If I had a nickle for every time some asked me about traveling to Thailand I’d be…well…I’d have a few dollars. Seriously though, tons of people ask me about planning trips to Thailand so I thought I’d put a post together on it.
If you’re in Thailand for 1 day (on a layover or something) it’s probably safe to assume you’ll spend it in Bangkok. Getting around Bangkok is very easy, so you can stay in almost any district of the city. If you have a full day you’ll be able to pack a lot in. Here are some of the things you shouldn’t miss:
1. Grand Palace & Wat Pho – both are in the Phra Nakhon district and directly next to each other. The Grand Palace was built in 1782 and is home to the Emerald Buddha. Both attractions can seriously heat up (maybe it’s all the gold) so try to go early if you can. Both are open daily until 3:30 pm and close for special observance and holidays. Check with your hotel to ensure they are open (and don’t trust anyone near the gates if they tell you it’s closed. They probably want to scam you. The area is a huge spot for tourist scams, so don’t get ripped off by people offering cheap tours, cheap tuk-tuk rides, etc..) You have to dress modestly – or rent clothing there, for a refundable deposit – long pants/skirt, no tank tops and flip-flops can be hit or miss. Sometimes you can get in with them, sometimes not. Sandals are okay.
2. Wat Arun, or Wat Chaeng, is on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. It is believed that after fighting his way out of Ayutthaya, which was besieged by a Burmese army at the time, King Taksin arrived at this temple just as dawn was breaking. He then named it Wat Chaeng – Temple of Dawn. It’s quite beautiful and also a great place to see the river. You can take a river tour, but I think they’re most a rip-off. You’ll stop at floating tourist traps and stop to feed the feed. If you really want a ride down the river, take the public boat from the Grand Palace to the Temple of the Dawn.
3. Jim Thompson House – I’ve written about it several times. This is one of the more tranquil, quite attractions in the city. If you don’t know about Jim Thompson, check out this post. Plan to visit around lunchtime and make reservations to eat at the restaurant, you won’t be disappointed. Jim Thompson revived the Thai silk trade, then a dying art, changed the the industry forever. After he mysteriously disappeared into the jungles of Malaysia, he left a legacy which is reflected through his collection of Thai art and antiques. The house itself is an amazing complex of six Thai-style teakwood houses which will leave you wanting to redecorate.
These are the things that I would be sure to see if I had 1 day only in Bangkok.
If you’re going to be in Thailand for 2-3 days, you’ll have think hard about what you’re looking to do. You could easily do 1 day in Bangkok and 2 days on one of the islands, or you could spend 2-3 days in Bangkok. If you spend 3 days in Bangkok, here’s what I’d add to the list of things to do from day 1 above:
1. If you’re in the city on a weekend, you’ll have an opportunity to check out JJ market also called Chatuchak, but in Thai, Jatujak or JJ. This is one of the more famous markets in the world and worth a trip. There are over 5,000 stalls and more than 200,000 people per day visit the market. Going in the morning is your best best as it’s much cooler and fewer tourists will have descended upon it yet. You’ll find everything you can imagine at JJ including an underground for trafficking illegal and endangered species in the north west corner of the market.
3. Pak Klong Talad is the flower market on the border of Chinatown. The flower market is really an experience and the flowers – orchids, birds of paradise, lilies and more are amazing and amazingly cheap. After a walk through the flower market, head over to Yaowarat Road for some Chili Fried Crab. You won’t be sorry!
4. Sri Mariamman, on Silom Road, is the oldest Hindu Temple in Bangkok. It’s incredibly ornate and worth the trip. The Temple is devoted to the goddess Uma and has become a mecca for transsexuals. You’ve never seen anything quite like this Temple, I guarantee it. It’s amazing.
5. If you find yourself looking for something to do at night, you’ll have your pick of activities. Bangkok is known for its nightlife and there are some hidden gems as well.
- Night Market – The Patpong night market offers more than a market. It’s surrounded by the red-light district and tons of touristy bars and more authentic restaurants. It’s an amazing contrast in 2-3 blocks. One of my all time favorite restaurants is located in this area – Mango Tree is an authentic and very reasonable restaurant just around the corner from the night market. Be prepared to negotiate. The prices are about 2-3 times more than you should pay. Vendors are pushy, but don’t be intimidated and just walk away if you’re not happy with the deal – there’s about 20 other stalls with the exact same goods waiting for you.
- Soi Cowboy – this neon laden area was named after the African-American man who opened the first bar – a cowboy bar – on the street. A red-light district sprung up around the clubs and bars and became known as a party district. Be careful, prices are set for tourists and you can easily shell out Manhattan prices for cheap drinks.
- Roof Top Bars – there are dozens of these in Bangkok now. These bars range from the famous Sky Bar featured in Hangover II to flashy, trendy places to be seen. The drinks at these rooftop locations won’t be cheap, so keep that in mind.
- If you prefer something a little more low key, you could catch a movie. Yes, that’s right, go see a movie in Thailand. The theatre at Siam Paragon mall is out of this world. There’s 1 theatre sponsored by Bangkok airways which has around 32 seats and they’re lie-flat seats like you’ll find in first class on many airplanes. The experience is surreal and you’ll be treated like a star at a private screening. It’s a cool way to spend an evening in Bangkok.
If you choose to spend 1 day in Bangkok and 2 days in the islands, I’d suggest going to Krabi. It’s a quick flight from Bangkok with dozens of daily flights. The beaches are some of the best in Thailand. Make sure you check out Riley Beach. The town is small, but offers an opportunity to pick us some souvenirs at cheap prices. Wat Tham Sua or ‘Tiger Cave’ is one of the most famous caves in the area and is part of a temple complex where monks live and worship in natural caves. Inside one of the caves are what appears to be tiger paw prints embedded in the stone. The main attraction however, is the 1,272 step climb up a limestone tower to see the ‘footprint of the Buddha’. You really need to be in good shape to make the trip up the stairs. It’s a huge hike.
4 – 7 days
If you’ve got 4-5 days in Thailand I’d suggest doing 1 – 2 days in Bangkok incorporating the items above. Then, you’ll have to decide if you want to spend the remaining time in the North – Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai or in the south on one of the islands.
If you go to Chiang Mai/ Chiang Rai
1. Similar to the attraction in Singapore, Chiang Mai Night Safari features three animal zones – Savanna Safari, Predator Prowl, Jaguar Trail – which you can tour via an open-sided tram. You can see all kinds of animals up close.
2. Built sometime between 1385 and 1402, Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai City complex is iconic. The pagoda structure can be seen from most places in the region. The structure was damaged in an earthquake around 1500 and is 1/2 of its original size. None the less, the architectural design and magnitude of the structure is worth seeing.
3. Go to an elephant camp – there are a lot of elephant camps in the area. Some are less animal friendly and more touristy. I’d suggest avoiding those if you can by getting recommendations from wildlife groups or friends. I would recommend Baan Chang Elephant Park as they are focused on education.
4. Cooking school is the thing to do in Thailand and Chiang Mai is a great place to do it. There are tons of options – ask your hotel for a recommendation (mainly because I can’t remember the name of the one I went to!)
5. The Night Bazaar – every city has its night markets, but this one is a little different becuase it seems to offer many more local crafts – as opposed to knock off hand bags (don’t get me wrong, you can get those there too, but you’ll find a lot of local things too.) Look for hand-woven fabrics made locally and used for shirts, hats, handbags and scarves.
If you decided to go south, to the islands, you can choose from a few areas. The two most popular are Phuket and Koh Samui. Koh Samui is a small island that is very heavily visited by the Aussies and can feel almost like you’re in Australia rather than Thailand at times. It is beautiful though and is a great starting point for day-trips to the national parks around the area. Phuket on the other hand is very touristy and I’d suggest you branch out and head north about 40-60 minutes to an area called Khao Lak. It’s less populated and less of a tourist attraction. You’ll also be able to find plenty of day trips. Both of these options will allow you to relax, participate in water sports, and visit some of the most breath taking islands you’ll ever see.
If you’ve got more than 7 days, I’d break them up among all the regions. A 2 days in Bangkok, 2-4 days in the Islands (depending on how much R&R you want), 2-3 days Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai and beyond that, I’d consider adding on a trip to another country like Vietnam or Cambodia. Both countries are great add on trips.
My first recommendation would be to go to Cambodia. It’s a beautiful country and Angkor Wat is one of the most amazing places in the world and a once in a lifetime trip. You could spend 2-3 days in Cambodia in Siam Reap and at Angkor Wat. From there, if you still have time, I’d suggest heading to Vietnam. I really enjoyed Saigon (what the locals prefer you call it) and would go back in a heart-beat. There’s enough to do there to spend 3-4 days, easily.
So, that’s how I’d recommend you spend your time on a trip to Thailand and possibly the surrounding countries.