Sunday, September 25, 2016

Tips on Thailand


One of my new coworkers is going to Thailand next month. She recently asked me for some tips about traveling around one of Southeast Asia’s most popular tourist destinations. Instead of rambling for hours, I decided to write a post with my Thailand travel tips. Enjoy!

Getting Around

In terms of mobility, Thailand is one of the most accessible countries in Southeast Asia. The tourist infrastructure is well developed and despite the relatively archaic roads and railways, plenty of options exist to move around the country.


Flying is by far the easiest and quickest way of covering long distances in Thailand. Bangkok has two airports: the main, international Suvarnabhumi airport (BKK) and the low-cost carrier hub of Don Mueang (DMK).

All major and middle-sized cities have airports, and flying between destinations takes maximum two hours. This makes exploring the country much easier, especially if you’re short on time.

Major airlines include Thai (legacy), ThaiSmile (low cost), AirAsia (low cost), Thai Lion Air (low cost) Nok Air (low cost) and Bangkok Airways (Hybrid low cost). All low-cost airlines, except for Bangkok Airways, fly from Don Mueang.

Given that there are multiple airlines in the market, airfare is inexpensive and it’s entirely possible to book a very affordable last minute flight.

I prefer to book directly with the airlines as I usually find better fares that way. However, feel free to try meta searches such as Skyscanner or, if you’re feeling generous, the one on the left of the screen (note: I might get a commission from the sale if you purchase a ticket). Additionally, my favorite airline in Thailand was Bangkok Airways. They are a full-service airline complete with complimentary checked bags and dedicated lounges for all passengers with airfare much closer to low-cost airlines.


Buses are the second most popular method of getting around (and by far the most common one for backpackers). They are extremely affordable (think paying a couple of dollars to go on a three-hour ride), run frequently, and offer varying levels of comfort.

Every city has a bus terminal that connects riders to the local, regional, and national network. Keep in mind that some terminals are located a bit outside the city (the sprawling southern terminal in Bangkok is a 20-minute taxi ride from the end of the BTS line), meaning that you’ll have to find some sort of transfer to get to the station.

Like in many countries in southeast Asia, Thailand has a wide array of night buses. As you can imagine, these auto-coaches travel long distances overnight, killing two birds (hotel and transport) with one stone. Comfort level onboard varies, ranging from cramped minivans (usually for journeys under two hours; these vehicles also drive much faster than buses), your run-a-mill bus seat to “VIP” buses that have ‘business class’ recliner seats.

Last year, Nathalie and I took one of these “VIP” buses from Bangkok to Krabi in the south thinking that we’d get a good night’s sleep and arrive refreshed. It couldn’t have been further from the truth; the seat was extremely uncomfortable and the passenger behind me spent the whole night farting with impunity. Of the twelve hours spent between seven in the evening and seven in the morning, I slept a grand total of 45 minutes (you can read more about that adventure here)

After this experience, we decided that we would limit our time spent on buses to no more than five hours unless we had absolutely no other reasonable choice.

Booking a bus:

To book a bus, go straight to the terminal. In the station, you’ll find counters for each destination (i.e. if you want to go from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, there is a specific window for those routes). I would advise against booking with travel agencies in the city - especially in touristy parts of Bangkok - as there are horror stories of tourists getting dropped off in the middle of nowhere instead of at a bus station, being forced to fend for themselves on the outskirts of town.


Unlike many of its neighbors, Thailand has a relatively advanced rail system. It’s entirely possible to take a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north and conversely from Bangkok down to Chumphon, Surat Thani, and onwards to Malaysia going south.

Many of these long distance trains have sleeper cars where you can book a bunk in varying levels of comfort. Nathalie and I took these sorts of trains twice: once from Chumphon to Bangkok and another time from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Both journeys were overnight and on both occasions, I got a decent amount of sleep. Personally, I still prefer flying, but if I had to choose between bus and train for an overnight trip, I’d choose the train hands down

Booking a train:
For shorter trips (Bangkok to Ayutthaya is a good one at only two hours), simply show up at the train station and purchase a ticket on the spot.

For sleeper trains, it’s better to reserve in advance. First class beds (these ones have a bit more privacy those in second class) tend to sell out fast. Second class has more availability, but there is no guarantee that you'll have a spot. This website has more information and booking resources for train travel in Thailand.


Boats and ferries serve many popular tourist islands (this is especially true for the small ones). Comfort varies from boat to boat and route popularity.

Ferry in Ko Lanta
Booking a ticket really depends on your starting point and destination. To get to the popular islands of Ko Tao, Ko Pha Ngan, and Ko Samui, for example, Lomprayah ferries provides regular service as well as transfers to regional airports and train hubs. In the southern ports of Krabi (home of the famous Krab people) and Phuket, the best advice is to arrive at the port and book your trip directly at the counter.

In any case, every island will have some sort of boat service. Keep in mind that there is sometimes only one ferry a day so make sure that you check the schedule ahead of time (google will help you there) to ensure that you have a spot.

Bangkok Public Transport

Bangkok has the most developed urban public transport infrastructure in the country. The network is comprised of one metro line (MRT) and two SkyTrain lines (BTS) as well as ferries running up and down the river and canals.

The system is easy to use and quite affordable. The only real limitation is that the network is extremely limited for a city of eight million-plus residents. City buses fill in the gaps, but they are severely hindered by Bangkok’s incessant traffic.

Taxis, Tuk Tuks, and Transfers

Going the ‘last mile’ usually entails either walking, a taxi or a tuk-tuk.

Tuk-Tuks, the charismatic if over-the-top rickshaws are mostly tourist gimmicks. In Bangkok, you’ll only find them in the old city where tourist concentrations are the greatest. The drivers tend to prey on these folks and stories of passengers either getting ripped off or taken on joy rides are sadly all too common. Thais, on the other hand, rely on a motorbike taxi to cover short ground. Unless you’re looking for a kitsch experience, I would avoid tuk-tuks when possible.

Taxis are more reliable in cities and major tourist destinations. However, getting the driver to put the meter on is never guaranteed (at least if you’re a foreigner). Instead, taxi drivers will want to negotiate a flat rate instead of using the legally-required meter.

In our travels, we experienced both cases. The meter is by far cheaper but you won’t always get it. One time, we had an honest taxi driver who put it on right away (we gave him a tip for that). Most other times, we had to insist, occasionally opening an impromptu negotiating session. In the end, it’s up to you. If you feel like haggling, then, by all means, go for it. In any case, expect that you’ll pay more for a taxi than a Thai will.

In Phuket, the taxis are controlled by the mafia. In short, there are no meters but fares are determined by how many ‘zones’ you travel through. Don’t bother negotiating; you’ll lose.

Private transfers are also another way to move around the country. These are usually booked through a hotel/agency and the quality will vary based on price and the provider. We used them various times and usually, the quality and convenience outweighed the slightly higher costs.

The best way to arrange a transfer, in my opinion, is to be friendly with the hotel staff. It never hurts to talk just a tiny bit and ask how they are doing. They’ll be much more inclined to help you and give you a better price. You can also check with travel agencies who provide transfers. We used a service like this to go from Ko Lanta to Ko Tao. In more popular tourist destinations, it doesn’t hurt to shop around.

One caveat is that you can potentially be caught up in a scam. We bought a transfer to our hotel at a counter in the airport in Krabi. When we left the airport, I noticed the bus was taking a strange way to get to the city, immediately raising suspicion. My skepticism was confirmed when, instead of going straight hotel, they took us to a depot and loaded groups onto minibusses.

When we arrived at our hotel, they claimed that we owed them more money for the additional transfer. We pointed out that we bought a ticket from the airport to the hotel and wouldn’t give them anything else. They got aggressive, but we held our ground. I learned later that we should’ve just said two words: “military police,” and that would’ve ended the discussion. Anyways, more on that below.


The Playhaus Hotel in Thonglor - Probably the best bed we slept on in SE
Asia and only 40 EUR a night.
As one of the biggest tourist destinations in the region, Thailand has an abundance of lodging for travelers on any budget. While you can easily get beds in a dormitory for pennies on the dollar, you can also get quite comfortable accommodation for under 30 EUR/USD a night (except in Bangkok, but given that this is the capital, it’s entirely normal that prices are a bit higher).

We used (’s Asian sister site) during our trip and even when booking last minute, we never once had an issue finding a room. On our budget, we always had a private bathroom and most of the time, breakfast was included in the offer. Again, your budget and comfort level are probably different than mine, but with that being said, you’ll more than likely find what you’re for without too much stress.

Briefly Bangkok

Thanks to my teeth, I spent more time than I expected in Bangkok. However, I did get a good feel for the city and specifically what I prefer to do when I’m there.

First, Khao San road is the epitome of backpacker ghetto. Yes, there are cheap hotels, but Thais loathe this district and have somehow manage to cut it off from the rest of the city. Public transport links are hard to come by (instead they let the tuk-tuks carry tourists around).

Instead, I prefer to stay closer to public transport links. I really like the Sukhumvit district in the south-central region of the city. The neighborhood is mostly middle-class Thais and as a foreigner, I never felt uncomfortable. I’m particularly fond of Thonglor, but that probably is more related to my odd, dental-related nostalgia.

In any case, Bangkok is better wherever you don’t see tuk-tuks. Avoid the center around the royal palace, Khao San road, and Nana (aka the ping pong show neighborhood), and you’ll be fine. Additionally, staying closer to the MRT and BTS lets you easily access BKK airport, the main railway station, and both the northern and eastern bus terminals.


Thailand’s currency is the Thai Baht. For the region, it’s one of the more stable and stronger currencies. Here’s how I got the most out of it.

This young lady spent the better part of five minutes
trying to negotiate a two-for-one on a tall bottle of
Chiang beer (she didn't get it).
If you don't have enough to drop 1.50 EUR
on a pint, then maybe you shouldn't be traveling.
Pay with card whenever possible. In terms of whether or not to accept THB or EUR/USD/whatever your home currency when paying will really depend on the conditions that come with your card. Some charge huge commissions for transactions in foreign currencies, others don’t. Read the fine print before choosing a strategy.

I’m not a fan of exchanging money on the spot at a cash exchange office. Take out Thai Baht from an ATM instead. Yes, you’ll lose 5-7% off of the mid-market rate, but you’re going to lose either way. The more you take out, the better effective rate you’ll get (transaction fees + total amount/exchange rate). Additionally, walking around with thousands of EUR/USD to exchange is a risk considering that if it’s stolen, you’re SOL. Your bank, on the other hand, will protect you from this risk.

Not every price in Thailand is negotiable. Actually, thinking that you can go in and haggle on everything is not only shortsighted but is also extremely insulting. Thailand is a relatively developed economy and prices are mostly fixed. Yes, you go to a market and try to talk down the price; it's how markets work.

However, don’t do that at restaurants or shops - it makes you look like a cheap asshole (it’s especially insulting if you’re from a western country where you’re thought of as having more money than the average Thai). The Thais are very proud that their economy is way more developed than their neighbors. Treating them like dirt merchants is not a way to make friends.

What to expect from Thailand

Despite the clever marketing from the tourism ministry, Thailand isn’t all sunshine and sprinkles. The country is pitched as the ‘land of smiles,’ and while the Thais are smiling, they’re most likely doing so while ripping you off.

That’s not to say that Thais aren’t friendly people; they are. But you have to get to know them before you can have that sort of relationship. Thais have this unique superiority complex where there’s this institutional belief that they are inherently better than the foreigners who visit them.

As such, ripping off outside visitors (“farangs,” as they’re called in Thailand), is somewhat of a national sport. After talking about it with the Thais I got to know (again, thanks in large part to my teeth), I’ve learned some valuable points.

Mainly, I was told that I was too nice. Many westerners approach Thais with an occidental view of mutual respect, refusing to be too fussy or believe that ‘this is Thailand so the Thais must be right.’ This mentality leads to certain, dishonest Thais taking advantage of cultural misunderstandings to profit from the situation.

Both my dentist and the staff at the hotel I spent some time at told me that it’s okay to be a bit of a dick - just, you know, smile about it. Thais will respect you more and chances are, you won’t get ripped off (as badly).

On that note, there are two different Thailands: one for tourists and one for Thais. The former comes with inflated prices. Unless you know a Thai, you will be hard pressed to get into the latter. It’s okay; just go with it. Thais will also show respect to you if you act respectfully in their country.

They tend to laugh at white people walking around in elephant pants. No Thais wear these parachute pantaloons and they see those that do as either out of touch or an easy mark (or usually a combination of both). Unless this is how you dress when you’re in your home country, don’t adopt the look in Thailand and expect to be treated seriously.

Additionally, if someone approaches you and acts suspiciously friendly, they’re probably trying to scam you. The classic tuk-tuk scams are still widely used. Just use your city judgment and brush these people off.

Wrapping Thai

Despite these ‘harsh’ truths, Thailand is an amazing place to visit. Thinking back on it, we had a wonderful time while being there and it was more than an eye-opening experience.

On our way back to Europe after our six-month trip, we spent one last day in Bangkok. Applying what we learned and what I wrote about above, Nathalie and I really appreciated the country and the people (not to mention the delectable food) in a way that wasn’t there when we first arrived.

My hope is that armed with this knowledge, you’ll experience the same. Safe travels!

Have you been to Thailand? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!