Is Thailand overrated? Has the rapid growth in tourism over the past decade compromised the enjoyment of backpacking to Thailand? Has it gotten too expensive for backpackers?
The simple answer to all of these is no.
I was one of the ones who thought backpacking Thailand was going to be overrated compared to what everyone says. I mean how great can these beaches, waterfalls and hikes even be? Turns out, seriously amazing!
Beginner’s Backpacking Guide to Thailand
This is the beginner’s backpacking guide to Thailand that I wish I had before planning my first trip here. Everything from how long you need for the entire country, which places you should go, and the best order to do them. How much money to presume to spend. What foods you need to try, and what to expect in the day time as well as what the nightlife is like.
Make sure to bookmark this beginner’s backpacking guide to Thailand while you are planning your trip for easy reference.
How Long to Stay in Thailand
Thailand offers tourists a free 30-day visa for most countries, however you will find that if you want to do the country “properly” most other backpackers take about 45 days. This is easily done by simply extending your visa to a 60 day visa once you are in the country. You can also do a visa run that is organized through many tour companies, however this option is less convenient and can work out to around the same price anyways.
I personally ended up doing one month in Thailand heading North to South, then went down to Malaysia for three weeks and came back up to Thailand for another month going to the places I missed the previous month.
I have some regrets about where I went, and where I should have gone or where I should have spent more time so the next section of this beginner’s backpacking guide to Thailand will hopefully help keep you from making the same mistakes.
Best Route & Destinations
While I was planning my own route before going, my friend and I were a bit naive, and chose to go to most of the places we had heard a lot about. Places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Krabi, Koh Phi Phi, and Koh Phangan. Although it was an OKAY itinerary, it wasn’t the best.
Here is what I would recommend to you if I could do it all over again:
- Fly into Bangkok (2 nights)
- Take the night bus or night train up to Chiang Mai (4 nights)
- Book a van or rent a scooter to Pai (5 nights)
- Van or scooter back to Chiang Mai (1 night)
- Fly from Chiang Mai to Krabi, Stay in Ao Nang Beach (4 nights)
- Take a 15 minute boat ride to Railay Beach (2 nights)
- Ferry from Railay or Ao Nang to Koh Phi Phi (4 nights)
- Take the ferry from Koh Phi Phi to Koh Lanta (4 nights)
- Book a transfer to Koh Samui (4 nights)
- Ferry to Koh Phangan (5 nights)
- Ferry to Koh Tao (6 nights)
- Transfer to Bangkok, fly out from here (1 night)
Total = 42 Nights
Backpackers who are in a rush tend to spend two or three nights in each place. My biggest piece of advice in this beginner’s backpacking guide to Thailand is that, if you have the time, stay three to four nights. The one extra night really makes you feel like you are travelling a lot slower and you will definitely enjoy the destination a lot more.
Already Ready to Start Packing?
This 42 night itinerary gives you enough time to spend a couple of extra days in a place you like more if you are aiming for the 45 nights mentioned above. If you are looking to only stay the 30 days I would recommend cutting out some places you think you really wouldn’t enjoy too much, and still keeping each place at three or four nights minimum. Except for places like Bangkok, where two nights really is enough.
In my opinion the absolute MUST VISITS are Pai and Koh Tao, where I could have easily spent a month in each place. If you like smaller places with a lot of natural beauty and not too crazy of a party scene then you’ll be guaranteed to like these as well.
My second favourites were Chiang Mai, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Phangan. Mostly because they were a little bit too busy and crazy for my tastes, but still extremely fun and beautiful to visit.
Food to Expect in Thailand
Thai food is pretty famous around the world so you might know a little bit of what to expect. Some of the things I found on menus though I had never seen before and it took a little bit of getting used to all of the rice.
While I was here my best friend and I ended up doing a cooking class together. All the photos you see below are made by yours truly! (Except for the mango smoothie).
Common Thai Breakfasts
Free Hostel Breakfast
Free breakfasts at hostels aren’t as common to find in Thailand in other places in South-East Asia. If your hostel does happen to offer it you can expect a simple continental breakfast with mainly cereal and toast, perhaps a banana or some fruit if you’re lucky.
Fried Eggs or Omelette and Rice
A very common breakfast found in many of the local vendors is fried eggs and rice, or an omelette with rice. To be honest it was one of the only ‘breakfasty’ feeling dishes you could order. Although it took awhile for me to get used to having my eggs served on a bed of rice, it is something I actually have come to miss a little bit now.
Morning glory is a type of dark green vegetable that is fried up with garlic and can be eaten on its own or as a side dish. Despite its name of “morning glory” it is common to eat it at any time of the day. Although it does do well as a side of vegetables for your morning eggs and rice.
Famous Thai Smoothies
In Thailand you can get a deliciously fresh smoothie on almost every single street corner. For only 25 baht, which is less than $1. Although the mango smoothie pictured above that I still dream about was from a cafe and cost a whopping $3.
Fresh mango, banana, coconut, orange, pineapple, passion fruit, you name it, they have it. If you ask me, it’s the perfect way to cure a hangover and a makes for a great start to the morning.
Lunch and Dinner Thai Foods
Of course Pad Thai has to be first on this list. When I arrived in Thailand I made it my goal to find the best Pad Thai. Something ultimately unrealistic, but I do believe I found it.
One I had at a street food vendor right beside Khao San road in Bangkok had to be the best. Noodles were extremely fresh, he was putting it together and cooking everything up right in front of me. Then I could put as many peanuts or different sauces I wanted on it.
Pad Thai is also a dish that you can easily make veggie friendly. Simply ask for no meat if you are vegetarian, and no egg if you are vegan.
There are many curries in Thailand that are absolutely delicious, and much more different from any Indian curry you may have tried. Masaman Curry is a peanut curry, not too spicy and not too sweet. Green Curry is a good option for those not interested in any spice. Red Curry, Yellow Curry, and Penang Curry all have much different flavours but all have a bit of a kick.
Lastly, Khao Soi Curry is a more soup-like dish that is only found in the north of Thailand, in places like Chiang Mai and Pai. Which was one of my favourite Thailand dishes, so promise me you will try it when you’re in the north!
Sometimes these curries can be hard to find as a vegetarian option in small local places, if you go to the “next level up” restaurant they generally have at least one vegetarian/vegan curry option. Be aware that curries usually use fish sauce so make sure to ask if they can do it with no fish sauce.
This salad is an absolute must try when you are in Thailand. The shredded papaya is topped with other vegetables and crushed peanuts, and then drizzled with a nice sweet and spicy chili sauce. Be careful if you ask for spicy, it can get insanely hot.
You can ask for some steamed rice on the side to turn this side salad into a full blown meal. Plus it helps take away the heat from the spice that creeps up on you.
Fried Rice & Noodles
Another go to easy meal to get when you are out and about is some stir fried noodles or rice. You can usually get any meat and seafood mixed in, or egg if you are vegetarian, or just leave it plain if you are vegan.
Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Gai)
This amazing soup is more common in the north but can also be found in some places in the south. As the name reveals, it is a coconut soup broth, with many vegetables inside and most often chicken. However, you can ask for no chicken quite easily.
Although “Roti” is more commonly thought of as an Indian dish, Thailand has put their own unique twist on it. Upon almost every street corner during the evenings you will find these Thai Roti stalls. Where you order a fresh crepe like thing that you can top with a variety of ingredients. Everything from lemon and sugar, to chocolate, to bananas, and much more. My favourite has got to be the chocolate banana ones.
Mango Sticky Rice
One of the most famous desserts, and one I want to make for my friends and family back home because it is SO easy, is mango sticky rice. Sounds weird at first because rice is generally savoury. This rice gets mixed together with a sweet coconut milk and topped with an easy to make coconut cream. Then served with fresh mango, making it a somewhat healthy, vegan friendly dessert.
Coconut Ice Cream
Fresh coconut ice cream can also be found everywhere, mostly during the daytime. You can taste the freshness in this dessert every time you order and almost makes you feel healthy when all you can taste is the delicious real coconut.
Vegetarian & Vegan Thailand Food Note
Out of other countries in South-East Asia, Thailand was one of the easiest places for me to eat as a vegetarian. I can see the same being true for vegans. All of the little local places all still have English on their menu so you can understand what you are eating. Thai people understand English pretty decently so you can be decently confident they are picking up what you’re putting down.
The predominantly buddhist religion also makes it quite easy to find good veggie food as buddhist monks eat vegetarian. Chiang Mai especially has some of the best vegetarian and vegan food in Thailand as there are a lot of western expats working there as digital nomads.
How Much Does Thailand Cost
On a good day I would actually be within my budget of 1000 baht, which is $40 CAD a day, or around $35 USD a day. That includes accommodation, food, drinks and any activity for that day.
Of course it depends because some days you spent $60, and some days you only spend $20. However, on average if I wasn’t doing an activity every day, wasn’t drinking TOO much, it was extremely easy to stay within the $30-$40 range. It’s when you start packing in tours every day and then going out and buying a ton of drinks afterwards that really blows your budget.
Thus on average, if you are planning to come to Thailand. You should be budgeting to spend around $35-40 USD per day, or even $50 per day if you know you will be drinking a lot and wanting to do everything imaginable. You can cut this number down to $25 – $30 USD per day if you aren’t into the drinking scene.
To Expect During the Day
In the day time no matter which city you are in Thailand, there are always so many things to do. The islands of course have a lot of beautiful beaches, snorkelling, and even diving (Koh Tao!). The other locations, as well as some of the islands, have a lot of good hiking nearby, and exploring the big attractions of that area. To learn more about what to do check out my Thailand related blog posts here.
Don’t worry as soon as you show up to your location of choice you will have no problem discovering what is good to do in the area. There are SO many travel agencies trying to give you deals on tours, as well as hostels that offer daily activities.
If you are on a budget my advice would be to always book activities when you arrive, never in advance. Always go to an outside travel and tourism company. Hostels and hotels are always much more expensive.
To Expect During the Night
Thailand is a crazy party country. There is no doubt about it. Especially when you are down south in the islands. Actually scratch that, even Chiang Mai and Pai are pretty crazy. However, it is what you make it. If you are not a big drinker you can still stay in hostels that are more laid-back and focus on other things like eating good food and doing yoga.
If there is one thing to take away from this beginner’s backpacking guide to Thailand, it’s this. Expect a lot of buckets.
Buckets are a signature of Thailand’s party culture. Costing generally around 250 Baht, or $7 USD for an extremely strong liquor and mix beverage of your choice. Of course the bucket part being refers to the drink being served to you in a literal child’s beach toy bucket.
A night out can take place until anywhere from 2am to 5am depending where you are. Surprisingly, the famous Khao San road in Bangkok closes at 2am, but if you ask a tuk tuk driver to take you to the clubs after you can still party the night away until 4 or 5 am.
I seriously wish that I had all of this information laid out to me before I planned my own trip back in November 2018. I would have chosen my destinations and the route a lot differently than how I ended up doing it. But now, you get the chance to do it properly, which makes me very happy.
If you have any more recommendations or things to add to this beginner’s backpacking guide to Thailand make sure to comment them below for your fellow backpackers. Happy travels!