When one thinks of backpacking in South East Asia, one of the first countries that come to mind to start one’s journey or use as a base while traveling is Thailand. It is conveniently located, with affordable flights to and from most countries. It has diverse landscapes- big cities, white sand beaches, lush jungles, and quaint villages, catering to a wide range of interests and pursuits. It’s perfect for budget travel, but also offers some of the most luxurious villas and resorts. It attracts backpackers, digital nomads, couples and families alike. Thailand has something for everyone!
With just ten days at hand to explore this beautiful country that is affectionately called the land of smiles, I decided to start my journey in the capital city of Bangkok, then head to Koh Tao, and finally, end my trip in Chiang Mai. There’s no way I could do justice to all three places in ten days, but I felt this would give me a taste of the country in the little time I had!
My first stop was Bangkok. With a pretty solid public transport network, it wasn’t hard to find a shuttle bus from the airport that would drop me off near my hostel. The bus ride gave me the opportunity to take in the city without burning a hole in my pocket. What I wasn’t expecting was to be dropped off right in front of a beautiful temple- Loha Prasat. It was just a little before sunset and the temple looked so stunning that in spite of having my luggage, I couldn’t help but just stand and absorb everything around me for a few minutes.
I slowly made my way to my hostel which was a short walk from the bus stop. I checked-in, got a drink and decided to check out the Chatuchak weekend market since I had half the day left and shopping doesn’t need brain space.
The Chatuchak weekend market is quite an experience with over 8000 stalls and an average footfall of 200,000 people over the weekend! I decided to catch the bus (there was a direct one from the bus stop near my hostel) which cost me just ฿20 and got me there in under 40 minutes. While I wasn’t looking to shop for anything in particular, I’m a sucker for traditional handicrafts, so various stalls had me go gaga and really hold myself back from buying stuff I didn’t need!
I ended up buying a painted t-shirt of Frida Kahlo, an embroidered camera strap, feather earrings and a pair of comfortable culottes. All of this together cost me about ฿700 (already over budget and it’s only the first day, damn!) which was a steal in my opinion but I’ll admit that if I was even slightly better at bargaining (or willing to buy in bulk) I would’ve perhaps got it at half the rate.
While the experience was interesting and I loved that many stalls were set up by small traders, independent artisans and families, the sheer scale of the market was mind-boggling. At a time when fast fashion is known to have a serious impact on climate change, it was a bit disconcerting to experience consumerism like this. Small ways to do your bit is to resist buying more than you need and carry a cloth bag to avoid accumulating plastic bags.
The market also has numerous food stalls to try different things, so even if you’re not interested in shopping, it’s a nice place to try different kinds of street food.
The next day, I decided to cover some of the main tourist attractions- The Royal Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Democracy Monument, Khao San Road, etc. The palace was stunning, although a bit expensive at ฿1000 for a day ticket, and can get quite crowded so the earlier you visit the better. Most of the temples feature grand statues of the Buddha (mostly in gold) and while they’re beautiful, it can get a bit overwhelming (and tiring) to visit too many temples over a short trip.
I particularly loved the Wat Pho temple which showcases a 46 m long gold statue of the Buddha in a reclining position, representing him during his final days.
Khao San road is known as backpackers’ street, with a range of restaurants, shops, tour operators, massage centers and hostels located on this road. While I found it a bit overrated and too crowded, it can be a fun place to hang out at night as a one-time experience.
When you’re in Bangkok, one of the things you must experience is the floating markets. Bangkok has several, some of the more popular amongst tourists than others. I visited the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market which is about 100 km from Bangkok. While the market itself was a bit disappointing, given that most shops seemed to be geared towards tourists and sold souvenirs, it’s still worth the experience! It’s fascinating to whiz past shops sitting on a boat. Several stalls sell food too, and the best time to visit is early morning. If you have the time, I’d recommend going to a less touristy, more local floating market.
Bangkok is famous for its street food and it would be a shame to leave the city without trying different things off the streets. It’s best to walk around and pick up whatever you fancy, instead of going by the book (or blog). Half the fun is to discover small joints by yourself and try the most interesting looking items!
After three full days in Bangkok, I set off to Koh Tao by an overnight bus followed by a short ferry in the morning.
To be honest, I didn’t put much thought into choosing Koh Tao out of the many island destinations that Thailand offers. I had to complete a dive within six months of completing my PADI Open Water Diver certification and had heard good things about Koh Tao Divers. I wrote to them and learned that June was a good time to dive in Koh Tao as the water is calm and still ahead of the backpacker season, and this was enough reason for me to go ahead with this destination.
As is evident from the photographs, Koh Tao boasts of white sand beaches, crystal clear water, picturesque palm trees, stunning sunsets, and rich underwater life and corals.
Not surprisingly, Koh Tao is home to countless dive shops offering scuba diving, free diving, snorkeling, and other water sports. It’s one of the cheapest places to complete diving certification courses, and thus, a popular destination for divers.
Koh Tao is also famous for its full-moon (and half-moon) parties. There are also pub crawls offered by different pubs/clubs almost every night (the one by Fish Bowl Beach Bar seemed like the most popular one).
However, for those not into partying, the place can be quite peaceful too (though there are many other islands known to be more peaceful and relaxing if that’s what you’re primarily looking for). There are multiple massage parlours by the beach where one can relax while getting a massage (costs approx. ฿250 for a 60-minute massage) and yoga-shalas. There are also so many cafes and beach shacks (I highly recommend Blue Water Cafe), that one can easily find one that isn’t very crowded and enjoy a quiet afternoon reading by the sea or chatting with a friend. Further, most people swim right in front of popular shacks or their resorts, so several stretches of the beach are quite deserted in the day as well as in the evenings if you’re looking for a quiet swim.
While Koh Tao has become a popular tourist destination over the years, it’s still not as commercialized as Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket, though it’s headed in the same direction.
If you’re looking for more peace and fewer crowds, head to Koh Lanta, Koh Yai Yai, Koh Phayam, Koh Tarutao, Koh Similan, and the like.
Last stop on this trip was Chiang Mai, for which I first took a ferry from Koh Tao to Surat Thani, followed by a flight to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai was undoubtedly my favourite destination out of all the ones I visited on this trip, and I’m glad the best was saved for last. It’s hard not to fall in love with the culturally-rich, small-town vibe of Chiang Mai, accompanied by the numerous experiences it offers travelers.
While I thought three and a half days here might be a bit much, time flew by in a jiffy! In fact, hope to go back there someday for a longer period of time.
Being an ancient town, there is a temple (or a hotel that looks like a temple) at every turn of almost every neighbourhood, making it fun to explore by foot, particularly early morning and late evening.
Out of the grander more famous ones, I particularly enjoyed my visit to Wat Phra Singh, which was just down the road from my hostel. I ended up visiting it twice, once in the afternoon, and another time at night. Both times, I was delighted to find it almost empty, giving me the opportunity to absorb the grandeur and ambiance of the temple in silence. The temple also exhibits wax statues of veneered monks that almost look like real people!
With so many tourist spots and temples in Chiang Mai, it’s easy to fill the day going from one temple to another and ending the day feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. I suggest picking just a few of them that you think you’d like (online research & asking locals helps) but spending more time there (going early is the key to skipping crowds).
In addition to the usual Thai offerings of stunning temples, tempting night markets (although I found the ones in Chiang Mai to be a lot more intimate than the bigger ones in Bangkok) and relaxing Thai massages, there’s a lot one can do in Chiang Mai!
I attended a half-day Thai Akha cooking class to learn more about Thai Akha cuisine, cooking styles, local vegetables, and ingredients, and had a total blast! I spent half a day at the Kanta Elephant Sanctuary which is a retirement home for rescued elephants previously part of the tourism and logging industry! I got a traditional Thai massage from a prison inmate, and had an elaborate two-hour conversation with a Buddhist monk! If this wasn’t enough, I also got to enjoy a cabaret show at a straight-friendly gay bar!
All of these experiences were so much fun and unique in themselves, I decided to write a separate blog about them here!
Ten days is too less to explore any country, but since most people can seldom take out more time from work (unless you’re a digital nomad), it is enough to get a taste of the place and gives insights for the next trip (regarding what you might want to focus on more (or less).
It invariably boils down to prioritizing what you want to do in the limited time you have at a place. I’d personally rather spend more time at fewer places doing fewer things than pack my days with a lot of activities, trying to cover everything and returning home exhausted from all the running around, feeling like I didn’t spend enough time doing any one thing!
Hope this blog post gave you a brief glimpse into what my trip was like. Since no travel blog is complete without sharing the much needed practical information about the trip, onto the next section.
In India, Thai Visa applications are managed by VFS Global. You can read up requirements as well as book an appointment through their website here.
(P.S. The Embassy of Thailand is currently offering free Visa on Arrival to Indians (and other nationalities) until October 2019.)
If you’re planning on getting a Visa on Arrival, make sure you’re entering from an eligible port, carrying the required documents for your Visa type (for tourist Visa it’s mainly confirmed bookings, including a return flight ticket, proof of funds i.e. bank statement signed by bank manager, and a passport photo as per dimensions mentioned in the requirements).
It’s best to carry money in US Dollars and get it converted to Thai Baht at the airport. You can withdraw money from most ATMs but there is a bank fee charged on every withdrawal (approx. ฿220) in addition to your own bank’s foreign transaction charges.
It’s useful to have a working phone with internet in order to use Google Maps and necessary apps. Most companies have tourist SIMs with short term plans (such as 1 day, 7 days, 15 days, 1 month, etc.) that are usually cheaper than international roaming plans. The popular companies are AIS, TrueMove, and DTAC. I’ve personally used AIS and TrueMove and both have really good 4G coverage.
Thailand has a pretty good public transport system. The public buses are very cheap and comfortable, just that they can’t save you from the traffic if you venture out during peak hours. The BTS sky train, MRT (underground subway) and water taxis are great alternate options to avoid traffic. Grab is the best app-based taxi service and quite reasonably priced.
Needless to say, there are plenty of hostels, Airbnbs and hotels to choose from in Thailand. I stayed at the hostels mentioned below (mostly mid-range hostels that were comfortable and yet didn’t dig a hole in my pocket).
Well located, just a ten minute walk away from the backpacker’s street- Khaosan Road. Several bus stops and eateries located at a short distance. A 7-Eleven is just down the road. The Hostel is quite clean, with comfortable beds, a lovely cafe, and organizes activities a few times a week. The only drawback was that they didn’t have a locker for luggage, though they did have a small bedside locker for valuables.
A two-minute walk from the beach and surrounded by dive shops, restaurants, and massage parlours, the location couldn’t get better than this. The complimentary breakfast is the best I’ve had at any hostel, beds are comfortable and they have a pool. The main drawback is that they have only 16-bed mixed dorms, which can get a bit noisy when there are big groups getting in after a party in the wee hours of the morning.
I have to mention, I loved the drinks, food, and location (perfect to catch the sunset) of the Blue Water Cafe which is located right opposite the hostel!
Super clean, self-service community kitchen, comfortable beds, and great location, I have nothing negative to share about this hostel. It’s great for travelers who want to meet other people, as well as for those who want their own space and privacy without spending on a private room or hotel.
The Fern Forest Cafe located next to it is lovely and the hostel is just a short walk away from the weekend night market as well as Wat Phra Singh temple.
There are numerous hostel options that are cheaper than the hostels listed above. I wasn’t keen on staying at a party hostel because I like my peace and solitude (and a good night’s sleep), didn’t want to compromise on cleanliness and comfort, and generally liked the ideas and ethics of the places I finally chose. However, if you are looking to meet a lot of people and like to party, you might find the above selection a bit quiet and not as social as the other popular hostels.
What To Carry
It’s best to travel light and a medium-sized rucksack is more than enough, especially if you’re traveling in the summer. Since I went to Thailand in June (which is peak summer with occasional showers), I mostly carried light, breathable summer clothes. Some places can get chilly at night, so it’s useful to have a pair of trousers and a light pullover (also useful on flights where the A/C can sometimes make you cold).
Most temples require you to wear clothing that extends to below the knees, so having a pair of cotton pajamas is useful (can also be bought in Thailand). Shorts, skirts, dresses and cotton t-shirts work wonders, and most hostels have laundry service or a washing machine, so you don’t have to carry too much.
Be sure to pack a quick-dry towel, pocket-raincoat or light umbrella, a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Walking shoes or a good pair of floaters are useful because you’re likely to be walking quite a bit and would want to avoid blisters.
Carry a cloth bag or day bag for shopping so you avoid accumulating plastic bags, and a swimsuit if you’re going to a beach place or have access to a pool.
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