“Do you have any recommendations for what to do in Thailand?”: A (super unofficial) Travel Guide for Thailand
This is a very unofficial travel guide written for a target audience of US based, roughly college / youngish professional people planning a trip to the beautiful country of Thailand. Please keep in mind that I have absolutely no Thai history, culture or tourism experience other than having lived in Thailand for 6 years growing up, so take everything I recommend with many grains of salt.
I’ll start with some general good things to keep in mind:
- The country is very serious about consequences for those who offend the Buddha, don’t mess around when it comes to religion and temples.
- Amazing food is at least 50% of the reason why most people travel, and a large part of why Thailand is so great. Thai street food is extremely cheap & tasty, make sure you come ready to eat a lot. That being said, food poisoning & allergies are not. There are 3 big things to keep in mind: (1.) If you’re allergic to nuts, there are nuts in most local dishes — always ask to make sure. (2.) If you’re vegetarian, keep in mind that most dishes are cooked with fish sauce instead of salt, and soup broths are very often chicken/pork based. (3.) A non-Thai stomach will be weaker than a local stomach so take calculated risks with your food choices. When traveling it’s better safe than sorry, especially for the first half of your trip, as food poisoning is miserable. If you don’t have a local to tell you if a place is clean or not, as a general rule of thumb if your food is from a well known market — probably ok, if the seller’s shop has a roof — probably ok, if it’s very crowded so food is sold freshly cooked — probably ok. Stay away from carts on the side of main roads and any fried meats they may be selling, just in case.
- Thailand is extremely hot, but also has a lot of bugs everywhere and mosquito bites are really annoying. Dress & bug spray up accordingly.
- Figure out what you want to do about your phone plan, either have an international roaming plan, or make sure your phone is unlocked so you can buy a local SIM card.
- Bangkok is a huge city with all kinds of public & private transport. Travel with a combination of BTS (sky train), MRT (underground train), GRAB Taxi app (aka Southeast Asian Uber), & local Taxi. Tuk tuk’s are a scam and should only be ridden once for the experience & photos (if at all). They will often offer to take you around Bangkok for reduced prices show you to some souvenir stores or claim certain places are closed — don’t listen to them. Compared to US prices GRAB & Taxi are very cheap, but when riding a local Taxi always ask for meter. If they try to scam you with a high flat fee, insist on meter, or if you think you can get another taxi, reject the ride and find another.
- Watch this video series my friend Abraham Chen made from when we went on a very action packed 6 day trip of Thailand together. The videos show a lot of the places I will be recommending. However, if you want a relaxing holiday, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I recommend only attempting about half as much as we did or else you’ll end up like this.
Here is another video series highlighting a more recent, post-pandemic trip, that spanned several weeks and was far more relaxing.
Recommended Travel Itinerary (Cities):
- The capital, the real city of angels, Bangkok (2–5 days) — 2 is enough if you’re not a city person and just want a taste. If you really want to explore Bangkok you’d need at least a month, but you can probably hit the main highlights in 5 days or so.
- Northern city famous for elephants and temples, Chiang Mai (2–4 days) — 4 for a relaxing time, 2 if you don’t mind sleep deprivation or an incomplete experience.
- One of Thailand’s many beach islands (2 — infinite days) — you can spend forever at the beach, and there are so many to choose from. If you want to be a tourist and do wild tourist things with other tourists: go to Phuket. If you want what feels like your own private island, beautiful, empty beaches with warm water that’s perfect for swimming / kayaking /relaxing (admittedly not much else going on): Koh Chang is beautiful and perfect. Phuket is easy to fly to as it has an international airport, Koh Chang is more difficult, you need to take some combination of airport/bus and ferry to get to the island. What I recommend is renting a driver and car and driving straight there, onto the ferry and for your duration on the island! Krabi also deserves a mention, but I personally think Phi Phi Islands & Koh Samui are overrated, and avoid Pattaya at all costs unless you’re into naked old Russians sunbathing in speedos. No matter what beach you decide, make sure you go island hopping & snorkeling / diving!
Things to do in Bangkok:
- Asiatique Night Market: Get to Saphan Thaksin BTS (sky train) station, from there catch a free ferry to an island with the “night market” on it. More of an upscale market, with nicer restaurants and more traditional fine arts and crafts than your usual, more local night market. Very touristy, but for the great views, great vibes, and a great dinner & night time experience I think the touristiness is very tolerable.
- Temples: I have no comments on The Grand Palace because I think tourists like it, but as a local I avoid it like the plague. If you’re the kind of person who is actually into Buddhist culture or went to Europe and actually really enjoyed looking at Churches, architecture and statues, then The Grand Palace might be for you. Note it will be blisteringly hot. Having said all this, Thailand is famous for temples, so if you do want to go, a quick google search will tell you the best ones.
- Floating Market: Similar to the above, tourists love these, I think a tourist would find them cool? I’ve just been to so many growing up i’ve gotten sick of them. Go if you want to ride a boat through a market of people selling stuff on boats. Food is good in the markets, but food is good almost anywhere in Thailand. The stuff they sell there is mostly tourist trappy stuff so if you do go it should just be for the cool new experience and some good pictures (think Venice experience of Thailand).
- Chatuchak (DAY) market — its the pinnacle of your Bangkok morning/day time market experience. Note that this place is HUGE, if you split up with someone you will never, ever find them again. (only open on weekends). Go here if you enjoy shopping. Pro tip: don’t buy the first coconut ice cream/mango sticky rice you see. The stands deeper into the market taste better and are half the price
- Thai Massage: Get at least 1 Thai Massage, this is an absolute must if you’re into massages (found everywhere btw, I’d love to give recommendations but I’m unfortunately not into massages).
- Watch Muay Thai Fight: to be totally the popular Muay Thai fight locations are often overhyped and thus underwhelming, especially given the high tourist entry ticket price. UPDATE: A cool alternative I recently discovered is if you get lucky, the MBK mall has free outdoor “Fight Night” events — look it up, you basically get to watch intense Muay Thai fights for free!
Word of caution, the less touristy something is the less likely people are to speak english and the more likely you are to get lost.
- Rod Fai Market: Hands down my favourite night market in all of Bangkok, but unfortunately kind of far from the city center. I think it’s well worth it, but evaluate based on distance — there are many markets in Bangkok. Opens from 5–11pm from Friday-Sunday. Great for vintage/retro instagram pics and thrifting, overall relaxed vibe with lots of side bars + live music. A more exciting way to get there [scenic route]: Go to BTS Onut, walk down the street to Big C Extra and take a no. 4 White SongThaew to Seacon Square Mall right beside the market. This is just a fun 25 min open-air ride that will cost you literally 7 baht (22 cents). UPDATE: There is a second Rod Fai Market (a smaller copy of the original), that is far closer to everything else in town. To get there take the MRT (you can interchange with BTS Asok) to Thailand Cultural Center station and it will be right there (Big Dog Cafe is also here if you want to make a day out of it!).
- Prapadaeng — Bangkok’s green lung: Bangkok is NOT an outdoors / biking type city, but this small “island” thing is the exception, so I really like it. To get there get to the Wat Klong Toey pier, take a quick 20 THB ferry, rent bikes for 100 THB for the day and see: big park to cycle through with small temples & shrines along the way, Siamese Fish Fighting (weekends only) and a small floating market (weekends only).
- Bangkok’s Bougie Shopping Malls along Sukhumvit Road: Take a tour of them, all accessible directly by BTS. This may sound kinda lame, but it’s an easy way to explore the sky train system, LOTs of food options, see where real Bangkok citizens spend their free time, and huge bonus: very air conditioned so a good break from the heat! (1.) MBK — National Stadium BTS: Go here if you want to buy cheap & fake stuff (i.e. clothes, shoes, bags, belts etc.) you name it this place will have it. You can always bargain btw. (2.) Siam area (Paragon, Center) — Siam BTS: One of the Posh-est areas of Thailand, Siam Paragon has an aquarium in the basement of the mall! Stop by briefly to see how bougie these places are, and there’s also lots of cool stuff in the streets outside if you’re down to be adventurous and explore. (3.) Terminal 21 — Asok BTS: Cool shopping mall where each floor is themed after a country (whole place is airport themed), on the Japan and i think it’s Middle East? floors there’s lots of cool boutique stores thats sell unique, Thai souvenirs that are more expensive but also higher quality than what you’d find at a market. The top floor of the mall also has a fantastic food court of dirt cheap food, that is guaranteed to be clean, with English menus and is air conditioned. When i go here i usually eat 2 portions and it comes out to around $3. (4.) Emquartier — Phrom Phong BTS: I spent my childhood here to be honest, LOTS of food options on the more upscale end. Go up the pretty spiral with all the restaurants, there’s a small rooftop area that’s kind of nice, with a view of Bangkok.
- IconSiam: A new mall that by far takes the throne of bougiest mall in Bangkok. You can take a free ferry here from the same place you’d take a ferry to Asiatique! Enjoy 2 free water fountain shows here that some may or may not say rivals Vegas’ Bellagio Fountain. I highly recommend going here for the basement floor, which is to a Thai Floating Market, what the Venetian (also in Vegas) is to Venice. Lots of great, surprisingly cheap food in a trendy and cultural interior.
- Thai Wake Park / Indoor Surfing: Both are cool options I’ve had a lot of fun doing.
- Seagulls: Feed pork skin snacks to the biggest flock of seagulls you will ever see (http://www.thaitravelblogs.com/2011/12/seagulls-by-the-seaside-near-bangkok/)
- Motorbike Taxi’s: Cheap & Fun way to travel in the city center of Bangkok, rode them all the time growing up, but hey, motorbikes are kinda dangerous and full disclosure probably not safe at all.
- Bangkok Ghost Tower: If you’re really into adventure, go at your own risk. Note that it involves bribery and a significantly non-zero chance of death. UPDATE: as of Feb 2019 I think the building is finally closed both officially and unofficially.
- Airplane Graveyard: more “urban exploring”. If you love taking photos and want to feel like you’re exploring a jungle ruin in the middle of a city, go here. You just have to pay the family that owns the land at minimum 200 THB to get in (price depends on how Thai you are, your group size, and honestly what mood the family are in — they may not even let you in).
- Virtual Reality Lounge: exactly what it sounds like, cheaper here than in other countries and just as cool if not cooler. Popular ones are VR One Thonglor and Total VR @ The Street.
- Weird/Cute/Cool Animal Cafes: You’ve all heard of cat cafe, but have you heard of Husky Cafe? What about Big Dog Cafe? Raccoon Cafe? Little Zoo Cafe? Hello Kitty Cafe? Unicorn Cafe? You name it and Bangkok probably has a Cafe for it.
- Street Art: If you are into street art either as an artist yourself or for your Insta, Bangkok has several cool areas for it (just google Bangkok street art). The most accessible of which is right by the BTS Ratchathewi station, go to “Graffiti Park” and the local streets around it.
- Khao San Road: Pros are that this is the iconic cultural experience of Bangkok nightlife, dirt cheap, drinks in buckets with long colourful straws and even eat a scorpion. Cons are that its kind of far and quite dirty.
- Thong Lor: Trendy district, where young people go to go clubbing or drink crazy cocktails in fancy bar interiors. Cons are $$$ and too many choices with too little time.
- Rooftop Bars: There are several good ones you can look for (Escape, Cielo, Vertigo, Banyan Tree), also $$$.
- Red Light District: Pros are you get a new experience, especially if you’ve never seen a ladyboy before, you will be amazed at how unable you are to tell the difference. Cons are literally everything else.
Unique Food Experiences:
In general you can’t go wrong with food in Thailand, so I don’t really believe in a “best restaurants” list, you’d have to try really hard to NOT find good food wherever you go. Instead here are some unique culinary experiences (for when you need a break from street food):
- Mont Nomsod: Traditional Thai Toast and milk tea! Most famous dessert shop for Thai locals — lots of unique flavours (best seller is Pandan Toast) — Located right by MBK Mall [$]
- Cabbages and Condoms: literally the name — eat Thai food beside walls and sculptures of condoms, it has a lot of history of Thailand’s fight against HIV its really cool [$]
- Terminal 21 Food Court: As mentioned above, its so cheap for its comfort and cleanliness [$]
- MK (Suki/Hot pot): This is one of our family’s favourites, green noodles and cheap meat, what more could you ask for. [$]
- KFC: Yes, that KFC. Thai KFC’s are great — specifically order the Zabb Wings (super flavourful) and egg tarts. [$]
- 7/11: convenience stores found everywhere (and I mean everywhere), highly recommend the toasties, specific Thai flavoured lays chips, coconut water, triangle onigiris, and anything that tickles your fancy really [$]
- Mae Waree Mango Sticky Rice: located in Thonglor [$]
- BIG DOG Cafe: just your average cafe but it has BIG DOGS only. [$$]
- Unicorn Cafe: experience a delightful purple cappuccino while seated beside 40 year old men in glittery unicorn onesies [$$]
- After You Dessert Cafe: cool Thai fusion flavours e.g. Thai tea desserts [$$]
- Audrey’s: a cute garden cafe located in EmQuartier that serves somewhat fusion Thai food. [$$]
- EatThai/Rot Ni Yom: good street-style Thai food that’s kind of a scam but for when you want indoor air conditioned seating [$$]
- Insects in the Backyard: moderately fine-dining experience where your main protein source is bugs! Very good plate aesthetics, look it up. [$$$]
- Dine in the Dark: Eat your dinner in pitch dark, served by blind waiters & waitresses. Pro tip: go in with clean hands, don’t wear a white shirt, and don’t even try to use your cutlery — you’ll just make a mess. [$$$]
- Hajime Robot Restaurant: The only thing that rivals the Thai food in Thailand is Japanese food (Thai people love Japanese food, its everywhere). Here you get your sushi served by a robot! Kill 2 birds with 1 stone, and feel like you’ve travelled to Japan & Thailand at the same time! [$$$]
Things to do in Chiang Mai:
- Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (6AM — 2PM), very highly recommend. No, you wont be riding elephants here (its a pretty cruel practice and not one I support), instead you get to feed them, play & swim with them!
- Lots of cool temples, far cooler than the ones in Bangkok (literally as well, being in the mountains makes Chiang Mai feel just a little less like you’re in a pot of boiling water). White temple is probably the coolest one, but also kinda far away. You can just Google things like best temples in Chiang Mai and decide for yourself what is too far / worth it for you.
- Sunday Night Market
Thank you for reading and enjoy Thailand! If you have any questions, are actually knowledgable and have strong disagreements with anything I’ve expressed, or followed my recommendations and were disappointed by anything, feel free to reach out to me— i’d love to be corrected and for this guide to get more crowdsourced :)