Anyone who has been to Southeast Asia always raves about Thailand; so, of course it was high on our list of destinations and we certainly had high expectations. Overall, there were certain things we loved about our experience and a few disappointments as well. We will tell you about our favorite highlights and then later in the section, we’ll provide some recommendations for how we would change our itinerary if we could do it all over again!
We started our tour in Chiang Mai (northern Thailand), staying in the heart of the city at Le Meridien hotel. The location was perfect as there are plenty of temples and cultural sites within a short drive. The hotel itself is awesome – very trendy, contemporary, artistic with great food and excellent service. From our window, we could even look down on the night market which is the BEST market we visited in Asia due to the sheer size, variety of products and services for cheap. It is also a very organized, well-lit night market with restaurants and entertainment along the way. We felt safe the whole time even late into the evening.
Frankly, Chiang Mai was totally different than what we had expected from a Thai city; but, it is such a worthwhile and beautiful place to visit, especially if you are a nature-lover and/or interested in adventure! We thought 3 nights was plenty of time to see the cultural sites, have a bit of adventure and do some shopping too! But, if you are interested in camping or trekking, you may need a little bit more time, as there are a lot of opportunities for guided hiking and overnight camping in the jungles of Chiang Mai.
As far as cultural highlights, you can do the city tour in about half a day. But be warned, the tour is loaded with temple visits such as stops to Wat Pra Singh, Three Kings Monument, and Wat Chedi Luang. If this is your first stop in Southeast Asia, it will be a fun, eye opening experience with an education in Buddhist culture and no doubt, you will see some beautiful, ornate temples and architecture. However, for us, we were at the tale end of 45 days in Asia and we found the temple tour to be a bit stale and repetitive. You can always add a little excitement by doing a seqway, bicycle or tuk tuk city tour instead. The great thing about starting your Thailand trip in Chiang Mai is that it’s a smaller, less crowded city than Bangkok; so, you can really ease yourself in to the Thai culture and Chiang Mai is guaranteed to be more quaint and less overwhelming for travelers.
Chiang Mai offers a lot of natur e tours and adventuring as well. Some popular tours are trekking in the jungle, zip lining with a company called Flight of The Gibbon, and overnight camping tours. So, if you love nature and the outdoors, Chiang Mai is for you.
On our 2nd day in Chiang Mai, we were beyond excited to finally visit the Elephant Nature Park, which is a REAL sanctuary for previously abused and humanized elephants. Many elephant parks are labeled as sanctuaries when in actuality, they still abuse elephants by chaining them up, beating them with bull hooks and forcing them to carry tourists on rides. These are NOT true sanctuaries so just make sure you know what you are getting yourself into.
Established in the 1990’s, the Elephant Nature Park provides a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants and dogs. The park is located approximately 60km from Chiang Mai and when you book a tour, they provide transportation to and from the park. The Elephant Nature Park is well-known for taking in injured elephants and retired “working elephants” from all over Thailand. That said, as a guest at the park, you are offered the experience of feeding the elephants, watching them play from a distance and bathing them in the river. They do not allow elephant riding at this park and they do not make the elephants perform any “tricks” for the guests. Because all of the elephants here have been previously broken into human submission, tourists are allowed to stand in close proximity to these beautiful, enormous and powerful creatures. Let it be known though that the BEST place for any elephant is in the wild, away from human interaction; however, these elephants would not be able to survive in the wild without help due to their previous abuse and captivity by humans.
We highly recommend a day-trip to the Elephant Nature Park. It was definitely a highlight and an unforgettably moving experience. After spending an entire day with the elephants, it’s amazing to learn how incredibly similar they are to humans. They are so emotionally intelligent and it touches your heart to have an up-close and personal experience with them. Oh, and the park serves amazing food (for humans) too!
And, if you’re really interested in having an authentic experience, you can even do a temporary volunteer program, where you live at the park and take care of the animals! If we had known about this beforehand, we would’ve chosen to participate in the elephant care program for a few days.
On our last full-day in Chiang Mai, we were recommended to drive out to see Chiang Rai, a province known as the city of the king. We were not impressed at all because of the tour we had. We spent 12 hours on a 1-day road trip without any exciting attractions. The only main highlight was the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) which is an art exhibit resembling a Buddhist Temple that is 2 hours outside of Chiang Mai. Granted, it is a beautiful building, but it certainly isn’t worth a 4 hour round trip drive.
We also thought we were going to a hot spring which we assumed would be a natural pool in a jungle environment. When we got there, it was more like a truck stop with a hot water fountain in the middle of it. There were even locals boiling eggs in the water and trying to sell them to us. It was weird and a complete disappointment.
Next, we continued driving for another 2 hours to reach The Golden Triangle which sounds cool right? It is the exact spot on the river where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. But low and behold, there is nothing to see here, not even a spectacular view. The only things around are a giant golden Buddha statue and an opium museum. Yes, an Opium Museum equipped with paper flowers and dusty old opium pipes. You can see some casinos across the river, but we didn’t even have an opportunity to cross over to Myanmar because we still had a 4 hour drive back to Chiang Mai.
This trip would only be worthwhile if you planned to stay overnight and experience the Myanmar or Laos borders.
We did get to stop at the long neck and big ear village which was interesting. It was nice to see an old tribal culture being preserved in modern day Thailand. You only need about 30-45 minutes for this pit stop while on your way to a larger attraction.
On a food note, while in Northern Thailand specifically, you must eat Khao Soi Gai which is coconut curry noodle soup with chicken and fried noodles. You will not find this dish anywhere else in Thailand or in Asia. And if you like noodle soup with a spicy kick, it will knock your socks off!
From Chiang Mai, we took a short flight to Bangkok via Bangkok Airways which was a great airline. If you sign up for their frequent flier program, they give you a heavier baggage allowance AND any B.A. traveler can utilize the lounges located in all Thai airports. It’s really quite convenient. Not to mention, they serve hot food on every flight, even flights that are only 1 hour in length. SCORE!
Upon arrival, we checked in to the Royal Orchid Sheraton hotel which is located right on the Chao Phraya River and connected to the ferry terminal which is ultra-convenient for exploring the city. One thing to note is that Bangkok is actually a HUGE city and pretty impossible to travel around by foot if you want to cover any distance that is. The best ways to get around are by Sky Train, Express Boat, Subway and taxis. Tuk Tuks are more expensive in Bangkok than any other city we visited. Also, taxi cabs rarely run the meter and can easily over charge you; so, try to get a metered taxi when you can.
A city tour of Bangkok is a must. And since it’s such a large city, we were glad to have a guide and a driver to lead us around. Per usual, the city tour includes A LOT of temples including Wat Traimit, Wat Arun, Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew. None were overly memorable for us; but, if I had to pick one, Wat Pho was the prettiest and easiest to photograph.
By far, the most popular tourist attraction is The Grand Palace. In all honesty, our advice is to SKIP IT! It’s way too crowded with rude tourists. You aren’t allowed to take a photo of the main attraction – the emerald Buddha anyway. The buddha is super small too and hard to see especially with all the masses of tourists, shoving you around. Plus, the whole place smells like a dirty, smelly foot locker room. Careful not to get your shoes stolen if you decide to go.
iOne of our favorite experiences while in Bangkok was going to see a live Muay Thai Boxing Match. It was highly entertaining, exciting and we were impressed by the talent, endurance and athleticism of the fighters. It costs about $60 for ring side seats at Rajadamnern Stadium, which is the original stadium in Bangkok. Fights rotate between this stadium and Lumpinee Stadium depending on the day. You can buy tickets at the stadium too. Don’t bother purchasing online as you won’t save any money.
Bangkok has no shortage of nightlife as I’m sure you know from Hollywood hit movies like 007 Tomorrow Never Dies and The Hangover II. One of the most popular tourist activities is to have drinks at one of the many amazing Roof Top Bars. Don’t be surprised when the cocktails are super expensive – think Manhattan New York prices ($15-20 per cocktail). But you won’t be disappointed if you head on over for sunset to catch spectacular views of the city from bars such as Sky Bar, Cloud 47, Above 11 and Vertigo. There are countless others too. These are just a few of the roof tops known for great views.
Another idea for a fun night out in Bangkok is to take one of the many River Cruises. They offer lunch and dinner cruises to suit everyone’s tastes. There are countless river boats cruising up and down the river all day and night. It’s a great experience because you can see the water front sites of Bangkok, eat traditional food and mingle, all for about $50-$100 per person.
We chose to do a lunch cruise on the Chao Phraya River back to Bangkok (1pm – 4pm). It’s a long cruise but you get to see the city from the river view. You see how fishermen still live on the water, how tugboats pull endless caravans of barges up and down the river, how the wealthy live as well as the skyscrapers and temples along the way. The cruises offer a buffet lunch in Thai style. We thought it was a great opportunity to get some fabulous photos too.
No trip to Bangkok would be complete without at least a stroll through one of the red-light districts. The original red-light district is called Pat Pong. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and kids are welcome too. That is, kids and families are welcome at the night market on the streets of Pat Pong where they sell clothes, food and souvenirs. But, lining the streets are also countless bars and strip clubs with scantily-clad ladies enticing men to enter. You will see strippers on poles and if you like, you can see A LOT more than that, including “ping pong shows” and live sex shows too. Let me just say that it’s far from family-friendly. But hey, to each his own, right? If you want to get a taste of a newer age red light district, head on over to Soi Cowboy. And keep your eye out for the lady boys!
After a few days in the busy, bustling streets of Bangkok, we were ready for a day trip to Ayutthaya which is 1.5 hours outside of Bangkok and was the former ancient capital of Thailand. We enjoyed this tour MUCH more than our day tour in Bangkok. It was a lot more mellow and the temples were more beautiful in our opinion.
We visited the King’s Summer Palace (Bang Pa-In Palace) which is a lovely, perfectly-manicured property and gives you some insight into the life of the kings.
We then visited the Wat Yai Chai Mang Khon which is a large reclining outdoor Buddha; but, unfortunately, it’s very hard to photograph. We enjoyed walking around and seeing the ruins of the Old Grand Palace and temples too. The highlights were Wat Mahathat, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and Wat Chai Watthanaram. The photo opportunities at all of these Buddhist temples were both beautiful and plentiful.
The best way to finish off any tour of Thailand is to head to the beach for some relaxation and fun in the sun! There are countless gorgeous beach towns in Thailand; but, by far the most popular area is Phuket.
Phuket is a mountainous island with a lot of rainforest, located in the Andaman Sea. Phuket City is the capital and Patong is the main resort town. We stayed in Mai Khao which is in the north of Phuket, pretty close to the airport but over 1 hour driving from Phuket city. We were surprised to learn how spread out the island is and how different the north is from the south. And in the end, we were disappointed that we weren’t staying in a more happening area or near any of the marinas.
Our hotel was the Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa – considered a 5-star, but we were not impressed. It does not feel like a true beach resort. It is located in a very secluded area far from any real town or outside activities. The service and food were excellent and the rooms were decent but there aren’t any ocean view suites on the property and the grounds felt like a big backyard instead of like a tropical paradise. On a positive note, the beaches of Mai Khao are public but feel private as they are generally deserted, except for hotel guests. The ocean water is warm and perfect for swimming too. But, if we had to do it over again, we would’ve definitely preferred to stay at a hotel in the South of Phuket to have more of an authentic Thai experience with more entertainment options.
If you’re interested in nightlife and more entertainment options while in Phuket, you should stay in or near Patong. If you are looking for a quieter experience but still within 30 minutes of the city, try Karon or Kata. Also, the areas of Bang Tao Bay and Kamala are much more mellow, quiet and relaxed and they are also centrally located so you can venture out to experience all Phuket has to offer.
Bottom line: Phuket is a big Island, and while there are no really bad areas to stay, the best location depends on your individual tastes and preferences. If you’re like us and want to do boat tours to places such as James Bond Island and Phi Phi Islands, you’ll want to pick a hotel with easy access to the Royal Phuket Marina.
As we mentioned previously, most of the boat tours depart from the Royal Phuket Marina which was 1.5 hours driving from our hotel in Mai Khao. Not to mention, once you board the boat for a tour, you are guaranteed at least a 1-hour speed boat ride to any of the main destinations. So please keep the ‘travel’ time in mind when booking tours.
We were extremely excited about taking a day trip to the Similan Islands which are famous for white sandy beaches, diving, snorkeling and crystal-clear waters. Similan Islands are lesser-known to tourists right now and thus are not generally over-crowded like Phi Phi. But keep in mind, they are only open during certain months of the year in order to keep the beaches/water clean and protect the wildlife. Unfortunately, we were NOT able to see the Similan Islands because the royal family was in town, vacationing there and the islands were completely unavailable to tourists.
One of the most sought-after day trips while in Phuket is a boat tour to James Bond Island / Phang Nga Bay. Here, you can see Mangrove Cave & Diamond Cave as well as the Mangrove forest. Tours are quite expensive unless you go in large groups ($125 pp). You can pay $200+ pp for smaller group tours or charter your own boat if you have the funds. All the tour companies use speed boats which help get you to the islands more quickly but definitely expect at least 3 hours in commute both ways.
Andaman Leisure Phuket (ALP) is one of the most affordable tour companies and pretty well organized; but, expect LARGE groups, uncomfortable boat seating and very crowded islands during high season. Unfortunately, we used Andaman Leisure Phuket in order to save us money due to our limited budget. However, if we had to do it again, we would recommend a higher end tour company such as Passion Tours, as they are more exclusive and tend to visit less crowded areas/islands.
On our 1-day tour with ALP, we took a speed boat to Phi Phi, Maya Bay and Bamboo Island. All the Islands were magical. However, they were loaded with thousands of tourists which took away from the beauty quite a bit.
Overall, we were disappointed by our experience in Phuket for a number of reasons. We didn’t prefer the area in which our hotel was located and the amount of travel time necessary to take any tour or even to go into town. It was also December which is peak season and the islands were all overrun by tourists. Next time, we will stay on one of the smaller islands such as Phi Phi or will head to Krabi, as Phuket is just too popular and crowded. Also, Phuket is fairly expensive overall compared to other parts of Thailand. So be prepared that there isn’t as much value for your money with regard to drinks, food and tours in these resort communities.
Aside from 4 days in Phuket, we had a traditional cultural tour of Thailand. Now that we’ve seen all the “major” sites, we feel we missed out on the beauty and off-the-beaten-path experiences. Thailand has so much to offer in the way of nature, adventure, jungle and beaches and we only scratched the surface. Next time we will avoid the touristy areas and take a more organic, nature-focused approach. Also, ideally you would have about 20 days to fully explore Thailand and get the real feel.