First of all, let me just say that you have Taste of Thai and Taste of Thai Express in Ithaca, NY to thank for this post. An unhealthy addiction to Pad See Eew and Thai Iced Tea developed during my years at Cornell is definitely the reason Thailand hit number one on my ‘Places I’d Love to Travel to (Once I Can Afford to Travel)’ list.
Aside from the food aspect (which, let’s be honest, is always the first factor to consider in all important decisions of life: ‘will there be good food there?’), I think Thailand appealed to me because it was one of the Southeast Asian cultures that I studied in a class on politics and culture in Southeast Asia (abbreviated as SEA from here on out), and I just knew that it was a region of the world I wanted to explore in depth, especially because of some of its socio-economic, political and cultural parallels with countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But this is a post about travel, so I’ll refrain from boring you with my would-be thesis on the comparative socio-economics of Africa and Asia, and get straight to the juicy part of this two-part series: The first on planning a trip to Thailand specifically, and the second on planning travel in general – where to go, what to do, and how to afford it.
So let’s get right down to business!
A Little Background:
Thailand is the only country in SEA that did not undergo colonization, so similar to what I found in Ethiopia, English (or any other colonial language) is not widely spoken (forgive me for the Asia/Africa parallels in advance). The main language of communication is Thai, so be prepared to face a language barrier. I find that having grown up in a country with multiple languages, and being multilingual myself, it wasn’t too hard to figure out how to communicate in spite of it.Hand gestures for the win!
The country is also ruled by a monarchy, and so don’t be surprised when you see pictures of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest reigning monarch in world history, everywhere. It might be a bit of a cultural shock because we don’t exactly have President Trump’s face plastered everywhere, but there is a deep respect and reverence for royalty and the contributions they’ve made in several countries I’ve visited.
The population of the county is about 70 million people, and the capital city – Bangkok – can get pretty crowded, but nothing like Times Square on a holiday weekend.
The people are majority Buddhist, but there are also Muslims, Christians and even Jews, and places of worship for all of them as well.
If I had to describe Thai people – and mind you this is a mass generalization because I would hate if someone said I was like every other American/Ghanaian they knew – I’d say they’re very quiet and friendly people. I’d say the only other country I’ve ever felt safer in is the UAE (didn’t see the Middle East coming, did ya?). Of course, you’re still going to want to maintain travel etiquette, and keep your belongings in sight and safe, but aside from any cultural differences, you’re not going to feel too out of place.
Except if you’re black. Then prepare to be ogled at because we are few and far between LOL.
Money Money Money
The currency is the Thai Baht, and the exchange rate is about $1 to 35THB. To give you an idea of how this translates, a plate of pad thai in a local restaurant will probably cost you about 80THB or just over $2. A thai iced tea at the Phuket airport (which my friend Salma and I swear is laced with some sort of opiate lol) cost 100THB or just under $3. Probably cheaper on the street. Either way, food is fairly cheap… Unless you plan on visiting Sky Bar, then be prepared to dole out $1250THB for a smoking cocktail… but I’ll get to that later.
And yes, of course, my currency conversion was going to be in food terms. We’ve already established what is of importance here, pay attention.
Prepare: The Flight
Soooo, this was probably the worst part of the trip. I travel a lot. But that 21-hour flight was BRUTAL! 15 hours to Shanghai, and another 4.5 to Bangkok, with a 2-hour layover in between. If I ever go back to SEA, it will not be in the near future, and God-willingly it will be B-class because Jesus did not die for the level of struggle I endured. Come prepared. I had two seasons of Gossip Girl and one season of Madam Secretary on my iPad, as well as melatonin (natural sleep aid) and my prescribed muscle relaxants for my back, and it was still a struggle. I’ll share my tips for flying long distances and finding cheap fares in the second part of this series, but I honestly don’t think anything would have helped this case in particular lol. That being said, do NOT fly Air China. Just don’t lol. Emirates, China Eastern, and Korean Air were all great options for me and my friends, but Air China was a mess with a ton of delays, both ways. Also:Usually my 2000-song gospel Spotify playlist soothes me, but most airlines flying to China will NOT allow you to turn on your cell phone. My coworker told me this, but I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I experienced it. So no Spotify or Soundcloud or youtube or the internet on your phone. Better have your laptop or iPad with downloaded music ready – or pull out your old 200GB iPod from the closet – because that’s the only way you’ll keep yourself entertained.
Or you could be an intellectual and read a book. That’s an option too, I guess.
Either way, just be mentally prepared to lose your mind thinking time is playing a trick on you and not moving at all lol. I honestly got to a point on the flight back that a part of me found itself wishing the plane would just crash land anywhere so I could be on the ground again already. Yes, it was that real – but don’t worry, your trip and the memories you’ll make will be well worth the temporary insanity.
What to pack (the essentials)
- Bug Spray (fortunately for me mosquitoes don’t like me for some reason, but my friends, on the other hand, have scars to prove their rage. Go armed for battle)
- A raincoat/umbrella – our trip was during the rainy season which meant sporadic downpours, but rarely anything heavy, and only for 30 mins- an hour, once or twice a day.
- Sunscreen – rainy season or not, you’ll need this
- A backpack – stop trying to look cute. It’s functional and you’ll wish you had one
- Water shoes – if you plan on doing any water sports or, I dunno, swimming with elephants (which we did)
- Extra luggage space – prepare to shop
- a camera
Where to Stay
So just like any other country in the world, Thailand is made up of several provinces and cities for you to choose from. I’d suggest you try as many of them as your time will allow – and perhaps some trips to other countries in the vicinity if possible. Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Myanmar – all a short flight and cheap ticket away. Unfortunately, our time didn’t allow us to explore outside the country, but my next trip to SEA is definitely going to consist of me backpacking through at least 5 different countries.
Within Thailand, there are several options as well, but primarily as a tourist, you’re probably looking at Phuket, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Krabi. On my trip, we were unable to get out to Chiang Mai, but one of my coworkers swears by it, so I’d add it to your itinerary if possible. Krabi and Phuket are both beach cities, so I’d choose one over both, and Phuket happened to be the cheapest at the time of our trip.
What city you stay in depends on the vibe you’re looking for. If you want modern western vibes in an exotic destination, beach waves and island hopping, Phuket is the place for you. If you want lots of temples, local encounters, and traditional culture, maybe Chiang Mai. If you want a little of both, Bangkok will give you the best bang for your buck (see what I did there? lol). But again, if you have the time to move around (which I suggest you do because flying 15+ hours both ways is no joke and you should make the most of it), I’d encourage you to see as much of the country as possible.
Our Airbnb was located outside Bangkok and was amaaaaaazing… even the distance into the city didn’t matter too much because the space itself was glorious, and the personal driver made getting into the city easy. We did a day trip to Phuket, which I’ll tell you more about later, but spent most of our time in the city and some of the smaller towns surrounding it.
Our Airbnb came with a driver at our disposal, and we only had to pay for gas and tolls (which trust me, didn’t even cost the 6 of us $150 for the entire trip). Outside of that, we took Uber everywhere. Uber really is life, y’all. Most trips were between 100-300THB, the only outlier being an UberXL we took from Don Mueng Airport on our return from Phuket that cost us about 1000THB – still cheaper than a one-way trip from JFK any day of the week. Taxis are even cheaper than Uber… but again, that language barrier. If you can take a taxi from somewhere someone can translate for you, or if you can pinpoint a location nearby where you’re staying on google maps for them, they’ll get you there in one piece.
Planning your itinerary – What I Did
There is soooo much to do, and even with 9 days, we still didn’t get to do everything we wanted – and trust there were many days we were up at the crack of dawn. I’ll share with you what I planned for us, what we loved, what we didn’t love, and what I would have done/planned differently in hindsight.
Day One and Two
I always suggest, depending on when your flight arrives, spending the first day or two getting reoriented. If you’re flying from the US like I did, the flight can be over 24 hours, the jet lag real, and the 11-hour time difference daunting. Plus you’ll want to make sure that given any flight delays etc, you still make it in time for all your planned activities. Having the free time will also give you a chance to stock up on any essentials you’ll need – especially if you’re staying in an Airbnb and will need water, groceries etc.
Those of us who arrived earlier went out into the city for lunch at a place called Cabbages and Condoms. It was one of those eclectic places where everything was made out of condoms – except the food of course. And the food was really good too! They donate a portion of their earnings to helping normalize and spread information about family planning, so that was pretty neat to see. Their catch phrase? ‘Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.’
The second night, we had in-house massages and had a personal chef come prepare a meal for us at the villa. Airbnb for the win!
On the third day, we scheduled a visit to the temples and a bike tour of Bangkok. Our driver dropped us off close to the temples and then we took a Tuk-Tuk to the Grand Palace. Prepare for the crowds – and the clothing requirements. No leggings, tank tops, shorts or tight clothes allowed. I’d recommend a long skirt and tee – anything that covers knees and shoulders – but they also sell items for purchase right outside the temple you can wear – wrap skirts and tops for 100THB each. I’d definitely advise making the temple visits a whole day affair. Most are within walking distance of each other, but between crowds, tickets, photo-ops, and walking, you’re definitely going to be spending a good chunk of time there. We had a glimpse of the temple then headed to lunch at Ama – food was good, but not the best Thai food I had on my trip in all honesty.
The Co Van Kessel bike tour for 950THB was definitely the highlight of day 3. Now, just know that I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until junior high, and I’ve barely ridden one since, but I was still able to manage (with a few broken finger nails – don’t ask lol) the near 4-hour bike ride around the city. To give an even better picture, our tour group was made up of 4 girls from NYC and DC, where the metro system rules lives, and 8 people from Amsterdam, the bike-riding capital of the world, and we still kept up. So don’t worry if you’re not an avid biker – they will help you along the way and make sure you make it back in one piece.
Mind you, this is not a carefully outlined bike path on the side of the road. No, this trip will take you weaving through old and new Bangkok – and show you the time of your life while doing it. We rode across busy streets, onto ferries, through street markets, store fronts, backyards – and I’m pretty sure one of my girls crashed into someone’s living room during lunch lol. But I think that’s why I loved it so much – it wasn’t all the pretty touristy things we saw. We saw markets and dumps, and temples and churches and mosques and so many other amazing parts of Bangkok, while stopping along the way for drinks and refreshments. I’d definitely recommend doing this – they even have 9-hour bike rides if you’re a pro!
Our 4th day in the city happened to be a Saturday, so we went to the weekend Chatuchak Market – one of the largest outdoor markets in the world with everything from aquariums and kennels, to scarves and hand-carved art. I think we could have spent the whole day there, but a late start meant we only had an hour. I’d suggest getting there early in the morning so you can really shop around, and be prepared to haggle!
From the market, we went to a Thai cooking class at the Bangkok Thai Cooking Academy, because there was no way I was coming to Thailand and not learning how to make my own Thai food. As a group we had the choice of 5 dishes to learn: a curry, and appetizer, one rice or noodles dish, a main dish, and a dessert. We chose green curry with chicken, tom yum soup, shrimp pad thai, black pepper beef and deep fried bananas, and spent 2 hours learning and preparing the dishes individually, after which we had the opportunity to eat everything we made – it was the best pad thai I’ve ever had. I don’t know if it’s because I made it myself, or because the recipe was that good, but I’d recommend the cooking class to everyone! It was so fun! And one of the cheapest in Bangkok – 1200THB/Person.
After cooking class, we went to the famed Mo and Moshi for an oversized ice cream sundae. It’s located in Siam Center: a huge ass mall with everything from Starbucks and Zara to Lush and some popular Asian clothing brands. The sundae itself was average at best, but only 950THB for a huge serving, and so worth the photo ops. Favorite flavors? Strawberry and Green tea. You’re welcome.
This was the day we took a day trip to Phuket. The flight was about $75 a head (including insurance) with Air Asia and was about 1.5 hours long from Don Mueng Airport. Given that the beach we wanted to visit (Kata beach) was 1.5 hours from the airport, we scheduled a pickup beforehand at a tour stand at Don Mueng for about 2800THB RT. There are a ton of beaches in Phuket (and Krabi, depending on which city you’d rather go to), so it’s really about doing your research and figuring out which beach is best for your interests. We really wanted a relaxing vibe, so we went for Kata beach… and actually ended up not going to the beach at all!
One of the girls discovered this luxury villa resort with really amazing views called Kata Rocks. On further research, I found that for 3500THB (just $100), we could have access to the infinity pool overlooking the beach, as well as food, drinks and spa services up to the per person cost of 3500THB. The infinity pool was empty when we got there so we had it all to ourselves! That was both the most expensive and most worthwhile purchase we made on our trip. Drinks were 350-400THB each, and dishes about the same, so after eating and drinking our fill, we still had enough left over to take advantage of the 50% off spa deal – best massage everrrrrrrrrrrrrr.
I should also note at this point that you can get $10 massages alllllll over Thailand, and you should get as many of these as possible during your stay.
We didn’t have enough time to make it out to the famed PhiPhi Islands, but feel free to include them in your itinerary!!
This was by far the highlight day of our trip. I planned a trip to an elephant reserve and to an animal safari. I would definitely recommend Tour with Tong for this option. Ask for Lily – her photography skills are amazing! It cost us about 17,000 THB for 6 people for everything excluding food and tips: a van, driver, pickup, the elephant trek and bath and playing with the tigers, lions and/or baby leopards. If my girlfriends weren’t such scaredy cats, we could have walked an actual lion too!
The elephants were incredible! We got to ride them, and bathe them – and even swim with them. Mind you, they are very friendly and will spray you, and dive with you on their back – so prepare to get your hair wet and swim with elephant poo (which is really just roughage, seeing as they don’t have an extensive digestive tract like humans do and only eat plants, so not to worry, it doesn’t even have a smell). It’s scary at first and you feel like you’ll definitely fall off and get trampled, but the keepers ride with you and teach you all the commands for the elephants, and they’re actually very sweet and gentle! Note – don’t bother wearing makeup, it’s all coming off.
What was most amazing about the cats was finding out how distinct their personalities are. Lion cubs are really tame and gentle and you can hug and cuddle them. Tiger cubs are cuuuuute, but crazy AF and will gnaw and claw and run around (but nothing harmful, just prepare for a few welts lol). Leopard cubs are jumpers and so will climb all over you in search of something to play with. It’s about 550 THB to play and photograph with each of them for about 15 mins (this was included in the previous quote), but totally worth it. I think I gave my mom a mini heart attack with those photos lol.
Day Seven and Eight
I typically like to leave two days on my itinerary open for people to do as they please. Sleep in, go back to visit spots they didn’t have enough time at, or perhaps discover something new. On day 7 we decided to visit the train and floating markets. We did this tour with Tong again, and it came to 5000THB for the whole group.
The train market is a market on actual train tracks. Every time the train passes through, the people selling move their items off the track, then place it back on once the train passes. They do this about 8 times a day, and no one ever gets hurt (aside from a close shave with a tourist a while ago). It was really cool to see!
Then we went to the floating market, and I have to be honest and tell you that spring rolls on a river taste so much better than spring rolls in a restaurant. It was truly an experience seeing commercial transactions taking place on water. People were actually cooking food on boats floating around us and on the banks. Any time you wanted something, they’d just float right up to you and sell it, or if they were on the banks, hook onto your boat with a long stick and draw you towards them. Believe me when I say there was some masterful navigation happening there.
Day 8 was just a relaxing day where we hung out and cooked Jollof. Because you can’t take Ghanaian girls anywhere without the prospect of Jollof lol. At night we went to see Sky Bar that has an amazing panoramic view of the city, and drinks that cost an arm and a leg. Given all the other incredible experiences I had during our trip, I could have done without Sky Bar, but it was a great way to end our trip on a more upscale note.
I hope this helps you as you think about paying a visit to Thailand. There’s definitely a lot more to do there, but I hope you give some of my recs a try!
Look out for part 2, ‘Slayed & Saved’s Guide to Travel: What, When, What and How Much?’!