Tips for the first time traveller to Thailand

Thailand is Asia’s most popular tourist destination, and has an incredibly wide appeal. Everyone from honeymooners to frazzled families to teenage backpackers heads here in search of relaxation, partying or adventure. Its enduring popularity means that overcrowded beaches and sprawling mega-resorts are all too common. So, if you’re searching for wildlife encounters, cultural connections or just some peace and quiet, you’ll need to do your research.
We were constantly impressed by our gorgeous surroundings… literally everything was worth stopping and having a look at!
– Lisa DeGiorgio after returning from our Thailand family holiday
With a luxuriously long coastline and over 1,000 islands, you can still enjoy the powder-soft sand of hidden beaches. And outside the hectic cities you’ll find pristine national forests protecting an array of Southeast Asian wildlife, including elephants, tigers and colourful tropical birds. To explore the rich culture of the hill tribes, you’ll need to head north, where rural villages are set against a fantasy backdrop of mountains, waterfalls and riverine valleys.

If it’s your first visit to Thailand, read our guide for travel tips.

What to expect

Nature and wildlife

It’s the beaches that draw most travellers to Thailand. Not only are there blissful sands along both the Andaman Sea and Gulf Coast, there are also over 1,000 offshore islands. Their stellar reputation means that many have become swamped, but you can still find crowd-free beaches – you just need to put in the effort to get there. Diving and snorkelling in Thailand is pretty special and Similan Islands Marine National Park takes the underwater crown. It’s known by divers the world over for its blinding white beaches and coral reefs, where manta rays, leopard sharks and barracuda are commonly seen. Adventurous types should head to Khao Sok National Park. You can get around this wonderland of limestone karsts, lakes, waterfalls and rainforests by foot, by canoe or via longtail boat, with nights spent in raft houses surrounded by jungle. Thailand is particularly rich in birdlife, with over 1,000 recorded resident and migrating species. The arid forests of Khao Yai National Park in northeastern Thailand are favourites for hornbills, while marshland birds prefer the wetlands of the central region There are 3,000-4,000 elephants in Thailand, with around half roaming wild in national parks and reserves. Visiting a sanctuary for former working elephants is a popular activity, but choose carefully – many put profit ahead of animal welfare. At Elephant Nature Park you can see them interacting and grazing as they would in their natural homes. There are no shows or rides here.

Language & culture

The Land of Smiles is largely ethnically Thai, with descendants of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Burmese, Lao and Khmer tribes amongst others. Most people are Buddhist and speak Thai – the language has 32 vowels (compared to 11 in English) and five tones – so challenge yourself to learn a couple of words! The term ‘hill tribe’ refers to the ethnic minority groups living within the forested mountain foothills of Northern Thailand and on the other side of the border in Myanmar, Laos and Southwest China. Each ethnic group has its own traditional customs, dress and language. The Karen hill tribe population is the largest – there are tens of thousands of Karen people living in the county’s remote highland regions. If you’re a Thai food fanatic back home, the food here will blow you away, thanks to a combination of herbs and chillies that just aren’t as good outside the tropics. Popular classics include poh pia tod (crispy vegetable and meat rolls), kaeng khiao wan (Thai sweet green curry) and mango sticky rice. Enrol in a cookery class in Chiang Mai or Bangkok to learn the secrets of this world-class cuisine. Haggling is acceptable in a market or for buying multiple items – but remember, a tiny difference for you could be the cost of a meal or a school bus trip for a Thai craftsperson. Be sure the price is fair – for you and them.
Staying with the Karen village people was an amazing experience and definitely brings income into this region with the least impact on their natural surroundings and way of life.
– Hayley Tait on our tailor made Thailand holiday

Travel requirements

The vaccinations recommended for travel to Thailand are hepatitis A and typhoid. Malaria is considered a high risk in the border areas with Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, which are rural and heavily forested. Citizens from Australia, Canada, the EU and the UK arriving by air or land can enter Thailand for 30 days without a visa. If you need to stay longer, it’s possible to extend your stay once for up to 30 days. Your passport must have at least six months’ validity remaining from your date of entry into Thailand.

Travelling to Thailand & getting around

Most travellers fly into Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport, while Don Mueang International Airport is popular for domestic and low cost flights. Tailor made and small group tours use a variety of transport, from private car, minivan or overland truck to using the country’s excellent network of long-distance trains, buses and ferries. Feeling more energetic? Opt for a cycling holiday, where you’ll pedal your way through villages, jungles and national parks.

Our top Thailand Holiday

Thailand tailor made holiday, elephants, jungle & beach

Thailand tailor made holiday, elephants, jungle & beach

Elephant encounters, jungle treehouses and stunning Thai islands

From £1349 14 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This trip is only for tailor made departures throughout the year to suit your requirements
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Thailand or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Highlights

There’s a huge amount to see and do in Thailand, so it’s unlikely you’ll pack it all in a single visit. Instead, take a look through our highlights and choose a tour that takes you to a few favourites.
Our holiday allowed us to interact with local people, shop at local markets, and try foods... We were excited to be riding around in tuk tuks and on long tail boats up the River Kwai. We saw the world in a whole new light.
– Federico Mingozzi on our Thailand island hopping holiday

Bangkok

Thailand’s hectic capital gets you right in the gut with its intoxicating blend of traditional and cosmopolitan. Discover the city’s temples, palaces and floating markets on foot, by tuk tuk or riverboat, and escape across the river to the jungly Bang Kra Jao gardens. Food here is the best in the country with everything from high-end dining to sumptuous street food. You could even try recreating it yourself in a cooking class.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai’s mountain air is a welcome respite from the heat of Southern Thailand. Days can be spent exploring temples and night markets and the city is well known for its fabulous cooking schools. It’s also a great base for further exploration, including hiking, biking and rafting in the surrounding mountains and rivers.

Golden Triangle

At the meeting of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos collide, the Golden Triangle is a pristine mountain region that’s blissfully free of tourist crowds. Go trekking and mountain biking through the hills, meet isolated tribes in colourful traditional dress and visit the Hall of Opium Museum in Chiang Rai to learn more about the region’s damaging and illicit former trade.

Khao Sok National Park

Pull on your hiking boots to tackle the forest trails of Khao Sok National park – a wilderness of limestone hills, lakes, waterfalls and rainforests. This is a place for active adventurers who’d love nothing more than to spend their days hiking, canoeing and tubing along rivers. Sleeping arrangements will be out of the ordinary, too, with nights spent in a raft house surrounded by jungle.

Khao Yai National Park

Khao Yai is the oldest national park in Thailand and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot. Vast swathes of rainforest and savannah are home to tigers, elephants, gibbons and over 320 species of birds, including hornbills and lapwings. Guided walks take you to see wildlife, waterfalls and bat caves, while thrilling night-time jeep safaris provide a glimpse of the park’s nocturnal world.

Koh Chang

Forget the overcrowded beaches and rowdy bars of Koh Samui and Phuket. Koh Chang’s national marine park feels like the Thailand of decades ago, with lots of quiet islands to explore, including tiny, tranquil Koh Maak, the powdery beaches of Rayang, Koh Rang – the best place for snorkelling and diving, and Koh Chang itself. Days can be spent canoeing through mangroves, swimming beneath waterfalls and discovering local fishing villages.

Pai

Thailand’s hill tribe heartland, the region of Pai is home to several colourfully dressed tribes, with even more colourful cultures – including Karen and Shan communities. Trek the hills, stay in communal village houses sleeping on rattan mats, and learn how to cultivate rice. It’s best to avoid the main town, which is crammed with bars and travellers’ guesthouses.

Phang Nga province

Phang Nga province is full of incredible beaches, both on the coastline and on the offshore Surin Islands and Similan Islands. Reached by boat from Phuket, they provide a spectacular underwater experience as well as opportunities to kick back on white sands fringed by tropical rainforests. You can also find out more about the seafaring Moken people in the company of a local guide.

...and what not   to do

Thailand’s orphanages are sadly abundant, and many have become businesses rather than places of care, and some of the children actually have parents who’ve been encouraged to give them up. We do not support short-term volunteer placements with vulnerable children, especially with unqualified volunteers. Read more about our policy. Don’t flash the flesh when visiting religious sites. Skimpy clothing may be OK in Thailand’s tourist hotspots – but outside of these regions, communities are still largely conservative with Buddhist and Muslim values, so please dress and act respectfully. Don’t take photos of local people without asking permission. Asking first is a wonderful opportunity to strike up a conversation. You’ll come away with a memory of the encounter, and not just a photo. And if they are uncomfortable with it – respect that and leave them in peace. Don’t ride elephants. It damages their spines – and the animals have been beaten or prodded into submission to persuade them to allow riders on their backs. Furthermore, many elephant sanctuaries are about exploitation rather than rehabilitation. Read about our stance on elephant trekking. By their very nature, islands always have resource issues. Be cautious in your water use, and on the smaller and less developed islands be aware of the lack of waste disposal options – avoid using plastic bottles or bags where possible, and always dispose of litter in bins. As well as issues of hygiene and the ugliness of discarded waste, rare sea turtles live off Thailand’s coast, and swallowing plastic bags can slowly kill them.

Best time to go

January and February are midway through the cooler and drier season and are often considered the best time to go to Thailand. Things start to heat up over March, April and May so this is the time to head south to the beaches or search for less humid conditions amongst the higher hillsides of the north. As the rains begin to arrive during May, June, July and August, you’ll find that there are downpours almost every day but only for about an hour or so, which can sometimes be a welcome respite during the late afternoon or early evening. September and October tend to find the worst of the weather and daily deluges are often strong enough to disrupt travel plans, particularly when trekking in more remote areas. The end of the year, November and December, finds temperatures starting to dip and is one of the best times to go trekking in the north.

How long is needed to see Thailand?

In a week

Ideally, you’d spend at least two weeks in Thailand, but if you are constrained by time, money or school holidays, there are shorter tours that you can do inside seven days. It’s probably best to concentrate on one area of the country, for example island hopping around the islands of Koh Chang National Marine Park or exploring the heritage sites of northeast Thailand. This is also a good length of time for a volunteering holiday, with time in an elephant refuge and marine conservation both popular options.

In two weeks

Two weeks is a good amount of time to start to get to know Thailand, although there’s still a chance you’ll wish you’d stayed longer. Most tours offer an overview of the main highlights: beaches and islands, national parks, elephant sanctuaries and some culture. On lots of tours, you’ll travel in a small group of likeminded travellers, a fantastic way to travel for both singles and families. Many trips combine the highlights of Thailand with those of neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam.
If you want an active break, then cycling holidays or a self-drive tuk tuk adventure will keep things out of the ordinary. Water babies can spend the entire week on the sea, seeing the country by sailboat.

Three weeks or more

Most longer holidays combine the highlights of Thailand with that of at least two other countries such as Vietnam and Laos, allowing you to take in heritage sites and hill tribe villages as well as beaches.
For something off the beaten track, try a walking tour of Thailand and Myanmar or a three-week volunteering holiday looking after rescued cats and dogs.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: SasinTipchai] [Nature & wildlife: Rene Ehrhardt] [Language & culture: Eirik Uhlen] [Bangkok: Renee Kennedy] [Khao Sok National Park: Patty Ho] [Pai: Patty Ho] [In two weeks: Colton Duke]