Whether it’s Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), Dragon Boat Festival, or Nationals Day; we’re spoiled when it comes to holidays in China. We recommend taking advantage of China’s neighboring countries and embracing the culture they have to offer. So, where do we recommend? We’ve put together a travel guide from China to Thailand.
The Land of Smiles, Sun, Sand and Som Tam
No matter where you are in China, Thailand is just a short plane ride away and totally worth a visit. With a well-trodden tourist route and an established transportation infrastructure, the country is IDEAL for first-time backpackers. Thai people are known for being good-natured, friendly and helpful. The country also has some of the most beautiful beaches in South-East Asia and in my humble opinion, lots of the best food. All of these things combined make it a great destination for expats living and working in China. Whether it’s a city break to Bangkok, island hopping in the South or trekking through the mountains and zip-lining in the North, Thailand has something to offer everyone.
Lucky for us, Thailand’s visa situation is pretty ideal. Unless you plan on staying for longer than 30 days, you don’t need to get a visa in advance and will receive a visa exemption stamp at the border. Note: this is the case for most English speaking countries such as the UK, USA, Australia, South Africa, and Canada. Just make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months. If you do not hold a passport from one of these countries, you may wish to check the rules for your country with your local Thai Embassy.
Where to Stay and What to Do
Most people begin their stay in Thailand in the country’s bustling capital – Bangkok. This vast, colorful and sometimes kinda smoggy metropolis has so much to offer and whenever I am traveling through this city. Bangkok is a perfect place to spend a couple of days to soak up the atmosphere and gorge on all kinds of food.
Khao San Road – backpacker heaven
This little strip has to be the most famous road in the whole of South East Asia, and not without reason!
During the daytime, there is not too much going on here other than lots of youngish people walking up and down the street, browsing and bartering the plethora of market stalls to get the best price. If you’re into cheap harem pants, tank tops with ‘SAME SAME’ or ‘SABAI SABAI’, interesting jewelry, and fake handbags/watches, then this is the place for you!
Traveler’s tip: whatever price the stall owners give you when you first ask how much something is, cut that in half and go from there.
When night time falls, the vibe on Khao San Road completely changes. The road is blocked off to cars and people come from all over the city to sit outside of bars and restaurants, drink strong cocktails from giant buckets and party the night away.
At the end of the night, if and when the drunken munchies call, there are many street vendors dotted around selling anything from banana pancakes with ice cream, to deep fried sandwiches (surprisingly popular here in Thailand!), tropical fruits, pad Thai and fried rice.
In terms of where to stay, we suggest staying off of Khao San Road in order to actaully sleep at night.I stayed in a small, middle-of-the-market hotel a five-minute walk away from the actual Khao San Road called Dinsomon.
For 280RMB I got a beautiful double room, free breakfast, and a lovely swimming pool. The good thing about teaching in China is that you can afford to live it up a little during your holidays! Being a short distance away from KSR meant that I could enjoy all of the shopping, sights, sounds, and tastes that it had to offer. If you’re looking for a cheaper, more backpacker orientated option then I have heard good things about The Rambuttri Village Plaza, just a short and safe walk away from the Khao San Road.
Sukhumvit – swanky shopping malls, organic health food stores and cocktail bars
If you don’t fancy the bright lights of Khao San, you could also stay in swanky Sukhumvit. Despite the general pricey-ness of the area, you’ll find a good number of cheap, clean, comfortable hostels in amongst the fancy shopping malls and fancy yoga studios. I like Augusta. It’s very reasonably priced at around 100RMB per night. They also have a kitchen where you can cook, a cute little terrace upstairs and a very comfortable bed with a privacy curtain, which is like gold in the realm of hosteling.
Things to do in Bangkok
To be honest, I’m a foodie at heart and therefore my trips to Bangkok usually involve a lot of eating. My day is scheduled around what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to eat it and when… Everything else is secondary. The foodie scene here is just soooo good and so varied that there are always too many restaurants or street foods tickling my fancy and enticing my tastebuds. Aside from eating, however, there are plenty of cultural things to do in Bangkok and there is truly something for everyone.
The main tourist attraction in Bangkok is undoubtedly the Grand Palace. Although I haven’t actually made it there myself yet, I know many people who have been and say that it is well worth the effort and the 500 baht (roughly 100RMB) that it costs to get in.
There is just so much to do in Bangkok, but be sure to check out:
- Watching the sun set from the Lebua State Tower Sky Bar – one of the highest rooftop bars in the world
- Taking a day trip to the floating markets just outside of Bangkok (can be arranged by the staff at your hotel or hostel)
- Take a boat ride up and down the Chao Praya River, hopping on and off and exploring the city on the Chao Praya tourist boat – my favorite way to get around Central Bangkok
- Visit some of the many stunning temples in Bangkok, such as the Temple of Dawn, Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Wat Arun and Wat Pho
- Chinatown! Having lived in China, there is something comforting about finding myself in a little slice of China nestled within a totally different country. I enjoy seeing the Mandarin signs outside of shops and playing the game of trying to work out if the locals are speaking Thai or Chinese.
Island hopping down South – Koh Phangan and Koh Tao
If you’ve got a week or more in Thailand, I would highly recommend traveling to the South of Thailand. Take the bus, plane or train to Surat Thani and then hop on a Lomprayah high speed ferry to get to the islands.
Koh Phangan is the second in the archipelago of islands off the East coast of the Gulf of Thailand.
Famed worldwide for its monthly full moon parties and for its party/music scene, Koh Phangan very popular spot for backpackers making their pilgrimage to Haad Rin beach in the South of the island during the few days leading up to the full moon extravaganza. Set on a stunningly beautiful, white sand beach, this musical Mecca attracts thousands of partygoers from all over South East Asia and the rest of the world. With a total of 11 different arenas each hosting a totally different style of music, the party spans almost the entire length of the beach. Cheap, strong cocktail buckets and beers are on sale everywhere and you’d better get your neons and your glow sticks out because this is standard attire for the party. There is plenty of cheap accommodation to be found in Haad Rin, some interesting and unique clothes/trinket shops and plenty of cheap Thai and Western food to be found and gorged upon. If you plan to come to Koh Phangan for the full moon party, it’s advisable to arrive at least 3 days before so that you can soak up some of the rest of the attractions and natural beauty that the island has to offer. Ferries and all modes of transport from Bangkok to the South will most likely be very busy, so book your tickets well in advance.
If the Full Moon party doesn’t sound like your thing, Koh Phangan is most definitely still worth a visit. It is perhaps a blessing in disguise for the many expats who live on the island that it is somewhat overlooked for backpackers in favor of its close neighbor, Koh Tao (which I will get to in a minute!). Most people who don’t fancy the full moon party skips Koh Phangan altogether, which is a shame because the island has so much to offer. Here is a list of just some of the things that you can do on the island:
- Slip’n’Fly giant water slide. The title says it all really.
- ‘The Challenge Phangan’ – Total Wipeout style obstacle course set on a beautiful lake by the ocean.
- Take a yoga class at one of the many yoga centres, the best probably being Orion on the West coast of the island.
- Hire a scooter, drive to Mae Head beach on the North of the island and enjoy the incredible snorkeling there.
- Go scuba diving at Sail Rock and you might just be lucky enough to see a whale shark! If you have the time, go the whole hog and do your open water PADI course. The best dive shop on the island for an all round amazing experience is probably Chaloklum Diving.
- Try your hand (ok both hands, and arms…..) out at wakeboarding with Wake Up Wakeboarding in Chaloklum. Warning: You WILL ache the next day! But this is a whole lot of fun!
- Hike to Bottle Beach and enjoy one of the most pristine beaches on the island. Once you’ve spent enough time there, you can either hike back or take a small ferry boat back to the nearest village – there’s no road here!
- Phantip Food Market – every night in Thongsala, next to 7-11. You should try the fresh spring rolls and the sushi.
Fresh spring rolls from Thongsala night market
- Thongsala Saturday walking street market. Every Saturday night, the one way street by the pier in Thongsala is closed to cars and comes alive with street market stalls and vendors of all kinds.
Gorge on delicious vegan food!
- Go for a relaxing massage from one of the many places offering them for less than 300 baht for an hour! I dare you to go for a full body massage, traditional Thai style!
- Get down and dance your socks off at Ecstatic Dance – every Wednesday and Friday at Jaran’s Yoga and Wellness Centre between 6:30 and 9:30 pm, and every Sunday at Pyramid Yoga, 11 am – 1:30 pm.
Where to stay on Koh Phangan
If you’re not coming for the full moon party, or even if you are but want to spend a little time exploring the rest of the island, I’d recommend staying outside of Haad Rin.
Baan Tai is popular with backpackers and travelers and there are lots of cheap hostels and bars around here. There is also a beautiful beach. If you choose to stay in this area, I’d recommend Lime n Soda Backpackers. Run by wonderful people, it has a variety of options to suit your requirements, a swimming pool and excellent reviews.
Venture up the coast a little bit and you’ll get to Srithanu; a true hippy-heaven. Vegan restaurants and yoga schools abound, there are interesting shops selling organic food/skincare items, beautiful jewelry, crystals, sound balls, incense, and essential oils. The beach here is long, white and beautiful with particularly stunning sunsets. I love Moon Beach Resort with it’s basic but air-conditioned bungalows set into the cliffside for around 200RMB per night. If you have a bit more wiggle room in your budget, you could stay at the Phangan Cove, which is right on a beautiful beach and has a salt water swimming pool, plus a great restaurant.
About an hour’s boat ride away from Koh Phangan is its baby brother, Koh Tao. Koh Tao is famed worldwide for its scuba diving scene, churning out more PADI open water divers than anywhere else in South East Asia, which means that prices are low due to intense competition between dive shops and the atmosphere is very much “Yo, ho, ho, ho, a diver’s life for me!”.
Due to the island’s small size and the fact that life here quite literally revolves around diving, there isn’t that much to actually DO on the island, other than dive, drink, party a little (everyone is up at 6 am to go diving!) and chill out on the beach. If you DO decide to take the plunge and go 20 meters deep, check out New Heaven Dive School.
They have a coral conservation project, meet later than all the other dive shops to go out in the morning and are just generally nice people with a professional and friendly attitude.
Whereabouts to stay on Koh Tao? There are two main options. The most popular place to stay is Sairee Beach. This is where you’ll find shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, and clubs. The town center can be quite noisy at night so check the location of your accommodation carefully.
If you’re looking for a quieter, more tranquil setting, look no further than Chalok Bay. This is a small bay with a beautiful, almost deserted beach just hosting a couple of restaurants and a reggae bar, which is the center of the night time action in this area. The Tropicana is a clean, comfortable, middle-of-the-range resort with both fan and air-conditioned rooms, coming in at around 300RMB a night.
Northern Thailand – Chiang Mai
The North of Thailand is less popular with tourists than the South, but still popular and still DEFINITELY worth a visit. It’s really easy to get up North. Just hop on a sleeper train (see below for information on how to do this) from Bangkok and you will wake up in the beautiful mountains surrounding the Northern capital city of Thailand, Chiang Mai.
Known for it’s quaint and charming Old Town, still to this day surrounded by 4 city walls and home to a plethora of interesting and unique shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, massage parlors and temples. Chiang Mai city has TONS to do and is more easily accessible than Bangkok, due to it’s small in size and therefore the ability to reach most places on foot, or by scooter, if you dare!
Top things to do in Chiang Mai:
- Visit the famous Wat Pra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang temples.
- Hire a scooter or hail a red songtaew (Thai style taxi!) and go up Mount Doi Suthep. If you’re REALLY badass, you could try cycling up! Visit Wat Pra Doi Suthep Temple and the beautiful views over the city. You can also stop at some equally stunning view points along the way.
- Take a day or half day trip to go zip lining through the mountains! This can easily be arranged at one of many travel agents throughout the city.
- Go trekking in the mountains (as above, book with travel agent).
- Take a yoga class at The Yoga Tree.
- Get drunk off the super amazing Kombucha at Dada Cafe. Or if you’re not a total non-drinking lightweight like me, indulge in some of their delicious food, or just do both.
- Hang out in The North Gate Jazz Bar at night
- Visit the daily night market just outside of the Old Town
- Get lost for hours mooching around the Old Town, dipping in and our of side streets and temples and maybe getting a little lost…
- Restaurant hopping! Food in Chiang Mai is INSANELY cheap and equally delicious
- Eating durian! Chiang Mai is know for its abundant and cheap fruit, and we can’t talk about fruit in Thailand without mentioning the King of Fruits!
Where have you guys been? Any awesome dive spots or dishes that you recommend? Let us know in the comments!