Ultimate backpacking guide Thailand

If there is a country in South East Asia that deserves more than one visit, it is Thailand.  Par excellence the most touristic country in the area.  From beaches with crystal clear water to long nights of partying on a full moon through impressive temples in the north.

Thailand will not leave you indifferent, it is also the ideal destination for your first visit to South East Asia, economical and easy for less experienced travelers.

All you need to know for your trip to Thailand:

  1. Best time of the year to visit Thailand
  2. Best tips for Thailand
  3. 20 Day Itinerary around Thailand
    1. Day 1: Chiang Rai
    2. Days 2 to 6: Pai
    3. Days 7 to 9: Chiang Mai
    4. Day 10: Bangkok
    5. Days 11 to 14: Koh Phangan
    6. Days 15 to 20: Koh Tao
  4. Daily budget for backpacking Thailand
  5. Where to stay in Thailand
  6. What to do in Thailand if you have more time

Official exchange rate 1EUR = 36 THB

Best time of the year to visit Thailand

Having traveled to various countries in South-East Asia at different times of the year, I can attest that there are no better or worse times to visit them.  Always at one time or another it will rain.  That if, what seasons does Thailand have and what are the theoretically driest months?

  • Wet season: The theoretically rainy season extends between July and October in most of the country.
  • Dry season: This one runs from November to April, and you should have drier weather.

The bridge months between seasons are usually low season, you will find fewer tourists and better prices everywhere.  Both dry and wet seasons, one for good weather and the other for coinciding with the European summer, are “peak” times in which the country is in full tourist effervescence.  In my case, I traveled at the beginning of May and I can vouch that most hotels were at half capacity and it was noticeable in the pace of the people.

Best tips for backpacking Thailand

Here are some tips that may be useful on your first visit to the country:

  • The south (area of ​​​​beaches and islands): You should be aware that everything is set up to go on tours, any island or place that has water in between, you will most likely not be able to get there on your own by renting a boat (everything has a price). 
  • Assemble a group and rent a longtail: If you are lucky enough to go in a large group or make a group of friends in the country, renting a longtail to be taken to a nearby island can be very well priced and you will be able to avoid daytrips and throw your own party.
  • Grab: As in many countries, taxis take advantage of tourists, so take advantage of technology and use Grab, it costs half that of Uber and less than a taxi.  If for whatever reason you cannot take a Grab, always agree on the price with the taxi drivers, they will tell you <<Meter, put…>> Do not pay attention to them, always agree on the price even in the Tuk-Tuk.
  • Use the train: Even just once, to go to Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or wherever you feel like going.  I always recommend using the train at least once in these types of countries.  They are not made for everyone, but although they are cheap they are a mixture of smells and flavors (they usually sell food) that will not leave you indifferent.
  • Travel at night: Like many of its neighbors, Thailand enjoys a wonderful overnight transportation system, trains and sleeping buses.  Not only will you save money but you will also avoid wasting time.
  • No sexy inside: This was told to us in more than one temple… Whether you are a man or a woman, cover your legs and shoulders!  You must always wear long pants to enter the temples
  • Beware of motorcycles: To say that most of the westerners I met had fallen on scooters is not an exaggeration.  The roads are not in the best condition and the scooters are usually pretty bad.

20 Day Itinerary across Thailand

On my second visit to Thailand I dedicated myself to visiting and getting to know other parts of the country that I had not yet known, for more information about Bangkok, Ayutthaya and Krabi in the next post

This route is designed for a third of culture, crazy nights and rest on paradisiacal islands.

 From north to south since it came from Thailand, the first stop is Chiang Rai, if you plan to cross from Laos to Thailand or vice versa, I recommend that you take the famous slow boat that separates the border city one hour from Chiang Rai in Thailand from the cultural capital of Laos, Luang Prabang.

Day 1: Chiang Rai

If you are a fan of temples then northern Thailand is your ideal place.  In Chiang Rai there are two of the most famous temples in Thailand with the permission of Ayutthaya, Wat Rong Khun (the white temple) and Wat Rong Suea (the blue temple).

Personally I am not a big fan of semi-modern temples, it gives the feeling that they are just another tourist attraction and that they have been put there to attract tourists.  If you have time, another great stop is the golden triangle, where the three borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar meet at the same point on the Mekong River.

Days 2 to 6: Pai

Pai, that great unknown when you search blogs and travel guides, but once you have arrived in Thailand you will not find anyone who does not tell you about this place.

It is a small town in the mountains of Thailand, lost by the hand of God and three hours from Chiang Mai.  You will hear a lot about the “Pai Hole” and once there it is very difficult to leave the town.

You can get there by bus from Chiang Mai, there is one every hour from 7am to 6pm.

In Pai there are not too many activities to do but it is its relaxed and backpacker atmosphere that makes it so special.  For five days you will be able to see the best sunsets at Two Huts or Sunset Bar.

You can rent a motorbike for just 100thb for 24 hours, to visit hot springs, Pai Canyon, Mo Pang waterfalls, Ziplining and many other activities.  You can go on a tour or on your own by scooter (the best and cheapest option).

Another plan that you should not miss is an excursion of (my recommendation) for at least two days to Ban Rak Thai, a small Chinese-Thai city just 5 km from the border with Myanmar.  You will find many architectural and cultural influences from the neighbor to the north in this small town.  To get there you will drive 150km along winding roads, viewpoints and caves such as Nam Lod.

The distances are not long but the probability of rain, that it becomes dark or your lack of experience on a motorcycle, will make you not want to arrive at 10 at night, in the dark, with a storm and without warm clothes for mountain roads.

Finally the party in Pai is something unique.  Here you can do the famous tipsy tubbing (Tuesday and Friday) that we already did in Vang Vieng (Laos) and that is a classic on a larger scale in Pai.  Parties and raves in the Jungle, Pool Parties and Gender Bender parties organized a couple of times a week by Nolo Hub.

Pai will not leave you indifferent, also if you travel alone it is the perfect place to expand your group and meet people to continue adding adventures.

Days 7 to 9: Chiang Mai

If you are passionate about the Wats (Temples), without a doubt Chiang Mai is your destination, with more than 300 temples in the city, you will not have time to finish them all.  However, if you are looking for something more than temples, this is also your ideal place.

Personally the best you can do in Chiang Mai and what it is known for is the elephant sanctuaries between 1500 and 2000 thb for half a day (enough from my point of view).  You can enjoy a unique experience with these giants.

However, make sure that you do it in an ethical place, where elephants are not ridden and that it is not a circus where they put on tourist shows.  Personally, the Sanctuaries are a bit borderline since you feed them, give them a bath and you can touch them and take photos, however it is the best way to give these large and very often enslaved animals a decent life.  My experience with Kanta Elephant Sanctuary could not have been better.

Every Sunday there is a night market in the center of the walls of Chiang Mai that runs for several kilometers along its main commercial artery.  You will find everything from souvenirs to food stalls, urban art, music… if you can, try to coincide on Sunday.

Another recommendation that I personally liked a lot and is free are the “sticky waterfalls” of Namtok Bua Thong, waterfalls with a high concentration of calcium carbonate that give them this particular characteristic.  Halfway to the waterfalls is Air Diamond cafe, an Airbus 330 converted into a cafe and restaurant that you can visit for 100 thb with a drink included.

Day 10: Bangkok

Bangkok is usually the first impression of Asia for many people and it can be a bit overwhelming, with almost as many lovers as detractors of this great city, Bangkok will not leave you indifferent.  Personally I am a big fan of the big and crazy cities like Bangkok, Cairo, Hanoi etc… In this case it would only be a 14h stop on the way to Koh Phangan.

If you want more info about Bangkok click on this link to see my other post.  We took advantage of this long stopover between night buses from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and from Bangkok to Surat Thani to visit China Town, take a taxi boat on the river and take a walk along Khao San road.

But Bangkok is much more than this and I recommend at least three full days in this great metropolis, try to coincide on Saturday to visit one of its floating markets.

As I mentioned in the previous section, Asia is great for traveling at night, saving on accommodation, money and not wasting time.  In this case, our journey based on night buses from Chiang Mai to Koh Phangan continued.  Another 12 hours awaited us to reach Surat Thani to take the first ferry of the day to Koh Phangan.

Days 11 to 14: Koh Phangan

There are several ways to get to Koh Phangan, the quintessential party island in eastern Thailand where the famous Full Moon Party originated at Haad Rin Beach.  You can fly to Koh Samui and take a ferry or fly to Surat Thani or bus from Bangkok and take a ferry.  Several ferries connect the island during the day, most of them in the morning.

90% of the people who visit Koh Phangan do so for its nightlife, the hotels, Hostels and AirBnB are filled three or four days before the Full Moon Party, multiplying their prices by three and four, leaving very few economic alternatives.

Full Moon Party at Haad Rin Beach: This is my opinion, many people rate it as eleven in a lifetime experience, personally and I think most of my environment agrees, it’s fine if you’re passing through or Thailand and make it come in handy to be there but it’s not worth crossing half the world for this party.  Although as I said if you have the opportunity do not miss it.

The Full Moon Party is preceded by the Jungle Party the day before and the Eden party (afterparty) the day after, for many, much better (I include myself in this list).

But Koh Phangan is much more than parties and nightlife, in the west and north of the island you will find beautiful and quiet white sand beaches, with turquoise and crystal clear waters.  My favorites Secret Beach, although there is nothing secret about it, Mae Had and Ko Ma, a small island linked by a sandy path to the main island.

You can find more beaches in the east, waterfalls and viewpoints to complement your days of hangover and rest waiting for your next party.

Days 15 to 20: Koh Tao

Koh Tao is mostly known for being the cheapest place in the world to dive.  You can get to Koh Tao by ferry from Samui and Phangan in about 2 or 3 hours or from Chumphon (about 5 hours).

Personally, Koh Tao is the best place in Thailand, it’s like Pai on the beach and for lovers of the sea, this is our place.  Relaxed atmosphere, backpacking, long days on the beach and long nights out partying will make it difficult for you to leave this small island.

What can you do on Koh Tao?  Diving, people come for the diving and stay for the atmosphere.  As I mentioned before, you can get the Open Waters or Advanced for 10,000 and 9,000 thb respectively, which would be about €240 in exchange.  Doing two dives will cost you 2,000 thb, which compared to other places is very cheap.  I got the SSI Advanced with Big Blue Diving.

But the atmosphere and good vibes is what will make you want to stay in Koh Tao, many viewpoints and beaches from where you can see the spectacular sunset of Thailand, either from Sairee Beach, Mango Viewpoint, Deishaview Viewpoint, High Rock Viewpoint or Nang Yuan if the sea is calm.  Although some of them have steep slopes of up to 45 degrees, they are not suitable for inexperienced drivers.

For snorkelling the main beach is Shark Bay, although it does not have sharks you will have a good chance of seeing turtles around 4 in the afternoon, we were lucky to see one at Sairee Beach but not at Shark Bay.

Last but not least nightlife, Koh Tao is famous for its Pub Crawl.  For 560 thb you will get a t-shirt, free tickets, free shots and a beach bucket of drink.

The Koh Tao Pub Crawl starts at AC bar, continues to a drag show at Sairee Beach Town,(a hilarious experience), several pubs and ends at the Fish Bowl in the wee hours of the morning.  For those who want to take a souvenir home, there are several tattoo shops open all night… (if I take a matching tattoo home with some friends)

To return to the mainland and in my case to continue my route to Malaysia, I took a night boat to Surat Thani, it is the best option for those heading south so as not to waste time since the journey is quite long.  We took 9 hours and the experience of sleeping on a boat full of mattresses during rough seas is a fun and unique experience.

Daily budget for backpacking Thailand

Thailand is (with the exception of Malaysia) the most expensive country in South East Asia.  That compared to European standards is still very cheap, however if you follow the route of the islands and the party be prepared to spend something country than in its neighboring countries.  But for €51 a day or less than €40 if you don’t dive you can explore it from top to bottom

Food, if you alternate between food markets, local stalls and some western restaurants you will be able to satisfy your excess of rice, noodles and Pad Thai.  If you want to eat cheap, the best option is Pad Thai for only 40 THB.  On average I spent about €6 on food.

Leisure in general is where your money will go, on average I drank almost 20% of what I spent in three weeks in Thailand… not bad at all, then you will want to do scuba diving or some other activities from time to time which leaves me at about €29 per day including an advanced diving course in Koh Tao with 5 dives.

Daily budget backpacking Thailand

In terms of accommodation you can find cheaper, but the hostels that are worth it and more social usually cost a little more, my average was about €8 but for €4-5 a day you can sleep anywhere.

Finally, transportation, in a country full of islands and as extensive as Thailand, it is obvious that you are going to have to allocate a large part of your budget to ferries, buses, tuk tuk and taxis, in this case €8 per day.

Where to stay in Thailand

  • Grace Hostel // Chiang Rai: Personally I wouldn’t stay in Chiang Rai for more than one day but Grace, it was very clean and there were quite a few travellers.
  • Stamps // Chiang Mai: Personally, it’s not the cleanest hostel I’ve been to, a bit run down and with a very crowded lobby.  I would stay in the hostel across the street and come hang out at Stamps since it is the one with the most backpacker atmosphere.
  • Nolo Hub Pai // Pai: One of the best hostels I’ve been to, intimate pods, clean facilities, free day and night activities.  The vibe at Nolo Hub is something unique.
  • Phangan Arena // Koh Phangan: The worst hostel I’ve been in Thailand without a doubt, come here to party but don’t stay to sleep, or leave your bags in Koh Samui or Koh Tao, come party and sleep in the lobby.  Nobody knows who stays here.
  • Taco Shack // Koh Tao: Although we spent a short time in the hostel, it is one of the most social in Koh Tao, although a bit far from the beach, 10 minutes on foot but it is very quiet and you will not be bothered by the noise of the bars.

What to do in Thailand if you have more time

Well, this is my second visit to Thailand (here is my first post).  I leave with the feeling of having traveled most of the country.  At the time we toured Bangkok and the Krabi area.  In this case it was northern Thailand and the Gulf Islands.

However, I leave with the thorn of not having gone to Khao Sok, one of the most spectacular national parks in southern Thailand.  They call it the Ha Long bay of Thailand and it is a destination that is growing among backpackers.

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