After a fabulous first visit to Vietnam in early 2020, my husband and I made it a goal to travel to more Southeast Asian countries with Thailand topping the list. While the pandemic put the kibosh on overseas travel plans for a while, we finagled a 3-week stay in the beautiful country toward the end of 2022.
The focus of our trip together? Rest and relaxation on white-sand beaches after taking in the key sights in the capital city. We started our trip in Bangkok and then spent the bulk of our time on the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan off Thailand’s Southeast Coast.
By no means was this a comprehensive tour of the country; popular Phuket and Chiang Mai were notably absent from our agenda. Still, we scratched the surface, learning a bit about the country’s history and culture while thoroughly enjoying the tropical weather and delicious food (oh, the food!), which left me wanting a return visit to experience more.
Here are seven things I particularly loved about my first trip to Thailand.
1. Chaweng Beach
I’d done my research on Koh Samui, in particular delving into the most recent edition of the detailed and helpful Koh Samui Guide. This island in the Gulf of Thailand is ringed with beaches and I made it a mission to get to as many as possible! We spent time on Lamai Beach, Choeng Mon Beach, and Chaweng Beach, the last being our favorite.
Though Chaweng is Koh Samui’s largest city, and guidebooks warned of crowds, we found the beach here wonderfully quiet — in parts, nearly deserted. Sure, there were some vendors hawking trinkets and the sound of jet ski engines zooming around the bay, but we felt the scene was incredibly relaxing. The water was so warm and calm, it was like swimming in bath water. We were in Thailand in September, just a couple of months after tourism started bouncing back from pandemic shutdowns. Current visitors may find more crowds — and resulting trash left on the beach — as more tourists descend.
2. Private Tour Of Bangkok
Your Thai Guide
My husband and I aren’t huge fans of group tours, and especially since COVID-19 erupted, we avoid crowds whenever possible. That’s why we opted for a couple of private excursions on our Thailand trip. Sure they cost a bit more than larger group trips, but we found the peace of mind and personalized service worth it.
Your Thai Guide designs customized private tours of Bangkok and beyond. Via an online form, we let the outfitter know what we were interested in doing with a guide, namely touring Bangkok’s famous Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and The Grand Palace. We also loved the idea of taking a boat ride on Bangkok’s historic canals; in the 18th and 19th centuries, a network of narrow waterways was the primary mode of transportation in the city, with most residents living on the water. The company matched us up with a guide who could shepherd us to the sights we wanted to see.
We embarked on this private tour on our first full day in Bangkok. It was an excellent introduction to the city. Along the way, our guide Peach not only shared relevant information about Bangkok’s history and culture, but she brought us to food stalls, where we dove into all sorts of noodle dishes, satay, and sweet treats she recommended. We didn’t love all of our samples, but we sure appreciated a bilingual local expert ordering some of the typical specialties for us.
3. Affordable Prices
While we didn’t have a strict budget for our extended stay in Thailand, I always appreciate good value and a great deal. If you want to travel cheaply, Thailand offers multiple ways to do just that. When we visited, one U.S. dollar was worth roughly 36 Thai baht.
Dining in Thailand can be done quite inexpensively. On touristy Koh San Road in Bangkok, my husband and I ate at a sit-down restaurant and paid only $2.25 each for filling plates of tofu fried rice and pad thai. It’s even cheaper if you buy your rice or noodle dish from a street vendor; then it was about $1.40 a plate. Cold beers were a bit more than $2 a bottle. Even at a restaurant serving western-style breakfasts, we each ordered egg dishes with toast and Thai iced coffees for a total of $17.
Hotels can charge an arm and a leg for laundry service. To save money, we went to neighborhood storefronts, where we had laundry done for just 40 baht a kilogram. That was less than $2 to have half of a tall kitchen bag of clothing washed, dried, and folded.
A 30-minute foot massage was an inexpensive $4 at streetside day spas around Bangkok. Similarly, massage therapists in shade structures on Koh Samui’s Chaweng Beach offered affordable massages, for example, $8 for a simple “oil massage.” It was $11 if I wanted to upgrade to the coconut oil massage.
The hour flight between Bangkok and Koh Samui on Bangkok Airways was a reasonable $110. A 45-minute ride on a clean and efficient ferry between the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan was just $10 each.
4. Delicious Thai Food And International Cuisine
Pork satay, pad thai, panang curry, fried rice, green papaya salad, and mango sticky rice were some of the Thai favorites we ate regularly during our lengthy stay in Thailand. Equally amazing was the Indian food we found at take-out and sit-down restaurants, where we thoroughly enjoyed dishes such as chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, and tofu korma all accompanied by jasmine rice and freshly baked naan.
Chinese, Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean specialties were also prevalent — and yummy. When we hankered for something more familiar to our American palates, a trip to Koh Samui’s highly rated The Hungry Wolf, with its delish beef and veggie burgers, was just the ticket. We did not go hungry in Thailand.
5. Entertaining Night Markets
Street Food And Souvenirs
Also called walking streets or street markets, areas, where dozens of food stalls are set up next to one another, are great places to try all sorts of different items. Servings are generally small and inexpensive — such as $1 for a few dumplings or pieces of sushi. Some night markets — which don’t always take place after the sun goes down — also have booths selling clothing, electronics, souvenirs, and recently legalized marijuana.
In particular, we were entertained by Khao San Road in Bangkok with its thriving party atmosphere. It comes alive in the evenings with raucous nightclubs and plentiful food stalls. We also loved the Phantip Market with an open-air food court and outdoor stalls on Koh Phangan. We ate here each of the three nights we spent on that island just so we could enjoy the variety of inexpensive, international dishes.
6. Convenient Transportation
Scooter rentals are plentiful in Thailand, but I was too nervous to drive or ride one on the busy boulevards of Bangkok or curvy, narrow island roads. They’re a popular, inexpensive mode of transportation for locals and tourists, but not for me. Similarly, we could have rented a car to get around, but we decided to let resident experts do the job for us.
In Bangkok, we used the ride-sharing Grab app to ferry us among sightseeing destinations when we explored on our own. Lyft and Uber don’t work in Thailand. On Koh Samui, we were able to hail taxis on the street. Koh Phangan provided the most entertaining mode of transport: trucks that had been retrofitted with benches in the bed and hard tall(ish) covers. We hailed these on the street or had our hotel call one for us, and often found ourselves sharing the benches with others on their way to the same place.
7. Affordable Accommodations
Hostels To Villas
Thailand accommodations range from backpacker lodging to urban upscale high-rises to beachfront five-star spa resorts. We weren’t interested in sharing dorm rooms with other travelers, so we bypassed the hostels that go for as low as $6 a night in Bangkok. Instead, we searched for a mix of moderately priced and luxury properties that were still much less expensive than prices we’d pay, for example, for the equivalent city-center hotels in major cities like New York or Paris or beachfront accommodations in French Polynesia or Hawaii.
In Bangkok, we stayed in the high-rise Villa De Khaosan for an incredibly reasonable $40 a night. It’s located around the corner from touristy Khao San Road and within 15 minutes walking distance of The Grand Palace. More expensive was Baan Manali Resort on Koh Phangan, where we paid $74 nightly for a freestanding bungalow surrounded by lush foliage that felt like something out of Gilligan’s Island (I loved it).
Our splurge was a four-night stay in a Secret Pool Villa at The Library in Chaweng, Koh Samui. Here, for $300 nightly we had a ridiculous 2,400 square feet of space with not only a massive 11-foot-wide bed but our own leafy courtyard and pool. We also had access to a villa-only swimming pool and deck, where we set up camp most afternoons to relax on comfy cushions under umbrellas. A generous breakfast was included in the room rate at this contemporary, book-themed hotel — a fine, fitting end to our delightful stay in Thailand.
For more information on traveling to Thailand, check out these articles: