Backpacking Southeast Asia – Thailand

This is the second post in a 4-part series on traveling in Southeast Asia.  Check out the links below for other posts on Vietnam, how to spend a layover in Tokyo, and the most common reasons we heard to not travel to SE Asia. 

Backpacking Southeast Asia – Vietnam
How to Spend a 9-Hour Layover in Tokyo
6 Reasons Not to Go to Southeast Asia

3 Weeks in Southeast Asia – Vietnam & Thailand

After spending over a week in Vietnam (see previous post), we were excited to see what Thailand had in store for us. Thailand is a large country, with so many cities and islands to explore. You can find everything from tropical beaches to ancient ruins to modern cities to jungles. We were initially overwhelmed on how to choose where to go!

After a lot of research, we settled on spending a few days in Bangkok, followed by sun and sand on two of Thailand’s islands – Koh Samui and Koh Tao. We felt this gave us the best introduction to some of the best Thailand has to offer in the time we had.


Part II – Thailand

10 days, 11 nights

If you have extra time:

  • Take a flight or overnight train to Chiang Mai and explore Northern Thailand.  Northern Thailand is known for its beautiful, forested mountains, and Chiang Mai is the perfect home base to explore this area. Visit the Elephant Nature Park, go for an overnight trek in the mountains, stay in a tree house, or just enjoy the laid back vibe of the city. You can spend anywhere from an extra few days to a few weeks in Northern Thailand.
  • Take a few days to visit Cambodia’s most iconic site, Angkor Wat. Angkor was voted the world’s number 1 site by Lonely Planet and its awe-inspiring temples are worth spending a few days exploring. Travelers can stay in Siem Reap, a few kilometers away, and book a tuk-tuk to drive you around the giant complex. Note that prices to Angkor are expected to rise in February, 2017. A single-day ticket will rise from $20 to $37, a three-day pass from $40 to $62 and a seven-day ticket from $60 to $72.


Tips for a great trip:

  • One of the hardest parts of planning this trip was picking which islands to visit! While we’ve only been to two of them, I think you probably can’t go wrong when you’re choosing between which beautiful, sunny island to visit. But if you’d like some resources to help you pick, check out this guide from Travelfish and this guide from Borders of Adventure.
  • While I never felt unsafe in Bangkok, be aware of potential scams. Lonely Planet has a great overview of the most common types of scams you might encounter. We ran into the temple-is-closed story on our walk to the Golden Mount. Regardless of how convincing they sound or how official the person may look, keep walking to the entrance to find the official ticket counter. Also try to take metered taxis whenever possible – you’ll find this is easiest if you grab one from a hotel. We found it very difficult to find taxis willing to turn on their meter in tourist areas.
  • The dress code in Thailand for royal sites and temples can be very strict. Guys are required to wear sleeves and long pants in places like the Grand Palace (although you can rent pants to wear over shorts). Ladies must cover their shoulders and wear long pants/skirt. I bought a scarf during our trip and wrapped it around my waist when needed.


Day 1 – Flight to Bangkok

We landed in Bangkok mid-afternoon on our first day and checked into Bed Station Hostel. While many backpackers choose to stay somewhere on Khao San Road, we read as many reviews warning people to stay away. We didn’t even visit the famous street, but I hear it’s where the party is if that’s your thing.

Bangkok has a plethora of unique and modern hostels. We chose to stay at a different one each night to check them out! Bed Station was probably my favorite of the three hostels we stayed in. It was very clean and modern, the staff was friendly and it was close to the BTS Skytrain and canal boat.

We also had the BEST pad thai at a street vendor near the station.

Pad Thai in Bangkok

We spent our first day wandering around Siam Discovery, a large shopping mall, before grabbing dinner at nahm. Nahm, voted one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, serves authentic Thai cuisine for a fraction of what you’d pay in the USA for a similar restaurant. While we enjoyed the meal, I was honestly a little underwhelmed for the price. I’m not sure fancy restaurants are my thing.

Day 2 – Jim Thompson House, Grand Palace, Wat Arun, Wat Pho

Our first full day in Bangkok was jam-packed with sights. A short walk away, we began our morning at the Jim Thompson House. Thompson was an American who spent time in Asia during the Second World War. He later moved back to Bangkok where he built a business selling handmade silk from Thailand to cities around the world. Thompson mysteriously disappeared in Malaysia while out for an afternoon walk in 1967. There are several conspiracy theories around his death.

For less than 5 USD you can tour Thompson’s home, a beautiful dwelling set amidst lush gardens, full of Thai relics and art, and learn more about his life and influence on the silk industry. It doesn’t take much time to visit the house, and we thought it was a worthwhile stop if you’re in the area.

Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson House

Jim Thompson House

To get to our next destination, Wat Saket or Temple of the Golden Mount, we hopped on a nearby canal speed boat. We climbed in and found a place to stand in the back as it quickly sped off down the canal. This was our view:

Bangkok Canal Speed Boat

All of the sudden, that metal roof you see above our heads started falling down on top of us! I tossed a panicked look at Ben and started to look around for a way out. A few moments later…the roof popped back up!

Little did we know, many of the bridges along the canal are too short for boats to pass under. The solution? Build a boat with a roof that can lowered as you pass under the bridge. The seated passengers aren’t affected, but anyone standing has to duck down as the roof is lowered. Needless to say, it was quite the surprise. 🙂

At the Golden Mount, a winding path of 300+ steps that passes gardens, waterfalls and prayer bells leads up to the top of the temple.  After passing through an enclosed shrine area and climbing another set of steep stairs, we were rewarded with great views of the city. Scattered among the tourists were locals offering prayers, candles and flowers. We didn’t spend much time here, but it was worth a look.

Golden Mount

Golden Mount

Golden Mount

Our next stop was The Grand Palace, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand. The palace was built as a royal residence in 1782 and is still used for ceremonial purposes. Admission is less than 15 USD and the dress code is strict, but they will allow you to borrow appropriate covering for a deposit.

The palace is divided into four main courts, separated by numerous walls and gates: the Outer Court, the Middle Court, the Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It is enormous, and we spent quite a bit of time wandering around, admiring the detail and beauty of each building and sculpture. You could easily spend several hours here.

Trust me – our pictures don’t do it justice!

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace

The Grand Palace, Thailand

Located just across the Chao Phraya River (accessible by ferry), Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), was our next stop. This temple is decorated in the typical Khmer style and looks very different from the Grand Palace. It’s recognizable by the tall prang (tower) in the middle.

Several sets of steep stairs lead up to a terrace that provides beautiful views across the river and back towards the Grand Palace. I recently read that Wat Arun is currently closed for renovations, so check with other travelers when you arrive to see if it’s still worth a visit.

Wat Arun

Wat Arun

Wat Arun
The view from the top…
Wat Arun
…and the climb back down

Back across the river, our last stop of the day was Wat Pho, home of the Reclining Buddha. Looking back…not quite sure how we fit this all in one day! Temple fatigue is real.  But, this site is definitely worth a quick stop.

Wat Pho contains the city’s largest lying Buddha and the largest collection of Buddha images in the country. While many people take a look at the lying Buddha and leave, the entire complex is worth a stroll.

Wat Pho

Our night ended at the second hostel in Bangkok – 3Howw Hostel. The draw here was the capsule beds, but we were pretty disappointed that we didn’t get placed in them. We didn’t find the people here as friendly or the location to be great – this ended up being our least favorite of our three hostels.

Day 3 – Chatuchak Weekend Market

We had so much fun at Chatuchak Weekend Market on our last day in Bangkok! The market is HUGE – we’re talking thousands of stalls. You can find anything and everything – clothing, housewares, plants, souvenirs and more. There are even some chic boutique stalls selling clothing and home decor.

Give yourself plenty of time to explore this market and come hungry! In addition to all the fun shopping, we found so much good food while we wandered around. I wish I had more photos to share, but we were too busy exploring! This was one of our favorite stops in Bangkok. 🙂

Weekend Market

Weekend Market
Ben bought the shirt he’s wearing at the market and was able to meet the designer!

We stayed at Wanderer Hub Hostel our last night in Bangkok. WH is a trendy, unique hostel made of colorful shipping containers! The travelers and staff here were all incredibly friendly. However, the location is not ideal. It’s a little farther from the nearest skytrain, and we had to walk through a red light district to get there. I’m not sure that I would feel comfortable getting here if I were traveling solo, but it was a fun, unique experience.

WH Hostel

WH Hostel

Koh Samui

Days 4, 5, & 6 – Beach

On the morning of day 4, we took a flight from Bangkok to Koh Samui where we stayed at the incredible W Retreat for 3 nights. While we didn’t have the best weather, I can’t say enough good things about this resort. The staff was extremely welcoming and helpful. Between breakfast, the restaurant and the beach bar, there were great food options on-site. And the private villas were incredible!

We spent three days lounging at the beach and our private pool, mixed in with a couple of trips to Chaweng for dinner. With restaurants, night clubs and shopping, the main strip in Chaweng is the center of activity and nightlife on Koh Samui. The W provides a free shuttle back and forth to Chaweng.

W Retreat Koh Samui

W Retreat Koh Samui

W Retreat Koh Samui

W Retreat Koh Samui
Our private villa which also included an outdoor dining space!

W Retreat Koh Samui

W Retreat Koh Samui

Koh Tao

Days 7, 8, & 9 – Beach & Diving

On day 7, we hopped on the Lomprayah High Speed Ferry to Koh Tao.  The seas were rough. While we managed to stave off any major seasickness, many others on our boat were not so lucky on the hour ride. At the pier on Koh Tao, we caught a ride to our home for the next 3 nights – Sairee Cottage.

Koh Tao is a small island largely known for it’s diving, and many of the accommodations cater specifically to divers. Ben is a certified diver and planned to do some dives with a friend, so we rented the Red Room which was only steps from the beach.

Most mornings the guys would get up to dive while I slept in. 🙂 I’d spend the morning grabbing breakfast and reading by the beach until they got back. We spent the afternoons and evenings exploring the island. Here’s some ideas for things to do on Koh Tao beyond diving:

  • Rent a kayak and paddle to the nearby bays and islands around Koh Tao. We paddled out to a nearby island and enjoyed beautiful scenery along the way. Make sure to check the wind and weather conditions before choosing your destination.
  • Go for a hike. Alex in Wanderland has a great guide to a few hikes on the island. While we didn’t get the opportunity to try any of them, I would have loved to explore the island on foot! Check them out here.
  • Take a day trip to snorkel around the island. If you’re not a diver, snorkeling is a great way to explore the reefs around Koh Tao.
  • Check out a beach fire show. We had a great time drinking beers while watching a fire show outside one of the beach bars.

You can also find Muay Thai (Thai boxing), a trapeze school and more on this island! Koh Tao has something for everyone, and we loved our time on this island.

Koh Tao

Koh Tao

Koh Tao

Day 10 – Travel back to Hanoi

On our last day, we took the ferry back to Koh Samui to catch a flight to Bangkok and then on to Hanoi. We were able to spend one last night in Hanoi at the 3B Hotel before heading home. I much preferred this guesthouse to the hostel we had previously stayed at in Hanoi.

On our trip home, we had a 9 hour layover in Tokyo and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to explore a new city. Check back on the blog soon for a recap of what we decided to do with our time! In the meantime, if you’re planing your town trip to Southeast Asia and have any questions, leave a comment!

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