We could have spent much, much longer in Thailand, but decided just to fit as much as we could into two weeks. Here are a few of our favorites during our time there.
Places to go
Like I said, we didn’t spend too long in Thailand, so we missed a lot of the popular tourist destinations that we heard people love - Krabi, Phuket, Phi Phi Islands, Chiang Rai. Hopefully we’ll get to those one day, but in the meantime, here are some of our favorite places that we did make it to.
• Khao San Road. This street is partly famous for being some place where they go in the Hangover 2, but it’s also a cool tourist spot filled with tons of lively bars, hotels, massage parlors, and more. It’s also the prime place to get your street food - including the iconic scorpions/other bugs on a stick. We ended up getting ourselves to Khao San Road on New Years Eve 2018, so it was an absolute shitshow and everyone was wasted, but I hear it’s pretty crazy all year round too.
• Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew). The Emerald Buddha is a figurine of a meditating buddha, made of jade and clothed in gold, and is one of the most iconic and important statues in Thailand, dating back to the 1400s. It’s situated in the Grand Palace, a complex of royal and historical buildings, and it’s easy to spend hours wandering around the grounds admiring the intricacies. Tip: try to go early as this is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Thailand and gets extremely crowded, extremely fast. Also, be sure to wear modest clothing that completely covers your shoulders, down to your ankles - we saw many people get turned away for inappropriate attire.
• Damnoen Floating Market. Floating markets are pretty quintessential Thailand, so I’d recommend getting yourself out to one if you have extra time. There are plenty around the country, but the most famous one by far is Damnoen Floating Market. It’s definitely not a traditional market, in fact I’d say it’s 100% a tourist trap, but I’m okay with that. You’ll ride down canals and through souvenir shops until you get to a larger area in the water, with vendors selling spring rolls and sticky rice from their boats. It’s a fun and bustling experience if you manage your expectations, and go in knowing it’s not traditional, there are lots of other tourists there, and the vendors left and right are just trying to peddle their overpriced shit. Tip: you MUST HAGGLE for the longtail boat into the market. The posted price for our boat in was ฿3,000 (~95 USD), which we got down to less than a third - the driver gave us a few derisive laughs and annoyed glares as we haggled, but eventually took our price because ฿3,000 is fucking BONKERS.
• Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a beautiful city in Northern Thailand, away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. The city center is just an easy tuk-tuk ride away from tons of beautiful hikes and temples nestled away in the mountains.
Things To Do
• Scuba dive. The Thai islands arguably have some of the best scuba diving in the world. We went to Ko Tao (Turtle Island) in hopes of seeing new and beautiful marine life, and to see if the island would live up to its name. Unfortunately, we arrived at the same time of the worst storm Thailand has seen in decades, which made our dives a bit murkier and shallower than we would have liked. However, even in those conditions, the underwater flora and fauna remained breathtaking. If you don’t know how to scuba dive, no worries, Thailand is a great place to learn! I’d say every other building on the island is a dive school. And even if you don’t dive at all, the beaches are beautiful in their own right (though I preferred Cambodia’s!)
• Visit an Elephant Sanctuary. This was one of the highlights of our trip - it is truly amazing to be able to spend time with these huge animals up close! We went to a sanctuary about two hours north of Chiang Mai, managed by a group of people called mahouts, or elephant caretakers. Our trip included feeding the elephants, giving them a mud bath, and playing with them in a nearby waterfall. My favorite thing about the elephants were their thick leathery ears. Note: if you do visit an elephant sanctuary, please do your research before booking! Beware any “sanctuary” that advertises elephant rides or elephants that can do tricks - these are considered highly unethical due to their abusive treatment of the animals. Instead, look for a sanctuary that provides a diverse array of foods, limited time with tourists, and adequate space and shade.
• Get a Thai massage. I have a slight phobia of strangers touching me, so psyching myself up to get a massage was a lot of work. But our shoulders were tired from our backpacks, it was our last day in Thailand, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it out. We opted for a traditional massage (which meant fully-clothed, which was a must for me) but you can choose from a huge array of oil or hot stone massages too. Those pictures you see on the outside of their parlors, with a super serene, relaxed person getting a massage are total bullshit - it was intense. They sort of crawl all over you and stretch you around, and crack bones in your body you didn’t even know you had.
• Take a traditional cooking class. We had a free night and on a whim signed up for a cooking class, and surprisingly, really really enjoyed it. You get to learn about all the amazing foods you’ve been eating so far in the country, and the proper ways to cook them. I’d recommend skipping lunch, because there were about seven courses and a ton of leftovers.
Note: lots of people also go to Ladyboy and/or Ping Pong shows (look it up) when visiting Thailand. We personally did not make it out to those, but have heard from a few friends they’re worth the visit. We’re adding it to our list and you should too!
Food to Eat
We’d had lots of Thai food in the States, and were excited to try it out in Thailand. Here’s a list of some of our favorites!
• Pad thai, obviously. We had this so many times as it’s so cheap and sold virtually everywhere - from fancy restaurants to street stalls. The best one we had was at a place called Thipsamai in Bangkok. We got there well before the shop opened and still had to wait about forty-five minutes, which seems ridiculous knowing there were about four stalls on the same street we could have gone to instead. But it truly was worth the wait, as it was the best pad thai we had during our stay.
• Tom yum, tom kha gai. Spicy, hot and sour soups usually made with coconut milk.
• Thai curries. So many different types of curries in Thailand - red, green, yellow, panang, massaman. We tried them all, and recommend you do too. The types of chili they use (red or green), amounts of spices (turmeric causes a yellow color), or addition of other ingredients (peanut paste, sour fruit) are what make them different from each other, but in general, most curries will have coconut milk, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, lemongrass, coriander, and other staple ingredients. If you make it up north, be sure to try khao soi, a traditional northern Thai/Lao curry.
• Thai iced tea. Definitely my favorite beverage we had in Thailand. Strong black tea (usually Ceylon) with sugar, condensed milk, and ton of spices - star anise, crushed tamarind, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla bean. Thai tea is distinctive by its bright orange color, but after a little research, I think that’s usually just food coloring.
• Mango and sticky rice. A pretty traditional Thai dessert, and also my favorite. Short grain, sticky rice cooked with condensed milk and palm sugar, served with fresh mango on top.
• Durian and mangosteen. We were told by a local these are the King and Queen fruits of Thailand, respectively. Mangosteen is small and round and purple and has little green leaves on the top, and tastes sweet and fibrous. You might have heard of durian before, I knew it as that fruit that’s illegal to bring on the train in some countries cause it smells so bad. And yes, it really smells terrible - like a weird dead foot. The consistency was strange also, like a soft cheese, and it tasted similar, but a little sweet. Overall we’re happy we tried it, but ended up ditching most of it in the trash can in our Airbnb. (Note: we later learned this was a HUGE faux pas - some hotels charge hefty fines just for bringing durian on the premises, simply because it smells so bad. Thankfully we didn’t get charged by our host, but needless to say we felt terrible afterwards!)
Overall we had some mixed feelings about Thailand, but then again, we didn’t give it much of a chance. I think we were just so happily surprised by the hidden gems we found in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and didn’t really feel such a strong connection with Thailand. Still, we had some amazing experiences, and are happy we came.