What I wish I knew before backpacking Thailand
Between my jobs and my move from the Netherlands back to California, I decided to take some time off and backpack through Thailand. I’d spent a lot of time traveling before, but had never really taken an extended period to backpack, let alone backpack by myself. At 29, I had never been to Thailand, and decided that since it just seemed so darn cheap and it was one of those places that everyone had visited, I should visit too. I had already spent plenty of time in Indonesia – and loved it so much I went back again after Thailand – so Bali was temporarily out of the question. Thailand seemed to check all the boxes I was looking for: it was cheap, beautiful, and seemed touristy enough that I wouldn’t have any problems finding my way.
That said, there were so many things I wish I had known before visiting Thailand. Somehow, I thought it would be just like Indonesia, but boy was I wrong – the only thing it really has in common with Indonesia is the humidity! I’ve compiled my Thailand travel tips here to help you prepare for your trip to Thailand.
In this blog post you’ll find all the things I wish I had known before backpacking Thailand, and my tips for anyone who plans to backpack Thailand.
Looking for great adventures in Thailand? Check out these posts:
- The hippest hotel in Koh Samui: where to stay in Koh Samui
- How to have an ethical elephant experience in Thailand
- Adventures in Krabi: What to do in Ao Nang
Getting around Thailand is surprisingly easy
Much to my surprise, it is super easy to travel within Thailand. My first foray into traveling in South East Asia was in Indonesia where travel isn’t too easy. In Thailand there is no shortage of transport forms, including (much to my surprise) a train system!
How to travel Thailand
If you haven’t looked at a map of Thailand yet, it is a pretty funny shaped country, which you might think could make travel difficult here, but that couldn’t be further from the case. When you travel in Thailand, you’ll most likely become best friends with the 12go.asia website. This website is absolutely brilliant because it will show you ALL possible travel options when you’re looking to get from point A to point B. That means you can easily compare the difference between taking a train, a plane, or a ferry and bus combination in some instances. This made travel planning in Thailand really easy and painless.
When you use 12go.asia you’ll likely find combinations of buses and ferries, especially if you plan to travel between the islands in the Gulf of Thailand like Koh Samui and the mainland of Thailand. To my surprise, everything ran on time when I traveled in Thailand, AND everything felt safe. It is no secret that I’ve had a scary experience with a boat in Indonesia, and I was happy to see ferries in Thailand that seemed much closer to western safety standards. 12go.asia is the best way to travel Thailand. When I went from Koh Samui to Ao Nang for example, my entire itinerary was planned by booking through 12Go, including a ferry, bus, and transport to my hotel.
Ride sharing in Thailand
While we’re on the subject of transport, it’s good to know that prior to arriving in Thailand (especially Bangkok), you should download GrabCar. GrabCar is essentially the Uber of SEA, and it will be much cheaper than getting a normal taxi which will likely rip you off since you’re a tourist, and also significantly cheaper than a tuk tuk. I used GrabCar all the time when I was in Bangkok and it was super easy to use – best of all, just like Uber you don’t need to use cash to pay. There is nothing that annoys me more when traveling than constantly having to pull money out of the ATM and carry it around with me, worried that I’ll lose it or somehow be robbed.
Muay Thai Boxing is huge!
Everywhere you go, you’ll see ads for muay thai boxing – it seems like it is Thailand’s national sport! If you’re interested, there are opportunities anywhere you are to take a muay thai boxing lesson or watch a competition. Check out this article on the best muay thai boxing gyms to find out how to try out this sport for yourself.
Thailand is very touristy
I guess this is something I probably should have known ahead of time, but it shocked me to find out how touristy Thailand is – I suppose that also goes hand in hand with the ease of transport in the country. When I say Thailand is touristy, I don’t just mean that there are cheesy shops every now and then selling silly souvenirs, or there are guys standing on the sidewalk outside of restaurants harassing you to come eat there.
No, Thailand is so touristed that it is degrading the environment. This is where I really started reaching my limit in Thailand. I went on a day tour in the Krabi region and visited Maya Bay on the last day before the beach was closed indefinitely to the public. Maya Bay is stunningly beautiful, but when I went I was really happy to find out it would be closed the following day. Imagine the most beautiful beach you’ve ever visited. Now imagine the beach is so crowded that boats have no space to park and the beach is so filled with tourists that you can barely walk through.
That is what over-tourism in Thailand is like, and it is a bit disturbing. I felt a bit guilty for contributing to it.
Getting a Thai SIM card is super easy
Once you arrive at the Bangkok airport, you’ll be able to find several stands where you can get a Thai SIM card. Thai SIM cards and phone plans are pretty cheap, and you’ll easily be able to get a phone plan to last you throughout your entire trip.
I bought the most expensive phone plan possible (I think it was something like an unlimited plan), and I think I paid about €40 for that for an entire month, so the price isn’t too shabby. I’m a major advocate for getting a local phone plan because it will make travel so much easier, especially if you need to get a GrabCar.
If you’re an American, don’t forget to get your phone unlocked before you leave the country so you’ll be able to use a Thai SIM card.
Everyone might be younger than you (depending on your age!)
Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I decided to visit Thailand when I was in between jobs and moving across the world – I was 29. I never felt like 29 was old… until I went to Thailand. I’ve never traveled to a place where I felt so much older than the other tourists until I was there!
The thing is, most people who visit Thailand visit either during or right after college, so most other tourists are about 20-23 years old. When I met other solo travelers they could hardly believe how “old” I was. That made it a bit harder to make friends, since pretty much everyone else around me was accustomed to a different lifestyle. I also felt I was past the age to stay in hostels – I’d been working for over five years, so I felt I’d earned my stays in decent hotels. The problem with that, though, was that it is so much harder to meet people in hotels (duh).
So, if you plan to visit Thailand, keep in mind that the average age of other tourists there is in the early 20s. I should point out that this has stuck out to me as being much different than Bali. Admittedly I’ve only visited Bali with my partner, but every time we’ve been in Indonesia we’ve met solo travelers who were in their late 20s or even late 30s.
The news about Koh Tao scared me too much to visit
When I planned my trip to Thailand, nearly everyone I knew told me I needed to visit Koh Tao. I had already planned to visit Koh Samui and Koh Phangan (though not for the Full Moon Party), and my friends told me I simply had to visit Koh Tao. It is supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in Thailand. I honestly just wanted to go to Koh Tao because I heard the snorkeling there was amazing. But I couldn’t do it. I booked my hotel and at the last minute, even though I’d lose money, I cancelled my booking.
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Something had stuck out in my mind. I’d read articles about an island in Thailand where young people had been mysteriously murdered. That couldn’t be Koh Tao, right? Not the same place all of my friends told me to go.
Yes, it was Koh Tao. I started going down the internet rabbit hole of searching articles on Koh Tao and found that at that time 10 people had mysteriously been found dead on the island over the past few years, and local authorities were not exactly cooperative with the tourists’ home countries to find causes of death. *I actually just googled Koh Tao news now and found ANOTHER news story about a tourist from Moldova who was found dead in Koh Tao– maybe this is completely unrelated, but who knows*
All the tourists seemed to be about my age. Some were solo female travelers. At the time I was traveling alone. It freaked me out and really started to worry me. I was on Koh Phangan at the time, and casually mentioned to the man who owned my hotel that I was going to Koh Tao. He immediately told me I needed to be careful going there and not get into any funny business. Don’t drink. Don’t do any drugs. Don’t do anything to get yourself noticed. Something is going on there, maybe with the mafia, he told me. I assumed that when I told him I was going to Koh Tao he wouldn’t say anything – or that if I brought up the crimes there he would blow them off as media fodder. This absolutely wasn’t the case. As soon as he told me I needed to be extra vigilant there, I cancelled my trip right away.
Do I know if any of these stories are true? Are all the deaths related? I have no idea. Sure, there are tons of tourist deaths in places like Indonesia, one of my favorite countries, because there is so much safety negligence there. There was something about those articles about Koh Tao that just freaked me out. I will admit, they are all mostly from British media which has a tendency to create a lot of fear-mongering, but it was enough to keep me away.
There are probably more pressing things to be careful of in Thailand – like riding a scooter, or catching dengue fever.
I don’t want to scare you before your vacation to Thailand – most likely you’ll have a wonderful and safe trip. Having said that, I think it is good for everyone to do some research on the locations they are visiting and determine for themselves if they think they’ll feel safe there.
Language won’t be a problem
Before leaving for Thailand, quite a few people asked me if I was worried about being able to communicate while traveling. For us native English speakers that is one of the greatest gifts our language has given us – the ability to travel nearly anywhere in the world and be able to communicate with others!
As long as you have a basic level of English, don’t worry about if people in Thailand speak English – the answer is most people speak a basic level of English, and the people working in tourism and hospitality will DEFINITELY speak English, so put that worry aide.
Pulling money out of the ATM can sometimes be a problem
There is a weird phenomenon I’ve noticed in some countries in Asia when it comes to ATMs. Some ATMs in Asia won’t let you pull out money unless you use a credit card. To me this seems totally counter intuitive, but this is how it works in many instances, and how it works for many ATMs in Thailand. For most Americans this won’t be a problem because our debit cards also serve as Visa cards. For Europeans it might be a different story.
When I visited Thailand I was primarily using my Dutch bank account, which is a Maestro debit account – just like pretty much all European bank accounts. Despite unlocking my bank account for foreign usage, I could never use my Maestro card to pull out money in Thailand, and instead had to constantly use my credit card to withdraw money.
In case you don’t have a credit card, I would recommend getting one before visiting Thailand to ensure this won’t be a problem for you. FYI, this was surprisingly not an issue for me in Indonesia.
Insulting the king is a crime in Thailand
Yep, you can’t bash the king of Thailand the way you can bash Trump in America. I read this all over the internet before visiting Thailand, and was a bit surprised to learn this. If you insult the king of Thailand, you will be removed from the country. I don’t know this from experience, but apparently this is the case.
Many people in Thailand have actually faced harsh prison sentences, so although I think it is probably unlikely that you would be prosecuted as a tourist, you should be aware. As with any other country, Thailand isn’t just a beautiful vacation spot, but a very real country with its own issues and it is ranked 140 out of 180 by Reporters without Borders for its freedom of speech.
You might get temple burn-out
Thailand is home to thousands of Buddhist temples (well, at least I’m guessing the number is in the thousands… it seemed that way). The first time you visit a Buddhist temple you might find it breathtaking and beautiful. The size of the Buddhas, the ornate designs, the colors of the temples – wow! There are some incredible pieces of architecture in Thailand that are well worth your visit, especially in Chiang Mai.
But I offer a word of warning – don’t try to see them all. Limit your temple visits when you’re in Thailand, or risk getting temple burn-out. If you’ve extensively traveled in Europe you may have been stricken by the sister illness, church burn-out.
So, take it easy, and balance your temple visits with enough beach and snorkeling time, and you’ll be able to fight the stages of temple burn-out 😉
Did this post help you plan you trip to Thailand? Let me know in the comments below!
Gabby is a native (Northern) Californian who spent the majority of her 20’s living the expat life in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, exploring Europe and beyond. 27 countries later, she’s relocated back to her home base in California where she explores her passions for the travel and the outdoors.