We've spent a full month in Thailand, and while that is no where near enough time to be an expert, Tyler and I have certainly picked up on some things that we thought would be useful for anyone wanting to travel to Thailand. Here they are, in no particular order:
On a budget? Skip Airbnb.
Airbnbs here have a pretty significant markup. Sometimes, you can even find the same spot on HostelWorld.com and it will be a fraction of the price. This is in part because locals have caught on that it's a preferred method of travel for foreigners, and also because Airbnb fees can really add up. If you're looking for a large fancy apartment for a group of people, you want that homey feel with a kitchen to help offset some costs, and you don't mind spending a little extra then Airbnb will be a great option for you. I've found Airbnb reviews to be dependable, which is great if you want to make sure a place is clean, safe, and comfortable, but I have never really felt like I'm getting a "steal".
Only book one day at your hostel or hotel.
Do this for two reasons: 1. to be sure you like the place you're staying at, 2. to save money.
1. Sometimes places get good reviews, but the mindset of the mass amount of people reviewing places may not match up with yours. Some people want peace and quiet and don't like how social spaces are or vise versa. Some people don't mind firm-like-concrete beds and for others (us) it's a deal-breaker. Booking one night means you can try it out first and decide how much longer you want to stay at that location. At least you will know that you have a bed, wifi, and a shower for a day while you make a decision. There have been a couple of times where we really hated our hostel, but we had booked 4 days in advance and couldn't get out of it. Plus, there's times when we have gone exploring and realized that the location we're in isn't ideal for what activities we want to get in to. Having the freedom to move around means that you'll cultivate the perfect experience for you.
2. HostelWorld and other booking sites take a fee from hotels and hostels. If you book one day, you can pay the higher rate and then "haggle" for a slightly lower rate directly with the front desk. For us, we got anywhere from 50-150 baht (pronounced "Bot") less. That's $1-4 dollars a day. Lodging is already cheap, so $1-4 dollars really adds up!
Prepare yourself for Metered Taxis, Hired Cars, & Tuk Tuks.
When you arrive in Bangkok (or any city) use Google Maps or Uber to look up how far away your destination is, what route to take, how much money it's estimated to cost If you look like a tourist, especially if you look a little bewildered like it's your first time, the drivers will try and get more money out of you. Know what price is reasonable for the destination in case you decide, or accidentally happen into a situation, where you're getting a fixed price ride instead of a metered taxi.
Take a metered taxi where you can. Say you'll pay the tolls.
All meters should start at 35B (that's $1 US). If the Taxi driver doesn't turn it on, ask him to. If you're going from an airport, there may be toll roads. Tell the taxi you want to pay the meter and the tolls. This will be the cheapest option for you.
Know what you want to pay for a hired car before you approach.
EVERYTHING is negotiable. If Google tells you that an Uber is going to cost 300B, that means a metered taxi will be slightly less. Know what's a reasonable price range and go from there.
Uber drivers can still rip you off.
We've found that Uber is more dependable when you're already in a city, not when you're trying to get somewhere from an airport. In Bangkok, we had an Uber driver pull up and, even though he knew our final destination, told us that our location was too far away and that we could either cancel this request and ask for an Uber XL, or we could pay 800B (~$24) for a 30 min ride. In SF, that's a reasonable ride, but in Bangkok, that's extortion. It should be about 250B from Don Meuang airport into town. If that happens, haggle for the right price, or step away and take a metered taxi.
The smaller the Tuk Tuk, the cheaper the fare!
There are taxis and ubers, and then there are a myriad of different smaller transports like songthaews, which are trucks with bench seating in the back, fancier/larger tuk tuks that can transport 3+ people and bags, and then sidecar tuk tuks which are the smallest and cheapest of the bunch.
Don't be afraid to take the smaller version! They're loads of fun and sometimes you can go long distances for $1.
Sometimes ground transportation is better than budget flights.
Depending on where you're going, it's easier and cheaper to book ground transportation, and it gets you there in a similar space of time. If you're close to a major city hub, taking budget flights may be the best. Air Asia looks and feels like a nicer SouthWest but the fares are around $30-40 US for a one way flight. When we were traveling from Krabi on the West side of the country to Koh Tao island on the East. We could have flown from Krabi or Phuket to Koh Samui, but in the end we would have still spent the same amount of time (roughly 10 hours) trying to get from place to place.
Lomprayah is a ferry + bus charter service that is incredibly punctual, well organized, and comfortable. Their prices are super reasonable as well.
Thailand also has a fairly intricate train system with air conditioned sleeper cars which means you can spend a night traveling and save money by not needing a hotel that night. Trains should be booked in advance, and if you can book in person that's even better.
Bring toilet paper with you.
There is rarely ever toilet paper in any toilet, especially if it's a public toilet. They have hand-held bidet sprayers in 75% of all toilet stalls, which means you can at least spray yourself pretty clean.
Other bathrooms have a large bucket of water with a smaller scooping bucket for you to... I think the objective is you use your hand to wipe with one hand and then you use the scoop to grab some water to rinse off your hand. You also use this scoop to fill up the toilet with more water, which pushes whatever you just deposited down the drain.
My friend Eric comically mentioned that if he travelled for a year, his blog would be called "My Year of Diarrhea". That's not a bad title. Nature strikes at the most inopportune time, and you will often find yourself playing jazz out of your butt with no ability to clean up properly. Be prepared, carry toilet paper. We carry ours in a plastic bag because of the scattered showers (HA! No pun initially intended) that happen during monsoon season.
Also, there's rarely soap. If that bothers you, you may want to bring some, or bring hand sanitizer.
Say bye-bye to napkins.
99% of all restaurants use toilet paper or 2x4 inch sheets of thin paper as napkins. That means you'll be slurping curry, and tom yum, and pad thai and then go to reach for a napkin and get a whisper instead. It's the craziest thing. I have no idea why this is.
If you want to go to temples, cover up.
No tank tops, no mid-drift exposing shirts, no shorts (for women), no tattered jeans, no offensive slogans. If you're dressed like it's summer in California, be prepared to be turned away. Most temples will have sarongs you can borrow or rent for 5B, but if you're wearing any of the other mentioned styles of clothing, good luck.
Also, no showing affection.
Everything is negotiable.
Seriously. Everything, everywhere. Even brick and mortar shops, not just in the markets.
Unless you're Tyler and haggling terrifies you, in which case: pay full price!
Book guided adventures.
The best way to learn is through guided tours. Snorkeling, rock climbing, cooking classes, scuba diving, elephant tours. We've had the most fun when we've been on guided adventures. We've done rock climbing, scuba diving with a whale shark, took a cooking class, and even snuggled elephants! It allows you a chance to meet the locals and learn about what it's like living in that area. It also gives you a chance to meet other travelers and learn from their collective experiences. We've made a lot of changes to what we thought we wanted to do because other people gave us recommendations, told us stories, and showed us pictures.
A tip for using TripAdviser!
Look at the negative reviews first. See if there's a trend to what people are saying. If the business is responding and seems like they're bullying customers, it's likely that they are grooming their reviews. Don't trust companies like this.
Another tip: are there things that are important to you when you travel? For us, a comfortable bed is a MUST. We learned how to do this half way through the trip. Search Trip Adviser reviews for key words: "bed" "wifi" "mosquito" "clean", etc. to see what people are saying. If a comfortable bed is your bare minimum requirement, this will make it easier to find a spot that will work for you. ALSO: HostelWorld will hide the first two reviews about bed bugs because they're "not sure" if they're credible. Trip Advisor doesn't hide reviews on bed bugs, so cross-reference to make sure there are no recent outbreaks.
Rent a motorbike.
I know mine and Tyler's parents will cringe at this tip, but there truly is NO other way to see South East Asia without renting a motorbike.
Here's the best practices scoop for renting a motorbike (moped) in Thailand and the rest of South East Asia:
If you have no previous experience, I'd suggest taking a motorcycle class before hand. If you can't do that, they'll still rent to you. Keep in mind that locals rarely ever crash, it's typically ALWAYS tourists who do. You'll notice all the white people with bandages all over their legs. That's either because they crashed a bike, or because they jumped in drunk to a fire show like a proper idiot. Motorbikes are dangerous! You might think that the lower the cc (power of engine) the better off you are, but power means that you can get yourself out of shitty situations quickly. Roads in SE Asia are bumpy and sandy and muddy and a little bit of power is yourfriend. 150 ccs are a good size/power engine for you (or you + one other person, if you're both under 320 collective pounds).
Check your bike before hand. Check the tires to see if they're bare or balding. Check the tire pressure. Take pictures of the bike before you leave so you can show that any pre-existing damage was not caused by you. Check the blinkers and the lights.
Before renting, I recommend spending a day or so wherever you are observing how locals (and tourists) drive in your area. Bali was very different from Thailand. Remember that locals are used to motorbikes on the roads, and they're used to confused foreigners, so protect yourself first. If you're afraid to drive through a puddle or mud, good! Don't do it. The locals will drive around you.
Once you're on a bike, you'll quickly realize how incredible the spots are right outside the tourist areas. The way we do it is Tyler only thinks about driving and I only think about directions and surveying the area. It helps our brains focus on a small, but important task. It also is incredibly romantic because it means we are two halves to a whole. It really helps to deepen our connection and further improve our communication. You can learn a lot about a relationship by how you two work together in high-stress situations. We trust one another fully and we're both equally invested in the others' safety. It's a beautiful thing. Especially when you're surrounded by incredible scenery. All together something you shouldn't miss!
Learn how to say 5 key phrases.
ALWAYS. LEARN. THE. LANGUAGE. Don't be a dick when you travel. Learning "Hello" "Please" "Thank You" "Yes" and "No" are incredibly important for getting around. Locals love it when you show that you've invested a little bit of time learning about their culture and their language. A little bit goes a long way, always.
Remember that in Thailand they add a different gendered particle at the end of statements. So "hello" sounds slightly different based on how you identify. The lovely thing is that it doesn't matter how you present, it matters how you identify. If you identify as female, add "ka" (kaah) at the end of the statement. If you identify as male, add "kahp". So hello = sa wat dee, but if you identify as female: sa wat dee ka, or male: sa wat dee kahp.
At first, I was leery that if a bearded man said "ka" after "hello", people could get violent because he was not asserting his gender 'correctly' but it doesn't seem like that's the case here. From an outsider's perspective Thailand feels really comfortable with gender fluidity. I'd be curious to hear from a queer or trans Thai person what their perspective is. If anyone knows of any reading about it, I'd be interested!
Just ask! We're happy to answer!