Visiting Thailand: A First Time Visitors’ Guide

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Bangkok Skyline

Gotta love that skyline! Bangkok is always impressive.

This week I’m in Thailand for the first time in three years. THREE YEARS! I’m here on an OUT Adventures group trip which is giving me the chance to rediscover everything I love about amazing Thailand. Plus see more than a few places and have more than a few experiences that I somehow missed on all my previous holidays in Thailand.

Revisiting one of Southeast Asia’s most touristic countries, I realize how big of a tourist destination this country is. For many, Thailand is the beginning of many Asia backpacking and travel adventures. I still remember when I landed in Bangkok the first time, I didn’t experience as much of a culture shock as my new-found friends along Khao San Road. That’s not to say that the noises and smells of Bangkok didn’t strike me — but it was all a bit less than I was originally anticipating. Thankfully, this is a country that’s full of exciting and interesting surprises but it’s also all very approachable. Give credit to the famous Thai smile & service for that.

Thailand is a beautiful country and if you’ve only got a two-week holiday, there’s unfortunately a lot that you’ll miss out on. Below, though, you’ll find a beginner’s guide to one of the easiest, friendliest and most gay-friendly destinations in Asia.

OUT AdventuresOUT Adventures is a gay-owned tour operator and travel agent. I’ve known about the Toronto-based company for years and this is the first time I’m getting to experience one of their small group tours. Their travel philosophy is a good one: adventures, responsible tourism and a lot of fun! If you don’t believe me, check their Instagram feed to see what typical tours look like. Visit Out-Adventures.com to learn more about their package gay tours in destinations around the world and look out soon for my full review of the gay tour experience.

Thailand Travel Guide for First Time Visitors

A First Time Visitors’ Guide to Thailand

Thailand Travel Tips

If you’ve only got so much time in Thailand, there are a few hotspots you’ll want to check out. With more time, there are plenty of other cities and locations to visit across the country, but for a two-week itinerary that takes in as much of Thailand’s diversity as possible, plan to hit up Bangkok, Chiang Mai and an island in the south. Remember: Thailand is a big country and offers a huge variety of destination types. From the world-class city of Bangkok to the mountainous natural wonders in northern Thailand and the relatively pristine beaches of the south, Thailand has a bit of everything for everyone. For a two week trip to the Land of Smiles, it’s easy to get a sample of the best of each.

When to Visit

October to April is the tourist high-season. Over the summer months you’ll experience the rainy season and hot, hot, hot weather. But then again — you can also get bargain deals on tours and hotels. If you plan your trip around some of the more interesting festivals and holidays (Loi Krathong, or the Lantern Festival, in October/November and Songkran in April), then you’re sure to have an amazing cultural experience. Read about my trip to Thailand during Songkran here.

Thailand Grand Palace in Bangkok

One of Bangkok’s top tourist attractions is the Grand Palace. On your way to visit, you might be stopped and told that it’s closed, but don’t trust these tuk-tuk drivers! It’s a popular travel scam. Trust your instincts.

What to Wear

Thailand has warm weather year-round so you shouldn’t need much. Shopping in Thailand can also be fun and affordable. Bangkok’s malls have all the fashion brands you can possibly imagine — from the west and from the east. Bartering at the markets is also common and you’ll find many great deals on decent clothes. Anything you’ve forgotten? You can always buy a new one. For basic amenities, 7-11 is going to be your one-stop shop. There are thousands of 7-11 convenience stores across Thailand and you’d be hard-pressed to walk down a street without finding at least one. Note that for some temples and also for the Grand Palace in Bangkok, shoulders and knees must be covered by men and women.

Getting Around

Bangkok is a modern city and it’s possible (and pretty easy, too) to travel with public transportation on the city’s above-ground subway, underground subway, public buses and even boats. It’s also quite affordable to travel by motorbike taxis (if you dare) and tuk-tuks (three-wheeled, motored vehicles). Just make sure to agree on a price beforehand. Taxis are also abundant in Bangkok and other cities, but in Bangkok be prepared to wait in traffic! Also make sure you get a metered taxi (look out for the pink ones!). In other cities — especially in southern Thailand, you’ll find larger capacity taxis called songthaews — just flag them down, tell them where you want to go, and if they can fit you in, you’re all set. Again: agree on a price beforehand.

Bangkok rooftop pool - Sofitel So (Silom)

In Bangkok, especially when it’s swelteringly hot outside, plan an afternoon at one of the city’s many rooftop pools. The one at the new Sofitel So hotel in Silom even regularly hosts pool parties!

Where to Visit: Bangkok

Most holidays to Thailand begin in Bangkok. Some people choose to skip Bangkok and head straight for the mountains and hill tribes in the north, or the beaches in the south. But if you’re like me and love a good city, Bangkok is not to be missed. But it’s a big, BIG, BIG city, so finding the right places to go can seem overwhelming. Below are my favorite things to do in Bangkok

Top Things To Do in Bangkok

  • Explore Khao San Road — For backpackers and dirty hippies, this is paradise. The street can be a bit dirty and dingy but it’s an experience worth checking out. There’s plenty of street food, tacky souvenirs, late-night nightlife, roadside massages and cheap guest houses in the area. Be careful that it doesn’t suck you in though and make sure to visit other cool areas in Bangkok such as Silom and Sukhumvit.
  • Enjoy the Nightlife in Silom Soi 4 and Soi 2 — The heart of gay nightlife in Bangkok, a visit to the DJ Station club in Soi 2 and the street-side bars on Soi 4 are a must for gay travelers looking for a fun night out in Bangkok.
  • Visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market — When you start exploring this market, it’ll likely feel like the largest market in the world. And maybe it even is. They sell everything here from strange and exotic animals to trendy t-shirts, souvenirs and fresh food. But it’s a fun experience and makes for a great activity on the weekends, plus gives you the chance to get in some shopping. I like to visit at the end of my trip so I can fill up my backpack with last-minute gifts and clothes.
  • Visit Wat Pho — This Buddhist temple is famous for its Reclining Buddha. It’s located nearby to the equally famous Grand Palace which is another popular tourist attraction. It’d be quite easy to take these two sites in during an afternoon and if you only plan to visit one Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Wat Pho should be it.
  • Eat at Sukhumvit Soi 38 — It’s been called the best street food in Bangkok. That’s not an easy claim, but this street off the busy and popular Sukhumvit Road certainly can hold its own. With fresh fruit juices, noodles and soups everywhere and even a stand selling the always-popular mango with sticky rice, you could eat here every day and still not taste it all!
  • Shop at the MBK Shopping Center — Looking for some technology? The massive shopping area around the MBK mall is great for shopping and on the top floor is a massive cinema showing English-language films. Plus, the free Bangkok Art & Culture Center is just across the street and makes for a great air-conditioned escape when needed.
Bangkok Gay Nightlife in Silom Soi 4

Nightlife in Bangkok is practically legendary. And the gay bars and clubs in Silom almost always make for a fun night out! Pictured here is Rob, Scott, Ed and myself at the gay bar Telephone Pub on Soi 4, Silom.

Where to Visit: Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand

Chiang Mai is a great starting point for visiting northern Thailand. If you only have a few days in the north, it’s possible to take in most of the major sites.

Top Things To Do in Chiang Mai

Smoothies in Thailand

Smoothies from Smoothie Blues in Chiang Mai

  • Visit Doi Suthep — Getting here might seem like a trek, but it’s quite easy to book a bus or grab a songthaew. The mountain-top temple is one of Chiang Mai’s most popular tourist attractions and is actually quite impressive.
  • Shop at the Sunday Walking Street Market — The Ratchadamnoen street in Chiang Mai’s Old City comes alive each Sunday evening from 5pm. You’ll find souvenirs, clothing, street food and local art along the market.
  • Eat, Drink & Play in Nimmanhaemin — This neighborhood on the western side of the city is a cool place to hang out full of trendy restaurants, cute cafés, bars and hotels. Try the fruit smoothies at Smoothie Blues!
  • Go for a massage — While massages can be found all over Thailand, in Chiang Mai they’re especially cheap. You can grab a decent one hour massage for just 200 baht at many places across the city. Ask around for recommendations.
  • Enjoy the North Gate Jazz Club — For expats and tourists, this is a cool bar to hang out in Chiang Mai’s Old City. Each Tuesday night, the bar has an open-mic jam session and the atmosphere is just really cool. It’s a fun and unusual experience.
  • Visit an Elephant Park or Reserve — If you’re like most tourists to Thailand, you’ll want to see some elephants during your holiday. Chiang Mai is where you’ll find the vast majority of tours & planned visits to elephant parks. Read about my day tour to the Elephant Nature Park here.

Looking to experience northern Thailand in a bit of style? Check out the OUT Adventures itinerary for northern Thailand which includes a cooking class, Buddhist temple visits and a jungle zip-line adventure!

Thai Food

One of Thailand’s best cultural attractions is its food. But be warned: Thai food is actually very spicy!

Where to Visit: Beaches in Southern Thailand

Koh Phi Phi (Thailand)

Koh Phi Phi is a popular island for tourists but is a great place to be based if you want to easily enjoy the famous Thai beaches.

Beaches, islands, luxury resorts, fresh seafood…southern Thailand is an incredible place for an escape from reality. There are also a ton of options for the south. If you want to do rock-climbing and other adventure activities, plan to visit Krabi. If you’re after the legendary full moon parties, go to Koh Phangan. Want southern Thailand’s gay nightlife? Plan your trip to Patong Beach on Phuket. Just after a beautiful beach holiday? Koh Phi Phi is your island.

Things To Do in Southern Thailand

  • Stay at a Beach Resort Hotel — Unlike other countries where it may still be possible to find undiscovered beaches to pitch a tent or a hammock for the night, Thailand’s beaches are fully developed. You might as well splurge a little (remember: this is still Thailand so you can still get a good deal) and go for a nice beach hotel. I use Booking.com when searching for quality hotels.
  • Visit the Phuket Old Town — Known for its art deco architecture, the city makes for a simple afternoon excursion. Plus it’s likely you’ll pass through at some point if you’re visiting some of the islands near Phuket such as Koh Phi Phi.
  • Embrace the Craziness of Patong Beach (Phuket) — The most touristic part of Phuket (which is already Thailand’s most touristic island), Patong Beach is crowded with tourists. But don’t let that deter you! The nightlife here can’t be beat — even if it’s a bit ridiculous. Bangla Road is the most famous spot and any night of the week it will be crowded with people. It’s also the city’s red light district so you can imagine the characters you might run into. The nearby Soi Paradise is where you’ll find Phuket’s gay bars and clubs which include nightly drag shows and happy hours. It’s a lot of fun!
  • Eat Seafood (duh!) — Staying on an island, it’s really hard to ignore the endless seafood possibilities. Try Tom Yum Soup — a hot & sour soup with prawns — or just go for the grill.
  • Do Water Sports — If you want to get away from lounging on the beach, take some time to do various water sports. Whether it’s diving, snorkeling, windsurfing or kayaking, prices are usually affordable. Certain islands are better for certain experiences so ask around and decide what your’e interested in before booking a destination. On Phuket I can recommend sea kayaking with John Gray’s Sea Kayaking experience. They offer countless different experiences but the guides are fun, the scenery is incredible (you can even visit bat caves!), the food is delicious and the staff is super friendly.

Need more help planning your first trip to Thailand? Check out the official Thailand tourism website at tourismthailand.org

Doi Suthep (Chiang Mai)

The golden Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai – beautiful building, but also a great place for looking out over the land below

Blogs published by Adam Groffman • Please note some posts do make me some money, but I never sacrifice my integrity in exchange for a favorable review. Read the full disclosure policy.

15 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Great post! Lots of things to ponder for my future trip to the country.

    • There’s a lot to see and do in Thailand, Andrea – hope you enjoy!

  2. Great guide! Thailand has always been a dream of mine, I’m hoping to finally go after I work for a while in Australia and save up money!

    • Glad to hear that Hannah – hope you get to spend a decent amount of time in Thailand. There is so much to see and do there – I could easily visit multiple times over and over!

  3. Thailand such a wonderful place. Its my desire to visit this place. Thanks Adam for sharing great info.

  4. Such a wonderful blog. After reading your blog I really can’t wait going to Thailand.

  5. A great guide indeed! Thailand is fun without a doubt. I’d love to gorge on seafood and relax at a beach…

    • My kind of life, Renuka!

  6. Great info. Thanks!

  7. I’ve been to Thailand only once for two weeks, and that was back in 2009. Zab has never been, and I’m really looking forward to going with him (maybe early next year?!) and rediscovering some of the places I visited as well as what I missed out – Chiang Mai being most notable in this case!

    • Ahh, yes two weeks in Thailand will really only scratch the surface. It’s a big country and there are so many great things to see and do!

  8. Thanks for posting this, Adam! I really don’t know much about Thailand at all. However, it’s a place that I really do want to visit. I’m hoping to explore southeast Asia and Thailand within the next year or two and have just started researching all the possibilities. I’ll definitely keep this post in my back pocket as it’s filled with a lot of useful information for the first time visitor!

    • Hey Mike – always happy to share my tips! Good luck with planning your trip to Thailand!

  9. So many things I have to agree with here, but the one I support the most is the North Gate Jazz Club recommendation. Really enjoyed that place even if it was a little more Western than it was Thai.

    • Glad to hear you agree with my suggestions Dale. You’re right that North Gate Jazz is definitely western, but it’s just so much fun and such a unique experience, I couldn’t resist including it here!

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