This is a guest post by Joe Antelmi, and the second in a series on Thailand.
In my previous article, I showed you how it’s totally possible to experience your dream vacation to Thailand even if you only have two weeks to do it.
Now that you have an idea of your itinerary for Thailand, here are some helpful tips for traveling in Thailand that will help you navigate Thailand’s transportation system, seasonal challenges, and delicious cuisine.
When should I visit?
Plan on visiting Thailand when the weather is coolest. In Thailand, there is the cool season (Nov-March) the hot season (March- May) and the rainy season (May/June-October). Even in Chiang Mai, in the mountains of the north, the cool season is still quite pleasant, not dipping below 70 F, and in Bangkok, the cool season will still see temperatures in the 90s. I recommend visiting Thailand between November and February.
What’s the best way to get around?
Air: There are several local airline options, and we recommend Air Asia. With any budget carrier, don’t expect food, but the flights within the country are short. Plan your itinerary around what connecting flights you can get. We chose Chiang Mai, Phuket and Bangkok because Air Asia flies direct between all three multiple times daily.
Train: Great for short trips, probably comfortable for long ones, just get a sleeper car. Many people take the sleeper train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. In our case, that the price differential between air and train wasn’t large, so we chose to fly.
Bus: Buses go all over Thailand. Thailand is pretty big though, so choose the option that works for your timeframe. I typically choose to pay more to maximize the time I have to enjoy the destinations I visit, and thus tend to avoid buses for long distance trips.
Boat: Some people take a river cruise up the Chao Praya river, or a cruise or ferry between the islands in the gulf of Thailand. Definitely a beautiful way to travel, but the journey takes a bit of time. Prices are reasonable.
Skytrain– The subway is efficient, as is the sky train. Enjoy!
Chao Praya Ferry – Cheap, easy boat rides up and down the river
Buses – Kind of confusing as they are not geared towards tourists, but definitely a good and cheap option if you have a good bus map. Perfect option to reach places in Bangkok outside the Skytrain routes.
In Chiang Mai:
Buses – Chiang Mai used to have buses, now it uses covered pickup trucks. Drivers will try to fill up the bus with passengers before they depart, so be patient.
Taxis – Good option to get somewhere remote.
Note: Most transportation in this region is tied to the tours or activities you sign up for. Thus, you will probably want to sign up for activities that include hotel pick up, because Chiang Mai is a bit more challenging to navigate than Bangkok using public transportation.
Rental Car – If you wish to drive a rental car, bring a valid international drivers license, stay calm, aand be careful. Phuket has a very high traffic mortality rate, due to a combination of inexperienced tourist drivers, inexperienced tourists on mopeds, UK style left hand side driving, and reckless Thai motorists.
Rental Moped – I do not recommend this. If you are an experienced moped driver, and have the correct license and insurance coverage, wear a helmet and be careful.
Bus – Good on the east side of the island or the city
Taxi – A good option for getting around, albeit a bit expensive. As you will be travelling further than in the cities, expect to pay more.
Private Car and Driver – Useful option to get to places where it is difficult to find a taxi. Sometimes more affordable than a taxi if you plan on covering a lot of ground
Note: There is really no perfect and safe way to get around Phuket cheaply. Please be careful, Phuket is beautiful, but there are a lot of people who drive recklessly on its winding roads.
What should I eat?
Thai food is delicious, but it does taste very different from western food. Prices are cheap unless you go to an establishment catering specifically to tourists. If the price is over 10 dollars per dish, you probably have cheaper options nearby.
Gluten Free: It was pretty easy to eat Gluten Free. Thai’s don’t really eat bread. Just enjoy the rice and rice noodles, and avoid any other type of noodle. If you have extreme sensitivity, be careful, as wheat tends to be present in soy sauce and other parts of the diet.
Dairy Free: Easy, Thai cuisine is mostly made with coconut milk.
Vegetarian/Vegan: This is a little tricky. Generally, eating vegetarian is pretty easy, as many Buddhist monks don’t eat meat. But, as fish sauce is one of the essential ingredients of a lot of Thai cuisine, you’ll need to ask if you can substitute a more vegan friendly sauce, such as soy sauce and mushroom sauce. Many Buddhist monks eat a pretty vegetarian diet, but be careful about asking to eat “as the monks do,” as diet varies by practice of Buddhism, and restaurants may still use eggs in their food. Eating vegan requires some due diligence, as you will find a lot of fish sauce and eggs in Thai cuisine. As there are many vegans in Thailand, each year it is becoming easier to communicate your dietary needs with restaurant employees.
Peanut Allergy: Be very careful, peanuts are very common in Thai Cuisine. Make sure you have a discussion with the server.
Soy Allergy: Be very careful, soy is also very common in Thai Cuisine. Make sure you have a discussion with the server.
What language barriers should I be prepared for?
Thai people speak the Thai language, which is a fiendishly difficult language for the uninitiated to read because it uses a different alphabet and word structure. But, the language and grammar is more consistent with its rules than English and determined study will yield results. There is no real need to learn Thai for this two week trip, as the large majority of Thais speak English in the large cities and tourist areas. If you go to rural areas, the utility of Thai language proficiency increases.
What health precautions should I take?
Thailand is a developing country, and has high rates of AIDS, TB, and other communicable diseases. If you are concerned, stick to areas that are more economically advantaged. Thailand also has a large sex industry, a fact you become aware of pretty quickly upon entering Bangkok. Just say no, and turn around and walk in the opposite direction whenever you enter a seedy area.
Health precautions you can take:
1. Don’t drink tap water, only bottled water (this includes when you brush your teeth).
2. Take probiotics when you go abroad, they will help your body deal with the new foods and organisms in the food.
What else should I know?
Thailand has strict drug laws. Don’t do drugs in Thailand or risk a lengthy prison stay.
Thailand is a monarchy. As there has been political unrest as recently as 2010, simmering political issues require you to take some care with your speech and clothing. Avoid wearing yellow or red clothing, which are the colors of the monarchy and opposition, respectively.
Avoid saying anything bad or expressing criticism about the king or the government of Thailand, verbally, on Facebook, or in writing. This is a crime in Thailand.
Have you traveled to Thailand? What tips would you add?
Joe Antelmi is an avid traveller, musician, and gourmand. He speaks English, Spanish, and Italian, and so far has had the good fortune to visit Europe, the United States, Asia and South America. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of Connecticut.