My time spent in Thailand was one for the books. It was my first time in Asia and my first time learning the culture of the Southeast Asian countries. An eye opening experience, and completely different than anything I had previously been exposed to. The smog, motorbikes, and trash. The overcrowded streets and roads. The incredibly cheap street food and bartering to get around. All of these resulting in one heck of a trip. And what makes Thailand so uniquely… Thailand.
I would classify Thailand as an uncommon beauty. Sure, if you head south to the beaches you get the white sand beaches with the clear, turquoise water. But the rest of the country? The interior? Smog fills the air, trash litters the street, and sometimes it is so crowded you can’t see what is 10 feet in front of you.
I spent close to two weeks in Thailand and while I didn’t even scratch the surface, I learned enough to know that there are many things you must see and do to experience the culture and make your trip one for the books. I journeyed through Bangkok, where I ate street food for the first time and felt claustrophobic by the crowds. I took the night train north to Chiang Mai to experience a quiet, and peaceful Thailand. A zen city with less crowds and significantly more charm. And I finished my Thai vacation by relaxing on the beach in Phuket; white sand underneath me, clear blue waters in front of me.
What resulted in those two weeks was an ever growing list of what you must do in Thailand… and what you can skip. From there I have narrowed it down to 14 must see and do items to make your visit to Thailand one for the books; the ultimate Thailand bucket list.
1. Island Hop
Thailand is home to the most beautifully pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. Clear turquoise water, white sand beaches. Rock formations jutting up from the ocean. And the sun beaming down on you, tanning your skin as you lie and listen to the sound of the soft waves crash against the beach. If you’re in Thailand I would highly recommend to head south and explore the different beaches. I visited Phuket and while have a reputation to be “touristy”, I stayed in the northwest corner and didn’t have any experiences that I would consider to be packed with tourists. I couldn’t recommend Phuket enough.
2. Eat the Street Food
Before visiting Thailand I had heard a few things on repeat… and “try the street food” was one of them. Being a bit worried about sanitation and getting sick (I am a nurse after all), I didn’t let that stop me. I dove head in and tried everything and anything I came across. I never once got sick and never once felt disappointed in anything I ate. While the best street food I ate was from the Rot Fai Train Market in Bangkok, everything else came in at a close second.
3. Discover the Thai Waterfalls – Bonus Points for Climbing the Sticky Waterfall
A land of hidden waterfalls right outside your door. Rent a scooter for the day and discover the off the beaten path waterfalls. My favorite waterfall that I came upon was the Bua Tong Waterfall, a waterfall that thanks to limestone deposits, you can climb. You can rent a scooter from Chiang Mai and ride one hour north to spend your afternoon climbing up and down, or hire a guide to drive you and bring you home. I used Take Me Tour and wasn’t disappointed. There is a maximum of four people allowed on the tour, plus lunch is and transportation is included.
4. Visit a Market, or 10
I was a bit spoiled starting out in Thailand. I was under the impression that all of Southeast Asia was known for their markets and street food. I was sorely mistaken. Thailand leads the pact when it comes to markets and street food. My all time favorites being the Rot Fai Train Market and the Khlong Lad Mayom Floating Market, both found in Bangkok.
Note: The floating markets are located a ways outside of Bangkok. I booked a food tasting tour with Pook, and couldn’t have been more satisfied.
5. Temple Hop
There are so many gorgeous temples through Thailand. Visit Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, Wat Pho in Bangkok, Wat Doi Suthep in Chian Mai, or a multitude of others scattered across the country. Arrive at opening time to avoid crowds.
6. Ride On the Back of a Motorbike
While it can be a frightening experience, it’s sure to be exhilarating. Weaving through crazy Thai streets, clutching onto a stranger for dear life. You’ll be amazed out how the locals maneuver their motorbikes through traffic, missing food carts, pedestrians, cars, and more. The plus is that a motorbike will get you to your destination quicker and cheaper.
Note: SE Asia utilizes Grab, which operates like Uber. Download it before arrival to ensure the cheapest transportation prices.
7. Hunt for the Best Pad Thai in Thailand
Pad thai is one of my all time favorite dishes. I was beyond thrilled to step onto Thai soil and experience this dish how the locals experience it. I tried pad thai from fancy restaurants, the street, and little hole in the walls. And throughout it all, I didn’t have one bad dish.
The two pad thai dishes that stand out to me were from Thipsamai Pad Thai in Bangkok, and Tomato; a shack on Bua Thong Beach in Phuket.
8. Spend a Day with Majestic Elephants
Thailand is known as a place of elephant reserves, where you can spend the day getting to know these majestic creatures. Just remember, they don’t like to be ridden. Unfortunately there are still places in Thailand that allow tourists to ride elephants. Do your research and only support those places who work on healing and respecting these animals.
I spent a day at Elephant Nature Park, north of Chiang Mai and thoroughly enjoyed it.
9. Take a Tuk Tuk
While more expensive than a motorbike or a car, a Tuk Tuk is one of a kind experience in Thailand. A mix between a bicycle and car, a Tuk Tuk is a fun way to get around and see the city. Make sure to ask for the price ahead of time, and barter before leaving.
Note: Tuk Tuk’s aren’t available in every city.
10. Feed Monkeys – and Try Not to Get Anything Taken
Although most places warn against feeding monkeys, there is Monkey Temple outside of Phuket that encourages it. Here you can buy peanuts and bananas and watch the monkeys descend from the trees. But beware! They love to steal your things… this includes any jewelry you may be wearing.
11. Barter with the Locals
The Thai love to barter! At malls, food stalls, you name it, you can barter. Even if something has a price tag, chances are you can still barter. If you don’t get the price you want, move on… there will be lots more where that came from. But please keep in mind that they are still trying to make a living. Be fair.
12. Rent a Longboat
If you find yourself in the south of Thailand, I would recommend to rent a private longboat for the day. Quintessentially Thai, the longboat is one of the staples that drew me to the south of Thailand. I would recommend asking around and making sure the longboat can take you to a good snorkeling spot or to a hidden beach.
13. Relax with a Thai Massage
If you haven’t had a Thai massage before, you’re in for a treat. A mix between a massage, stretching, and yoga… this type of massage is inexpensive and worth the experience. With parlors on every street corner, you can relax just about anywhere.
14. Participate in a Cooking Class
And the best experience of all? Taking a Thai cooking class so you can take a taste of Thailand home with you and share it with your loved ones.
Before heading to Thailand, make sure to check out What I Wish I Knew Before I Arrived