I had such a wonderful time in Thailand this year. I really want to go back. But I’m certain to do it better next time. Here are my top 15 for having an even better trip.
1. Wear Smog Mask for Air Pollution
The number 1 problem we had was the pollution. I decided to be the tough guy and not wear a mask. By the 2nd day in Bangkok, my lungs were chock full of soot. And I’m really not joking about this. You’re probably thinking, “what a baby, what would a little cough do to you”. Think more like Whooping Cough. I would cough so hard all through the night that I didn’t know if I’d ever breathe back in again. And it got to where my abs were so sore from coughing I dreaded how painful every cough could be. Then I coughed for a month when I got home. Its just not fun! The worst places are the BTS train platforms that are directly over heavy traffic. And walking clogged streets. Get one of the apps that shows the Air Quality Index (AQI). It will show when times are worst and where its really bad. Don’t ruin your trip by not being prepared. Places near the coast like Phuket and Pattaya have a bit better air quality. But city centers like Bangkok and Chiang Mai are really bad. Add that farmers are burning crops makes it even worse.
2. Mosquito Protection
The dengue fever epidemic is real. Many people in SE Asia are infected with many deaths. Just because you live there doesn’t make you immune. And don’t let people tell you that natural products work. I’m a scientist and I dug deep into the science. Just because you want to be organic or earthy in some way, its not worth your life to live on such principles. Use DEET if you can tolerate it. But just as effective is Picaradin. My wife can’t use DEET at all, but totally was on board with Picaradin. You need to apply before you go outside, but its super sticky. So go into your hotel shower, spray yourself down with Picaradin or DEET, and go about your day. Remember you can sweat it off, so reapply as needed. We forgot to apply one morning before sunrise. We regretted that. Mosquitoes got into our rental car and we had millions of mosquitoes in there. We jumped out and sprayed down right away. Don’t risk it. We also took B-complex vitamins that are supposed to have an effect (scientifically). Some people have taken a bath with a cap full of bleach. It makes me wonder if jumping in a swimming pool with chlorine would help (?). I haven’t investigated that. And I sprayed all my clothes with Permathryn before arriving since it can last 10-14 days. I put those clothes in a plastic bag since that stuff is a bit toxic. You don’t spray it on your skin at all.
3. Buy Tickets Online if you can
One of my favorite events that are very cultural too is Muay Thai fights. While it may be seen as a fringe following outside of Thailand, its the nation’s national sport. There is so much culture and tradition involved. I would highly recommend going to a [reputable] venue like Rajadamnern, Lumphini, or Max Pattaya. Many off-site venues are just for show and are often rigged with poorly trained fighters. For Rajadamnern, I purchased tickets before arriving to Thailand. Buy 2nd class. You want to immerse yourself by witnessing all the wagering that takes place. The wagering crowd is huge and very loud. Its so much fun. Don’t get roped into buying tickets at the door. The attendants will swarm you and drag you to buy a first class ticket. Yes, they are up front and have seat backs, but its very costly and you don’t experience the crowd as well. There are many other types of venues where, if you can buy online ahead of time, it will save you from the swarm.
4. Fly in Country if you Can
We took a flight from Chiang Mai to Pattaya on a regional airline. It was as good or better than most international airlines. And it was super cheap. The airports are really fun too. They had coffee and other goodies all around. We had to take a taxi from Pattaya to Bangkok and that’s not a lot of fun. And if you don’t get the newer train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, its not the most comfortable ride. You can’t open the windows and the AC is not very good. You seem to smell train smoke the entire trip. The sleeper train was fun one time, but I don’t think I’ll do it again. Be careful about the train schedules. We were supposed to go from Pattaya to Bangkok at a scheduled time. But what the schedule didn’t say was that it was only for the weekends. On a weekday, we would have been stranded at the very remote train station if our taxi driver left us quickly. I wouldn’t have wanted to walk 10 miles to the next nearest town.
5. Use Grab App, but Take the Taxi
I would say we were successful with Grab about 10% of the time, especially in Bangkok. The traffic is so bad in Bangkok that even if a Grab driver is a mile away, it may take 20 minutes to get there. The driver texts you on the app to make sure you are still there. And you keep responding. Then, 15 minutes later the driver dropped the pickup. So you end up starting over again. Its such a pain. What you do instead is get the fare quote on Grab for your destination. And then use that fare to haggle with a taxi driver. Taxis are so much more abundant. When you walk by, you’ll hear “Where you going” from 50 drivers a day. We just smile and keep walking. We didn’t take a Tuk Tuk because of pollution and reports that they’ll take you to a market or tailor shop before taking you to your destination. But I guess we should risk it at least once next time. Definitely don’t take a motorcycle taxi unless you have a death wish 🙂
6. Water Taxis Rule!!!
The best way to travel in Bangkok is water taxis. It is so fun, relaxing, and super cheap. You can go from Hua Chang Pier to Phanfa Bridge for about 30 baht. Probably less because we gave them what we thought was the correct rate and they always gave us change back. And the ferries on the Chao Phraya river are amazing! There is so much to see.
7. BTS/MRT skytrain and subways
After the water taxis, the skytrain and subways are awesome. But its hit or miss how crowded they will be. Mid-morning, we had the train to ourselves on a weekend. But taking the skytrain to the airport with our bags was a little harrowing. We were total sardines as people rushed to work. But they are very air conditioned and easy to navigate. Not all stations have functional kiosks that you can pay with cash. And, if you don’t know the money well, you’ll get upset locals who will start to try to help you (thank you btw) because you are so slow. For us, it was always better to go to a cashier. Its really fast. Just tell them where you want to go. And, we would sometimes use larger bills so we had small bills to carry. Make sure you know the first stop and last stop for every train route (not your destinations but the end of the line). That’s the train you get on in the direction of the end of the line. Obey the rules since there is an armed policeman at each platform. Thai people are polite and obey lines. So don’t do something stupid. And—make sure you wear a mask on most platforms. Its the most air polluted place in Bangkok. Plus you can keep from getting sick from someone in close quarters.
8. Holiday Inns
We may venture out to other hotels for better locations next time. Some of the Hostels look nice and are super cheap. There are luxury accommodations in neat places too, like across from Wat Arun on the Chao Phraya River. But for Type A Americans like me, booking all my locations through Holiday Inn was awesome. I know my credit card is a little more safe that way and I can get points for stays. Here is the key: Holiday Inns in Asia are like 5 or 6 star hotels in the States. You’ll have valets, doormen, complimentary drink and wet hand towel when you arrive, and really good service. I was talking with a missionary who has lived in Thailand. He said Holiday Inns are special because they have carpet. Carpet with the water levels and humidity are a rarity in many places. So that’s how you know Holiday Inn is special. And, you can cancel with short notice if you have to. We also stayed at the IHG partners, like Crowne Plaza in Bangkok and Hotel Intercontinental in Pattaya. Talk about posh living. It was SO nice!!
9. Traditional Thai Massage
For some reason, the “traditional” part seems useful. So that’s what I always chose. You can get a Thai massage every day if you’d like. It was my primary reason for going to Thailand since I had just finished Thai Massage School. The one you absolutely have to go to, but won’t have the best massage, is the Massage School at Wat Pho. Its not very expensive but you have to pay entry to Wat Pho to get there. But that’s my absolute favorite temple area too, so I don’t mind. Definitely try some of the other “Schools” though because you can be guaranteed a more thoughtful massage. I found some “Spa” places in big malls that turned out to be incredible too. They are more upscale and you get treated like a spa. Beware of bonus massages in more hole in the wall places or in red light districts. It probably wouldn’t get a legitimate Thai massage on Patpong Alley in Bangkok or on the walking street in Pattaya. Definitely do your research. But the cheap prices makes for such a worthwhile experience.
10. Out of the Way Places
Definitely find places that are away from tourist places. Especially restaurants by the little lakes. We went to a place with no name off the grid North of the Pattaya airport. These are the places the locals and their families go to. They are stilted places over the water. We went to a Thai recreation area north of Chiang Mai. We didn’t see a single Farang (foreigner). And nobody spoke English. But it was the best experience ever. These are the gems of Thailand.
11. The Village People
We have a very good friend who is from the Hmong tribe. All around Chiang Mai and throughout the North, you can find Hill Tribes. They are mostly farmers who live very traditional lifestyles. We went to the Hill Tribe museum in Chiang Mai that was very worthwhile. Then travel up and visit either a Hmong market or just exist among the people. You can even stay with a family if you’d like. It is the best immersion into culture you’ll find. We didn’t get to actually visit a tribe, but will definitely do it next time.
12. Renting a Car
So to warn you, automobile accidents in Thailand are a primary cause of death. And the roads can be confusing at times. There will be drives into the country where you’ll be super glad you rented, like a trip up to the highest point in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Then there will be other times during rush hour with alleys and such where you’d like to pull over and walk away from it. Here are a few tips. First, get the insurance. I’m not a terrible driver, but being on the wrong side of the wheel, I ended up in a rush and backed into a pole. It wasn’t so bad at the rental agency because I had the insurance that paid for it all. There were numerous times where I thought an accident was imminent, so get the insurance. Second, if you can, don’t get an electric car. Driving up the mountain, we didn’t think we’d make it. We got down to like 5 kph up a steep climb. It was very white knuckled trip all the way up. An electric car doesn’t cut it for power. Third, always print out maps. This is where we failed. There are GPS/cell phone blackout areas in Thailand. We were driving in the North side of town in Pattaya when we lost any coverage by Google Maps. I even had maps downloaded, but wasn’t being tracked anymore. The roads were jam packed with people and you easily ended up in dead end alleys. A map would have helped a lot. But overall, outside of Bangkok, I would rent again. I’d leave it up to public transportation for inner cities. But it works well for the country-side.
13. Don’t Get Temple Fatigue
Although, the temples are the primary thing to do in Thailand. They are absolute wonders. But, I’d pick a few top temples to visit and stick with that. You don’t have to go to all the temples in Thailand. A few of my favorites: Wat Arun, Wat Pho, Golden Mountain Temple (Wat Saket), Wat Chedi Luang and Doi Inthanon (Chiang Mai), Big Buddha Hill (Pattaya). Not technically a temple is the Sanctuary of Truth. Its a huge, modern, wooden structure with elaborate carvings in Pattaya. You have to go there. Also, there is a temple in Bangkok that is off the beaten track that we didn’t visit, but want to. It is Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen in western Bangkok. And all the old temple ruins in Ayutthaya. Its best to go early before it gets too hot. Nearly all temples are in closed in spaces with walls, so they get hot. The crowds make it hotter not to mention men and women need to cover knees and shoulders. I wore sandals with a heel strap everywhere. You end up taking shoes on and off at temples a lot, so think about that. Go to the temples then change into your shorts for the afternoon. Otherwise, you end up walking around in long pants everywhere like I did.
14. Try the Food, but don’t drink the water
Start with the regional favorites and popular things. In Chiang Mai, Khao Soi and Garlic Beef are local favorites. Elsewhere, you’ve got to do the Pad Thai, Green Curry, and Mango Sticky Rice. Otherwise, try it all. We didn’t do street food, but I would next time. If I see something cooking right on the grill, I’ll ask for what’s being cooked. Not something that’s been sitting there for who knows how long. I know its probably just the Farang in me, but knowing about the stray dog population and dog meat trade, I get wary of meats I’m not familiar with. Just sayin. Like I said, the out of way places where locals eat are great places. Also, I opted for beer most often (Singha is my fav; though Leo and Chang are decent too). Get a can or bottled soda. But never get the ice. They say ice that is hollowed out is safe, but I didn’t trust it. You need to buy lots of bottled water for in your room (drinking, brushing teeth,…). But don’t worry about getting it on the street. Some temples give away water. There are purified taps to fill your reusable bottle too, but that’s less frequent. Also, the Thai coffee that’s super sweet and cold makes me wary since they use cold tap water sometimes. So I didn’t opt for that though I hear its good. I think most people get some stomach illness in Thailand. But we were able to escape that completely with our methods. I carried purification tabs and a filter straw, but never ended up using them. And I feel terrible creating more plastic bottle waste, but I didn’t find a good alternative. Keep your lips closed on the water taxis and in the shower.
15. Travel Light; Hand Wash Clothes
We couldn’t find laundry detergent at the 7-Eleven, so ended up at a supermarket. Every night, I would wash our clothes and hang them to dry. They never totally dried out the next morning, but it cooled us off as we walked around. They say don’t wear any artificial fibers, go all natural. I wore cotton linen that was pretty much see through. But I’m fine with that. I’d sweat and it cooled me because it evaporated immediately in the heat. I wore white since it reflected the sun. Don’t wear dark colors or anything polyester. You’ll die. I basically had one long pants (for temples, nice shorts, swim shorts, one white linen shirt, and a burnout tee shirt to workout or go to the swimming pool in. That’s it. And we washed every night. I only wore self-made huaraches the entire trip. So I didn’t pack any shoes. We carried a very small backpack each, like foldable 25L pack that is waterproof. Your pack must have mesh water bottle holders. I would put a water bottle in one and clothes that were drying in the other. You’ll totally regret a big pack. You can buy stuff so cheap. We left our carry-on rolling luggage in a Lock Box at the airport. Then anything extra we bought the last day, we had a place to put it. If you can reserve your Lock Box ahead of time, do that since there aren’t that many. But we never had a problem. The Lock Box at the Siam Paragon in Bangkok is right next to the Skytrain stop, so you can use that too. You really don’t need much in Thailand. I used a small Pentax camera that is waterproof and shockproof. I had spare batteries but never used them. Also, I used a fanny pack around town and my wife used a bigger money belt as her purse. You don’t want stuff on your shoulders during the heat of the day. The one regret was not having something protective for our passports. You end up taking them out about 20 times a day. You need it to exchange money and make almost any purchase. Even to use wifi at McDonalds. Your passport is everything. So a waterproof covering that kept it closed and dry would have been nice. Next time!
Most of all, have fun. I am an over-precautious person at heart. The scientist in me (including a degree in microbiology) always keeps me curious. To me, when I’m paying so much time and money for this adventure, it doesn’t pay to be sick while traveling. You’ll totally regret it if you get sick. Always smile and be happy. Its the Thai way!