Thailand: From Top to Bottom

Thailand is one of the world’s true backpacking Meccas. But in such a vast country, it is sometimes difficult to know whereabouts to make your base, as the northern, central, and southern regions of Thailand all have their own charm and mystique. Here, I am going to examine the pros and cons from each region and try to give a better understanding of the country they call ‘Backpacker Central’!

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Yet despite its global fame for being a leisure destination, Thailand still has to contend with many natural disasters and political occurrences, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the major flooding of Bangkok in 2011, and the more recent the nationwide political riots of 2014. One way or the other, though, Thailand always seems to recover and continues to ‘wow’ its visitors. In fact, tourism contributes nearly 10% of Thailand’s GDP. It is no surprise then to learn that most Thai people are very friendly towards foreigners and will go out of their way to help and assist you. Many Thais are also pretty good speaking English, so try to reciprocate this by learning some simple phrases in Thai!

Getting used to the Thai language as soon as you land in the airport...
Getting used to the Thai language as soon as you land in the airport…

Getting around Thailand is very easy. Transport is cheap and the trains and buses seem to extend to virtually every corner of the country. Travelling long distance by train instead of flying (even budget airlines) can be a great way to save on costs as well as experience some authentic Thai life. Regarding the food, well Thai food is one of the most famous cuisines in the world, and there are some amazing street foods as well as main dishes.

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Bangkok is the sprawling capital city metropolis of Thailand, and suffers from extreme heat and pollution. The traffic is crazy around here, too, but the place does have a certain charm. Situated roughly in the centre of the country, Bangkok contains many amazing religious wats (temples) and, of course, the Grand Palace which is the country’s most visited tourist attraction. Bangkok is a very busy place for tourists, many of whom are backpackers surviving on a shoestring in the city’s notorious Khao San Road, which as well as cheap accommodation and throbbing nightclubs, is also the scene for some tantalising Thai street food! Just a 2 hour journey away from Bangkok (a journey almost every backpacker will make at some stage) is the amazing Ayutthaya Historical Park, where you can find some ancient ruins from a former Thai capital. Read my itinerary advice on the top attractions in Bangkok!

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While perhaps not on everybody’s backpacking itinerary when in Thailand, a trip to the far north to Chiang Rai is still a worthwhile trip to make, as here you find rural Thailand just like how it was centuries ago (well, almost). One of the newer attractions in Chiang Rai is Wat Rong Khun, otherwise known as the Silver Temple. This is certainly a feast for the eyes and the senses and it reminds you just how artists Thais can be. The Chiang Rai Night Bazaar is a cultural attraction that offers traditional handicrafts and good food, but for perhaps the most enthralling of all places to visit in Chiang Rai province, why not check out Doi Mae Salong, which is a charming, sleepy village where ethnic Thai hill tribes go about their tea production duties. This is also a great place to organise a homestay!

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The north of Thailand is known for its cultural heritage, with great people and delectable cuisine. Chiang Mai is known as Thailand’s capital of adventure tourism. There are also some amazing temples here – much more impressive than the ones in Bangkok – and the flora and fauna in the national parks, such as at Doi Inthanon, can keep you occupied for days. Finally, Chiang Mai is known as something of a culinary capital of Thailand, too, so check out the glorious street food scene in the city!

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Ko Samui always used to be the main beach getaway in Thailand, although nowadays it could be argued that the opposite is true; it seems that the west coast is more popular now. That said, Ko Samui remains a busy destination for backpackers of all ages. Some of the reasons for this are somewhat offbeat tourist attractions such as the insane entertainment found at the Samui Crocodile Farm and the mummified monk housed at Wat Khunaram, the wild night life (which even Bangkok would be hard pressed to beat), and the glorious beaches of the Gulf of Thailand, such as Chaweng Beach. Koh Samui is also the gateway to the famous Ang Thong Marine Park. It can be a little more expensive to fly to Samui rather than Phuket or Krabi, but there are plenty are budget hostels waiting for you when you get there!

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Krabi is known as one of Thailand’s amazing beachfront towns, and situated on the Andaman coast on the west of the country, you can be sure of some amazing beaches here (especially Bamboo Island and Railay Beach). A little further afield is Maya Bay, which must be one of the most glorious sights in all of Thailand (albeit very touristy), and the infamous Emerald Pool. However, what sets Krabi apart from other beach towns in Thailand is the addition of mangrove swamps nearby which offer something extra to do if laying in the sun all day long doesn’t appeal to you. For some evening escapades, there’s always quality fun to be had at Ao Nang, which is the party capital of Krabi!

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Arguably the most popular part of Thailand, however, is Phuket on the Andaman coast. This is where you can find a lot of the famous Thai beaches, with their white sands and warm, clear waters (in addition to a few pristine tropical national parks, such as Khao Sok). So even if working on your tan in the Phuket sun’s rays is not your thing, there is still plenty for you to do down here, including arguably the finest temple in the country, Wat Chalong.

Whatever your age and whatever you budget, Thailand is simply one of the most fun and accessible destinations in Asia. It is very rare that you will come here and not enjoy yourself, as well as get great value for money!

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