Thailand was up high on my bucket list and it definitely lived up to the hype. Here are some of my biggest take-aways, then the details!
- Cash is King in Thailand. Although some places accept credit cards (they generally charge a 3% fee–which can be 6% if you don’t have a credit card without a foreign transactions fee), most only take cash.
- I usually get cash at an ATM-it’s less of a fee than an exchange place
- in Thailand if you go to a bank with your passport they will give you cash without the fee
- $1 is about 30 baht so the dollar goes a LONG way there (I don’t think I paid more than $5 a meal)
- Booking excursions is generally cheaper in person, but if you are 100% on a SPECIFIC tour then book ahead of time so you can be sure it’s not full. Other than that you can find several vendors all selling the same tours/excursions. See what kind of people you can get.
- You can negotiate everything. Everything!! Now, I wouldn’t try at a restaurant (I heard you could though), but at a market or an excursion- I don’t think we ever paid full price.
- Traveling around the country was difficult. Not difficult in the sense of being lost, but I found it didn’t matter how I got around-shared van, private taxi, plane, boat, or tuk tuk–the rides were long, hot, and nauseating. The roads are windy and scary (fast drivers weaving in and out of traffic), boats don’t seem to have any stabilization (there was constant vomiting on these trips), and many cars (private or shared) had poorly working air conditioning and would often pass other cars while navigating mountainous roads.
- Get fresh mango smoothies. You’re welcome.
- Be sure to check out my previous blog about travel products, some of these things saved my life on these trips: https://sologatortraveler.com/2019/02/11/travel-products-pack-it-or-sack-it/
Day 1 through what felt like 48 days (but I think 2.5) was travel. Early morning flight from Tampa to JFK, waiting around in JFK for 6 hours. Then a 16 hour flight from JFK to Shangai on China Eastern Airlines, 4 hour layover, then another 4 hour flight to Bangkok. Holy travel! And we arrived around 3 AM! We had a hotel booked for that night and the next in Bangkok. We stayed at Miramar Hotel and recommend it. It wasn’t anything too special, but the location was good, they were accommodating (we got there at 4 am), and the included breakfast was yummy. Because we didn’t allot too much time in Bangkok we hired a guide (http://yourthaiguide.com) knowing that she would know the ins and outs of travelling around the city most efficiently. We loved our guide Apple. We had been emailing with her previously, so she knew what we wanted to see and found the most time efficient way of doing that for us. We started with the Grand Palace-which was obviously very touristic, however, if it’s your first time there, it can’t be missed. Make sure you have something to cover your shoulders and knees (although they do sell items there). Oh, and watch your things for pick pockets.
After the Grand Palace we took a private long tail boat ride to the Talingchan Floating Market. Apple arranged it for us (we paid extra) and we were glad to see that we did, because we saw some many boats loaded to capacity. The market was both floating and a regular market and Apple told us about snacks and things that we just had to try! So yummy!
Apple then took us to a spot (with air conditioning-woohoo!!) for lunch. We all got our first official Thai meal, getting three entrees and splitting them. They were all delicious and no more than $3 each!
After lunch Apple took us to Wat Pho, which has several temples, including the temple of the reclining Buddha. This Buddha is 46 meters long, they actually had to build the temple around the Buddha when it was finished. It’s also considered the earliest place for public education in Thailand, which still houses a school of Thai medicine, and is also known as the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. This practice is still taught here today.
Here are some pictures inside Wat Pho other than the Reclining Buddha.
While inside one of the temples in Wat Pho we were lucky enough to watch a monk’s prayer over other monks who were in training. Apple then took us to a popular market to end the day with some shopping. We bought some souvenirs, but after a few hours we were beat from our lack of sleep and it was time to catch up on our sleep before our early morning flight out to Chiang Mai.
Bangkok tips: 1) make sure you have something (girls and guys) to cover your shoulders and knees for visiting temples 2) there are all sorts of scams locals pull-telling you a temple is closed and offering to take you elsewhere, changing the price of a tuk tuk or taking you to a “friends” shop on the way there, just be aware and 3) every price is negotiable, so haggle!
We were between a sleeper train and a flight to Chiang Mai, and opted for the flight. It was cheap enough and we decided a good night sleep was more important than the sleeper train as an experience. Plus, with a limited amount of time and the cheap plane ride, we were sold. We were staying at the Pingviman Hotel. This place was great! We loved the location and the unique set up. Plus, we had a free airport shuttle.
So we dropped off out bags at our hotel and then used GRAB (Asia’s Uber) to go to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep also known as just Doi Suthep. Doi Suthep is one of northern Thailand’s most sacred temples, and its founding legend taught in school in Chiang Mai. It can be reached by climbing the 306-step staircase flanked by naga (serpents). Make sure you download GRAB and get a credit card linked before you go incase you don’t have strong wifi to download it there. Here are some pictures from Doi Suthep below.
While up there, there were many shops with food, clothes, and souvenirs. We all got an entree to share and paid about $6 for all three!
It was after this lunch that we made a boo boo. We took a tuk tuk (scary ride down the mountain) to Wat Pha Lat to do the monk’s hike. There were a bunch of interesting abandoned temples down there that we explored first. After asking around we found where the hike started. Turns out after an intense (almost 2 hours and straight up) hike that it brings you back to the bottom of Doi Suthep. That was frustrating! I would suggest starting at Wat Pha Lat, exploring there, then hiking, then wondering around Doi Suthep. Since we were back up where we started with decided to meditate in the meditation room (hey-when in Rome ). After that, we went back into town for lunch. We knew that there were many cool, unique options such as KhaoMao-KhaoFang, Phuffin in the Lake, The Giant Treehouse , Kanjana, and Free Bird Café that we considered and were all highly recommended. We ended up at Kanjana and had the most delicious meal. It was the best Panang Curry (and Mango Smoothie-but not pictured) I’ve ever had. See below
After an amazing time in nature and some delicious food we went to a traditional Lanna Khantoke Dinner & Show at Old Chiang Mai Cultural Center. The food was good (and unlimited) and the show was interesting. We enjoyed it, but probably wouldn’t do it again. It didn’t help that we were at the point of not being able to keep our eyes open!
The next morning in Chiang Mai was another early one. We got picked up and taken to Doi Inthanon National Park for a full day tour. We went with Tour C: National Park and Elephant Care(http://www.doiin-elephantpk.com/product/program-3/). I did a lot of research trying to find an elephant tour that was actually ethical. A lot of places claim to be but if they’re having tourists ride them (it hurts their backs and they’re abused while training for this) or they are chained up it’s not actually ethical. So the two places we found that seemed to be truly ethical to the elephants was Doi Inthanon Elephant Park and Elephant Nature Park (https://www.elephantnaturepark.org/). Our tour was about $121 per person, but it was a full day that included pick up and drop off as well as a tour of the national park. So it started off rough with the company forgetting about us. It wasn’t until we sent them a What’s App message asking where they were that they realized. They did come and get us though with a van full of other people. The roads were windy and nauseating (no surprise) but we got there. Turns out our guide was having a rough day-her daughter was in a motorbike accident. So she was late, forgot the camera (she used her phone), and forgot the bananas to feed the elephants. So we were just playing around and getting to know them while she went off to get bananas. Then we fed them, gave them a mud bath, and cleaned them off. I mainly enjoyed feeding them, I wasn’t really sure the elephants liked the bath, I know I didn’t. I think going back I would go with Elephant Nature Park, but we all had a good time. Pictures below
The second part of our tour was with our new favorite guide Tony! He was amazing, and it turns out he does private tours (including planning them) so if you need a guide for a day or the whole trip, check him out! He took us to Doi Inthanon National Park.
Doi Inthanon is the highest mountain in Thailand. It’s famous for it’s number of waterfalls, few trails, remote villages, picturesque farms, viewpoints, watching sunrise/sunset, birdwatching and the all year round cool weather. There were Two Chedis, known as Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon and Nophamethanidon built in 1987 and 1992. They were interesting looking on top of the mountain. There was art work inside that told both stories:
Tony also took us to a local guide for some hiking with cool waterfalls along the way
We got back around 630 PM, so we thought it was time for dinner. We went to the famous night market, which basically ended up being several night markets all connected to each other. We got a bunch of different street foods to try there including some amazing gyoza and $1 pad thai!
The next morning we had hired a private driver (Don) who charged us about $130 total to drive us around for the day. We very much missed Tony though! We went to Chiang Rai which was about 3 hours away to explore the White Temple, the hot springs, and the Blue Temple. We got to the White Temple when it opened at 9 am to avoid crowds. I’d recommend this, you could even do the night before at a hotel in Chiang Rai so that you won’t need to get up so early, and you’d have more time to explore Chiang Rai.
Then it was time for a late lunch. Tony recommended going to Singha Park for lunch so we did. It was good food (slightly more expensive–by that I mean like $7) and an amazing view!
And then our driver dropped us back off in Chiang Mai right to our cooking class we had booked at Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School. It was $25 per person and we made so much amazing food and had a blast doing it! Our teacher was so funny and entertaining so it was some of the best food we had.
The last day we had in Chiang Mai was the day to explore all of the amazing temples and markets we didn’t get to see yet. We saw lots of temples, markets, had a blind Thai massage (where proceeds go back to different foundations for the blind in Thailand), and ate some delicious food. See below
Then it was off to the islands!! We had a flight with Thai AirAsia from Chiang Mai to Krabi for about $92 with “oversize” checked luggage. We got a 35 minute GRAB ride from Krabi to Ao Nang where we were staying at Ao Nang Phu Pi Maan Resort & Spa the next two nights. We decided that this was the place (if any) to spurge on an amazing hotel. We did…although it still ended up being pretty cheap when we split it three ways ($325/night). We got a premium two bedroom suite at a hotel with A/C (very important) and an infinity pool. This hotel was amazing! I would highly recommend it, and it also had free area and beach shuttles. I posted some pics below of the view from our room as well as the room itself.
We wanted to do a private boat tour for the full day and figured out that a bunch of these vendors/stands all sell to the same company. They are all negotiable this way. The first tour we did was a private 4 island tour. We went on a longtail boat to see (and explore) Phangan, Phra Na Caves, Poda, and Chicken Islands. They were all gorgeous! I would recommend water shoes…the walk to Chicken Island was very rocky and painful!
Later that night we took a longtail boat during sunset to explore Railay Beach. It was beautiful and a cute little place with lots of bars and restaurants. We watched sunset on the beach, ate Pad Thai at Railay Family Restaurant, and wandered around the bars.
On the last day on Ao Nang we paid for a speed boat ride to see Koh Phi Phi (both islands), Monkey Island, Maya Bay, and Bamboo Island. Maya Bay was still closed due to tourism destroying the land, but the boat was able to go in (we just couldn’t get off). This was a beautiful day, however, the speed boat we were all was completely packed and many people were seasick. This definitely took away from the experience. See below for photos of the islands:
After that, my friends went back to Krabi for their flight and I started my solo trip. I got a ride to my next hotel ( Art’s Riverview Lodge) in Khao Sok National Park. I arranged picked through the hotel. For once, I had a van that was properly air conditioned and I was alone! It was a Thailand miracle. Although, the drive was still a crazy ride through the mountains and jungle, passing slower cars along the way. So this place was in the middle of the jungle (monkeys and all) where you were sleeping in a cabin (no A/C here). Pictures below
I did a full day tour of the national park that I booked through my hotel. Everyone on my tour (6 others) were from my hotel. We drove to the National Park and got onto our Longtail boat tour. The views were amazing!
We then trekked through the jungle which took us to more water. From there they then took us by Bamboo Boat to Pakarang Cave.
Then it was time for lunch, swimming, and kayaking on this crystal blue water. Here are pictures of the area and food
After that we went back through the National Park a different way with more stunning views. Then it was back to the hotel, where I had dinner on the river watching monkeys jump and swing on vines!
The next morning after a delicious breakfast at the hotel I began my journey to my last island: Ko Lanta. I chose this one because I heard that it’s the best overall: not too touristy, not too party-centered, but still things to do and places to go. I arranged the travel to the island through my hotel, but this ride wasn’t private. I was in a full van that took us to a meeting spot where we had to wait to be transferred. Two hours later, from the meeting spot it was a three hour ride (including on a ferry) to get to Ko Lanta. But….it was worth it. I was staying at Sri Lanta Resort. Here are pictures of the resort and my room.
Once I was settled in I decided it was time to get a $10 massage on the beach. It was great! Since I was all relaxed I decided to go to the Majestic Bar (had a mango-colada) while watching sunset. It was a lovely view! Followed by some yummy panang curry at Horizon’s.
The next morning I went to Peace Paradise and had a yummy breakfast burrito
My plan after that was to rent a motor bike, but after seeing the roads there I chickened out and hired a tuk tuk to take me to and from the National Park (Mu Koh Lanta). It was beautiful and I loved exploring there
On the way back I had my driver drop me off at Diamond Cliff restaurant. I wasn’t hungry, so I ordered a mango smoothie (are you sensing a theme yet???) and enjoyed the view with my book.
I had some time, so I figured why not get another massage before a nap?? I know, rough life huh? Nothing is rushed here, so just enjoy and relax. I had a yummy pad thai in egg on the beach for dinner and an amazing sunset at the Nature Resort:
The next day I decided to give the speed boat tour another try. This trip was to Koh Rok and Koh Haa and it included lunch and three snorkeling sessions. New boat, same puking everywhere. Yuck!! But once again the islands, they were gorgeous!! I enjoyed walking around to explore as well as just laying on the beach with a book relaxing
I went back to Ko Lanta and had dinner back at the Nature Resort. It was yummy the night before so I gave it another go. I had panang curry this time and a mango with sticky rice for dessert. Ah-maz-ing!!!
The next day I had until my 9 pm flight from Krabi to Bangkok with a hotel pick scheduled for 4 pm, so I decided to relax knowing what travel was in store for me. I started the day with the breakfast buffet at my hotel. Then I decided it was time for a final massage. I had to check out from my hotel, but they had a room next to the lobby you can change and shower in. So I relaxed by the beach and pool, had a late lunch at Sunset Del Mar (also at my hotel), then changed and got picked up from the lobby. It was a three hour ride to the Krabi airport, then I had my flight from Krabi to Bangkok, four hour layover, 2 am flight from Bangkok to Shanghai, four hour layover, 16 hour flight from Shanghai to JFK, 7 hour layover and finally the flight from JFK to Tampa. Whew! Am I still exhausted and jetlagged? Yes. But was it worth every second of the tiredness and jetlaggedness? Ab-so-lute-ly!