If I had to use one phrase to describe backpacking in Thailand it would be this – very, very easy. Much of South East Asia can feel like hard work and although you may emerge having proudly earned your hardcore backpacker badge, you are also left feeling drained emotionally and physically.
Thailand isn’t like that. This is due, in the main, to the attitude of the Thai people, their treatment of guests in their country and their philosophies on life. Perhaps it helps that they are a Buddhist nation. Rarely will your hear raised voices and any confrontations you witness are much more likely to be between Westerners, usually to the great bewilderment of on-looking Thais. It seems that everywhere you go the Thai people just want to help. Try this exercise. Stand on a street corner, with a slightly perplexed look on your face and hold a map in your hands. Within seconds Thais will descend on you from every direction. The least you will get is lots of advice (often conflicting) as to how to make your way to where you want to go. Highly likely is an offer of a ride on the back of a motorbike or in the back of a truck. Not unusual is an invitation to come meet and eat with their family who will treat you with all the respect of visiting royalty. Sure there are tourist scams in the big cities but in 99 out of 100 cases Thais neither want nor expect any financial gratification for their kindness. They are simply kind for kindness sake – a refreshing thing in this world of nothing-for-nothing mentality.
As with any destination, picking out highlights can be tricky. Thailand is a big country with great diversification; ancient culture, modern colour, dazzling beaches, amazing food and a wealth of mind expanding opportunities are on offer everywhere you go. So, consider the entries below simply as appetite wetters.
Bangkok – rarely would I include a city on any highlight list and certainly not a capital city but Bangkok is a little different. Exotically Asian – the sights, sounds and smells will keep all your senses occupied and the sensations can range from dazzling to alarming. Bangkok can sometimes be overwhelming but it is always diverting and each district or area is very different.
Thai massage and fish spa – Bangkok is of course the epicentre of the Thai sex industry (which no-one would deny is very much alive and thriving) but the vast majority of massage providers are of the purely therapeutic variety so don’t be daunted. Most practitioners are qualified and experienced and at around 6 pound for one hour you can treat yourself everyday if you want.
Food stalls – at dusk tons of street stalls and carts seem to spring from nowhere. The food is always cheaper than restaurants and often better, although not always identifiable. But with much on offer at under 1 pound for a meal you can afford to experiment and get it wrong occasionally.
Markets – day markets and night markets are everywhere selling everything you could imagine and probably quite a few things besides which your imagination has never conjured up. Bargains abound and haggling is practically mandatory.
The Khao San Road – Bangkok’s colourful backpacker central. At night neon-lit bars and restaurants compete for trade by advertising special deals on food and alcohol. Live music from neighbouring establishments mixes into one indistinguishable noise, lady-boys wander the streets looking for company and colourful hill-tribe traders in crazy hats try and sell you handicrafts. Personally I prefer the road which runs parallel, Rambutri. A mellower, less frantic version of the Khao San.
Sukhothai – almost every backpacker looking to explore temples heads to Chiang Mai but if you like the idea of cycling around ancient ruins without jostling shoulder to shoulder with others then evocative Sukhothai is a spectacular alternative. Hardly anyone comes here it seems. Expect to be surrounded by Buddha statues so large you can’t really compute their scale as you stand beneath them.
Ko Tarutao – Thailand isn’t short of jaw-droppingly beautiful beaches but Ko Tarutao is jaw droppingly beautiful AND almost devoid of people, earning it valuable extra ‘must go’ points. Pure white sands, so talcum powder soft they squeak underfoot, lead into ridiculously turquoise waters. At night, monkeys play on the beach in the moonlight and if midnight skinny-dipping is your thing then fill your boots – there’s no-one around to see you.
Accommodation options range from basic ‘bungalows’ (cheap), hiring a tent which you pitch right on the beach of your choice (very cheap) or stretching a hammock between the trees (suits the stingiest backpacker budget).
Ko Tarutao, protected as part of the Tarutao National Marine Park, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – electricity is only available between 5 pm and 10.30 pm; thieving monkeys, tiny and not so tiny lizards, snakes and spiders may invite themselves into your tent; there is no ATM, only a couple of restaurants and one tiny store which opens whenever it feels like it.
But if your priority is peace and quiet and if ocean gazing, mountain biking, kayaking (both bikes and kayaks can be hired here), hiking to explore unspoiled wilderness, caves and waterfalls are your thing then you will be blown away.
Public transport – getting around Thailand is so ridiculously easy and cheap you may feel like you are cheating a little. Buses, boats (speed boats, longtails, ferries etc), motorbike taxis, sorng-taos (type of open backed truck) and a host of other options for getting about either locally or long distance are everywhere. Domestic air travel is a very real option with flights in some cases costing less than 20 pounds.
Hitch-hiking is also very easy if you are on a super-tight budget and don’t mind being thrown around in the back of an open pick-up truck. In keeping with the general kindness of the Thais, you may often find your driver going miles out of his way to take you to the doorstep of where you want to go. The national sign for hitching isn’t recognised (it’s a palm down, arm extended gesture instead) and of course solo females should exercise the usual cautions necessary.
South east Thailand – if you really want to practice your Thai and get off the beaten track, head to Thailand’s south-east. In this relatively poor rural, rice paddy area you may be the only white person for miles around. Expect lots of smiles, struggling to make yourself understood and, if you feel intrepid, you can sample the local diet of paddy field rat, silk worm grubs or fried bugs which are collected by night lights in practically every back yard.
You earn backpacker kudos points here because it isn’t as easy as the rest of Thailand but if you really want to immerse yourself in Thai culture and see how Thai villagers live then this is a great area to head for.