8 tips for your first trip to Thailand
South East Asia is having a moment; the place to be for families, couples and adventurers alike, the region’s breathtaking beaches and ornate golden temples are some of the most beautiful sights in the world. Thailand is no exception, and once your flights are paid for, three weeks in this fascinating country will cost you less than a week in Ibiza! There will be culture shocks: toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilet, it goes in the bin, and you take your shoes off when going into most shops, spas and restaurants on the islands – it’s all part of the experience! The Land of Smiles offers endless day time activity, spiritual retreats and vibrant nightlife that would rival New York and Berlin. Read on to see what I think you should know before you take the trip of a lifetime!
1. Who you travel with – Choose carefully
It might seem like it goes without saying, but be careful who you decide to travel with, particularly for an extended period and for a holiday with a lot of moving around. Someone who is your best friend at home and in 95% of scenarios may not be the right travel partner for you, and it’s important to find the right balance of people so that the trip remains laid back, spontaneous and drama-free. Things can and will go wrong, and there will naturally be a few hiccups along the way, but with the right person/people, it will work out and be turned into a joke a few minutes later. When our flight from Dublin was delayed on our way to Thailand, we missed our connection and had to stay in London for a night. We saw other couples and groups literally screaming at each other over something that was nobody’s fault but the airline and bad weather, souring the beginning of their holidays needlessly. In the end we arrived to Bangkok only 10 hours behind schedule, so try to stay calm, remember it will all work out and I promise it won’t seem half as bad if you’re with the right person!
2. Don’t be afraid of Street Food
Eating dinner from a makeshift stall on the side of the road may not sound like a pleasant experience, but street food is without doubt the most delicious meal you will find throughout Thailand. Dishes like Pad Thai, Chilli Basil Chicken and Fried Rice with seafood are all made from scratch in front of you in about five minutes, using fresh ingredients like spring onion, vine tomatoes and succulent prawns. The servings are more than generous, and at prices of 50-80 Baht (depending on location) travellers on a budget can fill themselves for less than €2! There’s something reassuring about watching your food being cooked in front of you, and it’s also worth remembering that while 90% of things in Thailand are insanely inexpensive, Western dishes and international franchises like Starbucks and McDonalds carry the same price tag across the globe. We tried steak and chips on our second night in Bangkok and instantly regretted it, so hang up your preconceptions about street food – you’ll enjoy beautiful local delicacies while also saving money for tours and activities!
*I thought I should also mention the alcohol buckets (because who goes to Thailand without trying one): we had zero bad experiences with these, although wherever we got some we made sure to ask to open the vodka/whiskey ourselves before pouring in. I was also warned about drinking buckets with ice in them, but every bucket has ice and nobody we met along the way had had negative side effects from this. The main thing is to use your head – if you’re unsure or skeptical about a drink, don’t drink it. We also drank a lot of local Chang beer, which is ridiculously cheap and ridiculously nice!
3. Pack the bare minimum
Put your hands up if you go away for a long weekend and pack 17 outfits We’re all guilty of it, but after my bag was lost in Heathrow airport for six days (SIX DAYS) leaving me sans clothes and underwear for the first week of our adventure, I quickly realised that over-packing is over-rated. Thailand is littered with charming street stalls, selling crochet tops, shorts and swimwear identical to designs from Asos, Missguided and high street retailers for literally a fraction of the cost. The weather is hot and you’ll spend a huge amount of your trip either on the beach, swimming or doing water activities, so pack light, airy clothes and a whole load of bikinis! You’ll move around a lot too if you want to see different islands, and being crippled under a bulging backpack in 30+ degree heat is not ideal.
Side note: if your luggage is lost for any length of time on your travels, suck it up and get on with it. There’s no point wasting your time and energy being constantly upset about something you have no control over, so try to accept the situation – I promise you’ll have endless laughs about it afterwards! We made a joke of buying me a small wardrobe from the markets in Bangkok, which included two bikinis (one a fake Burberry, how sophisticated) a pair of elephant pants and a hilarious imitation Adidas two piece (that I’m unashamed to say I wore on and off for about four days).
For anyone less fond of the Free the Nipple movement, I should note that one thing noticeably lacking in the markets is underwear; if you’re like me, you won’t mind being Young, Wild and Free going commando until your bag arrives, but otherwise I highly recommend packing a decent number of emergency bras/pants in your hand luggage just in case.
4. Moped Moped Moped
Did I say moped? It really is the only way to get around if you want to do some exploring off the beaten track, and with maximum prices of 300 Baht (about €8) for 24 hours hire, it won’t break the bank either. We stayed two nights in a beautiful Air BnB in Phuket which had a bike included in the price, and although I had been a little apprehensive about using one, once we hopped on we never looked back. (It is worth noting that I am severely motor-challenged (I almost dropped one bike on top of myself trying to start it), so James did the driving while I sat on the back – if you are lacking in driving prowess or you just don’t feel comfortable in front, jump on the back and let a more confident driver in your group take charge. Use your head when deciding where to rent mopeds: we had one at all times in Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, where the roads are excellent. Each of those places have a plethora of activities, beaches and sights to see spread well apart, so get on your bike and get lost in the most amazing place in the world.
Koh Phi Phi is a tiny slice of heaven on earth, and the island paradise is so small and non-commercialised that they don’t use cars and bikes are used only by a handful of locals working there – Phi Phi is so untouched that they put your luggage into wheelbarrows to carry to your accommodation. Here you obviously won’t hire a moped, and I would caution against renting one in both Bangkok and Koh Tao. The traffic in Bangkok is worse than downtown Manhattan during rush hour, so you really are taking your life in your hands riding a moped there. (A friend of mine broke her arm on a bike in Bangkok at the beginning of a 6 week trip, which meant she couldn’t swim or do any water activities for the duration of the holiday – not the way you want to start your adventure.) Koh Tao is breathtakingly beautiful and one of my favourite islands in Thailand, but the roads are unfinished in many places and quite treacherous; we rented a bike and left it back after a half hour.
When shopping for souvenirs, clothes or bags in Thailand, the universal rule is that whatever the vendor initially quotes you, they’ll be satisfied with about a quarter of that price. Don’t be shy and stand your ground – whatever trinkets one stall has on offer I promise you a stall five minutes down the road will have exactly the same, so don’t be afraid to say no thank you and walk away. Nine times out of ten they will run after you and accept your offer! The same goes for TukTuks and taxis. Haggling is a feature of shopping in Thailand, and the whole process is hilarious and enjoyable even if you end up giving in and paying a little more than you think you should. It’s also worth noting that if you’re on the hunt for high quality designer fakes at incredibly low prices, Koh Samui is the place to go. I worked in luxury retail for 18 months during college and I genuinely struggled to tell the difference!
6. Watch Sunsets
The sky turns into a rainbow of the most amazing pastel colours around sunset all over Thailand, and watching the sun go down behind the crystal clear ocean was definitely a highlight of our trip that we enjoyed many times. Two of the most jaw-dropping sunsets we saw were in Koh Phi Phi from ‘Only Bar’ (which also does a great Mojito) and on Sairee Beach in Koh Tao where the sky turned twelve shades of pink.
*Side note: I think the most beautiful sunset I've ever witnessed was at the Grotta lighthouse in Seltjanarnes on the edge of Reykjvik, Iceland. Read my top tips for visiting Iceland for more on this!
Word of caution to anyone plagued by mosquitoes: if you’re prone to being bitten, sunrise and sunset are the worst times to be out. Make sure to get an insect repellent high in DEET; we were eaten alive in Phi Phi one evening, so after that we only used a spray with 95% DEET and really noticed the difference. The higher the DEET concentration the more corrosive chemicals in the spray though, so use sparingly. A common conversation among travellers in South East Asia involves discussing what clothing item or bag strap was melted by using DEET too generously! The best remedy for soothing bites was given to us by an Israeli man on one of our day trips: he recommended Calamine lotion, which you can find in any pharmacy across Thailand for about 70 Baht (less than €2). Apply generous amounts of the pink lotion to your bitten skin after showering and the relief is incredible! The bites will go down in about 2-4 days depending on severity.
A more unusual ailment to handle is a jellyfish sting, something I had the misfortune to experience while snorkelling off Maya Bay and a pain I would prefer not to go through again. Our tour guides had little to no English, but once they saw the blistering begin to show on my leg after being stung they poured a can of Coke on the area and the searing sensation went away after about 45 minutes. (I was told after we came home by a medical professional that coke has absolutely ZERO effect on a jellyfish sting, and it subsequently transpired that my sting was laced with neurotoxins which ate into the tissue of my upper left thigh. I'm A1 Sharon and it's hard to notice (with fake tan on), a lifelong souvenir of our adventure in Phi Phi!) Rub Aloe Vera gel on the sting after a couple of hours and keep applying for a few weeks – it gets really itchy if you don’t! Papaya is excellent for removing the toxicity from stings (if only I knew the what I know now).Watch out for moped engines too; they take a while to cool down and getting a burn from one is one of the most common accidents in Thailand (the scar from my brush with a moped engine remains. I'm starting to notice a trend here...).
8. Don’t come home with regrets
If you travel more than half way across the world, do everything that you want to do. Money can be saved as I mentioned before by eating street food with no compromise on taste, and you can stay in hostels or even small hotels on the Thai islands for as little as €10 a night for two people. Okay, the room or beach hut might be basic enough, or maybe you will share a dorm room with a few other travellers, but it honestly won’t matter because you’ll only be there to sleep. Sharing hostel rooms is also a fantastic way to meet people and make friends along the way! If you want to do day tours, go to waterfalls, feed elephants, rent a jet ski – do it, and don’t come home with a few euro in your pocket wishing you had done more.