The Ultimate Guide to Thailand for the First Time Visitor
From the most breathtaking beaches to larger than life cities to a lush, green countryside, Thailand seriously has it all! It has always been a super popular place to visit, but in recent years - likely helped by Instagram - it has exploded even more as a bucket list destination. I had the incredible chance to visit Thailand back in January + am finally sharing my guide on everything that you need to know as a first time visitor. Because most 20 and 30 somethings don’t have a ton of vacation time to burn + Thailand is a pretty lengthy trip from literally anywhere in the US, it definitely takes planning to make the most of your limited time. Read on for all my tips + don’t hesitate to comment, email or DM with any questions that we did not answer!
The Pre-Planning: All You Need To Know
When To Visit: December-March. You can definitely visit Thailand year-round, but, if you’re planning a trip this big, you might as well try to go when the weather is at its best. January and February are the two lowest rainfall months, but December-March, in general, is the driest and coolest time frame. Which is pretty crazy to think - I was practically melting the entire visit in January, so I can’t imagine what it would be like during another time of year.
Booking Your Flights: As of now, there is not a single non-stop route to Thailand from anywhere in the US, but due to the uptick in popularity, there are talks of adding a few within the next year. From the West Coast, you will most likely fly through Taipei or Seoul. From the East Coast, there are lots more options for stopovers. If given the choice, I would highly recommend stopping in Seoul. It has consistently been ranked the best airport in the world + they even organize free tours for you to go + visit 1-2 city landmarks during your layover! As far as where to fly into, I’d recommend Bangkok. Bangkok will have the most daily flights, so will be a little easier to find a good deal + a flight with most preferable times. But, of course, set price alerts for all of Thailand’s airports. You never know when a killer deal will pop up elsewhere.
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The Planning: Where To Go
For a first time trip anywhere, I’d recommend quantity over quality to some degree. When I say this, I mean, get a sampling of a few different places to really get a feel for a country or region + decide where you’d want to return next time. Both K + I have spent trips where we planned 7-10 days in just one city and, honestly, it can be a huge bummer if you end up not really enjoying a place. If you’re visiting a country for the first time + have 7-14 days, definitely take the time to hope between cities, or even nearby countries.
For Thailand, I would recommend doing 1 city stop, 1 beach stop + 1 country stop. This will be a great way to take in as much of the country as you can + really get a feel for the place. Plus with so many airports, train stations, boats, etc., it is super easy to get between point A and point B.
I would recommend Bangkok as your city stop, Krabi/Railay as your beach stop + Chiang Mai as your country stop.
City Stop: Bangkok (3 Days)
Prior to my Thailand trip, I did a TON of research + every blog, YouTube video, you name it, said that Bangkok was a place that you either love or hate. They were totally correct. If I’m being totally honest, I have no desire to ever return to Bangkok again. That being said, I would still recommend stopping here on your trip. One because it’s just a convenient place to fly into + start your trip. Two, you could be on the opposite end of the spectrum + absolutely love it.
Where To Stay: Hotel Hansar. I am smiling just typing the name of the hotel. We had the most incredible stay. The staff were the friendliest that we have ever met. The complimentary breakfast was more than just the standard bagel + coffee. You could order anything off of their full brunch/breakfast menu, as many entrees + drinks as you wanted, all amazing quality. Lastly, the rooms were top-notch. Anywhere in the Lumphini Park neighborhood is amazing. Our hotel was sandwiched between the Waldorf Astoria + the St. Regis. No complaints.
One of the best things about Bangkok, and Thailand in general, was that you can stay pretty luxuriously for a lot less than in other parts of the world. Our five star hotel was just $120 a night.
What To Do:
Chao Praya River Cruise - I love a good river cruise in literally any city I visit. Not only is it a great way to take in a city + get off of your feet for a few minutes, but you can learn so much from the tour guides + operators if that’s your thing. In Bangkok, we did a hop-on, hop-off river cruise which I would highly recommend. In 120 degree weather, it was so much more pleasant getting between destinations on a boat vs. a packed subway or tuk tuk ride.
Chatuchak Market - Open just Saturdays + Sundays. An open air market with thousands of stalls, mouthwatering street food, Thai massages for just $10 an hour. Definitely plan to have lunch or dinner here.
Temples - There are SO many temples in Bangkok + all over Thailand. I would suggest picking just 2-3 of your must sees. In my opinion, any more than that would start to get a little old. I would recommend The Golden Mount (must visit at sunset as the views are incredible), The Grand Palace + either Wat Pho or Wat Arun. Just a disclaimer - you do need to dress conservatively to visit any of the temples. Shoulders + knees must be covered.
.Where To Eat + Drink:
Vertigo + Moon Bar - Rooftop bars are all the rage all over SE Asia + Bangkok is no exception. There are so many to choose from, but Vertigo + Moon Bar was a must visit. My absolutely favorite stop during our stay in Bangkok. It is 61 floors above the city, most breathtaking views + delicious food +drinks. Being so far up made the heat somewhat bearable too.
Thip Samai - OMG! Just the thought of this place makes my mouth water + I haven’t been able to enjoy Pad Thai in the US since. This is a total hole in the wall place, walking distance from The Golden Mount temple. I would recommend visiting the temple for sunset + then coming here for dinner. It’s a Michelin star restaurant, but dinner for two was under $10 + SO good. We arrived before opening + still waited in line for an hour, so be prepared. Definitely worth the wait though!
Khao San Road - What you hear about Bangkok nightlife (The Hangover 2, anyone?) happens on Khao San Road. Definitely add this to your agenda. Grab some street eats for dinner + then drinks at one of the many bars along the road. This area is also where many of the hostels are located, so if you’re looking to meet some new friends while traveling, this is a great area to do so.
Beach Stop: Krabi (4 Days)
After a somewhat lackluster experience in Bangkok, I was a little nervous about the rest of the Thailand vacation, but my stay in Krabi was hands down the best beach trip I have EVER been on. Even better than the Greek Islands. It is exactly what you picture when you dream of a carefree, happy beach bum life.
After flying from Bangkok to Krabi, we got to take one of the iconic long tail wooden boats straight to our hotel. Such a cool experience!!
Where To Stay: There are two main beaches areas in Krabi - Ao Nang + Railay. Ao Nang is SUPER touristy + completely packed. A good place to go if you want access to a ton of souvenir shops, some nightlife + a plethora of restaurants. It’s more busy, loud + vibrant. Railay is much more peaceful, relaxing + zen. There are still lots of bars + restaurants, but more the vibe of chairs in the sand + string lights. My kind of scene.
We stayed at the Bhu Nga Thani Resort + could not say enough good things about it. We became BFF’s with some of the staff there + were honestly so sad to leave on our last day.
What To Do: Honestly, if you’re anything like me, you don’t want to do a ton on your beach vacation. I’m all about laying in the sun with a drink in one hand + a book in the other. After a jam-packed 3 days in Bangkok, we didn’t schedule a ton for our time in Krabi, but below are a few of the must visits.
Cooking Class - Our Thai cooking class was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip + something that I want to be sure to do when visiting other countries + cultures in the future. We learned how to make a 5-course meal + received a 45 recipe cookbook at the end to take back home. Not only was the food delicious + surprisingly easy to make, but it was such a great experience to spend the evening with a real Thai family. It really gave me a taste of the magic that Anthony Bourdain would talk about in Parts Unknown. There is really no better way to connect with those different from us than while sharing a meal.
Phi Phi Island Day Trip - The Phi Phi Islands are all over Insta + probably one of the most photographed places in Thailand. They are stunning. There are a ton of similar islands around Krabi/Railay that I would absolutely recommend visiting. All of the boats left from just in front of our resort + tickets can be purchased even on the day of. I would recommend doing the full day tour + getting to see a few other islands, like the James Bond Island, in addition to Phi Phi.
East Railay Beach - Most of the hotels in Railay are located on West Railay Beach. For the first half of our trip, we thought this was the main place to be as there were so many restaurants, bars, fellow travelers, etc. However, we took the 10 minute walk to the other side of the island + discovered East Railay. It was breathtaking. Most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed + the most chill place.
Where To Eat + Drink:
Outside of our cooking class, we mainly just ate at our hotel + random beach restaurants. There are so many cute restaurants that you will stumble upon. You really can’t go wrong! The one place you can’t miss however…
Bang Bang Bar - Another hole in the wall place that became one of our favorites of the trip. Definitely not a place to be wearing anything dressier than shorts, a tank + sandals. The bartender + owner, Bang Bang, was the sweetest guy. We talked for hours + he made the best drinks that were not only delicious, but creative + Instagrammable. Definitely stiff. I watched him make mine + definitely noticed 3 shots being poured into it, but yet I couldn’t taste a thing. A little dangerous to order more than 1 or 2, but so good + such a great guy.
Country Stop: Chiang Mai (3 Days)
For the third stop on my Thailand trip, I visited Phuket for 5 days for one of my dear friend’s weddings (check out her insane wedding video here - most epic week ever!!), so did not have time to make it to Chiang Mai. Because Phuket is another beach destination, I would highly recommend adding Chiang Mai to your list as the third stop instead. Chiang Mai is in Northern Thailand + is much more lush + green than either Bangkok or the beach towns. It has many of the best + most ethical elephant sanctuaries, There are lots of cooking schools here as well - our cooking instructor in Krabi had actually recently moved from Chiang Mai.
I had the most incredible time visiting Thailand + feel so fortunate to have been able to take this trip of a lifetime. I cannot wait to return one day + visit the beaches of Krabi again, as well as check out Chiang Mai. If you have any questions at all about planning your trip, let us know!! In addition, if you know anyone traveling to Thailand - which given its insane popularity, you probably do! - please share this post with them!!