“Hey sis! You want to travel the world?”
“Sure, as long as we get to play with elephants!”
– actual conversation between my sister and me
To many Westerners, Thailand and the rest of Asia can be intimidating to visit. With unfamiliar languages, religions, cultures, and being quite far away, it’s not surprising. I wanted to go to Southeast Asia for precisely all of these reasons. I found a desire to travel into the unknown, to places that would challenge me and provide a look into an entirely different way of life. What I found was beyond belief – beautiful scenery, welcoming people, and all at a cheap price.
For those of you that may be a bit nervous about traveling to Thailand, I wanted to give a beginner’s approach to traveling in this beautiful country. For general travel tips, you can check out a previous guide I made here.
First off, you may be wondering – how am I supposed to get to Thailand without busting my budget?!? Easy answer – by plane! More complicated answer – keep your travel dates flexible, and use the website or app Skyscanner. This site is very user friendly, and allows you to search for cheap dates based on where you’re flying and where you want to go. I found flights from NYC to Bangkok round trip for just $480. Not bad considering most round trip flights to Europe run about $800-1,000. By having flexible dates, you can save money to have throughout your trip. I would recommend flying in and out of Bangkok even if you’re checking out other countries, as it’s the biggest hub for flights in Southeast Asia and is central to a lot of things. Expect to spend about $25-30 dollars a day while traveling, including food, hostels, and drinks (if you don’t overindulge).
I would suggest giving yourself at least two weeks to see Thailand. I’ve also thrown in Siem Reap, Cambodia as the Angkor Wat temple complex is incredible (I’ll go into more detail later). Although you could spend months there and not see it all, a few weeks can give you the highlights. Below I’ve lined up an itinerary that would give you a quick but good glimpse of cities, islands, and most importantly – elephants.
Day 1-2: Bangkok
Bangkok is a beast of a city. There’s crazy traffic, tons of people, and it’s sweltering hot. That being said, it’s a pretty incredible place. I would only spend a few days there at the beginning, as you’ll be back in between flights to other locations. There are some amazing temples to go to, including Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew, and Wat Pho. These are awesome and I highly recommend looking into Buddhist religious practices before going. I found that it made the temples much more interesting and I grew an appreciation for them by doing so. You can do them in one day, but prepared to be hot and tired after doing so. Between the temples, grab some street food and take a break in the shade. Everywhere in Thailand you can find delicious street food for just $2-3. I couldn’t get enough pad thai!
While in Bangkok, you can check out the amazing views from a rooftop bar. You can go to Sky Bar, which is where they filmed part of the Hangover. We heard it was going to be extremely crowded so we checked out the Moon Bar at the Banyan Tree hotel. This is the perfect (but a bit expensive) way to end a long day. Wherever you go, be sure to keep in mind that they likely have a dress code requiring long pants and closed shoes. It would be a bummer to get there and not be able to go in!
On your next day, consider going to one of the many malls in downtown Bangkok. This truly is a unique part of their culture and you can get some great food in the food court while staying out of the heat. You can also head over to the Bangkok National Museum to see some beautiful artifacts and treasures. At night, head to Koh San Road to join all of the backpackers at the bars and have a wild time.
We stayed at Bodega Hostel, which was nice but pretty loud. It also wasn’t very close to the old town so you might want to check out hostels near Koh San Road to be more centrally located (and have less of a late night trip back after the bars).
Day 3-5: Chiang Mai
DO. NOT. MISS. Chiang Mai. This was by far one of my favorite places while in Thailand. You can get there from Bangkok by a quick, cheap flight from AirAsia. For those that don’t know, Chiang Mai is a province in the north and is home to elephants, waterfalls, cliff jumping, and beautiful temples. We stayed at Stamps Backpackers Hostel, which was the most incredible hostel I’ve ever been to. The people were so nice and the facilities were great.
I highly suggest spending a day volunteering with elephants at Patara Elephant Farm. We did a lot of research to find the most humane and ethical elephant farm, and this seemed to be the one. You get to spend the day feeding, bathing, walking, and riding the elephants. You also get to learn about elephants and their habits. It was very fun and also informative.
This will take up most of your day, so consider walking around the town of Chiang Mai and maybe grabbing some drinks to finish the night.
On the next day, head to the Grand Canyon (not quite as grand as the American one but still fun), an old quarry that has been filled with water and has places to dive in. It’s a great way to spend a hot morning with friends. Next, go to the sticky waterfalls. This may sound strange and it’s hard to describe, but it’s truly amazing. Basically the’re waterfalls that have formed a mineral layer running underneath the water that allows you to walk on top of the falls. It’s a beautiful place and a fun way to spend the afternoon frolicking in the waterfalls.
Lastly, check out Doi Suthep for beautiful views of Chiang Mai. There are also monks here that are quite informative about Buddhism and you can see them do religious chants in the evening.
Day 6-8: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Siem Reap is a cool city outside the temple complex of Angkor Wat. This being said, if you’re tight on time, you only need one full day to see the temples. The city is super cheap, with beers only costing $1. There’s a fun area to go out called Pub Street which has a bunch of bars and clubs on it. I wouldn’t suggest going out the first night, as you’ll want to wake up bright and early to see the sunrise over the temple.
To get to the temples, you can arrange a tuk tuk (bike taxi) to pick you up early and take you to the complex. We stayed at Siem Reap Rooms which was very nice but more like a hotel – if you’re traveling alone, check out hostels in the area on Hostelworld.com. The whole temple complex is huge and there area a bunch of temples within it to choose from. I highly suggest Ta Prohm, which is where Tomb Raider was filmed. It has beautiful trees that have taken over the walls with their roots. Also check out Bayon, which has faces built into the the brick. Finish your last night in Siem Reap with drinks out on Pub Street. Take a flight to Bangkok the next morning to continue on your adventure!
Day 8 – Bangkok
As you’re probably tired from your flight and night out in Siem Reap, this day would be up to you. We really enjoyed the Vimanmek Mansion Museum, which is a 1900’s teakwood mansion which is huge and beautiful. You can go for free with your ticket to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, so be sure to hold on to it!
Later that night, catch a bus and ferry combination from Lomprayah to get to the islands. This is the cheapest and easiest way to get down to the islands, though there are flights as well. The bus has A/C and is quite spacious and clean. We slept the entire way before stopping to catch a ferry to the island.
Day 9-13: Koh Samui, Koh Phagnan, & Koh Tao Islands
All three of these islands are about an hour apart by ferry. We really enjoyed Koh Tao, as it’s the smallest and very chilled out. Koh Phagnan (pronounced Koh Pahn-yan) holds the Full Moon, Half Moon, and Black Moon parties which are all a crazy good time. If your trip happens to fall on one of these, plan ahead. The hostels book up fast. You can also stay on another island and take the ferry over beforehand and then in the morning after you’re done partying the night away. Otherwise, all of the islands are great for partying and then chilling out on the beach the next day. We stayed at Indie Hostel in Koh Tao and really enjoyed it. Perfect central location and great food and coffee.
Day 14 – Bangkok & flight home 😦
Although it may seem odd to be going back to Bangkok twice in one trip, it almost is necessary if flying to and from all of these destinations. Head back to Bangkok via Lomprayah and then catch your flight back!
Keep in mind that all of this would be quite a quick view of all of these places. If you don’t have enough time, consider cutting out the islands. They’re beautiful and a great time, but the travel time and such could leave you worn out and stressed. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need any help! Until then, cheers and happy travels!