Hello friends! It’s been a while…
My last blog post was at the end of May, then my life derailed in the most awful way. My darling mother died on 20th June. She was a remarkable, adventurous, enthusiastic and open-minded woman. I inherited her passion for travelling, her curiosity and her surname ‘Sparrow’; we are both Curious Sparrows and I want to continue writing this blog as a tribute to her. My mother was an intrepid world traveller and she and my dad explored the globe together. They visited six of the seven continents together (all except Australia!) and had the most fascinating, astonishing and amusing anecdotes to share. They slept in the Amazon rainforest and watched penguins waddling on icebergs in Antarctica. They stood beside me on the Great Wall of China and posed for silly photos on the Bolivian salt flats.
One of the places she didn’t manage to visit is Thailand. We are actually due to meet up there in January 2020, but she was undergoing chemotheraphy at the time and had to cancel her trip. Today I am going to share 18 things you should know before you visit Thailand. I am sure my mother and I would have learned a few of these the hard way while we were travelling together! A simple Google search will bring up thousands of articles about the Land of Smiles. Armed with so much advice and information from friends, family and internet strangers, I thought I knew what to expect. Turns out there is a lot I didn’t know about Thailand which would have been very handy to know in advance.
Thailand has a whopping 1430 islands. Many of them are unhabited but there are still a vast number for tourists to choose between. Ask your friends and family for recommendations, but also do some research in advance because the islands are widely different. Some are bursting with restaurants, bars and nightclubs, whilst others are very sleepy and low-key. Some are famed for their national parks, others for their crystal clear waters and snorkelling opportunities. Some are more family-friendly, others better suited for the hedonist, hippie backpacker type. What suits your friend – and their budget – might not be right for you. This article really helped me narrow down which islands to choose, as did this one. We had to leave Thailand earlier than planned but managed to visit Koh Lipe, Koh Lanta and Koh Pha Ngan. One day I’d like to visit Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Yao Yai and Noi (along with others!).
There’s much more to Thai cuisine than green curry and papaya salad. You are probably very familiar with Thai cuisine, including specialties like pad Thai, green curry, red curry, yellow curry, mince with Thai basil and papaya salad. What you may not know is that food is arguably much, much better in the north! My boyfriend and I were blown away by the northern cuisine, especially Khao Soi (a rich, coconut curry, bursting with egg noodles, pickled mustard greens and some kind of meat, topped with deep-fried crispy egg noodles), Khao Kha Moo (slow-braised pork leg with rice), Laab (very spicy minced meat with mint and lime) and Bami Mu Daeng (a noodle soup with wheat noodles, char siu-style grilled pork and prawn wontons). We also loved Sai Oua; pork, lemongrass, kaffir lime and chilli sausages that can be found in every restaurant and market. The food in the north is heavily influenced by Myanmar/Burma, Laos and China. I have to admit that we were disappointed by the southern food, as many of the menus were rather generic, serving milder dishes geared towards tourists. It was still good, but not a patch on the north.
High quality accommodation might not be as pricey as you think. In many countries, 4 and 5* hotels are out of people’s price range. In Thailand you can find incredible deals on booking websites like Agoda and Priceline, including complimentary breakfast, on-site pools and fitness studios.
Your holiday wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a national park. There are 127 to choose between, showcasing the country’s spectacular natural beauty. We did an overnight excursion to Khao Soi, where we slept in a floating bungalow. Stunning scenery, kayaking, hiking through a forest and early morning and evening boatride safaris meant it was one of our favourite excursions during our six-month sabbatical. Another popular option Ang Thong, which is a cluster of 42 rock islands.
Thai massages are not for the faint-hearted. These world-renowed massages are not intended to relax and soothe. Instead your masseuse will press, pull and stretch you, using their body weight to apply accupressure and bend you in ways you will not expect. None of the massages I had ever painful but there was certainly some discomfort. Oils and lotions are rarely used and you will be clothed during the massage. An hour-long session only costs 200 – 300 baht, such a bargain!
There is an extensive network of buses, trains and ferries. Bangkok’s was the most seamless but we were impressed by how easily we could move from one small town to another, using local buses and private minivans. Hotel staff were always happy to book our onward travel for us. However, these journeys do take much longer than you would expect. There is always a lot of long breaks and hanging around, waiting for more passengers to arrive before the bus leaves. You will get to where you’re heading but who knows how long it’ll take? As a general rule, usually an hour or two longer than the estimate given when purchasing the tickets so make sure you have a book (or two!) and plenty of water and snacks.
Tuk-tuks are a common way to get around, but if you’re not a fan of negotiating prices, use the Grab app to reserve tuk-tuks and taxis. You are shown the exact price before booking so there are no unpleasant surprises. Another option is a songthaew, which is like a shared taxi which transport passengers travelling in roughly the same direction. The price per person is usually written on the side of the songthaew, but the more passengers, the lower the fare.
There are a fair few scams to be aware of. As a general rule: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Be sceptical if a taxi driver tells you that a temple or tourist attraction is closed that day. It is better to check for yourself, because opportunist taxi drivers will direct their passengers away from the sights and towards their friends’ shops and restaurants (where they get a commission for bringing you in). It is fine to negotiate the price of taxi journeys, but make sure to do so at the beginning of the ride before setting off. Before you arrive in Thailand, download a currency app (I use XE) so that you can calculate the difference between your currency and the Thai Baht.
Expect to be overcharged. I don’t think we were majorly ripped-off at any point, but we certainly paid ‘tourist prices’ rather than what the locals pay. It is sometimes annoying, especially when it’s really blatant, but I just reminded myself that local salaries are much lower than where I’m from.
Carry your own hand soap and toilet paper. We could usually find soap in restaurant and cafe toilets, but toilet paper was not very common so we always carried our own. When you get further outside the cities, both become a rareity so it is a really good idea to buy some from the supermarket and take it around with you. Speaking of toilets, don’t be alarmed if you see a hose next to the toilet seat. It’s a ‘bum gun’; you will find them all over Thailand and they work in the same way as a handheld bidet. You may never go back to regular toilet paper again….
Save money on slow travel. Lots of people opt to fly from city to city, but if you are on a budget and want an authentic travel experience, take the train to/from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or Surat Thani, where you can take buses and ferries to tourist hotspots like Krabi, Phuket and Ko Pha Ngan. Your accommodation can help you organize your onward journey, or you can book with 12go Asia and Bookaway.
Pack lots of suntan lotion and bug spray. We were surprised how pricey these were, so were glad we’d bought Deet 100 spray and factor 50 with us. However, as time went on, our stock were running low and were very relieved when a fellow tourist bounded over to us in a 7/11 and said excitedly “The suntan lotion here is 50%!“. Every tourist in the store replenished their supplies, ourselves included.
7/11s have everything you need….and more. Want an icecold cup of irresistable Thai tea? 7/11 has it! Want a moreish cheese toast sandwich? 7/11 has tons of varieties! Want to stock up on mysterious beauty products that you can’t read the label of? 7/11 has shelves and shelves full! Need aftersun for your sunburnt shoulders? 7/11 has got your back (and shoulders – ba dum tss!). Brave enough to try some wacky flavoured crisps? 7/11 has tons! Want to buy enormous 6-litre barrels of water because the tap water on the island isn’t drinkable? 7/11 will save you from dehyration. 7/11, we love you!
The islands are pricey. We expected to pay more for such idyllic surroundings but we were surprised at the considerable difference between mainland and island prices in restaurants and convenience stores like 7/11 (which I naively assumed would be a set price for the whole country!). Actually, 7/11 prices on islands like Koh Lipe and Koh Lanta are 30-50% higher than on the mainland (even when the mainland is a short ferry ride away).
Haggling is possible in Thailand, especially at markets. However, it’s important to know when to stop though. Reach a fair price you are both happy with. Try to avoid driving the price down further and further, just for the sake of ‘winning’. Paying a few baht more probably won’t make much difference to you, but may make a lot of difference to the local vendor or driver.
If you visit an elephant sanctuary, do your research. There are dozens of sanctuaries in Thailand but some are far more ethical than others. As a general rule – avoid any that allow you to ride on the elephants or do any strange activities like painting them(!). Most sanctuaries will let you feed them, or walk alongside the gentle giants through a forest like we did in Elephant Nature Park (such a magical experience!). Read online reviews, search specific sanctuary names to see if they’ve been mentioned in any blogs or articles and familiarise yourself with the barbaric practice of ‘breaking of the spirit‘ to understand why you shouldn’t ride an elephant.
Some of the best places in Thailand are away from the large cities. My boyfriend and I enjoyed Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but our favourite places in the north were Lampang and Pai. We skipped some of the major party islands and spent time on quieter islands instead. We also loved Khao Sok national park, which doesn’t appear on every travel itinerary.
Be careful of the territorial dogs and hungry monkeys. I spent six weeks in Thailand and the only time I felt unsafe was when a random, agitated dog started barking and jumping up at us before its owner called it back! There are a lot of strays in Thailand which can be quite aggressive, especially in rural areas. We had dogs growling and barking at us, and following us for quite a while. Ignore them and remember to go to hospital for a rabies shot if you get bitten. Similarly if you are scratched or bitten by a monkey. Monkeys have grown dependent on people for food and have been known to snatch food out of people’s hands or raid through their bags.
That’s all for now! If you have any more tips, please share them in the comments below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow