Monday, October 22, 2018

Thailand travel tips by an Indian | An essential travel guide to Thailand for a two week trip


There was so much I had heard and knew about Thailand before I visited, but when I was about to go, I was still so nervous. Considering it was my first international trip, and a self-planned one at that, a lot of research went into the smallest things. I thought I'll compile a post to answer some commonly asked questions that would help you plan your trip.

Budget:

The first question asked was - how much money did I take with me, what were my major expenses, what was the entire trip cost, isn't Thailand cheap... 

Let me begin with the entire trip cost - 1,10,000 INR, out of which 40,000 INR was my flight tickets (which included seven flights considering I went from Goa and also took connecting flights). Flights: Goa to Chaing Mai (with a layover in Bangkok), Chiang Rai to Phuket, Krabi to Bangkok and Bangkok to Goa (via half a day stop in Mumbai).

Where I made mistakes? We booked tickets just two months before the trip. As a result of which, my round trip in itself costed me way more than what it actually is if booked way in advance. Also, since I live in Goa, I had to additionally spend on my flight to Mumbai (both the times).

Secondly, the internal flights, which we booked to save time, eventually came up to be quite expensive. When we were booking it, it seemed pretty cheap, but while we paid, we ended up paying way extra (because of INR to THB conversion charges, baggage fees and airport taxis), which can be easily avoided.

One of the two pools at Railay Princess Beach Resort in Krabi

Visa:

There were two things I was terribly worried about - visa and currency exchange. Considering I had to go to Bombay to get my visa, I decided to opt for the visa on arrival option. But what worried me was, just in case I did not get a visa (which is highly unlikely), I wouldn't be able to go ahead with the trip. My flights and hotels were booked for in full. But I did manage to get my visa effortlessly.

There was one slight confusion though. Since we were flying to Chiang Mai via Bangkok, we assumed we had to get our visa in Chiang Mai which was our first destination. While trying to check-in at the Bangkok airport, we were told that we had to get a visa right there. We were in panic mode, because our next flight (connecting flight to Chiang Mai) was in less than two hours, and we couldn't afford to miss that. We hurried up and got our stamps!

There's nothing much to worry about when it comes to getting your visa in Thailand. As long as you look fine, have the documents and the money, they will let you in. The visa fee is TBH 2000 which needs to be paid for in cash at the counter.

What documents do you require for visa? Passport valid for six months, a couple of photos (3.5 cm X 4.5 cm with a white background), return flight booking, hotel bookings and a spending amount of 20000 THB (which could be cash, forex card or international credit/debit card). Please carry a pen to fill your forms and zoom past quickly! 

A bay we stopped at while kayaking in Krabi

Currency exchange:

Another of my major worry was currency. I was told about the scams that happen in Thailand. You also tend to lose money in currency exchange. I still haven't figured the best way to do it, but I shall tell you what I did. (In case you know of better ways of doing it, please comment below and help me and other readers).

I got a huge chunk of money exchanged locally. And also got a substantial amount in USD as safety money. However, I didn't get the best exchange rate for THB at that time. I did it last moment, so may be doing it earlier would have been better. Secondly, I underestimated my expenses, so when I was there, I exhausted my cash within a week. As a result of which I had to retort to swiping cards or withdrawing money from the local ATMs.

The downsides of withdrawing money there: Finding an international bank is the key! Which I did mange to find in a few places. But if you don't find it, you end up losing quite a bit of money in currency exchange because the banks charge you a heavy fee. It's easier to find ATMs in compact and touristy places, but it gets tougher in larger cities. All touristy places have a currency exchange place, where you can exchange your currency for THB.

Our cozy room in Railay Princess Beach Resort in Krabi

Itinerary: 

Why Thailand for two weeks? Chaaaang whaatttt? OMG you didn't go to Pattaya? Oh man why didn't you go to tiger kingdom? Wait, you didn't eat cockroaches and crocodiles? Why did you stay in Phi Phi, it's a day trip!

So many questions asked about our itinerary! How did we plan and why did we chose the places we chose? Let' start with Chiang Mai, which was one of the focus of the trip considering it's so rich in culture, has a great coffee culture, comprises of beautiful architecture and has so much food to gorge on! We spent a major chunk of our first week there!

Then we headed to Chiang Rai, which was a few hours away from Chiang Mai. Many asked us why we didn't just do a day trip and save time! I mean, why should we? We weren't there to save time. We were there to spend time! And it was a great decision. The night market was bigger, the temples prettier and the place less crowded!

While most people chose to do a day trip to the islands by keeping Phuket or Krabi as the base, we spent a few nights each in Phuket, Phi Phi and Krabi, and only did day trips to islands where there's no settlement. Additionally, the cruise rides, public ferries and bike rides was what made it even more wonderful than just hopping onto a speedboat! Isn't it better to watch unhurried sunsets by the beach than visit the beach at noon for a few hours?

Our final destination was Bangkok, because why not! It's the capital city which is always buzzing and offers great options for trying street food and shopping! And that's exactly what we did in addition to sipping on cups of coffees every day. Visits to the local markets, ferry rides and old town walks were as wonderful as spending time at the night market at Khao San and walking the streets of China Town! 

One of the most beautiful places I've been to - Pileh Bay in Koh Phi Phi

Internal travel:

Many places in Thailand are accessible by road, air, train and sea! Public transport in smaller cities is very efficient too! But we had already booked two internal flights, which we couldn't cancel. It was only later that we realised that the road would be a way cheaper option.

However, we took public ferries and cruisers from one beach town/island to the other, and it was cost efficient, quicker than road and fun throughout! Who doesn't want to laze on a sundeck with beer and chill with other travellers on a two hour cruise? 

The old city in Chiang Mai to a great extent was walkable since we stayed pretty close. We had to walk past the river to the night market also! We only had to hire a cab to go to the waterfalls which was pretty far, but if you are confident of riding/driving, you could rent a bike or car. Cycling around the old town is an option too! There are also shared red buses/vans that ply on regular routes. 

In Chiang Rai, we met a very sweet tuk-tuk guy who took us around, picked us up and dropped us (from bus station, airport, to hotel, to the night market and to the temples, on all three days). But renting a vehicle of your own is an option too!

While in Phuket, we rented a scooter, which costed us 200 baht + fuel (50 baht). You don't need an international license. The hotel gives you an identoification sign that you need to carry around, in case you are stopped by the cops. But where I was (around Karon, Kata and Patong beach, there weren't any).

On the cruiser while travelling from Phi Phi islands to Krabi

Phi Phi and Krabi, for us, was entirely walkable, considering both our hotels (PP Charlie Beach Resort and Railay Princess Beach Resort were right by the beach/ ferry pier. We could just walk to the beach, the restaurants, walking street and pier, and take a ferry in case we had to cross over to another place. 

Transport in Bangkok was quite tricky though! The airport taxi was economical, but the cab prices were pretty steep while getting around within the city. It was quite tough for us to bargain with tuk-tuks and cabbies, but we managed. The city is connected with great public transport, in the form of ferries, skyline and buses. The ferries are super cheap and so much fun to go around in!

Hotels we stayed at:

Gategaa Village, Chiang Mai

Though the initial plan was to stay at hostels in a lot of places, we eventually ended up booking boutique hotels and resorts at most places, except Bangkok. We found a sweet deal at Gategaa Village in Chiang Mai, which was conveniently located from the night market (a 1km, 15 minute walk) and most attractions in the old town. Additionally, it also facilitated the quiet strolls by the riverside and the quick visits to the happening part of town. The staff and managers were extremely kind and warm, and helped us with our cab bookings, bus (to Chiang Rai) bookings and itinerary without charging is a penny! Everyone, including baby Nana being her cute self, added to the wonderful vibe of the place. We loved the complimentary breakfasts here (a limited menu of a Thai special, eggs to order, yogurt, muesli and fruits/juices). I loved it! This is a place I'd definitely recommend.

Wonderful rooftop pool with jacuzzi at Gategaa Village in Chiang Mai

Saikaew Resort, Chiang Rai 

In Chiang Rai, we stayed at a cozy boutique guest house, Saikaew Resort, located right by a pond. The view was brilliant and the wooden cottage located right amid nature was just what you need to unwind and rejuvenate. It wasn't very far from the airport, bus station and city centre as well, so it worked well for us. The owner (who deserves a special mention here) was the sweetest lady we met. She went out of her way to ensure a comfortable stay for us - helped us with a lot of things, drove us to the nearby supermarket to fetch dinner in her personal car, spoke to our hotel for our next destination in local language and helped us sort airport pickup, offered to post my postcards and let me play with her cats (yes she had many many cats and dogs, and rabbits and birds)! This is another place I'd recommend.

My favourite spot at Saikaew Resort in Chiang Mai post sunset

Kata Tranquil Villas, Phuket 

At our next stop - Phuket - we weren't very happy with the service of the property. We stayed at a boutique hotel called Kata Tranquil Villas. The hotel in itself was lovely - neat and spacious rooms, a pretty pool and a little dog on the property. The upside was, it was just two kilometres away from the tranquil Kata and Karon beaches and a little distance away from the buzzing Patong beach and Bangla road. This ensured that we could go to the nicer beaches within moments, and could also ride to the happening places in twenty minutes (we rented a bike from the hotel for 200 THB + 50 THB for fuel). But the staff were extremely rude, tried to rip us off not tried, succeeded actually) and ruined our Phuket experience for us! 

Our spacious room at Kata Tranquil Villa in Phuket

PP Charlie Beach Resort, Phi Phi 

At our next stop, Phi Phi, we had booked one of the most convenient places. PP Charlie Beach Resort was located right on the beach, and a five minute walk away from the ferry pier (from where you enter/exit the island and take the ferry for your island hopping tour). They were the largest resort we stayed at, had the largest breakfast spread and warm vibes. We watched the sun go down by the infinity pool(s) and could just walk (a two minute walk) to the walking street/night bazaar where we could grab dinner and sip on some drinks. Though the property was wonderful, I didn't quite like the room! above all, they had the most number of very friendly cats as compared to any other hotel (win!). 

The splendid infinity pool by the beach at PP Charlie Beach Resort on Phi Phi Islands

Railay Princess Beach Resort and Spa, Krabi 

The last beach resort we stayed at was Railay Princess Beach Resort and Spa in Krabi, which had the most spacious room (our of the six places we stayed at), had two pools with a jacuzzi (unlike any other place we stayed at during this trip), was ten steps away from the ferry pier, was right by the beach and had amazing views of the limestones and the beach. Their (complimentary) breakfast spread was wonderful, the staff were super warm, kind and friendly (they helped us with a lot of things), room service was quick and efficient and food was economically priced at three of their inhouse restaurants. They were so close to the walking street as well! We loved both the pools, and our luxurious room (which even had a bathtub in the spacious bathroom and a large balcony). 

The most spacious room at Railay Princess Beach Resort in Krabi

Niras Bankoc Cultural Hostel, Bangkok

During the last leg of our journey, we stayed at a hostel - Niras Bankoc Cultural Hostel in Bangkok. It was around half an hour from both the airports in Bangkok - Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Mueang International Airport and is connected with cabs. The hostel in itself was beautiful - vintage and warm. The rooms were neat, the female dorm we shared was air-conditioned, had a shared bathroom and had the nicest people. The staff were attentive and super sweet. They helped us figure cheaper options to get around the city, help us plan itineraries and assisted in booking cabs! The nicest part was - they had a lovely coffee shop, so every time we entered the hostel, we were welcomed by a strong aroma of coffee. Additionally, we could spend hours there drinking coffee and just chilling, while it rained outside. 

Niras Bangkoc Cultural Hostel in Bangkok
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