deposit, and when you return require you to pay for the “damage you’ve done”. Take pictures of scratches before you leave and make sure they've seen them. 

Other than that, be very cautious in the traffic. Many accidents happen every year with some fatal outcomes.

On a slightly different note, be aware scooters exhausting pipes as they get really hot and is perfectly located to scorch your calves. Sounds obvious, but happens very often and are even referred to as a farang tattoo

Also, you should be aware that it's illegal to rent and drive motorbikes without a license and if an accident do happen, you will not be covered by your insurance if you don't have a license. If you rent a regular scooter you are probably allowed to do so through your drivers license. 

Mosquitos:

I HATE mosquitos and Thailand have a lot of them. Get you mosquito repellent locally in Thailand but be aware that some of the mosquito repellent you can buy in Thailand is some nasty stuff - which is why it works! 

Try and use longs sleeves and pants in the evening as "natural" protection instead of covering you from top to toe with repellent. Also, you may buy mosquito coils if you are sitting outdoor in the evening. 

7-Elevens:

I haven’t been to many 7-Elevens around the world, but those in Thailand are something else and are simply great for a quick, cheap and delicious meal when backpacking. Late night grilled toasts from 7-Eleven is a popular and tasty classic among backpackers. 

You should also try their ready cooked meals such as Pad Kra Pao, which is actually quite good (and spicy)!

Other than that, 7-Elevens are great for refreshments, snacks, sim cards and much more. 

Backpacking Solo in Thailand

Thailand is probably one of the best countries to start out backpacking solo. Not only is it easy to travel around, but the backpacking infrastructure and culture in Thailand is one of the best in the world.

Socialise

By backpacking infrastructure, I refer primarily to the many great hostels scattered all over the country that are centred around social interaction. Whether that being a cool bar, great hang out areas or free walking tours, it is usually easy to find a good place to stay which makes it easy to socialise.

Also, even though we run a travel center in Bangkok, most often the best advice you can get are from fellow backpackers that just came back from a great trip, found it difficult to take the train and can give advice or whatever it might be.

Don’t plan too much in advance

If it's your first time solo backpacking we will always advice our customers to plan their first few days to get a "soft landing". Our arrival packages are very popular as they'll give travellers the security of having someone at the airport to take you to a nice and comfortable place to stay in the city. 

Unless you know exactly what you want to do, we don't recommend planning too much in advance, as you will be inspired by other travellers. 

Have a rough plan and idea of what you want to do, book the first few days in advance and maybe that one thing you just HAVE to experience, but keep your schedule open for spontaneity! 

Ask for help

Don’t be afraid of asking for help or direction when traveling. You’ll get surprised how easy it is and how approachable the Thais are.

Asking for help can save you a lot of headache and it’s a good way of getting close to the locals - and for that matter fellow travellers. 

Safety

Thailand is overall a safe country for solo backpackers of both genders as long as you don’t act completely reckless.

With so many backpackers traveling to Thailand every year, you will hear about the occasional “freak stories” of backpackers getting hurt. Typically, those center around full moon parties at Koh Phangan, motorbike accidents or getting into trouble over drugs.

When traveling on train or busses make sure to keep your belongings with you as petty theft does occur.

Common sense and keeping your valuables safe should make for a relatively safe trip.

Thailand Nightlife

Thailand, and in particular Bangkok, is well known for its nightlife scene which ranges from high end cocktail bars on the 50th floor with a view to die for to the trashiest side alley garage and everything in between.

However, some years back the government took drastic measures to limit the nightlife by forcing bars and restaurants to close at 1am. The police arrives at popular tourists destinations to close down.

That’s especially around Khao San Road, Patpong on Silom and Sukhomwit but you will still have a hard time finding something that’s open past 2am outside these areas, although some bars have paid off the right people to keep the party going.

Backpacking Thailand you are likely to find a good party anywhere on the main backpacking trail. That is Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the popular southern islands like Koh Tao, Phi Phi, Phuket, Krabi and of course the infamous Koh Phangan where you have not only the full moon party, but also the half moon party and black moon party. 

Generally speaking, Thailand nightlife is for everyone – whether you want to go nuts at a club or just want to relax with a cold beer in a sports bar watching your favourite team, you can find it all. 

Beverages:

Beer is by far the most popular beverage in Thailand with Singha being the most popular followed by Beer Chang and Leo. A few foreign brands like Asahi (Japanese), Heineken (Dutch) and San Miguel (Filipino) are also quite popular throughout Thailand.

However, when the night scene starts to unfold beers are usually substituted with another backpacker favourite – the buckets!

A bucket is simply a drink (any drink) in a small bucket with lots of colourful straws for people to share. You’ll find buckets anywhere there are backpackers.

Need help with your next Thailand trip?

We hope you've enjoyed reading our Thailand Guide and that it has answered some your questions. Do you need any help planning your trip to Thailand? Or maybe you need some advice?

Contact us and let's plan your next trip!

Ferry in Thailand

Thailand Travel Guide

 

 

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Trekking in Nepal

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