Thailand is the travel hub of Southeast Asia. Most visitors coming into the region fly into Bangkok and make that their base for doing the circuit as they backpack around Southeast Asia.
It’s the most visited country in the region – and with good reason!
Thailand speaks for itself.
When you hear its name, you already think about beaches, beauty, jungles, and food. And your thoughts are spot on.
With its lush jungles, famed beaches, world-class diving, amazing food, friendly and cheap prices, Thailand is by far my favorite country in the world! I’ve been coming to the country since 2005, lived there for 2 years, and always seem pulled back to it. It’s an easy country to travel and you can meet a lot of other people there.
Thailand has a lot to offer travelers – no matter your budget. You can backpack Thailand here on a limited budget or you can live the luxurious travel life in fancy resorts on the beach.
Or just travel on a modest budget and get a lot of bang for your buck.
The country has something for everyone.
Backpacking Thailand is often the way most people travel around but that doesn’t mean really roughing it. You can travel Thailand well without spending a lot of money. I consider myself a backpacker but that doesn’t mean I’m in dorm rooms all the time. You can get private rooms and nice meals for cheap.
The country is a well-worn destination on the backpacking trail and everything is convenient and easy. However, there are still many off the beaten path destinations away from the crowds and the prices they bring.
This Thailand travel guide will tell you how to travel the country like a pro, what to do avoid, how much things cost, the best things to see, and everything in between! You should use this guide if you’re looking to a) backpack Thailand, b) looking for ideas on thing to do, or c) trying to travel on a budget.
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Thailand
1. Visit Bangkok
2. Adventure around Chiang Mai
3. Hike in Khao Yai National Park
4. Throw water during Songkran
5. Go to Ko Lanta
Other Things to See and Do in Thailand
1. Visit the Grand Palace and Wat Pho
Thailand’s royal palace was built at the end of the 18th century by King Rama I and is the official residence of the current monarch (though he doesn’t live there anymore; now it’s just used for ceremonies). It’s a striking place filled with numerous temples, including Wat Pra Kaeo, which houses the 15th-century Emerald Buddha. Nearby Wat Pho is famous for two things: a larger-than-life golden reclining Buddha statue and a very relaxing massage school.
2. Visit Khao Sok National Park
Located in the south of Thailand, Khao Sok National Park is constantly rated as one of the best in Thailand, with incredible trekking, camping, limestone karsts, cooling rivers, and a glistening lake. You’ll find semi-challenging hikes, tons of wildlife, walking paths, and incredible sunsets. Park entrance costs 200 THB (6 USD).
3. Hop around the ancient capitals
Between Chiang Mai and Bangkok are Thailand’s three ancient capitals – Sukhothai, Lopburi, and Ayutthaya. Visiting them on your way north is a unique way to head from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. You’ll get to learn about ancient Thailand and see rural life at its best. My favorite is Ayutthaya.
4. Relax on tropical islands
Thailand has a million and one beautiful tropical islands. Some are overdeveloped, while others only have a single bungalow on them. You’ll find everything here. Some of the best islands here are – Ko Samet, Ko Taruato, Ko Lanta, Ko Chang, Ko Tao, Ko Jum, Ko Lipe, Ko Phi Phi, Phuket, the Similan Islands, and Ko Samui.
5. Partake in the Full Moon Party
If you like partying, there’s no better party in the world than the famous Full Moon Party. The Full Moon Party is a giant festival-like party with a lot of drinking, dancing, and drugs. Each bar has its own sound system, so you’ll hear different music loudly blasting onto the beach every few feet. The beach itself is lined with people selling alcohol, fire dancers putting on shows, and little booths selling glow-in-the-dark face paint. Sure, it is super touristy but that doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun and it’s as much a part of Thailand as anything else.
6. Go jungle trekking
There are some great jungle trekking opportunities in northern Thailand. Be sure to go on a multi-day hike. The shorter hikes aren’t as good and the hill tribes you visit are like visiting a rural impoverished Disney World. The biggest departure points are Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Don’t book any tours ahead of time, you can book these sorts of outings through the hostel or hostel you’re staying in closeby. If you book online ahead of time, you will pay more.
7. Go scuba diving in the Similan Islands
Scuba diving here is a popular activity because of the crystal clear waters and majestic sea life. The cheapest place to learn is on the island of Ko Tao, which caters specifically for dive trips. Most people don’t go unless they’re planning on diving. While you can dive all over the country, the Similan Islands offer the best diving. If you dive the Similan Islands, be sure to see Elephant Head Rock, and the reef houses plenty of fish, snappers, rays, and turtles. Day trips start at 3,700 THB (110 USD).
8. Learn to cook
Thai food is delicious and it’s relatively easy to cook. All over the country, you’ll find places to teach you, though the best are in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Even if you don’t plan to cook back home, at least you get to spend a day making and eating scrumptious food. Try the Chiang Mai Kitchen Cooking School, with courses starting at 800 THB (24 USD). There’s also Ko Chang Thai Cooking with courses starting from 1,200 THB (36 USD).
9. Explore the Khmer temples in Isaan
There are many temples built throughout the region, all along the ancient roads connecting Angkor to the other villages. The largest of these is Phimai, located at the end of the ancient highway. In the Buriram province are two other magnificent Khmer temples only a few kilometers apart. Phanom Rung built on top of a hill and Muang Tum which is at the base of the hill.
10. Get off the trail in Isaan
One of the most under visited areas of the country, Isaan is mostly a land of farms and villages. This is a great place to escape the frantic tourist atmosphere of the rest of the country. It is not overrun by tourists, and you get a chance to experience Thai culture in a different, more personal way. I think it’s one of the most interesting places in the country.
11. Take the day train
Taking the day train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is not only cheaper but a much better way to see the countryside than the night train. Sure, you waste a day but you see the countryside, you experience how Thais take the train, and you’re treated to vendors coming off and on every stop selling meals for 15 THB (0.45 USD). The day trip remains one of my favorite experiences in Thailand. Just make sure you have a good book!
12. The Elephant Nature Park
Sure you can come to Thailand and ride an elephant, but so many of them in this country suffer from abuse. An even better way to get up-close-and-personal to the animals is to volunteer at the Elephant Conservation Center near Chiang Mai. It’s a phenomenal place, allows you to give back to the community, and lets you help and play with these magnificent animals all a once. After coming here, you will know why you should NEVER ride an elephant in Thailand. A one-day visit costs 2,500 THB (75 USD) for adults.
13. Admire Wat Doi Suthep
This stunning Buddhist temples lies in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, 10 miles out of Chiang Mai. A tram or a trek up 300 steps will take you to the summit of Doi Suthep, where the glittering gold temple spire awaits you. The temple dates back to the 14th century and holds rare relics of Buddha. It’s really is too beautiful of a view to miss, so don’t leave Chiang Mai without visiting Wat Doi Suthep. Admission is 30 THB (0.90 USD). It’s open from 6am-6pm.
14. Visit the Golden Triangle
The point where the Mekong River meets the Ruak River is known as the Golden Triangle. You can take a boat and head to the Golden Triangle Park, or check out some of the many Buddha statues and markets.
15. Ko Phi Phi
This is one of the most popular tourist islands in Thailand. From the famous of Maya Bay (made famous in The Beach) to the monkeys on the aptly named Monkey Beach to the diving and nightlife, there are reasons people flock here. Destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, the island has been rebuilt and developed to an even greater extent than before.
16. Ko Lipe
Located in southern Thailand, this semi-off the map island is one of my favorite places in the world. Here on Ko Lipe, the super friendly locals bring in the daily catch for amazing seafood. The beaches are beautiful, the water warm, and the island cheap. I came for three days and then lived here for a month. In the last few years, it has become very developed and it’s not the sleepy little island it used to be but it’s still way less developed than many other destinations in Thailand. Moreover, you’re near a pristine and undeveloped national marine park where you can snorkel and enjoy some beaches to yourself!
17. Shop at the floating markets
Thailand is full of markets. Perhaps the most whimsical of these are the floating markets, which can be found throughout the country. Some of the best are Damnoen Saduak, in Ratchaburi, and the Taling Chan Weekend Floating Market in Bangkok. You’ll find rickety boats piled high with colorful goods and eats. You’ll get plenty of great photos! (Although it’s become majorly touristy to go to the floating markets, you’ll not want to miss a morning shopping from boat to boat.)
18. Backpack in Kanchanaburi Province
Here you’ll find a lush forest perfect for trekking, though the history of this area is rather dark. The infamous Death Railway is located here, linking Burma and Myanmar, which were constructed during WWII by prisoners of war. This is also where you will find the Bridge on the River Kwai, built using POW labor and the subject of a both a film and a book. While it is a haunting reminder, it is an essential part of Thailand’s history.
19. Motorbike through Northern Thailand
Around the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai areas, there are lots of great routes. Many people rent bikes and tour the scenery. You can take a day trip, or you can take a couple of days – whatever suits your schedule. The Mai Hong Son Province offers a great loop that you can do starting in Chiang Mai and ending in Pai. Note: Make sure if you’re renting a motorbike, you’re comfortable with driving it and never (ever) drink and drive.
20. Relax in Pai
Pai has grown as a tourist destination in more recent years, but it is still a great place to escape some of the craziness of your larger cities. It is a true backpackers town, located in Northern Thailand. It is nestled in rolling green mountains and surrounded by waterfalls and incredible hiking trails. Be sure to take a day trip to the Tham Lot Caves, where you can take a stop off to swim in waterfalls and hot springs on your way there. Stay on the outskirts town in a lovely little bungalow, rent a bike, traverse the hills, and bathe in the cool waterfalls.
21. Go to Phuket
This island is the biggest destination for tourism in Thailand. You’ll find great beaches and amazing activities this island, and if you stay away from Patong Beach, you can avoid most of the over-development and crowds. Phuket draws a lot of tourists, and if you really want to enjoy the area, get out of the main spots.
Thailand Travel Costs
Accommodation – Thailand is very cheap, though the north is far cheaper than Bangkok and the southern islands. You can find cheap guesthouses for as little 300 THB (9 USD) per night in cities and 200 THB (6 USD) per night in the countryside, though in the big cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok, rooms start at about 400 THB (12 USD) per night. On the islands or for a nicer room with air-conditioner, expect to pay 600 THB (18 USD) and up per night. Basic bungalows cost the same. Hotels start at around 1,350 THB (41 USD) per night and go up from there. Big resorts on the islands start at 1,700 THB (15 USD) per night for a bungalow on the beach. Dorm rooms, which are increasingly widespread throughout the country, range from 100-150 THB per night. Airbnb is also growing in Thailand and a good amount of cities have a nice selection. A shared room starts around 350 THB (11 USD) per night and renting a full apartment starts around 700 THB (21 USD) per night.
In Thailand, it’s actually usually cheaper to book your accommodations online via websites like Booking.com and Agoda than to show up in person. While some places allow you to negotiate rates, most places don’t (unless you are booking long term). The online booking websites offer discounts far better than what you’ll get offered if you just show up, so always book online if you can!
Food – Food is really cheap in Thailand. Street food costs as little as 20 THB (0.60 USD), though on average you’ll spend about 35-50 THB (1.05-1.50 USD) per meal if you want something really filling. If you stick to the local street food, you can eat for around 120-170 THB (4-5 USD) a day. Most western dishes (burgers, pizza, pasta, etc) cost between 170-340 THB (5-10 USD), though they can be higher in the fancier western establishments. Since food is so cheap, there’s no point in grocery shopping unless you’re looking to get some pre-made salads or fruits. Visit each city guide for specific food recommendations in each place!
Knowing that their target customers are primarily tourists, Western food venues can be pricey compared to Thai food. Also, some of the ingredients need to be imported, which contributes to the higher costs. Most Western food also pales in comparison to its original so it’s best to skip it altogether. I mean, you didn’t come all this way to have a crappy burger or pizza, right?
Activities – Day tours cost 500-1,200 THB (15-36 USD) depending on the activity. Jungle trekking costs 1,000-1,685 THB (30-50 USD) per day. Keep in mind, you have more bargaining power if you go with a group. Most parks and national museums cost between 50-100 THB (1.50-3 USD) to get into (as a non-Thai, you’ll always pay a higher rate). A PADI dive certification course (very popular in Thailand) costs around 10,000 THB (300 USD), but often includes accommodation.
Always book your tours and activities when you arrive. Stick to travel agents who are selling on the ground (they’re easy to find, and your guesthouse will probably have someone). If the first travel agent won’t negotiate with you, move on to the next. Booking tours online is always more expensive.
Backpacking Thailand Suggested Budgets
How much does it cost to visit Thailand?
If you’re backpacking Thailand, plan to budget between 825–1150 THB (25–35 USD) per day. This range will get you your own room (fan only) with a shared bathroom (or a dorm room on the lower end), food from the street stalls, a couple of drinks per day, a few tours here and there, and local transportation.
If you’re spending more time on the islands where things tend to be more expensive, budget towards the higher end or even upwards of 1330 THB (40 USD) a day. On a budget of around 1,650 THB (50 USD) per day, you would be able to fly between some destinations, eat more delicious seafood dinners and international meals, take more tours and activities you wanted, sleep in air-conditioned rooms, and drink more.
If you’re looking to stay in Western hotels or expensive resorts, eat mostly Western food or in tourist areas, drink a lot, do a lot of tours, and fly a lot, you should budget 3,300–5,000 THB (100–150 USD) per day. After that, the sky is the limit.
Thailand Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
Thailand is an inexpensive country and it is hard to overspend. However, there are a few things that will blow your budget (such as alcohol, tours, and trips to the islands). If you’re on a really tight budget (or just want to cut costs), here’s how to save even more money during your visit.
- Go local – The easiest way to save money in Thailand is to simply live like a local. Take local buses, eat street food, and drink local beer. The average Thai lives on a less than 7,750 THB (233 USD) per month in Bangkok, and on even less in the country side. If you stay at cheap guesthouses and eat street food, you can spend as little as 335 THB (10 USD) per day.
- Eat street food – Speaking of street food, don’t be afraid to eat it. It’s safe — sometimes it’s even safer than restaurant food. If it wasn’t, Thai people wouldn’t be packed in the food stalls each day. You’ll find the best of Thailand’s food on the street and it will cost you a fraction of what you pay at a restaurant.
- Take advantage of happy hour – Thailand’s many happy hours have half-priced drinks and 2-for-1 specials.
- Buy beer at 7-Eleven – Buying beer at Thailand’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens and drinking outside will save you quite a bit on your bar tab. A beer in 7-Eleven is about 35 THB (1.05 USD), while the same beer will cost 100-170 THB (3-5 USD) in a restaurant or bar.
- Don’t book any tours before you arrive – Want to take a cooking class? Go zip-lining? Trek in the jungle? Dive? Wait until you get into Thailand to book anything. Travel agencies are located all over the tourist areas, looking to sell their tours. Time to brush up on your negotiation skills. You’re able to purchase these tours online before you arrive, but you’ll be paying a lot more!
- Couchsurf – Nothing’s cheaper than sleeping for free. Couchsurfing connects you with locals who will give you not only a free place to stay, but also a local tour guide who can introduce you to all the great places to see.
- Stay in hostels – Hostels are both an economical and social choice for Thailand. There are tons to choose from, especially in the really touristy areas of Thailand. Bring some earplugs and prepare to save a lot of money!
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will come particularly in handy in Southeast Asia. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw ($49.99).
Where to Stay in Thailand
Looking for accommodation in Thailand? Here are some of my favorite places to stay in Thailand. (For more suggestions, check out the specific city guides we have.)
- Green House Hostel (Bangkok)
- Mad Monkey Hostel (Bangkok)
- The So Hostel (Chiang Mai)
- Julie Guesthouse (Chiang Mai)
- Pooh’s (Ko Lipe)
- Koh Lipe Backpackers Hostel (Koh Lipe)
- Green Leaf (Khao Yai)
- Pineapple Guesthouse (Phuket)
- Patong Backpacker Hostel (Phuket)
- Hi-Ayutthaya Youth Hostel (Ayutthaya)
- Asleep Hostel & More (Kanchanaburi)
- Balcony Party Hostel (Krabi)
- Noom Guesthouse (Lopburi)
- The Famous Pai Circus Hostel (Pai)
- Old City Guesthouse (Sukhothai)
- Mut Mee Garden Guest House (Isaan)
- Lonely Beach Resort (Ko Chang)
- Sonya Guesthouse (Ko Lanta)
- Goodtime Beach Backpackers (Ko Phangan)
- Freedom Hostels @Phi Phi (Ko Phi Phi)
- Samui Hostel (Ko Samui)
How to Get Around Thailand
Like everything in Thailand, transportation is also cheap. Local buses cost as little as 8 THB (0.22 USD) per trip, the Metro and Skytrain in Bangkok cost 15-50 THB (0.45-1.50 USD) per trip and metered taxi rides are usually 60-100 THB (1.80-3 USD) each. Tuk-tuks are un-metered and generally more expensive, costing 100-235 THB (3-7.06 USD) per ride. Motorbike taxis (in orange vests) are available all over the country with short trips costing about 35 THB (1.05 USD), but you need to negotiate the price.
Trains in Thailand tend to be a slow but scenic option to get around. Taking the train is a genuine Thai experience, making the journey as much a part of your trip as the destination. While they may not be as quick, the trains are relatively comfortable and cheap, and safer than traveling by road. There is a new Bangkok–Vientiane train that will get you to Laos with ease. Taking the train is also a convenient way to travel between Bangkok, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.
Train service around the country is cheap – day trains cost as little as 50 THB (1.50 USD). Night trains start at 575 THB (17 USD) for second-class without air-conditioning. Boats to/from the islands cost between 250-475 THB (7.50-14 USD). Coach buses are a great way to get around the country. For example, a bus ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs 550-700 THB (16-21 USD) and a bus ride from Bangkok to Phuket costs 500-1,000 THB (15-30 USD).
Always stick to the metered taxis, otherwise you’ll get charged an overpriced ride. When it comes to tuk-tuks, be sure to agree on a price before you take off. Drivers are very friendly, but if you’re going to act like a naïve tourist, they will take advantage of you. I generally try to avoid tuk-tuks, but for very short distances they can be fun. (Taxis that put the meter on will almost always be cheaper in the end.)
Flights around the country generally cost between 1464-6656 THB (44-200 USD) one way when you book at least two months in advance. Flights to the islands tend to be higher in price than flying between large cities like Bangkok and Thailand.
Buses in Thailand are incredibly cheap. The fare for city buses start at around 7 THB (0.22 USD)! For intercity travel, you’ll pay more for better services like sleeper buses and air-conditioning. The distance you’re traveling also makes a difference. For example, a budget bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai would take you 10 hours and cost about 699 THB (21 USD), while Bangkok to Ko Chang would take seven hours and cost about 600 THB (18 USD). A 3-4 hour first-class bus journey from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi is around just 100 THB (3 USD).
When to Go to Thailand
The best time of year to visit Thailand is between November to February.
The high season (cool/dry) is from November to March. Bangkok is “coolest” during this time (but still averaging a hot 29ºC/85°F), and it’s also the driest. If you plan on being in the north during this time, temperatures can drop quickly in the evenings. Bring warm clothing!
Shoulder season is from April to June, and it is HOT. Temperatures can be unbearable for those who are not use to them. Monsoon hits the northern area at the end of May. The low season is the rainy season, from July to October. Rainfall can be dramatic – ranging from light showers to major flooding. June and August have the heaviest rains, but things wind down during October. You might still get some afternoon showers, but October is also generally a good time to visit.
How to Stay Safe in Thailand
Thailand is an incredibly safe place to backpack and travel – even if you’re traveling solo, and even as a solo female traveler. Violent attacks are uncommon. Petty theft (including bag snatching) is the most common type of crime here. There are some common scams around like unmetered taxis but for the most part, this is a safe place to travel. People are nice and helpful and you’re unlikely to get into trouble. The people who do tend to be involved with drinking or drugs or sex tourism.
Remember to always trust your gut instinct. If a taxi driver seems shady, stop the cab and get out. If your hotel is seedier than you thought, get out of there. You have every right to remove yourself from the situation. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID. Forward your itinerary along to loved ones so they’ll know where you are.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it here!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past.
Source: Nomadic Matt