I recently finished a 7 week trip around Thailand and Vietnam. The experience was phenomenal; something I’ve dreamed of doing since I was in my early twenties. I wish I’d gone, back then, so I’d have some history to compare to, as Thailand and Southeast Asia are clearly a tourist destination that becomes more and more popular every year, and with that growth in tourism, the cultural experiences, adventures in a far off land, and super inexpensive travel, all diminish a little more. Still even as of 2015, I can say there’s plenty of all of those to enjoy.
While I can’t claim to be an expert, that is, I’m not nearly as well informed as some folks I met there, or those I know generally who have spent months if not more than a year living in and hopping around the area. I say with confidence, even a few weeks is enough to see a lot of Thailand, and get a pretty good idea of how to have a great time, and also to discover the pitfalls others should avoid.
Since in my own circle of friends, I have some knowledge to share, I have started to get asked about others’ plans to go there. The question I’ve heard the most is, “where should I go?”. And my first response is no different from any travel blogger’s. That is – how much time do you have?
Unfortunately, most people only plan for a couple weeks, or less. And that’s where I’m lost.
Whether traveling from the east coast or west coast of the US, or Europe (sorry I’m assuming my readers are from one of the two, if you’re from Australia you probably don’t care too much for a post like this!), flying to Thailand is a long journey and no matter where you arrive, you’re going to need a decompression chamber.
Even though the adventure really starts the moment you leave home, once your plane lands, you should really have a 24 hour period to drop off your stuff and become acclimated. A period to take it easy with some walks in the area around your hotel/guesthouse/or hostel, and be able to shower or take a nap as needed.
Food isn’t hard to find, but searching for it for your first time is a little over whelming, no one wants to get sick during their trip let alone the first day of it! Also prices are new upon just arriving – and unless money isn’t an object, you’ll want to look around a little before you start spending your baht, you should because while most of the food is good in Thailand, sometimes the most expensive is also the worst!
It’s very likely you’ll begin your trip in Bangkok, this just seems to be how most people do it, which is quite ironic because it is the most demanding from a sensory perspective of any destination in Thailand (it’s a huge loud, crazy city much crazier than any in the US or Europe easily), and that simply makes the whole first part of your trip more crazy.
So back to the original point, you don’t need a week or anything in your arrival city, but definitely a day, I suggest two as a bare minimum. So you can get your head back on (and your sleep schedule working for you, instead of against you). Then you can move along to the next spot in your journey, chances are you wont desire to stay in Bangkok for very long, if that’s where you do begin. All that said, your flight is a minimum of 16 hours, and you need 1-2 days to adjust. Since you’ll probably want to spend the night in your departing city at the end of your flight, the day before your return home is also a travel day. Which means there is a day and a half on both sides of your trip (3 days) that you will be just in transit. Now add back in your flight time, 16 x 2, or 32 hours, we’re up to 4.5 days flight, decompression, and travel in your trip. Which means, you’ll have 9.5 days to do other stuff. Since you’ll probably want to hop around from island to island, do a slow boat on the Mehkong (2-3 days long), or a ferry to / from mainland in the Andaman Sea area (which typically take 3-6 hours). Now you have less than a week of actual time to just chill. How did two weeks vacation just become one? WTF?!? That’s what I’m saying… Don’t get me wrong, those ferry rides are fun and beautiful, a great chance to have a beer and watch the islands pass by. It’s all part of the adventure which is very much in the spirit of the backpacker experience of Southeast Asia. But when nearly half of your trip is spent connecting from various places, you begin to realize, it’s not actually so cheap, because traveling from one town to another is just as expensive as paying for one night in a guest house. And you realize you’re not getting enough time to just stay in any one place.
If I was you, and two weeks was all I had, I’d choose a different destination. Somewhere that doesn’t offset my head so much with time zone differences. Something that requires <10 hours of flights, instead of 16. And the destination should have 1 – 2 places to stay, not 4-6 as Thailand travelers tend to aim for. This way, you only lose maximum 2 days getting in and leaving, and 1 day of connecting between places in your destination country. Now you still have 11 days to relax and forget about everything except when to go back in the sea for a swim, or where to go for a hike next. And thats how travel should be.
If you are really serious about going to Thailand or Southeast Asia, consider taking more time off. If that’s not a possibility, just try to limit the number of places you go while in Thailand, and realize you’re not planning a trip for relaxation, you’re planning a trip that will take a lot of energy, and likely leave you needing a more relaxing trip shortly after the one where you run around a crazy third world country for two weeks straight.
And for your planning – one site I highly recommend to do research is Travelfish.org. They have great one page write ups on all the best destinations and make a point to help you understand which will be a waste of time, pricey, touristy, or super relaxed and totally new experience. I’m sure more thoughts and tips will bubble up as time passes and I think back on all the great food, and fun I had there. But this is definitely my number one suggestion to start with.