Thailand is one of the first countries I think of when people talk about visiting Asia. It’s probably because of my preference for their food and the stories I hear of how cheap everything is there. Thailand (formerly Siam) has the allure of the big city of Bangkok, the history and culture of Chiang Mai, and the beautiful beaches on its East and West coasts. I first visited Thailand in June 2011 for 2 weeks. I booked a tour which included Bangkok and the East Coast islands of Ko Tao, Ko Samui, and Ko Pangnan. I also visited Chiang Mai on my own and explored the surrounding area. This time around we visited Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket.
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation to never have been colonized. Throughout much of its modern history, Thailand has been ruled by mostly military dictatorships. A general election in December 2007 restored a civilian government, but in May 2014 another military coup returned the absolute power to the army. Tourism makes up about 6% of the economy. Thailand was the most visited country in Southeast Asia in 2013, according to the World Tourism Organization.
Day 1 – Varanasi to Bangkok: Our flight from Varanasi arrived around 10 PM and we had arranged a private transfer to pick us up and take us to our Airbnb. The Airbnb was in a nice modern apartment building and we had the entire 1 bedroom to ourselves. It was late by the time we arrived at the apartment so we just checked in and called it a night.
Day 2 – Bangkok: On our first full day, we slept in until 11 AM. The city is well known for its vibrant street life and cultural landmarks, as well as its notorious red-light districts. Our place was outside the city along the Bangkok Airlink train route. To get to the city, we took the Airlink to the Prayathai Station (30thb) and then taxi (95 thb) to Khaosan Road. Khaosan Road is a famous nightlight spot but we decided to check it out during the day. We walked around Khaosan Road and tried to find some place for lunch. We stopped at a stand selling pad thai and we both ordered a chicken (55thb) and a shrimp pad thai (65 thb). It tasted ok but we were both really hungry. After lunch, we walked along the shopping street in search for white clothes for our meditation retreat in Chiang Mai. We didn’t find any so we decided to head to the Grand Palace.
It was a fairly short walk to the Grand Palace. It was 500 thb each to enter so we just made it as far as the entrance before we decided to leave. You can see a lot of the Palace from the inner gate and since we were going to see and had seen a lot of palaces, we decided it wasn’t worth it. Next we walked to Wat Pho to check out the reclining gold Buddha (100 thb entrance). Diem wore shorts and the temple workers weren't happy about her showing so much skin. She had to run across the street and buy some pants (90 thb). She wanted to buy those same pants anyway so she was happy to have the excuse. The reclining Buddha is huge but we’ve seen so many huge Buddhas that we’re a little numb to them. The surrounding buildings and statues are nice though so it was a worthwhile trip. It doesn't take that long so see the Buddha and the complex and it was getting hot so we left.
After Wat Pho, we took a ferry (4 thb) across the river to see Wat Arun (free entrance). Unfortunately, there was major construction on the wat so it wasn't as impressive as I remembered. They also didn’t allow you to go to the top of the Wat. After spending some time there, we took the ferry back to the other side. We wandered back to Wat Pho and ate at a restaurant across the street. We had some delicious pork noodles, morning glory, and very spicy tom yum goong. To finish off, we walked back to the ferry pier and grabbed some coconut ice cream (50 thb) from a local stall. It was delicious and refreshing on a hot day.
After dessert, we were getting pretty hot and tired so we decided to head back home. We asked around for tuk tuks to take us back to the Airlink Prayathai station but they quoted us 300 thb, which is outrageous! So we decided to walk it to a BTR station that connects to the Airlink. Little did we know that the walk to the BTR station would take us over 40 mins to get there and that the line to buy a ticket was ridiculous. We finally made it home after 2.5 hours from leaving the dinner spot. We learned the hard way that Bangkok's public transportation system isn't the best. The city actually has three mass transit train systems, the BTR, the Airlink, and the MRT. However, all are run by different companies and you have to buy cards for each one. It’s a big pain because the lines to buy single tickets and reload the cards are huge at all the stations we went to. There are plans to consolidate all systems onto one payment method but apparently those talks have been going on for some time. If we go back, we’ll make plans to only use one system or take more Ubers.
Day 3 – Bangkok: Bangkok is known for its famous markets and the floating markets outside the city. Today we decided to visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market. We got there around noon and it was already way too hot to be outside. The market is huge. Vendors set up their shops under huge tents in little stalls. Some stalls and areas are nicer than others and we tended to linger in the ones with AC. To find your way around there are a couple of information stations with maps that show where different items are located. Once we got in, we made our way to a restaurant Diem had bookmarked that was inside the market. We ordered fried chicken hip (65 thb), grilled pork (85 thb), and papaya salad (55 thb). The food was pretty decent but the papaya salad wasn’t as good as I hoped. After lunch, we went in search of new running shoes for me, white clothes for our meditation retreat, and some thai tea.
We spent a good 4-5 hours at the market and got lost a few times in the maze of vendors and tents. Luckily, it was mostly covered so the sun wasn’t directly beaming down on us. Otherwise, we probably would've gave up on shopping earlier. We bought some white clothes that cost us less (380 thb for all) than the meditation tour was charging (300 thb pp). Unfortunately, after all that searching I couldn't find running shoes that fit right. The market is massive with so many cool things that Diem could've bought if we weren't on a budget and if we had room in our luggage to bring it with us. Thankfully for me, she couldn’t go crazy. Afterwards, we took the MTR and the Airlink back to the apartment. For dinner, we ate at a restaurant across the street which was more expensive than we wanted for the poor quality and tiny portions.
Day 4 – Bangkok: Bangkok has a number of floating markets that are popular tourist attractions. The largest and most famous is the Damnoen Saduak. Unfortunately, the market is about an hour outside of the city and not really accessible by public transportation. We would have had to book a tour to get there and it was pretty expensive for our budget so we decided to visit the Taling Chan Floating Market which is accessible by bus. From the apartment, we took the Airlink and then transferred to a bus (17 thb pp) to get the Taling Chan Floating Market. We wanted to grab lunch before boarding the bus for the second leg to the market but the restaurant Diem had bookmarked was unexpectedly closed so we just continued on and ate lunch at the floating market. The bus took about 45 minutes to get there but we were pleasantly surprised that it had pretty nice AC.
When we got to the market we headed straight to food section. We sat at the big floating restaurant and ordered with pad thai (40 thb), papaya salad with patty crab (40 thb), and pork noodles (40 thb) with thai tea and iced coffee. The papaya salad and the ice coffee came really quickly. However, we waited around for quite a while before we realized that our order wasn't coming. We tried to confirm with our waiter if our order was coming since it was just pad thai and noodles and those don't take long to make at all. He kept reassuring us that the pad thai was coming. Diem got suspicious that he kept saying pad thai and nothing about the noodles she ordered. Eventually the pad thai came and sure enough they forgot Diem’s noodles. It was already 2 PM so we were getting pretty hungry and not very happy about the service. It was also annoying that we had to pay for every item separately since they appeared to come from different vendors. The food was OK but we were hot and annoyed so we just ate and left quickly. We walked around the market area, which was unexpectedly small, and checked out the boat tour. It was 69 thb for an hour tour. It was pretty hot out and the floating market didn't appear very impressive so we decided against it. We walked around a bit more and then picked up some items to take home for dinner. The floating market wasn’t all that special so we just hopped on the bus and back to the Airlink to the apartment.
Day 5 – Bangkok: Mondays are usually a day off for street vendors so we also decided to take a day off and stay in to get some things taken care of. For lunch, we walked to the supermarket around the corner to buy fruits, drinks, and lunch. We each bought some fish which they fried fresh for us. They had a large cooked food section so we returned for dinner and grabbed some duck with rice and some more veggies.
Day 6 – Bangkok: We had seen most of the main attractions of Bangkok and our room was so nice and cool with fast WiFi so we decided to stay in again and take care of some logistics for our next stops. The food we bought yesterday from the supermarket was so good that we just ate there again for lunch and dinner.
Day 7 – Bangkok to Mandalay: We checked out at 12 PM and took airport link to the airport. Our flight to Mandalay, Myanmar left at 2:30 PM. I’ll write about our time in Myanmar in a separate post but we decided to split up our Thailand trip with Myanmar because the flights were cheaper for the dates we were traveling.
Day 8 – Inle-Mandalay-Bangkok-Chiang Mai: From Myanmar, there are no direct flights to Chiang Mai so we first flew to Bangkok and then went to Chiang Mai. We had to go through customs in Bangkok, collect our luggage, and check them back in. We had a 7 hour layover to use the internet and get some work done. Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, we took an Uber from airport (160thb) and checked into hotel. It was a long day of traveling so we just checked in and slept.
Day 9 – Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai is the largest city in northern Thailand. It is the capital of Chiang Mai Province, was a former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na, and is situated amongst the highest mountains in the country. Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples (wats) and is home to a number of Thai cooking schools.
On our first day in Chiang Mai we slept in and got ready for meditation retreat. I went for a run and Diem did research on flights/hotel stuff. For lunch we walked to Tikky Café which was nearby. We ordered Pad See Eww (60thb), papaya salad (50thb), and chicken panang curry (60thb). All very good and had the right amount of spice. After lunch, walked to MCU Unversity meeting point for the retreat. I detailed the retreat in a previous post, Meditation: Not Just for Hippies Anymore.
Day 10 – Chiang Mai: After we got back from the retreat, we grabbed dinner with a friend from our African Safari tour group at Hanging Feet. The food wasn’t that good but we had a few drinks and took tuk tuk to Spicy bar and kept drinking. The girls had a little bit more to drink than I did because I wanted to keep my wits about me so I could find our way home. We ended up going to a club but luckily it closed at midnight so we took tuk tuk back to hotel.
Day 11 – Chiang Mai: After a night of drinking, we slept in then walked to lunch at SP Chicken (roast chicken, beef soup, fried morning glory, and coconut ice cream). The food was really delicious and helped with the hangover. After lunch we walked around to see some of the 300 different temples. It was pretty hot out so we only saw Wat Phan Tao. We tried to go in Wat Prah Singh but there was a fee so we didn't go in. We’ve seen so many Buddhist temples that it’s hard to justify spending money to see more. With all the heat, we were feeling the effects of drinking the night before so we headed back. For dinner we ate at Tikky Cafe again, luckily we got there just before it closed.
Day 12 – Chiang Mai: Today we booked a full day cooking class (2,200 thb total) with Asia Scenic Cooking School. We got picked up around 9 AM and stopped by market for an intro to different Thai spices and fresh produce. The tour guide was pretty informative and after walking around the market for a bit we headed to the farm where we’d be cooking. Once we arrived, the guide took us around farm and showed us the different organically grown produce. We got to choose 6 different dishes to make and then our aprons went on. First we made three dishes (Paul: pad thai, chicken salad, and spring rolls - Diem: pad see eww, glass noddle salad, spring rolls). We took a break and got to enjoy our dishes and relax on the hammocks with coffee/tea. Then we made the rest of the dishes (Paul: coconut soup, penang curry paste & soup, mango & sticky rice dessert - Diem: tom yum soup, khao soi curry paste & khao soi noodle soup, mango & sticky rice dessert). We had some time to enjoy our dishes. The recipes were pretty simple and the company premade some of the pastes and more difficult ingredients but it was still fun to cook. We were all pretty full at that point. After we finished our meals and relaxed for a bit, our guide next handed out some cook books and then took us back in the van to go home. For dinner, we met up with a couple we met at the meditation retreat at the Night Bazaar. We were already full so didn't eat but we sat there and talked for a while.
Day 13 – Chiang Mai: We felt pretty tired today so we decided to make it a rest day. For lunch, we ate at Khao Soi Khun Yai (Khao Soi beef 40 thb & noodle soup 30 thb & logan drink 15thb) down the street. It was delicious! Definitely better than the khao soi we made at the cooking class. After lunch we went back to room to work on our laptops. For dinner we went back to the Night Bazaar for a seafood platter (299thb) and specialty cold plate ice cream (140thb). I wasn’t that big of a fan of the seafood platter but Diem really liked it. The ice cream was delicious but a little overpriced.
Day 14 – Chiang Mai: Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I did an elephant riding tour. While the company I booked treated the elephants OK, I saw other companies that had hooks in the elephants ears and would pull on them to turn the elephants and would whack the elephants with bamboo. It was a little unsettling so we decided against actually riding elephants and opted for going to an elephant sanctuary to help care for some rescued elephants.
We got picked up around 8:30 AM for Happy Elephant Home sanctuary full day tour (4,600thb total). Our friends from the meditation retreat also joined us. The sanctuary was about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. When we arrived, we were given clothes to change into and a break for coffee/tea. Then we were taken to chop sugarcane, pumpkins, and bananas for the elephants. We put the pieces in our sacks and went to feed them. We spent a good amount of time feeding them. There were two adult females and one male baby elephant. It was an amazing experience to be so close to these huge animals to have them literally eating out of your hands. After the feeding, we went back and washed our hands for lunch.
Lunch was a simple chicken potato curry, stir fried vegetables, steamed egg, and watermelon. Diem also had a beer (50thb). The food was better than I expected, the curry and veggies were delicious. After lunch, we mixed some medicine with some food and shaped them into balls to feed to the elephants. After, we walked with the elephants to the river on the sanctuary grounds. We picked up a couple more elephants and another baby along the way. Once at the riverbank, we fed them the medicine balls and some more pumpkins and sugarcane. Next, the elephants got into the water and splashed them with water to cool them down and rubbed some mud on them. It was really fun and the baby elephants were really cute. After playing in the river, we said goodbye to the elephants and headed back to wash up and relax before our ride back to our hotel. The experience with the elephants was one of the highlights of our entire trip. I would highly recommend the one we took but there are other highly rated ones as well. We got back to our hotel around 6:30 PM, showered up and walked across the street to grab dinner.
Day 15 – Chiang Mai – Phuket: We grabbed an Uber to the airport around 8:30 AM and caught our flight to Bangkok. After a 5 hour layover, we took our next flight to Phuket. The island of Phuket is the country's largest island and has another 32 smaller islands off its coast. It lies off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Phuket has been featured on The Beach, The Man with the Golden Gun, Star Wars Episode III, and LOST. The most popular (and overcrowded) tourist area on Phuket is Patong Beach on the central west coast, perhaps owing to the easy access to its wide and long beach. Most of Phuket's nightlife and its shopping is in Patong, and the area has become increasingly developed.
We arrived in Phuket around 6 PM and went to grab a shared minibus to Patong beach (180 thb pp). We were a bit confused as to where to find the minibus but eventually sorted it out. It was a rough ride because our driver had serious road rage and then missed our hotel so instead of being dropped off first, we were the last ones to be dropped off. Checked in to our hotel and then walked a few doors down for dinner at some local food stalls. The food was really delicious, cheap, and so convenient that we knew we’d be back.
Day 16 – Phuket: It was a hot rainy day so we decided to make it a rest day today. We stayed in to work on a few things and luckily the hotel had good internet. For lunch, we ate at Restaurant No. 9 which wasn’t too good. For dinner, we went back to eat at the stalls a few doors down which were really good and I got some coconut ice cream for dessert.
Day 17 – Phuket: Today we booked an island hopping tour of Phang Nga Bay with Phuket Sails ($120 pp). The boat took us to James Bond Island, Phang Nga Bay, Koh Panyee Island for lunch and a walking tour of the floating village. Once we got back on the boat, we checked out some mangroves and walked around, canoed through more mangroves, did some snorkeling, and some relaxation time at a secluded beach across from Krabi. The company had great service and friendly staff. Our boat could accommodate more than 30 but it was half capacity which gave us more room to move and make friends. The crew provided fruits, snacks, and drinks throughout trip. The tour was more than I wanted to spend but it was a great intro to the islands in Phang Nga Bay.
Day 18 – Phuket: We took another rest day today. In the morning I went for a run along Patong Beach when it wasn’t so hot out and saw some people along the sidewalk selling fish. We had lunch near the hotel and stopped by a tour booking stall next to the hotel to book our day trip to the Phi Phi Islands and Maya Bay (1700 thb pp). Later we went out for a walk on the beach around sunset. It was a pretty sunset but the clouds starting rolling in and it started raining. Luckily we were near our dinner spot so we had dinner to wait for the rain. However, the rain didn't stop but we decided to head back to the hotel anyways. We walked for what seemed like forever in the rain and it began to rain harder. We were drenched by the time we got back to the hotel. Luckily our phones didn’t get soaked and make it back in one piece. It was actually a little fun to walk in the rain on a hot day and something we’ll definitely remember.
Day 19 – Phuket: The Phi Phi island tour we booked the day before was supposed to pick us up at 7:45 AM and we thought we would have time for breakfast but they came really early around 7 AM so we rushed to get ready and in the car. The shuttle stopped to pick up the second guests and we were waiting there for almost 40 minutes. It was really frustrating. We ended up taking 2 hours to pick up all the guests and make our way to the pier. Once we got there, we had to wait another 30 minutes for more guests to arrive from other cars. Then the company split into two groups and boarded our overly crowded speedboat.
Our first stop of the tour was Maya Bay. It was a pretty bay but it was so swarming with tourists that we could barely get a free spot to relax. We took a few pictures and then got back on the boat. Next we stopped at a tiny beach called Monkey Beach to see some monkeys. Tourists crowded the beach and there were only 2 monkeys so we weren’t very impressed. The boat next stopped at Viking Cave where we just parked for pictures but couldn't get off the boat. The Viking Cave is named for the cave paintings on the walls but we really couldn’t get that close. Next, went to Phi Phi Don island for a lunch buffet that was pretty terrible. After lunch, we had some time to lie in the grass and then got back on the boat. Next we went to Koh Khai Nok Island for some beach time and they served pineapple/watermelon and coke. The beach was hard to walk on barefoot and dirty. We didn't really enjoy our time there and were ready to go home. We took a 30 minute ride back to the pier and then shuttle back to hotel. For dinner we went back to the food stalls next to the hotel. This tour was a lot cheaper (~$50 USD) than our other tour but you get what you pay for. Maybe the spots we went today are just more crowded in general but the service on the boat was not nearly as good and the entire tour was run sloppily. If we were to go again, we would probably splurge on the nicer tour companies.
Day 20 – Phuket: We had another rest day again today. Diem and I headed to the beach in the morning until it got too hot. We ate lunch and dinner at restaurants near hotel. Then we packed our bags and caught our taxi to the airport at 3 AM for our 6:20 AM flight to Siem Reap.
There is a reason why Thailand is so popular with tourists. It’s a great introduction into Southeast Asia and has a huge tourist industry to make the main attractions accessible. In some cases, it may be too popular. We definitely felt some places were overcrowded and some things were overpriced. We probably could have cut a couple of days off Bangkok and Phuket to check out Krabi or Chiang Rai. While Thailand is very cheap compared to the U.S., it is definitely more expensive than some other the other countries in the area. The islands around Phuket are gorgeous and remind me a lot of the islands around El Nido, Philippines. However, the Philippines islands are a lot less crowded. They are worth seeing but if you’re not into crowded beaches and have the budget, I would recommend more upscale companies to see the islands before the big boats arrive.
See the full gallery of our time in Thailand here: Best of Thailand.