An insider’s guide to the best of Thailand
You’ll find heavenly beaches, blissful relaxation, heart pumping adventure, and spiritual retreats all in one place.
With its jewel-like clusters of pristine islands, lush rainforests, and lively cities full of humble and friendly citizens; Thailand feels like the last empire on earth. Its jungle-topped mountains spill down to meet white sand, surrounded by crystal clear water. Its kingdom is home to splendid temples, glinting with gold in the sun, shrouded with colourful flowers. And its cities heave with bustling crowds, eclectic marketplaces and the constant fragrance of something spicy. Thailand is a kingdom like no other.
It’s a beautiful country of choose-your-own adventure: you can snorkel one day and be massaged the next, down an icy pina colada on the beach by sunset and enjoy a seafood dinner at a luxury resort restaurant that night. You can party till dawn, or wake at dawn for yoga on the sand.
Famous for its food and endlessly gracious hospitality, Thailand is bursting with stunning natural wonders and exotic sites to visit. So whatever path you choose to take, be sure of one thing: you will be treated like royalty in the lush Kingdom of Thailand.
Where to visit
One of the biggest of Thailand’s islands, Phuket is both a billionaire's playground and a tropical heaven for the budget traveller. By day, visitors crowd the beaches, pausing briefly for a luxurious massage before catching a beautiful sunset. By night, catch a Muay Thai boxing match in one of the hot and noisy downtown bars like Phi Phi Reggae Bar, or watch one of the incredibly fun drag shows at Simon Cabaret.
Phuket is home to Patong, the Thai homage to Vegas, and strips of rowdy bars, neon lights, and heaving night markets. Patong, although the most famous beach, is far from the most beautiful and can get dirty and overcrowded. If white sand and crystal waters are more your thing, try the close-by and much more picturesque Karong.
Phuket’s greatest attraction, however is a short boat ride away; the island-superstar of Thailand, Phi Phi Island. It’s a paradise that’s hard to leave behind, with waters so clear you will spend all day with a snorkel attached.
On the surface, a first impression of Koh Samui is that it is the glamorous, seasoned professional of all the Thai islands. Whilst others boast a rustic charm, or a blatant party vibe, Koh Samui has been in the tourist game longer than the others and you can tell. It’s a slick operation of wealthy tourists, luxury hotels like the famous Koh Sumui Four Seasons Resort, pristine beaches and delightful watering holes like Beryl Bar to watch a memorable sunset.
But beyond its confident and polished exterior, there is still the charming innocence of the Thai of old - past the tourist traps are happy, untouched villages, where cheery locals will prepare delicious seafood feasts, and authentic Samui marketplaces are tinged with the sweet smells of fresh fruit. Should you choose to venture from your game of beach volleyball, there are lush rainforests and ice-cold waterfalls to visit, and plenty of small towns on the island to stroll through. Koh Samui might be flashy and slick, but it has a heart of gold.
Leave the intimidating honking of Tuk Tuks and the thick smog of Bangkok behind by visiting Thailand’s older, historic capital: Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai might well be Thailand’s most beautiful city, with gold leafed temples at every turn, and surrounded by lush, green rainforest with sparkling waterfalls and idyllic country villages. Begin your Chiang Mai adventure by rising early to take in the sacred Wat Phra That Doi Suthep sans crowds. Afterwards, indulge in a renowned Thai massage and body treatment and take an evening stroll down Saturday Walking Street (Chiang Mai’s biggest market).
The inland hideaway of Pai is roughly three hours north of Chiang Mai. A small village on the Pai river, it is nestled among looming, cloud-tipped mountains and lush green forest. Refreshingly cool and endearing in its welcome, Pai might still be sporting dirt roads, but has well and truly jumped on the tourism bandwagon with a variety of accommodation and sightseeing to be done.
For the slick tourist operations of the other major islands, Koh Chang is rugged, wild and feels totally untouched. One of the few Thai Islands that’s not all about the beach, Koh Chang is all about getting deep and going green. Its wild rainforests are home to countless waterfalls and mountain hikes to fill up your day. And, for when you return to civilization, there’s a party waiting to happen at a variety of rustic beachside restaurants and bars.
Back on the mainland, there is a magical stretch of resorts along the Andaman Sea called Khao Lak. Reaching for around 20 km, Khao Lak was the hardest hit in the 2004 tsunami, and was essentially obliterated. Today, it has rebuilt to a family-orientated tourist hub beneath the beautiful Lak Mountain, and whilst it isn’t as flashy as some of the other destinations, it provides great snorkeling day trips and reasonably priced accommodation.
Also on the mainland is Hua Hin, which feels surprisingly cosmopolitan compared to the tropical islands nearby. Originally built for, and still home to, a royal residence; the city of Hua Hin is modern, busy and sophisticated with many of the luxury Western hotel chains settling up shop here. A wealthy beach town, Hua Hin feels a little more refined, and a little more polished than the rest of Thailand, which depending on your holiday, may either please or disappoint.
Arts and culture
Bangkok Street Food
If you’re the sort of traveller who thinks eating is just as important as sightseeing, prepare to be thrilled by Bangkok, Thailand’s culinary capital. Markets are fragrant, bustling and loud; lit by swinging lanterns and filled with local chefs, fishermen and butchers hawking their amazing looking and smelling wares.
A town of roaring tuk tuks, neon lit goodtime go-go bars and huge shopping malls, it’s hard to reconcile that Bangkok was once a sleepy trading port. In centuries past, Chinese, Indian and even Portuguese merchants hawked their wares here, and in turn left an indelible influence on Bangkok’s food culture. There’s no doubt that the Thai have adapted and perhaps even improved on these influences, developing a cuisine that’s all their own, and beloved the world over.
A visit to Thailand just isn’t complete without sampling Bangkok’s ubiquitous street food. You can find steaming bowls of noodles heaped with pork and vegetables and fragrant stir fries on every corner - but don’t leave without trying local specialties, too. Look out for the spicy Pat bai grapao (stir-fried meat with basil, lots of chillies, rice and topped with a fried egg), Luk chin pla (fish ball noodle soup) and the famous coconut pandan cake, Khanom chan, for desert.
With a variety of kitsch local designers, fake luxury goods, digital items, and generally cheaper prices; the shopping in Bangkok has become a tourist attraction in itself. From the multi-story MBK Bangkok Shopping Center to the slightly less crowded and slightly more luxury Siam Paragon, these icy-cold, air conditioned havens take at least a day to navigate sufficiently.
Chiang Mai Night Market
Chiang Mai, on the mainland, is famous for its bustling night bazaar. A centre for trading for centuries, the modern incarnation is a stretch of stalls from Th Chang Khlan to Th Loi Kroh. You will find colourful trinkets, one-off local fashion, antiques, handmade artworks and, of course, delicious sizzling street food. Have a stroll under the twinkling fairy lights, and cool down with an icy cold drink.
A tropical holiday destination, it goes without saying the general mode of weather in Thailand is hot and steamy. You can be guaranteed warm enough weather for the beach all year round. But, take note: the Andaman coast (the west coast) which is home to Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands, the monsoon season lasts from April to October; whereas the Gulf of Thailand (the east coast) of Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan are hit with the rain from September to December.
Health and safety
Prior to travel to Thailand, ensure your routine vaccinations are up to date at least four weeks before departure, including tetanus and diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps and rubella and chickenpox.
It is recommended to speak with your doctor when planning your trip to find out which vaccinations you may need. Keep in mind that some vaccinations require more than one dose, so it is best to chat to your doctor well in advance of travel. Consult your doctor about vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, typhoid, rabies and Japanese encephalitis, depending on the type and length of your travel to Thailand.
Cholera is reported in Thailand, although vaccination is not generally recommended, instead taking care with food and beverage selection is advised. With a medium malaria risk in the country, discuss your travel plans with a doctor to ensure the most suitable precautions are taken throughout your trip.
Additionally, dengue fever occurs in Thailand, a viral illness transmitted by day-biting mosquitoes. Currently no vaccination is available so protection is to avoid mosquito bites with repellent and protective clothing.
Drinking water and food
The tap water generally isn’t safe to drink in Thailand, so stick to bottled water on your trip. It’s also advisable to avoid raw fruits and vegetables. Instead, opt for fruits that require peeling and fully cooked foods.
For a country famous for its nightlife and wild parties, caution should practiced at all times. Always watch your drinks when out at a bar, and always stay with friends.
Thailand has also seen a number of violent political uprisings and civil unrest - at present, the Australian Government has advised you travel with a ‘high degree of caution’ - but always stay abreast of the situation by visiting the Smart Traveller website.
In case of an emergency in Thailand, phone 191 for police, 1669 for ambulance and 199 for fire brigade.
Always be on the safe side when you travel by taking out comprehensive travel insurance. Medibank Travel Insurance gives you leading hospital, accident and medical evacuation cover while you’re travelling. And with our comprehensive plans, you'll be covered for a host of other surprises like lost luggage, cancelled bookings and rental car insurance excess.*
Money and costs
The Thai currency is the baht, divided into 100 satang. Baht notes are available in denominations of B20, B50, B100, B500 and B1000, with coins to the value of B1, B2, B5 and B10.
Thailand is known for its cheap prices. Compared to other tropical getaways, Thailand can be done on a shoestring budget, making it attractive for backpackers and young couples. However, it also exceeds on the luxury side of things - so if you’re looking for a few weeks of high-class leisure, you’ve come to the right place.
Although the bigger cities like Bangkok will have credit card facilities, it’s safe to always carry cash. Make sure you exchange your Australian currency at the airport, or in the main cities, as the smaller towns and islands may not have exchange offices.
*Important things you should know: Limits, sub-limits, exclusions and conditions apply. This is general advice only. Medibank Private Limited, ABN 47 080 890 259, an Authorised Representative, AR 286089, of Travel Insurance Partners Pty Limited, ABN 73 144 049 230 AFSL 360138, issues the insurance on behalf of the insurer. The insurer is Zurich Australian Insurance Limited ABN 13 000 296 640, AFSL 232507. Please consider your own needs and the Combined FSG/PDS available from Medibank stores or medibank.com.au/travel to decide if this product is right for you.