For most visitors Thailand is synonymous with paradise islands and full moon parties. Whilst it has countless beautiful beaches and a lot of partying on offer, there is so much more to it than that. Perhaps unusually we prefer the north of Thailand where the people are extremely friendly and it lives up to its reputation of 'the land of smiles'.
We spent over three months in this beautiful country and here are a few things we think you shouldn't miss.
1. Temple hopping, Bangkok
If you find yourself looking for a reason to leave the Khao San Road (and you probably will) your first stop should be the temples.
Few places offer temples quite on the scale of Thailand's capital city; with enormous buddhas at Wat Pho, the multiple stunning shrines at Wat Phra Kaew (the Royal Palace) or the panoramic views of Wat Saket.
If you think you might get templed out in Thailand, then it's probably best to start with Bangkok, these are temples you won't want to miss.
Top Tip: Be wary of scammers. On our first day in Thailand, we were nearly conned by a tuk-tuk driver who insisted Wat Pho was closed, but would take us somewhere better.
2. Street food, anywhere!
Thai street food is world-class and you can easily find yourself avoiding restaurants altogether on a visit here. It's cheap, fresh, and delicious. You can never go wrong with a prawn or squid Pad Thai and banana and nutella rotis which were probably an unwise addiction! The traditional rotis were also pretty interesting made with egg and condensed milk.
Our rule of thumb in Southeast Asia tended to be that the best food was served at places with plastic stools to sit on. Nowhere is this more true than Thailand.
Getting there: Hua Hin is just a couple hours south of Bangkok. There are regular minibuses which can take you there.
3. Channel your inner Bob Marley, Railay
Ok, sometimes you just have to go with the stereotypical backpacker activities and chilling in a beachside shack in Railay is one of the best. This beautiful spot just outside Krabi has been drawing travellers for decades and has a lot of great spots to chill in tropical paradise. The east side of the island is where you'll find the cheaper accommodation and lots of reggae bars.
If you want to be a bit more active, Railay has some great rock climbing or grab a kayak and explore as far as your arms will take you. Look out for cute monkeys on the walk between Railay east and west.
Top Tip: Ao Phra Nang is a stunning beach, but can get busy. Head out early and you're likely to have the whole place to yourself.
4. Hang out at ‘The Beach’, Maya Bay
Maya Beach is no secret, and you're unlikely to have it to yourself, but it's an incredible place nonetheless. Hop on a longboat from Phi Phi Don to Phi Phi Leh and take in the view as you enter a cove with huge cliffs, bright blue water and white sand.
It truly is paradise and you'll see why they picked this beach for filming the movie. You used to be able to camp on the island which would give you a chance to experience its beauty without the crowds, you couldn't when we went but it's worth checking to see if this has opened up again.
Top Tip: Best to go early, as again Maya can get incredibly crowded. You used to be able to camp on the beach, check and see if this is back up and running.
5. Drink from a bucket, Phi Phi
If you can't beat them, join them. Drinking from a bucket in Thailand is a backpacker rite of passage (could you really say you've been travelling to Thailand if you haven't!?) and our favourite spot was on Koh Phi Phi. As well as being a complete stunner, Phi Phi is a huge party island with dramatic fire shows right on one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand.
We were lucky enough to celebrate New Year's Eve there, mojito buckets in hand.
6. Get a massage, Bangkok
Before visiting Thailand we didn't really do massages. There was the occasional one for a special treat but that all changed after we tried our first massage in Bangkok. Thai massage is completely different to the more common oil massages in the west, let's just say it's very firm, lots of stretching and cracking, and you feel incredible afterwards. So much better than a regular massage. You can even have one in the street! It's also great if you're a bit shy about massage as you are given a tunic to wear throughout.
My friend and I had one that was so good at the end of the hour we looked at each other and said another?! Two hour massages are the way forwards.
7. Take a Thai cooking lesson, Pai
The town of Pai is one of our favourite places in Thailand and it's a great area to escape the lowland heat for a while. We took up the opportunity for a Thai cooking lesson here to learn how to make our own curry pastes and noodle dishes.
The first eye-opener was when the teacher started with the 24 green chillies needed to make paste for a Thai Green Curry! We may or may not have left a few out of ours when she wasn't looking.... and soon understood why we'd been struggling with the immense spice of local Thai food (the UK version is very watered down).
After a few amends, we were able to make some pretty good Thai food that didn't set our mouths on fire!
Top Tip: Be aware that April is the start of the burning season for farmers. This can mean that there's a lot of haze and the heat multiplies!
8. Get a night train, Bangkok to Chiang Mai
The idea of taking a 14 hour overnight train may not sound overly appealing (especially as the same journey is an hour by plane), but you can't beat making the journey by rail.
You get to meet loads of other travellers, and locals and there's a really great atmosphere. If you treat yourself to second class you get your own bed and it's a surprisingly comfy way to travel.
It was one of the few times we could catch up on reading, photos and updating our journal. Sometimes an enforced break is just what you need.
9. Night markets, Chiang Mai
If you only have time for one Thai night market, then head to Chiang Mai. The city is worth visiting for hundreds of reasons, but the night market there is standout. When we visited it seemed like the whole town was taken over by crafts, and food and the whole place was buzzing.
If it all gets too tiring, then you can stop for an amazing foot, neck and shoulder massage in the middle of the market 😃
Top tip: Chiang Mai gets seriously hot! We visited in April and it was over 40C most days. This makes it a bad month for budget travellers as the cheap rooms only have one small fan and this did nothing to stop the all night sweats.
10. Visit the white and the black temple, Chiang Rai
So if the temples in Bangkok are traditionally ornate, the two in Chiang Rai are the complete opposite. These modern temples used artists who let their imagination run wild, resulting in a stunning white, and a more sinister black one.
The white is a favourite on Instagram, with really ornate carvings and water feature that makes for a picturesque reflection. You'll see all kinds of details such as hands reaching up from the ground and superheroes painted on the walls inside - in the same way religious icons would normally have been, crazy!
The black temple is less well known and offers something completely different. Set within jungle, you'll see many different buildings all housing a darker side. We saw skeletons, horns, animals skins and skulls, an artists impression of the more sinister side to religion?
Top Tip: Chiang Rai has plenty of other things to do and we loved learning more about the opium trade in the area. There's a couple of really good museums that take you through the history in incredible detail.
11. Take a hike, Cave Lodge
Cave Lodge is one of those rare opportunities in Thailand to really get off the grid and deep into the countryside. The lodge itself is a rustic collection of wooden cabins and you'll be a long way away from the party scene.
It's a great base to explore the countryside, with some amazing caves, including one you should visit at dusk when the bats all fly out of the cave while the swallows all fly in. Watch out for guano! The walks are also great and you can do many without a guide. Grab a map from the lodge and spend a few days exploring.
It was on a hike nearby when we popped our heads into one of the many caves along the trail and found a very chilled monk smoking pot. We also befriended a local dog who wouldn't let us go on any walk alone, it was so sad to leave him behind!
We loved Cave Lodge so much that this was one of our 10 must-see places in Asia.
Top Tip: Cave Lodge has a lot to do around the area, so look at some of the caving trips offered by the lodge.
12. Kayak to a hidden beach, Ko Muk
Ko Muk is one of the few islands that is still relatively undeveloped, giving a glimpse of what the old Thailand might have looked like before the tourism boom happened. It's not completely devoid of development, but you can explore this island and not see anyone else for a while, especially if you grab yourself a kayak.
Hiring a kayak was definitely one of the best things we did, and we set off round the coastline and into the Emerald Cave. Here the water turned into the most incredible emerald green and a small hidden beach awaits anyone willing to paddle right through the cave. Check the tide times.
Top Tip: Check out the nearby Koh Ngai for some pine tree lined beaches. It's another stunner.
13. Find your own patch of paradise, Bamboo Island
If you're looking for your picture postcard beach, then head to Bamboo Island off the coast of Koh Phi Phi. You can hire a long boat at any time of day so it's a great place to leave the crowds behind. Bright white sand, turquoise blue water and trees fringing the beach await, and there aren't any hotels or development to spoil those perfect views.
The water is idyllic and it's the most relaxing place to while away the day. It's a reasonable sized island so if you do turn up and there's other people around you can take a wander further up the beach and go Robinson Crusoe.
Top Tip: Bring a picnic, options on the island are limited.
14. Explore by scooter, Pai
If you've read our other blogs, you'll already have heard us raving about how much we enjoyed motorcycling around Southeast Asia. Well, in Thailand, Pai was another great place for hiring a motorbike. In the roads surrounding the town, you can visit hot springs, giant waterfalls, monasteries with extremely friendly monks, a canyon and even a farmer who offers you all sorts of fresh fruit and juice in return for a donation. Oh yes, and the strawberry farm, what can I say? The juice was delicious : )
Some of our most memorable times in Thailand were when we hired a bike and stumbled upon things completely at random. This is what we were ultimately searching for on the road, freedom.
Top Tip: Avoid using a scooter in the wet. The roads around Pai are incredibly windy and we've heard of accidents caused by skidding in the rain.
15. Cultural exchange during 'Monk Chat'
If you had the chance to chat with a monk you wouldn't miss it either would you? When we saw that at certain times of day in a Chiang Mai temple you could go and chat with monks we were really keen.
Though we didn't know how it would go we certainly couldn't have predicted this; the first topic of conversation was about which football team we supported (not a good one in his eyes) and then favourite foods (his was pizza). We were also soon joined by two German girls. On hearing their nationality, they were told 'oh dear, Adolf Hitler'.
Awkward doesn't begin to cover it! It was a wonderful exchange in which we realised that even those whose life seems so different from our own are really just the same.
Top Tip: We went to Wat Chedi Luang for our "Monk Chat". It's a great place to explore beforehand with some of the older buildings in Chiang Mai.
If you're thinking of travelling to Asia, then why not check out our following blogs:
- Anecdotes from Thailand
- Best things to do in Hong Kong
- Top Hikes in Hong Kong
- Tackling Hong Kong's second highest peak: Lantau Peak
- Instagrammable Hong Kong
- Anecdotes from India
- Anecdotes from Cambodia
- That time we were attacked by bears
- 10 must-see places in Asia
- Anecdotes from Vietnam
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Have you been to Thailand? What were your favourite experiences? Let us know where we should head to next time in the comments below.