This is insight for any friends who are planning to travel to Thailand.

BY GEOGRAPHY

Southern Thailand is full of beautiful beaches and islands.  It is where people often go for more traditional vacations.  Compared to the rest of Thailand, these areas are often the most saturated with tourists and are the most expensive (especially Phuket from what I understand).  Although they are still considerably cheaper than anywhere in the West.  I also noticed more societal separation between Thais (in service roles) and Westerners (often in demanding tourist roles).  I traveled to Koh Samet and felt sort of guilty – like my presence there as a Western tourist was part of a larger trend occurring where once self-sufficient locals are forced to become servers.  Granted, the island economies and the locals now rely on tourism and need them to maintain a standard of living they have grown accustomed to.  So from a cultural perspective, the islands are morally messy.  If you like buddying up with locals and learning about other cultures, the South is not the best place in Thailand. However, it does offer amazing nature and the ability to enjoy relaxing island life (or heavy partying).

Here’s a destination list:

Koh Tao
– Further south, great place to learn how to SCUBA (I think it costs around 8,000 THB to get certified).

Koh Samet
– Perfect breakaway from Bangkok for a long weekend. Take an ATV or motorbike rental around the island stopping at all of the island’s beaches.  Watch a fire show at Ploy Bar or go to the beach front glow paint club, Naga Bar.  You can party hard or retreat to a quiet beach bungalow here.

Koh Pangang – 
Known for its full moon parties.  It is the place for wild beach raves and all of the beauty, fun, ugliness, chaos, and poor decisions that may accompany that.  As one friend put it, a full moon party on Koh Pangang blew the party fuze necessary for him to put his college days behind him.

Pattaya – 
Imagine Las Vegas on an overcrowded beach full of sloppy Western men who come across as repulsive in their own country.  However the prostitute population is largely comprised of Thai women and boys who have fallen victim to Western-style commercialization and all of the insatiable desire that accompanies it. They can temporarily experience a lifestyle they could have only imagined – one that we largely take for granted – by turning (from what I’ve heard) $15 tricks.  There are a million different relationship arrangements here and they are mutual but they seem to be overarchingly founded upon base desire.  I was just passing through for a day and it was too long.  I perceived it as a very dirty, sad place where Westerners have most successfully used their purchasing power to exploit foreigners.  It is certainly a cultural experience, but probably not one you would want to stay in for long.

Koh Chang – Also great for motor rentals and hiking.  And of course, there are awesome beaches.

Krabi – 
Beaches, nature, etc.  I’ve heard it’s one of the more expensive and tourist laden places, similar to Phuket.  I’ve also heard it’s great for SCUBA.

Phuket –  
Beaches, island life, tourists, etc.  This is probably the one you’ve heard of – which means its also the one most Westerners have heard of.  Keep in mind the implications of that.
By the way, “Koh” means island in Thai.
Bangkok and the surrounding areas are mid-priced compared to the rest of Thailand and it offers a variety.

Bangkok
itself is just a big, chaotic machine.  Loud noises. Concrete. Concrete. And more concrete.  So much traffic and consequential pollution. People are all “chasing the Starbucks cup” (I’ll write more about that in another note).  And just so. many. people. It is an insane place.  It will put city miles on you if you are there for a while. But it will make you stronger.
Tips for Bangkok

  • Ride motortaxis to go places faster as they can ride between cars in traffic.
  • Try to find a fresh food market from Day 1. Much of the food in Bangkok is over-processed and devoid of nutrients.  It is also surprisingly difficult to find meatless meals in country rooted in Buddhism.
  • Don’t blow all of your money.  You can get anything you could possibly imagine at any time of the day and it will be cheaper than back home.  But be careful not to go overboard.
  • Get out every once in a while.  Do it for your sanity. Kachantaburi, Koh Sumet, and Hua Hin are good options.  There are others you will find when you are there.
  • Plan around the BTS or MRT. Those are the PT lines and they are the quickest, cleanest, most reliable ways around the city.  Be sure to live and work near a station.
  • Meditate. That’s how I survived it.

To-Dos

  • Chatuchuk Market – huge market full of cheap stuff.
  • Siam – downtown, Westernized area for shopping
  • Hof Art Gallery – the place that began to change my perception of Bangkok for the better.
  • All the temples.  There are so many.  Just google it and see which ones stand out to you.
  • Kau Sahn Rd – this is the tourist spot, which also has tons of nightlife and restaurants.
  • Etc – you’ll hear about things en route so stay open for adventure.  These should keep you busy for a while though.

Hua Hin – A beach relatively close to Bangkok so great for a quick getaway. It’s mostly Thai-visited which means that its built up and relatively commercial but still maintains somewhat of a local flare.  It’s more of beach society than beach life.

Kachantaburi – A cozy, slow town around the River Kwai.  I loved it.  It’s the perfect place to break away from time and from the hustle and bustle of the city.  I recommend kayaking here.

Northern Thailand
is where traditional culture remains the most in tact.  There is still plenty of tourism but it is based around appreciating and respecting the culture and land more so than in the South where tourism is more centered around bodily pleasure.  It is also the cheapest area of Thailand.  People – Western and Thai alike – peacefully coexist in an culturally integrated society where calmness and simple happiness are valued.  I loved the North (especially after coming from Bangkok).  It is where I get all of my inventory for Urban Unbound.

Chiang Mai 
is the Mecca of Thai culture.  It is one of the only modern places that maintains tons of relics from its history.  People smile and chat.  Most people speak great English.  There is vegetarian food.  There is fresh food.  And it is cheap.  This is because there are so many farms around the North that can supply to Chiang Mai.  Things move slower, which is beautiful, so give yourself plenty of time. Make sure not to try to see it all all at once.  Traveling is a process, not an accomplishment. This Buddhist land is a great place to experience that.  Just find a nice guesthouse and enjoy meeting the people there and eating at the restaurants nearby.  Adventures will unfold.

Also consider getting a motorbike to venture into the surrounding natural areas. There are waterfalls, mountains, jungles, everything.  It is a place of beauty.

Doi Suthep Mountain has a beautiful temple with an amazing Vipassana meditation retreat.  It will undoubtedly change your life for the better.  There isn’t a fixed cost – you just donate what you can and want to after the retreat.  You can stay as long or as short as you want.  It is where you can learn to just be.  Hands down, my most valuable experience in Thailand.  This is the website where you can reserve a spot (which you should do as early as possible as they often fill up quickly): fivethousandyears.org.  For other Vipassana retreats, which exist all over the world on a donation economy, visit dhamma.org.

Pai – 
A small hippie town to relax in for a few days.  This is where I learned to motorbike as there are good, mostly empty roads, trailing through miles of natural scenery.  (However, I wouldn’t recommend making the ride from Chiang Mai to Pai on motorbike unless you are very experienced on motorbikes.)  Riding in a van is also plenty enjoyable.
There other cities like Chiang Rai and Phayao, which you can read about on SEAbackpackers.com

GETTING AROUND

  • Bangkok is the hub to all of SEA.  You can be on a ride to anywhere in Thailand and most places in SEA within an hour of arriving at the Victory Monument BTS stop.  And as everything in SEA, there is no need to pre-order tickets.  I once decided on a whim that I wanted to go to a beach town for the weekend and within an hour I was on my way.
  • You might die.  Their safety standards – from the traffic laws, to the maintenance laws around the vans that drive you where ever you want to go for longer travels are practically nonexistent.  They are crazy drivers and your life will be at risk as soon as you’re 10 meters from a road. However, you gotta go where you gotta go and there aren’t safer options (unless you can use PT) so just suck it up and hope for the best.  The “you might die” phenomenon applies more and more the closer you are to Bangkok.

CULTURAL CONSIDERATIONS

  • Thais are slower.  Don’t get frustrated.  Learn from them.  In the West, we rush and rush until we die.  They realize that life only happens in the moment so they exist more in the moment.  Stop worrying about being late or getting things done and just enjoy the art of being.  Remember this when walking behind people.
  • Thais like to do things their way.  It’s understandable because they are much less picky than we are so they don’t often have to do things like modify their meals to suit vegetarians or build with customizations.  This is less of an issue in more Western-friendly restaurants and companies.
  • All hail the king.  Don’t say anything that could even slightly be considered negative about the king.  It’s punishable by law and almost everyone in Thailand views him as a beloved father. Again, don’t judge.  It sort of works for them.  And remember that our concepts about democracy haven’t worked so flawlessly either.
  • Valuing structure and organization will stress you out.  So go with the flow.  Thais don’t worry about being the best, which leaves a lot of room for inefficiencies that Westerners will easily notice.  However, it also leaves a lot of room for moment-to-moment happiness. Worry will not serve you here.

GENERAL ADVICE

  • They put MSG in everything by default. Get in the habit of asking for your food without it.  Sometimes they will understand.
  • Tao Rye = How much?  Your prices will cut in half if you say this in Thai.  By the way, haggling prices is expected in most of Thailand.  Learning Thai numbers also really helps because they will assume you know the fair value of things.
  • At the end of everything, say “Ka” for women and “Kap” for men.
  • Learn how to wai – namaste hands and bow.  That’s the polite greeting.
  • Learn how to ride a motorbike, especially in more natural areas.  It’s a great way to explore.  It’s cheap. And it doesn’t require all of the legal hurdles it does in the West.
  • Come with savings and don’t buy a plane ticket back home.  There is so much to see in SEA and it’s what everyone will be talking about when you get there so you will want to travel to all of the cool places.  Give yourself the freedom to do so.
  • DON’T PRE-BOOK ACCOMMODATION – you will end up spending so much more if you book online.  Real estate is cheap in Thailand. Technology isn’t fully utilized. And efficiency isn’t a strong value.  This means there is (and I imagine for many years to come will be) a huge oversupply of accommodation options.  Especially in low season. And especially in smaller cities and towns.  The places that go through the trouble of listing online will be more expensive.  So just show, start walking, and you will come across a cheap, cozy place that will be so much better than what you found online.
  • Enjoy yourself.  We dream about situations where we can calm down but when given the opportunity, we decide to wind ourselves up. Thailand is such an easy place to exist in peace.  Just do that.

This is based on my perception.  For friends who have traveled to Thailand and think it would be helpful to add more info or have different perspectives, please leave comments. I can make these sorts of lists for friends visiting other places as well.  Let me know if you are going anywhere around the US or Europe that I might have been.