Day 1- Bangkok
Thailand Tip: Navigating Suvarnabhumi International Airport. If you land late at night, like many flights into Bangkok, we suggest taking a cab from the airport to your hotel. When you reach baggage claim at the airport you will see a number of cash exchange kiosks. This exchange rate is actually one of the best you’ll find, and we suggest exchanging a bit of cash here to get your trip started. Street food, taxis, and many restaurants are cash only, and we found ourselves spending more cash on this vacation than any other we had previously taken. Follow signs to the the official taxi stand of the airport- do not get a ride from someone offering them. There is a kiosk and you pull a ticket to see which cab you are taking. The cabs at the airport are cash only, and it will take about 600 baht to get from the airport to downtown Bangkok. Before arriving in Bangkok, make sure to have your hotel name and address (even cross streets) written in Thai and saved on your phone. Many cab drivers at the airport cannot read English and it is very difficult to explain where you need to go without this information.
See Wat’s Up: the primary thing to see in Bangkok are the main temples (wats) and Buddha’s located throughout the city. The “must see” temples and Buddha’s are the Emerald Buddha located in the Grand Palace, the Reclining Buddha (Wat Pho), and Wat Arun- a military temple across the river from the main downtown epicenter. These temples are massive and depending on the heat, can be done all in one day or over the course of your time in Bangkok. Most temples require a cash ticket to get in. In general Bangkok is much larger than we anticipated, and while we thought we were going to walk most of the city we ended up taking Grab cars to many sites for a break from the heat and to avoid wasting time walking aimlessly from site to site.
Thailand Tip: Getting Around Thailand. We suggest downloading Grab, which is the Uber of Thailand. The rates are incredibly cheap and you can avoid many translation snafus by typing in the location of where you are trying to go in English and having it translated to Thai by the app.
Visit Chinatown at Night For Street Food: one of the busiest night markets in Bangkok is in Chinatown, on Yaowarat Road. The crowds are almost overwhelming, but there is street food for blocks and blocks. Don’t be afraid to head off the main road and onto some of the side streets, which have incredible options to choose from as well. If you are going to do a guided tour in Bangkok, we recommend doing a night tour for street food. The scene can be overwhelming and it really helps to have someone there to guide you along and help explain the different foods.
Day 2- Bangkok Dine in a Boat: we spent the morning traveling to a floating market, which was absolutely one of the highlights of our trip. We splurged and ended up using a private guide for this as opposed to a large tour group and we really enjoyed the private experience because we were able to ask our guide tons of questions about all the foods that vendors sell in the markets. After a 90 minute drive, we were taken by boat from the outer canals to the center of the floating market. From there you float from stall to stall and purchase any foods you want to try. We suggest coming hungry! After a lap through the canals we were dropped off to visit the shops on the streets of the market. The vendors sell mostly cheap souvenirs if that is your thing, but there are also some art vendors, spice vendors, and a number of sit down restaurants. We sampled a few things from the markets and purchased a few souvenirs before heading back to the hotel.
Must Try Foods at the Floating Market: boat noodles (noodle soup), fried bananas and vegetables, coconut water in a fresh coconut, mango sticky rice, street meat.
Dine at a Three Star Restaurant The Same Day: We traveled to Thailand specifically to eat at the restaurant Gaggan– a top restaurant in the world in 2019. There are a number of amazing fine dining experiences to have in Bangkok and the change in scenery is great when you are over eating street food. Gaggan, Nahm, Gaa, and Bo Lan are all excellent restaurants to browse through if you are looking for a high end restaurant to end your time in Bangkok. On your way, have a cocktail at Sky Bar, the rooftop bar at the Lebua Hotel that was featured in Hangover 2. Cocktails are very expensive but the views of the city are incredible. If the price tag for Sky Bar is too much, make sure you experience a rooftop bar somewhere else in the city- there are a number to choose from.
Day 3 – Travel Day- Koh Samui Thailand Tip: One thing we learned about inner-Thailand travel is that flight prices change dramatically depending on what route you take. For example, the flight from Koh Samui to Chiang Mai was half the price of doing the same trip in reverse. Look at the flight prices of Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways before deciding your trip itinerary.
Island Hop – if you are traveling all the way to Bangkok, we suggest you take a quick flight to one of the many islands for some beach time. We chose to fly to Koh Samui, and like many of the islands, feels like the Hawaii of Thailand. The island is primarily resorts along the the beaches with a few town centers if you are looking for something more urban. Most of the hotels sit along the north and east coastlines of the island, and prices range everywhere from $30 USD per night to staying at the Four Seasons for $500+ per night. We chose something in the middle of both the eastern coastline and price ranges, and stayed at the Silavadee Resort.
Visit A Night Market: there are two town centers in Koh Samui- Lamai and Chaweng. Each hosts a night market on Wednesdays and Tuesdays, respectively. After visiting the floating market in Bangkok, we quickly learned that night markets tend to sell the same cheap souvenirs, and if that doesn’t interest you, go for the street food. Vendors line the streets selling everything from pad thai to mango sticky rice to street meat. For just a few USD you can eat until you explode. The markets are pretty similar and many vendors will go to both during the week, but the Chaweng area has more shops and bars if you are looking to make a full night of it.
Day 4-Koh Samui – Make New Friends: One of the essential items on our Thailand Bucket List was to spend time with elephants. Finding an ethical elephant experience is extremely tough; Thailand has a history of using elephants in the logging industry, and after the government shut it down, the people who owned the elephants started using them for tourist attractions to continue making money. If you are looking for a sanctuary that rescues elephants and treats them well, you might have to do a significant amount of research. A quality experience will mean that 1) you do not ride the elephants 2) you aren’t “taking them for a walk “or “giving them a bath” and 3) that you can’t touch them more than giving them a pat on the trunk. It was discouraging to find that high end hotels and tour groups will still promote facilities that let you ride elephants or that openly treat the elephants like circus pets for human entertainment. My advice for researching sanctuaries is to sort the reviews of the sanctuary by lowest to best. I genuinely believe people take the time to comment about the treatment they witness because they were hoping to support a quality rescue.
My research path led me to find Samui Elephant Sanctuary. They are a small sanctuary that was established just over two years ago. While the experience was expensive compared to other options ($100 USD pp), we left feeling like our money was supporting a wonderful organization. The number one rule for visiting Samui Elephant Sanctuary is “no food, no friend.” It takes the staff many months to help assure the elephants that they are safe; humans will only interact with them if they are giving them treats, so that eventually they learn every human interaction is a positive one. Our three-hour visit included walking the grounds of the sanctuary, learning the stories of each elephant (seven total- all female) and about elephants in general, and giving them lots of bananas.
Get a Massage: You will see signs just about everywhere for Thai massage. A traditional Thai massage is a combination of pressure point massage and stretching. You are often times fully clothed for the massage as it involves much more movement than a traditional deep tissue massage. We had a beach-side massage that we found walking back from our hotel. We paid 300 baht per person for what ended up being 90 minutes (this is approx. $10 USD) and tipped another 100 baht after the massage was over. 300 baht is about the going rate for massages, and you will find that nicer hotels charge significantly more than this. Look at reviews online if a street location offers massages and you’ll be happy paying nearly nothing for an afternoon of relaxation.
Day 5- Koh Samui – Hop on a Motorcycle: You will quickly find that most people get around the islands via motorcycle. We rented a motorcycle for the day through our hotel and suggest you go a similar route if you decide to rent. The hotel charged us 250 baht for the day compared to 100 baht rates on the island, but for a few dollars more you won’t have to leave your original passport sitting in a shack downtown. Driving on the left side of the road takes a bit of an adjustment, but you’ll find it’s much easier to see some of the remote parts of the island this way. We went from the Silavadee Resort to the Tan Rua Waterfall. We hiked a small bit around the waterfall area, left the jungle and went to Fisherman’s Village for lunch. There are a ton of restaurants and cute shops in this area and it’s a great place to spend an hour or two. From Fisherman’s Village we hopped back on the bike and went to the Big Buddha. To finish the day we had High Tea at the Vana Belle Resort- an experience we highly recommend doing at a nice hotel on the island.
Day 6 – Koh Samui – Set Sail: One of the primary reasons we decided on going to Koh Samui was so that Tuck’s dad could scuba dive. Koh Samui has some of the best access to dive sites in the country, which are about an hour away on a speedboat. We booked the trip via The Dive Academy and highly recommend them for any scuba trips in Koh Samui.
Day 7 – Travel Day – Chiang Mai
Thailand Tip: eat ALL the khao soi in Chiang Mai. Khao Soi is a northern Thai, chicken curry, that can only be found in Chiang Mai and surrounding towns. Every food stall and restaurant has their spin on the recipe, and we could not get enough. It costs about 30 baht ($1 USD) for a large bowl, and we suggest eating it everywhere you can before you leave! You’ll miss it dearly when you are gone.
Chiang Mai was our favorite city in Thailand. We loved that we could walk most of the city; it was much smaller and more approachable than Bangkok. We also loved the night markets and the hipster vibes that we felt throughout the city. There are tons of cute coffee shops, art galleries, and boutique stores to peek your head in on the main streets. Visit A(nother) Night Market: we were very lucky that Ryan’s cousin Justin happened to be in Chiang Mai for three weeks before we arrived. He was our resident tour guide for the night and made our first night in Chiang Mai one of our most memorable of the trip.
The prominent night markets and food markets are located outside of the east gate of the main city. Ploen Ruedee is a very western feeling food market with a number of food vendors. Prices are higher here compared to other markets but the food is more approachable if you are having a hard time digging into the street food concept. Chill Square at Anusarn Market is another food market – it is larger than Ploen Ruedee and has more traditional local foods. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar, at the intersection of Chang Khlan Road and Loi Khro Road, is one of the largest markets in the country. There are thousands of vendors selling art, souvenirs, and food products. You can spend hours upon hours sight seeing at these nighttime markets!
Day 8 – Chiang Mai- Take a Hike: One of the main activities Tuck’s mom wanted to do in Chiang Mai was the Doi Suthep Hike. The Doi Suthep Temple is up a steep mountain just outside of downtown Chiang Mai. You can take a truck cab up to the top of the temple or you can hike from town, which is a steep 2 hour hike. If you are physically fit, this is one of our favorite things we did on our entire trip. Tips for doing the full hike are as follows:
- Use the instructions from this website to get to the start of the hike. The website has incredibly specific instructions, and without them, we would have never found the starting point. Bring extra cash to tip your Grab driver because it is nearly impossible to find this point specifically on a map.
- The hike starts with a 30 minute leisurely climb that brings you to the first temple- we don’t know the name of this temple but it was our favorite of all the temples we saw. Contrary to the website above, we didn’t see many orange flags on the route but we never felt lost. The temple looks like it simply grew out of the jungle and has a very different feel than the other temples throughout Thailand.
- Here is where things got a little tricky and the website above was less helpful. After you pass the first temple, you will hike until you reach the main driving road. The trail will look as though it has stopped and you will be sure you are lost. When you reach the road, cross the metal barrier and walk a few minutes uphill. Across the street you will see another entrance to the remainder of the hike. This next part of the hike is very steep and much harder than the first part. It took us about 90 additional minutes to get from temple 1 to the Doi Suthep Temple, and we were hiking pretty hard. It was SO rewarding and we suggest it if you are interested, but having water, quality shoes, and leaving early in the morning are essential. Once you cross the second steep part of the hike you will get to the same road again at a different point. Follow the road on the side of the street until you get to the Doi Suthep Temple entrance. You have to pay a small fee (always have cash on hand!) to enter. From the top you have incredible views of Chiang Mai.
Eat Where Anthony Bourdain Ate: All of Thailand is known for its street food, but one of the more famous stalls is the Cowboy Hat Lady outside the North Gate, at the Chang Phueak Food Market. Anthony Bourdain made the trip to see her, so you know what she’s serving must be some good stuff. The Cowboy Hat Lady serves stewed pork over rice and it is simple but incredibly delicious. So good, in fact, we ate there twice. There are a number of other food vendors outside the North Gate, and we sampled fresh coconut, khao soi, and pad thai on the nights we ate there.
Day 9 – Chiang Mai – Take a Cooking Class: One of the signature activities in Chiang Mai is to take a cooking class. We booked a class at the Yummy Tasty Thai Cooking School via AirBnb Experiences. Noodle, our host, picked us up at our hotel and took us to a local food market. She gave a great presentation about different Thai ingredients, how to pick them, and what dishes they are used in. After the market trip was a quick drive to her cooking studio. We loved this class and recommend it to anyone in Chiang Mai because you each get to pick 5 dishes to make during cooking class. This means that between the two of us, we were able to make two soups (Tom Yum and Tom Kha Gai), two appetizers (Green Papaya Salad and Thai Spring Rolls), two noodle dishes (Pad Thai and Pad See Ew), two curry pastes and two curry dishes (Khao Soi and Massaman Curry), and two desserts (Mango with Sticky Rice and Coconut Sweet Potato Rice). We paid $55 total for the two of us, left so full we needed a nap afterwards, and learned so much about Thai food. An absolute must-do if you are in Chiang Mai!
Thailand Tip: Book a cooking class for the beginning of your stay in Thailand, particularly if you are struggling to enjoy the food while you are there. This helps explain the ingredients and makes things feel much more approachable when you are looking at menus when you are out to eat. Shop Around Town: we loved Chiang Mai because the city is meant for walking and street shopping. There are tons of shops, boutiques, art galleries, and cute restaurants to experience- most of which can be found on the main streets. Soi Prapokklao (runs north to south) and Soi Ratchadamnoen were two of our favorite streets to window shop.