With near-perfect tropical beaches, friendly people and tantalizing cuisine, Thailand beckons to travelers who seek a relaxed, fun experience. Cultural experiences abound as well, with glistening temples, palaces and mountain villages to explore. An added bonus: visiting Thailand is a relatively inexpensive destination. Learn to navigate this fascinating country like a pro with our insider guide to Thailand.
Developed enough to provide modern amenities, but wild enough to offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences for travelers Thailand has something for everyone. Shaped roughly like a elephant’s head facing westward, Thailand is located in Southeast Asia, approximately mid-way between China and India. To the north are Myanmar and Laos. Cambodia is to the east and Malaysia is to the south. Thailand borders the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand to the southwest and southeast, respectively.
Thailand is a large country, roughly the size of Texas. The country’s beaches and nightlife are its biggest draws, but the interior mountains provide a welcome respite from the heat and activity of the coastal resorts and cities.
Money and Tipping
The baht (B) is the official currency of Thailand. Most places deal only in cash, though you may find some high-end establishments that accept credit cards. ATMs are common, but you will pay a 200B foreign transaction fee.
Tipping is not expected in Thailand, but leaving your change on the table after paying for your meal is appreciated. You should expect to bargain for goods. Ask if the vendor will lower the price and be prepared to make a counter-offer if you’re truly interested in making a purchase.
Thai is the official language. In the tourist zones, you’ll find plenty of people speak passable English. If you plan to visit more rural areas, you’ll need to carry a phrase book. Note that Thai includes different pronunciations for men and women, and remember to end any sentence—even those in English—with “khrap” (men) or “kha” (women.) It’s a polite way to show respect to the listener.
Whether dining in a fashionable restaurant in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district or a food stall along Chiang Mai’s Sunday Night Walking Street, you’ll experience the fresh, exotic flavors of Thailand. Sweet coconut, spicy peppers and fragrant spices combine to create one of the most distinctive cuisines in the world. Expect shellfish, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, fresh fruits and vegetables to be seasoned with lemongrass, mint, chilis and cilantro. Thais like their food spicy so if you don’t, just say, “Mai khin phet,” which means “I do not take it spicy.”
Thailand is a laid-back, welcoming country, and locals are usually quite accommodating to visitors. However, a few tips will help during your travels.
- Cover yourself to the elbows and knees before entering a temple or royal palace.
- Remove footwear before entering a temple.
- Dress modestly and avoid public nudity on beaches. Wear a coverup to and from beaches.
- Don’t touch anyone on the head.
- Avoid pointing your feet at a Buddha or using your feet to stop a runaway coin.
- Don’t say anything to insult the royal family.
Weather and When to Go
Thailand has three seasons: hot, wet and cool-ish. Monsoon season is between July to October and impacts the southern regions more. Rain can come in quick downpours or torrential flooding. The weather shuts down some islands and many ferries stop operating entirely. Most visitors don’t take the risk during the low season, but rates are much lower for those who brave it. Shoulder seasons run from April to June and September to October in the north. The weather is quite hot, but it’s dry and sea breezes offer some relief. From November to March, the country dries off and gets somewhat cooler with highs between 75° and 90°F. The result is larger crowds and higher prices.
Adventure and Exploration
Thailand is divided into six geographic regions. For this insider guide to Thailand, we’ve highlighted unique and interesting things to do in each region.
If you want to cool off, head to the mountainous interior. This region is set apart not only by the cooler climate, but the North is also heavily influenced by Burmese culture. The capital city of Chiang Mai offers hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples and an interesting Old City to explore. Explore the region’s natural beauty at Doi Khun Tan National Park. For a step back in time, visit the village of Phrae or set off a trek into the mountains from Pai.
Home to a third of Thailand’s population, Isaan is the least visited region. Its Khmer ruins and annual festivals make it worthy of exploration though. See ruins at Phimai or ancient cliff drawings near the city of Khong Chiam. North of Loei, find national parks and the Mekong River traversing the region.
The capital city of Bangkok is home to 11 million people, countless high rises, dizzying markets, golden temples and red-light districts. See the dazzling Grand Palace and National Museum, which houses fascinating works of art. Find the Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaeo, the holiest Buddhist site in the country. Jim Thompson’s House was the home of a legendary farang adventurer who disappeared in 1967. Chinatown is a lively place to shop, eat and people watch.
Northwest of Bangkok, find the densely populated, heavily agricultural central plains. The area plays homage to Thailand’s World War II history, including the route of the infamous Thai-Burma Railway built by POW labor and made famous in the film Bridge Over the River Kwai. Go further back in time with the ruins of Hindu Khmers at Lopburi. Go trekking or rafting through the Umphang area.
Pattaya on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand is an exceedingly popular tourist spot. It’s filled with resorts, designer golf courses, shopping malls, tourist attractions and vibrant nightlife. A good number of ex-pats live in Pattaya which is convenient for English-speakers. Further southeast, the island of Ko Samet offers idyllic seclusion. Find gemstone mining and shopping in Chanthaburi, and explore the 40 islands that make up the Ko Chang archipelago.
With coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, beach going is the thing to do in Southern Thailand. The area was devastated during the tsunami of 2004 but has rebounded. Find crystal clear waters lined by jagged limestone rocks. Dive among some of the world’s most impressive coral reefs. Go rock climbing on the Railay Peninsula. Enjoy unyielding nightlife on Phuket Island. Slightly inland, you can stay in a scenic rafthouse on Cheow Lan Lake. For peace and quiet, visit Ko Jum where there’s little to do but gaze at the water.
Popular with Thais who want to escape bustling Bangkok, the seaside towns of Cha-am and Hua Hin offer high-rise condos, windsurfing and plenty of bars. See crumbling ruins at Phetchaburi. Further inland near the border with Myanmar, see herds of wild elephants roaming through Kuiburi National Park. Explore the rocky outcrops of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park whose national translates to Three Hundred Mountain peaks.
Thailand has something for everyone: adventurers, foodies, sun-seekers and partiers. Our insider guide to Thailand will help you plan your adventure through this amazing land. Wondering what temples to visit while you’re here? Check out 10 of our favorites!