Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
Great beaches, jungles, historic cities and temples… Cheap, accessible, easy to get around, with fantastic, cheap bus and train services that run on time; extremely backpacker-friendly, while catering too to very high-end tourists, that's Thailand.
www.talesofasia.com has lots of useful information on Thailand. The main English language newspapers are the 'Bangkok Post' and 'The Nation', but there are also English-language local newspapers in Chiang Mai, Phuket and Pattaya, and possibly other cities and towns too. There's also 'Farang' magazine, which you see occasionally on sale around Khao San Road in Bangkok.
Most backpackers stay on Khao San Road and it's easy to understand why. There's a wide range of accommodation, from 60/80baht cells to comfortable hotels with all the trimmings; restaurants offering Thai food, Western and backpacker staples; stalls selling souvenirs and clothes, even a tourist information kiosk (near the police station on Thanon Chakraphong). Khao San Road is where you can get a henna tattoo, have your hair dreaded and pick up an 'ethnic' water bottle carrier as well. For a sneak preview of Khao San Road, read the opening chapter or two of Alex Garland's "The Beach".
There are loads of places to stay in Bangkok that aren't on Khao San, although they aren't as cheap (or as basic) as some of the places on Khao San. I liked The Atlanta, on Soi 2 (Lane 2), off Sukhumvit (one of the main roads in Bangkok, heading south) near Ploenchit Skytrain station, but Suk 11, on Soi 11 off Sukhumvit was once highly recommended to me (www.suk11.com).
Public transport is cheap and reasonably efficient in Bangkok, although the traffic is pretty grim - I once spent one-and-a-half hours on a bus trying to get the nine miles or so from On Nut Skytrain station to Khao San Road! Bus fares range from around four baht to 20baht, depending on distance travelled and standard of bus (from tiny, insane little green things to aircon comfort).
There's also the Skytrain, which is very comfortable (aircon!!) and not too expensive - the maximum fare is (or was) 40baht per journey - but the network is pretty limited; the new underground system should be opening any time now. Watch out for motorbike taxis - the drivers wear bright-coloured numbered vests - and car taxis, although the drivers usually refuse to use the meter for journeys to or from Khao San ("traffic very bad, no meter, 300baht" for a journey that would cost nearer 100baht on the meter!). And there are the tuk-tuks; noisy, smelly, quite possibly unstable, but part of the Bangkok experience. The water buses are a great (and cheap) way of getting about too; not the long-tailed boats you can charter, the ordinary water buses used by commuters and the like.
The official tourist information offices are great (the best is probably the one on Thanon Silom, near Patpong), but whatever you do, avoid at all costs the "tourist offices" and travel companies near the main railway station, Hualamphong, because they're rubbish, and run by crooks. They used to (might still do, for all I know) send touts (complete with official-looking badges) to wait outside the railway station to pounce on unsuspecting travellers.
They'll tell you the trains are full, or offer you a special deal, but once you get in the shop, you'll get ripped off, because they will promise you anything to get your money. For example, my (ex) boyfriend was teaching English in Bangkok and he needed to do a visa run to Malaysia. We decided to have a few days in Penang, as there's a train direct there from Bangkok. The trains were full, so, as we were desperate, we booked a bus through a travel agent near the station. We were told it would leave at 6.30pm and we could have seats on the sofa area downstairs, and that we would be on the same bus all the way to Penang, a journey of 18 hours or so. We ended up sitting on ordinary seats on a bus shared with people who had bought tickets on Khao San for about half what we had paid. We had to wait around for at least three hours, as the bus left at 9.30pm; we had to change at least three times, were kept waiting for several hours, and ended up taking about 25 hours to get to Penang. If we'd taken the train, we'd have been there in about 18 hours, and had sleeper berths, for the same price as the bus tickets.
More wats than you can shake a stick at; the most notable are probably Wat Arun "Temple of the Dawn" by the Chao Phraya River, Wat Pho (reclining Buddha and massage school) and Wat Saket, the "Golden Mount".
The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew are unmissable (you'll need sunglasses to cope with the combination of so much gold and so much sunshine!), and Dusit Zoo is OK, for visitors and for the animals kept in there. If you're in Bangkok over a weekend, Chatuchak (Jataujak) weekend market is great for shopping, and very easy to get to, as it's right by Mo Chit Skytrain station. In fact, to truly appreciate Bangkok, it's probably best to arrive there after four or so months in countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, because Bangkok has shops and shops and shops, many of them in air-con complexes such as the World Trade Centre and Silom.
The Baiyoke Sky Hotel, (near Pratunam Market) is possibly the tallest building in Bangkok and it's got a viewing gallery open to the public (for a fee). If you like bird's eye views of places, it's well worth a visit, but get there before 9.30pm, because the 'scenic' lift down (you'll see what I mean if you take it) closes.
In terms of nightlife, well, there are clubs and stuff on Khao San. There's also a Ministry of Sound - nope, not a Thai knock-off, but the Bangkok branch of the famous English club - on Sukhumvit Soi 12. I wasn't too impressed, mainly because I'm not a big fan of modern 'dance' music and I found it far too loud and posey, but my ex thought it was pretty cool. More 'exotic' entertainment can be found of an evening in the bars of Patpong (ping-pong balls, ladyboys, you know the score), and Nana Plaza (Sukhumvit Soi 4) and Soi Cowboy (also off Sukhumvit, but I can't remember which soi). However, if you're going to Pattaya, I'd see a show there as it's less pressurised than Patpong.
If you venture on the Skytrain towards On Nut, you can't miss The Colisseum, a bar/theatre/entertainment venue that's worth visiting if only because of the exterior - fake stone with a 'Greek' god with his thumbs up dominating the entrance! Can't remember which Skytrain its near, but you really can't miss it!
Quite possibly the only place to be for Songkran, or Thai New Year (in mid-April). Songkran is a water festival, and the old town of Chaing Mai is surrounded by a moat… oh, and no one is too young or too old to get involved in the water fight, and it lasts for DAYS.
Apart from the chaos of Songkran, there's lots to attract visitors to Chiang Mai. There are historical wats in the city centre and surrounding areas and the famous 'night market' where you can buy all manner of souvenirs. It's a good place to fix up a 'hill-tribe trek' - most guesthouses have info. There's loads of accommodation; I paid 120baht (I think) for a room with hot-water bathroom at Midtown House, near the Tha Pae Gate, and 80baht for a banged-up room with cold-water bathroom at Lek guesthouse. Some guesthouses have restaurants, but there are loads of other places to eat and drink.
It's easy enough to get to Chiang Mai; there are flights from Bangkok, and it's about 11 hours from Bangkok on the bus or train. I can't remember the prices, though. Some people travel overnight to save the cost of a night's accommodation.
Around Chiang Mai:
I went to Mae Salong, a tiny village; there wasn't much there apart from tea plantations, but it's in a glorious place, high up in the mountains close to the Burmese border. I got there by taking a Chiang Rai bus, getting off at some town between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (can't remember which, though), and taking a songthaew from there. I'd suggest setting off earlier rather than later, as there's more chance of finding someone to share the songthaew with, otherwise it gets pretty pricey. I can't remember where I stayed, but it was one of the more established places, and I had a nice bungalow.
I also went to the "Wilderness Lodge" which was off the road that runs between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son. I had to walk a couple of miles through the jungle, but it was easy enough because there was a new road (possibly connected with logging). Wilderness Lodge was basic, and there wasn't a right lot to do apart from chill, but it was relaxing enough and the food was good too. The bus went through Pai, which is supposed to be a backpacker haven, but I didn't stop there to check it out. Mae Hong Son looked quiet, but some farangs (foreigners) hang out there. It's also the base for some NGOs (non-governmental organisations) working with refugees from Burma.
Wat Phra Kaew here was once the home of the legendary Emerald Buddha and although Chiang Rai is pleasant enough, Wat Phra Kaew is probably the only tourist attraction-y place here, but it's a good starting point if you want to explore rural north-eastern Thailand. I stayed at the White House (I think) because it had a swimming pool (very small); I think it was around 200baht for a comfortable room with hot water bathroom, and also at Ya House ("No Yuppie!!" proclaimed the flyer). I paid 180baht for a really cool bungalow with a plankwalk from the bed on the upper floor to the balcony.
Around Chiang Rai:
I went to Louta, a village that's home to members of the Lisu tribe, where I stayed with a lovely man called Asa and his family (I think I picked up a flyer for 'Asa's House' in Chiang Rai). The accommodation's basic, but Asa's family was lovely and the food was great, and Asa fixed up an interesting walk in the surrounding forest for me. I think I got there by songthaew (like a little local minibus).
From Asa's I got another songthaew or a local bus (can't remember which) to the small town of Tha Ton (which felt like a village in Snowdonia, for some strange reason), and, from there, took a boat back to Chiang Rai.
North of Chang Rai there's also the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet, and which is infamous for being an important staging post in the drug trade; there's an opium museum there. A songthaew ride from the Golden Triangle is Chiang Saen; there's not much there apart from the ruined Wat Paa Sak. It's not exactly a world-class tourist sight, but it's pretty enough for a visit if you have time to kill.
It's easy enough to do as a day trip from Bangkok, by bus or train, but there are loads of places to stay here, most of them backpacker-friendly and offering jungle treks and the like. Kanchanaburi is most famous as the site of the infamous "Bridge over the River Kwai" and several World War II cemeteries.
Has made its debut in the latest edition of Lonely Planet. It's a big destination for Thais in mid-October, because, at the end of Buddhist Lent, it's where the "Naga Fireballs" rise from the Mekong. Yeah, apparently, these flaming red balls shoot out of the water and rise 50feet or so into the air. Legend has it that they're thrown up by the Naga, the mythical serpent that lives in the Mekong, but scientists suggest they're caused by methane created by vegetation rotting on the riverbed, then rising to the surface, where it catches fire because of a combination of environmental factors that happens on just one or two days a year. We went there but, despite spending two nights up to our ankles in mud by the river, saw only one thing that could have been a fireball, if we gave it the benefit of the doubt…
I can't remember where we stayed, but everywhere was pretty expensive because there were so many people in town. Nong Khai is also the closest Thai city to the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong to Laos, and there's also a sizeable population of retired ex-pats, not too surprising when you realise it's close to what were American air force bases during the Vietnam war.
We rented a bike and went to a waterfall past Si Chiangmai (can't remember the name, but it was about 60 miles from Nong Khai). The following day we tried to get to some temple east of Nong Khai (again I can't remember the name) but it was just too far away, so we gave up! The tourist office close to the Friendship Bridge was pretty helpful.
We went here because we wanted to go to the Khmer ruins of Phanom Rung; there didn't seem to be much else in Khorat. We rented a bike to get to Phanom Rung, but it's supposed to be possible to get there by public transport. The ruins were nice enough. Can't remember where we stayed, but it was adequate, no more.
I didn't go here, but my ex-boyfriend did, to see the famous monkeys. Put it this way, the traffic stops to let hordes of monkeys cross the road, and my ex had to buy a padlock for his backpack because otherwise the marauding monkeys would have unzipped it and pilfered his stuff!
Ancient capital surrounded by a moat, now mostly ruins. It's pretty close to Bangkok, but I didn't go there. I did, however, go to Sukothai, which is between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I stayed in modern Sukothai, in a lovely, solid wooden bungalow at Ban Thai guesthouse, for something like 170baht, and rented a bike to cycle to the historic old city, which was nice enough, but I wouldn't say it was unmissable.
About five hours by bus and ferry from Bangkok. It's a pretty small, pretty crowded island, but it is possible to find peaceful bits if you head south. The northern bit is almost Khao San Road-on-sea, with lots of cheap backpacker-friendly guesthouses serving backpacker-friendly food and showing videos of an evening. There are also bars which have (or had, in late 2002) special offers on 'buckets', these evil cocktails of Thai whisky, Red Bull and Coca Cola, which are served in big bowls (ice buckets?) and drunk through straws - a recipe for insanity.
On the opposite side of the island are some VERY nice-looking, exclusive resorts, obviously not geared towards backpackers.
Be warned that foreigners have to pay 200 baht (it may be even more now, though) to enter Thai National Parks, of which Ko Samet is one. Khao San guesthouses organise transport to Ko Samet, but it's easy enough to get there under your own steam from Bangkok: public bus from Ekkamai (Eastern) bus station, on Sukhumvit, to Ban Phe, then public ferry from the pier there. My ex and I stayed in a couple of places, but I can't remember which they were.
An interesting place, to say the least. In late 2002, it seemed to be populated exclusively by older Western men and young Thai girls. However, there is a sizeable ex-pat population, so there must be more to life there than sex tourism. Mind you, there was some attention-grabbing stuff there. Put it this way, my ex's souvenir from one upstairs club we visited was a little poster which read: "Welcome Joel to the Red Cat (I think that's what it was called), Pattaya", written by a girl who wasn't holding the pen in her hand!
There didn't seem to be much in the way of backpacker places (not really surprising) but there were loads of mid-range places, and I think we got a special deal on one through the internet. We got there on the bus from Bangkok dead easily.
Krabi/Ao Nang/Rai Lay:
Rai Lay is one of THE places to go climbing in Thailand. It's on a peninsula a boat ride from Krabi town. There's East Rai Lay, with cheap accommodation for backpackers; West Rai Lay, which is a bit posher, and Phra Nang which is very upmarket indeed, complete with four-or-five-star resort. There are a couple of climbing schools around East Rai Lay, and all seemed to be pretty much the same.
One tip for rat phobes: unless things have changed drastically since Autumn 2002, avoid Ya Ya Resort at all costs. Yeah, it's a quirky-looking place, and my mate had stayed there the previous year without incident, but when we stayed there, we had a rat in our room. And when I spoke to an expat who runs a climbing school, she told me she had stayed there when she first moved to Rai Lay and she could hear rats running along the ceiling in her room, so ours clearly wasn't an isolated experience! Rai Lay had developed a lot in the year since my mate's first visit, and the builders were extremely busy while we were there, so if you're looking for a secluded hideaway, you might not find it at Rai Lay. Phra Nang beach is gorgeous, though!
There's not much in Krabi town itself, but if you get stuck, Chan-Cha-Lay guesthouse on Uttarkit Road (www.krabidir.com/chanchalay), looked OK, although we didn't actually stay there.
Haven't a clue what it's like, but watch this space, as there's a 90 per cent chance I'll be starting work there in May (2004)!
If you're coming from or going to Cambodia via Koh Kong and you end up stuck in Trat, the Tok 2 (I think that's what it's called) guesthouse is OK. Stand by the bus station with the night market to your left. Cross the road, towards the 7/11, then walk up the street towards the department store. Take the road on your right that runs by the department store, at the end of the block with the 7/11 in, then take the first left and Tok 2 should be down there. I think it's around 150baht for a room with a bathroom