Beaches, parties and cheap…pretty much everything: These were my impressions of Thailand before I had ever even set foot there, and all of it turned out to be true.
But there’s also so much more to Thailand than these generic assumptions. How can you make an awesome trip to Thailand even better? It can involve profound experiences connecting with locals and trying on the Thai lifestyle, or it can even be as simple as drinking the right beer….
Don’t Spend Too Long on Khao San Road
It’s difficult to sum up the feeling of being on Khao San Road in Bangkok. It can be fun, wonderful and wild, but you feel guilty for enjoying it because this backpacker alley is where genuine Thai culture goes to die.
Khao San Road is kind of like a second airport into Thailand. It’s the place you have to pass through before you can enter Thailand officially. It’s a full-time party atmosphere where you can get a quick education in the local beers, eat a cricket, and be excited about the fact that, yes, you are actually in Thailand.
But it’s all too easy to get sucked into a pattern of endlessly drinking until 5am, and then sleeping through most of the following day, before doing it all again the next night. Party for one or two nights at most, and then move on.
Don’t Drink Chang
When we first arrived in Thailand, it seemed like Chang beer was everywhere. It’s in every bar, every store, and the logo seems to be on every other backpacker’s T-shirt. It felt as if Chang was the official beer of Thailand, and drinking it was like dedicating a toast to this beautiful country.
After 2 weeks of ignoring the terrible taste, and enduring the painful “Chang-overs” the next morning, we suddenly stopped and asked ourselves why we were drinking this disgusting beer. For a few Baht more, you can drink Leo or Singha, both of which are also Thai beers, but taste way better. Or even take it up one level further and try other cheap Southeast Asian beers like Tiger or BeerLao.
Just don’t drink Chang. It’s a horrible beer. Seriously. Try just one sip if you don’t believe me.
Avoid Tuktuks and Mini-Vans
You’ll quickly notice that Thai people aren’t riding around in tuktuks or getting on mini-vans departing from touristy places like Khao San Road. The transportation that is made for tourists is always going to be more expensive than local forms of transport. Try taking a songthaew, a scooter taxi or a local bus. Not only will you save money, but it’s a great way to get away from the other backpackers for a bit and meet some Thai people.
Eat Something Other Than Pad Thai
I’ve mentioned before that there is a joke among Thai people about how tourists always order the pad thai. For most of us, it’s the most familiar food in a country full of very unfamiliar dishes. But you miss out on so many incredible foods if you never venture beyond pad thai. Don’t be freaked out by street food. Street food is so amazing that it’s worth turning a blind eye to the sometimes questionable hygiene practices involved in its preparation. I lived in Thailand for 10 months, ate almost exclusively street food, and I never once got sick from it. Seek out foods that you don’t recognize and try them. If you don’t know the name, you can just point. Try massaman curry, tom yum kung, mango sticky rice, and all the weird-looking fruits. If you’re not a fan of spicy food, check out this post for more ideas on what to eat.
Get a Massage
I can’t promise it will be good. My Thai massage experiences have ranged from being blissful to painful depending on the masseuse. At worst, it’s a slightly uncomfortable hour, and less than a few dollars spent. At best, Thai massages can be completely addictive. If you find the full massage a little intimidating, then try a foot massage or a pedicure. I’ve had some of the best pedicures of my life from the merchants that wander up and down the beaches, carrying buckets of supplies. Take advantage of Thailand’s cheap spa services in one way or another.
Don’t Be Afraid to Bargain
The general rule is that the merchant is going to start by quoting a ridiculously high price, and you should counter with a ridiculously low price. Then, hopefully, you’ll end up meeting somewhere in the middle, which is probably close to the actual value of whatever you’re buying.
But don’t be a jerk about it. I’ve overheard an embarrassing number of Westerners bargaining with an aggressive tone, or acting like the initial offer is an attempted scam. It’s not supposed to be some kind of epic show-down of good vs. evil. Relax and have fun with it.
Go Somewhere Remote
Maybe this means lucking out and finding some undiscovered beach paradise, or it can just involve venturing out into a small town in the countryside, like our former home in Ban Pong. Find a place where no one speaks English, and there is no Western food. This is a completely different side of Thailand than the one that most travelers see. The people are different, the food is different – everything feels different. Get at least a glimpse of what Thailand looks like without all the tourists.
I definitely understand the desire to charge through a country, trying to make the most out of your trip, but this kind of approach really doesn’t work in Thailand. Thailand is made for slow travel. Despite the huge amount of tourism, it’s still a developing country with a developing country’s standard of transportation. This means it almost always takes longer than expected to get wherever you’re going. Trying to follow a tightly fixed schedule in Thailand is frustrating.
Plus, you might notice that most of the Thai people around you aren’t rushing anywhere. They’re moving slowly, savouring their time, and taking a break from everything during the mid-day heat. A big part of really experiencing and understanding Thai culture is letting yourself slow down to this relaxed pace of life.
What’s one more thing that you think every traveler should do in Thailand?