Thailand was exhausting! Talk about sensory overload: Bangkok is a teeming, steamy, overwhelming city to start in. It was monsoon season when I went (mid-June), so it was both suffocatingly hot and intermittently rainy when I went. But I still managed to see some beautiful temples, kayak around islands, explore many night markets, eat a TON of interesting food, fit in many cheap massages, and meet some fun people.
I spent one day in Bangkok, 4 days in Chiang Mai, 3 days in Phuket, 2 days in Koh Phi Phi, and then one last day in Phuket before flying back to Bangkok and then home. One thing I didn’t realize before getting to Thailand was that Phuket is a ferry-ride away from only a couple of islands–Koh Samui, my first choice of islands to visit, was a 10-hour+ journey away via various buses and ferries. So if you’re visiting the islands, I would carefully consider which islands you want to visit, then pick your incoming airport accordingly if you are flying (sounds obvious, but the islands are not as close together as they seem!).
Here is a probably-too-long recap of my trip. I didn’t want to split it up into recaps of each city, because I feel like I really didn’t spend long enough in each place to have solid recommendations for each place. But as with my Australia recaps, hopefully this will give you an idea of what you can do in each place and inspire ideas for your own trip!
My 1-Day Bangkok Itinerary
I was mildly wrecked from the flight from Australia the day before and the intense heat, so all I managed to do was:
- visit the Wat Pho Temple
- get a massage at the Wat Pho Massage School (relatively expensive at $18/half hour including a 40 baht tip, but highly recommend!)
- buy a taro waffle in the enormous Chinatown
- eat pad thai and one of the glorious mango shakes from a vendor on Khao San Road
- get ripped off by a cab driver/travel agent trying to buy a train ticket (avoid Tiger Travel Group, and be very wary of travel agencies in general)
- get to the Hua Lamphong train station to catch my overnight train to Chiang Mai. Which, omg, I actually loved this experience. My ticket was something like $30 for a second class sleeper train that left around 6:30pm and got into Chiang Mai around 7am. The seats fold out into these crazy bunk beds with little privacy curtains and you can order food from the (very expensive) train kitchen or bring your own. The bathroom was gross, but I popped a Dramamine after getting in bed and slept the entire way to Chiang Mai. It was GREAT.
Actual Things You Should Do in Bangkok: Suggestions from Ornsiree
Because I really didn’t have much time to explore Bangkok, here’s a list of suggestions from Ornsiree, my friend who was born and raised in Bangkok (these are cut and pasted from her email):
- Gaggan Molecular Indian Cuisine: #1 restaurant in Asia!! You MUST go, it’s my fav. You have to make reservations. Order the 10 course tasting menu. It’s about $100 each but soo worth it. You won’t experience anything like it
- DID Dine in the Dark: Super fun dining experience. All waiters are blind, and proceeds from what you pay are donated to charity for the blind. You eat in complete pitch black darkness, and the chef surprises you with a set course menu. Choose from vegetarian, international, or asian 3 course prix fix.
- Pad Thai Prathu Pee/Thip Samai – Best padthai ever: This place’s official name is “Thip Samai” but it’s known by the locals as “Pad Thai Prathu Pee” as it’s located opposite the temple gateway where dead bodies used to be transported through. “Prathu Pee” translates to “Ghost door.” Spooky, but great pad thai. Order the pad thai with special noodles from “chan” city, shrimp fat, shrimp, and all wrapped in egg. In Thai this would be “ผัดไทเส้นจันมันกุ้งห่อไข่กุ้
งสด”. Traditional pad thai is served with banana flower (pick petals off and eat with each bite). Don’t forget to order the coconut juice slushy to wash it all down!
- After You: Super cute dessert place with a few branches in Thonglor, Phrompong, and Siam. They’re really famous for their Shibuya honey toast, which is a special bread block that comes toasted, served with ice cream ++, big enough to share between 2-3. Their new popular treat is the Mango sticky rice kakigori which is a shaved ice dessert
- Chatuchak Market aka JJ Market
Get off the chatuchak BTS stop. It’s a huge outdoor market with cute and cheap stuff. When tourists think of cheap shopping, this is what they imagine.
- Royal Palace
Beautiful part of our history. The temples here are stunning. Keep in mind it’s respectful to dress conservatively here, aka tshirts and long pants/long skirts are recommended (no tank tops).
It’s a shopping mall but a fancy shopping mall with lots of restaurants and shops, if you need to take a break from the hot outdoors. Take the BTS to Prom phong. Don’t get this confused with Emporium, which is another shopping mall close by, owned by the same people.
- Floating Market: Quintessential Thai experience. There are a few which are a bit out of BKK. You can take busses out there, your hotel will be able to help with transportation.
- Sirocco – Best rooftop bar + views of the city: Come here for cocktails and the view. A must visit spot. After, walk to Khao San road, which is a run down street filled with bars and tourists, but super fun. Alcohol “buckets” are like $10 each, with buy one get one free promos throughout the night. Super chill spot for drinks and hookah. Think New Orleans Bourbon Street style.
Take BTS to Ekamai then taxi it to RCA. A huge road filled with lots of different fancier clubs with great sound systems – best places for dancing. There’s a little bit of everything for everyone, from EDM to hip hop to gay clubs. Lots has changed and the clubs I usually frequented are gone, but I heard Onyx/Ztudio are good for EDM, and Route66 is for hip hop. In Thailand, we party a bit differently where it’s customary to get a table, get a bottle of liquor (whisky or vodka), then mixers. Good for a group of 4+, and comes out pretty cheap once costs are split. Taxis after closing charge a flat rate of around 200 baht (which is just $7, but if your hotel is close, cross the street and they’ll charge normal meter fare.
- Ashley Sutton’s Bars: This guy is a freaking genius. He used to be a props designer for Hollywood (he designed stuff for Pirates of the Caribbean), and is an ironsmith (he has 7 fingers, lost 3 to metal work). His bars are beautiful steam punk/industrial works of art. Would recommend Sing Sing Theatre and A.R Sutton Engineers Siam. The latter is in Ekamai, so you can stop here for cocktails before heading over to RCA to party.
- After hour clubs – clubs that close 4AM-6AM
Most clubs close at 2AM – pretty standard, but whenever I’m out with friends that never seems enough. I’m not sure which after hour clubs are in business right now (they’re always changing/rebranding), so just ask people you find in the clubs, they’ll recommend you to some fun places.
- In BKK, take the Skytrain (BTS) or Metro/MRT (underground) wherever you can as there’s so much traffic. Taxis are also cheap, but make sure the meter is running. There’s also Uber.
- In other provinces, Tuk Tuks aka rikshaws aka motorized tricycles are common
- Motorcycle taxis are also recommended for speed. Make sure the drivers are wearing “official looking” orange/brightly coloured vests. Ask beforehand how much. Each trip should be 10-50 baht for short distances. I take these if the Skytrain stop isn’t within walking distance to my location
- Can pretty much haggle for anything. Be brave and offer a low ball price.
- If you get an upset stomach, just pop into a pharmacy (Boots/Watsons, or any local pharmacy) and ask for activated charcoal pills
- “Ph” in names is just pronounced “P”, the “h” is silent.
- Bring tons of sunscreen, mosquito repellent, tank tops and shorts
Everyone raved about Chiang Mai when I was booking my trip, and when I was chatting with the chef of a Thai restaurant in Houston, he nodded sagely and told me to go to Chiang Mai for the food. No question. I mostly spent my days in Chiang Mai in a very typical fashion: either exploring the city/temples or going on a day trek to see elephants, do a cooking class, etc. At night, I ate my weight in street food at the night markets.
I didn’t realize that Chiang Mai is actually the second largest city in Thailand, so it’s actually…city-like, instead of village-like. But it was still far more relaxing than Bangkok and I enjoyed some unforgettable experiences.
- Khao Soi Islam: Khao soi is the local specialty there–curry noodles (I like chicken) with crispy topping and pickled vegetables. You can ask for veg version (dunno if they have fish) Add the roasted chili paste that comes with each table if you’re daring. The goat biriyani “khao mok pae” is a great rice dish. Order beef satay as a snack while you wait. This comes from the little cart next door (you can order directly with the restaurant)
- Khan Toke: Ask your hotel to recommend a good dinner place. It’s a traditional northern Thailand style dinner where you sit on bamboo mats on the floor and eat sticky rice, fried pickled pork ribs, and fries pork cracklings with chili dips. The meal also comes with a traditional Thai dance show!
- White Temple: This is in Chiang Rai, which is in the adjourning province to Chiang Mai, maybe a 1 hr drive away, your hotel can help with transportation. It’s not a traditional style temple, but it’s designed by one of the most twisted but famous contemporary Thai artists. The entire temple is white.
- Walking Road – Sunday Night Market: For shopping at a cute night market, I recommend the “walking road” over the traditional night bazaar as it’s better organized with cute little gifts you can buy. It’s only open weekends though so if you can’t make that, the famous night bazaar will do too.
- Green Tiger Vegetarian House: This was recommended to me by a classmate and I loved it! My 4-bed room, en-suite bathroom was relatively spacious considering I was the only one in it for a few nights. The building is pretty modern and nice-looking, the service was very friendly, and people were also pretty friendly. Though it wasn’t the most social hostel I stayed in, there was a nice common space to hang out and potentially meet people. The location was pretty good (fairly easy walking distance to most things within the old city), and though it is a little more expensive than some other hostels, I would definitely stay here again!
- Elephant Nature Park: I did the one-day visit from 9am-5pm. It was quite expensive (3,500 baht or ~$100), but this is one of the only true elephant conservatories in the area where elephants are protected and treated humanely (if you see any place offering elephant rides/shows, that’s a good hint that they’re not treating their elephants humanely or at least in an optimal fashion for the elephant). We got to feed and bathe elephants, learn a ton about elephants and elephant culture in Thailand, feast on a delicious buffet lunch, and stroll the grounds of the park. Highly recommend!
- Thai Farm Cooking School class: I did the all-day cooking class; you can get a good feel for the class here. Under the guidance of our hilarious and fun instructor, Garnet, our class of around 10 students made our choice of tom yum or coconut milk soup, green, red or yellow curry, basil, cashew or sweet and sour stir fry, pad thai or thai spring rolls and mango sticky rice or bananas in coconut milk. We were all stuffed by the end. The class was 1,360 baht or around $40, and SO WORTH IT.
- Doi Suthep: Tallest temple in Chiang Mai, and you have to hike up a bunch of steps. Make sure to wear conservative clothing to this and all other temples. Also near a Grand Palace of some sort, which our red taxi also took us to (for a fee of 250 baht round trip). Outside Doi Suthep, there are a bunch of food and trinket vendors–I stumbled upon kanom krok, or these REALLY delicious little coconut cream-stuffed coconut pancake puffs. Six to an order for under a dollar.
- Grand Canyon Chiang Mai: Completely manmade canyon where the main attraction is cliff jumping from a variety of cliffs: the “normal” height which most people do (still CRAZY high), the baby ledge (which I did), and a CRAZY CRAZY CRAZY high cliff that I didn’t see anyone jumping off of. Lounging on the bamboo rafts after a jump was my favorite part of this. The entry fee is a super cheap 50 baht (less than $2); the taxi to get to the canyon cost us $9.
- Night Markets: I went to the Saturday and Sunday night markets as well as the regular night market on Monday night. The Sunday night market was the clear standout in terms of variety of food and souvenirs to buy, but all were fun. Go super hungry and expect to pay around $1 for whatever food finds catch your eye!
I wouldn’t really recommend where we stayed, or even coming here in general–the city generally felt rather tacky and touristy to me, but I did enjoy hanging out on Patong Beach and my James Bond Island boat tour. The James Bond Island was actually my least favorite part of the tour (CRAWLING with tourists), but just zipping through the water on our double decker boat, kayaking through a cave (rather, being chauffered in a kayak through a cave by my own personal ladyboy host) and swimming in the warm waters was fun.
Koh Phi Phi
Two nights here felt like more than enough thanks to the rainy and uber-humid weather. We hiked up to the Koh Phi Phi viewpoint after arriving via a ~2 hour ferry from Phuket. We spent the second day at the beach in the morning, and then a 1/2 day boat tour to Monkey Bay, Maya Bay, which was absolutely GORGEOUS. If we could have spent all day there, I would have been happy.
I came down with a cold around this point, so my friend (who met me in Phuket and came to Koh Phi Phi with me) and I spent both nights passed out in the air-conditioned glory of our room. Overall, Koh Phi Phi was fine, but the real highlight was Maya Bay, which I believe you can get to from Phuket.