Backpacking Thailand: Top experiences
- Diving off the coast of Ko Tao
- Cycling amidst the ruins at Sukhothai and Ayutthaya
- Bargaining your way through the enormous markets in Bangkok’s Chinatown
- Learning how to cook Thai food in Chiang Mai
- Getting way off the beaten path in Isaan
Jump to the list of posts from Thailand, or read on for my comprehensive Thailand travel guide.
Thailand itinerary ideas
You could spend as little or as much time backpacking Thailand as you have time and money for. You could rush through a busy Thailand itinerary in two weeks — but a month would be more enjoyable. Two months would allow you to see everything.
If you have two weeks in Thailand, spend your first three or four days in Bangkok. Walk around Chinatown, go to the markets, see the Royal Palace and Wat Pho, and visit a couple museums. Then, catch the train to Ayutthaya and spend a day visiting the ruins. Next up is Chiang Mai — worth at least three days, including a visit to the Bua Thong Sticky Waterfall. From here, hop on a flight to Krabi and go rock climbing at Railay, or just enjoy one of the world’s most scenic beaches. Finish up with a few days of diving from Ko Tao.
A one month Thailand itinerary would include all of the above, but you can extend your time in the north and center of the country. Add stops in Kanchanaburi, Lopburi and Sukhothai on your way to Chiang Mai. Then, rent a motorbike and explore the far north, with a couple nights each in Pai and Chiang Rai.
Have more time for a Thailand travel route? Head east to Isaan. This most off-the-beaten-track of regions feels more like Laos or Cambodia than Thailand. The best place to get a taste of it is Phimai, home to the Khmer temple that historians think was a blueprint for Angkor Wat. This area is also home to the spectacular Khao Yai National Park.
With additional time, you could also add a few days at another island or beach to your Thailand backpacker route, like Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lipe.
Thailand weather and when to visit Thailand
Thailand weather is similar to the rest of mainland South East Asia. Winter (November-March) is the ideal time to visit weather-wise, with cool, dry days. The only downside is huge crowds — especially around Christmas and New Year’s.
April-June is hot and September-October can be a bit rainy, but overall, these are the best times to visit Thailand for the right balance between weather and crowds. Prices also drop considerably compared to high season.
Summer (June-August) is monsoon season. Usually the rains come in short, heavy bursts in the afternoons. If you’re sticking to the mainland, this can be a great time to visit — with low prices and few people. But getting to the main Thailand islands can be tough in bad weather. If you’re reliant on ferries to get around, leave a few buffer days before your flight home.
Language in Thailand
The main language spoken in Thailand is Thai. It’s a difficult language for foreigners to pick up, as it’s tonal, grammatically complicated, and uses its own script. By the end of your trip backpacking Thailand you’ll be lucky if you can pronounce “thank you” correctly. One of the best Thailand travel tips I can offer to pick up a phrasebook.
The good news is, almost everyone in Thailand speaks basic English, and many young people speak it fluently. While Thai people will greatly appreciate any attempts you make to speak Thai, they’ll quickly switch to English when you struggle to communicate. Additionally, most restaurants, bus stations, street stalls, and other places tourists frequent use both the Latin and Thai alphabets.
Budget for backpacking Thailand
Thailand is the original budget travel destination. It’s still a great place to travel well while you stretch your cash, even if the days of $10/day budgets are gone.
Big cities, islands, and other popular tourist areas are radically more expensive than smaller towns and anywhere off the beaten path. To keep costs down, mix up your top tourist spots with quieter places while backpacking Thailand.
A comfortable low-end backpacking Thailand budget would be $30 a day. You could do it with less, but you’d have limited choice of guesthouses, you’d have to pick one island, and you’d have to skip many attractions. $50 a day is a comfortable mid-range budget. With more than that, you’ll live like royalty.
Private room in a hostel or simple guesthouse: 450 baht and up
Street-stall meal of pad thai: 30 baht
Beer at a bar: 100 baht
Museum or historical site admission: Free-300 baht
Bus ticket from Bangkok to Chiang Mai: 500-750 baht
Ferry to Koh Pha Ngan: 1,000 baht
Two-tank dive on Koh Tao: 1,800 baht
Thailand visa requirements
Most nationalities, including EU citizens, North Americans, and Australians, can visit Thailand visa-free for up to 30 days. Sometimes you’ll only get a 15-day stamp if crossing by land.
With the rise of backpacker-beggars in Thailand, border officials are increasingly checking for proof of funds for the length of your stay. Usually a credit card will suffice. Additionally, you may be asked to show proof of onward travel — if you’re traveling overland, you should be fine with a hotel reservation for your first night in a neighboring country.
If you run out of time on your visa, you can do a visa run and get a new stamp. Malaysia is the best country to do this with, as entering Malaysia is also free. Quick trips to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat are popular too.
Accommodation in Thailand
You don’t have to pinch pennies to travel in comfort while backpacking Thailand. The country is home to some of the world’s best small guesthouses, which can be extremely good value.
In places like Lopburi, Kanchanaburi, Ayutthaya and Isaan, you’ll mostly find family-run guesthouses with 10-15 rooms and great common spaces for meeting others backpacking Thailand. A room with a shared bathroom is rarely more than $15. Rooms have nice decorative touches like little desks and local crafts. Toilets are usually Western and hot water is common. Nearly everywhere has free WiFi. Big cities have the same types of guesthouses, but they’re on average $5 more expensive.
If you’re on a very low backpacking Thailand budget, you may have to rely on hostels with dorm beds. They’re most common on the islands and in very touristic places, but most towns have at least one. You can pay as little as $4 a night, but the nicer places are around $8 a night.
You rarely need an advance booking, so look at a few places before you commit. Another one of the important Thailand travel tips: once you’ve paid, there are no refunds — it doesn’t matter how big the roach that crawled out of the sink was.
If you’re going to Ko Phangan for a Full Moon Party, you definitely do need to book in advance, and expect to pay upwards of $20 for a dorm anywhere on the island. Koh Phi Phi and Ko Tao also become zoos around the full moon, so expect prices to skyrocket there too.
Food in Thailand
Thai food is famous worldwide, and one of the backpacking Thailand essentials is trying all the different local dishes. If you stick with local restaurants, you can eat very well, even on a tight budget. Better yet, food is everywhere, all the time. Even if you’re on a long bus trip or out in the middle of nowhere you don’t have to go hungry.
Markets, night markets, curry shacks, and street food are reliable sources of cheap eats — and they’re some of the best places to eat in Thailand. If you go to an indoor restaurant, you’ll pay much more for the same dishes. On the islands, food is geared toward tourists (read: less spicy) and more expensive. Portions are on the small side.
For noodles and stir-fries, look for the wok masters who set up along the street or at night markets. Pad thai is the most popular dish, and is available everywhere for $1 or less. Other common noodle dishes are Pad See Ew and Pad Mee Korat. Stir-fries with rice usually run under $2. You’ll also find satay and fried rice. In Bangkok, Chinese dishes are common too.
Most street stalls have menus with English descriptions. If you see a local eating something that looks good, ask the wok master to make that — it may not be on the menu.
Curry shacks stay open through lunch but are busiest in the morning. Look for the metal vats with pre-prepped curries, ask the staff to open the vats and point to what you want. A single curry will cost about $2, but if you get additions like fried eggs or combine a couple dishes, it can go up to $3.
One of the best snacks you can get while backpacking Thailand is the fresh fruit you’ll see on every street corner. Guava, mango, pineapple, papaya — pick what looks best. Locals dip it in a salt-sugar-chili mixture you’ll get on the side.
Drinks in Thailand
Thai people like Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee as much as foreigners do, and it’s widely available. It’s very sweet (with condensed milk) and costs 20 baht. Look for it at market stalls. For something fancier, look for the third-wave coffee shops that are taking hold in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and other major cities. Expect to pay Western prices for a cappuccino or espresso.
Beer is the alcoholic beverage of choice when backpacking Thailand. A bottle of local beer costs about 30 baht from a 7-11 or 100 baht at a bar. Popular brands are Singha (pronounced “sing”) and Chang, and the Singaporean brand Tiger is widely available. You can also get “Thai whiskey” (which bears no resemblance to the whiskey you’re used to — it’s actually rum) and imported spirits.
Many backpackers indulge in “buckets” of liquor (literally a plastic bucket, with a few shots of liquor and a mixer) for about 150 baht. Make sure you see the bartender prepare it — drink spiking is common at the bigger beach parties.
Activities you can do while backpacking Thailand
There’s a lot to do when you’re going to Thailand. Different regions offer very different experiences at very different costs.
Many travelers come to experience the legendary Thailand beaches and islands. Here, the main activities are lounging on the beach and diving (and the last two definitely don’t mix). You can also do some hiking on some islands, and you can go rock climbing at Railay.
Central Thailand has the country’s biggest historical sites. Ayutthaya and Sukothai were the centers of two ancient kingdoms. Rent a bicycle and ride among the ancient temples, palaces, and monuments. Bangkok is also in the center of the country, and is the country’s shopping and cultural hub.
Northern Thailand is the center of adventure activity and one of the backpacking Thailand essentials. The best base is Chiang Mai. Here you can sign up for a Thai cooking class, jungle trek or adventure trip. Head further into the mountains around Pai or Chiang Rai for more authentic nature experiences.
Eastern Thailand is home to many Khmer ruins — so if you can’t make it to Angkor Wat, it’s a good alternative. But the main draw to the East is the complete lack of tourist crowds. This is true off-the-beaten-path Thailand at its best, with fewer activities or headline sights, but much better opportunities to connect with locals.
Transportation in Thailand
It’s easy and affordable to get around when backpacking Thailand. You can make use of the good bus, rail, and ferry networks. If you’re short on time, a growing network of domestic flights makes covering long distances easy.
The best way to get around Thailand is by train. The rail network covers most places popular with tourists. Trains are cheaper than buses — a sleeper berth on a Bangkok-Chiang Mai train trip can be half the price of the bus. They’re also great for getting into and out of Bangkok, as you avoid the worst of the capital’s traffic. Book ahead for all routes except 3rd-class seats.
Buses are a reasonable alternative to trains. They cover the entire country. They leave and arrive on time, they’re not crowded, and they’re comfortable (although they don’t all have A/C). You rarely have to buy tickets in advance, except on the most popular routes. The only downsides are the price of tickets relative to trains, and the fact that road safety is a real problem in Thailand.
Ferries run to, from, and even between the major islands. They range from swanky tourist boats to overnight trips on which you sleep on the open deck of a fishing boat (a magical experience unless you’re prone to seasickness). Prices start at around 1,000 baht and most ferry trips are multi-hour affairs.
Bangkok has one of the world’s best public transportation networks. Boats through the canals, high-speed trains, air-conditioned city buses — you can get anywhere in the city safely and comfortably, at nearly all hours of the night. It gets very crowded at rush hour. Unfortunately, none of Thailand’s other cities have anything comparable.
Love them or hate them, tuk tuks are a fact of life when backpacking Thailand. Nearly every new arrival to Bangkok faces scams and overcharging by tuk tuk drivers. Know how much your trip should cost in advance, and bargain hard. Outside of Bangkok, they’re less problematic, but still make sure to specify whether the negotiated fare is per person or for the whole tuk tuk.
If you want to travel as most Thais do, try taking a songthaew — a modified pick-up truck with benches in the back. They’re uncomfortable, you’ll have to ask around to figure out the right routes, and they’re questionably safe, but they’re cheap as chips and you’ll probably be the only tourist on board. Unlike in Laos, they’re only used for the shortest of trips.
Some travelers rent motorbikes while backpacking Thailand. This can be a great way to get around, especially in the mountains in the north. Just remember that if you get in an accident and don’t have a motorcycle license at home, your travel insurance probably won’t cover you. Thailand is a left-drive country, and you’re better off only driving during the day. Motorbike rental starts at 150 baht per day.
Safety when backpacking Thailand
Even if you’re backpacking Thailand alone, it’s generally very safe. But there are a good number of scams and hassles to watch out for. The country has also experienced occasional political conflict and terrorist attacks.
On the day-to-day level, the worst thing that’s likely to happen when you’re going to Thailand is massively overpaying for something. New arrivals to Bangkok are especially vulnerable. Don’t let anyone, including a tuk tuk driver, take you to their friend’s shops — you’ll face intense pressure to buy something. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Many Thai people are very friendly toward foreigners and have no seedy agenda. But if a suspiciously friendly local invites you to a bar or tea shop, be skeptical — your new “friend” may abandon you at a strange bar with a massive bill. If you question someone’s motives, suggest walking around a local market or park — something that doesn’t cost any money — with them instead.
Pickpockets are common, especially in Bangkok’s big markets. Keep an eye on your stuff. Always lock your hotel rooms and keep your valuables with you on long-distance buses and trains.
The far south occasionally experiences political conflict. It’s mostly centered around the treatment of the Muslim communities there, and typically doesn’t impact travelers. Check the latest before you go. There are also occasional terrorist attacks in Thailand, and they sometimes target tourist destinations. This is the kind of thing that can be very difficult to predict, and it’s rare enough that it’s not a major cause for alarm.
Thailand travel advice for women alone
Backpacking Thailand alone is easy as a woman. Street harassment and assault are rare (although it does still happen). You’ll feel safe walking around alone, even well into the evening.
The biggest risk of Thailand solo travel may be other backpackers. Beach parties are especially problematic, with lots of alcohol and other substances flying around. If you must go, go with a group of people you trust. Stay away from illicit substances, go easy on the booze, and head back to your guesthouse in a group. Sexual assault is disturbingly common at Full Moon Parties.
In Bangkok, Thai women dress similarly to Western women. Otherwise, the country is still pretty conservative, although less so than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Beach garb is fine for the beach, but not elsewhere. If you can stand to cover your shoulders and knees in the heat, you’ll get more respect from locals. Thais dress pretty formally, so if you’re wearing rags, you’ll get funny looks.
You will meet other backpackers everywhere, even if you solo travel Thailand. If you’re nervous about walking around alone, it’s easy to form a group.
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